Thursday, October 22, 2009

A J Street Poetry Reading Cancelled: More on Poetry and the Politics of Israel/Palestine in the U.S

According to recent stories, a poetry reading as part of a J-Street conference, has been dropped because it was deemed to be too controversial. Reading the list of speakers at this conference, I see some familiar names and some not so familiar, of the peace and justice movements in Israel and Palestine, but none of the Arab/Palestinian or Jewish/Israeli poets in the U.S. who are writing and contributing to trying to bring about a just peace (Naomi Shihab Nye, most famously, among many others--see the anthology Inclined to Speak).

A bit of information about J Street, from their website, which is an attempt to move away from the AIPAC-centered model of Jewish activism in support of Israel, to represent more moderate voices of Jewish and pro-Israeli Americans:
J Street is the political arm of the pro-Israel, pro-peace movement.

J Street was founded to promote meaningful American leadership to end the Arab-Israeli and Israeli-Palestinian conflicts peacefully and diplomatically. We support a new direction for American policy in the Middle East and a broad public and policy debate about the U.S. role in the region.

J Street represents Americans, primarily but not exclusively Jewish, who support Israel and its desire for security as the Jewish homeland, as well as the right of the Palestinians to a sovereign state of their own - two states living side-by-side in peace and security. We believe ending the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is in the best interests of Israel, the United States, the Palestinians, and the region as a whole.

J Street supports diplomatic solutions over military ones, including in Iran; multilateral over unilateral approaches to conflict resolution; and dialogue over confrontation with a wide range of countries and actors when conflicts do arise. For more on our policy positions, click here.

J Street will advocate forcefully in the policy process, in Congress, in the media, and in the Jewish community to make sure public officials and community leaders clearly see the depth and breadth of support for our views on Middle East policy among voters and supporters in their states and districts. We seek to complement the work of existing organizations and individuals that share our agenda. In our lobbying and advocacy efforts, we will enlist individual supporters of other efforts as partners.

While J Street has a laudable and moderate goal, I am not feeling sanguine about Obama's approach to the Middle East, which may look different to Bush's in terms of its level of engagement (which is good), but is rehashing the familiar "peace process" mantra which has gone nowhere in years, and which essentially means that Israel will make further steps in erasing any future Palestinian state. In particular, there is little discussion within the charter for other than the "two-state solution," which seems almost moribund, given the nature of Israeli settlement of the West Bank.

This latest controversy is suggestive of the power of political poetry--and, perhaps, its dangers. What is so difficult, in peacework, is to balance the need to tell a truth, to bring the news, AND to articulate some way forward, to create bridges to some common future.

Here is the poet that brought about the furor, who was dropped from the conference; Kevin Coval's work is confrontational but articulated from a standpoint of a Jewish dissent from the policies of Israel toward Palestinians, and resembles much of performance poetry's agit-prop directness and righteous rage. This is the first I've heard of him, but reading a bit about his poetry, I'm a little surprised that I hadn't, since he appears on HBO's Def Comedy Jam and also has had poems in literary journals.

This is from's Ben Smith:

The Weekly Standard, still dogging J Street, notes that the author of "Queer Intifada" has been dropped from the schedule of the group's conference.

Also missing, the speaker above, Kevin Coval, who appears on a cached schedule, but has apparently, quietly, been deemed a bit off-key for the conference, now headlined by Jim Jones.

The video above is worth watching, casting Israel as, in a litany of metaphors, a "whore." And who knew people still performed spoken-word art about "imperialist warheads"?

UPDATE: A J Street spokeswoman emails over a statement from executive director Jeremy Ben-Ami:

"Over the weekend, J Street canceled the poetry session scheduled as part of the “Culture as a Tool for Change” track at its upcoming National Conference.

As a matter of principle, J Street respects the dissenting voice that poetry can represent in society and politics. We acknowledge that expression and language are used differently in the arts and artistic expression when compared to their use in political argumentation.

Nevertheless, as J Street is critical of the use and abuse of Holocaust imagery and metaphors by politicians and pundits on the right, it would be inappropriate for us to feature poets at our Conference whose poetry has used such imagery in the past and might also be offensive to some conference participants.

We are sorry for any distraction that this issue may cause for those interested in working with us to advance the cause of peace and security for Israel and the Middle East."

In short, poetry still has power, particularly poetry which deals with the painful realities of Israel/Palestine, and particularly when it employs imagery of the holocaust. But not only poetry. Another story in The Weekly Standard about another contributor to the J Street Conference, Helena Cobban, suggests that she, too, is beyond the pale in her use of Holocaust allusion.


Sarah Browning said...

Hi Phil,

You and your readers might like to know that Kevin Coval and the other disinvited poet Josh Healy are still planning to read in DC on Sunday. Here's the notice, below:


with Kevin Coval and Josh Healey

Sunday, October 25
Busboys and Poets, Langston Room
2021 14th St, NW (near U Street Metro station)
Washington, DC

This past week, Kevin Coval and Josh Healey were censored and un-invited from this weekend's J Street conference in D.C. as a result of attacks in various right-wing blogs and online magazines. In defiance of these McCarthyist attacks, and J Street's subsequent accommodation, Coval and Healey have decided to proceed with the original event.

They will share their poems and dialogue about Israel/Palestine, identity and justice, and (especially now) free speech. No longer part of the J Street gathering, this event is open to the whole community: conference attendees, artists, activists, youth, elders, Jews, Palestinians, gentiles, and anyone down to build.

Free event. All-ages, all are welcome.

For background on the situation, see:

For more info, contact

Philip Metres said...

Thanks for your note, Sarah. I hope people come to the reading.