Wednesday, January 23, 2019

Let's Analyze Maryland's Anti-BDS Executive Order!

Back in 2017, Maryland Governor Larry Hogan (R) promulgated an executive order barring state contracts with companies which boycott Israel. Now, a former Maryland State Delegate, Saqib Ali, is suing, claiming the order violates the First Amendment.

I actually knew Saqib, back in the day (we used to be Facebook friends). He was elected to the House of Delegates in 2006, served for four years before unsuccessfully mounting a primary challenge to incumbent State Senator Nancy King, and hasn't returned to politics since. He was also an ally of then-Rep. Albert Wynn, back when he was trying to fend off an (ultimately successful) primary challenge from Donna Edwards.

But enough reminiscing. You don't come here for trips down memory lane, you come here for my cutting-edge analysis of anti-BDS enactments -- e.g., my guide for writing anti-BDS laws without making a "constitutional and PR mess". So how does this one fare?

Honestly? Better than many, albeit not perfect.

What's interesting about this particular EO is that it is actually quite narrowly written -- indeed, it is one of the closest to my preferred "just write a damned anti-discrimination provision" formulation that I've seen. The EO's definition of boycotting Israel covers only actions taken "because of [an entity's] Israeli national origin, or residence and incorporation in Israel or its territories."

Moreover, it expressly does not cover non-commercial actions, boycotts of the Israeli government or other "public" entities, and, most importantly, boycotts taken "because of the specific conduct of the person or entity."

So, in effect, the Maryland EO would preclude a contractor from saying, flatly, "I won't work with any Israeli entity, because they're Israeli." But if one had a specified objection to a given company -- "I won't work with this Israeli company, because they engage in this objectionable practice" -- that would be fine.

It's worth juxtaposing this order against the Rubio bill being debated in the Senate. To be sure, the latter is awkward to talk about because its really an anti-preemption bill and doesn't actually change any positive law regarding BDS. But the way Rubio formulates anti-BDS laws is quite different from how Hogan did it.

Rubio's bill purports to encompass boycotts taken "for purposes of coercing political action by, or imposing policy positions on, the Government of Israel." The at least quasi-expressive character of the boycott is built in; indeed, as I observed, Rubio's bill actually doesn't cover straightforward discrimination cases ("I won't work with Israelis because they're Israeli"), but would cover even boycotts of certain American companies if the goal was to "coerce" Israeli political action (e.g., boycotting Caterpillar to try and get Israel to change its housing demolition practices). The more expressive the boycott is, the more vulnerable it is under Rubio's proposed law.

By contrast, the Maryland EO runs in the opposite direction: where one is acted for specified, expressive reasons -- i.e., due to particular choices that company or entity has made -- the boycott is protected. It is only the raw act of refusing to work with someone based on their nationality that is proscribed. And while one could characterize even that as "expressive", we have very good reasons not to go down the road of "my refusal to do business with people based on their nationality is protected expression!"

So those are some of things I like about the EO. What don't I like? Well, there's the failure to differentiate between Israel proper and the territories, to begin with. And more importantly, I continue to think we'd be better off just writing a general anti-discrimination requirement, rather than an Israel-only one-off. Why not just say state contractors must certify that do not boycott any company "because of [its national origin, or residence and incorporation in a particular nation or territory"? So much aggravation could be avoided this way! (Which suggests that, maybe, the aggravation is the point).

The inclusion only of Israel also creates a needless viewpoint discrimination opening that otherwise wouldn't exist. On the one hand, it seems to me that the Maryland EO only prohibits conduct targeting Israeli national origin that could already be proscribed by a general anti-nationality discrimination rule. But there is obviously something askance in only prohibiting national origin discrimination against one nation (just as I'm fine with prohibiting discrimination on basis of a contractor's "religion", but I'm much less fine prohibiting discrimination on basis of a contractor being "Protestant" or "Buddhist". No, I don't think you should be able to discriminate against Buddhists -- but what message does it send when it's only that religion that's protected?).

