Robert Resnik is one of the most well-known figures in the Vermont folk music scene, a multi-instrumentalist and the host of the fine Vermont Public Radio show All the Traditions. We have been friendly acquaintances for years. Robert has favorably reviewed my albums, helped me to get gigs, and generally encouraged my musical development. I have always enjoyed dropping in on him at the library were he works as a reference librarian, to geek-out about accordions, a subject of which we never tire. I have always spoken well of him to others. All of this good will came quickly to an end when I began to speak openly about Israel and Palestine. I am planning to give a talk this weekend about the Gaza Freedom March, and was surprised when the director of the studio where I will be giving my presentation received a rather snide email from Robert, which brought about the following exchange. I post it here because it is illustrative of the way the “antisemitism” bomb is thrown around casually whenever anyone talks about what Israel is doing to the Palestinians, even by otherwise reasonable, liberal people. My friend Yonatan calls such people PEPsis, which stands for Progressive Except Palestine. Needless to say, no one is ever hysterically accused of “anti-Arabism” (yes, I know Arabs are Semites too, but I’ll ignore that for reasons of clarity) for criticizing the actions of an Arab government.
Robert: oooo- does this mean I get another chance to hear that groovy young “Klezmer” musician David Symons go on and on about how he doesn’t like Jews….?
Me: Hi Robert,
It’s come to my attention that you have been saying some extremely nasty and unfounded things about me behind my back, no doubt because of my public criticism of Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians. This is particularly sad for me, as I had considered you a friend and respected you as colleague. I would be happy to have a rational, fact-based discussion with you sometime about the Israel/Palestine conflict. Tell me, is it really useful or necessary to call me names? I can’t imagine encountering such a reaction were I talking about any other heavily-documented abuses committed by any other nation. Are you interested in human rights, or only Jewish rights? My views are not especially controversial or extreme. My information comes from mainstream human rights groups like Amnesty International or Human Rights Watch, or the Israeli group B’Tselem, or the Palestinian Center for Human Rights, or from U.N. reports, or from the pages of Ha’aretz. Are you willing to believe that these organizations are simply made up of “Jew haters”? I have also visited the occupied territories (as well as Israel) and seen first-hand the daily, run-of-the-mill terror that is has been inflicted on the Palestinians there by soldiers, settlers, and the Israeli bureaucracy for the past 43 years. One doesn’t have even have to look for it. Anyone who spends even a day in the West Bank with open eyes, an open mind and heart will be overwhelmed by the clear and ubiquitous injustice of the situation, to say nothing of Gaza, next to which the West Bank is a paradise by comparison.
I believe in reading widely and skeptically, and since the horror I felt watching Israel’s offensive in Gaza last year, this conflict has been my main area of study and concern. However much you may disagree with my conclusions, I would hope that you could at least assume that my activism is motivated by a genuine concern for human beings and a desire to help, in some small way, to end a conflict in which my own government and taxes play such a decisive role. To call me a “Jew-hater” without basis is irresponsible, hateful, and slanderous. It’s ridiculous. I have never called someone an “Arab-hater” because they criticized the Hamas government or some other Arab government, or a “Muslim-hater” or “Persian-hater” because they criticized Iran. If you, too, would like this conflict to end, wouldn’t it be more productive to attempt a rational, respectful discourse? I would like to invite you come to my talk on Saturday and ask dissenting questions. If you would prefer not to do that, I would be happy to meet with you one-on-one to talk about the issue. Please, our little folk music community is much too small for such name-calling.
Robert: Hi David,
No, I haven’t called you a “jew hater” – yet.
You’ll have to forgive some of us who barely escaped being furnace fuel
for the Nazis from being a bit sensitive – being anti-Israel means the
same as being anti-Jew in much of the world – I just spent 2 weeks in
Barcelona, where they hacked and burned the Jewish community out of the
city about 200 years before Ferdinand and Isabella outlawed and threw the
Jews out of Spain once and for all. You won’t catch me defending many of
the things that the Israelis have done (or for that matter, what everyone
on all sides have done in the Middle East), but you should choose your
words and deeds carefully. Plenty of people think you are Jewish because
of the music you choose to play, which gives your words more weight, and a
greater burden of responsibility for what you say. I have always
respected you as a musician, and have also told you before that I am not
interested in your politics. When you provide extra fuel for
anti-Semites, however, I will do what I can to stand in your way.
