Tuesday, June 19, 2018

Loving the Children To Death

Right now, the Republican Party is trying to square a very nettlesome circle. On the one hand, they want to communicate that they care about the immigrant children the Trump administration is ripping away from their families. On the other hand, they want to do as little as possible to actually challenge Trump's policies or effectuate any meaningful change -- especially if it might mean (heaven forbid) some of these kids actually get to stay in the United States and build a safe and productive life here.

The latest bit of rhetoric emerging out of this impossible dynamic is the claim that it is for the children's own good that they are being ripped from their families and locked into cages. Moderate Republican(tm) Susan Collins kicked this off, wailing about how "dangerous" it is for parents try and cross the American border as cover for refusing to join Democratic efforts to end family separation.

More recently, that gambit has been extended to allege that the children in question are actually trafficking victims and that therefore efforts to prevent family separation are the real acts of child abuse. Arkansas Senator Tom Cotton, for example, tweeted the following today:
Meanwhile, his Nebraska colleague Ben Sasse took a more circuitous route -- sprinkled with many rhetorical condemnations of the family separation policy -- to arrive mostly at the same place:
This bad new policy is a reaction against a bad old policy. The old policy was “catch-and-release.” Under catch-and-release, if someone made it to the border and claimed asylum (whether true or not, and most of the time it wasn’t true), they were released into the U.S. until a future hearing date....
Catch-and-release – combined with inefficient deportation and other ineffective policies – created a magnet whereby lots of people came to the border who were not actually asylum-seekers. This magnet not only attracted illegal immigrants generally, but also produced an uptick in human trafficking across our border.... 
Human trafficking organizations are not just evil; they’re also often smart. Many quickly learned the “magic words” they needed to say under catch-and-release to guarantee admission into the U.S. Because of this, some of the folks showing up at the border claiming to be families are not actually families. Some are a trafficker with one or more trafficked children. Sometimes border agents can identify this, but many times they aren’t sure. 
Any policy that incentivizes illegal immigration is terrible governance. But even more troubling is that catch-and-release rewarded traffickers, who knew they could easily get their victims to market in the U.S.
Incidentally, "Ben Sasse takes a more circuitous route to arrive at the same place as Tom Cotton" basically describes the Republican Party dynamic on every noteworthy case of Trump administration extremism.

Anyway, first thing to say about the trafficking talking point is that it's basically bogus: DHS statistics indicate that 0.61% of family apprehensions at the border are even alleged to be cases where smugglers have falsely presented a trafficking victim as a family member.

But let's take the tiny minority of trafficking cases at face value. Those kids whom Collins and Cotton and Sasse are so concerned about? They're the ones the Trump administration is putting in cages. One might forget that the immigrant children are supposedly the victims in the GOP story, given how every Republican solution centers around keeping them incarcerated until they can be sent back to their countries of origin (where, remember, they were by stipulation abducted and smuggled across international borders -- so not a great place for them). Much like Syrian children, immigrant children (whether victims of traffickers or not) are good enough for Republicans to imprison, but not good enough to rescue.

It's no accident that the more honest voices of the Trump movement -- the Ann Coulters of the world -- are perfectly explicit in stating that the children are just as much of the enemy as their supposed "traffickers". Nothing the Republican Party has done over the past several years has been remotely consistent with the idea that they actual view immigrant children as valuable human beings whom we have an obligation to treat with respect. The priority is ensuring -- at any cost -- that they do not have the opportunity to build a dignified life for themselves in America. If that means ripping them from their parent's arms, so be it. If they means permanently destroying families, so be it. If that means sending them back to countries where they'll be executed by paramilitary gangs, so be it.

Republicans care a lot about immigrant children. It's a shame that all that care and concern goes mostly into destroying their lives.

Monday, June 18, 2018

SPLC Apologizes to Maajid Nawaz

The Southern Policy Law Center has formally apologized to Maajid Nawaz and the Quilliam Foundation for including them in a 2016 list of "anti-Muslim extremists" (they're also paying a multi-million dollar settlement, earmarked for fighting anti-Muslim bigotry as well as Islamist extremism).

I remember when that SPLC document came out -- I was at most dimly aware of Nawaz at that point, but as I wrote at the time "even solely going off what the SPLC says about him in this document the case for labeling him an 'anti-Muslim extremist' seems exceptionally thin. Placing him on a list that includes Pam Geller seems recklessly irresponsible at best, discrediting at worst." So it's good that the SPLC apologized, although I'm a bit surprised that they did -- it's been two years, and while Nawaz had threatened a defamation suit, the legal basis for such an action was exceptionally thin.