I also observed that my preference is for these laws to only regulate contractors as contractors, not in their "off-the-clock" decisions, and that they probably should exempt sole proprietorships. The "off-the-clock" issue is vague here -- while the EO on face seems to also cover anti-Israel discrimination that is unrelated to the contractor's work for the state, the implementation of the EO seems to narrow its ambit. A bidder or contractor is asked to certify that it
has considered all bid/proposals submitted from qualified, potential subcontractors and suppliers, and has not, in the solicitation, selection, or commercial treatment of any subcontractor, vendor, or supplier, refused to transact or terminated business activities, or taken other actions intended to limit commercial relations, with a person or entity on the basis of Israeli national origin, or  residence or incorporation in Israel and its territories. The Bidder/Offeror also has not retaliated against any person or other entity for reporting such refusal, termination, or commercially limiting actions.
That, to me, asks only about their conduct with respect to subcontractors, vendors, or suppliers for the contract they're bidding on -- a case where Maryland's interest in the conduct of the potential contractor is at its apex. Obviously, Maryland has an interest in ensuring that its contractors pick their subcontractors, vendors, etc., based on their merits and not winnowed the field via political litmus tests.

But the EO definitely does apply to sole proprietors. That gives us a chance to mention Ali's specific suit, since he is suing as a sole proprietor who wants to apply for certain state software development contracts.

The thing is -- I think it's an open question whether Ali even has standing to sue, because I'm not sure he successfully pleads that his conduct actually conflicts with what's proscribed under the EO. For one, David Bernstein has argued that there is a difference between regulating a "sole proprietorship" and the individual who is a "sole proprietor" in their personal capacity -- only the former is precluded from boycotting Israel, but the individual-qua-individual is free to do whatever he wants. The complaint Ali filed does not, to my knowledge, ever say that Ali-the-software-engineer engages in any boycotting activity -- it's a personal stand he takes personally. Indeed, if anything it indicates the opposite:
Personally, Saqib Ali refuses to purchase Sabra hummus or SodaStream products, which have ties to Israel and its occupation of Palestine. He also advocates for others to join the BDS movement, and monitors current events in order to identify and promote specific BDS actions (Para. 35).
This is the only place in the complaint where Ali alleges any conduct or practice by him which supposedly clashes with the EO, and it speaks of what he does personally, not professionally (it should be, though almost certainly isn't, needless to say that Ali's expressive advocacy to promote the BDS movement is not covered by the EO and isn't germane to the complaint).

If we go back to how Maryland appears to be implementing the law -- asking the bidder whether it has refused to contract with an Israeli-qua-Israeli "in the solicitation, selection, or commercial treatment of any subcontractor, vendor, or supplier" -- this problem comes into sharper focus: has Ali, at any point, had even the occasion to reject Sabra or Sodastream as a "vendor" for one of his software engineering projects? I'm dubious.

Now to be fair, the whole point of sole proprietorships is that the border between the "company" and the individual is blurry and doesn't really need to be kept firmly separate. If Ali works out of a home office and decides he's not going to keep Sabra Hummus as a snack in the minifridge, is he boycotting or is the proprietorship? So there remains some uncertainties in such a case -- which is one reason why I think states need to be very careful in applying these laws to sole proprietorships.

But there's a bigger problem lurking Ali's case: His complaint doesn't actually say he boycotts Israeli companies on basis of their nationality. It says that he boycotts Sabra Hummus and SodaStream -- but it doesn't say why in any real detail ("which have ties to Israel and its occupation of Palestine"). The indication is that he chose those companies "because of the specific conduct" they've engaged in with respect to Palestinians -- conduct which Ali objects to. But such decisions are expressly not covered by the Executive Order. It seems to me that to establish an actual clash with the law, Ali would have to aver that he boycotts those companies because of their "Israeli national origin" or their "incorporation and residence" in Israel or Israeli-occupied territories. And so while he says he can't sign the certification "in good faith", I actually think it's likely that he hasn't done anything that would foreclose him from doing so.

Indeed, I kind of suspect that Ali's problem isn't that he actually engages in conduct proscribed by the EO. It's that he doesn't want to say he doesn't boycott Israel -- even if, for purposes of the rules of the EO, he doesn't. This isn't as uncommon as you'd think -- there's a long history of government compelling corporations to engage in certain speech (e.g., being forced to label that their product is "Made in China"), and an equally long history of corporations trying to allege that such compulsions violate the First Amendment. I tend to be skeptical of those claims, particularly in the context of a certification submitted to a contracting officer -- hardly an activity typically thought of as "expressive". And here, where Ali could sign the certification and would nonetheless be free to state -- as loudly as he wants -- that he's still boycotting SodaStream and he's doing it because of this that and the other malign conduct SodaStream has engaged in, the restriction on his expressive capacities is minimal.

