Friday, March 18, 2011

What Does It Mean To Be Loved?

I just read an article by Rabbi Justin Baird entitled "What if Jews Knew That Americans Love Them?". It was recommended by my childhood friend Joshua Stanton, who is making a name for himself as a rabbinical student doing the yeoman's work building up interfaith dialogue and relationships. He called the article "brilliant and challenging."

Josh's work is invaluable. But Rabbi Baird's article is deeply patronizing and spectacularly superficial in its analysis of what both anti-Semitism and "philo-Semitism" mean. His promotion of it is thus deeply disappointing, as it betrays an exceptionally thin notion of what anti-Semitism means that is, in my view, deeply damaging to the project of Jewish equality and part of a broader, poisonous intellectual trend which does not apply the same standards to anti-Semitism as it does to any other "-ism".

Rabbi Baird alleges that the Jewish community's "anti-Semitism education machine" has effectively brainwashed American Jews (or at least tried to) into believing that Jews are a hated, despised minority in this country. But really, survey data demonstrates that most Americans have rather warm, fuzzy feelings towards American Jews. Consequently, we should understand that anti-Semitism in the United States as a serious social or political influence is mostly a dead letter, and we should concentrate on (a) threats from abroad (which Rabbi Baird concedes still exist), (b) managing our internal affairs (such as dealing with intermarriage and decreased Jewish commitment among younger Jews), and (c) doing "more to help others who are not yet accepted in America."

I don't dispute the survey data. I agree entirely that most Americans have warm feelings towards Jews, and that those feelings are perfectly genuine -- the respondents aren't just lying to pollsters because they're embarrassed to admit that they're secret anti-Semites. And I agree that this is certainly significant -- it's obviously better for any minority group for the majority to think positively of them rather than negatively.

Nonetheless, I don't think this establishes that America is "philo-Semitic" in any robust sense. By "philo-Semitic", I mean a polity that respects Jews qua Jews, particularly, one that respects Jewish difference. Anybody can be friends with someone with whom they share common needs and convergent interests. The true test of equality is whether a group has a right to be different, to have divergent interests, to stake out positions independent of the majority and chart paths others do not wish to explore. Jews share some things in common with the dominant social castes in our society, and along other axes, we're different. A philo-Semitic polity would respect our right to be different, and acknowledge the Jewish voice (as well as other voices) as an independent and valuable contributor in crafting the American nomos.

The survey Rabbi Baird cites is perfectly consistent with my belief that Jews are not respected in this way. Rather, Jews are respected as "Judeo-Christian"; as some sort of subset of the Christian majority, and not as independent actors. A truly differentiated Jewish voice, one that speaks as Jews and is clear and unapologetic about where it differs from Christians and Christianity, has very little presence in the public life. And many of those who consider themselves (and genuinely believe themselves) to be great friends of the Jews are actively patronizing to these assertions of Jewish independence. What we see is not philo-Semitism is that is meant as genuine respect for Jews as equal human beings. What we're seeing is instead the imposition of brute political influence to define the problem out of existence without having to do anything so messy as actually listen to Jewish qua Jewish perspectives.

Before I turn to that case, though, I want to provide some background which will help illuminate some objections I have towards Rabbi Baird's piece. I'm informed here by my main academic focus on anti-racism work in America. There is a lot of scholarship on what it means to oppose racism, less on what it means to oppose anti-Semitism, and almost no cross-pollination between the two fields. The idea that the mechanics of anti-Semitism discourse in America differ in any meaningful sense from racism discourse appears to be universally held, and for the life of me I can't fathom the foundation for it.

First, my background in anti-racism work and the way racism is operationalized in American society makes me extraordinarily suspicious of claims of excessive "card playing" by minority groups. The "race card" is topped by the "'race card' card"; the "anti-Semitism card" is typically trumped by the "'anti-Semitism card' card". The degree to which Jews actually allege "anti-Semitism" is wildly overstated compared to the amount of times it actually happens, and -- as everyone who has been trying in vain to get Fox to pay attention to Glenn Beck's naked anti-Semitism has found out -- the mythos that anti-Semitism is an accusation that can't be ignored and can't be defended against likewise is greatly exaggerated. The main function of this mythology is not to open space for criticizing Jewish institutions (like Israel), but rather to rationalize refusing to listen to Jewish complaints regardless of their validity -- a threshold barrier that indicts and dismisses any claim of anti-Semitism prior to assessing the merits (see also).

