Brooklyn Commons is continuing to resist calls from a very wide swath of the New York City progressive community to cancel the talk to be held at their site this week by the notorious anti-Semite and right-wing conspiracy theorist, Christopher Bollyn.
Following in the footsteps of Busboys and Poets in Washington, DC, which immediately cancelled the event once they found out about who the speaker really is, the Unitarian Society of Hartford also cancelled a scheduled appearance by Bollyn. As with B&P, they simply rented the venue for a talk and had no idea who Bollyn is; he is not, after all, a particularly prominent person. They’re to be commended for acting swiftly once the matter was brought to their attention, as was the case in Washington.
All of this makes the inaction of Brooklyn Commons all the more shameful. But perhaps “inaction” is the wrong word to use here. Brooklyn Commons did take some action. They changed the wording of the advertisement on their site for Bollyn’s talk. They took out the trigger word “cabal” and removed some language about the “Zionists” controlling the government and media. In other words, whereas in Washington and Hartford the response to discovering their venue was hosting a rabid anti-Semite was to cancel his talk, the site in BROOKLYN of all places, responded by trying to whitewash (a very appropriate word here) the hate speech they were giving a platform to.
At this writing, Brooklyn Commons has not responded directly to the issue with any statement. This is particularly concerning given that a number of local left-wing groups who operate out of Brooklyn Commons signed on to a letter calling for the cancellation of the Bollyn event.
On the one hand, as I mentioned in my first piece on this issue, the Commons’ refusal to refuse their venue to a known anti-Semite is a symptom of the tone-deafness about anti-Semitism we sometimes see on the left. But the response to this issue also shows that, even if that tone-deafness is a significant issue, it remains the exception, rather the rule (as some would claim) on the left. The quick response from the Unitarians and the management and founder of Busboys and Poets is one indication of the abhorrence most progressives feel about anti-Semitism, even if they need a bit of education in how to be vigilant about it. Even more indicative is the letter sent to
Brooklyn Commons that I mentioned above. It was initiated by the Brooklyn Institute for Social Research and signed by such groups as Jacobin Magazine, WBAI-FM, The Marxist Education Project, FUREE and the Indypendent. That’s a pretty far left bunch, the very place anti-Semitism is supposed to flourish.
It’s also a good time to recall that the campaign by some (by no means all) pro-Israel forces to conflate sharp criticism of Israel with anti-Semitism creates a situation where it is not easy for non-Jews to immediately recognize anti-Semitism, and one that makes it difficult for them to distinguish between anti-Semitism and anti-Zionism. In this case, Bollyn’s own promotional materials should have been a tip-off, so this doesn’t let anyone off the hook. Still, forces defending Israeli policies as well as true anti-Semites have both worked for years to blur the distinction between criticism or even antagonism toward Israel because of its policies and essential bigotry toward Jewish people as Jews. In the issue of Bollyn’s appearances, we see one result; in the number of right-wing Jews who continue to seem prepared to vote for a man who has made public anti-Semitic remarks and surrounds himself with anti-Semites for the most powerful office in the world is another.
What Jewish progressives need to draw from this is that we must not be shy about calling out anti-Semitism in progressive circles. Not just the obvious cases like Bollyn, but the unconscious anti-Semitism we might see even in friends and colleagues. These are often good people who abhor anti-Semitism in the abstract. But just as I, as a white, cis-gendered male had to learn about how I had internalized many unconscious messages about people of color, women, trans folks and others, so must non-Jews learn about anti-Semitism. Most of the time, they find themselves accused (often unjustly) of anti-Semitism, and, whether the accusation is justified or not, that’s not how people learn. So if you see even the smallest hint, reach out to them as a friend or colleague, just as POC and women and et al do all the time.
Educate those who are open to it. I think you’ll find most of your friends and colleagues are. But silence is one thing we can be sure won’t help. It will only create more people with the mindset that seems to rule at Brooklyn Commons.
UPDATE: Dan Sieradski at Jewschool.com did some intrepid research and now we know why Brooklyn Commons is behaving as it is. Dan found that The Commons’ owner, Melissa Ennen, is herself a 9/11 Truther. It should be pointed out that Dan’s evidence does not contain a hint of either anti-Semitism on Ennen’s part or her subscription to Christopher Bollyn’s noxious Jewish conspiracy theories about 9/11. Still, it’s pretty clear now why the Commons’ reaction has been different than that of Busboys and Poets and the Unitarian Society.
In the best case scenario, Ennen’s 9/11 Truth beliefs clearly justify, in her mind, giving a clear anti-Semite a platform. That alone should be enough for any progressive group or individual to disassociate themselves from her.