J Street Two-Step: Fights smear campaign, censors poets

CORRECTION: Theater J tells us that the poetry session at J Street is not theirs as we incorrectly reported in the first version of this post. Theater J’s Ari Roth was asked to introduce the poets and moderate the session, but the poets were invited (and later uninvited) to participate by J Street. Roth also tells us that Theater J, a model for artistic expression based in the communal Jewish world, was long ago discovered by “right-wing gatekeepers”, as I described them, and that they continue to flourish and receive broad community support. Amen.


In its important efforts to challenge AIPAC and reclaim the center of Jewish liberal opinion, J Street walks an increasingly difficult line, demanding a more open discourse about Israeli policy for liberal Zionists, while simultaneously drawing a line in the sand between that which is kosher and that which is treyf (unclean): Jewish-staters and Congressional lobbying in, agnostics and one-staters and BDS out. Is this a viable, ethical or helpful strategy? It’s entirely possible to argue both sides. But only time will tell.

But for the moment, what is clear is that this approach leads to increasingly untenable situations like this: just a few days after J Street asked supporters to help them fight back on an undeniably terrible smear campaign about their upcoming conference, they announced they were canceling the entire poetry session at the same conference because of remarks invoking the Holocaust to describe the treatment of Palestinians, made some time in the past by one planned presenter, a young Jewish poet.

First, Jerry Haber of Magnes Zionist on the right-wing campaign:

A smear campaign against J-Street has been launched by – who else? The Weekly Standard, Commentary and the Standwithus crowd. They are telling their supporters to hound the members of Congress who are part of the J-Street Gala’s Honorary Host Committee and get them to withdraw. So why not? Hey, it’s a free country, isn’t it?

Sure, and if they played by the rules, that would be fine. But their rules include smearing and guilt-by-association. Remember how they went after Obama? Now they are saying that because one of the many speakers at the J-Street Conference, Salam al-Marayati, made a remark on radio suggesting that Israel should be on the lists of suspects for the 9/11 attack. He did this on September 11, and then immediately apologized for it the next day and on the same radio show.

So why is Salam al-Marayati speaking at J-Street? Because of something which he does not apologize for – his support of the two-state solution. In an op-ed he wrote for JTA

“The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is a key issue of U.S.-Muslim world relations. My position on the conflict — and that of MPAC — centers on the two-state solution whereby Israel and Palestine exist side by side with security and opportunity. I believe also that the injustices that the Palestinian people have endured for more than 60 years, as well as the ongoing occupation that started in 1967, must be addressed and rectified through negotiation, not violence. Middle East wars have not resolved anything in the 20th century or in the first decade of this century”

In other words, the man is as extreme as…Barack Obama and Bibi Netanyahu!

Oh, did I tell you that al-Marayati’s support for the two-state solution is not mentioned in the smear campaign.

And now, this morning, J Street is putting the kibosh on the poets. JTA reports:

J Street nixes poetry session over speaker’s remarks

WASHINGTON (JTA) — J Street canceled a poetry session at its upcoming conference after the revelation of controversial remarks by one of the scheduled participants.

Monday’s decision comes a few days after some conservative Web sites critical of J Street posted examples of the work of Josh Healey, a scheduled speaker at the poetry session.

In one poem, Healey wonders whether “the chosen people” have been “chosen to recreate our own history, merely reversing the roles with the script now reading that we’re the ones writing numbers on the wrists of babies born in the ghetto called Gaza?”

Also, Healey talks in a video about showing solidarity with those protesting other causes, saying that for his friends, “Anne Frank is Matthew Shepard” and “Guantanamo is Auschwitz.”

“As J Street is critical of the use and abuse of Holocaust imagery and metaphors by politicians and pundits on the right, it would be inappropriate for us to feature poets at our conference whose poetry has used such imagery in the past and might also be offensive to some conference participants,” said J Street executive director Jeremy Ben-Ami.

It’s not clear that J Street actually has a policy regarding speakers and their right to use – in creative pieces- the Holocaust to describe the treatment of Palestinians, or if J Street actually has made much of a point of criticizing the frequent use of Nazi imagery by the right-wing to describe liberals and Israel critics (so well documented by Glenn Greenwald. ) Nonetheless, the seemingly quick decision to yield to pressure regarding something-a-poet-once-said-in-a-poem-at-another-event-about-his-experience-of-the-Holocaust lands J Street squarely in the realm of retro thought-police like the Anti-Defamation League. We’re pretty confident that’s a place that many of J Street’s supporters would not like them to be.

J Street should be lauded for figuring out a way to broaden the field for Israeli-Palestinian bloggers at their conference next week by giving Richard Silverstein and Jerry Haber physical space to hold a completely independent session with some of the best-known bloggers on the topic: Monday, October 26, from 12:30-2:00pm at the McPhearson Square room in the Grand Hyatt. Muzzlewatch’s Sydney Levy will be among those presenting and touching on this and other important topics.

_ Cecilie Surasky

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