Jewish World Review Oct. 8, 2002 / 2 Mar-Cheshvan 5763

Clarence Page

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Consumer Reports

Poet laureate hater fell for Internet hoax | Poet laureate of New Jersey? No, that is not a punch line for a joke. Be nice.

New Jersey has given the world numerous noteworthy poets-Walt Whitman, William Carlos Williams and Allen Ginsberg, just for starters. The New Jersey Turnpike has a rest stop named for Joyce Kilmer.

It is the home state of Bruce Springsteen and Queen Latifah, just to name two of the state's great poets who also happen to be alive.

And I am sure that the Garden State's Gov. James E. McGreevey wishes he had named one of them to be the state's poet laureate back in July, instead of the proud New Jerseyian whom he did appoint, Amiri Baraka.

McGreevey is asking Baraka to step down. Some passages in "Somebody Blew Up America," a poem which he read at a festival in September, smacked of anti-Semitism.

The rambling six-page poem included the incendiary assertion that someone "told 4,000 Israeli workers at the Twin Towers to stay home" on Sept. 11, 2001, because they knew of the terrorists' plot in advance. It also implied that Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon stayed away from New York City that day for the same reason.

Both of those assertions popped up on the Internet shortly after the Sept. 11 attacks and it is important to note that each has been thoroughly debunked. No one has even turned up evidence that anywhere near 4,000 Israelis were employed in the World Trade Center, let alone warned.

However, there is ample evidence that the thousands who died that day included people of many races and religions, including Jews and Muslims. There also is ample evidence that Osama bin Laden is principally responsible for that tragedy and, if he's still alive, quite proud of it.

So, where did this magical-sounding "4,000 Israelis" yarn come from? Baraka says he got it from the Internet. Well, duh. He is probably one of those people who disbelieves what he hears in the major "media" but believes everything he sees on the Internet. Or, at least, everything that agrees with his appetite for the unusual.

A piece by Assistant Editor Bryan Curtis last October traced the bogus "4,000 Israelis" report to Lebanon's Al-Manar Television. The Web site claims it was licensed in 1997 to "stage an effective psychological warfare with the Zionist enemy." At least, you can't say that Al-Manar TV doesn't put its biases right up front.

Yet, relayed to numerous other off-beat Web sites and innumerable e-mailboxes, Al-Manar's "psychological warfare" appears to have snared Baraka, among many others.

But, some people believe what they want to believe. Baraka, who, as one observer put it, "ain't one of your polite Negro poets." He came to fame as the angry and often-brilliant poet-playwright LeRoi Jones in the 1960s. Unfortunately, he does not always allow facts (or a lack of them) to get in the way of a good rant.

When he read the poem at the festival, some people booed. The festival's director, Jim Haba, told reporters later that Baraka apologized to him and cut the lines when he recited the poem again later that day.

But Baraka was not the least bit apologetic last week as he defied the governor's call for him to resign. "It is a poem that aims to probe and disturb, but there is not any evidence of anti-Semitism," he said.

Indeed, Baraka knows some anti-Semitism when he sees it. He correctly pointed out that his poem (I found the entire text at also condemns those who "put the Jews in ovens" and those "who helped them do it," including those who "said 'America First'" as they "ok'd the yellow stars."

But I wonder how Baraka would feel if, say, a Jewish poet asserted that a Muslim network had warned 4,000 black workers to stay home on that fateful day? Might he call that racist? Or would he tell those of us, his fellow African Americans, who were outraged by it to just chill out? Would he remind us that, hey, it's only art?

In short, our right to shake people up through the written word is a precious one, too precious to be abused in our pursuit of the truth by a careless confusion of facts with rumors.

Either way, Baraka's two-year term and $10,000 honorarium apparently cannot be rescinded under state law and, in the interests of free speech, it should not be.

Legislators who want to change the law retroactively may well find that making a free-speech martyr of Baraka is more trouble than it is worth.

Instead, they should just avoid inviting him to read any more poems.

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