I really would like to see some empirical work done on the relative tendency of American Jews to call things anti-Semitic -- how often and what does and doesn't get the label -- rather than have to listen again and again to vapid conventional wisdom that simply assumes an epidemic that I don't think exists. Frankly, I've seen this argument raised too often, with too little hard evidence, in too many contexts for me to take it seriously as anything but concern-trolling.

I mentioned I found Rabbi Baird to be tremendously patronizing, and this is the first dimension that explains why -- lectures to minority groups (whether delivered by a Jew or not, delivered by a person of color or not) about how they're really just imagining their victimization, that they're more or less brainwashed by a culture of victimology that doesn't let them see that hey, everything's equal now -- is Exhibit A in how racism, anti-Semitism, sexism, or any other -ism is marginalized and erased. Yes, it's possible that the Jewish community has a mass communal psychosis. Or it's possible that we have something worth saying that other people ought to listen to, even where it can't be choately expressed. This is anti-racism 101, and it's about time it became anti-anti-Semitism 101 too.

Second, also flowing out of my work in anti-racism circles, is the premise that personal attitudes are the primary, if not solitary, relevant question regarding whether racism or anti-Semitism exists or not. If a person genuinely feels that they're a-okay with Jews or friendly towards Black people, then case closed. It is, in the immortal words of Kimberle Crenshaw, declaring the end of racism "by proclamation alone."

This presupposition is deeply problematic. For starters, it's nearly unfalsifiable -- we have very few ways of gaining insight into what anyone truly believes in their heart of hearts. Anyone can claim to be philo-Semitic -- I mean, Helen Thomas is still insistently telling everyone how much she loves Jews. But putting that aside, the bigger problem is that framing the question this way entirely cedes what is due to Jews to whatever Christians think is their due. If Christians think they're treating Jews fairly, then, ipso facto, Jews are being treated fairly. And why should I make that concession? Why is Jewish equality defined by non-Jews? They had the power to tell us why we were inferior, and now they get the authority to tell us that we're equal? Bullshit. It's epistemically precarious (non-Jews are considerably less likely to know what Jews need in order for us to be truly equal than Jews are) and politically reactionary (reinscribing the same old power arrangements whereby the conditions of Jewish life are set by and for the non-Jewish majority).

Again, the point isn't to say that all these people who say they're friends of Jews are lying -- as I said, I think the survey respondents are answering honestly. The point is that what's being measured isn't any sort of genuine encounter with Jewish lives and experience; what's being measured is how well Christians stack up against a metric they themselves created -- one that may bear little, if any, resemblance to what Jews think constitutes equal respect and equal dignity. That's the question that we should be exploring, and that's the one Rabbi Baird resolutely ignores -- or worse, declares we have no right to ask at all.

Third, insights from the burgeoning literature on the psychology of prejudice (note that while most of this research has been done regarding race, I don't see any reason why it wouldn't apply with equal force to anti-Semitism) should make us appropriately skeptical that conscious attitudes represent the totality of relevant information regarding personal prejudice. Much the opposite: what we've discovered is that the "American dilemma" -- a strong commitment to liberal egalitarianism, paired with deeply ingrained prejudicial biases -- leads to the conscious suppression of these attitudes, which then reemerge as subconscious bias. Moreover, as Jon and Kathleen Hansen have documented, while people "crave justice", they satisfy this craving by the path of least resistance -- which often means simply redefining an unjust state of affairs as just. We should expect, then, that given the choice between a deep, wide-encompassing reckoning with Jewish experiences that might require a substantial and painful reassessment of a bevy of social arrangements and political priors, and simply using their overwhelming political and social dominance to decide that they're already good friends of the Jews, the American Christian community will choose the latter.

These observations interlock with each other to provide a cohesive and coherent explanation for how genuine positive views about Jews can coexist with a social structure that is not remotely philo-Semitic at all. The liberal consensus against anti-Semitism means that everybody needs to craft a self-image that is not anti-Semitic. The assumption that anti-Semitism is only "in the heart" means that it is a concept primarily in control of non-Jews, who, consistent with the desire to not view themselves as anti-Semitic, have every incentive to define anti-Semitism narrowly and, more importantly, in such a way so that it doesn't touch on any beliefs or principles that they actually care about -- the aforementioned path of least resistance. Finally, in order to complete the moral cleansing, it is necessary to excise the residual "anti-Semitism talk", that is, the discourses which make it seem like anti-Semitism is and remains a serious problem (which would destabilize the notion that it is something we really have overcome). It is notable, then, that the one anti-Semitic stereotype that retains quite a bit of vitality in American social and political discourse is the one Rabbi Baird himself invokes -- that Jews are too quick to claim things are anti-Semitic when they're not, that the accusation of anti-Semitism is typically abused, and that the belief that anti-Semitism remains a problem is nothing more than the product of Jewish brainwashing and victim-mongering.

