Tag Archives: activism

When A Holocaust Denier Asks for Help Promoting His Book


This appeared, in slightly different form, in The Forward on March, 30th, 2017.

The email was a blatant appeal to my ego. The subject line said “Speaking Engagement,” and the writer, who I didn’t know, was inviting me to speak about whatever I wanted to — wow! — on a New York City panel celebrating the release of a new book by “internationally acclaimed British jazz saxophonist, philosopher and author…Gilad Atzmon.” They were inviting me, Atzmon’s volunteer publicist said,” because of my “honest and thoughtful perspective” which would be “valuable” on the panel.

I hadn’t heard of Atzmon before, but the panel was scheduled at the hip Theater 80 St. Marks in the East Village. The vague synopsis the publicist sent for his new book, Being in Time: A Post-Political Manifesto, simply suggested that “much of humanity has been reduced to serve the interests of big money and oligarchy” and claimed that “Left and Right have become indistinguishable and meaningless.”

But there it was, at the bottom, the following curious phrase: “a tale of the decisive victory of one elite.” Gilad Atzmon, said the press release, “has managed to dissect the ethos, strategy and culture that are driving this invincible elite.”

Googling, I discovered that Atzmon, born in Israel, identifies himself as “a proud self-hating Jew.” American white nationalist Greg Johnson, an admirer, calls him a “self-exterminating Jew.” Since 2000, Atzmon has been spewing out viciously anti-Semitic writings with statements like “we must begin to take the accusation that the Jewish people are trying to control the world very seriously” and “with Fagan and Shylock in mind, Israeli barbarism and organ trafficking seem to be just other events in an endless hellish continuum.” Then there was this: “It took me years to accept that that the Holocaust narrative, in its current form, doesn’t make any sense… We should… ask why? Why were the Jews hated? Why did the European people stand up against their next-door neighbors?… What is the holocaust religion there to conceal?”

I can’t recall any other “offer” of a speaking engagement that has ever made me feel such an intense mix of emotions. I’m a Jewish writer, a lesbian, a progressive who has written for The Nation and used to be a Village Voice columnist. I knew that the racist right, both in this country and around the world, had become increasingly brazen. But had they become so brazen that they thought a Jewish lesbian leftist would rally to their side? Or were they just trying to dupe me? I felt horror, anger, disgust; and I felt queasy.

But I also felt an overwhelming anxiety about why Atzmon’s backers thought I in particular would speak on a panel promoting him. Did something in my writing make them think I’d be sympathetic? As a reporter, I’ve written about the antigay Christian right many times. And I have, in fact, tried to “understand” them. Why would anyone spend their time trying to take rights away from another group of people? I spent a good portion of my work life trying to find out. Did I go too far trying to “understand,” and was this why a man who’d said “the [Nazi] death marches were actually humane” thought I’d be on his panel?

I have wanted to understand what makes far-right bigots tick, but I never wanted to support their mission. I finally realized that the primary reason Atzmon’s backers had approached me was not because of anything I’d written, but because obfuscating, and deliberately obscuring hateful premises behind seemingly genuine critiques of real-world oppression, are a fundamental part of the white supremacist and anti-Semitic projects. Gilad Atzmon may have begun as a progressive critic of Israel, but he metamorphosed into a misogynist, antigay Jew-hater, and he has made a career out of confusing the two stances.

It is symptomatic of our weird political moment, when white nationalists and Sebastian Gorka hold power in the White House, that progressive Jewish writers should be approached to legitimize a man who said “the Jewish tribal mindset” “sets Jews aside of humanity.” When white nationalism and anti-Semitism are being discussed as mere “political ideologies” equivalent to any other, when millions voted for Trump because they believed his lie that he would fight the rich for them, we need renewed political clarity in our country more than we need air and water.

The dangers of such obfuscation are getting clearer by the moment. The “progressive” former Congresswoman Cynthia McKinney, whom the Green party ran for president in 2008, has written the introduction to Atzmon’s book, and radical Jewish lawyer Stanley Cohen has apparently agreed to be on his April 30 panel at Theater 80. In a sense, it’s of a piece with Atzmon’s perennial ability to get some on the left (Richard Falk, James Petras, the journal Counterpunch) to endorse or publish his work. But the willingness of some so-called progressives to support blatant anti-Semitism is oddly mirrored by the right’s increasingly successful use of the tropes of class oppression against Jews, African-Americans, and immigrants. When Atzmon argues that “the Jewish elite” are destroying “working people,” when Donald Trump complains that an elite has let “radical Islamic terrorists enter the country by the thousands” in order to “disenfranchise our working class,” it’s time for all of us to be utterly and completely clear about our politics, exactly what we’re saying and what it means.

