March 4, 2005
Poetry, terror and political narcissismBy Alyssa A. Lappen
Poetry is a window on the human soul. But the politics of American poetry, in recent years have veered into more and more radical territory, as an increasing number of poets openly declare their allegiance with 'Palestine,' and implicitly, with terror. Academics with one foot in Middle Eastern Studies and another in literature and poetry are the prime conduits of this degrading development. A few names that come to mind are Tom Paulin, a literature lecturer at Oxford University, former New Jersey poet laureate Amiri Baraka, Marylin Hacker, and Alicia Ostriker at Rutgers University.
A prime example is Ammiel Alcalay, a tenured professor and former chair of Classical, Middle Eastern and Asian Languages and Cultures at City University of New York's Queens College. The author, editor or translator of at least nine literary, essay and poetry volumes, Alcalay has established himself as a fixture on the college speaking and poetry circuits, both realms that he vigorously exploits to disseminate sharply anti--American, anti--Israel and pro--Palestine views.
Born and raised in Boston, Alcalay, 48, is the son of Sephardic Jews from Bosnia. But his family background seems to have taught Alcalay nothing about the deficiencies of previous eras or the evils of communism. Not only does Alcalay seek a return to pre--democratic times, he wishes for a revolution such as outlined by French Marxist and anti--colonialist Frantz Fanon (1925--1961), author of Wretched of the Earth.
Nominally literary in discipline, Alcalay is, like his idol Edward Said, better described as a political narcissist, preoccupied with his own role as arbiter of radical politics and the arts. As such, he is the true interpreter and defender of 'memory.' ''Terrorists' hijack planes but 'ideologues,' in the form of states and other acceptably licensed power structures, hijack a people's collective memory, or at least make the attempt,' Alcalay writes in a review of Said's After the Last Sky, in his own vainglorious attempt to nullify Israel's independence and statehood.
But the converse is actually true: intellectual hijacking is Alcalay's specialty. In November 2002, for example, he discussed political poetry and the 'politicization of studies' at Cornell University--within the context of a shameless diatribe against 'the normative narrative of Israel and Zionism,...remarkable, remarkable...[American] ignorance' and 'lack of any sense of empathy, solidarity, sympathy' with the Arab Middle East. For Alcalay, as it was for Said, the intellectual's true role is opposing all forms of power and every status quo, unless those have to do with the favored 'Other.'
Alcalay's overriding need to sympathize with Arabs requires such a myopic focus on 'dissent' and 'resistance' that he never clearly articulates what, exactly, must be resisted. Everything must be criticized, and the pervasive negativity therefore appeals only to a limited, predisposed clientele. Rather, like his friend and mentor, Stanford professor Joel Beinin, Alcalay casts stones readily at America, both of our own day, and of the past. In the present, Alcalay opposes the wars on terror and in Iraq. Thus, in February 2003, he coordinated an anti--war New York poetry event at which he lambasted President Bush, the war in Iraq, and Israel --and implored the audience to advance pro--Arab platforms at future literary and academic events. He continues to count himself among 100 Poets Against the War.
At the same 2003 event, Alcalay's honored guests included Lebanese novelist Elias Khoury, who compared Israeli soldiers to Nazis, and International Solidarity Movement organizer Rebecca Murray, who took the opportunity to extol a suicide bomber. ISM has since been still more clearly connected with the Islamist movement. At the time Alcalay said he could not improve upon their remarks. It is no small irony that Alcalay is the co--organizer of a series of Human Rights lectures at Queens College.
Like Beinin, Alcalay denigrates Israel at every available turn. In 2002, he signed a letter of solidarity with radical colleagues who support violence against Israel. The next year, he promoted Gisele Halimi, a 'very prominent French human rights lawyer and feminist,' who had just signed on to defend terrorist Marwan Barghouti in Israel.
He also appealed to poets to go to Israel to 'bear witness' with ISM, and to support the causes of al--Awda, or Right of Return, and Stop U.S. Tax--Funded Aid to Israel Now. Al--Awda is a U.S. non--profit group aimed at Israel's political annihilation, while SUSTAIN seeks to halt U.S. aid to Israel but ignores much greater taxpayer largess distributed to a host of Arab nations over time.
His books, too, continually poke and jab at Israel and Zionism: Alcalay recognizes, for example, that Arab regimes expelled the Jews, which allowed them to 'confiscate a substantial amount of wealth and property' while manipulating 'the Jewish question... as a scapegoat to mask their own inert rhetoric, indifference, and lack of resolve....' Yet he blames Israel and the Jewish people for the anti--Semitism of Arab governments. Zionism alone, he claims, defeated other ideas that once cut 'across ethnic lines and religious differences.' Zionism defeated 'any genuine tolerance that the older, more traditional generation might once have possessed.' The net effect: Alcalay promotes a mythical tolerance that never existed.
For every cut at Israel, Alcalay also adds a nostalgic boost for the imaginary peace and harmony of 13th century Andalusia. He pines for late medieval centuries-- five hundred years before democracy, and three hundred before European capitalism. According to Alcalay and Janet Abu--Lughod, this was an era when 'a number of coexisting 'core' powers,' including Islam, 'via both conflictual and cooperative relations, became increasingly integrated....' That historians have shown this imagined idyll never existed is of little importance. For Alcalay as for others a manufactured falsehood is a better guide to the future.
Little of this would matter if Alcalay did not have increasing influence in the literary world. But his work has become the focus of like--minded leftist writers such as Anne Waldman and Joe Safdie, who also use their poetry as politics, rather than art. Alcalay regularly consults with trustees and coordinating committees of literary events and organizations. In 2003, he helped the Islamic World Arts Initiative organize a panel of Arab Muslim writers at the People's Poetry Gathering in New York, which he moderated that April. He translates and writes for the New Yorker and The Nation, and often speaks at other colleges and universities. And he has been personally funded by the prestigious Poets and Writers, Inc.
Despite his limitations as an historian, artist and thinker, Alcalay's connections within the literary community are extremely wide. Alcalay sits on the national advisory council of Beyond Baroque, a Venice Beach book publisher and literary group funded by the Annenberg Foundation, Poets and Writers, Inc., the City of Los Angeles Cultural Affairs Department and the LA Council on the Arts Commission, among others. He offered his pro--Arab stance at a Duke University conference entitled Oceans Connect. He helps to set priorities for the contents of Naropa University's Audio Preservation and Access Project, an archive of readings by America's most important poets. And he's a trustee of the Levantine Cultural Center, a Los Angeles arts center that purports to build a 'bridge of understanding linking the many cultures of the Levant----from Morocco in the west to Afghanistan to the east.'
In reality, however, Alcalay and the radical left literary cliques promote an anti--American and anti--Israeli ecology in the academic and art worlds. By bridging academia and art and drawing on the most dramatically biased strains of Middle Eastern Studies, Alcalay and his type draw together extreme leftist sharks and deliberately encourage misunderstanding, misapprehension and anarchy. Is this really the kind of education that public, taxpayer--funded universities and parents should have to pay for? And is this the kind of poetry that will be of any interest even a year from now, much less for the ages?
Alyssa A. Lappen wrote this for Campus Watch, a project of the Middle East Forum designed to critique Middle East Studies at North American universities, with a view to improving them.
1. Gross, Tom, 'Living in a Bubble,' National Review Online, Jun. 18, 2004; Paulin, Tom, 'On Being Dealt the anti--Semitic Card,' The Guardian, Jan. 8, 2003.