Monday, May 02, 2016

BDS, Snitching, and Solidarity

Peter Beinart had a column a few days ago which tried to explain the Jewish BDS community in terms of personal morality versus Jewish solidarity. It's better than it sounds, given how conditioned we are to think that morality should trump solidarity. Beinart's point was that simply acting according to one's personal conscience will necessarily fray the bonds of communal fraternity. When Jews elect to cut off large swaths of the Jewish community from the currents of political conversation, they are making a choice that carries consequences they should be prepared to accept. He analogizes it to "calling the cops on your drug-addicted brother." Maybe it really is for his own good. But you can't necessarily expect your family to love you for it.

I think the analogy is decent. But I'd add one more element: It's like calling cops on your drug addicted brother, when those cops are part of an institutionally-biased system.

If one thinks about the "stop snitching" movement, the motivating force behind it isn't that crime is okay when black people do it. Rather, it is based on the sense that each time one brings the police into a community of color, one is allocating power over black bodies to an entity which does not necessarily have the well-being of those bodies at heart. Maybe the cops show up and they're great -- they resolve the problem, they mete out justice justly, and people feel content. Maybe they don't -- they come in guns blazing and kill someone, or they slap your "drug-addicted brother" with a charge that carries an outrageous mandatory minimum. The point is, it's not up to you. It's up to them. And they aren't accountable to you.

One does not have to full-throatedly endorse "stop snitching" (and I don't) to understand that this reality makes calling the police a decision with significant gravity in communities of color. It's not just about making sure wrongdoers get punished. It's also about handing over yet more power to external actors who -- not always, but often enough -- use that power to oppress. Each call to the police is a roll of the dice, and the caller isn't just (or often even primarily) gambling with his own life.

BDS is similar. BDS, we can stipulate, responds to real Israeli wrongs (it also sometimes concocts Israeli wrongs, but there are real and serious wrongs too). And it responds to those wrongs by appealing to external authorities to (literally) sanction the Jewish wrongdoers. These authorities are not Jewish, are not accountable to Jews, and have historically proven themselves to be not particularly invested in treating Jews as equally. BDS amplifies the power non-Jews exercise over Jews, and under conditions of anti-Semitic domination that is a decision that always carries with it gravity. I made this point in more detail when critiquing the "Zionist BDS" case forwarded by Steven Levitsky and E. Glen Weyl
[T]he sequence of events Levitsky and Weyl hope to see happen is that a bunch of people boycott Israel in order to exert pressure that will change the status quo vis-a-vis the Palestinians; Israeli policymakers feel the pinch and adopt policies desired by Levitsky and Weyl; and then the conflict is resolved and the boycott dissolved. That middle step has a big problem, which is that the authors fail to explain why Israeli policymakers will be responsive to the expressed desires of Levitsky and Weyl specifically as against other boycotters who -- by their own admission -- are seeking to send a very different message and have very different objectives.... 
And this is where the claims that the authors are not signing up for the BDS movement fall apart -- not because they secretly share the same motivations, but because their entire program depends on leveraging the BDS movement proper to make their own boycott sufficiently expansive so as to compel an Israeli response. The whole reason why Levitsky and Weyl don't see themselves as two cranks yelling at clouds, but actually engaged in a potentially consequential political project, is that it is not just them but all these other people boycotting Israel too. But it is "all these other people", not Levitsky and Weyl, who will dictate the message sent by the boycott campaign. The only function of Levitsky and Weyl will be to boost the signal of the BDS movement as a whole; their idiosyncratic expressive desires won't come across and won't dictate Israel's response.... 
Levitsky and Weyl certainly will object that by talking about non-Jews exercising coercive authority over a Jewish institution in the context of critiquing their column, I'm acting as if they are not Jewish (that they're the non-Jews seeking dominion over Jewish lives). But that misses the point. Levitsky and Weyl are absolutely Jewish -- but once again, they're not the ones who will be holding the leverage in the event their boycott movement succeeds. It will be a non-Jewish institution that is in a position to make demands, whether that be the United States, or the EU, or the UN, or Israel's Arab neighbors, or the PA, or PACBI, or someone else. It may be the case that a boycott will successfully force Israel to listen, but there is no plausible universe where a boycott will force Israel to listen to progressive Jews. The best progressive Jews could hope for is that whatever non-Jewish third party which ends up holding the cards will exhibit policy preferences mirroring those of progressive Jews. History suggests that this is a dim hope.
The difference between group solidarity and simple chauvinism is that the former is seeking to undermine a broader structure of dominating power. One thing BDS does is that it amplifies the global historical trend of placing decisions about Jews in the hands of non-Jews. This is a power that has typically not been exercised justly, and solidarity is justified as a means of resisting that domination and reasserting a self-determination right that has, for Jews, not generally been acknowledged. Palestinians have experienced the same thing, which is why there can be no just solution to the Israeli/Palestinian conflict that does not provide them space for genuine self-determination, free from Jewish and Israeli control (this, in short, is why I'm a committed two-stater).

