Why I Won’t Be Appearing at the Brooklyn Commons on Wednesday

On Wednesday, as I announced in my last blog, I’m scheduled to appear on The Katie Halper Show, which is being broadcast live from the Brooklyn Commons. I’ve decided I can’t go on the show because of the venue.

Brooklyn Commons is the space that last month hosted Christopher Bollyn—an anti-Semite who seems to find a Jewish conspiracy wherever he turns, who can’t seem to speak of a crime or injustice in the world without saying the word “Jewish”—despite repeated requests from prominent progressives and leftists that Brooklyn Commons not do so. Though I knew of that controversy, I hadn’t made the connection to the venue when I agreed to come on Katie’s show. After it was pointed out to me, I asked Katie if we could move the show. When she said it couldn’t be moved, I told her I couldn’t do it.

I’m sure that many institutions and venues where I have spoken probably have hosted equally odious, if not more odious, speakers. Universities are the obvious example. And it seems that Brooklyn Commons, in addition to providing inexpensive, subsidized space to a variety of progressive groups, including many of my friends and comrades at Jacobinhosts the occasional speaker propounding a different view.

I’m making a more limited and personal decision here. This is a local venue, not far from where I live, that has come to be identified not as a free-speech zone, not as an academic seminar or university lecture series, but as a space for progressives. Bollyn is a vile anti-Semite. I am Jewish. I am also an anti-Zionist. I have long insisted that we must make a distinction between anti-Semitism and anti-Zionism. Because of my Judaism, and my anti-Zionism, I feel a special obligation not simply to denounce anti-Semitism, but also not to associate with it or with non-university-type institutions that cater to it or provide a platform for it. Particularly when those institutions were asked and provided every reason not to do that, and in response, could only proffer what seems like an ever-shifting and shady litany of excuses and excuse-making.

I tend to shy away from pro forma denunciations of faraway acts. I dislike the ritualized tsk-tsk-this-is-terrible-now-go-back-to-whatever-you-were-doing that we’re all called upon to perform against obvious and universally acknowledged wrongs like anti-Semitism or racism. But when an issue touches me in so many ways, when it is so close to home in every sense—geographically, politically, personally—I feel that I have no choice.

I want to be clear that I am speaking here for myself. This is not a criticism of Katie, for whom I have the greatest affection and respect and who I know has zero sympathy for Bollyn’s views, or of Jacobin or other organizations that have vigorously protested the hosting of Bollyn yet, for a number of practical reasons (cost being the most important), have elected to remain at Brooklyn Commons. I do not in any sense read their decision to remain as an endorsement of Bollyn or the decision to host him. I’m not trying to organize people or rally them to a cause; mine is more a personal than a political decision. I simply could not feel clean walking through those doors.

19 Comments

  1. Arad October 16, 2016 at 12:10 am | #

    You may be able to somehow separate your anti-Zionism from anti-Semitism, but the sordid reality is that virtually all anti-Zionism is antisemitic, certainly in its outcome and modus operandi but also in its intent. Yes, sure, there are exceptions and since we’re talking about millions (billions?) of anti-Israelis, you might even find a large number of non-antisemites. As a percentage, however, they are a distinct minority. Looking at the situation objectively and with integrity, you’d have to admit that you are one of the rare exceptions. Anti-Zionism is almost always antisemitic. Your gesture at Brooklyn Commons is notable, but unfortunately, your other activities connect you to antisemitism, however much that truth disturbs you.

    • Morton Brussel October 16, 2016 at 12:45 am | #

      Full of unverifiable statements here. Also, I think Corey is going “over the top”. He does not cite examples, details, that warrant his condemnation.

      • Corey Robin October 16, 2016 at 12:51 am | #

        Morton Brussel: If you click on the various links, you’ll see plenty of examples and details.

    • Bill Michtom October 16, 2016 at 3:08 am | #

      The idea that anti-Zionism is anti-Semitic is a canard most often used by Likud and its more and more fascist behavior and allies, including the attempts to make boycotting illegal in the US despite its protection as a first amendment freedom.

      As we learn in the Seder, Jews should think of ourselves as having personally come out of slavery. This inherently means identifying with the oppressed, an identification that can’t be reconciled with Israel’s oppression of Palestinians.

      Second, the Seder tells us that no one is free unless every one is free. This is not something reserved for Jews, but includes all people.

      Finally, as Jews, the Seder tells us we have an obligation to work for that universal freedom.

      Any state that is theocratic or ethnocentric is inherently oppressive. Arad should refer to Saudi Arabia, Iran, anti-LGBT regimes in Africa, and other oppressive national policies, including, unequivocally, Zionism.

      Arad should also note that his accusations are totally unsupported by ANY examples in his comment. Merely saying something does not make it so, and Arad depends on that, as so many Zionists do.

      • Arad October 16, 2016 at 5:55 am | #

        Silly accusations of “Likud” “fascism” etc. might impress some Juan Cole groupies, but many on Israel’s left consider forms of anti-Zionism to be bigotry against Jews. Here’s one source: http://www.newyorker.com/news/news-desk/the-e-u-vs-b-d-s-the-politics-of-israel-sanctions. You’d rather that this tiny country, that houses the oppressed and their descendants as a refuge and has a smaller population than Los Angeles, should stop being a refuge and allow itself to become another Lebanon or Syria. Or would you prefer Egypt or Saudi?

