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

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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