You’re right. You did not say “Jew hater”. I remembered incorrectly. What you said was that I don’t like Jews, which would seem to be almost the same thing. You say that you respect my music, yet call me a “klezmer” musician in quotation marks of suspicion. Am I no longer a real klezmer musician because I have decided to speak out about Israel’s crimes? Also, I have never in any way represented myself as being Jewish any more than you are pretending to be Irish. Whenever anyone has asked me if there is any connection between the music I play and my advocacy of Palestinian rights, my answer has always been that there is no connection, except perhaps for the very tenuous connection of wanting to bring some joy into the world through music, and my discomfort with the fact that millions of people are being denied joy or any semblance of a normal life because they happened to be born Palestinian. Also, I suppose my interest in Jewish music led me to a general interest in modern Jewish history, and in the nazi holocaust in particular, and that I concluded that the moral challenge it posed was not to stand around condemning already near-universally condemned crimes of the past, which takes no courage and which anyone can do without lifting a finger, and is no help to the victims now in any case, but rather to confront the outrages of my own time. There is no shortage of injustice and cruelty in the world, and I wouldn’t claim that the plight of Palestinians or the crimes of Israel are the worst of them, nor do I think its even appropriate to compare the suffering of one oppressed people with that of another. Still, I think it is fair to say that, after our own wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, there is not another major crime in the world today in which my own country is so deeply complicit. When I speak about these things, it is not as a Jew or a Gentile, but as a human being and an American. And yes, I do choose my words carefully. I have not said anything that I am not prepared to back up with evidence, or else admit was a mistake (see the beginning of this letter). Can you say the same, Robert? Forgive me for what you will no doubt see as my insensitivity, but might I suggest that it’s just a teeny, tiny bit of hyperbole to say that you “barely escaped” being incinerated by the Nazis? I could be mistaken about your biography, but I remember reading on the VPR website that your mother’s family came to Vermont in the 1880′s, and if you are old enough to have lived through World War 2, then you are a remarkably well-preserved man. I have known people who came much closer than you to being killed by the Nazis who took from that experience the lesson that we must “never again” remain silent while a whole civilization is being destroyed in front of our eyes, whether that civilization is Jewish or otherwise, whether people or being herded into gas chambers or otherwise. That’s not an exaggeration, by the way. I ask you to take a little time to read some of the credible reports coming out of Gaza, in which 1.5 million people have been imprisoned and reduced to a “subhuman existence” (John Ging, director of operations for the UN Refugee and Works agency said this in 2008, even before the Israeli attack made things immeasurably worse). I was in Cairo recently with an 85 year-old holocaust survivor, a wonderful woman named Hedy Epstein, who went on a hunger strike to try to compel the Egyptian government to let us into Gaza to deliver aid and march against the blockade. This is a woman who’s parents and entire family were exterminated, who escaped from Germany at the age of 12 by the skin of her teeth and who literally could not bear the thought of what Israel is doing to the people of Gaza. When I was in the West Bank, at a demonstration on land being confiscated by Israel to build yet another illegal settlement, I met an Israeli man whose daughter had been murdered by a Palestinian suicide bomber. I also met his two sons a couple of days later. I get choked up just writing about this family. All of them were passionately committed to ending the occupation, all the more so because of the unimaginable loss they had suffered, the same loss that so many more Palestinians have had to endure. If an Israeli man who has lost his daughter can understand that Palestinian terror does not happen for no reason, or because of “antisemitism”, but against a context of incomparably greater Israeli terror and dispossession, why can’t Americans, who are so far from danger, see this? And no, I don’t accept that being “anti-Israel” (which I am not, by the way, any more than I am “anti-American”) is the same thing as being “anti-Jew”. Antisemitism is characterized by irrationality, nonsense like “The Protocols of the Elders of Zion” and so forth. There are perfectly rational reasons for opposing, even militantly opposing, Israel’s very real and well-documented crimes, particularly if you are on the receiving end of them. No one in their right mind today would accuse Native Americans of “anti-Europeanism”, though they certainly committed atrocities in their battle to hold onto their land. If you are so concerned about fuel being given to anti-Semites, you should be attacking the policies of the State of Israel, not people who are trying to call attention to them. You say that being possibly mistaken for a Jew gives my words more weight and places on me a greater burden of responsibility for what I say. If that is the case, then you, as a real Jew, have an even greater responsibility to peer through the veil of propaganda learn the truth about what Israel is doing to the Palestinians in the name of all Jews, and to loudly denounce it. I know that you have told me you are not interested in my politics, and I have respected that, but if you are going to go around telling people that I don’t like Jews, you are going to get a response from me. I assumed that you would prefer a reasoned and thoughtful one to a brief obscenity.
Robert: I won’t tell anyone anything more about you – good luck.
And there our dialogue, and friendship, appears to have ended.