To be sure, one can't go all in on one or the other. A world in which we simply obeyed the dictates of our community would be dead if not fascist, a world in which we threw off all communal bonds in favor of our own personal moralities would be chaotic and anarchic. What Robert Cover would call the imperial and paedaic attributes of our lives must be kept in careful balance.

And so the point isn't that Jews must always be entirely inward forcing because any appeal to the goyim means reinscribing anti-Semitic domination. But it does mean recognizing that reality as an ubiquitous fact of Jewish standing in the global community. It is always one of the stakes on the table. It might not always trump. But it always must be taken seriously.

Thursday, April 28, 2016

Staying Classy in San Diego

I'm happy to announce I'll be spending this month guest-blogging at The Faculty Lounge. I may still post independent content here -- we'll see how things go -- but I'll certainly be sure to provide pointers to any content I put up over there. I opened my stint with a reflection on the talk I gave (with Analucia Lopezrevoredo) this past Monday at San Diego State on Mizrahi Jews and intersectionality. It's a bit of a heavy opener, but I've never been afraid to come out swinging.

Wednesday, April 27, 2016

Rate That Apology(/Apologies?), Part 5: Naz Shah

The latest in the ongoing torrent of anti-Semitism scandals to hit the UK relates to Bradford West MP Naz Shah. Shah actually started off the in good graces of the Jewish community for knocking off the truly odious George Galloway to take her seat. But this week bloggers uncovered several social media posts where she, among other things, called for Israel to be moved to the United States (the "transportation costs" would be less than the cost of foreign aid to Israel), said that Zionism was a tool to "groom" Jews to exercise power over other countries, and complained that "the Jews are rallying to" an online polls regarding the Gaza conflict.

She's been suspended from the party. And she also delivered an apology published in the Jewish News.
I am sorry. 
For someone who knows the scourge of oppression and racism all too well, it is important that I make an unequivocal apology for statements and ideas that I have foolishly endorsed in the past. 
The manner and tone of what I wrote in haste is not excusable. With the understanding of the issues I have now I would never have posted them. I have to own up to the fact that ignorance is not a defence. 
The language I used was wrong. It is hurtful. What’s important is the impact these posts have had on other people. I understand that referring to Israel and Hitler as I did is deeply offensive to Jewish people for which I apologise. 
When the “Gaza-Israel” conflict happened I played an active role in highlighting the plight of the Palestinian people, attended demonstrations to stop the bombing and called for equality in media reporting of the issues. 
Feelings were running high across the world and Bradford was no different. Hindsight is a wonderful thing and I’m shocked myself at the language I used in some instances during the Gaza-Israel conflict. 
For this I apologise. 
Since winning the seat of Bradford West I have made conscious efforts in areas around integration, building bridges and community development, in particular around Muslim and Jewish relations. Indeed one of my very first visits was to my local synagogue.  
Only last week I was learning and sharing over an interfaith Passover seder with Reform Movement Senior Rabbi Janner-Klausner, Vice Chair of Conservatives Friends Of Israel Andrew Percy MP and  others at the rabbi’s home. We all read from the Haggadah and learnt more  about Passover. 
I have been asked to consider joining the APPG, (All Party Parliamentary Group) on British Jews because of the work I’m doing locally, which includes building relations through my local synagogue. 
If politicians put their hands up when they get something wrong it would help to restore faith in politics. I hope that by writing to those who I have hurt, I am practicing as I preach and calling myself out. 
For those that I have caused hurt to, particularly the Jewish community, my constituents, friends and family, I sincerely hope my intentions and actions from here on in will win back your trust and faith in me. 
For my part I promise to have open and honest  conversations about such issues  and invite others to do that with me.
This isn't bad. Normally at this stage I'd do an in-depth analysis of the content and arrive at a rating, but this a rare circumstance where the content of the apology is not the most interesting matter to discuss.

