An open letter to my friend, Matt Brim, the new director of CLAGS (The Center for Lesbian and Gay Studies at CUNY) about antisemitism on campus in the wake of the Hamas-Israel war
World AIDS Day Reflection by Lawrence D. Mass, co-founder of Gay Men’s Health Crisis and the first to write about AIDS in the press.
Matt Brim is a light of the LGBTQ+ community. He is the author of an acclaimed book, poor queer Studies: confronting elitism in the university, and was a good friend and colleague of my deceased life partner, Arnie Kantrowitz, at the College of Staten Island. There, Arnie was a pioneer of gay studies with initiatives Matt championed. And at CSI, when Arnie passed away, Matt co-hosted a memorial service.*
Matt has gone on to become the new director of the Center for Gay and Lesbian Studies (CLAGS) at CUNY. He and I had been in discussion about bequests to CLAGS when the Hamas-Israel war broke out. Shortly thereafter, Matt was signatory to a petition that circulated on campus called “Palestine & Praxis: Scholars for Palestinian Freedom.”
Though it made worthy and valid points about Palestinian culture and oppression, it was, as might be anticipated in the current onslaught of student protests, heavily slanted in seeing the current conflict through familiar progressive paradigms of colonialism, occupation and oppression. It’s message was clear. Ending the occupation would end the greater and wider historical, world-affecting conflict.
The petition mentions Israeli “land grabs,” “brute force,” “territorial thefts,” “racial supremacy” of “Jewish-Zionist nationals,” “military aggression,” “settler colonial state power,” support of BDS (Boycott, Divest, Sanction) and “intersectional oppression and transnational liberation movements.”
Nowhere, however, is there any mention of antisemitism nor of the Hamas civilian atrocities that ignited the current conflict. For anyone who might question its perspective, the petition makes the following observation:
“The attempts to transform the conversation on Israeli state violence to a series of stale talking points about Hamas rockets reflect the thorough dehumanization of Palestinians and the abject disregard for Israeli military aggression.” `
*Arnie Kantrowitz (11/26/1940–1/21/22), author of the classic Under The Rainbow: Growing Up Gay, and a cofounder of GAA and GLAAD, would have turned 83 over this last Thanksgiving. Of his place in gay culture and history, Bill Goldstein, who is currently working on the authorized biography of Larry Kramer, wrote:
“With his activism and his writing and teaching, Arnie made history, and he also makes knowing and writing our history possible. There’s a direct line from his activism, his teaching and his writing — the achievement of Under the Rainbow and his re-interpretation and resurrection of a literary history that might otherwise have continued unseen — to today, and he points the way to confronting tomorrow’s challenges.”
My Open Letter to Matt follows.
In this moment past remembering Arnie, and as we cling to hope for extensions of fragile ceasefires in the Hamas-Israel war, I think I need to back away from attending, as I had planned, the CLAGS Kessler award program 12/7.
Despite the differences discussed in our earlier exchanges, I’ve wanted to remain participatory and supportive. In the wake of ongoing tensions and anti-Israel activism on campus, much of it bullyingly antisemitic in omission as well as commission, however, I’ve had to rethink that decision.
Actually, concerns about the intersection of antisemitism with anti-zionism go way back at CLAGS and with me personally in what’s now my 45 year friendship with CLAGS founder Martin Duberman and my earlier friendship with Marty’s old Yale colleague, historical gay psychiatry figure David Kessler, the benefactor behind the Kessler award at CLAGS.
While Arnie and I were both critical of far-right actions in Israel under the leadership of Benjamin Netanyahu, especially those giving free passes to Islamophobic, marauding settlers and threatening civil rights for all Israelis, and while we both remained deeply troubled and saddened by Israel’s occupation of Palestinian territories and were hopeful of a two-state solution, we were similarly troubled by the Robin Hood mentality that condones Islamic extremism as inevitable and righteous resistance, so much of it not simply anti-Israel, but grossly antisemitic; and much worse — reveling in war-criminal atrocities, all of it under the ruse of righteousness in being not antisemitic but “anti-zionist.” Making that distinction and placing it in the context of colonialism became a pro-forma defense that pro-Palestinian protesters scarcely bother with now.
