(November 28, 2021 / JNS) In The New York Times this month, reporter Patrick Kingsley tells a tale of a Gaza poetry professor who breaks down boundaries.
Professor Refaat Alareer, readers are told, “add[s] nuance” to the contrasting narratives of Palestinians and Israelis. He offers students “an appreciation” of Israeli poets. He admires the way an Israeli wordsmith blurs divisions between the two sides. In spite of his hardships—imposed by Israel—Alareer is a surprising “champion” of Israeli poetry, who uses poetry to teach about the “humanity” of Israeli Jews.
It’s lovely. It’s unexpected.
But it’s fiction.
On social media, Alareer reveals himself as a man overflowing with hate. One might call his relentless slurs puerile—“Zionists are dumb”; “to be a Zionist is to be a heartless twat and a piece of shit”; “Zionists are the ugliest, unfunniest, and most untalented people on the globe”—but to evoke childishness, as that word does, would be to gloss over dangerous bigotry and dehumanization.
“Zionists are scum,” he insists.
“Zionists are the most despicable filth.”
“Zionism is a disease.”
Perhaps Alareer doesn’t pause to think how his language evokes that of the Third Reich because he is too busy comparing the Jewish state and its supporters to Nazis. Israel is “far worse than nazi Germany,” reads one of his Twitter posts. “Israel is nazism on steroids,” reads another. “Israel is heir to nazi Germany.” There is a “nazi-like occupation of Palestine.” “Israel had always embraced nazism, nazis, and neo-nazis.” “Israel is using Nazim to do to Palestinians what the Nazis did.”
A widely adopted IHRA working definition of anti-Semitism describes such rhetoric—“drawing comparisons of contemporary Israeli policy to that of the Nazis”—as an example of anti-Semitism. But rest assured, Alareer does not care: “shove the ihra & its racist definition up your arse,” he has mused.
Historian Deborah Lipstadt might argue that Holocaust inversion, a term used to describe the charge that Israel behaves like the Nazis, is a form of “soft-core [Holocaust] denial” that “elevates by a factor of a zillion any wrongdoings Israel might have done, and lessens by a factor of a zillion what the Germans did.” But Alareer doesn’t hesitate to suggest that anything and everything is proof of Israeli Nazism.
Israel’s delivery of Covid vaccines to the Palestinian Authority? That’s Nazism: “Israel is a brutal nazi-like entity,” he wrote shortly after Palestinian medical authorities received the vaccines. “[I]t sent EXPIRED vaccines to Palestinians to further worsen the covid19 pandemic. Israel could have sent the vaccines to Palestinians it occupies OR ppl who need them in Africa or Asia. But instead, it let the vaccines expire.” (The claim that the vaccines were expired and dangerous was, like so much anti-Semitic rhetoric, a flagrant lie.)
“Zionists are Nazi criminals.”
Zionists are “heirs of nazis.”
“The Zionists learnt well from the Nazis, so well.”
“It was the marriage between Nazis and Zionists that gave birth to the most hideously abhorrent offspring, Israel.”
“[Z]ionism is nazism … and it does turn ‘humans’ into absolute bigots.” (Note the scare quotes around “humans.”)
“I can flood you with evidence of Israel being nazi and doing nazi stuff and supporting and endorsing nazis and committing nazi-like crimes,” wrote Alareer. “[B]ut no zio will change ‘its’ mind.” (Again, note the scare quotes.)
“[Z]ios are heartless brainless pieces of shit who conspired with the nazis against the jews.”
“Like Nazis, Zios will always claim to be the victims. Same shit, same asshole!”
“[H]ow do you know a zio is lying? when he opens his mouth.”
“Zios are the enemy of the free and decent people around the world.”
“Jake tapper is a zio islamophobic piece of shit.”
“Look at them zios be shitty as shit and making millions only because they are hateful and anti-Palestinian bigots, whose only qualification is Israel and hating Palestinians.”
“All zios stink.”
And, in an ironic post: “zios are the most uncreative shit ever.”
Alareer is too clever to refer directly to Jews, except to insist he has nothing against them per se. (He is quoted saying as much in The New York Times article.) But some of his social media posts are revealing. On Twitter, for example, he used his favorite slur in reference to concentration camp inmates, whose religion he would know but whose political views he would not: “Zios are the dirtiest little snitches ever. … No wonder many of them kapoed like bitches.” (The term “kapo” describes concentration camp inmates assigned to positions of power by the Nazis.)
One Friday evening, he ended a touchy exchange with a Jewish interlocutor with the salutation, “shabat shit,” a play on the traditional Jewish sabbath greeting, “Shabbat shalom.”