Because this wasn't the only apology Shah considered.

Buzzfeed broke the news that Shah had also drafted an apology message that would have deployed far stronger language and commitments than what was found here.

Although the structure and much of the language remained the same in the published statement, Shah went much further in the draft apology seen by BuzzFeed News. 
That draft included this admission: “I helped promote anti-Semitic tropes. This was totally wrong.” 
But the line was dropped from the published version along with another mention of “anti-Semitism”. 
The draft statement – in which Shah talked at length about her personal shame regarding the comments and pledged her full commitment to fighting prejudice – also included a passage in which she said she wanted to take part in “an intersectional struggle, one where the concerns of Jewish individuals and communities are taken seriously and anti-Semitism is not dismissed out of hand or ignored”. This did not appear in the final version. 
Other sentences deleted from the draft included an apparent admission by Shah of a widespread problem of anti-Semitism among left-wing campaigners and deep concerns about the spread of “toxic conspiracy theories, group-blame and stereotyping”. 
“We on the left must stop procrastinating and tackle oppression within our own ranks, especially anti-Jewish oppression,” the draft said. The sentence did not appear in the published version. 
A reference to “Nazi Germany” was also changed to “Hitler”, prompting mockery from the editor of the Jewish Chronicle. 
“I accept that referencing Israel in a comparison to Nazi Germany was not only wrong, but totally inaccurate,” said the draft statement. “My other social media posts were also deeply offensive to Jewish people.” 
In the final version this appeared as: “I understand that referring to Israel and Hitler as I did is deeply offensive to Jewish people, for which I apologise.”
Initial reports suggested that this latter draft was rejected by Labour Party HQ, but apparently it was only circulated internally to Shah's office. Which raises the question: Why she didn't elect to use it?

Because the language in the Buzzfeed article was very strong. It's pretty close to exactly what I would look for an apology. It doesn't flinch from the problem, it doesn't seek to isolate it, it doesn't seek to excuse it, and it promises concrete steps to tackle it that begin with the very radical act of taking Jews seriously. Had Shah come out swinging with those words, I'd have said she'd done more than demonstrate contrition. She'd have identified herself as potentially a great ally in the fight against anti-Semitism.

But for some reason she elected to go a more timorous route. And again, it's not that the apology she did give was terrible. I probably would have given it a solid if unspectacular grade. In particular, it did seem to possess the quality that was missing in the last apology I rated: the recognition that there was a gap in her knowledge, that to do right by Jews she needed to know more than she did, and a promise to try and fill that gap. But knowing what was initially on the table, it can't help but be a disappointment.

Still, published or not, Naz Shah has offered up a template of what genuine introspection over anti-Semitism on the left might look like. And I think the Jewish community should take advantage of that. If they approach Shah, it should be on the terms of the draft. Is she willing to include Jews in an intersectional struggle? Is she willing to challenge those who don't want "the concerns of Jewish individuals and communities [to be] taken seriously" and do think anti-Semitism claims can be "dismissed out of hand or ignored"? Will she tackle the "toxic" conspiracy theories that run wild about Jews? Will she demand that her party stop procrastinating on these issues?

The jury is still out, obviously. I will say that our efforts to combat anti-Semitism cannot only be about finding the evildoers and excising them from the community. There must also be efforts at reform, about getting people to change their minds, about taking people who once would happily endorse the mass deportation of Jews to America and turning them into allies. We shouldn't be sentimental about it, but we shouldn't dismiss it as a possibility either. It's possible that Naz Shah could become a genuine and valuable ally to have. The Jewish community has every right to be skeptical; as she acknowledged in her (published) apology it is up to her, in word and deed, to "win back your trust and faith in me." But maybe she will. And that would be itself a victory worth celebrating.

Grade: N/A, scoring contaminated by the presence of the alternative draft.

Why Chris Van Hollen Won

Last night, Chris Van Hollen defeated fellow DC-area representative Donna Edwards to become the Democratic nominee for Maryland's Senate seat. Since Maryland is a deep blue state, that means he is likely to become Maryland's next Senator.

The race was hard-fought. Both are staunch progressives. Van Hollen is a white man, Edwards is a black woman. Van Hollen is more of an establishment type, Edwards has more of an insurgent flavor. Ultimately, Van Hollen won by 14 points -- 53% to 39%.