As in the Reign of Terror in the French Revolution, more recently in the Rwandan genocide of the Tutsi by the Hutu, and the communist-ideological genocide of Pol Pot in Cambodia (for which Henry Kissinger — “the lecherous, treacherous, power-mad Jew of historical antisemitism,” as I’ve described his portrayal in the opera, Nixon in China* — somehow got all the blame), all Jews are being seen in aggregate as they’ve always been seen in the tropes of historically recurrent, malignant antisemitism — as wealthy, privileged aristocrats — and are being collectively targeted by the overt bigotry, violence and intoxication unleashed in the current revolutionary moment.
Where in all this and in its recent history is the voice of concern from the left — and from CLAGS — about Islamic extremism in relation to antisemitism and about antisemitism historically? Does it not occur to Jewish people of the left who are complicit with vehemently anti-Israel indictment and condoning of extremist retaliation that they would likely end up like Robespierre and his allies, rounded up and sent to the scaffold as “enemies of the people” — for “treason” by association or ideological misstep — by the militant forces they’re empowering?
“But I’m not one of those people,” goes the psychology. “I’m a good righteous Jew who believes in justice and am with you in indicting the bad Jews who aren’t.” Would Hamas and Iran likely agree? In the bigger picture of leftist apologism for the authoritarianism that is front and center of every communist and theocratic regime past and present, would such a defense be likely effective in their kangaroo courts?
While there is a powerful case to be made for peace and nonviolence as the right path to justice, to which the legacies of Dr. Martin Luther King, Mohandas Gandhi and Nelson Mandela attest, like-minded partners are needed for that. Meanwhile, the partners the good Jews of the left keep backing for guardianship of the henhouse are all foxes.
As for the priorities of LGBTQ+ Jews of the left, while leading pro-Palestinian liberationist Judith Butler (they/them) have been signatory to some petitions of concern almost nobody knows about on fronts regarding harsh anti-minority policies in Iran and Russia, where is the clear, bold outcry of the kind Butler has consistently been on the front lines of in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, against Russia’s virulently antigay policies and its war of aggression and genocide in Ukraine, and of Iran’s brutal suppression of women? Why is the focus of leftist protest so hugely and lopsidedly on Israel?
Are people of the left generically antisemitic? Neither Arnie nor I, who self-identified as liberal centrists, even as “liberal” has become an epithet, was ever able to answer that question with certainty. Despite the prominence of Jews in academic social circles, however, neither of us could help not seeing the answer to that question as indeed verifying of this disturbing generalization. For this reason, we were never on board as supporters of BDS (Boycott, Divest, Sanction). We never bought indictments of “pinkwashing” as being more than a whitewashing of and apologism for Islamic extremism. And we took issue with Tony Kushner when, in a Prayer of AIDS Day (2012), he called for:
“…a cure for AIDS. For racism too. For homophobia and sexism, and an end to war, to nationalism and capitalism, to work as such and to hatred of the flesh…”
But not an end to antisemitism? And for that matter, Islamophobia? Like Larry Kramer and Judith Butler, Tony Kushner could be articulate about dead Jews and antisemitism. But when it came to discussing antisemitism today, they were/are characteristically reticent to the extent of silence.
Where are the calls on the left for greater accountability of all extremism, in all lands, of all terrorism, fascism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia, antisemitism, Islamophobia, war criminality and genocidalism?
In its entry on “Calls for the destruction of Israel,” Wikipedia notes the following:
“There have been explicit or implicit expressions, statements, and rhetoric made by individuals, political entities, and factions within Arab, Islamic, Palestinian or far left-wing discourse advocating for the elimination or annihilation of the State of Israel as a political entity. These calls often involve the use of strong language, genocidal threats, or declarations aiming at the complete eradication of Israel from the region. Such expressions may be manifested in official statements, speeches, charters, or public discourse, reflecting a position that denies the legitimacy of Israel’s existence and seeks its removal through various means, including military action or other forms of political and ideological resistance.”
The issue of antisemitism in authoritarian societies — many of which are Islamic and apologized for as cultural heritage with token criticism by people of the left — has been a notable absence at CLAGS since its inception. The reasons for this aren’t entirely clear but for the Jews who can seem to predominate in these protests, it suggests a version of the Stockholm syndrome as a fallout from the Holocaust of World War 2 within a much vaster history of antisemitism, a literalization of the primitive psychiatric defense mechanism known as “identification with the aggressor.”
In this psychological process, there’s a psychopathological absence of empathic feeling for the self, from shame and a failure of self-acceptance and self-affirmation at the expense of introjecting a shamingly threatening aggressor (usually a parent figure).