And in a clear reference to American Jews, Alareer wrote that “all American losers can go to occupied Palestine for free housing and the thrill to shoot and murder.”
(To be fair, it isn’t only Jews that he targets. After a Palestinian journalist reported on criticism of Hamas, Alareer wrote that the article “is the result of smelling too much zio farts which must have addled his tiny brain.”)
This is the man cast as a bridge-builder by The New York Times.
The article does briefly nod toward Alareer’s behavior on Twitter. The professor “frequently writes furious barrages that describe Israel as a source of evil,” Kingsley states, citing as an example a post in which the professor defends violence against Israeli civilians: “No form, act, or means of Palestinian resistance whatsoever is terror. All Israelis are soldiers. All Palestine is occupied.”
It is vile to defend terrorism. But Kingsley’s characterization, and the single example he cites, fall far short of conveying the extent of Alareer’s unhinged attacks. And at any rate, the reporter’s admission is immediately followed by an exculpatory but: “But in the lecture theater, Mr. Alareer has a milder academic approach.”
That is the point. In other words, the reference to “furious” posts on social media serves as little more than a flourish, meant to add some color to an otherwise hagiographic story. Which raises the question: Why? Why does the newspaper offer its platform to profile, laud and rehabilitate a hatemonger whose main hobbies are poetry and slurring the mainstream Jewish community?
A generous observer might say that a fuller understanding of Alareer’s online extremism would only sharpen the article’s intriguing juxtaposition: The man who hates Israel online—a lot—but still teaches empathy for Israelis in the classroom.
Alas, the newspaper’s depiction of Alareer’s classroom conduct is a forgery. There are fewer obscenities. There are a few references to diction and meter. But his lectures on Israeli poetry are much closer to what we see from him on Twitter than what we are told of him by The New York Times.
It is unclear whether the paper knowingly duped readers, or whether Kingsley was himself fooled by the hero of his story. Readers aren’t informed whether a reporter was present in the classroom, with Alareer’s knowledge and consent, during the purportedly moderate lecture. But photos accompanying the article reveal that he knew he was being observed, at the very least, by a photographer who often works with The New York Times.
Perhaps, then, Alareer put on a performance for Western audiences. Perhaps the Times misrepresentation wasn’t willful, but the story was just too good to check for a newspaper whose narrative so often conceals the role Palestinian extremists play in perpetuating the conflict. (Recall that a New York Times editor once felt the need to remind her colleagues that Palestinians are “more than just victims.”)
Had the Times bothered, though, to “seek truth and report it” (as one set of journalistic guidelines puts it), it would have found a 2019 lecture by Alareer posted on Youtube and on his university’s website. The video shows the professor teaching the very same course unit described in the newspaper’s story, though presumably a couple of years earlier, on a day when there were no news reporters in the classroom. On that day, Alareer highlighted the same Israeli poets mentioned in the Times article, Yehuda Amichai and Tuvya Ruebner. He taught the same two poems, and made the same reference to the “Merchant of Venice.” But the message of his older lecture is the very opposite of the one the newspaper conveyed to readers.
In The New York Times, the unit is said to serve as a “counterpoint” to the assumption that “the Palestinian education system is simply an engine of incitement.” Alareer is said to “teach Palestinians about empathy.” His curriculum is said to be an “appreciation” of Amichai. Even Amichai’s family, seemingly having been appraised by Kingsley, is said to be “inspired” by the professor’s “use of poetry to see the humanity on the other side.”
Here, though, is what was said by Alareer himself during the 2019 lecture: “This is a horrible, horrible poem.”
The poem is “dangerous,” he tells students.
“This is some kind of colonial literature, it brainwashes, it presents the Israelis as innocent,” he said. “They’re not innocent … .”
Per The New York Times account:
“What Mr. Alareer admired about [Amichai’s] poem, ‘Jerusalem,’ he told his students, was the way it blurred divisions between Israelis and Palestinians and implied that ‘Jerusalem can be the place where we all come together, regardless of religion and faith.’
“’When I read this,’ he added, ‘I really was like, “Oh my god, this is beautiful. I’ve never seen something like this. I never thought that I would read it.”‘ And then I realized: No, there are so many other Israeli people, Jewish people, who are totally and completely against the occupation.”
In his 2019 lecture, Alareer says the opposite. Far from admiring “blurred divisions,” he demands his students not be seduced by the poem’s elegance: “It presents the Israeli occupation as innocent, you know, the victim. Never, never bring the occupied and the occupier, the colonized and the colonizer, the oppressed and the oppressor, in the same scale.” (Recall that, to Alareer, “the occupation” describes Israel’s existence within any boundaries: “All Palestine is occupied.”)