What accounts for Van Hollen's win? The Nation put up its take on the matter, which is worth reading. But as a native Marylander who has followed both Van Hollen and Edwards throughout their careers, and who has supported each from their very first congressional primary, I think I can provide some more fine-grained analysis. The short version, though, is this: Donna Edwards is a fine progressive and a fine politician. But Chris Van Hollen is the type of political talent that only comes along a few times in a generation. He won because he is very, very good at what he does.

A bit of background on the candidates. Chris Van Hollen was born in Karachi, Pakistan to diplomatic parents, and came up through the ranks of the Maryland state legislature. I first became aware of Van Hollen in 2002, when he was running in the Democratic primary to challenge my incumbent congressional representative, Connie Morella (R). I remember that race distinctly because I was very excited at our prospects of beating Morella that year -- because "she's being challenged by a Kennedy!" The Kennedy in question was state delegate Mark Shriver, and he started the race as a front-runner (as Kennedys are prone to do in Democratic primaries). But as I did more research, I became more and more impressed with Van Hollen. The guy is smart, a true policy wonk. That might be enough to make me swoon, but of course being a wonk is only one attribute of an ideal politician. You also want someone who can actually get things done -- a legislator, a dealmaker. And you also, of course, want someone who can connect with the voting population, who cares about what everyday people think and can sell his proposals on the ground. A lot of politicians only have one of these skills. Very good ones have two. Chris Van Hollen has all three. I sensed that in 2002, and jumped ship to support him in the primary, which he won (and then did unseat Morella in the general). And my instincts have been 100% confirmed by his tenure in the House, where he has been both a staunch progressive and a guy who gets things done.

Donna Edwards emerged on the political scene in 2006, when she challenged a Democratic incumbent -- Albert Wynn -- in Maryland's 4th congressional district. Wynn was out-of-touch, perceived as in the pocket of big business, and way too conservative for his district. Edwards barely lost the 2006 primary, but came back to rout Wynn in 2008 and entered Congress. I was glad to see her -- again, it is a good thing when staunch progressives replace out-of-touch conservatives. And the fact that she was the first black woman elected to Maryland's congressional delegation was worth cheering for too. In Congress, Edwards' voting record has been nearly identical to Van Hollen's -- unabashedly progressive. But as befits someone who came to power by challenging an incumbent in her own party, Edwards has been more of a confrontational figure. That's not necessarily a bad thing, and it has certainly helped her popularity in some quarters. But it does mean that she -- and even her backers will concede this -- did not build up the same level of relationships Van Hollen and was less concerned with the nuts and bolts of getting things through Congress. In a sense, she's much like Bernie Sanders -- great at rallying a crowd, but less concerned with the in-the-weeds work of making things happen.

Chris Van Hollen has been laying the foundation of a Senate bid for a long time. And that meant he had been cultivated allies throughout Maryland for years. There's a reason why most of the Democratic establishment lined up behind Van Hollen, and there's a reason why most of the establishment that didn't stayed out entirely (for example, only three members of the Congressional Black Caucus endorsed Edwards, the caucus as a whole stayed neutral). It's because he had spent years putting in the time and effort to work Marylanders of all stripes and all backgrounds. He didn't just rely on his progressive record in the abstract, strong as it was. He put in the work.

There's another thing to remember about the "establishment" support Van Hollen earned in Maryland. Maryland is unique state in American political life. There are six states in the U.S. where more than 25% of the population is Black. Maryland is one of them. The other five are Mississippi, Louisiana, Georgia, South Carolina, and Alabama. One of these states is not like the others. One of these states is solid blue. There are many states where the state Democratic Party has a large and influential Black base. And there are many states where the state Democratic Party effectively runs the show, because the state is reliably Democratic. Maryland is the only state that is in both column "a" and column "b". And what that means is that Van Hollen being backed by Maryland's Democratic establishment meant getting a lot of backing from a lot of powerful Black officials. And that, ultimately, is what proved to be the difference.

The easy way of putting this is by noting that Van Hollen did better among Black voters (Edwards won them 2:1) than Edwards did among White voters (Van Hollen took them 3:1). But, while true, even that's misleading. There are two main knots of Black voters in the state of Maryland: Prince George's County and Baltimore City. PG County is Edwards' base, and she ran up the score there (as Van Hollen did in his base of Montgomery County). But Baltimore was neutral turf -- neither one represented the city in Congress. And in Baltimore Edwards barely got over 50% of the vote, even though the city is 2/3 African-American.

