Wednesday, May 25, 2016

Memmi on the "Mistaken" Belief of Jewish Suffering

I'm trying to return to Albert Memmi this summer, and so I've been reading his book Portrait of a Jew.. I've pulled quotes on this blog from Memmi before -- his discussion on the meaning of Zionism (from Jews and Arabs) and why the nation-state is part of Jewish liberation (from The Liberation of the Jew). This passage deals with how other people react to Jews when we try to claim that we are marginalized, that we do suffer.

Earlier in the chapter (pp. 22-23), Memmi discusses an interesting phenomenon where Jews claimed to not have been truly "aware" of themselves as Jewish, of their marginalized Jewish status, until a particularly robust event of anti-Semitism revealed it to them. Einstein encountering German anti-Semites, Herzl facing down the mobs clamoring for Dreyfuss. As Memmi observes, there is something odd about this -- as if any Jew of that era could really be unaware of the broader currents of anti-Semitism -- and furthermore, the celerity with which these persons are able to describe their situation following the triggering event belies the idea that they really lacked any awareness of its contours prior to that date. What's really going on is a sort of self-deception, where Jews try to tell ourselves that we're fine, happy, assimilated people. And because we tell it so insistently to ourselves, it maybe isn't too surprising that non-Jews are also sometimes incredulous when we do finally feel compelled to express it out loud.

In any event, after noting the default incredulity -- he analogizes it to Europeans who can't fathom that natives suffer under colonialism and accuse them of being "too sensitive" or just "out of [their] mind[s]" -- Memmi writes the following:
"Very well,"" I, too, have often been told, "you suffer because you are a Jew. I believe you because you say so. But you are wrong to feel that way."
[*29] After denying that the situation exists, they say it is a "mistake," after refusing to believe in the Jew's anxiety, they declare it is unfounded. In the end they even lose their temper and retort sharply: "You think of yourself too much! Come now! You enjoy pitying yourselves! Have a little pity for others!"
One of the best arguments I have heard accused me of selfish complacency.
"You are not the only victim--if there are any victims at all!" they told me. "Look at the Negroes, at the Spanish Republicans, at all the displaced persons. And what about the gypsies! What social outcasts they are!"
 A fine argument indeed! They are going to chip off your leg (and sometimes your head) but just look at that poor man in the bed next to you, they say. They cut on both his legs and he was so brave. Aren't you ashamed! A little more and htey would blame you for not singing while they dismember you!
Far from thinking I am the only one in this situation, I believe, on the contrary, that racial discrimination is more widespread than anything else in the world. I note, with horror, that most individuals, most peoples, are basically inclined to xenophobia. Far from believing I am the sole victim in a world of peace and justice, I think, unfortunately, that the statement should be reversed: the Jewish tragedy is part of a much broader human category--the category of oppression and misfortune.
 But, I repeat, I do not understand how the misfortune of others can be reassuring and comforting. All the misfortune in the world gives me no consolation at all for my own. It does not console me for anything. All the injustice in the world cannot make me accept the injustice I suffer. On the contrary, it feeds my anger, it whips up my fury against the shame and the outrage. Because I am a Jew, am I to console myslef with the [*30] thought of anti-Negro racism or racial difficulties in the colonies? What my would-be comforters suggest to me is that since, after all, xenophobia does exist, it is up to me to suffer patiently the insults to the Jews! I understand perfectly. There are, in short, two attitudes: either one accepts all the sufferings or one rejects it all. Well, I reject it in totum as I reject in detail each face of oppression.
Albert Memmi, Portrait of a Jew (Elisabeth Abbott, trans., New Yor: Viking 1971) (1962), pp. 28-30.

