New Jersey poet laureate Amiri Baraka says he will fight legislation aimed at removing him from the state-appointed position, telling The Jewish Week Tuesday he was prepared to take legal action if a bill being drafted this week in the state Senate passes. “I certainly will sue,” he said Tuesday by phone from his home in Newark.
Legal experts say the controversial poet could have a good case on free-speech grounds.
If worded too vaguely, the legislation could open “a First Amendment can of worms,” said Harvard University law professor Alan Dershowitz.
The proposed legislation was announced Monday at a bipartisan press conference in Trenton. Work on bills in the state Senate and Assembly began after Baraka rejected calls for his resignation.
New Jersey Gov. James McGreevey and others had asked the poet to step down from the two-year appointment because his poem, “Somebody Blew Up America,” which he read at a recent poetry festival, has been labeled anti-Semitic. It suggests that Israel knew about the Sept. 11 terror attacks in advance.
The legislation proposed in the state Senate by Republican Peter Inverso and Democrat Richard Codey would retroactively amend the state statute that established the position to provide that the poet laureate “serve at the pleasure of the governor.”
Meanwhile, a resolution expressing a vote of no confidence in Baraka as the poet laureate is being circulated in the New Jersey Legislature.
Baraka was recommended in August by an ad hoc committee convened by the New Jersey Council for Humanities and appointed by the governor. Neither has the power to remove him, although the council has called for Baraka’s resignation.
According to a statement from Inverso, the proposed bill would give the governor the option of removing the poet laureate “if the individual brings shame upon the government and the people of the state.”
But looking at that wording, Dershowitz said, “This particular legislation would be a victory for Baraka because it would give him the high ground in a First Amendment challenge.
“The last thing you want to do is give him the high ground,” said Dershowitz, author of “Shouting Fire: Civil Liberties in a Turbulent Age” (Little Brown, 2002).
At the same time, he said that failure to act would also raise serious constitutional concerns.
“To the extent that the poet laureate speaks for the state, then Baraka involves the state of New Jersey in a state-action bigotry, and state-action bigotry is against the law,” Dershowitz said.
Paraphrasing an opinion by Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, he said, “Baraka has the right to be a racist, but he has no right to be the poet laureate.”
The best way to correct the situation, he said, is to abolish the $10,000 taxpayer-supported position.
Mark Stern, assistant executive director of the American Jewish Congress, agreed but said the government would be “shooting itself in the foot” with such a move.
“There doesn’t seem to be a proposal that neatly and quickly solves the problem,” Stern said.
Baraka’s predecessor as poet laureate, Gerald Stern, condemned the poem as anti-Semitic but defended Baraka’s right to “attack capitalism or anybody else he wants to.”
“The poet’s job is to disturb the peace,” he said.
In an editorial last Friday, The New York Times noted that Baraka has a reputation for “ferocious political opinions.” But despite the poem’s “appalling falsehood,” attempts to fire or silence him on that basis were “offensive,” the editorial said.
Codey said that despite opposition in the Legislature, he was confident the bill would pass within the next two months. The thing about free speech, he said, is that “there are always consequences when you say something wrong or improper.”
Baraka accused legislators seeking his ouster of “pandering for votes” and warned that he too has constituents — many in the legislators’ districts.
“I’m going to fight it,” he said of the proposed legislation. “The more they hit me, the more I hit them back.”
Baraka stood by what he wrote last fall in “Somebody Blew Up America,” a six-page poem that covers topics ranging from slavery to the devil.
The most controversial parts of the poem imply that the Bush administration and the governments of Israel, Britain and France had advance knowledge of the 9-11 attacks.
Specifically of Israel, the poem says, “Who Told 4,000 Israeli workers at the Twin Towers/To stay home that day?/Why did Sharon stay away?”
As the Star-Ledger of Newark noted in an Oct. 6 editorial, in the hours after the Sept. 11 attacks, Israeli officials reported that 4,000 Israelis might have been in New York City at the time. The Jerusalem Post reported that 4,000 Israelis were “believed to be in the area” of the attacks.
A Lebanese TV station reportedly broadcast the news, but saying that 4,000 Israelis worked at the World Trade Center and were told to stay home.
“I believe it,” Baraka said of the report. Baraka said he found the information included in the poem on the Internet. Citing the Star-Ledger editorial, Baraka said Tuesday, “They quote the Israeli government saying there were 4,000 Israelis in the area. How come they’re not dead?”
He said his poem referred only to “Israeli passport holders,” and not necessarily Jews.
“To say that it is anti-Semitic is a lie, even if you think what I said was not true,” he said, adding that any criticism of Israel is labeled anti-Semitic.
The Anti-Defamation League, one of Baraka’s most vocal critics, considers the theory to be a “pernicious lie” and part of a larger historic phenomenon.
“Ultimately, this builds on the big lie dating back to time of Pharaoh,” said Shai Goldstein, ADL regional director in New Jersey. “That is that Jews are a fifth column.”
That idea is continued in the notorious anti-Semitic tract “The Protocols of the Elders of Zion.” Today, the “big lie” circulating is that Israel and the Jews engineered 9-11, Goldstein said. “Baraka feeds into that by this episode.”
Baraka claims he is suggesting nothing other than that “Israel knew, the United States knew, Germany knew, France knew. And they didn’t warn us that it was going to happen.”
He said he deserved a public hearing to go through the poem line by line.
The State of Israel and Judaism are not the same thing, he said, just as the Congo does not represent all black people. “Anybody with clarity on the issue knows that,” Baraka said.
The distinction is not clear to everyone. Last week an editorial in the Amsterdam News, a New York-based paper that describes itself as “an unwavering voice of the Black constituency,” honored Baraka and urged him to keep writing.
In the editorial Wilbert Tatum, the newspaper’s publisher emeritus and chairman of the board, said of the Internet rumor, “One can believe it or not, and certainly a poet, or anyone else for that matter, has license to question who gave word to Jews only that they should escape the World Trade Center before the disaster of 9-11.”
A New York Times editorial criticized Baraka for spreading “this hateful anti-Israel myth,” but said seeking “to fire or silence him is in itself offensive.”
The ADL’s Goldstein said there should be a clear and swift process that empowers the governor to remove Baraka and that the legislation should be fast-tracked.
But Clement Price, a history professor at Rutgers University and director of its Institute on Ethnicity, Culture and the Modern Experience, said that “one of the most regrettable aspects” of the uproar is that it has become so politicized so quickly.
“We have become a very passive democracy where people do not engage in controversy, they want it solved,” Price said. “It is usually solved by people with political might and political will.”
Bad poems, Price said, “usually go the way of bad ideas.”