Edwards remarked at some point -- I think it was in her concession speech -- that it is not enough for Democratic politicians to parachute into Black churches the Sunday before election day and call it a day. And she's right! And the reason that Chris Van Hollen won, ultimately, is that he didn't do that. He had been working with the Black community, and many other communities throughout Maryland, for years -- in all the small and miniature ways that don't make headlines but do add up come election time.  He put in the work. And if there's another White progressive out there who's hoping to follow in the footsteps of Bernie Sanders, he or she could do better than to look to Chris Van Hollen on how to earn the support of a diverse community, not just assume it as a birthright.

Monday, April 25, 2016

Kansas' Same Day Reversal

When I was an appellate clerk on the 8th Circuit, we decided the case of United States v. Bruguier, 703 F.3d 393 (8th Cir. 2012). The case involved the interpretation of a sexual assault statute applicable to Indian reservations, specifically, a provision that prohibited a person from "knowingly"
(2) engag[ing] in a sexual act with another person if that other person is — 
(A) incapable of apprising the nature of the conduct; or
(B) physically incapable of declining participation in, or communicating unwillingness to engage in, that sexual act....
The question was whether the "knowingly" requirement only applied to "engaging in a sexual act" (one had to know one was engaging in such an act) or also applied to the subsection (one had to know that the victim was incapable of consent). By a 2-1 vote, the court decided that the knowledge requirement only applied to the former, and therefore upheld Bruguier's conviction.

There's nothing remarkable about that -- except that on the same day, a different 8th Circuit panel considered the same issue and came to the exact opposite conclusion in United States v. Rouillard, 701 F.3d 861 (8th Cir. 2012). Two opinions, released on the same day, with contradictory legal rulings. It was, to say the least, unusual.

But it wasn't an accident. Under normal circumstances, a prior panel decision binds a later one. But once the judges become alerted that two different panels were considering an identical challenge at the same time (and coming to opposite conclusions), it seemed silly to determine the law based on who managed to rush their opinion out first. Instead, we released the opinions on the same day, with the understanding that the case would go en banc and be decided by the whole court.  Which we did -- and in a 6-5 vote (could it be any closer?), the court decided that knowingly applied to both sections of the law -- one could only be convicted of sexual assault under this section if you knew that you committing a sexual act and knew that the person was incapable of consent.

I didn't think that story could be topped. But the Kansas Supreme Court just outdid us -- releasing a constitutional ruling, and then overturning that ruling in the same day. The cases involved a Kansas statute which requires certain felons to register with the state -- including those who were convicted of crimes before the registration act was passed. The question was whether this was an ex post facto law. The first decision said yes. And then that decision was subsequently overruled the same day. Both rulings were by a 4-3 vote.

This bizarre circumstance occurred because of a vacancy on the Kansas Supreme Court. The first case was briefed and argued while the seat remained vacant, and the Court had tapped a district court judge to sit "by designation" to fill the slot. He was in the majority that determined that the registration law was unconstitutional. But the second case was argued after the vacancy had been filled, and that judge switched sides -- reversing the ruling that was handed down that day.

Putting aside whatever one thinks about the proper application of stare decisis in such a case (let alone the right legal outcome), this has to rank as one the more bizarre legal turns of events I've ever come across. At least our court's mutually-contradictory opinions were released by design. This, by contrast, gives off the feeling of complete arbitrariness.

"An Intersectional Failure" Comes to SDSU Tonight

7 PM tonight at San Diego State University, Analucia Lopezrevoredo and I will be presenting a talk based off our Tablet article "An Intersectional Failure: Situating Mizrahi and Sephardic Jews in Contemporary Jewish Discourse" (we've retitled it from the original). Details on the event are here, and it is open to the public if any readers are San Diego denizens. This is actually the first time I've been specifically invited to give a talk like this, so I'm excited to see how it goes.

Saturday, April 23, 2016

The Master's Tools versus The Master's House

"The master's tools," Audre Lorde wrote, "will never dismantle the master's house." It's one of her more famous lines. I appreciate the appeal. I appreciate the poetry.

I've just never been convinced that it's right.