There's plenty of evidence, not the least of which is the survey cited by Rabbi Baird, that indicates positive feelings towards Jews. Is there significant evidence demonstrate actual philo-Semitism in the sense I described it above -- as willingness to hear a Jewish voice that diverges from what one is already telling oneself about what justice means, what a good foreign policy is, what a moral America represents? I think the answer is: clearly not.

Consider the infamous J.D. Hayworth incident, where the (non-Jewish) Hayworth had a staffer tell a synagogue that Hayworth was, in fact, a better and more observant Jew than they were. When the congregation walked out in protest, another Hayworth flack declared "no wonder their are anti-Semites!" What moves are being made here? Obviously, Hayworth and his staffers don't think being Jewish is a bad thing -- they're identifying with it. But they're defining "Jewish" in a way that obviously bears no resemblance to how Jews define themselves, but instead is coterminous with how Hayworth sees himself already. And so Hayworth's observant Christianity in facts makes him a better Jew than the Jews. And when Jews try to protest this arrangement -- try to restate a Jewish identity independent of Hayworth's appropriation -- that's, we're told, the cause of anti-Semitism. Jews are okay so long as Jews are tamed and turned into, in the words of Stephen Feldman, "a quirky Protestant sect". If they try to assert their autonomy, then danger strikes.

What happened to Hayworth's audience has happened to me as well. Perhaps Josh has had the experience of being told by a non-Jewish interlocutor that some position I take -- some fundamentally Jewish position I take -- on abortion, or Israel, or the rights of religious minorities -- makes me a bad Jew. I've had a Christian commenter ask wonderously why, in her view, so many Jews didn't see that the Republican Party was the real "pro-Israel party"? She definitely believed herself a friend of the Jews; she just thought we were all delusional (much like Rabbi Baird, apparently she thought we'd been brainwashed). Nonetheless, I stand by my response to her -- the fact that the bulk of the Jewish community appears to have a different conception of what "pro-Israel" means than that held by Mike Huckabee should by all rights be a sign for Huckabee to reassess. Instead, it's a sign of Jewish pathology. Jews differ from what non-Jews construct as philo-Semitism, and so Jews are marginalized.

Socially speaking, this is most prominently instantiated by the "Judeo-Christian" dynamic, whereby Jews are included by name but excluded in every other respect. As I have previously argued:
“Judeo-Christian”, of course, is a nonsense phrase that is 100% Christian and, where it does happen to overlap with Jewish perspectives, does so completely by accident. And where Jewish ideology clashes even a little bit with Christian hegemony, it is immediately jettisoned from the pantheon. So we get Katherine Harris telling folks that adhering to “Judeo-Christian values” means only electing Christian legislators (presumably, not Jews), and Duncan Hunter explaining that the reason Israel can have gay soldiers but America can’t is because the latter’s combat troops have, you guessed it, “Judeo-Christian values.”

I noted in that post that the dynamic bears disturbing overtones of Christian (and Enlightenment Liberal) supersessionist ideology. But here the point is more basic -- the rhetoric of "Judeo-Christianity" is an integral part of the system of Jewish silencing whereby Jews, having already been "spoken for", are deprived of the opportunity to speak with their own voice. It maintains Christian control over the content of Judaism, preventing any autonomous Jewish existence that might challenge Christian self-image as "friend of the Jews".

I don't want to act like this a problem only of the right. The left does much the same thing. In crafting its Church policy on Israel the Presbyterian Church went out of its way to engage only with those Jewish groups that it viewed as already amenable to its political priors. It was a massive expression of Christian arrogance towards the Jewish community -- that it, not we, gets to decide who to talk to, what to talk about, and what the contours of the discussion will be. I think that the BDS wing of the anti-Israel left is infected with this sort of logic -- instead of grappling with Jews qua Jews and the Jewish community as a whole, they take a few "good Jews" as inoculation against the idea that there is possibly anything for them to talk about or think about with respect to how their politics intersect with an egalitarian treatment of the Jewish community.

