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

Tuesday, January 08, 2019

No Matter How Dumb the Internet Is, Laura Loomer Can Make It Dumber

Some of you might have noticed, a few days ago, that the "translate" option was no longer appearing for Hebrew-language tweets on Twitter. It was a bit frustrating, but I figured it was a glitch and didn't think any more of it. Some time in the past few days functionality was restored, with Twitter confirming it was a bug that had been resolved.

Straightforward, right? Oh you sweet, naive child. Let Laura Loomer educate you:
Twitter didn't seem to care about informing users as to why they decided to stop translating Hebrew tweets, as their decision was casually implemented without an announcement. Jewish, Israeli, and Hebrew speaking Twitter users were not informed of Twitter’s decision to stop translating Hebrew, which effectively cut off all Israeli twitter users and Hebrew speakers from the non Hebrew twitter sphere.
Could they have not informed users in advance because ... it was a bug? Loomer sees through you.
A bug that only affects Hebrew? Nice excuse, but Chinese was translating perfectly fine. The only language affected was Hebrew. You know, than language of the Jews.
Funny how Twitter has no problem with Farrakhan calling Jews actual bugs, but they are so quick to blame their removal of  Hebrew on a make believe "bug". 
Sounds like bias to me!
I just -- it's probably because I'm emotionally exhausted today, but I can't stop laughing at this. "Twitter says it had a 'bug', but did it object to Louis Farrakhan calling Jews 'bugs'? Checkmate, Twitter!"
Apparently reporting on Twitter's removal of Hebrew translation makes me a "conspiracy theorist".
Apparently, just because you find the idea of Twitter having bugs to be outlandishly improbable compared to a secret plot to exclude the Jews (that was silently implemented and then withdrawn within the space of a few weeks), that makes you some sort of "conspiracy theorist." What is the world coming to?

I'm Very Tired and Cranky: S.1/BDS Edition

I didn't want to write this. I really really didn't. I've been swamped the past few days dealing with Rep. Rashida Tlaib telling people who backed an anti-BDS law that "they forgot which country they represent", then explaining why that's an antisemitic dual loyalty trope even when applied to non-Jews like Marco Rubio, then excoriating the AJC for literally making its own dual loyalty accusation against Tlaib as some sort of I-know-you-are-but-what-am-I racist retort to Tlaib's tweet, and finally just throwing up my hands and saying we should probably just avoid tropes of "loyalty" and whatnot in this entire discourse, because none of y'all can be trusted.

And because this is the internet and this involves Jews and antisemitism and Israel and Palestine, I was doing all this while dodging a surrounding milieu of commentary that was as dumb as you could possibly imagine.

In particular: Nobody involved in this controversy seems to have the foggiest understanding of what Senator Rubio's bill (designated "S.1") is even doing. When they're not engaged in outlandish hyperbole about it "banning criticism of Israel", they're outright mistaking it for completely different bills about BDS. And to the extent their arguments do touch on something that is within striking distance of an actual public controversy, they're almost universally awful.

That's right: this is a rant post. Feel free to skip it. I'm venting.

Longtime observers of "anti-BDS" laws may recognize that there are two very different "versions" of these laws which have been the subject of legal controversy recently. One is the federal "Israel Anti-Boycott Act", or IABA. This would (for the most part) update the Export Administration Act's preexisting ban on boycotting Israel as part of an effort to comply with a boycott demand by a foreign country to also include international governmental organizations (i.e., the EU and UN). I wrote critically about that proposed law here. Notably, neither the current law nor the IABA would prohibit, penalize, or restrict individuals or companies from boycotting Israel based on their own conscientious ideological choice -- it only covers boycotts which are done at the behest of a foreign power.

The second are state-level laws which generally prohibit the state from investing in or contracting with entities which, themselves, boycott Israel. Such laws include the recently struck down Kansas and Arizona laws, as well as the Texas law that was recently challenged by a speech pathologist who could not (she maintains) renew her contract with a local school district because she boycotts Israel. These laws do target "conscientious" boycott decisions -- not by prohibiting the choice, but by declaring that the government won't contract with bodies that make that choice. I've written critically about these laws here and here.

So which of these categories does Senator Rubio's S.1 fall into? Neither. His bill -- or rather, Title IV of his bill (the other three titles cover defense authorizations for Israel and Jordan, and tightened sanctions on Syria) -- does one thing: it states that state anti-BDS laws (of the second-type, above) are not preempted by federal law.

