Lately David Simon, creator of the HBO series, "The Wire," called American Jews to action on behalf of blacks in our cities, and Weiss said Simon has practiced self-censorship on the Israel/Palestine issue. Lizzy Ratner-- who will be speaking on the Goldstone Report in New York in 2 weeks-- wrote to say, "You got it wrong."
It's true that I love the man -- or at least his work -- so I could be blinded by admiration, but I also think I'm right. So listen up.
In your post from last Monday, you call Simon out for not mentioning Palestine in his big sit-down with Tablet, for failing to connect the "slow motion Holocaust" taking place in West Baltimore and New Orleans to the one taking place among the Palestinians. You cite Leon Golub's famous statement about what makes a Jewish artist (essentially: craven avoidance of the Israel-Palestine issue). You all but call Simon a hypocrite. Never mind that we don't know the exact intent behind his omission, or whether there was an actual omission since we weren't privy to the full interview on which the article was based (and as you and I both know, a lot ends up on the cutting-room floor). The real problem with your post is that in calling Simon out for what he doesn't say, you miss the exquisite promise of what he does say.
In just a few unsparing sentences, Simon gives us what amounts to a jeremiad on the failings of the organized, mainstream American Jewish community, particularly the Federation set. He blasts them for their narrowness, for holding Jewish suffering sacred and superior to all other suffering. He denounces the "corruption" of elevating the Holocaust "beyond any possible point of comparison for other collective tragedy." And he warns that by holding our own tragedy apart from all the other human tragedies, Jews are in serious danger of desensitizing ourselves to other people's pain -- and desensitizing other people to our pain. Or, to go all sophomore lit-crit major on you, he stages a serious intervention in one of the most pervasive and damaging narratives to hold sway among Jews in a long time.
For Simon, one of the chief outrages of this narrative -- we'll call it the narrative of Unrivaled Jewish Persecution -- is the way it inures Jews to the outrages unfolding every day in this country's inner cities -- inures and then makes us complicit. But as anyone who has taken any kind of critical look at Israel knows, it's also one the most corrosive narratives going in the Zionist logic. It's the scaffolding (or part of it at any rate) on which occupation, segregation, siege, and military vengeance are built. It justifies them -- and then gives those who inflict them on other people the permission not to care. Which is why anyone who succeeds in breaking through the chorus of supreme Jewish suffering for even a moment should be applauded and encouraged. Their actions make the whole frame weaker, and create space for the rest of us.
And there's another element to your post that I want to discuss, one that is a bit thornier and which I'm a bit less certain about but I feel the need to bring up all the same. I'm talking about the Golub Idea, the implicit notion that it's incumbent on Jews of conscience to "mention Palestine." Now, I myself don't have much time for the whole Progressive Except Palestine business, for Jews (and non-Jews) who speak with a clarion voice about the world's injustices and then get all mealy-mouthed about injustices in Palestine. But I do wonder: When *you* give interviews about Israel-Palestine to publications like Tablet, or when you give talks to throngs of eager, earnest students about Gaza or the Goldstone Report or the Israel Lobby, do you always, or even ever, mention the outrages unfolding daily in Baltimore, New Orleans, Detroit, Cleveland, East New York, and the rest of this country's inner cities? What's your -- and my -- responsibility to that reality? After all, it's unfolding just a few blocks away, in the midst of the country we pay our hard-earned taxes to each year, at the forgotten end of an economic ladder that holds both of us up.
I think this scratches at me -- and it does scratch, quite a bit -- because I have seen so many progressive-minded folks turn their attention away from this country, away from the structural injustices that make our inner cities possible, homelessness acceptable, hunger palatable, and radical inequality as ho-hum as a bag of Lays. The outrage at the violence of economic injustice is gone, or secondary.
Certainly there's been some good reasons to look outward. When your country makes a hobby of bombing other countries to smithereens, you should probably be a bit outraged by it. And when a country like Israel occupies, bombs, and besieges a whole people in your name, you had better speak out. Nonetheless, there are times when I can't help but ask and then answer: "What's an American lefty? Someone who doesn't mention injustices at home."
Which is why I appreciate Simon's work so much. And why I feel such a strong impulse to defend him.
Just listen once again to his words:
“No, there is no barbed wire around West Baltimore. No, there is no political imperative to segregate them from the greater society, or ultimately, to murder them en masse. That would be a Holocaust at normal speed. Instead, we have simply participated—either tacitly or actively—in constructing a national economic model that throws away 10 to 15 percent of our poorest and most vulnerable citizens. There is no work for more than half the adult black males in Baltimore. Other than the drug corners, of course. Can anyone argue that the percentage of human destruction among adult males of color in these neighborhoods has not for generations approached the genocidal?”
He's right, of course. And while I would love to see him turn the awesome force of his vision eastward, toward Israel-Palestine, I wouldn't mind seeing a bit of the reverse from the rest of us. At least once in a while. It can only make our own work smarter, and our voices stronger.