- The Washington Times - Sunday, February 2, 2003

NEW YORK Among Democratic Gov. James E. McGreevey's most embarrassing slip-ups in his first year in office, the tale of Amiri Baraka v. the State of New Jersey probably rates among the most bizarre.
Last fall, the first-term New Jersey governor appointed Mr. Baraka poet laureate of the state. By last week the state Senate had voted 21-0 to abolish the title. The move still needs approval by the state Assembly, where it has been sent to a committee, but no hearing has yet been scheduled there.
A self-described Marxist-Leninist known in the 1960s as Le Roi Jones, Mr. Baraka ignited a furor with a poem he published a month after the terrorist attacks in lower Manhattan. He said he saw the towers burning from the third floor of his home in Newark.
In "Somebody Blew Up America," the contentious 68-year-old poet and playwright strongly suggested that not only did Israel have advance knowledge of the terrorist attacks, but that it told 4,000 Israelis who worked at the World Trade Center to stay home September 11.
The offending lines from the 60-stanza poem read:
"Who knew the World Trade Center was gonna get bombed
Who told 4000 Israeli workers at the Twin Towers
To stay home that day
Why did Sharon stay away?"
The Anti-Defamation League labeled the poet an anti-Semite, and the governor called for his resignation. Mr. Baraka, denying he is an anti-Semite, would not budge.
"If they want to find anti-Semites," he said, "read the poetry of Ezra Pound and T.S. Eliot, poets that are loved and praised." Resignation, he added, would "repress and stigmatize independent speakers everywhere."
Because of the way the law is written, Mr. Baraka cannot be fired.
In last week's vote, a mixture of Democrats and Republicans supported the measure to dissolve the laureate title. What the Democrat-controlled state Assembly will do is not clear, although many said they believe the bill die.
The Senate, with 20 Republicans and 20 Democrats, includes six blacks, all of whom were among the 19 members who abstained. An abstention is construed as a no vote. The Assembly, comprised of 80 members, includes 10 black members, seven Latinos and two Asians.
Political sources in both parties said the debate did not break down along racial lines, but that both parties believed someone whose salary is paid by the taxpayers should not be making offensive public remarks.
During the debate, however, Newark Mayor Sharpe James, who also is a Democratic state senator, recalled that in 1995 a Rutgers University president told faculty members that "disadvantaged" students have lower SAT scores because of their "genetic" background. He left the post last year and took a $225,000 job as a professor.
Mr. James did not return calls for further comment this week.
The matter has been particularly tricky for the Democratic governor and his party because it forced them to choose between two loyal political constituencies, blacks and Jews.
"The Democrats were not going to draft a bill that gives the governor the power to remove Baraka," said one Republican legislative source.
Senate President John Bennett said the Senate State Government Committee would meet soon to consider resolutions to censure Mr. Baraka. Sources close to the Democratic leadership say the poet wants his money for the two-year post: a stipend of $10,000.
In addition to slurring the Israelis, the former black-power radical insists that President Bush and other Western leaders knew about the terrorists attack but did nothing to stop them.
This is the kind of thinking, said New Jersey ADL Director Shai Goldstein, "where Jews are seen to be involved in a worldwide conspiracy."
While the governor, legislators and especially Jews were outraged, Mr. Baraka found support among fellow poets who defended his rights under the First Amendment. In predominantly black Newark, where Mr. Baraka teaches, the school board unanimously passed a resolution declaring him as the district's poet laureate and called on the Legislature to read his poem from start to finish. It took 10 legislative bills to bring the matter to a vote in the Senate.
A Fox News Opinion Dynamics poll indicated that 49 percent of parents in Newark approve of Mr. Baraka teaching their children, 14 percent disapprove and 37 percent have no opinion.
The firestorm over the World Trade Center poem spread beyond the state when Mr. Baraka read it at the Geraldine R. Dodge Poetry Festival in Waterloo, N.J. In it, he also depicted President Bush as a fraud and National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice as a street walker.
"Who knew what kind of Skeeza is a Condoleezza," he said.
Mr. Baraka made the rounds of campuses reading his work. Student protesters interrupted him at Wellesley College with chants of "Wellesley is no place for hate." They said the African studies department had paid several thousand dollars to Mr. Baraka for the lecture and that free speech was not the issue. In a letter to the student body, the college president defended his right to speak.
Mr. Baraka was still defending his poem on the Fox News Channel last week. Asked by Bill O'Reilly of "The O'Reilly Factor" if he disliked white people, the poet said he hated them all after Malcom X was killed, "but later I adjusted."

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