"If It Had Happened To Any Other Group....": Looking for the Glass

Someone who does not see a pane of glass does not know that he does not see it. Someone who, being placed differently, does see it, does not know the other does not see it. --Simone Weil
Commenting on this passage almost a decade ago, I wrote the following:
The same reality can look quite different to those differently situated. When a person in a different social location remarks on an event or experience that we--despite living in the same "world"--do not perceive, our first response may be to deny or deride them as liars, charlatans, or fakes, for we do not see what they see. It is difficult for us to imagine that our vision may be constrained--especially if one is situated in a position that is treated as if its perspective is universal and whole. Meanwhile, the interlocutor is presented with a very similar problem. When an experience is right there in front of you, a fundamental part of ones existence that can feel, touch, block, or even slay you, it is hard to imagine that your partner cannot see it. The first person's objection is taken to be in bad faith, a manifestation of hostility. 
Ideally, both parties should recognize the limitation of their and their partner's perceptual horizons, adopting a stance of humility. She who does not see should nonetheless be willing to accept the other's sight, she who sees should be generous to those whose vision is lacking. The reality that our perspective is constrained by our social position affects us all, and that is something we share with every other body, no matter how far apart we seem on everything else. Thus, our demand should not be for others to see what we see. Rather, we have the right to demand a certain degree of wonder (to borrow from Luce Irigaray) on the part of our interlocutors in social discussions, "Wonder which beholds what it sees always has if for the first time, never taking hold of the other as its object. It does not try to seize, possess, or reduce this object, but leaves it subjective, still free." No matter how complete we feel our experience is, other people remain in some sense beyond us, and only they have the authority to tell the story of their own experience.
I was thinking about this in relation to two articles I recently read -- Yair Rosenberg's piece on "How Oberlin Has Repeatedly Failed To Confront Anti-Semitism on Campus" and Nathan Heller's profile (also centered around Oberlin) regarding "The New Activism" on college campuses.

Rosenberg's piece, specifically on anti-Semitism, documents just how hard it has been to get the Oberlin community to take anti-Semitism seriously. The initially tepid response of the university president to vicious anti-Semitic conspiracy theories peddled by Joy Karega, a tenure-track professor, was met with considerable frustration, prompting the Board to step in and issue its own statement. The sense among many was that this chain of events showcased just how marginalized Jews were -- "if any other group" had been subjected to such naked bigotry it would not have taken such herculean efforts to secure a meaningful condemnation of the idea that Jews run the media and are responsible for ISIS. It's not that other groups don't face serious wrongs -- the putative difference is that when something bad happens, a statement gets made. No muss, no fuss.

Heller's profile doesn't talk about Jews that much -- an interesting elision that I may write about in another post -- but he does gather the sense of several black student activists on the topic of the Board's statement on Prof. Karega's anti-Semitism:
Like everyone else at the table, [Jasmine] Adams believes that the Oberlin board’s denunciation of Joy Karega’s Facebook posts shows hypervigilance toward anti-Semitism and comparative indifference toward racial oppression. “We want you to say, ‘Racism is not accepted!’ ” Adams says.
When I first read this, my eyes nearly popped out.  "Hypervigilance"! As Rosenberg's piece documents, getting even a half-decent statement out of the Oberlin official was like an exercise in pulling teeth. And this view isn't just found at Oberlin. At Emory, students aggrieved at pro-Donald Trump chalkings contrasted what they took to be an indifferent administrative response to the supposedly quick action against swastikas defacing a Jewish fraternity. The university president had to correct the students by noting that the university actually took its sweet time issuing a condemnation in that case (it actually took a second case of swastika vandalism to prompt a public university response).

I've typically talked about this phenomenon -- the reflexive assumption that Jews are protected, if not overprotected, by powerful actors in contrast to the "real" victims whose plight is almost entirely ignored -- as the concept of Jews as "anti-discrimination winners." And I do think that's part of the story, particularly in explaining why the left's solidaristic impulses so often seem to be lacking when it comes to the Jewish case.

But I was also reflecting on the odd mirror image that has emerged: Both the Jews and the students of color contrast the innumerable hoops they have to jump through against the express-lane treatment the other group supposedly gets. Is it possible we're both right and both wrong?

What I suspect is going on is this: When your own group faces a case of oppression or marginalization or wrong, you see every step in the process: The community which seems indifferent. The administration which seems to want to sweep it under the rug. The critics who roll their eyes at your oversensitivity, or who outright accuse you of fraud. You go through all of that, and what emerges is probably a statement that feels half-hearted and pro forma. It's maddening.

