We will not be silent

Speaking at Busboys and Poets in front of huge comic portraits of Dalai Lama, Martin Luther King, and Gandhi, the disinvited poets Josh Healey and Kevin Coval, together with moderator Laila Al-Arian, showed why it was J Street’s loss that they did not appear at their originally scheduled panel. The duo clearly embodied the “emergent” Jewish identities that J Street desperately hopes to capture, with poems about their families in Israel, why Kevin quit going to shul, and yes, the Holocaust. It was Josh’s invoking of the Holocaust in the same line as the modern American horror that is Guantanamo Bay that occasioned the disinvitation from the J Street conference. As Kevin said, any time a prospective host asks for the full text of your poems, muzzling is usually about to happen. And muzzle J Street did, if regretfully. The feeling seemed to be that J Street didn’t really know what it was getting into, wanting the poets to add a bit of edginess and much-needed “dope outfits” to the proceedings without realizing the force of their honesty.

Sitting in the audience facing these three nonviolent icons, it was hard to feel any threat posed by these poets, even as I was moved by their work. It was certainly true not every line of their poetry exuded the love of Israel so repeatedly invoked later that evening at the J Street conference. But the love of Jews was palpable, and it was nonetheless a real conversation, with the audience actively participating. Josh stressed he and Kevin didn’t always agree. The most critical comment of the night came from a Palestinian, who felt that the Palestine in the poems was a block that didn’t adequately reflect her individual humanity. But this comment from a fellow poet reflected the nature of artistic critique and cross-pollination, worlds away from the smears of right wing blogs. Attendees who identified themselves as J Street were cheered for their presence. One participant in J Street’s student conference said this was the first time he was moved to tears this weekend, a powerful validation of why poetry is different than even the prettiest of speeches. Josh’s mother spoke up in the Q&A to urge people not to boycott J Street, which no one has called for. But I was reminded by her words to see J Street as a work in progress, learning and feeling its way. As Josh posed the question, will it be a two-way street? Later at the opening plenary, I was impressed by the force of J Street’s numbers and resources and real desire to open up the conversation on Israel in Jewish communities. If they are at all successful in that, it will be impossible to keep voices like Josh’s and Kevin’s out.

– Jesse Bacon

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