Palestinian poem sets in motion the fight against anti-Semitism in Georgetown

Controversy broke out this week over an invitation from a young Palestinian activist to speak at Georgetown Law School. Prior to the incident, the Anti-Defamation League, or ADL, accused 23-year-old Palestinian writer Mohammed El-Kurd of being anti-Semitic – a claim that was repeated by conservative media. Although the event on Tuesday went as planned, Georgetown has come under pressure in the media as well as from some students and faculties to condemn El-Kurd and reject the event.

The war of words began a few days before the event in Georgetown, when Jonathan Greenblatt, the liberal leader of the ADL, shared a case accusing El-Kurd of anti-Semitism based on a selection of his tweets and previous writings. Most of the accusations were based on postings on social media from El-Kurd, who loudly rebuked Israel and Zionism.

However, an item from the ADL dossier has become the focal point of the campaign against the author: a line from a poem he wrote, which is now alleged to repeat a medieval anti-Semitic trope known as the “blood accusation”, an accusation originating in medieval Europe that Jews took blood from non-Jews for ritual purposes.

That passage came from El-Kurd’s poetry book published last year, “Rifqa.” In one of the poems, El-Kurd, who denies the accusations of anti-Semitism, wrote, “They harvest martyrs’ organs, feed their warriors with our own.”

The line includes one of the few footnotes in the poem that leads the reader to a decade-old news story in which the Israeli government admitted to having harvested organs from the bodies of Palestinians as well as some Israelis without the consent of their families in the 1990s.

El-Kurd denied that the line from the poem had anything to do with the “blood libel” troop and said in an interview that until very recently he had not been familiar with it. “When I wrote this poem, I was 14 or 15 years old,” El-Kurd said. “I literally first understood what blood accusations were like two months ago. I had never in my life heard of this concept.”

The allegation of anti-Semitism against El-Kurd based on the poem is the only one that has gained ground. His accusers rely on a relatively obscure accusation – a distant echo of an anti-Semitic trope from the European Middle Ages – as the main ammunition against El-Kurd raises questions among Palestinian rights advocates about the responsibility of Israeli critics for having an almost-scientific understanding of anti-Semitism and its history.

“I am far more familiar with the history of anti-Semitism and the history of prejudice against Jews than I am with the history of prejudice against many, many other peoples, because that is what is needed to engage me in this subject in the United States,” he said. Yousef Munayyer, a non-resident senior fellow at the Arab Center Washington. “At the same time, people who argue in favor of Israeli policies never seem to be exposed to the same minefield related to sensitivity to Palestinian history and suffering. The clear double standard is one that ADL seems to be dedicated to reinforcing. “

An email received of The Intercept, signed by a group of Jewish students and faculty members in Georgetown, and addressed to the school administration, urged the school to condemn El-Kurd’s presence at the Tuesday event. The letter stated that his authors had used “a disgusting anti-Semitic trope dating back to the Middle Ages, claiming that Jews use the blood of non-Jews for ritual or culinary purposes.”

The critical letter was followed by a statement in support of El-Kurd from a group of Georgetown Law alumni led by Palestinian American legal scholar Noura Erakat. El-Kurd’s supporters reviewed the accusation of blood libel in the poem, dismissing the accusation, saying that “the literal interpretation of what is clearly pictorial speech appears to have been carried out in bad faith.”

The letter of support also argued that the controversy over the poem changed the subject: discussions about the actual living conditions of the Palestinians in the occupied territories were supplanted by debates over wording. “The cause of Palestinian liberation is buried under bad faith interpretations of El-Kurd’s poetry. “A single metaphorical line that is the subject of interpretation is given priority over the disgusting state of Palestinian freedom,” it said.

El-Kurd told The Intercept that his poem referred to the documented historical event in Israel-Palestine, quoted in the footnotes. He also said that as a teenager who learned to write poetry, his teachers had encouraged him to use metaphorical language.

“It’s a metaphor, it’s not something I literally believe in. I’m right now realizing that they actually believe, or pretend to think in exaggeration, that I actually believe Israelis are eating Palestinian bodies. At first it was comical, but now it seems very sinister, “said El-Kurd. and discussed widely. It’s not a conspiracy theory. “

He added: “At the time I wrote it, I was writing more literally about the practice of restraining bodies, but my teachers told me I should make it more abstract and use artistic language.”

El-Kurd said the ADL never reached out or tried to engage him about concerns the group had with his writing. (The ADL did not respond to a request for comment.) Instead, with the dossier and the campaign to have his event in Georgetown canceled, the ADL has focused on trying to push him completely out of the public debate on Israel-Palestine.

It can not be denied that El-Kurd grew up angry. A young Palestinian from the East Jerusalem neighborhood, Sheikh Jarrah, has spent his entire life fighting the Israeli government’s efforts to evict him and his neighbors from their homes.

When he was 11 years old, a group of hardline Israeli settlers, including those of U.S. descent, moved into part of his family home and threw his family’s belongings on the street. The settlers have been there ever since. To this day, they are pushing to throw his family out completely. His commitment to the Israel-Palestine issue has been forced by circumstances that have shaped his life since childhood.

People who have worked in advocacy for Israel-Palestine also point out that it is unreasonable to expect a 23-year-old to know how to navigate sophisticated speech codes around the conflict in the United States, or to immediately serve them as anti-Semites, if they do not. ‘t.

“There are complicated and constantly changing speech codes that are constantly being retrofitted to try to equate any kind of Palestinian critique of Zionism with anti-Semitism.”

“There are complicated and constantly changing speech codes that are constantly being retrofitted to try to equate any kind of Palestinian criticism of Zionism with anti-Semitism,” Munayyer said. “Those of us operating in the American debate on this issue are compelled to be very aware of the many ways in which one’s legitimate critique of Zionism can be misunderstood in bad faith as anti – Semitic speech.”

The ADL dossier that sparked the uprising against El-Kurd acknowledges that “the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is intensely personal for El-Kurd” and that his family has been “embroiled in a protracted political and property conflict that has left them under threat of deportation of Israel for years. “

Under Greenblatt’s leadership, the ADL has taken liberal positions on some issues. The group has even taken steps to rectify some previous controversies: In 2021, Greenblatt issued a public apology for the ADL’s decision to oppose the construction of a mosque in Lower Manhattan, saying on behalf of the organization: “We were wrong, of course. and simple. ” Greenblatt has also persistently called Donald Trump and the far right, something he has been attacked by conservatives for.

The controversy over El-Kurd may make it harder for even a renamed ADL to get new allies. Many progressives today are sympathetic to Palestinian suffering, and the knee-jerk attempt to “cancel” El-Kurd, including with a coordinated media flash, is unlikely to make them happy with the ADL.

El-Kurd, for his part, says the attacks on him, which characterize his outrage as bigotry, paint a one-sided picture that does not reflect the real violence he and his family are subjected to at the hands of the Israeli settler movement and the government. that supports it.

“My family is threatened with deportation every day, and all I have ever known is life under Israeli occupation,” El-Kurd said. “All I have known is tear gas and beatings and police beatings.”

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