Monday, October 14, 2002

We Doth Protest Too Much and Also Too Little

Given the deep-rooted corruption that has characterized much of New Jersey’s political life for decades, it’s fitting that Amiri Baraka is the state’s poet laureate. If New Jersey was looking for an anti-Semitic poet, do we think it could get T.S. Eliott?

As Eliott and Ezra Pound demonstrated, poetry can serve as a convenient haven for those who hate Jews. Sadly, there are too many havens in literature, as well as in other creative fields and in more ordinary social activities. We seem to have an inexhaustible supply of enemies, of persons who are eager to advertise their anti-Semitism. It appears that their ranks have grown during the past two years in the wake of the Intifada and September 11.

Scarcely a week goes by without new affronts to civility and tolerance. College and even high school newspapers publish articles that would gladden the hearts of the forgers of the Protocols of the Elders of Zion. College campuses have seen rallies where the hatred of Jews is common fare, while in the same locales efforts to support Israel have been met by intimidation. We the chosen people are being chosen once more as responsible for the world’s evils.

It’s hard to keep up with all of the bad tidings, although I imagine that ADL’s files are up to date.

As the anti-Semites have come out of their rat holes, they have made common cause with Israel-deniers, a motley crew of Islamic fundamentalists with support from people on both the far right and far left. To boot, there are Jews who are adding their own special concoction of self-hatred to the poisoned brew.

As those who disparage us have been true to form, so have we. Our standard operating procedures for anti-Semitism include public relations, letters to the editor, pressure on politicians and the rather courageous message that anti-Semitism is not acceptable. In the end, as in New Jersey, we get politicians who turn one cheek to anti-Semitism and now do their profile in courage shtick by turning the other cheek against the Amiri Barakas of the world. We apparently believe that anti-Semitism can best be counteracted through rhetoric and debating.

At this point it’s well to acknowledge that there is something wrong with this picture. The United States is not awash in anti-Semitism, the too many bits and pieces of untoward news and our fears notwithstanding. We are doing quite well on these shores. Those who hate us have essentially been marginalized, while respect among Americans for Jews and Israel remains exceedingly high. Our blood-stained history and our present fears must not be allowed to darken this reality.

A second problem is that we too frequently kvetch about matters that do not merit protest. A familiar example are the complaints that arise from our quarters when a Palestinian representative is invited to speak on campus or, at times, before a Jewish audience. To some of us, this is a cardinal sin, an act that gives encouragement to our enemies. It’s hard to figure out what the beef is about in those instances when invitees have appeared regularly on Israeli radio and television and have been involved in negotiations with Israel officials. Thus, I specifically disagree with efforts to block the appearances in this country of Sari Nusseibeh who some label as tolerant of terrorism and others as a moderate.

Admittedly, our complaints may serve certain emotional needs but they scarcely advance our interests. They are also losing propositions and not simply because our protests fail, except perhaps to generate more interest in what Palestinians have to say. More importantly, these are losing efforts because at least potentially they result in the loss of support for Israel within constituencies that we are courting, notably Jews on campus. This is one of the great battlegrounds in contemporary Jewish life and it is perhaps the most difficult place of contention that now confronts us. Our cause is not advanced when we seek to block speeches by Palestinians.

There are occasions when we need to protest. Even then, our one approach fits all situations attitude serves us poorly. On occasion, a simple statement of protest may be sufficient. When an anti-Semitic tirade comes from an obscure and/or entirely unrespected source, it might be best to either ignore the affront or say very little about it. I doubt that much has been gained from our perspective through all of the saber rattling that has accompanied the Baraka affair. Those who appointed him should have known better, but it is highly doubtful that it will be possible to get rid of him now.

There are also occasions when a more militant or aggressive approach is warranted. When major newspapers publish Streicher-like anti-Semitic cartoons, as some have, we ought to do more than gear up our xerox machines and public relations people. Letter writing and platitudinous statements condemning anti-Semitism play into the hands of editors, college officials and politicians who out of laxity or more base motives have given aid and comfort to our enemies. They can at once hide behind the First Amendment and yet also deplore that which they have allowed to go forward.

The one approach fits all situations model hides our pain and our anger, the hurt that we feel when in places that purport to promote tolerance both Jews and Israel are caricatured and stereotyped. There must be instances when militancy is justified, when instead of just wailing and writing, we show the depths of our feelings by being more activist.

I will believe that American Jews are serious about serious acts of anti-Semitism when enough of us invite arrest because we have sat in or condemnation because we have engaged in acts of civil disobedience. It may sound harsh, but it remains that there is superficiality to our protests. One approach does not fit all situations.