Monday, October 22, 2018

Mandatory Swastika Recommendations, Part 2

Last year, I wrote about a case in Massachusetts where a teacher was punished for withdrawing a letter of recommendation for a student who constructed a swastika in the school hallway. The school suspended the teacher, accusing her of "bullying"(!) the student. Fortunately, the teacher was unionized, and her union contested the sanction.

Today, I saw that an arbiter reversed the suspension and found almost all of the teacher's actions to be permissible. The one bit of bad news, though, is that the arbiter did find that the school could punish the teacher for following up with the colleges she had sent a letter of recommendation to, informing them of her reason for withdrawing the letter (that is, telling them of the swastika incident). Since the incident was the subject of disciplinary action by the school administration, the arbiter found that the school could legitimately require the teacher to not provide any details herself or, at most, refer those who ask to the administrators. However, the arbitrator nonetheless concluded that this relatively narrow breach did not warrant a suspension but, at most, a letter of reprimand.

I not wild about even that much of the disciplinary decision being upheld, though this is certainly a net-win. But this case had inspired me to add a proviso I make all students requesting a letter from me agree to, that they license me "to write a letter of recommendation ... (including any follow-up messages or other communications [I] deem[] necessary), using any information [I have] that [I] deem[] relevant."

Put another way, if I credibly hear that one of my students is putting up swastikas, I absolutely will rescind the letter and I absolutely will tell the recipient why I'm doing it.

Friday, October 19, 2018

Pain in the Roundup

I have recurrent knee pain, that flares up apparently randomly and can be so debilitating that at its crest I can't even walk. It usually comes and goes over the course of a day or two (the "unable to walk" part might last a few hours, though less if I take some painkillers and/or wear my knee brace).

I also was recently diagnosed as borderline asthmatic. I actually have an inhaler, though I've used it probably less than a half dozen times in my life.

Anyway, last night, at around 3 in the morning, both the asthma and the excruciating knee pain hit at the exact same time: I couldn't breathe, and I could barely hobble my way into the bathroom to get some Aleve.

Long story short, I slept three hours last night and am a bit cranky. So you get a roundup.

* * *

The women's wave isn't just an American thing: The Christian Science Monitor has an interesting article on Arab women running for office in Israel.

Antisemitism and the birth of Jewish Studies.

The RNCC has cut an ad for Jim Hagedorn (running for Congress in southern Minnesota -- the district my in-laws live in, as it happens) claiming his opponent is "owned" by George Soros. Subtle. Meanwhile, Rep. Matt Gaetz also posted a wild conspiracy theory (later boosted by the President) accusing Soros of giving money to members of a migrant "caravan" so they would "storm the border [at] election time."

Also on Soros, Spencer Ackerman provides a good history about how a Soros-like figure has virtually always played a central role in antisemitic social movements.

This was published prior to the Israeli Supreme Court ruling allowing Lara Alqasem into Israel to study, but it overlays with the point I made in my column: Israeli academics have (correctly) interpreted the government's attempt to keep Alqasem out as a "declaration of war" against them.

Newt Gingrich calls for the expulsion of all Muslims who "believe in Sharia" from America. But, if I can channel Trump v. Hawaii, we can hardly call this sort of thing "rank religious bigotry" based on nothing more than the fact that it obviously is.

Nylah Burton has a good column up on the weaponization of Louis Farrakhan against Blacks (and particularly Black Jews). I might have more to say on this, but I think the core points -- which in no way are apologias for Farrakhan's despicable bigotry -- are good.

