I wanted to come back to a subject of my last post on Valdary, which discussed the political rhetoric I’d used to criticize her. I called her a “Negro Zionist” and Uncle Tom. I wasn’t surprised at the showering of lies and invective from the uber-Israelites. But I wasn’t prepared to have Phil Weiss, Scott Roth and Alex Kane of Mondoweiss chime in.
Most of the critics have little familiarity with the U.S. civil rights movement in the 1960s, the history of the era, or even basic racial terminology extant much more than a decade ago. To review, the word “Negro” was first championed by W.E.B. DuBois in the 1920s. Slate characterized his views thus:
W.E.B. Du Bois, following the lead of Booker T. Washington, advocated for a switch to Negro in the 1920s…Du Bois argued that the term was “etymologically and phonetically” preferable to colored or “various hyphenated circumlocutions.” Most importantly, the new terminology—chosen by black leaders themselves—symbolized a rising tide of black intellectual, artistic, and political assertiveness.
By the 1950s and 60s, it had become a mainstream, respectful reference to people of Color. It replaced “Colored” (eg., National Association for the Advancement of Colored People), which was deemed too patronizing a term and one that harkened back to an era of racial segregation and Jim Crow. Contrary to what some ignorant pro-Israel bloggers wrote, “Negro” is not “the N-word.” That is simply either lazy sloganeering or willful ignorance. The only connection between these two terms is that they each begin with “N.” One is a racial insult, the other is an archaism (since it is in limited use today), but not an insult.
“Negro” was embraced by Martin Luther King who used it a score of times in his momentous “I Have a Dream Speech” as term of respect. It also graces the United Negro College Fund. The Negro Leagues were where some of America’s great baseball players got their start. There are many older African-Americans who object to the latter term and prefer to refer to themselves as “Negro.” In fact, the U.S. Census Bureau retains a category, “Negro” out of respect for such feelings. A Northwestern University professor will deliver a talk next week, In the Arms of the Negress, which is described thus:
Prof. Copeland examines the negress, a key figure in western art from the nineteenth century to the present.
So either we should call these individuals racists in using such a term to describe themselves; or decry as racist non-minorities who use it, even though the term is used by minorities themselves. Either choice is patently absurd. Further, does this mean that a non-Jew employing sarcasm to make a political point can’t use the term ‘Heeb’ or ‘Jew boy,’ terms that are often used ironically and even positively by American Jews? My friend Jonathan Edelstein’s sorely missed blog, The Head Heeb and Heeb Magazine, are perfect examples. Of course, it depends on context. If the intent is anti-Semitic then the answer would be no. But if not, the answer must clearly be Yes. Except to the speech police at Mondoweiss.
“Negro” is a term that denotes a period of racial identity that has passed or is passing. Used today, the word conjures the sense of being separate or divorced from contemporary reality. It was in just such a sense that I associated Valdary with the word. She attempts to locate her pro-Israelism in a racial context, when it has everything to do with her evangelical Zionism, and nothing to do with race. Her Israel Lobby sponsors seek to tamp down the religious aspect of her “brand” and offer her as what I called a “Zionist of Color.”
I will not give the Lobby or Valdary a free pass in their exploitation of race (in her case), gender or sexual preference on Israel’s behalf. These are issues of personal identity and have nothing to do with Israel. My commitment to Israel has nothing to do with my skin color, my gender or my heterosexuality. Yet the Lobby chooses to exploit and highlight precisely those elements of Valdary’s identity and those of others like Hen Mazzig. It’s cynical.
Nor will I allow the Lobby or even the anti-Zionist left to foreclose my right to use the sharpest language possible to portray the hypocrisy of the pro-Israel community. This is no different than the Israel Lobby’s effort to foreclose opportunities to speak in the Jewish community as we’ve seen in the recent cases of Judith Butler and John Judis. I don’t care if terms like “Negro” rankle the far-right or far-left. They are my terms and I use them with pride as part of the rhetorical struggle for my values and ideas.
For Alex Kane to call the tweet “racist” and Mondoweis to favorite it on its popular Twitter account is dunderheaded and ignorant. It plays into the strategy of the far-right (where Alex Kane’s tweet has been widely quoted). It allows it to point fingers and drive a wedge between those on the left. Not to mention, Weiss and Kane are acting as left thought-police arbitrating what is acceptable and unacceptable rhetoric in political debate. The irony of this is, of course, that a bunch of white Jewish leftists are telling another less Jewish leftist (in their view) that he can’t use a term to describe members of another race, which members of that race themselves still use to describe themselves. It’s unseemly and just plain dumb. The Mondoweiss crowd have made clear their disdain for my views and I can now say it’s returned.
I’ve had my differences with Mondoweiss over the years, but I’ve never said so. While some of its reporting is useful, its analysis is generally shallow and artificial. It often has a cut and paste pastiche effect. But most importantly for me, I find the attitude toward Judaism and Jewish identity to be precious, alienated and artificial. As a result, whenever MW writes about any of these subjects it comes across as strangely deracinated. Phil himself has referred to this approach (though not to himself) as “tourism.” I sometimes feel like he’s slumming because he knows so little about Judaism and Jewish values. What he’s seeing he appears to either dislike or not understand.
But I’ve not expressed any of these feelings till now, because I believed it was more important to focus on what should be more important: fighting on behalf of a just solution to the Israeli-Arab conflict. But now that Alex Kane and company have thrown down the gauntlet with a tweet they favorited deriding my views and language, I no longer feel any such sense of solidarity.
I made several attempts to express my views to Weiss and Roth before writing this. Their responses were underwhelming, to say the least.
I submitted one piece to Alex Kane, who is an editor at Alternet. He rejected it. Now we have an idea why. I’m not a member of the super-left club. As Groucho Marx once famously said: “I wouldn’t join any club that would’ve have me for a member!”