It comes as no surprise that many Jewish leftists now feel betrayed by the ferocity of a new tidal wave of antisemitism that can’t help but seem to include them and in fact does. They thought their “brave” and enthusiastic support of leftist and Islamic calls for Israel’s destruction assured their own place and security in a new order where none of that could matter.
In such thinking, leftist Jews become more similar to than different from hard-right Jewish Republicans in their unconscious, tacit belief that their political stands and associations will save them from the fate of “bad Jews.” In a more purely socialist or authoritarian order, there will no longer be antisemitism, right? That it hasn’t quite turned out that way is a reality all Jews, those of the left as well as those of the right, are now finding it harder to evade.
The many Jewish sponsors and participants who are currently passively signatory with CLAGS to partisan edicts that fully exculpate Hamas in the current conflict should reconsider their silence and reticence. It’s by no means only for AIDS activists that the phrase silence = death is pertinent. Lest we forget, silence = death was inspired by the silence of the world — including, as Hannah Arendt noted, Jews ourselves — in the face of the onslaught of Hitler and Nazism. What Jews needed, Arendt implied, was a lot more protest and leaders. Bold, outspoken activists like Larry Kramer.
Larry Kramer, however, while insightfully and soulfully Jewish, and a champion of human rights generically, was never that leader when it came to Jews per se. For all his “Jewishness” in fact, Larry’s experience and acknowledgment of antisemitism in his own life and times, and ours, was virtually nil, something I was and remain alone in commenting on.
In a recent interview with Amy Goodman on Democracy Now!, Judith Butler was partisan and incendiary in repeatedly accusing Israel of “genocide” against the Palestinians. Acknowledging their own “Jewish” concern for justice, something most of us recognize as a legitimate claim — what we, beyond my qualifiers here, appreciate in Larry Kramer, Tony Kushner and Sarah Schulman— and qualifying briefly and dispassionately that they are not necessarily in agreement with all the military tactics of Hamas, their inability to talk from their own heart, to be real about antisemitism, except to note that they are often accused of it, was for me the most troubling takeaway of what Butler had to say.
What does Butler imagine Arendt would think of Israel today, the always intelligent and engaging Goodman asked in her final question. Butler seemed self-assured that Arendt would never have supported a society or government such as that of Israel that sanctions dominion over others, and that such a setup would be mired in conflict indefinitely.
But Goodman’s question lingers. Would Arendt have endorsed Judith Butler, someone who in essence is arguing for Jews and Israel to give up their claimed need for self-defense?
Genocide is a word that can legitimately stoke our deepest emotions. When Larry Kramer and ACT UP repeatedly hammered this most incendiary of accusations to indict the Reagan administration and the wider world with it, it was very powerful. But also troubling. It was, however and in any case, surpassingly and epochally effective for a crisis that needed drastic confrontation. Both Larry and ACT UP deserve and retain supreme credit for that, even as this weapon they were wielding and the ways in which they wielded it were always questionable and unstable.
Notwithstanding its now almost reflexive yet still often effective use today to describe conflicts of every stripe and degree, concerns about exploitation and abuse of the term “genocide” remain. There are instances where intentions of genocide, such as those Hitler publicly declared — as did Iran’s former prime minister Ahmed Ahmedinejad regarding Israel at the UN and repeatedly on the broadest public stages — are explicit and proffered with extreme rage, force and consequence.
In Revolutionary France, the most powerful accusation you could render against someone is identical to that which Donald Trump envenoms every time he opens his mouth: “enemy of the people.” Is that who Judith Butler, so skilled with vocabulary, rhetoric and performativity, has become?
When all was said and done, Butler, who Matt cited in his correspondence with me as an examplar of Jewish presence and consciousness in the history of CLAGS, is clearly at great pains to demonize Israel while exonerating Hamas. Meanwhile, that the leadership of Iran, the power behind Hamas, is genocidally committed to Israel’s destruction, a commitment that has been explicit and boiling over as such for decades, goes unmentioned.
Where is that reality in Butler’s discussion? Why is there no discussion of the history of genocidal aggression against Jews Hamas was repeating with its monstrous Oct 7 offensive?
