Wednesday, August 26, 2015

Take Me Down To The Other Side

Robert Fisk is deeply frustrated that his fellow journalists haven't figured out how to blame ISIS on Israel and the West yet.

That's a little unfair. But not really. Fisk's main argument is that ISIS' breathtaking barbarity has blinded journalists to one of their paramount duties: to report on "the other side of the story." As applied to ISIS, that's one of those statements that makes one recoil at first glance, makes sense when you think about it, but is repulsive anew once one sees how Fisk operationalizes it.

Journalists absolutely should examine all sides of the story, including a story like ISIS. Figuring out the "why" -- the actual undergirding ideology of ISIS and how it conceptualizes itself - is a valuable service and an important journalistic project. Graeme Woods' chilling report in The Atlantic is an excellent example of this.

But Fisk doesn't actually seem to want this. What he wants, desperately, is not the "other side" of the story but a very specific story that would contextualize ISIS into a framework of global relations he's comfortable with.
So how, today, do we tell the “other side” of the story? Of course, we can trace the seedlings and the saplings of this cult of lost souls to the decades of cruelty which local Middle Eastern despots – usually with our complete support – visited upon their people. Or the hundreds of thousands of dead Muslims for whose death we were ultimately responsible during and after our frightful – or “bloodthirsty” or “twisted” or “vile” – 2003 invasion of Iraq.
"Of course" we can? Maybe we can. But maybe not. There's no guarantee that ISIS' emergence is primarily attributable to Western meddling in Middle Eastern affairs. To be sure, it's doubtful that any contemporary historical phenomenon can wholly be divorced from such influences -- but at that level of generality the point becomes banal. Outside such tautological points, it may still be the case that ISIS is the direct love-child of bad acts from western governments. But it might also be the case that it is primarily the result of indigenous forces and should be related to as such.

Robert Fisk's story of the Middle East has long been one where most of the injustices, the barbarism, the death and the mutilation can firmly be laid at the feet of western (and Jewish) actors. ISIS challenges that story; it presents a different story that doesn't easily align itself with the older narrative. Ultimately, Fisk isn't calling for the "other side" to be told, he's expressing frustration that his story isn't. But sometimes even the "other side of the story" isn't the one you want to hear.

Tuesday, August 25, 2015

Guess Who's Coming To Lead J Street U?

The Washington Post has a fascinating interview up with Amna Farooqi, who just was elected head of J Street U (the organization's campus arm). Farooqi has caused a bit of a stir since she is a Pakistani-American Muslim -- not exactly whom you would expect to lead a pro-Israel Zionist organization.

I highly recommend reading this interview. Farooqi comes off as an extremely impressive and passionate woman; one genuinely committed to the cause of ensuring Jewish self-determination in tandem with Palestinian liberation. Her election has given J Street more than a milestone -- it has given them a strong leader as well.

The other thing I wanted to remark upon was the Farooqi's notation of her upbringing in Potomac, Maryland as a key influence that led her to this point. I'm familiar with those environs (Bethesda is the town next over), and to read what she said is truly heartening. Bethesda and Potomac are heavily Jewish, and strongly pro-Israel. That can be an interesting cocktail for someone who is not Jewish, and grows up in sympathy with the Palestinian cause. If it is expressed in zealous or ethnocentric or (god-forbid) racist terms, it can poison the outlook forever. But for Farooqi, her Jewish pro-Israel friends growing seemed to instill in her a sense that there was something to this narrative worth exploring. That, I think, is a tribute to my neighborhood and the sorts of people who live there, and the sort of thoughtfulness that is the right way for people to deliberate upon political issues of all sorts.

So I wish Ms. Farooqi the best of luck. But if I'm being honest, it seems she has enough of a wellspring of talent and passion that luck may well not be necessary.

Saturday, August 22, 2015

If You Won't Listen To Me, Listen To You

Alison Chaboz, a Scottish artist has made some headlines by questioning the existence of Nazi gas chambers and performing the anti-Semitic "quenelle" gesture.
As blogs and local publications reported on the actions of Chabloz — a singer-songwriter who has lived in Egypt, among other countries — she published another blog post, explaining that her gesture was a “massive up yours” as a reaction to being “hounded online by a small group of hardline Zionists.”

Chabloz has been criticized in recent months for suggesting on Twitter that “it would appear that Anne Frank’s diary was mostly fabricated,” and that British organizations teaching about the Holocaust were “indoctrinating children.”