If that sounds technical, it is. Rubio's law doesn't itself impose any penalty or restriction on persons engaging in BDS. All it says is that if a state passes a law limiting its own investment or contracting to entities which disavow BDS, such a law wouldn't be deemed to conflict with any federal statute (preemption hasn't been a major feature of debates over BDS bills, but presumably Rubio is worried about Crosby v. National Foreign Trade Council). If no states pass these laws, then Rubio's bill does nothing. If a state does pass a law, Rubio's bill still doesn't shield the state from having to defend its enactment against a First Amendment challenge. The state laws which Rubio's bill would declare non-preempted either are constitutional or they're not, but that question is utterly non-germane to Rubio's bill. And likewise, the validity of these state laws is entirely separate from the IABA and whether it is a wise or permissible alteration to the existing anti-boycott framework of the Export Administration Act -- Rubio's bill doesn't even touch on that subject.

But if we do move to the subject of the state laws and their constitutionality -- boy, are we ever getting a blast of Twitter School of Law. On the anti-side: There's the basic version that says these laws "allow punishment for Americans who protest Israel", which, no they don't -- they just hold that the state won't invest or contract with you if you boycott Israel. Why is it the case that every single intervention in these debates that at all requires any adjustment in how one registers one's objections to Israeli policy is perceived as tantamount to banning discussion outright? Don't answer that -- I know exactly why.

Then you get the more advanced play that the state can't claim its own ideological right to "boycott the boycotters" because "the Constitution is designed to protect American citizens from the government, and not the other way around", which sounds great until you think about it for a quarter-second and realize how strange it would be to apply to the government in its capacity as an employer and contractor, where it repeatedly and necessarily will be making non-viewpoint neutral choices on a daily basis. First Amendment law has recognized this since at least Pickering v. Board of Education:
[I]t cannot be gainsaid that the State has interests as an employer in regulating the speech of its employees that differ significantly from those it possesses in connection with regulation of the speech of the citizenry in general. The problem in any case is to arrive at a balance between the interests of the [employee], as a citizen, in commenting upon matters of public concern and the interest of the State, as an employer, in promoting the efficiency of the public services it performs through its employees.
This doesn't mean that the state can impose any condition it wants on the speech of its employees -- if the phrase "arrive a balance" wasn't a dead giveaway, the sentence immediately prior to that passage in Pickering--"[T]he theory that public employment which may be denied altogether may be subjected to any conditions, regardless of how unreasonable, has been uniformly rejected"--is clear enough. But there is a balancing test, and it should be obvious that there are absolutely scenarios where the government can and should limit its contracting decisions (ex: the state can't ban racist speech, but it absolutely can fire a police officer who engages in racist speech, because the state has a strong interest as an employer to not let its employees talk that way).

Moving to the "pro" side, first you have to hack through article after article talking about the IABA and how it is only a minor update to the EAA and har-de-har don't Sanders and Tlaib realize we've had a law like this for years -- you're talking about a different bill!

Then you get the folks who say "well, these are just anti-discrimination laws" and ask what your position was on Masterpiece Cakeshop. The problem with that argument (other than the obvious "wait -- what was Rubio's position on Masterpiece Cakeshop?") is that these laws -- despite my advice -- are not being written as anti-discrimination laws. Indeed, Rubio's bill -- which only applies to boycotts which are taken "for purposes of coercing political action by, or imposing policy positions on, the Government of Israel" -- wouldn't even apply to a straightforward discrimination case where someone who refused to transact with an Israeli national simply because "I hate Israelis." If these are anti-discrimination provisions, then just write them that way: "we won't contract with any party which refuses to stipulate that they don't discriminate on basis of [inter alia] national origin." They're not written that way in part because these laws are, by design, meant to encompass activity that is not in of itself discriminatory (ex: the genuinely "nonpartisan" boycotter who refuses to do business with any party that she deems violates human rights -- Israel included as one of many).

Those who cite Rumsfeld v. FAIR (upholding a federal law requiring universities which accept federal money to allow military recruiters equal access to campus facilities) are at least in the right ballpark -- it is an "unconstitutional conditions" case -- but it hardly disposes of the controversy here. FAIR relied heavily on the notion that the decision to exclude recruiters from campus is not itself inherently "expressive" (I'd also note that the government's interest in insuring its own agents have access to a facility they are, in part, funding seems especially strong and isn't present in the anti-BDS law cases). But a boycott is much more inherently expressive, and since -- unlike the law in FAIR (and again, against my recommendations) -- the state laws are explicit that they are quite purposefully targeting the expressive aspects of the boycott, not the conduct per se (again: Rubio's bill doesn't even cover a generic refusal to do business with Israelis) -- it sits on far less stable footing.

All of which is to say: the law here is not fully settled and is complex, and we could stand for a much more careful conversation about how government speech versus individual liberty versus non-discrimination intersect in cases like these. But we're not having it, and nobody wants to have it.

And I'm just really tired, all of the sudden.

