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The senior curator of a large art gallery that is currently putting together an exhibit of my photographs said a curious thing to me recently. “I want you to know we’re okay on your exhibit, we’re on track, but several of our usual Jewish contributors have turned us down flat because, they say, you’re an anti-Semite and they won’t underwrite an exhibit by an anti-Semite.”
“This is crazy,” I said to the guy. “I’m a Jew from Brooklyn.”
“Yes,” he said, “but you invited Norman Finkelstein to give a talk and you cannot be forgiven for that.”
“I never invited Norman Finklestein to give a talk. I never met Norman Finkelstein. The Palestinian students invited him and asked me if I’d contribute $200 to his transportation. I said yes. I say yes to every student group that asks me for help like that.”
“No difference,” the guy said. “As far as they’re concerned you invited Norman Finkelstein and he should not be allowed to talk anywhere and you helped him do it.”
“What’s the First Amendment all about?” I said.
“They don’t care about that,” he said.
A week later, a friend called to say he’d been at a dinner in another art gallery where a prominent Buffalo attorney had attacked me without pause for fifteen minutes. The attack came up because I’d had two exhibits in that gallery in the previous two years, something about which the attorney still seethed. I’ve never met that attorney. What he was raging about, the friend said, was that I’d invited Norman Finkelstein to Buffalo and I had disparaged Israel in print.
The disparagement he had in mind, so far as I can tell, was a Counterpunch article in which I reported on Israeli artillery killing two giraffes and a zebra in the only zoo in the Palestinian territory. There was never
any dispute about the artillery attack or the deaths of the animals; my crime, as far as this attorney was concerned, was that I had reported it.
About four years ago the dean and provost of my university got a letter from an organization in Los Angeles suggesting I be investigated for anti-Semitism because of the same article in Counterpunch and the Finkelstein visit. A blessed coincidence. Not long after, the chair of one of the departments in the university’s school of Architecture said at a public meeting that the people responsible for Finkelstein’s visit had committed “blood libel” because letting him speak was a betrayal of Israel and the people responsible for his visit should be expunged from the university. I was in the room. I heard this idiot say that. He was looking right at me when he said it.
In the past, I’ve taught in the school of Architecture. When I tried to do it again a year or so ago I was totally stonewalled. My first two emails to the dean were ignored. He and I know one another well; it’s not like I was a stranger knocking at the door. The third, in which I asked if this anti-Semitism business was the reason for the silence, was answered by the dean with complete fluff.
What the fuck has happened?
When I was a little kid, growing up in Brooklyn, Israel was the land of hope and truth. It was those little blue boxes in all the stores into which you deposited your spare change. The money would go for trees, for bringing water where it wasn’t. It was the place for getting away from everything that had gone wrong in Europe, starting over, doing it right, doing it decently.
Now Israel is the place that maintains a blockade of the people whose land it has stolen and counts imported calories so the UN won’t be able to say the blockade amounts to a war crime. Now it is a place that wants us to start a third war in the Middle East. Now people who report on what Israel does are attacked not for telling lies, but for telling the truth, or for helping people say what they think.
They did kill those giraffes and that zebra in the Palestinian zoo. People like Norman Finkelstein do have a right to speak. The First Amendment is the Amendment the Founders put first for a very good reason: if you shut people up, none of the other rights matter because we never get to talk or hear about them. The advocates of Israel are the last people who should be demanding silence and punishing the users of honest words.
I’m not the anti-Semite. They are. I know what my tradition is all about. It is a tradition that treasures words. I’m proud of it. And I want my goddamned nickels back.
Bruce Jackson is SUNY Distinguished Professor and James Agee Professor of American Culture at University at Buffalo. He is author or editor of 33 books, the most recent of which is In This Timeless Time: Living and Dying on Death Row in America (University of North Carolina Press and Center for Documentary Studies, 2012), written in collaboration with Diane Christian. President François Hollande of France recently appointed him Chevalier in the National Order of Merit.