In her defense, Chabloz wrote that “nobody denies that the Jews and other groups suffered horrendous atrocities,” but added that, “if people dug a little deeper into the issue they may discover some interesting facts regards the presumed existence of homicidal Nazi gas chambers.”
Fascinating! And for the inevitable explanation about how none of this is anti-Semitic?
As for the quenelle, which French Prime Minister Manuel Valls in 2014 termed “an anti-Semitic gesture of hate,” Chabloz wrote that Roger Cukierman, president of France’s Jewish CRIF group, considers it “an anti-establishment gesture unless it is performed outside a place of worship or memorial to Holocaust victims.”
Or by someone who just said something like "Anne Frank was a liar and the gas chambers were fake"? Just guessing.

Anyway, Chaboz has now written that “All publicity is good, and it’s time more people started standing up to Zionist bullies,” (with the obligatory #FreePalestine hashtag). So consider this post my contribution to the movement.

Monday, August 17, 2015

Can't Win From Losing

Tablet has an interesting profile up on Delphine Horvilleur, a prominent French Rabbi (promiennt both for her own sake as powerful voice for liberal Judaism, and because she is among a very small group of female Rabbis in France). One passage that struck me, though, was her anxieties about how Jews are perceived as a "community" in a France whose model of equality is marked by an extreme hostility to any sort of differentiation:
Still, despite herself, her Jewishness has lately come to the fore. After the January attack at a kosher market, she no longer brings her children grocery shopping; she has caught herself remarking to friends that men with peyos are “courageous” to ride the M├ętro in Paris. As much as she detests the “competition for victim-status” in which the French tend to engage, jockeying for recognition from the entitlement state—this is “the great French malady,” she said—she finds herself reassured by the soldiers who have been assigned since the killings to guard synagogues and other Jewish sites throughout the country. And yet she worries that protection will be viewed by some non-Jews as yet another symbol of Jewish privilege, reinforcing notions of a “Jewish community.” “It’s normal that the state protect us,” Horvilleur said, using the first-person-plural in what seemed an unconscious confirmation of her fears. “But at the same time, the more they protect us, the more they weaken us.”
This last part, wherein Rabbi Horvilleur frets that enhanced security for Jewish institutions will be seen as proof of "Jewish privilege", really resonates with some points I tried to make in my own Tablet piece (and the director's cut). There, I noted the strong belief amongst many that Jews are anti-discrimination "winners" -- that though we might have faced discrimination in the past, now we receive the full panoply of legal and social protections such that we've been fully integrated into society as equals. At best, this is inaccurate but presented as a model to aspire to. At worst, it is viewed as an injustice of its own -- lucky Jews, greedily hording private sympathies and public rights to themselves while the "real" victims continue to suffer. And it is opinions like this that cause Jews to have to worry that being in a situation where armed guards have to be posted outside their buildings will be taken as proof of how privileged Jews really are.

Thursday, August 13, 2015

Anti-Semitism as Structural and the Iran Deal Debate

Given that three of my last eight posts have been about he question of anti-Semitism as part of the Iran deal debat,e it may surprise you that I've actually been reading even more articles which touch on the issue without comment. These include Jonathan Greenblatt (solid piece), Yair Rosenberg (thoughtful), Jon Chait (good except for the title), James Tarento (blech), Matt Duss and Todd Gitlin's rebuttal to that awful Tablet editorial (strong), and Lee Smith's rejoinder (predictably dreadful).

This has been a trying issue for me, since it puts to the teeth one of my lodestone political commitments: namely, that one folks make an "=ism" charge (be it anti-Semitism or anything else), we should take it seriously it not facially dismiss it as opportunistic or made in bad faith. Obviously, and as my previous posts make clear, I find the particular charges leveled here difficult to swallow. But since my aforementioned principle does not contain a "unless I, David Schraub, personally think the charges aren't going to hold water" exception, that's no object. And I will say that I've recognized this tension from moment one and tried to mold my posts according to said principles. While I've certainly been cutting in my responses to Smith in particular, I have endeavored to explain why his allegations are wrong on their substance, rather than simply dismiss them as part of some pattern or practice of opportunistic wolf-crying. There is a difference between rejecting a charge on its merits after engaging with it, and refusing to consider it in the first place, and I've done my best to stay within the former camp.

Take, for example, the "lobbying" question, which has been a core area of contention between myself and people like Smith. My litmus test for discussion here has always been broad by design: Is the challenged behavior plausibly anti-Semitic under a plausible theory of anti-Semitism? That standard is designed to allow for considerable breadth both in matters of theory (what do we think anti-Semitism is?) and interpretation (what is the best reading of the challenged statements?). And I think that "lobbying" does clear that preliminary hurdle for discussion: the practice of demonizing a nefarious Jewish lobby as fundamentally illegitimate and destructive of political discourse is sufficiently embedded in Western culture such that -- when the term is deployed on an issue where Jewish contributions to the debate have high salience -- it is worth at least investigating the possibility of anti-Semitism. Now, as I've made clear, I think the results of that investigation are wholly exonerative: the use of "lobbying" in this debate has been entirely indistinguishable from standard, boilerplate usages of the term across all manner of political discussions, making it infeasible to impute it to anti-Semitism here. But that's how one concludes a discussion, not how one initiates it, and I think it is worthwhile to maintain that discussion.