In all their rhetoric about how Arab/Islamic/Palestinian life is devalued in Israel, clearly, there are large numbers of people who are much closer to Butler and the rest of us in great sympathy for the Palestinians and their plight. In view of the intractability of the extremes of both sides, why isn’t Butler calling for more willing and reliable Islamic partners to work with Israel to end its apartheid occupation? Why isn’t there a call for an Islamic Nelson Mandela to help these increasingly genocidal conflagrations get to a better place of resolution?
Even if one blames Israel for everything, as the left collectively and reflexively does, why not be more explicit in seeking more equitable partnership from Islamic governments and their representatives? The answer to that, I can’t help but sense, is within this psychology of identification with the aggressor.
CLAGS, together with all of us, must demonstrate sobriety, balance and courage in calling out prejudice, fascism, terrorism, extremism and oppression wherever they emerge. Having a lot of Jewish names on the donor and participants lists isn’t enough. In a sense, slapping the word colonial on everything in a university setting seems especially inexcusable because it’s not scholarly. As scholars should be the first to remind us, not every political development can be crammed into easy paradigms and envenomed terminologies.
That Israel can be seen as colonialist is not an invalid perspective. But to not see Israel’s defense of itself in a much bigger context of genocidal antisemitism is hostile, revisionist and irresponsible. And if the model for understanding Israel and the Palestinians continues to be the colonialist apartheid history of South Africa, then we must hope for and actively seek a Nelson Mandela to lead the way forward.
Why be so confrontational? Because it’s important to take stock of what we’ve learned, especially on this day of AIDS Remembrance (World AIDS Day, 12/1/23), from the history of AIDS and the example of Larry Kramer, ACT UP and Hannah Arendt, who Larry so admired: that silence does indeed equal death.
Yesterday, I observed World AIDS Day by attending a modest, lovely event at the LGBTQ+ Center, where Chris Bram and others read from Allen Barnett’s The Body and Its Dangers, a new edition of which is now out. It was a small gathering of perhaps 15–20. Barnett’s gallows humor about AIDS and death remains priceless and consoling. There was laughter and tears. I felt warm and at home there. So much so that I didn’t wince, leave or even mention it to the good friends I was with when a statement of support for besieged Palestinians was read ahead of the proceedings. Though brief and otherwise measured, it urged us all to press for a cease-fire in “Israel’s collective punishment of Palestinians.”
For me, what that’s saying is what the Palestine and Praxis petition was saying: that concerns about antisemitism and civilian defense in Israel are at best moot and irrelevant; that there is only one surpassing perspective to be had by those committed to social justice: that Israel is the enemy of the people here and that its campaign of vengeance must stop.
Meanwhile, where is there comparably self-righteous rallying for justice from voices of the Left in response to Putin’s war of aggression, war criminality and atrocity in Ukraine following those in Syria, and his increasingly Nazioid assaults on press freedom and LGBTQ+ rights, or in response to Iran’s murderous crackdown on its uprisings of women?
There are brave ripostes to these police state dictatorship abuses from our ranks — e.g., from Masha Gessen,** who has now been placed on Putin’s lists of enemies of the state. But since Ann Northrop led Queer Nation activists in protests at the Metropolitan Opera of Putin’s antigay policies in Russia, where is the call for a BDS movement and protest demonstrations against Russia and Iran on campus, in front of embassies and elsewhere?
In the absence of more opening up and equitability on these fronts, and a more reliable sense of security that I will not become unwittingly party to sentiments and associations that betray my deepest values and concerns, to say nothing of growing concerns for physical safety in campus and other protest settings, I will need, at least selectively and for now, to keep more distance from these events, notwithstanding my wanting to cheer and pay tribute to E. Patrick Johnson for his richly deserved Kessler award, and to see friends and colleagues like this year’s award presenter, LGBTQ+ historian George Chauncey, CLAGS founder Marty Duberman, now in his 90’s, and many other friends and colleagues, old and new.
Like you and with you, I will do my best to remain hopeful for better times, and retain my willingness and commitment to work for them.
Sincerely, and With Best Wishes,
*See “Beckmesser, Kissinger and the Klinghoffer Controversy” on Huffington Post and in On The Future of Wagnerism by Lawrence D. Mass
** Gessen has encountered controversy for recently comparing Gaza to the Warsaw Ghetto in their New Yorker piece, “In the Shadow of the Holocaust: How the politics of memory in Europe obscures what we see in Israel and Gaza today” (The New Yorker, 12/9/23)
Lawrence D. Mass, M.D., is the author/editor of We Must Love One Another Or Die: The Life and Legacies of Larry Kramer