The lecture is often incoherent in its indictments of Israel’s poetry. In one breath, the professor charges Amichai with “dehumanizing” and “alienating” Palestinians. In the next he insists the poem is “dangerous” precisely because it “presents people as equal” and the Palestinians as “human.”
Does he find the poem “beautiful,” and did it help him realize there are Israelis and Jews can be his allies, as he is quoted saying in the lecture observed by the Times? Again, the opposite appears to be true. “While this is a beautiful poem from an aesthetic perspective, this is a horrible, horrible poem,” he said in his 2019 lecture, “because this is a tool of further demonizing Palestinians, further dehumanizing Palestinians, and presenting Palestinians as, as uncivil, as uncivilized, as the enemy.”
(It is a bizarre interpretation of the poem.)
The poem peddles “alternative facts,” he continues. It “does damage to Palestine, to Palestinians.” It is an “ideological tool” and so largely “loses its poetic value.” And so on.
Alareer directs students to similar conclusions about Tuvia Ruebner and his poem “There, I said,” the other example he discusses in class. Ruebner, too, is guilty of fabricating history. His poem, too, is cast as “dangerous” and an “ideological tool.” It “erases,” “annihilates” and “eradicates” Palestinians. Its verses are a fabrication. It is “in part to blame for the ethnic cleansing and destruction of Palestine.” (Again, this interpretation is bewildering.)
Empathy? To analyze the poem, Alareer tells the class, you have to put yourselves in Ruebner’s shoes—but then “you have to endure the stink, of course.”
The poetry professor leaves no room for imagination: “I hate [this] kind of poetry,” says Alareer.
So much for being a surprising “champion” of Israeli poetry. The entire lesson on Israeli poetry, in fact, is framed from the start as one about the dark side of the art, a departure from what poetry can and should be. Here is how Alareer opens his lecture:
“So far we spoke about the thrilling aspects of poetry, how poetry transcends us, how poetry breaks the barriers and the boundaries and pushes the boundaries, you know all these cliches we use to talk about how the aesthetic values of poetry, how poetry helps and contribute to the advancement of human thought and civilization, how poetry changes people, how poetry unites us brings us together, etcetera etcetera, because poetry is universal, because poetry, you know, transcends all these barriers of race, and gender and religion and geography and time etc.
“However, poetry has also been used as a tool. A weapon, by totalitarian regimes, by colonizers.”
The lessons Alareer seeks to impart aren’t only about the poets themselves. “[T]he problem with the Zionists, uh, Zionists in general is that—many problems, actually,” he tells students. Jews living in Jerusalem are “occupiers,” “intruders” and “aliens.”
“Those liberal Zionists,” he tells the class later, “are very dangerous. They don’t oppose the occupation. They just want a cute occupation, an occupation that would kill Palestinians not by massacring and bombing them, but by probably starving them, besieging them, you know, or by, or if you kill them kill them off camera, off stage, because you’re making us look bad in the West.”
In other words, most Jews are murderers.
So much for showing “the humanity on the other side.”
Alareer’s lecture seems meant in its entirety to demonize and incite, to the extent that his analysis of both poems is disconnected entirely from the actual verse, and his poor students almost certainly emerge from the hour more ignorant than when they started.
None of this matters to The New York Times. Despite publicly available evidence to the contrary, the newspaper treats him as an archetypal noble professor, one who seeks the truth despite his surroundings, and despite even his own anger outside the classroom. As the newspaper’s subhead put it, “On social media, Refaat Alareer rages against Israel. In the lecture hall, he studiously analyzes the work of some of its leading poets—and surprises some of his students.”
But this is false. In a typical teaching year, there is no “studious analysis” of Israel in Alareer’s classroom. There is no “nuance,” no “appreciation,” “championing” or teaching of “humanity.” There is just more rage.
We know why Alareer does what he does. Online and in class, he hopes to spread the idea that “Zios” are “scum,” “filth,” “disease” and “the enemy of the free and decent people around the world.”
And we know why he’s employed to do so by the Islamic University of Gaza. Even The New York Times once admitted that the school is “one of the prime means for Hamas to convert Palestinians to its Islamist cause.”
But why do Kingsley and The New York Times go out of their way to cover up for Alareer, to the point where they—much like the professor they defend—egregiously mislead their audience?
Gilead Ini is a senior research analyst at CAMERA. His commentary has appeared in numerous publications, including “The Jerusalem Post,” “The Christian Science Monitor,” “Columbia Journalism Review” and “National Review.”
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