The law here remains unsettled, and the Maryland order is certainly not perfect -- in particular, I just really wish states would get off the "anti-BDS" kick entirely and just pass consistent rules governing nationality-based discrimination if that's what they care about. That said, the Maryland EO is considerably better than many of its peers -- mostly because it contains itself to cases of straightforward discrimination and, unlike Rubio's bill, doesn't target expressive conduct. And because it's so narrowly focused, it might not even be the case that Ali actually has standing to challenge it -- I think there's a very viable motion to dismiss here for the state's attorney general's office. I suppose we'll see soon enough.

Meeting Day Roundup

Today was a big meeting day for me (I was basically continuously talking with people from 10 AM to 3:45 PM -- lunch included). But it was fun! The conversations were nice and very productive. I met somebody new, got mentored by my adviser and mentored two undergraduate advisees. All in all, a good day.

* * *

My friend Sarah Levin explains why, as a Mizrahi Jewish women, she did not feel comfortable marching with the Women's March this year. Particularly given how the debate over the Women's March has often been perceived to break down as "White Jewish women" versus "Middle Eastern/POC women", Sarah's perspective regarding Mizrahi erasure is an important one that needs consideration.

In the course of defending excluding all Israelis from the country, the Malaysian Prime Minister also explains why he so frequently indulges in naked antisemitism: "when I say only the 'Zionists,' people don’t understand. What they do understand is the word 'yahudi' or 'Jews.'" Oh, I bet they do.

Orin Kerr flags a Third Circuit which raises an interesting qualified immunity question: how long after the release of an opinion does the legal holding of that opinion become "clearly established". My instinctive view is "immediately" (or, at least, immediately after the mandate issues). But that may well be colored by my view that qualified immunity is basically a set of special privileges given to government officials to break the law that aren't extended to everyday citizens.

Buzzfeed publishes a report (apparently originally printed in a Swiss magazine) claiming that two Jewish political operatives were originally behind the campaign to vilify George Soros; a JTA article expresses skepticism about the timeline.

Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-MN) apologizes for a 2012 tweet where she accused Israel having "hypnotized the world" to blind global actors to the Jewish state's "evil". The apology was proximately prompted by this column from Bari Weiss, explaining the antisemitic provenance behind the "hypnotized" language; Weiss thanked Omar for her apology and extended an open invitation to her to write on the issue in the New York Times op-ed section.

Monday, January 21, 2019

Happy MLK Day!

Whether you march, or write, or sit in or stand up or speak out, here's wishing a great MLK day to all those putting in the work to making our society more fair, more just, more equitable, and more egalitarian than it was yesterday.

Friday, January 18, 2019

In Relating to our Black Allies, Jews Need To Stop Being Babies

Every toy for babies is basically the same.

There is a button to be pressed, or some other simple action -- a bop or a shake or a slap.

The toy emits a sound, squeak, or noise.

The baby is happy beyond belief, and presses the button again. The sound repeats, and the baby is (somehow) just as ecstatic as the first time. Rinse, wash, repeat forever.

Sometimes I feel like, in our relationship with the Black community, the Jewish community remains in infancy. Because we are constantly behaving like babies, and we need to cut it out.

Here's the play: we find a Black person. We ask them to condemn antisemitism (Farrakhan is always a good target). They comply. We are delighted. We press the button again. They make the condemnatory noise again. *clap clap clap*. Oh, what could be more fun? And again and again and again we go, pressing the button on our fabulous condemn-antisemitism toy.

Until eventually, our partner doesn't want to play anymore. Maybe they're concerned at the disproportionate attention Black antisemitism seems to receive. Maybe they want to talk about something other than antisemitism. Maybe they just don't like being used as a toy. So we press the button, expecting to hear the delightful sound of a condemnation of antisemitism, and ... it doesn't come.

And then, like a baby, the tantrum begins.

"How could you not condemn a monster like Farrakhan?" "Don't you care about Jews?" "If anyone asked me to condemn a racist in my community, I wouldn't hesitate!" Bawl bawl bawl.

A moment's reflection shows how juvenile these demands are. There are plenty of actions by the Israeli government I oppose as wrongful or even (in some cases) prejudicial. And I condemn them, often. But I would not accept anyone's entitlement to have me do so "on demand", like a speak-and-spell, any and every time I wished to present myself in a public space. That sort of behavior -- and it does happen (remember Matisyahu in Spain?) -- is rightfully deemed antisemitic. So we should understand how our parallel demands in the Black community are rightfully understood as racist.