Christine Littleton once defined the feminist method as starting "with the very radical act of taking women seriously, believing that what we say about ourselves and our experience is important and valid, even when (or perhaps especially when) it has little or no relationship to what has been or is being said about us." I used that quote as part of the close to my series on anti-Semitism because I think it says something very important, particularly with respect to articles like Rabbi Baird's, which starts with the very reactionary act of assuring his audience not to take Jews seriously, to ignore what we say about ourselves and how we describe our experience as irrelevant in the face of what others say about us. But Philo-Semitism isn't about what Christians say about us. It's about whether they listen to us, not just when we agree, but also (and especially) where we disagree and demand changes.

As I alluded to above, I don't measure my equality based on some stylized thermostat of what feelings other people have in their heart. I measure it based on whether I feel like I have the right to present my own perspective as a Jew and have it be listened to, even when what I say isn't what non-Jews want to hear from me. I want to be able to tell people that radical anti-choice politics bear no relationship to how the Talmud treats the issue of abortion, that my synagogue would happily perform a gay marriage, that declaring America a "Christian nation" whose schools should teach Christianity is profoundly anti-Semitic, and that promoting radical Israeli settlers who demonize Palestinians and would see Israel destroyed is offensive to my faith -- and have them listen. I want to be able to tell people that we have the right to communal autonomy, that while Jews predominantly opposed the Iraq War we also had the same right as anyone else to support or even cheerlead for it, that universalism is not a panacea for anti-Semitism or any other oppression, that our faith should be judged based on what our faith does, not on some generic skepticism towards "faith" -- and have them listen.

And I don't feel that way. I believe that when I speak as a Jew (as opposed to "as a liberal" or "as a man" or "as a scholar on race" or as nearly any other identity I possess), and I say things that don't cohere to how others think Jews should think, I'm systematically ignored and shunted aside by audiences that are, I suspect, universally comprised of persons who think themselves quite friendly towards Jews. I found Rabbi Baird's article to be profoundly disrespectful of huge swaths of the Jewish community who don't think that all we have the right to ask of Christians is that they no longer harbor a conscious wish for our demise. The love that Rabbi Baird identifies is not a love that interests me, because it isn't born out of any respect for Jews qua Jews, for Jews as a group with independent desires, politics, dreams, and aspirations.

In the immortal framing of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Rabbi Baird is granting "cheap grace" to the Gentile public -- an easy absolution for what should be hard work. Equality is hard, it isn't simply the exorcism of negative thoughts and impure hearts. It entails costs. It entails listening. It entails letting groups that historically have had little control over their fate space to chart their own destiny, and entails a willingness sometimes to give up the privilege of saying "no". That is not something that can be measured by any thermometer. That is true love of an equal, and it's costly, and difficult, and unlikely to come easy. But I know when I see it, and I have faith in my coreligionists that they'll do the same.


Rebecca said...

Yes! I've learned a lot from you about what anti-racism really means, and this is further helpful in putting the struggle against anti-semitism in the same context.

And you're quite right about philo-semitism. It's not about the Jews, it's about the Gentiles' views of the Jews.

N. Friedman said...


You need to read some of the French "new" philosophers about the anti-racism movement. They are, to the say the least, think it has not served its purposes very well and, on top of that, has been a very strong intellectual apparatus, at least in Europe, for spreading hatred against Jews. I have in mind people like Alain Finkielkraut and Bernard-Henri Lévy.

Finkielkraut goes as far as to argue that anti-racism as an ideology needs to be torn down, as it does not serve its interest. In Lévy's book, Left in Dark Times, there is substantial discussion of the matter, most particularly how anti-racism has turned into support for fascism and Islamism. Lévy still thinks, though, that it is possible to re-cast anti-racism so that it is no longer an illiberal, fascistic ideology that it has become. You really should read the noted book. It is an antidote for a great deal of the worst aspects of the anti-racism ideology.

Note: this is different from opposing genuine movements directed towards equality and civil rights. Anti-racism is, I think, merely a cover for totalitarian fascism, and I think the noted thinkers show it to be so.

joe said...

I don't get where someone on the record as laying claim to a racial genetic legacy of heightened smartness gets off touting their anti-racist bona fides. Maybe the latter is an adapted behavior to increase the odds of getting laid in higher ed circles?

N. Friedman said...

David writes: "The idea that the mechanics of anti-Semitism discourse in America differ in any meaningful sense from racism discourse appears to be universally held, and for the life of me I can't fathom the foundation for it."

