Urban Legends


Rachael Kamel is a founding member of the Jewish Mobilization for a Just Peace, a grassroots organization in Philadelphia.


 


Last year, not long after the September 11 attack on the World Trade Center, I overheard two well-dressed businessmen talking in the streets of Philadelphia. “Oh yes,” one of them told the other. “All of the Jews called in sick on September 11 … 4,000 of them never came to work that day.”


 


This ludicrous and blatantly anti-Semitic tale began making the rounds of the Internet shortly after the WTC attacks. Groups that monitor the extremist Right documented its appearance in the newsletters and websites of various white supremacist and neo-nazi organizations throughout last fall. It even cropped up in a variety of foreign media outlets.


 


It was certainly chilling to hear this kind of trash spoken out loud — an unwelcome reminder that there’s always plenty of cultural sewage coursing beneath the streets of our collective awareness. But, well, there really wasn’t much more to say (or do) about it. So far, unfortunately, no one has found a cure for conspiracy theories — or, for that matter, for idiotic urban legends.


 


This tired tale suddenly became news last week, when it made a cameo appearance in a lengthy poem by Amiri Baraka, a longtime Black radical who is currently the poet laureate of New Jersey. Jewish community media outlets are alive with alarm about this latest manifestation of Black anti-Semitism. The New York Times picked up the story when the governor of New Jersey tried to fire Baraka as poet laureate and found he didn’t have the legal authority to do so. The last I heard, the New Jersey legislature was rushing through a bill to give him that authority, and to ensure that all future poets laureate would serve only at the governor’s pleasure.


 


I was curious enough to look up the full text of the poem in question, entitled “Somebody Blew Up America.” In addition to the allusion that has caused all the controversy, it also references other signal moments in Jewish political memory, including the assassination of Rosa Luxembourg, the Reichstag fire, the World War II-era pro-Nazi “America First” movement, and the execution of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, casualties of the McCarthy era.


 


The trouble is, none of these statements could remotely be considered anti-Semitic; each of them, in terms of both content and the way they are framed, affirms Jewish humanity and historic moments in Jewish struggles for justice. And that’s without even mentioning the other 95 percent of this poem, which calls out milestones in historic struggles for justice and freedom around the globe — as well as key moments in the history of racism and repression.


 


Let me be clear that I’m not looking for ways to explain away Baraka’s anti-Semitic allusion. The story he repeats is both ridiculous and offensive; conspiracy theories about mysterious and menacing Jewish power have been a staple of anti-Semitic iconography for centuries. My point is rather to raise some questions about what’s going on here: about how and why a story like this becomes news, and what happens then. Questions, above all, about what we risk, and what we lose, when we react to incidents like this without exploration, without nuance, and without context. As if, so to speak, such matters were entirely black and white, with no shades of gray.


 


The Anti-Defamation League has played a prominent role in condemning this poem and relating it to what they term Baraka’s long history of anti-Semitism. Within a few days of the poem’s public performance, their website displayed a lengthy page of quotes from his writings to prove their point. In reality, all but two of the quotes are criticisms either of Israeli policy or of attempts by U.S.-based institutions to suppress such criticisms, mostly dating back to the 1970s and 1980s. The ADL even quotes a 1980 essay by Baraka, “Confessions of a Former Anti-Semite,” perhaps so they can include some of the language from his writings in the 1960s that he himself was repudiating. Their evidence that his “confession” was not to be believed? A paragraph in which he distinguishes Jewish people and the Jewish religion from his critique of Zionism and its supporters. 


 


Now, you can agree with Baraka or disagree with him, you can like his poetry or dislike it, you can appreciate the militance of his tone or find it distasteful. But all of that is a far cry from believing that he should be stripped of his honorary public position, his voice silenced and disgraced. In that context, it’s hard not to understand the whole controversy as the latest salvo in the battle to brand any and all criticism of Israel as anti-Semitic.