In Faces at the Bottom of the Well, Derrick Bell recounts an incident where Rep. Charlie Rangel was asked on television to condemn some antisemitic remark by Farrakhan. He did so, while also expressing frustration at the sense that Black Americans "have to carry around their last statement condemning Farrakhan" like a passbook in order to be accepted into civil society. Yet this is the effect of our infantile mode of relating to our Black peers. Whenever they swing into our orbit, we reach out and press the button, waiting for them to say those magic words for us.

I'm not saying that there is no antisemitism in the Black community, and I'm not saying there aren't Black people who really do apologize for Louis Farrakhan's antisemitism. This post isn't about them. This post is about people who know full well that Farrakhan is an antisemite, and have never given any indication they think otherwise, but just resent being asked to say so over and over and over again.

So to be clear: What makes a Black person an ally to the Jewish community is not that they stand ready to be pressed as a button whenever a Jewish person needs to hear the comforting sound "Louis Farrakhan is an antisemite." That's an unreasonable, frankly infantile demand. But too often it seems characteristic of how Jews relate to those in the Black community we wish to see "allyship" from.

There's one other element of this analogy that I think it's important to bring forward. The reason babies love these toys is not just because they appreciate the sounds that they make. That's part of it, but just as important is the toy's testament to the baby's ability to manipulate the world around them. They can tell that when they push this button, that results -- and for an infant who generally can't really cause things to happen in the world (no matter how much they might want to), that's a really nice feeling.

When it comes to antisemitism and eliciting a response to it, Jews are in a similar boat. We very much want people to respond to our calls; to condemn antisemitism when we ask them to. But for the most part, the world doesn't listen to us. When we, say, ask Mike Huckabee to not make gratuitous Holocaust comparisons, he flatly rejects the demand and snarls that "Israel and Jewish people need to make friends, not insult the ones they have." Like infants, Jews are constantly made quite aware that we are for the most part sitting at the mercy of people bigger and stronger than we are.

So, when there is a spot in the world where, when we say "condemn antisemitism!", something actually happens, there is something understandably exciting and delightful about it. It is an exercise of power by people who typically feel powerless.

A similar dynamic explains why sometimes there might seem to be outsized attention to Jewish racism. For the most part, condemnations by communities of color of racism instigated by White Americans fall on deaf ears, for it is a feature of Whiteness in America that they are if they wish impervious to such demands. And likewise, it is a feature of Jewish vulnerability that we are not so impervious and that therefore at least sometimes, in some spaces, we can be compelled to answer. That, I imagine, is a delightful rarity. So perhaps it's understandable why those attacking racism so often seem to draw from the Jewish well.

But if it still feels like an exploitation of Jewish marginal status, that's because it is. And likewise, the reason we're able to get some Black leaders, some of the time, to condemn antisemitism on cue is because of racism. The comparative vulnerability of a Black American versus a, say, Mike Huckabee means that they have to be responsive to these sorts of demands in circumstances where others don't. The constant call to "condemn antisemitism" exploits that vulnerability -- which is to say, it exploits Black marginalization. And that exploitation is reasonably resented.

If the only way we relate to our Black allies is by asking them, again and again, to condemn antisemitism, we don't actually have a relationship as allies. We have a relationship that could be fulfilled by a tape recorder. True allyship is bidirectional. It involves giving as well as taking, and it involves learning new things, not just repeating the same homilies over and over again. Most importantly, a genuine allyship involves trust -- trust to know that one's partners oppose antisemitism even when they're not saying out loud. Trust that they've got your back even when they're operating in precarious circumstances, where sensitivities are on edge and tensions run highest.

And unfortunately, right now, it seems that trust is lacking. Can that lack be laid entirely at the feet of the Jewish community? No, it can't. But do we have our share of the blame? Yes, most certainly.

I get, obviously, why it feels good to hear Black people condemn antisemitism. And I get the social conditions which make it easier to focus on Black people who do or don't criticize Louis Farrakhan compared to tackling the far more entrenched, but far more dangerous, iterations of antisemitism in Congress, in churches, among Soros-conspiracymongers and White supremacist murderers.

But such pleasures are cheap, and we are not babies. It's time for the Jewish community to grow up.

Wednesday, January 16, 2019

Any Institutionalist Non-Joiners About?

Here's an interesting contradiction about myself that I've long been aware of:

Politically, I'm very liberal. Temperamentally, I'm extremely conservative. I hate change, I love routine, and I'm so loss-averse it borders on being actually debilitating.