Sunday, January 06, 2019

End of the Year Roundup

I know what you're thinking: It's not the "end of the year". The end of the year was almost a week ago!

But Blogger thinks you're wrong. If you look at the right-hand column of archived posts, it counts anything written from the week of December 30 through January 6 as being written in 2018.

And there's more: In both 2016 and 2017, I apparently wrote exactly 229 post. This post? This one right here? This should be post number ... 230.

That's right: an overtime victory for 2018's productivity.

* * *

Israel has officially announced it will seek $250 billion dollars in compensation from other Middle Eastern countries who expelled their Jewish populations in the wake of Israel's independence.

Good to see D.C. statehood get more traction in the House.

Five Jewish teenagers were arrested on suspicion of involvement in the stone-throwing death of a Palestinian woman. Cases of Jewish terrorism targeting Palestinians tripled in 2018.

This feels like something the Joker would do: colorful balloons carry explosives sent from Gaza into Israel (the bomb was safely defused with no injuries).

Meanwhile, here in Berkeley, a man has been arrested after bringing a fake bomb covered with antisemitic writing into our campus police department.

Tyler Cowen: speech regulation policies on private media platforms (like Facebook or Twitter) can be scalable, efficient, and consistent -- pick two. Put differently: a small website can efficiently manage a consistent moderation policy. But a large website (like Twitter) must either invest tremendous sums into moderation (far more than is cost-effective) or settle for a patchwork and inconsistently applied system that's largely ineffective and makes everyone angry.

UPDATE: Oh dang -- joke's on me! Apparently, today counts as the first day of 2019. Which means that 2018 -- like 2017 and 2016 -- will go down as having exactly 229 posts written.

That's kind of cool in its own right. I guess.

Saturday, January 05, 2019

Forever is a Long Time, Mr. Tobin

Benny Gantz, the centrist-cipher d'jour of the upcoming Israeli elections, said in a recent speech that a cluster of Israeli settlements -- "the Etzion bloc, Ariel, Ofra and Elkana" --  "will remain forever." Some of these settlements are ones which it is expected would become part of Israeli as part of land swaps in a two state solution. But others -- most notably Ofra -- are so deeply embedded in the heart of the West Bank so as to make it effectively impossible for there to be a Palestinian state at all.

Following Gantz's comments, Jonathan Tobin wrote a profoundly strange column of analysis. The thrust of the column is that Gantz's words demonstrate that it isn't just Bibi who is opposed to making territorial concessions to Palestinians -- even "centrist" candidates like Gantz stake out their opposition as well. As much as such concessions are a mainstay of Bibi's critics (particularly out of Israel), they are exceptionally unpopular in Israel itself.

That's fine, as far as it goes (though Gantz was always viewed as a relatively conservative figure on security issues, so his position here isn't exactly a shocker). But Tobin then proceeds to make some very weird choices of framing what Gantz's declaration that Ofra will remain in Israel "forever" tells us about the Israeli psyche. See if you can spot it:
[T]he importance of Gantz’s statement is that it demonstrates that even those who self-consciously style themselves as centrists don’t think it wise for Israel to make unilateral concessions to the Palestinians, or to plan on evicting even a minority of the hundreds of thousands of Jews who live across the Green Line in Jerusalem and the West Bank.
It’s something of a shock for most American Jews hostile to Netanyahu and his right-wing allies to realize that those who share their views in Israel represent only a tiny minority of voters. As has been evident since the Palestinian Authority literally blew up the faith of Israelis in the Oslo peace process during the Second Intifada, a consensus exists from the center left to the center right in Israel that at present, no Palestinian partner for peace exists.
That’s why Israeli centrists and even moderate left-wingers have largely given up talking about relinquishing up more territory for the foreseeable future. Though most Israelis would probably still be willing to trade land for real peace as opposed to more terror, the overwhelming majority understand that just isn’t possible right now. 
See it? "Forever" apparently doesn't last as long as you'd think it does. Tobin instead sees it is a rather contingent and temporary observation. To say Israel will stay in Ofra "forever" doesn't mean it will stay there forever. It just means "at present", or "right now", or "for the foreseeable future" -- until such time as a Palestinian partner for peace comes into being and a bilateral (not "unilateral") agreement can be reached.

This is what happens when you try to get too cute and clever for your own good. Using Gantz as a barometer, Tobin wants to demonstrate that global critics of Netanyahu who want him to be more proactive in ending the West Bank occupation are staking out a decidedly minority opinion in Israeli society. But the evidence he proffers does a lot more than that: if we take it seriously, it equally undermines the ever-present refrain, echoed by Tobin, that of course Israelis want peace and would be willing to withdraw, the conditions just aren't right "right now". The problem isn't with Israelis, who would jump at the chance of a deal, but with Palestinians who "are still clinging to their century-old war on Zionism."

