Jersey Poet Laureate Unrepentant
Newark, N.J. — Controversial New Jersey poet laureate Amiri Baraka, whose recent poem “Somebody Blew Up America” suggested that Israel knew in advance about the Sept. 11 terror attacks, blasted his Jewish critics Wednesday, calling the Anti-Defamation League “the voice of imperialism.”
Baraka is refusing to resign his post despite calls from New Jersey Gov. James McGreevey that he step down, adding Wednesday, “I will not apologize.”
ADL national director Abraham Foxman said he planned to meet with McGreevey on Wednesday night and would urge the governor to explore all legal options for Baraka’s ouster. In the meantime, Foxman said, the state should appoint another poet laureate to supersede Baraka.
“This should not be an issue mired down in legalities,” Foxman told The Jewish Week. “A moral message needs to be made: that no state will tolerate an anti-Semite as a spokesman, as someone who sets a tone or sets a vision.”
Baraka’s lengthy, free-verse poem, which he read at a recent poetry festival in New Jersey, contains the following lines: “Who knew the World Trade Center was gonna get bombed?/Who told 4000 Israeli workers/To stay home that day/Why did Sharon stay away?”
The poem also includes several lines sympathetic to Jewish suffering in the Holocaust and to other victims of tyrannical power.
Speaking at the Newark Public Library during a literary event, Baraka said the ADL misinterpreted his poem, pulling the lines about Israel and the attacks out of context. He called the ADL’s campaign against him “an attempt to defame me.” He also called the group “purveyors of falsehood.”
Baraka challenged the ADL to “show where this poem is anti-Semitic in the least,” and said he would be willing to publicly debate the issue with the organization.
Baraka said he based his conclusions that Israel knew in advance about the terror attack on mainstream news accounts, including those from Israeli papers.
“It is nonsense to say Israel did it,” he said, “they were warning [the United States] hand over hand.”
Asked about Baraka’s comments Wednesday, Foxman said, “He continues to be the anti-Semite we always knew he was, unrepentant, and an embarrassment to the people of New Jersey, of which I am one.”
The ADL views the poem as the latest salvo in a widespread campaign to blame Israel for the 9-11 terrorist attacks in New York and Washington.
McGreevey’s office says it has no power to remove Baraka, who was appointed by an ad hoc coalition of state arts groups to the two-year, $10,000 position in May.
The controversy comes amid a growing concern that anti-Semitic attitudes are spreading, particularly in relation to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Just two weeks ago, Harvard president Lawrence Summers noted that “profoundly anti-Israel views” were finding support in “progressive intellectual communities.”
“Serious and thoughtful people are advocating and taking actions that are anti-Semitic in their effect, if not in their intent,” Summers said.
But some members of the African-American community say Jewish leaders should exercise restraint in dealing with Baraka.
“Sometimes if we overreact, it backfires,” said music impresario Russell Simmons.
In a telephone interview, Simmons said recent efforts by pro-Israel advocates to unseat incumbent Democratic representatives Cynthia McKinney of Georgia and Earl Hilliard of Alabama had damaged support for Israel among members of the Congressional Black Caucus and among many African Americans.
Relations between blacks and Jews could be further strained if the Jewish community is perceived as pushing for Baraka’s removal, said Simmons, who is an officer and board member of the Foundation for Ethnic Understanding, an organization founded by New York Rabbi Marc Schneier.
Simmons, who had just testified before Congress on regulating the music industry, said dialogue is needed, not censorship. “You don’t want a bunch of people to come to [Baraka’s] defense and argue over a couple of words in a poem.”
Simmons and others in the black community make a distinction between criticizing Israel and espousing anti-Semitism.
Many people in the black community, he said, “feel like they can’t say anything” negative about Israel. “That’s what they believe.”
Even so, some question the decision to appoint Baraka. The poet has a history of outspoken anti-Semitism, views he recanted in a 1980 Village Voice piece.
“It’s baffling,” Jerry Watts, author of the Baraka biography, “The Politics and Arts of a Black Intellectual” (NYU Press, 2001), said of the appointment.
“People can debate whether it’s possible to be anti-Zionist without being anti-Semitic,” said Watts, a professor of American studies and political science at Trinity College in Hartford, Conn. “But accepting that as a possibility, [Baraka] has a track record of having been an anti-Semite. And the whispers are always there.”
New Jersey’s first poet laureate, Gerald Stern, sat on the committee that appointed Baraka. “I don’t think anybody on the committee thought he would want to continue his contentious behavior,” Stern said.
Baraka, whose first wife is Jewish and who once associated with Beat poets like Allen Ginsberg, reportedly has said his criticism of Israel is not an expression of anti-Semitism.
Baraka told The New York Times that Internet reports convinced him of Israel’s complicit role on 9-11.
ADL officials say they are concerned that Arab states could use Baraka’s poem and his official position to legitimize the “big lie” — a contention that Israel, and not al-Qaeda, is responsible for the attacks.
Kenneth Jacobson, ADL’s associate national director, called the 9-11 conspiracy theory “our No. 1 concern today.”
“It is the single most significant manifestation of anti-Semitism in the world today. It is the dehumanization of the Jews and Israel, and once people believe this, anything goes,” Jacobson said.
He cited a recent Gallup poll of nine Islamic countries showing that 60 percent of those polled said they believe that Israel or the Jews were behind the 9-11 terrorist attacks. A recent ADL report on rising anti-Semitism found that a contributing factor is Arab propaganda blaming Israel and the Jews for the attacks.
Nearly 3,000 people were killed on Sept. 11, at least 400 of them Jews, according to Jewish communal officials and based on records from the city’s Medical Examiner’s Office. Six of the victims have been identified as Israelis.
Baraka is known for radical views and countercultural activism. He was a potent force in the promotion of alternative literary movements in the 1950s and early 1960s. In 1965, following the assassination of Malcolm X, he distanced himself from white bohemian circles, moved to Harlem and took up the cause of black nationalism, acting as a leader in the Black Arts Movement and in Black Power. In 1968 he became a Muslim and changed his name from LeRoi Jones. In the early 1970s, Baraka embraced Marxist-Leninist philosophy.
An award-winning author and playwright, Baraka has received numerous prestigious fellowships and teaching positions. His appointment in New Jersey was hoped to bring new audiences to poetry.
Baraka wrote “Somebody Blew Up America” last October. He has read it publicly since, and the poem has circulated widely on the Internet. It did not cause much of a stir until the reading on Sept. 20 at the biennial Geraldine R. Dodge Poetry Festival in New Jersey.
The festival’s organizer, Jim Haba, told The Jewish Week that after a moment of stunned silence by the audience of 2,000, Baraka was booed vociferously but then received muted applause.
Haba also said that Baraka deleted the offending lines from subsequent readings at the four-day festival, but that in one instance a stenographer working from a pre-typed text included the lines in captions that accompanied the reading.
Haba acknowledged that Baraka’s decision to read the poem was “thoughtless and in the moment destructive.” But he said Baraka might have wrenched open a pathway for freer discussions about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
“There is a tradition in poetry of letting the imagination and impulse and unconscious have free reign,” Haba said. “That may be a dangerous tradition to the larger society, but there is such a tradition and [Baraka] is sometimes part of it.”
Stern was less understanding. Baraka’s “divisive” behavior would hamper his role as the state’s second poet laureate, Stern said.
He said he had spoken to dozens of state and school representatives who told him they would bar Baraka from appearing.
“I’m sure there are communities in Newark where he has a base, who will continue to support him,” Stern continued. “Maybe he can do some good, but not by reading poems attacking Jews certainly, or by fostering lies.”