All that said, I've also realized that I've been baited into having a conversation about anti-Semitism on terms that don't really track how I think the issue should be addressed. All the talk about "dog whistles" (much less Tablet's explicit invocation of white power rallies) casts anti-Semitism in a particular mold: a matter of bad intentions and deliberate (if sometimes sotto voce) deployments. Such debates go to the state of mind of the relevant actor, and determining that is inherently a judgment call. If one thinks of the President as a miserly, underhanded figure who's long displayed hostility to Jewish causes, one will be inclined to impute bad motives. If one thinks of him as someone who has consistently enjoyed the support and friendship of the Jewish community and in turn proven himself time and again to be an ally, by contrast, that inference will sound ridiculous. There isn't much that can be done to resolve that debate.

I also don't think it's a particularly useful frame. While anti-Semitism certainly can take the form of explicit (or implicit) prejudicial attitudes, I think it is better to generally theorize it as a structural phenomenon -- exploring how the grooves of our social practice result in situations where Jewishness is problematized, leveraged against the Jews, or otherwise is blocked off from inclusion in democratic deliberation on full and equal terms. One question I've heard from some folks who, like me, are skeptical that the President is campaigning on anti-Semitism to drum up support for the Iran deal have asked "who is it supposed to appeal to? Who are the gentile fence-sitters who will come around to support the deal once they realize its an opportunity to stick it to those disloyal, warmongering Jews?" But even I, fellow-skeptic, can answer this one: The target of such a campaign isn't the goys, it's the Jews -- namely Jewish Democrats. The point (the argument goes) is to tell those politicians that if they vote against the deal they're among the bad Jews, the disloyal Jews, the one's at the beck and call of a foreign power. You don't want to be a bad Jew, do you? And that argument, which leverages the insecure position Jews have against them, would obviously be anti-Semitic.

Now, one thing we can say about the "bad Jews" argument is that it cuts both ways: for every person saying (explicitly or implicitly) "you're a bad Jew if you vote against the deal", there's someone else saying "you're a bad Jew if you vote for it. You're a Jew-in-name-only, you'll sacrifice your people out of blind loyalty to the Democratic Party, Evangelicals are better Jews than you, you Kapo, you who (in Huckabee's striking words) would lead your fellows straight to the oven doors." This argument is anti-Semitic in in the same way the above one is -- it leverages Jewishness against the Jews -- and to the extent it is being made by folks like Governor Huckabee it is equally condemnable to any Daily Kos cartoon attacking Schumer for dual loyalty. This is one of the great joys of the Jewish condition -- we're always taking it from all sides.

But the larger point is that the "bad Jews" argument doesn't need to be made, to be made. That's not a "dog whistle" argument: I did not write "doesn't need to be made loudly to be made". It doesn't need to be made at all. Even if the President finds this entire line of argument appalling, and has no intention (explicit or implicit) of leveraging it -- it's still there. The grooves of society still place Jews in this precarious position, and so we still feel the pressure to demonstrate that we're true patriots who don't vote on provincial lines (or, for that matter, that we're more than just liberals-with-surnames-containing-"Stein", we're Jews and our progressive politics are reflective, not betrayals, of that identity). That's the point of looking at structural phenomena -- it isn't about bad guys using either racist bullhorns or sneaky dog whistles. Structural anti-Semitism is like potential energy -- the fact that it is there, available to be harnessed at any time, is sufficient to effect the risk calculus and thereby alter behavior.

One important dimension of anti-Semitism is political -- specifically, the idea that Jews dominate politics and use their dominant position to oppress and exclude others. This isn't always a visible problem when Jews aren't advocating anything that steps on the toes of powerful interests, but it becomes a big issue when Jewish political advocacy becomes salient on a sharply divided issue (like the Iran deal). For all our supposed political clout, Jews are very uncomfortable when put in a situation where we're a noticed player in an ongoing and contentious issue, precisely because there is nothing worse for the Jews than being seen as ("being seen as", of course, being a matter of perception that need not match reality) the driving force for a policy that many people sharply oppose (or vice versa).

So it's not surprising at all that many Jews -- no matter their politics -- are uncomfortable with the progression of the Iran deal debate. This is a terrible issue for us, one where "Jewish-identified" issues are placed smack in the middle of a fraught and contentious debate, in a cultural context wherein Jews successfully defending their interests (however conceived) in a contested forum is considered to be proof of a political malfunction. But these problems aren't problems of dog whistles; they're problems of structure. The debate thus far has obscured that important truth, and caused many people to misdirect their fire.