In this time of great danger to the poor, to people of color, and to Jews, it is time to unite the entire country behind its real needs, and to revive the slogan of Occupy: We are the 99%. No population is the enemy; the problem is not a person or persons, not even the 1%. The problem is the exponential rate at which economic inequality is growing, and an overall system that is not meeting most of our needs. The more we identify the problem as systemic, and not caused by an amorphous “them” that is exploiting “us,” the more strength we will have to fight Gilad Atzmon, Donald Trump, and anti-Semites everywhere.

 

 

Memoir in the Age of Trump

I’m teaching a new six-week memoir writing workshop in Manhattan this spring, focused on memoir’s radical capacity to tell the truth. When our president tries to convince us that the truth does not exist, it’s a good time to write memoir. Speak your unspeakable truths and shatter the false, glittering surface we’re supposed to present to the world!

This course is focused on helping students write about their actual feelings, experiences, wishes, and needs, not the ones they think they’re “supposed” to have.

Memoir Writing in The Age of Trump: The Art of Radical Truth-Telling

Six Mondays, 7 PM to 9 PM, March 27 through May 1

Arts on Site, 12 St. Mark Place. The fee is $225.

To register, please click here: http://www.brownpapertickets.com/event/2886466

In this workshop, we will use emotion, sensory details, critical thinking, imagination, and courage to construct profound and relatable works about our actual experience. Students will get frequent feedback in a supportive atmosphere.

Bio: Donna Minkowitz has taught memoir writing since 1998 at the 92nd Street Y, The Kitchen, the JCC of the Upper West Side, and the New York Writers Workshop. Her recent memoir Growing Up Golem was a finalist for both a Lambda Literary Award and for the Judy Grahn Nonfiction Award, and her first memoir, Ferocious Romance, won a Lammy. A recipient of a Writers Omi fellowship and an Exceptional Merit Media Award, Minkowitz has also written for the New York Times Book Review, Salon, and The Nation.

The class is sponsored by the New York Writers Workshop.

I’m happy to answer any questions. You can send them my way at growingupgolem AT Gmail.

 

Cooking Up Rebellion

In times of trouble, cooking makes me whole. I may be tired, irritable, I may have gotten home late, I may even be sick, but I stand at my fry pan tossing in onions, that base of almost every culture’s cooking. To me, it might as well be the base of life itself, as I stand there trying to make something tasty and satisfying and warming out of a few teensy bits of vegetables and some shreds of meat.

Cooking, which I came to only in my 40s and disabled, like someone clutching a lifeline, reminds me of the sacredness of the act of creation. It feels like making something out of nothing: whatever’s assembled on my cutting board – a little mess of garlic bits and bitter vegetables and cheese snips – always seems so poignantly small to me as the basis of a hot dinner that will somehow sustain two adults. The process that transforms these scraps into a whole always seems mystical to me: what god created this eggplant parmigiano pasta?

Certainly not me.

With cooking, as with writing, providence comes in and accomplishes what we ourselves, with our conscious minds, can barely accomplish. When I say providence, I don’t exactly mean God. Who made this dish? It was the fire (which reshapes molecules and “denatures” proteins and divinely caramelizes eggplants). It was the balsamic vinegar in all its oddness, sour, acid, musty, sweet, powerfully itself and shaped by hands and minds other than my own. It was the traditions of a million years of hominids cooking (while humans have only been around and making dinner for 200,000 years, our hominid ancestors have been cooking for even longer). It was my innumerable memories of meals out and Food Network snippets and half-remembered recipes, plus glimmering images in my brain (my mother’s ancient Italian friend’s fresh sausage and tomato sauce), and, maybe most of all, dumb luck and inspiration!

