Dozens of modern American poets, vehemently against a possible war with Iraq, posture that their poetry is medicinal, good for the body politic.
But others, such as J. Bottum, books and arts editor of the Weekly Standard (Feb. 17), are warning that many of these poet-protesters are playing ìon the edges of 1930s-style anti-Semitism.î They hate war, but not a war against the Jews.
Writers across the country are wagging their fingers at First Lady Laura Bush for canceling a day for poets at the White House after she feared it would turn into an antiwar extravaganza.
But only the Weekly Standard (J. Bottum), The Wall Street Journal (James Taranto), The Washington Times (Andrew Sullivan) and some other publications considered ìright-wingî bothered to point out that anti-Semitism lurks within the leftist protest.
The poets, who organized performances of ìPoems Not Fit For The White Houseî at Lincoln Center, took out a quarter-page ad on The New York Times op-ed page (Feb. 17) protesting the cancellation and recommending readers to their Web site, poetsagainstthewar.org. There one can find verses such as this by one of the poet-leaders, Marilyn Hacker: ìJews who learned their comportment from storm-troopers/act out the nightmares that woke their grandmothers/Jews sit, black-clad, claim peace …î
Is that poem fit for the White House?
After Prime Minister Ariel Sharonís re-election, Torontoís Globe & Mail (Feb. 1) published this poetic entry: ìItís said Sharon has changed his ways: Heís moderate, not like the days/When babies died and girls were raped/And, while the anguished journos gaped,/Israelís defender passed the time/By shifting blame for his war crime ó /But now a bloody resume/Is just the thing to save the day.î
The New Yorker (Jan. 27) did a piece on Tom Paulin, the Irish poet who after a semester at Columbia University was invited, then disinvited, then invited again for an unspecified date to lecture at Harvard. Paulin not long ago in the London Observer published a poem about ìlittle Palestinian boy/In trainers jeans and a white teeshirt/ … gunned down by the Zionist SS.î
Paulin often uses Nazi imagery when writing about Jews. He told the Egyptian paper Al-Ahram that Jewish settlers on the West Bank îshould be shot dead.î
The New Yorker noted that seemingly benign observations by Harvard law professors about African Americans earned those professors the loss of their classes, not for any inaccuracies but simply for hurt feelings. Academic freedom goes only so far. Harvard then organized programs to fix the perception that ìracial bias was widespread and that immediate corrective action was neededî in the law school.
By contrast, Jews wrestled with the legitimacy of their complaint. Rita Goldberg, a Harvard lecturer in literature who opposed Paulinís appearance, tells The New Yorker she was ìreluctant to intrude on anyoneís right to free speech or free access. But … Paulinís vitriolic attacks have crossed a certain boundary between civilized discourse and something much more sinister.î
Harvard President Lawrence Summers, who made a famous speech against anti-Semitism last fall, says of Paulin, ìNo one is smart enough or wise enough to be censor.î Summers tells The New Yorker, ìAnytime one has an urge to censor something, one needs to think that there are plenty of people who thought advocacy of gay rights was a superb idea for censorship, that criticism of the Vietnam War … was a superb notion for censorship.î
Paulin presumably is vying for the same validation that eventually came to gays or Vietnamese peaceniks.
Yeshiva University has issues of academic freedom all its own. Naomi Schaefer writes in the Boston Globe (Jan. 26) that while religious colleges in the United States ìare producing graduates confident about bringing their faith into the mainstream, Yeshiva is moving strongly in the opposite direction.î
Its Modern Orthodox roots are threatened by a right-wing rabbinic faculty, she writes: Yeshiva is ìat war with itself.î
Says one former student in Schaeferís article: ìI would imagine that a lot of professors probably think weíre wasting our time in the morning [religious classes]. And a lot of the rabbis think weíre wasting our time in the afternoon.î
There is sometimes open hostility, with secular professors scolding a student for wearing tzitzit to class and a psychology professor teaching that ìpolytheistic religions are more advanced than monotheistic ones,î Schaefer reports.
YU is even witnessing a battle between the rabbis themselves.
A recent article in Yeshivaís undergraduate paper, The Commentator, noted that Yeshiva Chovevei Torah (YCT), a more liberal breakaway rabbinical school founded by YU faculty members Rabbi Avi Weiss and Rabbi Saul Berman in 1999, ìhas rooted itself as the institution of choice for the ëleft-wingí Orthodoxî and is beginning to ìlure studentsî from YUís rabbinical school.
The Commentator acknowledges that the new rabbinical schoolís pastoral training program ìis generally considered the superior of the two.î
According to the paper, YU leaders donít like the new school ìand the tactics employed are not always the most civil.î When one prominent Manhattan synagogue hired a rabbinic intern from YCT, YU President Rabbi Norman Lamm ìpressured the congregation to release him,î said The Commentator, and the YCT intern backed out.
Rabbi Yosef Blau, a spiritual guidance counselor at YU, took issue with the depiction of Yeshiva as increasingly ultra-Orthodox, telling The Jewish Week that YUís incoming president, Richard Joel, is not a rabbi and is currently president of Hillel, a cross-denominational organization ó hardly indicative of a YU trend toward ultra-Orthodoxy.
Further, Rabbi Blau explained that the division of students into right and left was not so hard and fast, as the college years are a time of change and growth and students might be one kind of Orthodox in the semester after returning from Israel, and another way a few semesters later.
However, the latest issue of The Commentator (Feb. 17) reports that some YU rabbis organized a Psalms vigil last December with more than 100 students to pray that Joel not become YUís president.
Commentator editor Zack Steit observes in his column that ìthe student body is polarized, and a large portion of Yeshiva has turned obediently to the right, marching lockstep to a tune that sounds eerily similar to the drumbeat of a charedi Yeshiva. Only this tune isnít emanating from a charedi Yeshiva. Itís coming from our own Beis Medresh [study hall].î
And yet, that internal tension may be a sign of a vibrant, thoughtful community. American Muslims donít have anything like it. In an earlier piece in The Wall Street Journal (Dec. 5), Schaefer found that there are 741 American colleges affiliated with every variety of religious group ó Jewish, Christian, Buddhist, Hindu, Russian Orthodox, Quaker ó but not even one Muslim school offers Islamic classes and a normative college curriculum.
The Western worldís reconciliation of religion and freedom is a process that religious colleges helped facilitate, writes Schaefer, but thatís something Muslims have yet to discover, not in America and not in the Arab world. n