Thursday, October 18, 2018

Israeli Supreme Court Rules in Favor of Lara Alqasem

Very good news. And, at least in terms of how the opinions were excerpted in Haaretz, they didn't pull punches either.
"Since the appellant's actions do not raise satisfactory cause to bar her to entry to Israel, the inevitable impression is that invalidating the visa given to her was due to the political opinions she holds," read the verdict. "If this is truly the case, then we are talking about an extreme and dangerous step, which could lead to the crumbling of the pillars upon which democracy in Israel stands," the verdict continued.
"The Law of Entry to Israel is intended to protect the state's sovereignty, and the public's safety and security. It does not have a component of penalty, or revenge for previous bad behavior," Justice Neal Hendel said.
"Despite the obstacles in her way the appellant insists on her right to study at the Hebrew University. This conduct is not in keeping, in an understatement, with the thesis that the she's an undercover boycott activist," he continued. 
"The Interior Ministry has openly admitted that it does not have any evidence of the appellant's engaging in boycott activity since April 2017, except for mysterious 'indications' whose essence hasn't been clarified and regarding which no evidence has been submitted," Neal noted. 
"The material submitted regarding the appellant's activity in the SJP organization shows that even at that stage the boycott activity was minor and limited in character," Neal added. "There's no doubt the SJP cell indeed supported boycotting Israel – and this position must be roundly condemned. It is also presumable that the appellant, who played a role in the cell and for three years was one of its few members, was partner to this unworthy activity. However, it is impossible to ignore the cell's sporadic and relatively minor character. In itself, it certainly was not one of the prominent boycott organizations and it is doubtful whether the appellant could be seen as filling the criteria [required in the law?] even when she had a position in it." 
Neal continued, saying that "alongside the random indications of the appellant's involvement in BDS activity during her studies, it is impossible to ignore the testimonies of her lecturers about her complex approach, the curiosity she displayed toward Israel and Judaism and her readiness to conduct an open, respectful dialogue – which is in stark contrast to the boycott idea." 
"The struggle against the BDS movement and others like it is a worthy cause. The state is permitted, not to say obliged, to protect itself from discrimination and the violent silencing of the political discourse. It may take steps against the boycott organizations and their activists. In this case, preventing the appellant's entry does not advance the law's purpose and clearly deviates from the bounds of reasonability," Neal concluded.
Justice Anat Baron said that "there was no place to deny the appellant the entry visa she had been granted, because clearly she doesn't now and hasn't for a long time engaged in boycotting Israel, not to mention engaging in 'active, continuing and substantial' work in this matter. The decision to deny the appellant's entry visa is unreasonable to the extent that it requires intervention." 
"Since the appellant's deeds do not constitute sufficient cause to ban her entry to Israel, the inevitable impression is that her visa was denied due to her political views. If this is indeed the case, then this is an extreme, dangerous step, which could lead to the crumbling of the supporting pillars on which Israeli democracy is built," Baron said.
"The appellant's very desire to be part of the academic studies in Israel is contrary to the idea of imposing a boycott on Israel, not to mention an academic boycott. This decision itself could even cause damage to Israel's image, thus attaining the opposite goal of the one intended by the legislator," Baron continued. 
"We don't know what's in anyone's heart in general and what's in the appellant's heart in particular and how she'd act in the future, and after she returns to her country. But these considerations are irrelevant to our case, because according to the law we must focus on the appellant's acts in the present – and not on her opinions, thoughts or speculations about her future," Baron concluded. 
Justice Uzi Vogelman said that "a call to boycott Israel was published by the SJP organization, of which the appellant was a member, and not by the appellant herself."
"The law was intended to ban the entry of people expected to spread the boycott doctrine during their stay in Israel…the appellant's case does not qualify for this clause, since there's no argument that she has ceased her activity in the SJP," he continued. 
"It appears that in the concrete circumstances of this case the appellant's studies in the Hebrew University will help to bolster Israeli academia's struggle against the boycott," Vogelman concluded.
Can't ask for much more than that. Threat to academic freedom? Check. Utter lack of compelling evidence against Alqasem? Check. Counterproductive against the boycott? Check. Massively disproportionate response to someone like Alqasem? Check.

Honestly, I needed some good news this week. So this was a relief.

I don't know enough about the Israeli judiciary to give any reads on the political leanings of the three judges who heard Alqasem's case. For what it's worth, Justice Hendel was born in the US, while Justices Vogelman and Baron are both sabras. Moreover, Justice Baron lost a son to a suicide bombing attack in 2003 -- she certainly needs no persuasion regarding Israel's actual security needs.