I don't think that combination is necessarily rare, but I always found it an interesting juxtaposition.

But there's another internal tension within myself that I only just realized, and I'm curious if anyone else identifies with it:

I'm very much an institutionalist (that is, I believe in "working inside the system" and think that our major social institutions, even when deeply problematic, can be reformed rather that needing to be burnt to the ground and rebuilt anew). But I'm very much not a joiner.

For example, while my college didn't have a Hillel, it did have a Jewish Students Club (and interest house), which I had relatively minimal contact with. I wasn't averse to it, and I'd go to events and stuff, but I had no formal affiliation with it. I never joined CarlDems, or any of the other political-activist groups on campus (then, as now, my political engagement was done almost exclusively by writing -- I was a columnist for our campus liberal magazine, the Carleton Progressive).

As an adult, I've never really been interested in becoming a "Jewish Professional" (working for the ADL or whatnot). I'm extremely reticent to sign petitions or campaigns, and I've never wanted to run for office. That said, I'm at root a defender of the major liberal institutions in America and in the Jewish community -- the ADLs, the Democratic Party, and so on. I don't always agree with them. But I basically think their problems can be reformed from the inside -- and accordingly I'm generally skeptical of organizations and movements I see as "insurgent" in nature.

Note that I'm not saying that this particular combination -- institutionalist non-joiner -- is a healthy or productive one. Indeed, now that I think about it it seems pretty quiescent (though it's weird to think of myself as politically non-engaged). But I'm more curious if this basic standpoint is one other people relate to.

Things People Blame the Jews For, Volume LI: The Oxycontin "Holocaust" (With Bonus Antisemitic Hate Mail!)

Some of you may have read recent reports that members of the Sackler family, owners of Perdue Pharmaceuticals, may have directed company officials to mislead doctors regarding the addictive dangers of Oxycontin (the Massachusetts Attorney General's office is pursuing an investigation).

I have no other knowledge of the case that what I've just read in the press. Oh, and what I've learned from a recent bit of hate mail that was sent to my by a random figure named "M.D. Block". I wish I could reprint the whole thing, but here's what he thinks about OxyContin:


America has been very good to Jews.  Jews brought America the 9-11 Attack and OxyContin.  It is past time for America to react!  Overreaching by Jews resulted in the Holocaust.  No lesson learned!

If Jews can compel countries to compensate Holocaust victims for billions of dollars, why can’t America compel the Sackler family to compensate the many families that have been subjected to a  OXYCONTIN HOLOCAUST by paying doctors to prescribe oxycontin which is so addictive, patients are already addicted by the time they leave a hospital.
The "everything in bold and italics" is, indeed, original to the letter.

Needless to say, if any members of the Sackler family have broken the law, they deserve to be punished in accordance of the law -- which is not the same thing as saying "OxyContin -- brought to you by the Jews (along with 9/11)!"

But I confess -- this post really was a vector to show-off just how loony-tunes this letter was. Other highlights from my charming correspondent:

On Tamika Mallory:
Why should the very patriotic Ms.Mallory care what her reputation is among Jew Fools.  Ms. Mallory is in her country exercising her First Amendment freedoms for which many brave people, including African Americans, excluding Jews, fought, sacrificed and died.  If Jews are too fragile for our First Amendment freedoms, they should relocate to the country from which they are their people emigrated.
I appreciate the political, if not grammatical, care the author took in not saying "go back to Israel".

On AIPAC and Jews in America generally:
Many Jews have not served America well:  AIPAC is the Harvey Weinstein of our Hallowed Halls of Congress using corrosion and intimidation to compel members of congress to become whores for Israel.  Looting American tax dollars and stealing Palestinian homes and land generate this growing notion that it would be a far, far better thing for Americans and Palestinians if America had not liberated Jews and allow them to immigrated to our Protestant country.
Build that (antisemitic) Wall!

On Chuck Schumer:
This betrayal of America should  preclude this insidious Jewish ingrate from serving as the Senate minority leader, a position for which he is extremely unqualified.  I believe those who betrayed America’s values do not deserve to be citizens of America.
In fairness, how much of my Twitter feed really disagrees with this sentiment?

On our members of Congress, generally:
So many members of congress pledge allegiance to the flag of the welfare/terrorist state of Israel and to the evil for which it stands…. They should be compelled to take their feet to where their heart is - Israel,  or be confined to Guantanamo or go the way of Ethel and Julius Rosenberg.
Wait, these guys get to go to Israel? That seems unfair!