It was also me, yes, along with all of these. It was my own arm strength and my thinking mind, saying “Now! A dab more tomato paste!” and “Now! I want sesame oil and more parsley!” In point of fact, I feel really butch when I cook, much more butch than I do when writing, say, or making love. Turning the flame up and down, I am Hephaestus at the forge; I am Casey at the switch. I feel powerful, capable, gripping my 11-inch pan and smelting tomatoes, refining wine, building skyscrapers out of flour and beef. I am doing this for my family which consists of my partner and me, making things to keep us good and warm inside, and feeling loved. I am blending tahini in a machine noisy as a cement mixer, making a sauce so sumptuous it can make steamed zucchini taste good. I am butchering squashes and making rebellious Jewish bricks out of walnuts, apples and wine that will make our conquerors choke. I am constructing fantasy universes out of ground turkey and breadcrumbs and spices and egg. The turkey meatballs I make will make our hearts happy as we eat them in a radiant red sauce before going to the demonstration.

So, gentle reader who loves the taste of food, dear one who loves kimchi, posole, and democracy: go to the demonstration. There are a lot this week, and there will be more the week after, and the week after that. Keep going. Eat something hot before and after. Take care of yourself. Take care of other people, too. There is no contradiction between activism and compassion, no contradiction between activism and tenderness or sweetness: remember that. What I am trying to say is: everything we do, whether we are masters or novices, we do in the context of other people. I’m no great chef by any measure, but I learned to make a damn good dinner, and so can you. Individual writers don’t create literature, individual cooks don’t create the art of cooking, and individual actors don’t create entire movements. Everyone is needed, and everyone needs others.

Everyone is important in cooking up this struggle, even and especially you.

Originally published in Gay City News on January 19, 2017.

The James Beard Foundation’s Non-Activist Conference

james-beard-conference

The queerest thing about last week’s James Beard Foundation conference in Manhattan was the ginormous photograph of a brown-black human turd, pictured underneath a similar-looking red sausage. The photo was displayed on a huge screen by public-policy academic Raj Patel, who announced to the assembled corporate honchos, entrepreneurs, and bland food-nonprofit wonks, “I’ve come to be the turd in the punch bowl!”

The James Beard Foundation is the most prestigious organization for American chefs and gourmands, and every year since 2010 it’s been holding an “educational” conference about food activism — a really, really tame one, if this year’s confab was any indication. The turd Patel had come to deliver was the message that the sustainable food movement must be grounded in, er, politics — and not just any politics, but a progressive “politics of justice and equality.” Otherwise, the handsome Patel said in his lovely Brit accent, food activism can be used just as easily by the fascist right — as in Italy, where haters of Muslims have passed laws banning kebabs, and in India, where the Hindu right has beaten to death Muslims accused of eating beef.

Unfortunately, the message most conference-goers seemed to take away from the author’s exciting but rambling speech was simply not to be Islamophobes, which the chefs, food-service companies like Aramark, Dunkin’ Donuts brass, and school-garden advocates in attendance seemed to feel they could sign on to fine. The larger message of Patel’s excellent food writing — that systemic economic inequality is the biggest barrier to food justice, not poor people’s confounding failure to educate themselves about kale – was lost at a conference who stated goal was “to explore the genesis and lifecycle of trends and apply that knowledge to food system issues. We’ll draw on the experience of other trend-focused industries, such as technology, fashion, and design, to understand why some trends last and others fizzle.”

The conference was entitled “Now Trending: the Making of a Food Movement,” and the people in the room were almost exclusively white people with very well-paying jobs.

At one discussion at my table, I heard white attendees earnestly debating how to get “people from the inner city” aware they should eat vegetables, as though people of color had no awareness of good health practices. When we finally discussed the need to increase free school meals for hungry children, a man at my table dubiously asked if there was any “empirical data” that they improved test scores.

A few tips for the James Beard folks for organizing future activist conferences: 1) Don’t have a dress code. (“Business casual attire.”) Most of the people you want to get in the room will be wearing jeans and T-shirts or low-end dresses. They will be most comfortable (and most ready to fight the system) if they’re not forced to dress as if for a job interview. 2) Don’t charge your attendees $500 to attend ($600 if they’re unable to pay by the “early bird” date). 3) Have nitty-gritty sessions on how to lobby, how to organize other human beings, how to organize mass demonstrations. Don’t waste chefs’ and advocates’ time with hours devoted to “hot brands” like Gordon Ramsay and “the Internet of things” and wondering how we can make the movement for food justice just as um, “exciting” and sellable. 4) Learn the difference between a market and a movement. Continue reading