Saturday, August 08, 2015

It's Outrageous To Suggest Feeding Tablet Editors To Fire Ants

Tablet Magazine has a sternly-worded editorial which concludes as follows:
We do not accept the idea that Senator Schumer or anyone else is a fair target for racist incitement, anymore than we accept the idea that the basic norms of political discourse in this country do not apply to Jews. Whatever one feels about the merits of the Iran deal, sales techniques that call into question the patriotism of American Jews are examples of bigotry—no matter who does it. On this question, we should all stand in defense of Senator Schumer.
Alas, as has become the norm of Tablet columns in this ilk -- and it is depressing to see the flaw migrate from Lee smith articles to the editorial board itself -- what's missing in the editorial is any evidence that anybody in the Obama administration (or that matter, anybody at all) has subjected Senator Schumer to "racist incitement". Certainly, the Obama administration has opposed Schumer's opposition -- surely that's not objectionable -- but there is nothing in their comments that is remotely outside the bounds of normal political discourse. Nothing about "dual loyalty" or lack of patriotism, or even the more benign bugaboo complaints about "lobbyists" (and, to reiterate, if complaining that one's opinions are being influenced by big money and lobbyists is an anti-Semitic dog whistle, then every political debate our country has seen in the past half-century has apparently been dominated by neo-Nazis). The absolute worst thing you can find is a tweet by a former Obama staffer "the base won’t support a leader who thought Obamacare was a mistake and wants War with Iran," The "War with Iran" bit might be a cheap shot, but just the normal kind. And aside from that, everything one hears is entirely unremarkable political jostling.

All together, it is remarkably thin gruel. Yet paucity of evidence did not stop Tablet from deploying an orgy of histrionic rhetoric to back up its non-case: "It's the kind of dark, nasty stuff we might expect to hear at a white power rally, not from the President of the United States", "the kind of naked appeal to bigotry and prejudice that would be familiar in the politics of the pre-Civil Rights Era South," "This use of anti-Jewish incitement as a political tool is a sickening new development in American political discourse, and we have heard too much of it lately—some coming, ominously, from our own White House and its representatives." It be exceptionally lovely if any of these allegations were connected to anything the President actually had said, but it's hard to collect quotes whilst hyperventilating I suppose. "It’s gotten so blatant that even many of us who are generally sympathetic to the administration, and even this deal, have been shaken by it," but not so blatant that one can find a direct quote by the President to back up the case.

All that being said, I certainly do not disagree with the statement that Chuck Schumer should not be subjected to racist incitement of any sort stemming from his opposition to the Iran deal. Since the fact that this hasn't, you know, happened apparently is no bar, allow me to go on the record with a few other non-occurrences which all people of goodwill should sternly oppose:

  • Mitch McConnell should not be beaten and left in a ditch.
  • It would be grotesque for anyone to call for Nancy Pelosi to be buried neck deep in sand at the low-tide mark.
  • Regardless of whether or not you like the Dallas Cowboys, it is uncalled for to demand cleansing the entire state of Texas with a holy fire.
  • Jewish representatives who vote for the Iran deal should under no circumstances be forced to parade naked through King's Landing as a condition for entering their synagogues.
  • Even if the United States men's boxing program fails yet again to medal at the 2016 Olympics, we absolutely should not reinstate the Roman policy of "decimation" as a punishment.
  • No matter how he performs at the next debate, Donald Trump should not be hanged from a noose constructed from his own hair.
No matter what one's views are on the Iran deal, surely we can agree that none of these outrageous actions is tolerable in American society. I look forward to a Tablet editorial devoted to each of them over the coming weeks.

Thursday, August 06, 2015

Professor Robert Burt Passes Away at Age 76

I am sad to report that Yale Law Professor Robert "Bo" Burt has passed away at age 76. I never met Bo personally, but we did get the chance to correspond about what turned out to be his final book, In the Whirlwind: God and Humanity in Conflict. We exchanged several emails about our competing interpretations of the Book of Job, and even though I was a mere law clerk at the time (and not a former student of his either), he responded to my perspective with a seriousness and respect that I was honored to receive. Later, when I published my review of the book in the Loyola University (Chicago) Law Journal, he was effusive with his praise while responding thoughtfully to our areas of (mild) disagreement.

When I was a law review editor, my single most important criteria for evaluating submissions was simple: does it cause me to think interesting thoughts? Burt's book triggered a welter of interesting thoughts, some of which I hopefully was able to transcribe into my review. But whether I was successful or not, I was grateful and humbled to have been treated as a colleague and a fellow in the process. That is something I will never forget, and if God-willing I ever achieve anything close to his eminence in academia, a model I hope to emulate.

May his memory be a blessing.