Wednesday, October 17, 2018

Issues? This is an Election!

I got a phone call today from a canvasser regarding the California Assembly race in my district between Buffy Wicks and Jovanka Beckles (I'm not going to say which side they were calling on behalf of, as that would distract from the point of the post).

I was actually kind of glad to get the call, since I'm undecided in the race (both are Democrats, the candidate I voted for in the primary didn't advance). Moreover, while each candidate has a pretty clear tribal identity, so to speak (Wicks is the Clinton-Obama candidate, Beckles is the Sanders-DSA candidate), it had seemed to me that on the vast majority of issues that were pretty much identical -- or, at the very least, I hadn't heard a lot that differentiated them on an issue basis.

So I asked the canvasser: I said that it seemed like both candidates were quite similar, and I was curious what were some issues where they were differentiated from one another.

And boy, did that question seem to throw him for a loop.

Now, that's mildly unfair of me, since again it seems that on the majority of major issues they're very close together (after the call, I did some more research and this Berkeleyside article gives some key points of differentiation).

But still, "how the two would vote differently in Sacramento" was clearly not on this guy's list of prepared talking points. He kept on trying to go to resume, or fundraising, or "tribe", or personal dislike (e.g., calling the other candidate "slick" -- that affirmatively turned me off, since I'm sick of Dem-on-Dem violence in cases where it is obvious that both candidates are fine).

Each time, I had to repeat that what prior jobs the candidates had held, or who endorsed them, or who was a "fighter", were not "issues"; how were they different on the issues?

The one he was able to give me was their divergent stances on Proposition 10 (concerning local authority to enact rent control ordinances): Beckles supports it (giving greater authority to local government), Wicks opposes it. And I thanked him for that, and said I would look into that issue -- since again, it reflects an actual issue-based difference between the candidates.

But yeah, it was for me at least a little bit of a depressing experience. One might hope that "how the candidates differ on the issues they'll face once in office" would be a sizable factor in backing one candidate over another (and, to be fair, maybe in a race where there were more sizable differences between the candidates, it would take on greater salience). Alas, apparently not.

Friday, October 12, 2018

Tab Reduction is Stress Reduction Roundup

I've been very stressed these past few days. It's the usual mix of personal issues combined with the persistent fact of the world teetering on the brink of collapse. My appetite has gone, I haven't been sleeping well -- if it wasn't for the escape of Historical Murder Simulator: Greece, I don't know where I'd be.

Of course, none of this has stopped me from reading the internet. And here's a taste of what's been on the browser:

* * *

Shais Rishon (aka MaNishtana) has a new book out -- a semiautobiographical text about a Black Jewish American Rabbi.

Jon Chait on why the rise of non-liberal socialism might be good for liberalism. Not sure I'm convinced, but it was an interesting read.

The Cleveland Indians are retiring the "Chief Wahoo" mascot. Good riddance. Now, the Washington Redskins stand alone and unchallenged for the title of "most obviously racist representation in professional sports". (The article did tell me a bit of trivia I hadn't be aware of: Apparently, the Cleveland Indians were named in honor of Louis Sockalexis, the first American Indian professional ballplayer who played three seasons for the then-Cleveland Spiders from 1897-99).

Top Corbyn ally tries to push head of Jewish Voice for Labour -- a fringe-left Jewish group formed to provide Jewish cover against broad-based Jewish outrage over Corbynista antisemitism -- to run for parliament in one of the most heavily Jewish seats in the country. At a candidate event, prominent Jewish community members (including journalists) banned from attending because they "misrepresent people, events, or facts". Protest outside the event includes someone trying to burn an Israeli flag ... that was being worn around someone's shoulders. Just another day.

Good article, bad title: In the Forward, Moshe Krakowski explores the nuanced and complicated posture Orthodox Jews take towards Israel and Zionism.