On the Holocaust:
Hitler offered six million Jews to any country that would accept them - none obliged.    Europeans killed Jews and were responsible for the Holocaust, not the Palestinians!  European Jewish refugees went to Palestine, took homes and land that belong to the Palestinians making the Palestinians refugees.  So Jews are to the Palestinians what  Hitler was to them? Are Jews any less evil?  Jews owned  7% of Palestine at this time.  The  oppressed are now the oppressors!  Netanyahu is Israel’s Hitler!
Hey, at least he seems to concede the Holocaust happened!

On the Bible:
 A Biblical scholar recently defined the Bible as a barbaric literature for a barbaric time.  Jews are synonymous with barbarism! ...  Of course, Jews are guided by the God of Greed.  They know no other.
I've got some bad news about the contents of the Bible your "Protestant country" reads....
On Marco Rubio, Bob Menendez, and Ileana Ros-Lehtinen 
Obviously it would have been a far, far better thing for America if these Cubans had become lunch for sharks en route to America.
In case this one seems out of place, their shark-food status is based on their support for aid packages to Israel.

This barely scratches the surface, but I think we should conclude with our lovely reader's concluding line:
So please display a little reverence and respect instead of contempt.  The 2% of Jews in our Protestant country are outranked! 

Tuesday, January 15, 2019

Board Game Night Roundup

Let's see, what's new .... having a board game night with some friends, sent a (horribly rough) first draft of my first dissertation chapter to my advisers, been trying to put together some columns for Tablet, and have been in a real love-hate relationship with my Twitter account for the past week or so.

What's new with you?

* * *

Can't endorse this piece by David Roberts hard enough: the goal of the Green New Deal should be 100% decarbonization, not necessarily 100% renewable. If the best, fastest, cheapest way to get to the latter is through the former, awesome! But if (say) nuclear power ends up being the most direct route to the finish line -- listen, when it comes to climate change, it's all hands on deck right now.

South Florida city commissioner, on Palestinian-American Rep. Rashida Tlaib: "A Hamas-loving anti-Semite has NO place in government! She is a danger and [I] would not put it past her to become a martyr and blow up Capitol Hill." Gross racism is gross.

Pranksters dupe Laura Loomer into thinking CAIR got her booted off Twitter. Wall Street Journal reporters then credulously follow along. (No matter how dumb the internet is....)

Really interesting story on the life of Maya Casablanca, a famous (in her time) Moroccan-Israeli singer who recently passed away.

National Union -- the far-right flank of the far-right Jewish Home party -- replaces Uri "I am a spy" Ariel with Bezalel "Proud Homophobe" Smotrich as its new leader. Smotrich -- who has advocated for segregating maternity wards in Israeli hospitals and denies that there is even such thing as Jewish terrorism -- is probably the only member of the Knesset to make Oren Hazan seem like a sober moderate.

I love this profile-interview of Angela Buchdahl, a prominent Korean-American Reform Rabbi, as she talks about intermarriage, assimilation, and Jewish continuity. She really speaks to my understanding of an inclusive, progressive Jewish community.

Mini-Women's March Roundup-within-a-Roundup!

Saturday, January 12, 2019

Project Runway All-Stars! Now, With All Stars!

Did you know there's a new season of Project Runway All-Stars? I didn't! Did you know we're in the seventh season of All-Stars? I definitely didn't! That's shocking. And what's more shocking is that -- unlike certain past seasons -- the competitors really are all stars! In fact, every single contestant has won a season of Project Runway. Pretty impressive.

And to add an extra dose of freshness: not all of the winners are from the American edition of the show. It also includes winners of Project Runway Canada (Sunny Fong -- already eliminated! -- and Evan Biddell), Australia (Juli Grbac and Christina Exie), Brazil (Cynthia Hayashi), Netherlands (Django Steenbakker), and the UK (Jasper Garvida).

Of course, I can't really tell apart the newbies yet. So let's instead give a brief scouting report on some of our old returning favorites:

Anthony Ryan

Oh, Anthony Ryan. Famous for saying, after surviving testicular cancer, that he's "rocking one now", and more famous around these parts for Laura Bennett telling him that if didn't stop being so annoying she'd "slap him so hard he'll be rocking none". Anthony Ryan is the one designer on this season with a slight asterisk -- he didn't win his season of Project Runway proper, he won an All-Stars season (and a pretty weak season at that). He also got really lucky that the judges decided to do no eliminations in the first episode, since his "Native American" inspired outfit was clearly the worst to go down the runway.