But when another group experiences a similar wrong, you don't see the process. All you see is the beginning and the end: "Bad thing happens --> Statement gets made." It looks like they get as an entitlement the vigorous, robust university response that you had to scrape and claw to even get a whiff of. And that's doubly maddening.

But in all likelihood, it's also just an illusion. What's really happening is the shifting visibility of that pane of glass. It's in front of us, and we see it, and we find it incredible that our fellows don't see it staring us in the face. And meanwhile, they've got their own pane of glass that we don't see, blocking their way, mocking them in comparison to the free and clear (as far as they can tell) path before us.

What to do about this? I endorse what I wrote back when I was a precocious liberal arts college student: We should be humble about what we see, and in particular humble about what we imagine others to have seen. I know how hard it is for Jews to get anti-Semitism on the agenda in the institutions I care about. I also know that other groups feel the same about their own marginalizations. And so, I try not to presume that they've really got it easy. Solidarity starts with taking what other people say seriously, even when it doesn't immediately ring true to one's own view of the world. Because by definition we don't know that we don't see the pane of glass invisible to us. And equally by definition, we don't know that our fellow really doesn't see the pane of glass that's all too present for us.

Monday, May 23, 2016

Assorted Thoughts on the DNC Platform Committee

The DNC has released its platform committee, and the big news is that Senator Sanders successfully got near-parity with the Clinton campaign (he got five appointees, Clinton got six, and the DNC, through chair Debbie Wasserman-Schultz, picked four). Some assorted thoughts (in no particular order):

* Both Clinton and Sanders picked a Congressperson who is a member of the Congressional Progressive Caucus. Sanders picked Rep. Keith Ellison (MN) and Clinton Rep. Luis Gutierrez (IL). But interestingly enough, the most progressive elected official on the whole committee is probably a DWS pick. That would be my Congresswoman here in Berkeley, Rep. Barbara Lee.

* Rep. Elijah Cummings (MD) is a great choice as chair. Universally respected by all factions in the Democratic Party. That doesn't mean I envy him.

* Who is Alicia Reece, and why is an Ohio state representative getting a slot? I'm hoping the answer is "because she's a rising star in Democratic politics and in ten years everyone will think this was a stupid question."

* I presume there is already some murmuring in pro-Israel corners about Sanders picking Arab American Institute head James Zogby to be on the committee. I don't think there is any cause for concern, and I'm in fact optimistic that he will help the committee produce language that instantiates the vision for Israel and Palestine that is shared by most Democrats (as well as most Jews): Two states for two people, respecting the democratic and national rights of each. Zogby is a pro, I doubt he would produce anything objectionable even if he were writing the language himself (which he isn't). None of this will stop some elements of the "pro-Israel" community from releasing commentary about Zogby's selection that will double as a self-inflicted gunshot wound.

* There is a real, non-trivial chance that Cornel West will be a catastrophe in this role. Remember that time he called "Brother Trump" an "authentic human being" (like "Brother Bernie" but unlike all the other candidates)? Or the time he called Obama our "first niggerized black president"? These do not speak of someone interested in the good of the Democratic Party or, quite frankly, the good of the progressive movement writ large. Most of the people on this committee I'm sure will do a good and conscientious job to produce a good document that represents Democratic Party principles and aids the nominee tasked with implementing them. West I can absolutely see deciding to make a grandstanding show that could detonate the whole endeavor.

* Both Clinton and Sanders have a committed environmentalist on their slate, but it's interesting that Clinton's put on the only union representative on the Committee (Paul Booth, of AFSCME).

* Gender breakdown is as follows: Clinton -- four women, two men. Sanders -- four men, one woman. DWS -- two men, two women.

* All of this being said, by far the most likely outcome is that this is essentially the last time we ever hear anything about the platform committee or its work ever again.

Thursday, May 19, 2016

Playing with Cards: Bringing It All Together

When I write about issues of discrimination and identity, I try when feasible to use a mix of racism, sexism, and anti-Semitism examples to illustrate my point. So, for example, in Playing with Cards I discuss the bad faith "card" retort to discrimination claims by looking at how Gamergaters responded to Anita Sarkeesian's contentions of sexism in the video game community (to talk of sexism is an "I-win button") and how Caryl Churchill dismissed objections that her play Seven Jewish Children was anti-Semitic ("It's the usual tactic."). It's the same move, just applied to different people.

