Yesterday, we reported that J Street canceled the poetry session at their upcoming conference because a right-wing blogger discovered that poet Josh Healey had invoked the Holocaust to write about Palestinians and the war on terror. (Healey was invited to present by J Street staff, and not Theater J as we incorrectly reported).
This cancellation is interesting in part because it follows J Street’s vigorous defense of Israeli artistic expression as part of the Toronto International Film Festival’s celebratory spotlight on Tel Aviv. (J Street, like numerous other groups, mistakenly used the term boycott to describe the Toronto Declaration protest. The Declaration opposed the focus on Tel Aviv as part of the Brand Israel campaign but explicitly did not call for a boycott. On the other hand, it might be technically accurate to call the booting of Healey an actual form of boycott.)
Healey doesn’t hold back in this interview today, Poet booted from J Street meet for comparing Guantanamo to Auschwitz, in Haaretz :
“I had a conversation with ‘J Street’ staff, and they explained that they are playing the game – Washington politics, and seeking legitimacy. And they are not willing to fight this battle. I was born in Washington, so I’m not surprised to become Van Jones of J Street,” (U.S. President Barack Obama’s “green jobs czar” who resigned over the controversy about his past political associations).
“So Van Jones resigned, but did the right wing stop attacking Obama? On one level, I understand them – it’s easier to get rid of the poet, who cares? But as an artist and a Jewish activist, it’s a matter of principle. If you’re trying to be an alternative to AIPAC – don’t behave like AIPAC.”
“I told them I don’t think it’s the legitimacy they want, because it’s not the legitimacy that makes change. When you’re trying to make change, you must expect that some people will push back. But they kick out their allies – and I still consider myself an ally. I’m not personally offended – I’m politically disappointed. It’s ironic that we were invited to perform and be a part of the dialogue at the track ‘The culture as a tool for change.’ But we can’t even have this dialogue. The Jewish community acts like children, with smear campaigns and name-calling. I am not surprised by the right wing attacks – but that J-Street went along with it and accommodated it.”
Referring to the specific line which stirred the negative emotions, Healey said: “It was taken of context. Judged by themselves, these lines don’t even make sense. Just before this line, I wrote: ‘I remember when the German soldiers put yellow stars on my family coats and they put pink ones on my friends.’ I was talking about de-humanization. And yes, I have family that was killed in the Holocaust. There were Jewish people killed and gay people and Gypsies, and many others, and as a Jew, my solidarity is with my people – and with all people. And my solidarity is with the people of Israel – but also with the people of Palestine. And I believe in two state solution and peace and justice for all people. And if J-Street are not willing to have debate with people who believe in solidarity and humanity, I don’t know what legitimacy they want, because it’s not a moral legitimacy.”
“I love my people, the Jewish people, and that’s why I’m critical – because it’s my people, my family that are silencing people the same way we were silenced and suppressed for centuries,” Healey concluded.
And here as a longer statement from Healey and fellow banned poet Kevin Coval, who wrote, “The reason J Street put us out to dry is because they feel more accountable to the Right-wing than to us. Let’s change that, and open up the debate.”
Searching for a Minyan:
Israel, McCarthyism, & the Struggle for Real Dialogue
by Kevin Coval and Josh Healey
This weekend, J Street, a new Jewish “Pro-Israel, Pro-Peace” PAC and Washington-based organization is holding its first national conference. The two of us, along with another artist, were to perform and read poems at several sessions during the conference. Specifically, we were invited to lead a workshop on how culture and spoken word create democratic spaces that sift through difficult issues and ensure a multiplicity of voices are heard: and how that can be used to open up the Israel/Palestine debate. Instead, we have been censored and pushed out of that very debate.
This week, some right-wing blogs and pseudo-news organizations latched on to various lines of poems Josh wrote and churned the alarmist rumor mill saying that hateful anti-Israeli poets are keynote speakers at the J Street conference. This is not surprising. The radical right-wing, including the growing Jewish right-wing of this country and abroad, hates complex discourse, especially when it brings to light truths they seek to systematically deny. The Weekly Standard, Commentary, and their AIPAC-influenced brethren have been attacking J Street for weeks, scared that the conference will bring together the majority of American Jews who do favor a more rigorous peace process. When they found Josh’s poems and took lines out of context, they had the perfect straw man: the Van Jones to J Street’s Obama. Again, this is not surprising.