On that note, it is worth reiterating Ken White's cautionary note, which is that while -- again -- the SPLC almost certainly wronged Nawaz from a moral and ethical point of view, legally they should have been in the clear. Their description of Nawaz and Quilliam as anti-Muslim extremists, irresponsible and unwarranted as it was, still clearly falls in the realm of protected opinion. To the extent that the tool of anti-defamation law was used to extract this settlement, that has worrying First Amendment implications notwithstanding the fact that on-substance it was the right thing for the SPLC to do.

Tuesday, June 12, 2018


My last post on IfNotNow's attempt to introduce Palestinian narratives into Jewish summer camp programming suggested that INN missed an opportunity to Brandi Maxxxx its putative adversaries. (The "Brandi Maxxxx" strategy is when a somewhat-marginal group or institution holds its position out as being of a kind with that of a centrist group -- in this case, e.g., emerging out of genuine love for Israel and a place of care and concern for Israel's future -- thereby forcing the centrist group to either implicitly accede to the connection or aggressively repudiate the principles).

The unnecessarily harsh and distancing statement of INN directed at Camp Ramah (one of the major Jewish camps INN had sought to work with) emphasized the gap between the two (and therefore, in effect, the non-mainstream nature of INN's position) and effectively let Ramah claim the "big tent" high ground. By contrast, if INN had suggested that they and Ramah were in agreement, in order for Ramah to disavow INN it would have to "register a much more specific disavowal of IfNotNow and discussion of the occupation in its camps, in which case -- IfNotNow has a much stronger basis for critique against Ramah and Jewish camps going forward."

But now Ramah has come out with a new statement that basically did that anyway. It is rather gratuitously nasty in tone and makes it pretty clear that it is the one taking its ball and going home, not INN. The result is that INN gains a lot more credence, in my book, when it asserts that organizations like Ramah are institutionally allergic to any serious reckoning with the reality of the occupation and Palestinian lives. It also reemphasizes something I've long railed against: that when it comes to Israel politics, the Jewish community places a border on its left flank but not its right. Ramah is rigorous and emphatic in policing how far to the left its willing to let its staff go on Israel -- but there's no indication that there's any standards they apply on the right.

(Interestingly, the commentary IfNotNow gave to this letter was I thought much better in tone than its prior response to Ramah's more moderate initial statement. It might just be a matter of comparison though -- it's easy to look reasonable and fair-minded when your interlocutor so nakedly decides to go overboard).

Monday, June 11, 2018

Second-Class Jews and the Future of the Jewish State

When I wrote my Forward article on how Israel doesn't care about American Jews, the most common response from Israeli readers was "that's right, we don't -- and fuck you for saying so."

The second-most common reply was to suggest that while American Jews certainly mattered to them, they'd never risk Israeli security in order to assuage American Jewish concerns.

If the former message was, in its pugnacious way, confirmatory, the latter response was revealing for what it overlooked. For while it's true that my article talked about issues related to "security" as one area where American Jews were routinely ignored, it quite consciously did not limit itself to that forum.
But it’s not just about questions of security. Israel has shown no interest in dislodging the Orthodox hammerlock on Israeli religious practice, despite the burdens it places on mostly non-Orthodox diaspora Jews. And the decision to renege on the egalitarian prayer agreement at the Western Wall, where we saw perhaps the single most concentrated explosion of American Jewish fury at Israeli government policy, made it abundantly clear that American Jews count for nothing in Israel’s political deliberations.
These issues do not plausibly relate to "security". And, if anything, they are doing more to drive splits between the American and Israeli Jewish community, as the American Jewish Committee recently stressed at a Jerusalem conference (the gap between how American Jews and Israeli Jews view these issues is staggering). Yet it was as if they weren't even being spoken of -- so loud was the mantra "security, security, security".

As the AJC pointed out in blunt terms, the Israeli government -- by capitulating over and over again to the ultra-Orthodox Rabbinate -- is basically telling the 85% of American Jews who are not Orthodox that they don't count as Jews. The failure to create an egalitarian prayer space at the Western Wall means half the world's Jewish population is forbidden from praying at our religion's holiest site -- were it any other nation, the term for that would be antisemitism. Those of us with Jewish partners who did not grow up Jewish, those of us who were raised Jewish but lacked a Jewish parent, those of us in Jewish communities who are not acknowledged to be Jewish by the Rabbinate, we're realizing just how precarious our status as Jews is in the putative Jewish state.

And yet the Israeli government thinks that these Jews-they-don't-acknowledge-as-Jews will indefinitely go to bat for them in Congress, on college campuses, at the UN? Why? What hubris, what chutzpah, makes them believe this? How arrogant must they be to think there can be an ongoing asymmetrical relationship of heartfelt caring on one side and utter, abject contempt on the other?