Nonsense. David needs to pick up a history book in order to see how Antisemitism is like and how it is very much dislike racism. In fact, Antisemitism has foundations quite different from ordinary forms of racism. The foundations are sufficiently different that it is, I think, fair to say Antisemitism is not really a form of racism at all but, rather, something quite different that can include but does not have to include racism. Which is to say, Nazi Antisemitism was racist; so is the nationalist version. Clerical Antisemitism, however, is not racist; nor is anti-clerical Antisemitism. The Anti-Zionist version of Antisemitism is not racist nor is socialist Antisemitism.

To quote Lévy's book, Left in Dark Times (p. 147:

EVERY HISTORIAN OF the phenomenon agrees that the story is both very simple and very complex.

They know that its core hardly varies but that the discourse that expresses it, that clothes it, changes with the times.

And they know that, if it changes, if it feels the need to evolve, it does so because it needs to stand out, to convince, to be heard by the greatest number of ears, to reach into souls and to rally them-and that
is why it has to embrace the fears, the fantasies, and the rhetoric of the moment.

Racism is merely one of the languages in which Antisemitism can be clothed. However, to confuse racism with Antisemitism makes no sense because racism fails to explain most Antisemitic phenomena.

N. Friedman said...

One last comment.

Most of what you are writing about is not Antisemitism at all or even racism. It is merely the normal language of discourse, both within groups and between groups, and is due to the requirements of language to express thoughts so that their intended meaning is understood clearly.

On your theory of racism, were I to have written, back in the mid-1930's, that Germans are Antisemites who seem likely to try to annihilate the Jews, your theory would define that as a racist comment.

As you would say, such a comment condemns an entire people. BS. Such a comment - aside from being the truth -, rather, speaks volumes about the fact that you prefer gentle language to examining the world as it is. Not all Germans were Antisemites, after all. Perhaps, most were not Antisemitic at all. I doubt there is any definitive polling, so who knows. Either way, a defining core in the 1930's were and, if one wants to respond to such defining core in language, one needs to generalize.

It is unfortunate that innocent people are caught in the same language necessary to express thoughts coherently. However, whether all Germans were Antisemitic or not, the Antisemitic program came to own the Germans. So, about Nazi Germany, post 1933, it would have been fair to have made the comment I made above - whether or not your logic calls it a racist comment. It spoke a truth, one which needed to have been spoken forcefully before horrors erupted, not after the fact.

I am not raising the point merely as an historical note without contemporary pertinence. Rather, my charge is that your anti-racism shields Antisemites when, just now, the greatest threat from an eliminationist program exists. You do not do so intentionally; I'll concede you that much. However, you do so nonetheless, by your objection to pointing out in clear generalized language the eliminationist Antisemitism that pervades Muslim Arab thinking today. Your comment about Morris being exemplary, frankly in its foolishness, since his comment is no worse than my noted comment regarding Germans in the 1930's. In fact, it is nicer, positing a sociological explanation, tribalism, for Arab attitudes about Jews.

I do not bother here to say the obvious, which is that not all Arabs hate Jews; not all Muslims hate Jews. However, enough do and Antisemitic attitudes are tied to multiple political programs (which is why generalization in language is a necessary thing) that, given the opportunity to act, would result in a catastrophe. To quote a leading Muslim writing and popular radio host, with an audience of 40 million people:

Throughout history, Allah has imposed upon the [Jews] people who would punish them for their corruption. The last punishment was carried out by Hitler. By means of all the things he did to them – even though they exaggerated this issue – he managed to put them in their place. This was divine punishment for them. Allah willing, the next time will be at the hand of the believers ... Yusuf al-Qaradawi. [Source: January 30, 2009, MEMRI]

We have a program above described, one subscribed to my tens, if not hundreds of millions of people. As is obvious by now, your entire way of thinking has no effective reply to this new Antisemitism because generalized, essentialist language is necessary in order to respond. Rather, your language requires us to address only the individual, notwithstanding that such attitudes have come, largely speaking, to own the Muslim Arab world. That is an unfair comment to many innocent people. Yet, it is a true statement and I defy you to call it racist.

I raise this as a dramatic objection to your entire way of thinking about race, which I think is wrong-headed and dangerous.

Barry Deutsch said...

I generally like and often agree with this article.

