Ranting Poet’s Visit Makes For a Disturbing Week at Yale

By James Kirchick

Published March 07, 2003, issue of March 07, 2003.
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As Yale Daily News columnist Eli Muller put it last Friday, “It has been an unpleasant week to be Jewish at Yale.”

The trouble started when the university’s Afro-American Cultural Center decided to host controversial poet Amiri Baraka for a reading and discussion of his poem, “Somebody Blew Up America.” In that now infamous work, the poet laureate of New Jersey suggested that Israel had prior knowledge of the September 11 terrorist attacks and warned 4,000 of its citizens not to show up to work in the World Trade Center that day.

Here at Yale, the Jewish community on campus reacted with panic and downright anger to news of Baraka’s invitation. Why would the African-American community invite such a hatemonger to campus? How could we respond effectively without appearing to be advocating censorship? What would this event do to black-Jewish relations on campus?

All weekend before the February 24 event, the Yale Friends of Israel e-mail list was more active than ever before, with all sorts of protest strategies being offered up by students. Yet despite objections from Hillel, Jewish students and concerned alumni, the African-American center decided to proceed with Baraka.

As a columnist for the Yale Daily News, I attended the Amiri Baraka affair, and it was one of the most disturbing events in my entire life. It was not Baraka’s ranting that upset me most. Having read his work, I was thoroughly prepared for whatever was bound to come out of his mouth.

What shocked me was the response he received from my fellow Yale students. As he offered “evidence” of Israeli foreknowledge of the World Trade Center attacks, many Yale students vigorously nodded their heads in approval and erupted into cheering. At the end of the event, the crowd leapt to its feet to give the poet a rousing standing ovation.

Midway through his diatribe, Baraka spotted my skeptical expression. He loudly declared that I had “constipation of the face,” and thus required a “brain enema.”

An avowed communist, Baraka drew laughs from the crowd when he affectionately quoted Mao Tse-tung on the topic of public integrity.

“No investigation, no right to speak,” he chanted. The audience loudly joined him in unison, repeating the words of a Chinese dictator responsible for the deaths of millions of his own people.

After Baraka’s talk, one Yale professor lamented that so many students from his alma mater had just been “applauding falsehoods at a university.”

“It is confining rather than liberating for students,” the professor said. “It is anti-educational.”

Baraka may have been greeted with thunderous ovations at the event, but the opinion page of the Yale Daily News greeted Baraka with a stirring condemnation of his presence on campus. The editorial board lashed out at the African-American center in a piece titled, “Baraka’s Hate Speech Has No Place at Yale.” In an opinion essay, junior Michael Anastasio dismissed Baraka as “a man who deserves no attention at all.” Jewish Chaplain Rabbi James Ponet and University Chaplain Jerry Streets, himself black, raised their concern about Baraka’s invective in a letter to the editor.

But the war of words had just begun.

The day after Baraka’s speech, the Yale Daily News ran an opinion article by Pamela George, assistant dean of Yale College and director of the Afro-American Cultural Center. In her essay, which she had already e-mailed a day earlier to those who objected to the poet’s visit, she conflated criticism of the Baraka invitation with censorship: “The Afro-American Cultural Center at Yale and the Black Student Alliance at Yale declare their belief in the importance of free speech as a fundamental tenet of the university.”

George did not stop with her criticism of those who protested the decision to invite Baraka. She also accused Jewish students of hosting a racist speaker of their own.

“When an invitation was extended from a residential college at Yale to a former Israeli general and soldier it seemed appropriate that it be protested,” George wrote, referring to Yoni Fighel, who was brought to campus by the Anti-Defamation League and a professor for a November event. “It was appalling to hear students share anti-Palestinian remarks at a tea with Yoni Fighel.”

As it turned out, George did not attend the Fighel talk that she so authoritatively railed against. Still, she saw fit to compare an Israeli counter-terrorism expert to a man who has written, “I got the/extermination blues, jewboys, i got/the hitler syndrome figured.”

I did attend the address by Fighel, who was directly involved in the implementation of the Oslo accords, and nothing that he said could even be remotely construed as racist. It is worth noting that George only raised the claim of racism after she and the Black Student Alliance were confronted about their own decision to invite Baraka.

What has been most frustrating for myself and other Jewish students is the task of convincing our non-Jewish colleagues that Baraka’s conspiracy theories rise above the level of mere criticism of Israel, and into the territory of antisemitic blood libel.

Many non-Jews on campus have merely brushed the whole affair off as the paranoid overreaction of the Jewish community to an irrelevant ignoramus.

As if the appalling display of support that Baraka received was not enough to alarm the Jewish community, a column appearing two days later in the Yale Daily News sealed the deal. Senior Sahm Adrangi ominously wrote that “the Baraka controversy isn’t really about free speech. It’s about how special interests manipulate the public discourse to advance their agendas.”

Adrangi did Baraka’s bidding by attacking one of his most vocal critics, the ADL, naively labeling it as, “the Zionist group who ought to stick ‘Israeli’ in front of its name (when was the last time it condemned defamation of Muslims and Arab-Americans?).”

This week, the ADL’s national director, Abraham Foxman, fired back with his own essay in the Yale student newspaper, blasting Baraka and Adrangi. Foxman also noted that his organization regularly condemns acts of discrimination against Muslims.

By the time Foxman’s article arrived, Jewish students were already in a tizzy over Adrangi’s charges. Even during a nasty and protracted battle last semester against the divestment movement, such unabashedly antisemitic sentiments did not bubble up in the halls or cafeterias, never mind on the enlightened pages of the nation’s oldest college daily.

An emergency meeting was convened the same day that Adrangi’s article came out at the Slifka Center for Jewish Life. Jewish students engaged in an emotional and at times contentious debate about what to do regarding not only Adrangi’s column, but the future of black-Jewish relations on campus. While plans for future action remain murky, the general sentiment seemed strongly opposed to calling for George’s resignation, instead favoring unconditional reconciliation with Yale’s Black Student Alliance.

As of now, Yale’s tightly knit Jewish community is in a state of confusion. Mitchell Webber, a senior heading off to law school next fall, represents one of the more aggressive viewpoints. Following the Hillel meeting, he asked, “What good is a community that refuses to stand up for itself? I just need to keep reminding myself that Yale’s Jewish community isn’t representative of American Jews at large.”

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