He came back nicely in episode two, though he clearly hated the blue/orange color palette he was assigned and that disdain somehow was communicated in an otherwise nice outfit. Seriously, it could work really well as a uniform for the UVA flag team -- and somehow, I don't mean that as an insult.


One of my old favorites, but a controversial winner. She had weak technical skills to begin with, which she covered for via a flowing, drape-y style that doesn't demand much sewing acumen (or so I gather -- it's not like I know how to sow). First thing she says upon coming back this season is that she hasn't done any sowing since her original season of Project Runway -- she works in parts of fashion where she doesn't have to do any of the needlework. Maybe a wise career choice, but it's hard to imagine it will serve her well on the show.

So far, her looks have been ... well, the good news is you always know which piece coming down the runway is Anya's. The bad news is you always know which piece coming down the runway is Anya's. The looks are already getting repetitive, and it doesn't seem likely she has the range to really stretch out.


One of two double-winners on this season (along with Seth Aaron): he won both his "regular" season and an All-Stars season. Kinda makes you wonder what their careers are doing if they nonetheless keep coming back onto the show -- it's not like you see Christian Siriano returning. Anyway, Dmitry is one of my absolute favorites, and was the clear winner of the first episode with a Bohemian-chic velvet look that felt both very sellable and very fashionable. And it was very different from the highly structured looks that we've associated with Dmitry in the past. If you're asking me who I'm rooting for this season, he's probably it.


Irina seems to have taken a step back since she won her Project Runway season (the ill-fated excursion to Los Angeles -- oh, so very long ago). Remember her newspaper coat? One of the greatest, most iconic looks ever produced on the show. Now? Her first look -- a giant feathered-red coat -- got positive remarks from the judges even though I was on the side of those who thought it made her model look like a giant rooster (also, she said it was inspired by merlot since the Republic of Georgia produces a lot of wine. I don't even drink wine and I know it doesn't come in the color of pasta sauce).

But at least there I could see a valid difference of opinion. Episode two, by contrast -- hooboy is she lucky that Sunny decided to flip a middle finger to the challenge parameters (a completely yellow dress with a tiny blue broach buried in the back does not satisfy the criteria of a colors challenge, buddy). If a Disney princess ever fell into prostitution, that's the look she'd wear. It was one of the tackiest things I've ever seen. Irina has always been excellent technically, but if she doesn't shape up soon she'll be shipping out.


Did you know the "Tim Gunn save" was invented for Michelle? It's true! Tim Gunn was so aghast they were going to send her home in Season 11 that he prevailed upon the judges to give her another chance. And that ad hoc intervention became formalized as a the "Tim Gunn save" the next season. Michelle ended up winning the whole show, so the intervention was clearly justified in her case (and I remember thinking that at the time). But I remember feeling like she'd lost some of her edge when she came back to an earlier All-Stars season, and she's been pretty unremarkable thus far.


A well-liked winner, though she took it away from fan (and personal) favorite Amanda in Season 11. He's the king of the tassle and fringe, and the judges loved his look from episode two even though Jill and I both thought it looked like his model was sprouting tufts of hair all over her body. Gross. Sean definitely is talented, but I never quite got onto his train as much as some other Project Runway observers (and judges). I'd love to see him expand his range a little bit.

Seth Aaron

Alongside Dmitry, the other 900 pound monster this season. I wasn't actually Seth Aaron's biggest fan on his original season, but I've grown to appreciate him more and more (that he designs for Martha Nussbaum certainly helps!). There's a quiet confidence to him now that I think will carry him well this season, where he already won (and deservedly so) the episode two colors challenge. The thing about Project Runway is that, over the years, there has been a wide range of talent across different seasons, such that some wins have been considerably more impressive than others. I think at this stage, it is fair to say that Seth Aaron sits as one of the stronger victors in Project Runway history, and he'll be a real contender to win this season.

Still rooting for Dmitry though.

Thursday, January 10, 2019

What Are Jews?

Thirty years ago, the great feminist Jewish writer Evelyn Torton Beck wrote that "if the concept ‘Jew’ does not fit the categories we have created, then … we need to rethink our categories."

She was echoing an observation by Albert Memmi, who lamented the "sociologists' lack of imagination" in their insistent efforts to slot "Jews" into a familiar and well-trodden social category schemas.