I'm a bit confused about your response to the Presbyterian statement, though. The Forward article you linked to referred to this passage:

Our hope is that we can work together for a more just and secure Israel. We have found this to be possible with local networks more often than with national organizations within the mainstream Jewish community. We are hard-pressed to find statements from such organizations that are willing to oppose the occupation or the settlement policy that has dominated Israel since 1967. Even so, we are hopeful as organizations like J-Street, B’Tselem, Jewish Voice for Peace, and others continue to raise the banner that being pro-Israel and being truly Jewish is not tantamount to complicity in the excesses of Israeli policy. It is our hope that the leadership of mainstream American Jewish organizations will catch up with this growing reality of Jewish identity in the U.S.

The only thing here I find objectionable is the final sentence; who the heck are they to make unsupported statements about the "reality of Jewish identity in the US"? (Maybe they're suggesting something similar to Peter Bienart's argument?)

But viewed with the benefit of the doubt, it's possible they meant that they're hoping that on the particular issues they cite (settlement and occupation), the large Jewish organizations will come to agree with J-Street. I don't think that's an antisemitic view. But if this is what they intended, I'd still object to how it was phrased.

In any case, that last phrase -- which I find objectionable -- isn't what I've seen others object to. Rather, the claim seems to be that it's antisemitic for them to note that some Jewish groups are (broadly speaking) in agreement with their anti-occupation, anti-settlement position.

You describe this as them going out of their way "to engage only with those Jewish groups that it viewed as already amenable to its political priors." That doesn't seem to me a fair inference from what they wrote.

David Schraub said...

My critique of the PCUSA comes from this passage in the Forward article:

The report “speaks down to the Jewish community,” said a statement issued by the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism. Jewish communal officials complained that while the study group that prepared the report spent hours speaking to left-wing groups, it only invited one representative from a mainstream American Jewish group and only for a one-hour panel alongside representative of non-Jewish groups. The representative, Mark Pelavin, associate director of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism, said this was hardly enough to convey what the community feels. “I told them they cannot check the box of consulting with the Jewish community by inviting me to this short discussion,” he said.

It's not about what they say, it's about who they listened to. As noted, it seems they made a conscious decision "to engage [almost] only with those Jewish groups that it viewed as already amenable to its political priors."

Barry Deutsch said...

But the article also said that "J Street issued a statement stressing that despite being mentioned in the report, it was not consulted and did not speak with the Presbyterian study group."

Is there any statement from someone who directly participated in these alleged talks -- either from left-wing Jews, or from Presbyterians? Not that I can see. Is there any explanation of how the anonymous critics came by their knowledge of meetings that they didn't actually attend? Nope.

The only source given in the article for the allegations are unnamed "Jewish communal officials." I haven't read every word of the Presbyterian report, so maybe I missed something, but no such consultations are mentioned in it, as far as I can tell.

I don't think this passes the smell test.

David Schraub said...

I think you're grasping at straws. First of all, the PCUSA has been on the radar screen of mainstream Jewish organizations for awhile now (due to their flirtation with the BDS crowd). I don't think the PCUSA either could or would have any reason to keep secret who they were talking to (contents of the conversation, maybe, but not who was invited). There are obviously PCUSAers sympathetic to more mainstream Jewish positions that could easily relay this information. Nor have I seen the PCUSA deny the claims regarding who they talked to -- that they really did invite, say, the AJC. Basically, your "smell test" boils down to an unsupported intuition that these organizations couldn't possibly know what they claim to know, even though nobody else appears to be disputing it (the J Street thing doesn't demonstrate anything -- the PCUSA can still meet with lots of left-wing Jewish organizations and not J Street, while still mentioning the organization in its final report. The group's work primarily took place in 2008 and 2009, when J Street was just a baby anyway -- it was only founded April 2008.).

I'm also a little flummoxed over how your objection would change things even if accurate. Unless you think the mainstream groups are lying and actually were invited to tons of meetings, there seem to be only two possibilities: (1) The PCUSA essentially only talked to the non-mainstream Jewish groups, as claimed (which would be bad), or (2) the PCUSA didn't talk to any Jewish groups in rendering its decisions and recommendations (which would also be bad). Both outcomes would support the thesis of the post, namely, that non-Jewish claims of being philo-Semitic, or non-Jewish determinations regarding matters important to the Jewish community, don't require them to actually listen to what the broad swath of the Jewish community says Jews need -- it's a simple matter of declaration.

Barry Deutsch said...

"They don't actually deny it, that I read in this one article" isn't reasonable proof of anything, David. As far as I know, nobody but you has fixated on this particular critique of them, so they'd have no reason to address it. (I'm assuming they don't read this blog).

