‘My Kristen Clarke Problem’
by Martin Lebwohl, The Harvard Crimson, 1994
The BSA President’s Actions Raise Unsettling Questions
Last week, Wellesley Professor Tony Martin spoke at Harvard at the invitation of the Black Students Association (BSA). Martin, the author of an anti-Semitic tract entitled The Jewish Onslaught, used his Harvard forum to denounce the Jewish tradition and the Jewish people for holding a “monopoly” on centuries-worth of the notion of divinely ordained African inferiority. Repeating his belief that the “so-called Sages” of the Babylonian Talmud were the earliest racists of recorded history, Martin urged Harvard students to consider The Bell Curve, a controversial new book linking race and intelligence, as only the latest manifestation of a racist tradition spawned by Jews.
Sitting in Boylston Auditorium, listening to my heritage be defamed and lied about, my thoughts turned away from the anti-Semite at the lectern and to the young woman who had introduced him. In fact, immediately after the introduction, Martin lavished praise on Kristen M. Clarke ’97, the BSA president, who, he said, had courageously invited him “in the face of enormous pressure from the forces of reaction.” It is young people like Kristen, Martin said, who are the hope and future of the African-American community.
That last thought was one of the few true things Martin had to say. Young Black leaders like Kristen Clarke, who have risen to campus prominence by gaining the respect of their peers, will no doubt have an enormous impact on the future leadership of the African-American community. The Kristen Clarkes of America’s campuses will soon be on the front lines, fighting against racism and other societal and historical impediments to better lives for African-Americans. This is why we should all be thinking about Kristen Clarke.
Traditionally, and especially in 20th century America, Jews have believed that the measure of a just society is how it treats its least fortunate. The picture of Abraham Joshua Heschel marching with Martin Luther King, the memory of Schwerner and Goodman dying with Chaney in Mississippi, and the glorious record of Jack Greenberg’s crusades in the courts are examples of American Jews applying traditional Jewish values of justice and kindness to their dealings with African-Americans.
We, too, should learn from those who came before us. It is our duty as Jews and as moral beings to care about the Black community. And if we must care about the Black community, we must care about Kristen Clarke.
What, I ask myself, was she thinking when she invited Martin to come to Harvard? Did she think Black students needed to hear what he had to say? When she told The Crimson that “Professor Martin is an intelligent, wellversed Black intellectual who bases his information of indisputable fact,” was she being serious?
The biggest question, I suppose, is whether Kristen Clarke thinks, in the face of The Bell Curve and all sorts of racism in American society, that Black students should fixate on Martin’s imagined notions of Judaism and the Jewish people as enemies of Black folk.
These are unfortunate questions. When Black and Jewish students sit down for the interethnic dialogues that have been so assiduously promoted by Hillel leaders throughout my three years here, I would rather talk about other things. The questions I would like for us to consider have to do with what can unite our communities.
I would like to ask Blacks and Jews to answer together some of the questions raised by DuBois Professor of the Humanities Henry Louis Gates, Jr. in his recent address at Hillel about the moral content of our identities and what ideas can cut across racial and religious divides to make the world better for humanity. These are good questions. The answers to these questions will enlighten us, empower us and maybe even give Blacks and Jews something worthwhile to discuss.
But Kristen Clarke has given us different questions to ask. These are unsettling questions about why the BSA must, every couple of years or so, bring the ugly specter of anti-Semitism to a lectern on this campus. Does the young leadership of the Black community think Jews and the Jewish heritage are their enemies?
I cannot answer these questions myself. That is Clarke’s job. But before she answers, I hope she understands that the anger and disappointment that will no doubt be directed at her by Jews and others on this campus are not outbursts of gratuitous hostility toward her community, but are rather expressions of hurt and anguish over the loss of what might have been between us.
Martin’s visit is a fait accompli. The damage has been done. Black students have already been barraged with misrepresentations of what the Jewish people and ethical tradition have to offer them. Since Kristen Clarke was the one who presented Martin, a certain amount of damage has been done to her credibility and the trust between her and the Jewish community.
Still, Jews cannot walk away from dialogue with Clarke. We still care deeply about the African-American community and about the injustice and poverty it faces. If Black leaders, like Kristen Clarke, are looking to the Tony Martins of this world for guidance in the form of anti-Semitic scapegoating, this should be a matter of grave concern to Jews, not only for reasons of self-preservation, but because the struggle of African-Americans for justice and equality is our struggle as well. We cannot allow the messengers of hate, like Tony Martin, to tarnish that struggle with the stain of their anti-Semitism.
Now the ball is in Kristen Clarke’s court. I hope she cares enough to answer by addressing these questions in a public forum. We need to know, Kristen, if you stand with Tony Martin, or if you stand with us.