Hummus Summit in Paterson (2)

Just got back from the Hummus Summit with Curtis Sliwa this afternoon in Paterson. I’m pressed for time, as usual, so no time to write it up. For now, I’ll just post a few pictures (and silly captions), and write up a post later in the week.

Hey, what a town:

welcome

Oh wait, is there a double entendre here?

mainstreet

Curtis Sliwa and Noam Laden in Al Basha Restaurant.

curtisnoam

A chance meeting on Main Street outside of the restaurant:

curtis1

More later. And now, back to my day job as…what am I again, an assistant professor of something somewhere?

Postscript, December 7, 2015: Here’s coverage of the event in today’s Bergen Record. For obvious reasons, only bits and pieces of a wide-ranging two hour interview made it into the article.

Postscript, December 11, 2015: Now that I have a minute, I thought I’d comment on the significance of this event, over and above the opportunity to meet a celebrity and eat lunch at his expense (not that that’s trivial).

At one level, it was an opportunity for a show of solidarity: Curtis Sliwa and I make for unlikely collaborators, but the fact is that we agree on the celebration rumors. Contrary to the blanket rejections that we heard from Paterson city officials when we were investigating the celebration rumors, we both found credible evidence of a celebration-like disturbance in Paterson on 9/11. Contrary to Donald Trump’s defenders and Islamophobes across the land, neither of us found more than that, and neither of us have found the further stories that have been bruited about as plausible. (I’ll have more to say about those “further stories” in a separate post.)

I don’t know if Sliwa would agree, but I would add that the evidence we did collect was not itself definitive, either about the occurrence of an event, or about its celebratory nature. I regard it as likely that some such event took place, but I wouldn’t insist that it did, much less spread rumors (a la Fred Siegel) that small-scale celebrations were definitely occurring throughout the area. (I’ll have more to say about Siegel’s comments on MSNBC in a separate post. For now, I’ll simply note that in a week’s time, he hasn’t acknowledged an email I sent him care of the Manhattan Institute, asking for clarification of his references to me on Joe Scarborough’s show.)

At another level, the event was an opportunity to set the record straight. Trump used Sliwa’s name to spread his, Trump’s, lies. Fred Siegel has used my name to spread his, Siegel’s, confabulations. Sliwa said that there was a small disturbance in Paterson on 9/11; Trump used that to claim vindication for his own bullshit. I said that it was likely that there was a small disturbance in front of the public library in Paterson, and said in print that it was likely that a dozen or less were involved; Siegel has used that to claim that there were “demonstrations” (“a couple of dozen people at most”). I don’t know any better way of calling out bullshitters except to keep calling them out for their bullshit. In that respect, the Hummus Summit could well have been named The Anti-Bullshit Summit, except that that name probably wouldn’t have gone well with lunch.

At a third level, the event was a demonstration of the malign power of rumor. Noam Laden, the other invitee to the Summit, described how he had bought the Paterson celebration rumor hook, line, and sinker for fourteen years, inferring that Paterson would be unsafe for Jews (he’s Jewish) given what the rumor implied about the sensibilities of those who live there. Though he lives in Jersey City (an irony of its own), he hadn’t set foot in Paterson since before 9/11 for fear of having to deal with a neighborhood full of terrorist sympathizers. The result was that he stopped eating at one of his favorite restaurants and shunned Paterson until he was convinced by Sliwa to attend the Summit there. I give Laden credit for admitting all that, and for reversing his earlier views.

Incidentally, Laden told us that his brother’s name is Ben, and that in the wake of 9/11, his brother had endured a fair bit of serious, non-joke-intending harrassment for having the name “Ben Laden.” I know I overuse the line, but this story forces me to repeat it: is there any final answer to the question, “How stupid can you get?”

Though we didn’t happen to discuss the point at the Summit, I suspect that Noam Laden’s worries about Paterson were exacerbated by the Paterson Protocols controversy of 2002, in which I also happened to play a cameo role. The story was originally broken by Daniel Pipes, receiving widespread coverage at the time not just in the mainstream press, but in Marc Levin’s 2005-2006 documentary film “Protocols of Zion.” I think the 9/11 celebration rumors are best understood in the light of this later controversy; it’s the later controversy that retrospectively gives the rumors the apparent plausibility that they seem to have. (I have yet to collect all of my Paterson writings and all of my writing on Muslim anti-Semitism in one place, but I probably should.)

A final point: Laden’s story draws attention to a quiet but pervasive phenomenon in north Jersey, namely, the quasi-segregationist attitudes that north Jersey suburbanites have vis-a-vis its cities. In other words, I don’t think Laden’s pre-Summit attitudes are atypical, and don’t think that they’re limited to fears of Arabs or Muslims.*

Sad but true: North Jersey suburbanites treat north Jersey’s cities in the way that non-Arab Israelis treat the West Bank or Gaza. As far as they’re concerned, Jersey’s cities are scary, crime-ridden “no-go zones” where civilized people fear to tread. Mention “Newark,” “Paterson,” or “Jersey City” to the average north Jersey suburbanite, and with remarkable frequency you’ll get the response, “Oh, I don’t go there.” Unsurprisingly, the suburbs are a semi-gated, exclusively zoned echo chamber of genteel racial and class-based stereotypes. (In fairness, I should probably say that a person might legitimately want to avoid driving to Jersey City given the misery involved in getting there: driving into Jersey City during rush hour is not altogether different from driving into Jerusalem from Ramallah via Qalandia Checkpoint.)

These attitudes seem to be an artifact of the 1980s and 90s, when crime rates soared, and city streets were indeed unsafe to walk. But that was decades ago. It doesn’t seem to matter that crime rates have recently fallen to record lows.  The fact remains that our cities are still alien territory. It shouldn’t be a surprise, then, that rumors flourish about them. That’s what rumors are for: they speak the otherwise unspeakable about the irredeemably alien, and north Jersey’s urbanites are apparently as alien to its suburbanites as literal aliens might be to earthlings. The lesson here seems to be that for all of the cosmopolitan pretensions of the New York metro area, we don’t seem to get out much.

One wonders how a country is supposed to hold itself together when its citizens are so alienated by and from the people who live a couple of neighborhoods away that they instinctively shun them on the basis of the wildest rumors about them. A house divided….?

*As a Jersey City resident, Laden is not a suburbanite, so the point I’m making here is not about him. My point is that his story draws attention to the phenomenon I’m describing, not that he himself exemplifies it.

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