 


“Anti-Semitism” has become one of those epithets, like “communism” or “terrorism,” that tell you it’s time to circle the wagons and, above all, stop thinking. The very suggestion that a little thoughtful consideration might be helpful is held to be equivalent to condoning prejudice, hate violence, or even mass murder.


 


Do we have any alternatives to kneejerk condemnation (or equally kneejerk defense) of Baraka or any other public figure accused of anti-Semitism? Here are just a few of the questions we might be talking about . . . if we wanted to open up our understanding, rather than choosing up sides so we can end the discussion:


 


·        Inside the American Jewish community, even at its most liberal fringes, vocal alarm over anti-Semitism is increasing sharply — not in response to incidents of anti-Jewish violence (which have scarcely occurred in the United States), but in direct proportion to the emergence of activist campaigns supporting economic sanctions against Israel. Such campaigns, which target Israel’s 35-year-old military occupation of Palestinian territory, include legislative advocacy, campaigns against military contractors, calls for divestment, boycotts, and the like. Inconvenient facts that have dropped out of the picture include statements of support for such initiatives by some Israeli academics (and even a Jewish minister in the South African government, Ronnie Kasrils). Also ignored is the involvement of many Jewish groups and individuals in such efforts, in the U.S. and around the world. This is not a case of “the Jews against our enemies,” but a difference of opinion over strategy and tactics, not to mention ultimate goals, in the quest for Middle East peace.


·        Where anti-Jewish violence has occurred, for example in France, it has occurred in a context that also includes a rising tide of anti-immigrant and anti-Muslim prejudice, including political agitation and incitement as well as hate violence. Here in the United States, open expressions of prejudice against Islam and the Arab world are a daily staple in the media and in public statements from political and religious figures. This incessant demonization of Muslims and Arabs serves a dual role – in the fabrication of an “enemy” sufficiently ominous to justify the Bush Administration’s rush to war, and in clouding public awareness of, and blunting opposition to, the unrelenting attacks on the Bill of Rights in the year since September 11. None of these phenomena trumps or cancels out any of the others — on the contrary, all are deeply and intimately related. Our understanding of them is diminished, however, when we think about each of these problems in isolation — in particular, when we try to respond to anti-Semitism as if it were entirely separate from all other forms of racism and prejudice.


·        Denouncing anti-Semitism, while keeping silent about attempts to suppress open discussions of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, only strengthens the hand of those who want to silence such discussions.  Just this week, hundreds of college presidents lent their names to a full-page ad in the New York Times decrying the intimidation of Jewish students on various campuses. Only a handful refused to sign unless the ad also condemned the censorship on campus of Palestinian and other anti-Occupation voices. While the former problem certainly merits public condemnation, the latter is currently the focus of a white-hot battle raging at campuses across the country. In just the past couple of weeks, pressure from “pro-Israel” groups has induced SUNY New Paltz to withdraw funding from a feminist conference on women and war, because conference organizers had invited a speaker from the Israeli peace movement (psychiatrist Ruchama Marton, the founder of Physicians for Human Rights in Israel) rather than a pro-government speaker. A rightwing Jewish think tank in Philadelphia launched a “campus watch” website urging students to report professors who expressed critical views on the Middle East. In Ann Arbor, a student conference on divestment planned for next weekend has faced a host of attacks, most recently a lawsuit that is seeking to prevent it from taking place. These are only a few of the most prominent current cases; anyone involved in Middle East peace work could cite dozens or hundreds more, involving blacklisting, censorship, threats, and hate mail. Even our small local group of anti-Occupation Jews has been hit with daily spam attacks, most featuring racist caricatures of Arabs.