And sometimes, the world reciprocates. Breitbart News has been engulfed in scandal (well, a new scandal anyway) recently after it published David Horowitz calling Bill Kristol a "renegade Jew" (stemming from the latter's rejection of Donald Trump). The fallout has led to alarms being raised about the rise of anti-Jewish sentiment in the conservative movement (not that this should really surprise us given the basis of Trump's appeal-- anti-Muslim sentiments and anti-Semitic sentiments are in fact excellent predictors of one another), including by one-time conservative wunderkind Ben Shapiro. And to Sharpiro's concerns, well, Breitbart published this yesterday:
He has started playing the victim on Twitter and throwing around allegations of anti-semitism and racism, just like the people he used to mock. 
Ben, no one hates Jewish people....You’re no better than notorious feminist agitator Anita Sarkeesian presenting the tweets of Twitter trolls to the UN as proof of an overwhelming rise in sexism!
They even made the same comparison to Sarkeesian that I did!

Perhaps we shouldn't feel any pity for Shapiro who, after all, made his career on mocking and deriding others who raising discrimination claims on behalf of outgroups. But there is something worth observing here. One recurrent argument people make in dismissing discrimination claims is some variant on the "crying wolf" case -- that if we are too quick to "cry discrimination", people won't take "the real discrimination" seriously. This was always an iffy claim, and if anything Shapiro's case seems to demonstrate that the reverse is true. If you spend your life telling people that most discrimination claims are ginned-up, bad faith political ploys that should be mocked and dismissed, they won't make an exception when it's your turn to be the claimant (Jewish Voice for Peace has run into the same problem on the rare occasions where it has tried to call something anti-Semitic -- it finds that the norm it has promoted whereby most anti-Semitism claims are simply Zionist scare tactics doesn't evaporate just because they're the "good Jews").

Decades ago Derrick Bell already recognized this when elaborating on his concept of "enhanced standing": You can make a fine career out of telling the majority why your group is untrustworthy, unreliable, or outright condemnable -- but don't expect to be able to cash that credit in if you're perceived as even temporarily switching sides. And so the idea that we can get people to take racism, or sexism, or anti-Semitism seriously if we vigorously police out the "bad" claims and keep our powder dry to tackle the "real" ones turns out to be a dead end.  If we don't start with the basic assumption that members of historically marginalized groups have claims worth listening to, there really isn't a lot of room for meaningful political conversation to move forward.

Wednesday, May 18, 2016

Things People Blame the Jews For, Volume XXV: The Price of Power in Guatemala

I do a lot of work on contemporary anti-discrimination, especially anti-Semitism. I also research in energy law (right now much of my time is spent preparing for the Energy Law class I'll be teaching this summer). So imagine how excited I was when I saw those two great tastes combine together in Guatemala:

Demonstrators in Guatemala used anti-Semitic language to protest the Central American country’s major power company, which is owned by an Israeli group. 
Energuate, a private power supplier owned by Israeli company IC Power, was targeted by protests last week that included congressmen, businessmen and members of the military, the Estado de Israel news portal reported. 
“Jews have killed me on the cross. Now Jews from Energuate are killing my people in Guatemala with the light,” read the Spanish-language banners and posters at the protests. “Out with Jewish Energuate from Guatemala. Let’s unite for the nationalization of power electricity.” 
The anti-Semitic material also included an image of a crucified Jesus and a New Testament passage about hypocritical “teachers of the law and Pharisees” neglecting justice, mercy and faithfulness.
Yet you might be surprised to know that I was initially hesitant about whether to add this as an entry to my series. Was it because it wasn't high-profile enough? No -- it was a big enough deal to elicit comment from Guatemala's vice president. Was it because it wasn't really "blaming the Jews"? Seems like it obviously was -- though no doubt someone is ready to explain how "Jews have killed me on the cross" is really just an indictment of Israeli state policies.

No, the reason for my hesitance is that I already did an energy speculation entry in this series, and I do try to vary my pitches. Ultimately, I decided that this was different enough from my early contribution (which was mostly about energy extraction, rather than electricity prices), so that it could sustain itself. But it is so nice to see that the former was not a one-off.