The truth is, you have no idea who they did or didn't talk to; you just refuse to give them any benefit of the doubt, I suspect because you disagree with their conclusions.

In any case, I find your entire logic dubious. Since when does avoiding anti-Semitism require sitting at a conference table with AIPAC before writing an opinion paper about Israeli/Palestinian issues? It's not as if the opinions of groups like AIPAC are secret and unknown; any intelligent person who has been following the debates knows pretty well what both AIPAC (and, for that matter, J Street) say.

Note that I'm not saying that Jewish opinions should be irrelevant. But intelligent Jewish opinions on Israel/Palestine are available from a wide variety of sources, in books, on the web, through personal relationships, etc.. Leaping from "they don't appear to have sat down with any AIPAC-like groups" to "they don't consider Jewish opinions relevant" is not reasonable or fair.

To me, your entire line of criticism feels like an post hoc rationalization; I can't imagine you criticizing their process in this way if they had come out against BDS.

Nor have I ever seen you criticize anyone for issuing opinion papers about Israel/Palestine issues without first sitting down with a representative sample of Palestinian organizations.

David Schraub said...

I'm not that big a source, but the Forward is hardly trivial -- it's a very important newspaper for the traditional Jewish left. And the criticism isn't that they didn't sit down with AIPAC. It's that they didn't sit down with representatives from the Conservative, Reform (with one exception), Reconstructionist, or Orthodox movements (look at who issued the criticism in the quote -- the USCJ). Or groups like the AJC. We're not talking about groups whose primary function is to talk about Israel, we're talking about groups whose primary function is that they represent large and important swaths of mainstream Jewish opinion and practice. You're massively strawmanning if you think this can be boiled down to AIPAC (which wasn't even mentioned in the article in question), and I really resent how AIPAC gets used as a hobby-horse in this way to justify a church group essentially ignoring all of its counterparts within the Jewish community, as if anybody, AIPAC included, holds itself out as filling that role (it reminds me of how AIPAC got tossed out on your blog as the paradigm of using "anti-Semitism" to stifle criticism of Israel, until it was observed that they never actually do that. In certain circles, AIPAC has morphed from an actual institution that takes positions and does things, to a buzzword to swat aside inconvenient arguments. Don't want to take seriously a complaint from anything remotely pro-Israel? Cry "AIPAC"! If AIPAC didn't exist, they'd need to be invented, and where AIPAC isn't part of a controversy, they apparently need to be summoned into it just so they can play the critical role of "reactionary Jews worth ignoring").

I also think "you can find out what Jews think on the internet!" is an absurd response to all of this. This is like the Republican Party writing up its party plank on racism via conference call with Ward Connerly and Thomas Sowell (which, now that I think of it, is probably what they do), then saying that everyone knows what the NAACP thinks. It's patronizing and disrespectful, and you wouldn't be justifying it if you weren't in the camp of the dissenters on this issue. There's no respect for face-to-face dialogue in cases like this. And yes, there is a qualitative difference between ignoring the fringe and ignoring the mainstream.

I am not an institution. I don't have the resources to have study groups with all relevant players, and you know better than to apply the same analysis to individuals as you do to institutions. Particularly when we're talking about a church, there is a special obligation on their behalf to ensure that they're respectful of Jewish perspectives and organizations as they are, not as they wish they would be. That's respect for Jewish autonomous self-governance, and it's something the PCUSA didn't do.

Barry Deutsch said...

David, it's unfair to imply that I won't take anything seriously that's pro-Israel.

I don't think the comparison of a Presbyterian church committee on Israel to the Republican party makes sense. The Republicans are a group we should expect to be broadly representative of America (except along a partisan scale); but Presbyterians are by definition Presbyterian.

So no, I don't think it's a problem that when a Presbyterian committee sits around writing their position paper, the people in the room are all Presbyterians.

You suggest that I only feel that way because I largely agree with this committee's stance on Israel/Palestine issues. But there are a lot of right-wing churches that take a stance on Israel/Palestine that I disagree with, and I suspect that there weren't any Jews in the room when those statements were written, either. (And no Palestinians, either). I don't see any problem with that, as long as they seriously read or otherwise familiarized themselves with the views of Jews (including Israeli Jews) and Palestinians as part of their preparation. My criticism is based on the policy position itself, not the process.

And I think yours is, too. When have you ever used this "institutions have a responsibility to consult with their counterpart groups in a face-to-face meeting" standard before this case came up? Show me the times you've criticized "pro-Israel" organizations (or "pro-Israel" synagogues and churches, if this is a standard that only applies to religious organizations) for having positions on Israel/Palestine issues without first having face-to-face meetings with their counterpart Palestinian groups, for example.