ADL explains how Soros-talk can be antisemitic talk. It's good, but certain examples of "left politics are a Soros backed conspiracy" were oddly omitted....

Israeli appellate court upholds ban on entry for Lara Alqasem. Guess my column didn't persuade. She may appeal to to the Supreme Court. Also worth noting: a good piece on the Academe Blog regarding Israeli academia rallying behind Alqasem, and a statement from the Alliance for Academic Freedom (which I signed) urging Israel to reverse this ill-advised and illiberal decision.

In happier news, Congress just passed a bill which would rename the federal courthouse building in Minneapolis after my late judge, Diana Murphy. Judge Murphy was the first women to serve on the Eighth Circuit when she was appointed in 1994 (as of 2018, that number has risen to ... two), and served nearly 40 years on the federal bench.

Wednesday, October 10, 2018

Assassin's Creed: Odyssey Initial(?) Thoughts

I've been playing AC: Odyssey over the past few days (I am a big fan of the series). And what a time it has been! I actually don't know if these are my "initial" thoughts, because I have only a very weak sense of how far I've actually gotten into what appears to be a gigantic game (for orientation, I've just finished Perikles' initial set of requests in Athens).

But anyway, here are my scattered comments (some very mild spoilers might appear):

* It's been said before, but this game owes a huge debt to Witcher III. That's a compliment -- Witcher III is one of my favorite games of all time, and I've often gone into game stores and asked "what's a game that's kind of like Witcher III"? Odyssey is more than "kind of like Witcher III"; it is precariously close to a reskin (right down to the musical cues).

Again, that's a good thing.

* I'm playing as Kassandra, and I find her to be super-likable. I think they really did a great job with her. Word is that she's the better voice-acted of the two protagonist choices, and from clips I've seen of Alexios, I'd agree. That said, when you encounter Alexios as Kassandra, he basically sounds like a half-literate cave-person (that's due to specific elements of his background, not bad acting); and I'd be genuinely curious to hear half-literate cave-Kassandra as well.

* I'm enjoying the entire storyline, but the Cult of Kosmos questline in particular is so far a blast. It's also fun to be playing this while enrolled in a political theory program -- while AC games are always basically "murder your way through history", there's something especially tickling to have a buddy who's studying Kleon and be able to be like "oh, you work on Kleon? I just slaughtered somebody for him in my game!"

* Is the map (I can't believe I'm saying this) too big? I don't know, but we might be getting close. One major problem is that there aren't quite enough fast travel points for my taste. The easiest fix would be to make towns and cities fast travel locations (in addition to the usual synchronization points). As it is, it can take a long time to get places.

* I'm not wild about timed quests (they stress me out), and in particular too many of them force you to return to quest-giver when you're done -- which is a problem when you've strayed halfway across the world. I get it from an immersion perspective -- what, a reward magically appears in your pocket? -- but (particularly given the aforementioned issue of a giant map coupled with sparse fast travel points) it's often just not worth it to slog back out to some middle of nowhere cabin in the woods just to report you've killed five sharks somewhere. Suggestion: Quests received at message boards should also be redeemable at any message board around the world.

* While I've been harping on the map, I do want to say that the "exploration mode" works, and works surprisingly well. Just a touch of extra work without ever feeling overwhelmed. Definitely a good call.

* Some gameplay mechanics feel a bit under-explained. Even know, I'm not entirely sure what attacks I should dodge (and how) versus which I should parry. The result is that combat is pretty button-mashy.

* There's something a bit weird and sad about having a million different types of gear built into the game, of which 99.9% will never be used because why would you replace your legendary outfit? Even rare equipment is pretty much pointless as a category, and what is the purpose of a Level 20 common sword?

* Sadly, the naval experience -- which had been a strength of the series since its introduction in AC3 -- is probably the weakest aspect of the game here. Naval combat isn't particularly interesting, and serves mostly as a hassle that interrupts the even greater hassle of having to sail halfway across the planet to get to your next objective.