For starters, what tools aren't the master's? One of the perks of being master, it seems, is that one can grab any or all of the tools. Even if the slaves develop a tool of their own, the masters have proven quite adept at appropriating or co-opting it to preserve and ratify their own regime. "Color-blindness," for instance, didn't start off as one of the master's tools -- it was a radical attack on the very structure which underwrote slave power and white supremacy. A century and a half of ideological drift later, and now colorblindness is the ultimate master's tool.

Or take race itself. Lorde's essay is focused on the need to take race and racial identity (among other things) seriously if we are to remedy structures of racist exclusion. I couldn't agree more -- but isn't race the ultimate master's tool? It was the original instrument used to forge our system of racial supremacy itself. And again, I agree with Lorde that it would be impossible to tear down that structure without utilizing race as a central category of analysis. But that gets us to the opposite position: The master's tools are the only way to dismantle the master's house.

I was reflecting on this point when thinking about why I'm so committed to using the tools of progressive analysis against the problem of anti-Semitism, when so often those tools have been employed to justify, legitimize, and ratify anti-Semitic domination. One cannot be a progressive Jew today and not hear the sing-song snickers of the Jewish right calling you a deluded fool -- "why bother? What does the left have to do to prove they're not your friend?"

At one level, this betrays a naivete of the Jewish right, for the conservatives aren't their friends either. But I don't necessarily disagree with them that "the left", as constituted as a largely non-Jewish social movement, is not a friend of the Jews. It's long become clear to me that for the most part, people only care about anti-Semitism when the victims are people they like, and will excuse it when it happens to people they don't like. This isn't really different from how I view anti-racism commitments -- it's no accident that progressives don't seem to care about racism directed at Clarence Thomas, and it's no accident that conservatives seem to care about racism only when it's directed at Clarence Thomas. Most people are at most fair-weather friends. "Allies", primarily, exist in the mythical space that develops when a group's high-salience members and activities are generally liked by the ally.

The reason I use these tools, then, isn't because of some belief that the people who developed them or who mostly use them today are my friends. I use these tools because they work. Because they provide a more robust and realistic account of discrimination and oppression than their competitors, and anti-Semitism desperately needs to accounted for in a robust and realistic manner. If Jews ceded every instrument that had helped construct the edifice of anti-Semitic domination, we'd left with a rather pale and impotent toolbox. Why on earth would I be foolish enough to handicap myself so?

Lorde's essay, for example, makes a powerful argument for why the perspective of women like her -- and not just her, not simply a token -- is indispensable to doing progressive analysis right. If we're worried that people now feel they can exclude or marginalize Jewish voices (or at least, all but a few token Jewish voices who will tell non-Jewish audiences what they want to hear about Jews), this is an important tool in our toolkit. When progressive writers asked us to look at modern associations and to see how norms of exclusion and oppression are often woven into their histories without ever having been excised -- well, more than a few academic disciplines could stand to be reminded of that vis-a-vis the Jews. When progressive writers urged the broader community to stop reflexively assuming that all discrimination claims were just minorities "playing the race card", goodness knows that's a norm Jews are well accustomed to.

I am not a panglossian. I don't know if anti-Semitism will be cured in my lifetime, or even if we will see a net change in the right direction. But I do know that if anything is going to dismantle the house of anti-Semitism, it will be the tools the left has pioneered -- not because the left hasn't mastered anti-Semitism too, but because I believe we can use the tools better to liberate us than others can use  them to oppress us.

Friday, April 22, 2016

The Stanford Anti-Semitism Experiment, Part 3

Stanford's student council has unanimously passed its resolution condemning anti-Semitism. Now, one can always be skeptical of these resolutions -- as a student in the UK noted, they can come off as box-checking rather than a genuine attempt to grapple with the injustice -- but on my read of the text it is strong enough. The decision to not just mandate yearly anti-Semitism training, but enlist the ADL to assist in the project, is particularly welcome. The decision to recognize "the collective rights to self-determination of the Jewish people that are no different than any other people" is also very good.

There was nothing in there that directly or indirectly tackled the blood libel or the propensity to promulgate such conspiracies, which is a shame given that this apparently holds appeal to at least one Stanford professor, but I suppose that was a long-shot. While there was no specific mention of the comments by a Stanford senator earlier regarding the legitimacy of debating "Jewish power", he had already been censured by the senate and the resolution preserves the language he objected to condemning "the myth about a world Jewish conspiracy or of Jews controlling the media, economy, government or other societal institutions."