        Right now, despite its “ethnocentrism” it houses 25% non-Jews who have full voting rights, and is a home for Jews of all races and nationalities. The lesson of the Seder isn’t that Jews should allow themselves to be repressed by the likes of [choose and insert any Arab leader/group running every Arab state or territory] again, but rather that they should maintain their hard-won liberty. The cost of that liberty, by the way, is Israelis sending their children at risk of life and limb to defend against its enemies. To date, approximately 20,000 have died and probably 5 times that have been injured. That’s without counting terrorism victims. Yet, even after those losses and risks, and despite the fact that it is a country of refugees/ descendants (including 50% from Arab/ Muslim countries), demonstrating that Israel is the embodiment of the Seder story, you’d cynically claim the story means something different. Of course, you also ignore that the Yishuv agreed to compromise in ’37 and ’47 while Arabs refused. Then Israel offered peace, land and statehood in ’00, ’01 and ’08 only to be rebuffed by the Palestinians. Then Israel froze settlements in 2010 and released dozens of murderous terrorists in 2014 just to get the Palestinians to come to the negotiating table to find peace…and were rebuffed both times. So if finding a solution to “oppression” is the problem, guess who you should be targeting.

        • Gavolt October 17, 2016 at 4:05 pm | #

          “Many consider”… “forms” is a pretty big step back from “virtually all”.

  2. s. wallerstein October 16, 2016 at 7:39 am | #

    Good for you. Sometimes it’s sane to follow your heart rather than your head, even in politics.

  3. Orkman October 16, 2016 at 8:23 am | #

    “Virtually all anti-Zionism is antisemitic” is a fascist idea

  4. ronp October 16, 2016 at 12:48 pm | #

    Seems well thought out, though did you consider attending and at the start saying something about the venue and the previous speaker? Might reach more people that way?

  5. Roquentin October 16, 2016 at 1:38 pm | #

    You have to draw the line somewhere. Not that my opinion counts for much, but I respect your decision.

    I remember way back the the “Brooklyn Commons” was the “Brecht Forum” over on the west side of Manhattan. I saw John Gerassi speak there once. I stuck out like a sore thumb. I think they thought I was a cop. I raised my hand to ask a question about the book “Talking With Sartre,” comprised of old interview transcripts of Gerassi and the man himself back in the early 70s, which I had read cover to cover and the response was “Please tell me your name. I want to know who I am talking to.” Once I started talking and it was clear I had read it, they eased up pretty quick. I don’t recall ever going back. Gerassi died back in 2012 so it much have been quite a while ago. Where does all the time go?

  6. mark October 17, 2016 at 4:42 am | #

    “And yet it may be argued that if the Jews had not existed, they would have had to have been invented; the myth demanded for its consistency some cement that held it all together. The Jews had proved their usefulness as scapegoats in internal propaganda, for since some of them are poor and others rich, some conservative and some radical, any anti-Semitic movement can represent all other parties as ‘Jew-ridden’. The same is true on the international plane, for since Jews are scattered all over the globe they provided the unifying element that was still missing. Thus when Hitler attacked Russia without warning on 22 June 1941 he proclaimed, as you know, that he was ‘foiling the plot of Jewish Anglo-Saxon warmongers and the equally Jewish overlords of the Bolshevik Headquarters in Moscow’. It is this gigantic persecution mania, this paranoiac myth that holds the various strands of German propaganda together.” (Ernst Gombrich, ‘Myth and Reality in German Wartime broadcasts’, pp106-7, Ideals and Idols, 1979).

    “Sir Ernst Gombrich here collects various memorial lectures and memoirs of distinguished colleagues. He is a lecturer of high accomplishment – indeed I doubt if he has any serious rival in the shaping and illustration of an argument.” (21 June 1984 ‘Under threat’ Frank Kermode at the LRB).

  7. Phil October 17, 2016 at 10:48 am | #

    Leaving a young Jewish reporter out to dry…not sure it’s the most effective response to anti-Semitism.

  8. Frank Wilhoit October 17, 2016 at 12:27 pm | #

    So, the building should be torn down then? How reconsecrate the ground? Chemicals, or would some ritual suffice?

  9. Thomas L. Dumm October 17, 2016 at 3:31 pm | #

    I agree with your decision, Corey. I also appreciate that it was thoughtful, not necessarily easy. One of our temptations as teachers is to think we always can ‘splain” stuff. Sometimes it is better to explain by example. As for your interloculto being “hung out to dry,” I suspect you may have empowered her.

  10. Tom Shapiro October 17, 2016 at 4:31 pm | #

    It is never clear when we appear with or engage in dialogue with or even share the podium with an advocate for some point of view with which we deeply disagree that we signal affirmation for that persons legitimacy. Still, as loathsome as anti-Semitism is and as distinct as it clearly is from anti-Zionism, I am unclear why Brooklyn Common is personally contaminated for you by the previous appearance by the person you satanize. Does the contamination “wear off” in time? Can it be cleansed by some affirmatiive decontamination? How far from the site of the Commons does the contamination extend? Forgive me If I see glib. I understand and sympathize with your revulsion. But if Skokie Illinois’s Jews could continue to live there after the Supreme Court granted the right for skin-head Nazi Anti-Semites to march on main street, I expect you could speak at Brooklyn Commons without feeling personally polluted.

    • s. wallerstein October 17, 2016 at 4:37 pm | #

      There’s no standard or “sane” level of sensitivity. There are probably things that you are sensitive to that Corey has no problems with.

  11. lazycat1984 October 19, 2016 at 1:34 pm | #

    Seems a little silly to me. It’s like saying you can’t go to Mongolia because of Genghis Khan.

  12. theinternationalantifascistdefencefund December 18, 2016 at 12:27 pm | #

    Bravo. A commendable stance, Corey.

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