Senior reporter Alex Kane interviews Rep. Bush about her call for an end to Israel's bombing campaign and the political consequences of anti-war dissent.
Since October 7th, when Hamas attacked Israel and Israel began its ongoing bombardment of Gaza, almost every member of Congress has denounced the killings of Israelis and proclaimed support for Israel’s “right to defend itself.” Far fewer have expressed sorrow for the more than 10,500 Palestinians killed in the bombing, and only 23 have called for a ceasefire and an end to the collective punishment of civilians in Gaza. Among the few dissenting voices in Washington is Cori Bush, the representative for Missouri’s 1st congressional district, which spans the cities of St. Louis and Ferguson and some of their suburbs. Bush responded to the events of October 7th by mourning the Israeli and Palestinian lives lost that day and calling for an immediate ceasefire. She also urged the US government to “do our part to stop this violence and trauma” by ending US support for Israeli apartheid. Nine days later, Bush—alongside Reps. Rashida Tlaib, André Carson, Summer Lee, and Delia C. Ramirez—introduced a “Ceasefire Now” resolution, which demands that the Biden administration call for an end to hostilities in Israel/Palestine and send humanitarian aid to Gaza.
In this episode of On the Nose, senior reporter Alex Kane interviews Rep. Bush about her call for a ceasefire, the role of race and racism in shaping reaction to Israel’s bombing campaign, and the political consequences of anti-war dissent.
A recent controversy suggests the post-October 7th political landscape will pose existential challenges for Jewish institutions trying to maintain pro-Israel politics alongside a broad cultural mission.
After beginning her job this past August as director of the Unterberg Poetry Center at the 92nd Street Y—a nearly 150-year-old Jewish community and cultural center on Manhattan’s Upper East Side—the critic and scholar Sarah Chihaya quickly found that getting acclaimed writers and academics to participate in programming at the storied literary institution was no hard sell. “Everyone I talked to was like, ‘Yes, I would love to do it,’” she said.
This near-universal eagerness to work with the Poetry Center speaks to its celebrated history as a major New York City cultural institution. The list of literary giants that have graced the Y’s Kaufmann Hall includes Wallace Stevens, Gwendolyn Brooks, Pablo Neruda, and Norman Mailer, among countless others. “When you read there, you’re aware that just about every writer you’ve ever admired has gone before you,” the playwright Tony Kushner told The New York Times in 2013, on the occasion of the center’s 75th anniversary.
That legacy now appears to be in jeopardy following the Y’s abrupt postponement of a planned October 20th Poetry Center talk by the professor and novelist Viet Thanh Nguyen, who had signed an open letter in the London Review of Books two days earlier calling for an end to “the unprecedented and indiscriminate violence that is still escalating against the 2.3 million Palestinians in Gaza.” The Y, which released a statement pledging support for Israel the day after Hamas’s attacks on Israeli civilians on October 7th, has long been an officially Zionist organization—sometimes to the frustration of employees who disagree with this stance—but has generally left subsidiaries like the Poetry Center alone to book whatever speakers they choose. However, in a comment to The New York Times, the Y acknowledged that the decision had been made due to Nguyen’s “public comments on Israel.”
The postponement soon led to a cascade of Poetry Center event cancellations and staff resignations. On October 21st, the writers Dionne Brand, Saidiya Hartman, and Christina Sharpe announced on X (formally known as Twitter) that as “anti-racist, anti-imperialist, and anti-colonial thinkers,” they had pulled out of their upcoming talk; the critic Andrea Long Chu, poet Paisley Rekdal, and writers Chris Kraus and Hannah Gold also canceled their respective events. The next day, Chihaya and senior program coordinator Sophie Herron—two of the Poetry Center’s three employees—resigned from their positions. By October 23rd, the Y confirmed to the Times that the Poetry Center had postponed its reading series. The future of the literary institution is now uncertain. (The Y declined to comment for this piece, instead pointing to the statements it had already made as reported in the Times.)
The Y, which was originally founded as the Young Men’s Hebrew Association in 1874, has long straddled a dual role as both a Jewish communal institution and a prestigious cultural center serving a broader audience. In addition to the Poetry Center, the Y also hosts a distinguished dance center and music school. “I always understood it as the emblem of Jewish secular and religious intellectual life in New York,” said the writer Sarah Schulman, who recalled her grandmother attending Jewish cultural events at the Y and who has heard readings there by the writers Toni Morrison and Claudia Rankine. “It was the institutional embodiment of the great tradition of the New York Jewish intellectual,” said David Myers, a professor of Jewish history at UCLA and a former CEO of the New York City-based Center for Jewish History.
The controversy suggests that the post-October 7th political landscape will pose existential challenges for mainstream Jewish institutions like the Y trying to maintain traditional pro-Israel politics—which have generally hardened in the wake of the Hamas attacks—alongside a broad cultural mission predicated on diversity and free expression. In late October, the Y added a new policy to its website stating that it will continue “welcoming people who are critical of Israel, as long as they have not and do not actively call for the destruction of the State of Israel or question its legitimacy,” a move that could exclude a broad swath of potential speakers, both Jewish and not, who identify as anti-Zionist or support a political vision for future coexistence in the region that does not include Jewish statehood. Meanwhile, as protests calling for a ceasefire fill the streets, a traditionally left-leaning community of artists and writers is increasingly speaking up against Israel’s assault on Gaza, with many pledging not to appear at organizations that actively support the state.
“As the battle lines between the Palestine solidarity movement and the organized Jewish community become more starkly demarcated, there’s going to be a lot more scrutiny,” said Myers. “It’s going to take time to sort out what [Jewish organizations’] policies look like. In all likelihood they’re not going to be more open-ended—they’re going to be more closed.” Marjorie N. Feld, a historian at Babson College who has studied the history of American Jewish criticism of Zionism, said that such policies could result in a “self-imposed” marginalization of American Jewish organizations. “It’s really a loss for us when we can’t join in coalitions,” she said, saying moves like this “put American Jews in isolation.”