Emotions run high after poetry reading turns political

This much is clear: Poets Chana Bloch and Chana Kronfeld presented a reading of Yehuda Amichai's poetry at the Berkeley Richmond Jewish Community Center.

But everything else is in dispute.

Several angry audience members at the April 29 event say the poets subjected an unsuspecting and captive crowd to an anti-Israel political tirade "that would have done Yasser Arafat proud," in the words of one.

The poets, however, say their introductory statements about the long-range effects of Israeli governmental policy were met with intolerance, including angry shouts of "traitors," "How dare you!" and even "You don't want Israel to exist!"

The situation, which some jokingly refer to as "Chanagate," began to take shape when the poets discovered that their reading was included on a publicized list of Bay Area Israel Independence Day events. This also came as a surprise to the vast majority of the roughly 100 audience members, most of whom thought it was just another meeting of the Sunday Brunch speakers' series at the JCC.

Feeling participation in a Yom HaAtzmaut program would imply tacit endorsement of Israeli policy, the poets each read a short prepared statement prior to their 90-minute analysis of the late Israeli's poetry

In her statement, Bloch, a professor of English at Mills College, commented on reports she'd read in the Israeli newspaper Ha'aretz about "the occupation, the settlements, the violations of human rights, the closures and confiscations and expropriations and demolitions, the use of excessive and disproportionate force… What does all that achieve?" she asked. "It's not hard to see that this is not the way to peace."

Kronfeld, a professor of Hebrew and comparative literature at U.C. Berkeley, read an e-mail sent to her by an Israeli friend who had participated in the Israeli "Alternative Torch Lighting" ceremony sponsored by Yesh Gvul, an organization that Kronfeld said "encourages young Israelis not to do army service in the occupied territories."

While the poets didn't think their statements would be controversial, they were polemical enough to inspire about 10 audience members to get up and leave.

Sanne DeWitt, a Netivot Shalom congregant who helped organize the Sunday Brunch event, said the poets' talk of "Israeli soldiers shooting Palestinian children" presented a one-sided argument.

"They went far beyond saying they felt uncomfortable and wanted to disassociate themselves with Israel Independence Day. What they said was unbalanced," said DeWitt, who wrote letters of apology for the incident to the BRJCC and to the board of directors and rabbi of Conservative Congregation Netivot Shalom in Berkeley. "They didn't mention the provocations, the historical context and the very complex historical issues. To listen to them you'd get the impression the Israelis are villains."

A Holocaust survivor, DeWitt said she takes criticism of Israel personally, "because if there had been an Israel, I wouldn't have been stuck in Germany."

The poets, however, were stunned by the speed and severity of the backlash.

"As an Israeli, I'm used to hearing people argue, but this was really extraordinary," recalled Kronfeld. "I was really shocked and offended by the reaction. I really couldn't believe that in a place like Berkeley or wherever there is a Jewish community that values open speech, that a five-minute statement could cause that kind of rude, vocal interruption."

Audience member Judy Breakstone countered that the poets "abused their position."

"It was a very viciously anti-Israeli statement and it had absolutely no place being there, nobody had provoked it," said Breakstone, a founding member of Netivot Shalom. "It was so painful. I'm real careful where I go when Israel is invoked. I feel like I was hit over the head and attacked in what should have been a safe place within the Jewish community."

Following the reading, Joel Bashevkin, the BRJCC's executive director, apologized to the poets for any confusion regarding the Israel Independence Day link. He also apologized to the audience, saying neither he nor any of the other sponsors had any idea what the poets were going to say.

Bashevkin halted a question-and-answer session fairly quickly, angering those who were most offended by the poets' comments.

"There was no closure," said Thalia Broudy, who was upset that she never got to redress the poets. "Though Joel did try. I felt sorry for him. He was really on the spot."

Bashevkin downplayed the statements as "just introductory remarks," and pointed out that "the bulk of the program still remained the body of work done by the two Chanas."

Still, some felt it was just the wrong place for political talk.

"There are plenty of places they could have purported that view and people would have been delighted to hear it," said Erica Crowell, who teaches a class on Amichai at Berkeley Midrasha and brought along four high school students. "People were honestly hurt and upset. If the two Chanas had been reading to college students, I think what they said would have been fine. This particular audience wasn't the best for that."

Bloch disagrees.

"Denial is not a healthy psychological mechanism," she said. "We need to face the hard truths together as a community; I believe free speech is healthy." Several people with tears in their eyes approached her and Kronfeld after the speech to offer thanks, she said.

"We cannot say, 'My mind is made up, do not confuse me with facts,'" Bloch remarked. "That is not a healthy human response in any situation. If Jews cannot listen openly to each other and resolve their disputes, how will we ever come to terms with the Arabs?"

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Joe Eskenazi

Joe Eskenazi is the managing editor at Mission Local. He is a former editor-at-large at San Francisco magazine, former columnist at SF Weekly and a former J. staff writer.