Tuesday, May 17, 2016

Early Summer Roundup

May is a quiet month for me. June and July and August? Less quiet. So I'm trying to get work done now before all the travel and teaching and testing comes up down the road.

In the meantime, here are some things to clear off my browser.

* * *

A fun interview with Justice Clarence Thomas, dishing on his interests, his relationship with Justice Scalia, and his confirmation process.

The ADL will recognize the Ottoman Empire's genocide of Armenians at the turn of the 20th century. While recognizing that Turkey has an alarming inability to tell Jews apart when we advocate on this issue, I've long argued that this was a question of moral principle upon which the Jewish community cannot compromise.

An investigation into anti-Semitism at the Oxford University Labour Club has concluded that there were cultural problems and barriers to full Jewish inclusion, but not "institutional anti-Semitism." What does that mean? Nobody knows, since Labour refuses to actually publish the report. The author, Baronness Jen Royall, is not thrilled about her work being suppressed.

Melania Trump: Jewish reporter who received a torrent of anti-Semitic threats from Trump supporters "provoked them."

Monday, May 16, 2016

Donald Trump and the Resurgence of Far-Right Anti-Semitism

The Donald Trump phenomenon is the closest thing America has had in my lifetime to an old-school, populist-right movement. And one of the things that usually comes with that territory -- along with racism, xenophobia, and know-nothing nationalism -- is anti-Semitism.

It's no secret that there is a loud and vocal portion of Donald Trump's base that is openly anti-Semitic. And it continues to migrate closer to the "mainstream" of conservative thought, even as it targets other strands of the conservative movement thought of as Jewish. Breitbart was the latest on the bandwagon, commissioning a piece by David Horowitz targeting prominent anti-Trump Republican Bill Kristol as a "renegade Jew".

A friend of mine on Facebook suggested that when Trump loses -- and I have no doubt he will -- the movement that propped him will be primed to blame the Jews for his defeat. There is a recurrent story -- mostly told by GOP elites -- about how conservatives are the real friends of the Jews today. I never thought that was true, but I think within the GOP there had been an internal narrative where traditional populist GOP voters were held in check by party elites in their ability to express anti-Semitism. Donald Trump has upended that barrier as he has so many others, and I have very little faith that the GOP electorate that emerges will have anything but contempt for Jews generally and Jewish conservatives in particular.

Trump voters have got it in their heads that, in GOP politics as in life generally, Jew = 1%, RINO or outright liberal, elitist, PC, probably connected to the financial industry, and almost certainly in charge of the biased media. They signify everything in the GOP establishment that Trump voters despise (and, to be fair, Trump voters represent the nightmare version of the party that many Jewish Republicans had initially signed up for. It's not coincidence that I've openly wondered if we'll see neo-cons defect back to the Democratic Party).

Friday, May 13, 2016

....I Suppose I'm Proving the Point?

Though I don't really have anything novel to add, I suppose as a fan of boxing and a fan of commentator on anti-Semitism, I should remark on heavyweight champ Tyson Fury's addition of naked anti-Semitism to his already known array of misogyny and homophobia.
"Everyone just do what you can, listen to the Government, follow everybody like sheep, be brainwashed by all the Zionist, Jewish people who own all the banks, all the papers all the TV stations. Be brainwashed by them all. You’re all going to heaven - oh, sorry, there isn’t a heaven in a modern day world. So just crack on.
Fury then followed up by tweeting:
I see all the Zionist media outlets are on my back, because I speak the truth! u will all see the truth soon enuf, they killed my lord jesus
But don't worry! Because he concluded
I can confirm there is no hatred from me agents [sic -- probably "against"] the jewish people just the Zionist media.
A clarification which, according to the UK's National Union of Students, renders the whole thing entirely inbounds.

Anyway, as I said, I really don't have anything to add to this. We already knew Fury was an excellent boxer, and this doesn't reflect on his athletic prowess. We also knew that, as a person, Fury is complete scum, and this is only further verification of that. I'm just hoping that someone comes along to knock him off the heavyweight pedestal sooner rather than later.