What is disappointing, and troubling, is J Street’s response in caving to this sort of McCarthyism. The executive director of J Street called us to say “I know what I’m doing is wrong…but there are some battles we choose not to fight,” before canceling our program, and disinviting us from the conference. This accommodates their red-baiting and is the wrong response. Rather than give in, which only emboldens the right and legitimizes their attacks, we need to stand up for our principles and engage on that front. Van Jones is another perfect example: after the Fox News venom became too much and he resigned last month, the radical Right hasn’t stopped attacking Obama, or more accurately, the alternative, progressive voice they fear he represents. The Right stands by its politics, and practices solidarity with their allies. Too often the Left doesn’t. And that’s why we often lose – on health care, on global warming, and on Israel/Palestine.
For the second time in two months Kevin, who is Jewish, has been told not to come to a Jewish conference because of what he will say about Palestine and Israel. This past August, the evening before the International Hillel Conference, conference planners said if he were to read poems about Palestine, they’d rather not have him. Today, Josh, who is Jewish, has had his name thrown into a mudslide of blogs and hate emails. All this because we are practicing the Jewish maxim of the refusal to be silent in the face of oppression, anyone’s oppression.
One of the key teachings of Judaism is the insistence on wrestling with and debating ideas. There are a thousand years of codified arguing, recorded in the Talmud and Midrash, over the meaning of the stories in the five books of Torah. Jews debate everything. There is the old adage, “when you have two Jews in the room, you have three opinions”. Our families cannot come to agreement about what constitutes a deli as opposed to a diner. (A deli must have pickles on the table with poppy seed rolls, etc….)
But when you try to talk about Palestine there is silence. When you talk about the role the United States plays in supporting Israel and its military coffers, there is no room for discourse. If you bring up Palestinians’ right to return to land they were forced out of, or mention that this past January over 1400 Palestinians, mostly civilian, were killed in Gaza, there is no room to speak in Jewish-centric spaces in this country.
There are many reasons why this trend of censorship is disturbing. We believe in democracy, in the right to speak and be heard and in the right be disagreed with. We are disheartened and outraged by the lack of democratic discourse in the American Jewish community and within the country as a whole.
Why are we scared of what will come from an honest conversation? What do we have to lose, or discover, or admit to if we question the policies of Israel or America’s support of its government and military? It can be unsettling for one’s worldview to unravel, the intricate web of white lies and half-truths pulled apart. This can be disconcerting for generations of Jews who have accepted the propaganda of a chosen people and the acting out of geostrategic nightmares via military might.
Kevin works at a Hillel for Hashem’s sake! He is charged with the task of addressing why so many young Jews are distancing themselves from the religious and cultural practice of Judaism. This is one of those reasons! American Jews are told at shul to repent for our sins, but silenced if we bring up the sins of the country that acts in our name. We need authentic, honest discourse in the American Jewish community. It must start today and it must be about Palestine and Israel.
So, we are searching for a minyan—a crew of progressives and progressive Jews to build and connect with. We want to have a conversation. Not wait for the conversation to be dictated and have borders and walls built around acceptable topics, but to have a conversation determined by us, Jews That Are Left, that are on the Left. A conversation that is honest and open and genuinely reclaims and considers our progressive past as well as forges the future world. A conversation engaged in the work of tikkun olam for real, the work of repair and healing and wholeness.
Progressive American Jews where you at? Holla at us! For real: firstname.lastname@example.org. Let’s reshape the conversation. Let’s build a minyan, a coalition of progressive Jews and gentiles who want what is just and right for ALL people and all people in Israel and Palestine.
Editor’s note: the space that Kevin and Josh imagine for progressive Jews and allies “who want what is just and right for ALL people and all people in Israel and Palestine” already exists and it’s called Jewish Voice for Peace.