Sunday, June 10, 2018

American Jews are Republican and Anti-Zionist in Roughly Equal (Tiny) Numbers

The American Jewish Committee has released its 2018 survey of American Jewish opinion (along with Israeli Jewish opinion -- and they conveniently offer a side-by-side comparison here).

A lot of it is predictable: American Jews loathe Trump, support gun control, support DACA, and oppose greater immigration restrictions. Some of it doesn't surprise me but might surprise some: American Jews think Trump is doing a lousy job handling the U.S./Israel relationship, think Russia is the greatest threat to America (well ahead of Iran and North Korea, in a statistical dead heat for second), and think caring about Israel is important to our identities as Jews.

(One area I desperately wish the AJC had polled on is on Jewish attitudes towards BDS -- both "support/oppose" numbers as well as "a lot/somewhat/a little/not at all antisemitic" numbers).

But if one digs into the data a bit more, there are some fun observations to be had. For one, American Jews continue to overwhelmingly identify as Democrats (51% versus 16% Republicans). This tracks 2016 voting patterns, where 60% of respondents voted for Clinton versus 19% for Trump.

The survey doesn't ask about Zionist identity, but it does ask whether respondents believe Israel can be a Jewish and democratic state, and then asks those who say no whether it should be Jewish or democratic. If we use the "no, and it should be a democratic state" as a rough proxy for anti-Zionist -- well, that figure is 20%.

So basically, the proportion of American Jews who are anti-Zionist is about the same as the proportion of American Jews who are Republican -- and in both cases, it is less than the proportion of Idaho voters who backed Hillary Clinton. Which is to say, in the scheme of things, both are trivial. (Incidentally, the percentage of American Jews who oppose a two-state solution "in the current situation" sits at about 30% -- not quite as tiny, but still pretty small).

Of course, that a given topical minority is rather small doesn't mean that it shouldn't have a voice, and I'm agnostic as to exactly how much of a voice such a group should have in broader Jewish communal affairs. There's a fine line to be drawn between pluralism and representativeness.

But equally-sized groups should be treated equally. As much (or as little) attention as we pay and influence we accord to Jewish Republicans is precisely as much as should be meted out to Jewish anti-Zionists. Fair is fair, after all.

Friday, June 08, 2018

IfNotYes ...?

I have a relatively negative view of IfNotNow. It's certainly not from any pro-occupation place, but every time I see them in action they appear to have the political instincts of an arsonist. I once said of Simone Zimmerman "some people haven't met a forest fire they didn't ache to pour gasoline on," and I feel like that fits INN pretty well too. As someone who's never thought regarding the Israeli/Palestinian conflict "you know what this needs? More incendiary rhetoric and us-versus-them tribal organization!" IfNotNow was never going to be among my favorites.

In many ways, I view IfNotNow as the Jewish heirs to the "Occupy" movement -- both in their preference for disruptive politics (not my cup of tea, but not per se invalid) and their utter allergy to actually accomplishing anything concrete if it involves working through establishment channels (which drives me up the wall). Hence their signature move: hosting sit-ins with Jewish organizations they think are insufficiently anti-occupation, and then refuse to actually meet with said organizations when they agree to discuss their demands. The results are ... basically what we saw with Occupy: managing to harness a ton of progressive energy, and then have it completely dissipate with nothing to show for it save self-righteous declarations about how pure they are and how broken "the system is". They're all ethics of conviction, no ethics of responsibility.

Here's the latest: IfNotNow has been hosting training sessions for Jewish camp counselors (that is, counselors at Jewish camps, not counselors who happen to be Jewish) to help them teach about the Occupation. Cool, in concept. Following those reports, one of the camp bodies released a statement saying, in part:
We, the leadership of Ramah, are proud that Zionism is a central part of our core mission, as we nurture within our campers and staff members a deep and enduring love for Israel.
Unfortunately, some recent articles in the Jewish press have mischaracterized our educational mission, leading some to believe that our 70-year history of strong pro-Israel ideology has changed. It has not. 
Our older teens and staff members represent a range of opinions on many contemporary issues, and a wide variety of positions supporting Israel can be voiced and discussed. We do not, however, permit the sharing of anti-Israel educational messages at camp.
 Okay. Now, one could interpret this as a repudiation of IfNotNow, saying their training sessions are "anti-Israel" or do not come from a "deep and enduring love for Israel." But IfNotNow could also very easily nestle itself inside this message, affirming that its educational mission stems from a "deep and enduring love for Israel" and that its arguments exist with then the "wide variety of positions supporting Israel" that Ramah is open to facilitating.