I think you're right that any group formulating an official position statement on Israel/Palestine must take seriously Jewish and Palestinian opinion. (I'm putting words into your mouth -- you didn't say anything about listening to Palestinians -- but I assume you'd agree with me on that.) I don't believe the sole reasonable way to do that is to have face-to-face meetings with official representatives of large, representative Jewish and Palestinian organizations.

You sneer at this opinion, paraphrasing it as "there are Jews on the internet." But I don't find your sneering sarcasm persuasive. When I want to understand an issue, I try to find serious, intelligent people on both sides and read what they say, making sure to seek out the reasonable voices I disagree with. You seem to think that this is a ridiculous, sneerworthy method, but you haven't really explained why.

You're right that a Church committee is not the same as an individual, but I don't think that this really matters for the specific question we're discussing.

From what I understand, your position is that if a church committee made a good-faith effort to read a range of Jewish and Palestinian intellectuals, and take their concerns seriously, as part of their research process before writing a position paper, then that would be antisemitic. But I honestly don't understand: Why is that anti-Semitic? (And is it also racist towards Palestinians?)

David Schraub said...

My Can Zionism be Defended by Proxies is a generic attack on groups left and right, but more "right", for being "pro-Israel" in ways insufficiently attuned to what Jews themselves say on the subject. I feel like I've made this critique specifically with respect to folks like John Hagee, but I can't find it right now. I'll just call in my chips on the last time you played this whole show me where you've said X and were forced to admit you were eating crow. I've also remarked on my blog and yours about the necessity for including more pro-Palestinian voices in congressional debates and the importance of Jewish speakers advocating policy outcomes with respect to the conflict to adequately take into account Palestinian perspectives and interests.

(Of course, Presbyterians are definitionally Presbyterian, just as Republicans are definitionally Republicans, nonetheless, I don't think the GOP can adequately claim to respect Black voices only with reference to its exceptionally thin bench of Black Republicans. Insofar as a group -- political, religious, whatever -- is making policy prescriptions geared towards an external group, it has an obligation to give that group full and fair consideration as it is constituted).

But what I think is the alpha and omega of this debate is that, in producing a report that took the form of a lecture of Christians to Jews about what Jews needed to do, the Jewish community did not feel it was seriously consulted or listened to. They don't think the PCUSA was operating in good faith, they don't think the committee was fairly arranged, and they don't think they were heard and considered as equals. Obviously, the PCUSA will claim it was totes listening and fair. But referring back to the Littleton quote: Being respectful of Jews begins "with the very radical act of taking [Jews] seriously, believing that what we say about ourselves and our experience is important and valid, even when (or perhaps especially when) it has little or no relationship to what has been or is being said about us." The Jewish community was pissed the fuck off over how they were treated by the PCUSA -- both in terms of the substance of the report, and in terms of feeling shut out of the process in favor of more marginal voices prefigured to agree with the PCUSA position but unrepresentative of the broader community -- and I don't think it is unreasonable to say that this feeling of marginalization deserves redress, rather than scorn.

Barry Deutsch said...

Just lost a comment. I hate the blogger commenting system.

I followed your link. I agree with you that any group (or person) forming a careful opinion on Israel/Palestine issues is obligated to take Jewish views seriously and sympathetically (ditto for Palestinian views). I disagree that the only possible way for an organization to do this is through face-to-face formal meetings with large Jewish organizations. And nowhere in that link do you mention such a requirement.

I honestly think that, no matter who or how much the Presbyterian study committee consulted -- even if they had sit-down, face-to-face meetings with a dozen mainstream Jewish groups -- if in the end they had come out in favor of any BDS at all (even limited BDS), Jewish groups would have been very pissed at them. OTOH, if they had done exactly the same process (with no formal meetings), but had come out strongly against BDS, no one in the mainstream Jewish community would have been pissed at them.

Regarding your "Alpha and Omega," I agree that the Presbyterians shouldn't treat the response of the larger Jewish communities with scorn. I also agree that no one can tell them that they're mistaken about being pissed off; obviously, only Jews ourselves can say how Jews feel. That's not a debatable topic, and no one should question it.

But there remains the question: Were the large Jewish groups justified in condemning the Presbyterian study group? If you're saying that no one can legitimately disagree with large Jewish groups about that, then we disagree.