Wednesday, April 20, 2016

Rate that Apology, Part 4: Something Smells at Harvard Edition

At an event hosting former Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni, a Harvard Law student stood up and asked her why she was so "smelly." Given the historical usage of the smelly, odorous Jew as a trope in anti-Semitic discourse (and the inappropriateness of asking such a question at an academic event), the student (who remains anonymous) has been roundly condemned by (among others) Dean Martha Minow, the Jewish Law Students Association, and the Middle East Law Students Association. Now the student has offered the following apology:
“I am writing to apologize, as sincerely as I can via this limited form of communication, to anyone who may have felt offended by the comments I made last week. To be very clear, as there seems to be some confusion, I would never, ever, ever call anyone, under any circumstances, a “smelly Jew”. Such a comment is utterly repugnant, and I am absolutely horrified that some readers have been led to believe that I would ever say such a thing. With regards to what I actually did say, I can see now, after speaking with the authors of this article and many other members of the Jewish community at HLS, how my words could have been interpreted as a reference to an anti-Semitic stereotype, one that I was entirely unaware of prior to the publication of this article. I want to be very clear that it was never my intention to invoke a hateful stereotype, but I recognize now that, regardless of my intention, words have power, and it troubles me deeply to know that I have caused some members of the Jewish community such pain with my words. To those people I say, please reach out. Give me an opportunity to make it right. I will assure you, as I have already assured many, that had I known it was even possible that some listeners might interpret my comments as anti-Semitic, there is absolutely no chance that I would have uttered them. I trust that those that know me and have engaged with me on a personal level will not find this at all difficult to believe. Many members of the Jewish community—some of whom hold strong differences of opinion with me—have reached out to me on their own to let me know that they did not interpret my words as anti-Semitic, because they know me well enough to know that that is not at all consistent with who I am as a person. I want to thank them and any others who have given me the benefit of the doubt, and I am writing this note in the hopes that more of you will do the same. I say this, however, fully cognizant of the fact that no amount of writing can serve as a substitute for genuine human interaction. So please, if there remains any doubt at all, do take me up on my offer above and reach out so that I can make this right to you on a more personal level.”
So we'll start with the positive -- the whole "words have power" thing, and the acknowledgment that subjective intent is not the be-all end-all of offensive speech. I suppose apologizing "to anyone who may have felt offended" is better than "I apologize if you were offended" but still not as good as "I apologize for my offensive remarks." I'm interested in the line at the end where he says that "no amount of writing can serve as a substitute for genuine human interaction." I think that's right, and I think there is something to be said for offering to interact with concerned students on a personal level. However, there were some reports that the student asked the "smelly" question as a means of protesting Livni's presence without dignifying it with an actual substantive question. Such genuine human interaction.

In any event, though, this apology to my ears is missing one very simple thing. Orlando Battista famously wrote that "an error doesn't become a mistake until you refuse to correct it." So what was the error here? If it was the use of the word "smelly", I actually believe the student when he says he was unaware of the anti-Semitic cadence of the term, would not have used it had he known about it, and will do so in the future. In that sense, you could say he has corrected his error.

But the thing is, I don't think the error was in using the term "smelly". The fact that he wrongfully thought that calling Livni "smelly" would not be anti-Semitic shows that his instincts regarding what is and is not anti-Semitic are not as reliable as he had thought they were. That was his error -- he was speaking confidently about Jews and Jewish institutions without really knowing about them. The apology should have had two more lines:
I will assure you, as I have already assured many, that had I known it was even possible that some listeners might interpret my comments as anti-Semitic, there is absolutely no chance that I would have uttered them. However, I have now learned that my intuitions regarding what is and is not anti-Semitic are not as robust as I had thought. Clearly, this is an area I need to learn more about and one in which I need to reassess the reliability of my own intuitions and assessments, and I resolve to do so immediately.
This would correct the genuine error, which is not in my view a simple matter of verbiage. What was revealed in this event was that this student didn't know as much as he thought he did about Jews -- about our history, our experiences, and our oppression. That revelation should have more wide-reaching ramifications than simply dropping the word "smelly." Doing that is cheap grace, it costs the student nothing, and so I have no doubt he's glad to do it. Reassessing some of his more tightly-held attitudes about Jews and Jewish institutions? That's costly grace; something I've looked for in cases like these yet rarely found. But that would represent a genuine apology.

Grade: 5.5/10