For it sometimes seems that any answer to the question "what are Jews" doesn't quite work.

Are we a religion? Yes, in part -- but certainly not just that. There are and have always been many Jews, fully recognized as part of the Jewish community, who have no particular religious or spiritual orientation whatsoever. The attempt to delimit Jewishness as "just a religion" almost always is an attempt to degrade or delegitimize Jewishness as a collective identity in favor of an individualistic, atomized spirituality where people "just happen to be Jewish" as they might happen to be Catholic or Protestant.

Are we a race? Surely, at times Jews have been racialized -- most notably by Nazi racial scientists. But why should we so eagerly accept their conclusions? Moreover, the argument that Jews are a "race" doesn't rest easily with acknowledgment of racial diversity within Judaism. Are Black Jews not Black (because their race is Jewish)? Or are they not truly Jewish (because their race is Black)? Or if we accept that there are Black Jews and Latino Jews and Persian Jews, what am I? "Just Jewish"? How come I get the neutral descriptor? What makes my Jewish identity more central than theirs?

Are we an ethnicity? Much of the same issues with "race" seem to apply, and most of the usage of "ethnicity" around Judaism typically is more fine-grained around Ashkenazi versus Sephardic. But even there, it has been observed that these are minhags -- there are a great many African-American Ashkenazi Jews, after all -- so why should Ashkenazi be defined in terms of ethnicity, as opposed to liturgical community?

Are we a "nation"? Clearly we've often defined ourselves that way. But doing so seems to walk straight into a dual loyalty charge -- after all, isn't my nation American? Is there are difference between "Jewish" the nation and "Israel" the nation?

Sometimes I dodge and just say Jews are a "people", which works -- but only because it is so self-consciously vague. What is a "people"? What am I even trying to communicate in describing Jews that way?

Recently, I heard someone say that the best way to describe Jews is as a "civilization". A civilization can include people of an array of different racial or ethnic backgrounds, under a multitude of different political authorities. It might have an associated religion, but it can admit a diverse range of manners of practicing it or living it out. A civilization has distinctive art, culture, history, politics -- and not just one thread of these, but many. There is Jewish art, but not just one style; Jewish history, but not just one narrator; Jewish culture, but not just one form.

Is it a perfect fit? No. But if it doesn't fit, the problem might not be with the Jews, but with the categories which fail to fully account for the Jewish case. And for me, I'd much rather preserve the ambivalent, fuzzy contours of the Jewish civilization than I would attempt to shoehorn Jews into a category that wasn't built for us to occupy.

It Wasn't a Bomb Roundup

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Unbelievably, this package -- which randomly arrived at the offices of The Jewish Daily Forward for me (I do not work at the Forward, for the record) -- didn't contain a bomb. The truth was actually weirder -- it was (eight copies of) a pamphlet on Jews, marijuana, and prostitution, given to "strengthin [sic] you and your friends."

What a weird world we live in sometimes.

* * *

The Tarrant County, Texas GOP prepares to vote on whether to remove a party official for that most heinous crime of ... being Muslim. Tarrant County is not some tiny speck -- it's where Fort Worth is.

Two Black men have turned up dead in the house of a prominent California Democratic Party donor -- another man who was hired to do drugs and sexual activity shares his story.

Carly Pildis has an insightful column on how to tighten synagogue security while recognizing that a police presence won't necessarily make all congregants feel safe (picking up on a conversation Bentley Addison helped start last November).

Tema Smith has a good essay in the Forward on the history of Jewish Whiteness in America.

Andrew Silow-Carroll does an excellent job parsing the issue of Rep. Rashida Tlaib's "dual loyalty" insinuation from a few days ago.

An ADL staffer reports on a recent interfaith trip he organized with African-American pastors to Israel and the Palestinian territories. Though I think the term "Third Narrative" has already been taken.

The Chronicle of Higher Education reports on the outcome of a significant sexual harassment investigation involving a Michigan State political scientist (though -- lawyer's tic -- the article is incorrect to say that the "preponderance of the evidence" standard used in the investigation wouldn't be used in court. "Preponderance of the evidence" is the normal standard used in non-criminal judicial proceeding).

Senator Kamala Harris comes out in favor of legalizing marijuana and expunging the convictions of non-violent offenders.

And, to complete the "not a bomb" circuit, a Berkeley man was arrested after leaving a fake bomb laced with antisemitic slurs on the UC-Berkeley campus