But Gantz didn't say that Ofra will remain "at present" or "right now". He said that settlement bloc, which renders a Palestinian state an impossibility, will remain "forever." And so if he is a barometer for the median Israeli's political psyche, then the median Israeli is saying that their objection to a Palestinian state isn't a contingent appraisal of the contemporary political situation, but an objection in principle. If Tobin is correct about Gantz, then right now it is Israeli society that is "clinging" to a hardline, rejectionist position that opposes a final peace agreement outright. His column is, in its way, one of the more searing indictments one could possibly make of contemporary Israeli society: even its so-called moderates envision staying in the West Bank "forever"! It's not a "Bibi" problem, it's an Israeli problem.

Tobin can only turn "forever" into "at present" because he is committed to the notion that it is an inherent and permanent feature of Israel and Palestine that Israelis want a just peace where they live side-by-side with Palestine in harmony, and hence if a just peace hasn't occurred, the only reason must be that Palestinians don't want one. If Gantz's "forever" means settlements that would forever bar the creation of a Palestinian state, then it can't mean "forever" at all.

But the fact of the matter is, there is no permanent and unalterable political position that is "what Israelis want" or "what Palestinians want". These things shift based on a multitude of factors -- ranging from material conditions on the ground to efforts at persuasion. It is wrong to assume that the Palestinian position simply is, immutably, a desire for the destruction of Israel at the expense of all else; and it's wrong to assume  that the Israeli position simply is, inherently, a hope for peace if only the conditions were ripe. Sometimes either or both of these views might be the majority or dominant position in their respective camps. Other times it might be the opposite -- Palestinians hoping to simply bring an end to the conflict and set up their own state, with a majority of Israelis being indifferent and content to maintain the occupation "forever".

That these positions aren't built into the bones of their respective societies is what allows changes to be made. Even if Gantz is a barometer of Israeli society right now, that doesn't mean that position is forever -- that Israelis are hopeless, unpersuadable, locked into territorial maximalism. But changing minds takes work, it doesn't come for free. And it certainly won't come if it is taken as axiomatic that Israelis are -- by virtue of being Israeli -- automatically and inherently ready to deal if only the moment is right.

I'm That Guy! I'm That "Independent" Artist Guy!

You know the character. In a TV series or a movie, he's a talented artistic sort, but utterly rejects any commercialization of his product if it entails compromise in his work. Using his song for an advertising jingle? No way. Altering his masterpiece to suit the tastes of the wealthy client/benefactor? Absolutely not. He's fiercely independent, and disdains the trappings of popularity or financial reward if it in any way interferes with the sanctity of his art.

I always hated those characters. I found them sanctimonious, self-absorbed, and more than a little ridiculous.

Except I just realized ... I might be that guy, with respect to my writing.

Of course, I'm not a TV or movie character, so I'm a more filed-off version of the sort. I'm willing to publish my opinions in the popular press, and I don't harbor any particularly negative opinions about gaining popularity or exposure or money (I'll let the readers decide whether I'm "talented" or not).

But it is certainly not why I write, and I'm pretty consistent in rejecting opportunities for greater exposure if I have even the slightest concern that the medium will entail a dilution or compromise in my message. Which it usually will, since writing for someone else involves incorporating their editorial judgment and word count restrictions and other formatting strictures. Whereas when I write on this blog, where I can write for as long or as short as I want, on whatever topic I want, for whoever cares to read (or doesn't) -- none of that applies. I'm in control of my own message.

The same applies to other potential communicative mediums I might join in. Interviewed on a TV series? Someone else is the editor of the clip -- that makes me very nervous. Serving as an expert witness? You're supposed to give decisive judgments about whether X or Y did or didn't happen -- but what if I want to equivocate? This is also why I've never had an interest in going into politics: the arguments that win elections or change popular opinion aren't necessarily good arguments, and I don't have the stomach for making claims that rouse popular support even as I know they're not analytically precise.

Of course, these self-imposed limits mean that fewer people will be exposed to the arguments I make, and one might think that -- given all the energy I invest in crafting them -- I'd view that as a sizable loss. But ... I don't. Not really, anyway. I'm always happy when people read what I write and find it compelling or persuasive, but that's never been my primary motivation. I'm a very inwardly-motivated individual; I write because I want to get my thoughts out into the world. If they happen to spark some other person's imagination (or get me some freelance dollars), that's great, but it's just a bonus.

I'd like to think I'm not sanctimonious about the whole deal: I don't think I'm better or purer or more authentic because I've made the choices I've made. But I'm definitely making that style of choice. And the more I think about it, the more the closest archetype I'm falling into is one of those independent artist types. I am, it turns out, That Guy.