Guess which side IfNotNow picked? Yep, the one that maximizes confrontation.

Now, part of this may be a matter of honesty, of a sort. INN is internally diverse on questions of Zionism, and it is possible that some members would blanch at the idea that their anti-occupation curriculum even comes from a place of "deep and enduring love for Israel." But that's their problem, and at most I think it's only part of the story. The bigger issue is that IfNotNow really loves its lone wolf fetish, which depends on constructing the Jewish center as irredeemable opponents who must be wholly thrown off (one advantage of this is that it conveniently takes compromise -- and the threat compromise poses to moral purity -- off the table).

And there are other approaches available. I wrote years ago about what I called "the Brandi Maxxxx strategy" for Jewish liberals, which basically is a form of killing-by-agreement. Keep on insisting that mainline Jewish organizations actually agree with you -- that only a two-state solution is acceptable, that the occupation exacts terrible costs on Palestinians, and so on -- and force them either to very explicitly disavow those positions or accede to the linkage of the Jewish left and center in the public imagination. Consider the following hypothetical response by IfNotNow to Ramah's statement:
IfNotNow is pleased that Jewish campers will have the opportunity to learn about the reality of occupation at Camp Ramah. 
Our discussions with Mitch Cohen confirmed that this is an important arena of learning for young Jews, and we fully agree that such discussions are an integral part of the "variety of positions" Jewish should be exposed to and entirely consonant with "deep and enduring love for Israel" that the camp tries to facilitate.
That is entirely consistent with the Ramah statement -- it just very publicly and agreeably posits a harmony between the two organizations. But lest you think it's a case of IfNotNow rolling over, notice the position it puts Ramah in. They can specifically agree with INN's statement, in which case -- IfNotNow wins. They can not respond to it at all, in which case -- IfNotNow wins. Or they can register a much more specific disavowal of IfNotNow and discussion of the occupation in its camps, in which case -- IfNotNow has a much stronger basis for critique against Ramah and Jewish camps going forward (which is to say: IfNotNow wins).

I suspect that Door #2 would be the most likely outcome, and the upshot of that is that they've got an open door towards bringing in the sort of learning that they want. But my sense is that IfNotNow cares a lot less about getting the occupation taught at Jewish summer camp than they care about being able to loudly declare how radical and disruptive it'd be if the occupation were taught at Jewish summer camp. If getting the former requires them to use conciliatory rhetoric or suggest that the distance between themselves and mainline Jewish organizations isn't the gaping chasm they like to portray it as -- well, they can always go back to the ethics of conviction, can't they?

It's not quite an inability to take "yes" for an answer. But it's something very close.

Tuesday, June 05, 2018

Things People Blame the Jews For, Volume XLV: Electing Trump (and Making Russia Pay For It)

I already did an entry in this series where people blamed the Jews for Trump's election (it ... did not take long). But this one is a little different. It's not a claim that Jews voted for Trump (spoiler alert: we didn't). It's a much more nested little argument from John Schindler, a former NSA intelligence analyst who thinks that all this talk about Russian interference in the election might just be a smokescreen distracting from the real culprits.

Oh, those sly dogs.

The hook here is an interview George Papadopoulos's new wife did with the Daily Caller, where she claimed that he only plead guilty to charges brought by Special Counsel Robert Mueller "to avoid facing charges that he was an agent of the Israeli government."

Mueller hasn't corroborated the account. But Schindler sure took it up and started running ... hard:

[T]here are strange Israeli footprints all over the Trump-Russia story. Quite a few of the shady figures close to the president and his business affairs are American Jews of Soviet heritage who possess connections to Israel. Felix Sater and Michael Cohen are only the best-known of this dubious crew. Those men are also connected to Chabad of Port Washington, a Jewish community center on Long Island that is part of the worldwide Chabad movement—which just happens to possess close links to Vladimir Putin and his Kremlin.
For the record, Cohen was born in Long Island to a Holocaust-survivor father -- I wonder if that's what "Soviet heritage" (is "Soviet" an ethnicity now?) means in this context? While he clearly has significant family ties to the Ukraine, I've actually been able to find little in his family history that suggests particularly "Soviet" leanings.

To be honest, it wouldn't surprise me if Israeli intelligence had contacts with the Trump campaign during the election run-up -- he was such an inviting target that it's hard to imagine them passing up the chance. And to the extent the evidence leads in that direction, we should follow it fearlessly.

But the claim that the entire thing was an Israeli plot of whom they made Russia their patsies? That's on quite a different level.