* Overall, though, this is a very strong entry into the series -- right up there with some of the all-time best. Great job from Ubisoft -- keep it up!

Big Media David: Lara Alqasem Edition

I was planning on writing a blog post about the Canary Mission file on Lara Alqasem -- the American student currently being refused admission to Israel on grounds of past BDS activity. That activity is supposedly documented in her Canary file, and it is a marvel to behold: a 1,500 word dossier, of which all but 70 words are on actions or statements or conduct by people other than Lara Alqasem. All they have on her is that she was (a) a member, then President of her school's Students for Justice in Palestine chapter, and (b) once was "involved in an event" advocating the boycott of Sabra Hummus.

The remainder of the file, the other 1,430 words of it, is a smorgasbord of sprawling guilt-by-association. University of Florida SJP posted a video which featured a speaker who said a thing which bit the cat that ate the goat…it’s chad gadya, but for Palestinian advocacy.

Anyway, I was going to write that post, but then Haaretz asked me to do a column on the Alqasem case more generally -- so I folded it into that. You can read the finished product here: basically, my big point is that BDS and the right-wing Israeli government are in a tacit alliance with one another against liberal Israeli institutions (like academia) -- so it's no surprise that they've united around the position "Lara Alqasem should not be studying at an Israeli university."

Nor is it, contrary to popular belief, "counterproductive" -- at least, not if you understand which each side is trying to produce. If you think the goal of the Israeli government is to change the minds of its critics and undermine BDS, or if you think the goal of the BDS movement is to try to effectuate progressive change in Israel to the betterment of the Palestinian cause, then yes, targeting Israeli universities for isolation is counterproductive. But if the goal is to squeeze the life of these institutions and their liberal peers, and make it so the only choice is between opposing "River to the Sea" ideologies, then everyone is behaving quite productively.

The sad thing is though that I think the column has been scooped -- the bigger story than anything I might say is that Bari Weiss and Bret Stephens co-wrote a column in the New York Times condemning Israel's decision to exclude Alqasem. That's more interesting and revealing than my quite predictable jeremiads.

Monday, October 08, 2018

Things People Blame the Jews For, Volume XLIX: Taylor Swift Endorsing Phil Bredesen

There's this weird element of contemporary pop culture where, at any given moment, there's a celebrity that seems inexplicably hated (it's almost always a woman, and that part sadly is quite explicable).

Anne Hathaway was it for awhile, and I could never figure out why. What's wrong with Anne Hathaway? She seems lovely! Lena Dunham certainly fit the bill for a bit. And then there was Taylor Swift -- who had the extra misfortune of not just being hated seemingly randomly by the masses but also being involuntarily made into a White Supremacist mascot. Ouch.

But now Tay Tay has made a very prominent endorsement in the 2018 midterms -- Phil Bredesen, Tennessee's former Democratic governor, who has very quietly pulled into the lead in his bid to flip the open seat from red to blue.

You can imagine the Nazis are pissed. You can also imagine who they blame.

I can't get the screenshots here (follow the link), but here are two excerpts of comments floating around far-right message boards:
“This looks so ghost written. Ever notice how every celebrity seems to be reciting the same exact script and even use the same exact wording. Not that I’m excusing Taytay, fuck her. I just noticed how she sounds exactly like Chris Evans and all those other faggots who suddenly try to get political. Their tweets always read as if some faggy Jew wrote it for them.”
[...]
“This is Soros trying to bluepill [sic] us by kidnapping /our princess/ they must have blackmailed her or something. We need to save her.”
On that second one, I feel compelled to point out that under Brit Hume rules there's nothing antisemitic there since the poster only said "Soros" and not "Jews". Good thing, too, because if we actually were willing to recognize Soros for the obvious dog-whistle that it is, who knows how many mainstream Republicans would get caught up!

Anyway, fist-bump for team Jew for successfully "bluepilling" Swift (whatever that means) and to Taylor, hey, "shake it off" (whatever that means).