·        Meanwhile, while Jewish communities, campuses, elected officials, and just plain folks around the country are locked in battles about what you can say about the Middle East and how you can say it, the main thing we’re not talking about is what is actually going on right now in Israel and Palestine. Palestinian communities have been essentially on lockdown for more than 100 days, denied access to education, employment, commerce, medical care, and any vestige of normal life. The infrastructure of Palestinian society has been blasted into smithereens, as have hundreds of Palestinian homes. With the death toll of the past two years approaching 2,000, every day brings new stories of shootings of Palestinian civilians, including in their own homes, by the Israeli military. Most recently, the emergence of a new movement of nonviolent mass resistance to the Occupation, which has included open defiance of the “curfew” by Palestinians reopening schools and walking the streets of their communities, has gone almost completely unremarked. 


·        The blame game — endless, fruitless arguments about who is at fault, who is a victim, who is a terrorist, whose actions are justified, and whose are not — has almost completely displaced consideration of the simple human facts (and the staggering human costs) of the Occupation, including the considerable costs to Israeli society (where nearly 600 people have lost their lives in the past two years, to say nothing of the economic and political costs). If you care about Palestinians, you must not care about Israelis — and vice versa.


·        Returning for a moment to Amiri Baraka, haven’t we all been down this road a thousand times before? An African American figure makes an anti-Semitic remark, and the institutionalized Jewish community leaps in arms — to demand an apology, demand a retraction, demand that whoever it is be banished from public life. Does anyone honestly believe that this is helpful? Does it promote greater understanding and community cohesion? Greater safety for Jewish people? Does it open up more space for dialogue? Or does it promote increased polarization, resentment, and mutual incomprehension? 


·        Why is the focus always on anti-Semitism in the African American community? Are we supposed to believe that just as many white Christians don’t harbor anti-Semitic beliefs and stereotypes? Why do they never become the object of one of these media feeding frenzies? We might raise the same question about the Muslim world in general. It’s fashionable these days to denounce anti-Jewish statements from the Arab and Muslim world — and there’s certainly plenty of material to work with. One thing that is never mentioned, however, is that the entire body of myths and stereotypes circulating through the Arab press originated in the Christian west. Another thing that drops out of the picture are the Arab and Muslim voices, in the U.S. and internationally, that speak out to challenge this racialized thinking. If we really cared about increasing cross-cultural understanding, shouldn’t this be part of the picture?


·        In the end, in our alarm over anti-Semitism, we are reinforcing the exact ways of thinking that make anti-Semitism so dangerous: treating an entire ethnic group or religion as monolithic, holding every member of the group collectively responsible for real or imagined misdeeds, and flattening out our understanding of huge chunks of humanity into a one-dimensional caricature. The complexity of community life, the diversity of opinion and interpretation, the ambiguities of history, the gulfs of understanding across cultures — all are erased as irrelevant. In the process, U.S. interventionism, not to mention the entire Christian world, gets off the hook completely.


·        Meanwhile, the self-appointed guardians of Jewish safety — the institutionalized Jewish mainstream — has planted itself firmly on the side of U.S. and Israeli militarism, a stance from which it brooks no dissent: not from American Jews, not from Israelis, and certainly not from anyone else. Are these the people who should be guarding the boundaries of acceptable discourse, not only in their own community but across the board? Shouldn’t we at least be able to talk about whether unrestrained U.S. support for the Israeli government is actually in the best interests of Jewish people, in Israel and around the world?


“Somebody Blew Up America” is, above all, a poem about how to understand the events of the past year: in the polarized language of holy war favored both by Bush and bin Laden, the language of “the west against the rest,” or in the framework of global struggles for freedom, dignity, and equality. Baraka seeks to question how “the enemy” is defined and constructed; who we see as “us” and who as “them”; how we understand our interests, and our humanity. His poem may work for you or it may not — but these are questions that all of us should be asking, as urgently and as loudly as we can.


 


Is the reference to “4000 Israeli workers at the Twin Towers [who stayed] home that day”  anti-Semitic? I think so, and when I hear things like that I speak up to challenge them. Does that cancel out everything else the poem says, or prove that everyone who questions Israeli militarism is motivated by anti-Semitism? I don’t think we can afford to live any more in that kind of either-or world. The simple answers are mostly false — and often fatal. We’ve got to do better than that.

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