An unpleasant conversation with a staffer to Brooklyn congresswoman Yvette Clarke about her BDS letter

Israel/Palestine
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Two more items from the heroic battle for free speech that is taking place in Brooklyn and New York as we speak! First, a friend in Brooklyn who wishes to remain anonymous tells me about calling Congresswoman Yvette Clarke’s Brooklyn office today. Clarke is a progressive Democrat.

Just got off the phone a little while ago with “Matt” at Congresswoman Yvette Clarke’s office (he hung up at the end of the conversation when I asked for his last name). 

I told him that I was disappointed in her signing onto the “progressive” politicians’ letter about the Brooklyn College event and said she had plenty of things to work on in Washington that were actually within the scope of the job she got elected to. He was definitely familiar with the BDS letter issue–he immediately started ticking off the names of other people who had signed the letter [Jerrold Nadler, Hakeem Jeffries, Nidia Velasquez, Brad Lander, Bill de Blasio, Christine Quinn, John Liu et al]. When I noted that their support didn’t really explain/justify Clarke’s decision to sign on, he started groping (unsuccessfully) for the phrase “whoever pays the piper calls the tune.”

I asked him if that meant Clarke would be speaking out against future events that represented positions she disagreed with and he said “yes, on a case-by-case basis.” I then told him I found it very hard to believe that this was Clarke’s actual position–that academic institutions should only hold events that agree with her point of view. And then he went back to citing all the other people who signed the letter.

I repeated that “everyone is doing it” isn’t exactly a sound intellectual argument and he replied, “Well, maybe I’m just not that smart.” I said that if that was the best Clarke’s office could do to spell out her position, it sounded like we needed to send someone else to DC. He said, I think, “so be it.” And then after confirming that his name was Matt, he hung up when I asked for his last name.

Just for context: I’ve spoken several times with Clarke’s office over the years and have previously always had good conversations with staffers who were eager to draw me out and find out the basis of my opinion–even on subjects where it was clear the Clarke and I disagree. This was a very different conversation–it had an edge from the very beginning.

I almost wish I had said something like “You do realize that if you tell these people to go to hell, there are plenty of people in the district who will have her back.”

My friend says public opinion in Brooklyn, including the Jewish community, is not so bad as the politicians suppose. Though I would just note that political contributions are perhaps an issue in Clarke’s considerations.

Now here is another great post by Corey Robin, whose Political Science department has co-sponsored the forum on boycott this Thursday at Brooklyn College, about Hannah Arendt: 

In 1942, Brooklyn College hired a young instructor to teach a summer course on Modern European history. Though academically trained, the instructor was primarily known as the author of a series of incendiary articles in the Jewish press on Jewish politics and Zionism.

An active though ambivalent Zionist, the instructor did not shy from scorching criticism of the movement for Jewish settlement in Palestine. She had already come to some unsettling conclusions in private. In an unpublished essay, she compared the Zionists to the Nazis, arguing that both movements assumed that the Jews were “totally foreign” to other peoples based on their “inalterable substance.” She wrote in a letter that she found “this territorial experiment” of the Jews in Palestine “increasingly problematic.” By the spring of 1942, she was more public in her criticisms. In March, she wrote that the Irgun—the Jewish paramilitary group whose most prominent commander was Menachem Begin—was a “fascist organization” that “employed terrorist methods in their fight against Arabs in Palestine.”

In the coming years, despite her continuing involvement in Zionist politics, she would grow even more critical of the movement. The very idea of the State of Israel, she would write in 1943, was “based on the idea that tomorrow’s majority [the Jews] will concede minority rights to today’s majority [the Palestinians], which indeed would be something brand-new in the history of nation-states.” In 1944, she accused a circle of Jewish fighters of believing “not only that ends justify means but also that only an end that can be achieved by terror is worth their effort.” By the end of that year, she had come to the conclusion that the extreme position within Zionism, which she consistently associated with fascism, was now the mainstream position of David Ben Gurion, and that that fascist tendency had been latent within Theodor Herzl’s original vision all along. By 1948, the year the State of Israel was founded, she would write: “The general mood of the country, moreover, has been such that terrorism and the growth of totalitarian methods are silently tolerated and secretly applauded.”

The name of that instructor was Hannah Arendt.

If Brooklyn College could tolerate the instructor who wrote those words in 1942—and would go onto write those words of 1944 and 1948—surely it, and the City of New York, can tolerate the co-sponsorship by the political science department of a panel on the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement in 2013.

I’d note that the City Council members who are trying to shut this down take exception to the fact that a member of the panel has compared Israelis to Nazis. As if that would stop Hannah Arendt. As if political argument in our country can be cleansed of such analogies.

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