Friday, December 23, 2011

How Would You Like Me To Raise It?, Part II

Several years ago, I wrote an open call inviting people who say they oppose anti-Semitism, but think many claims that something is anti-Semitic (or raises the specter of anti-Semitism) are done in bad faith, to explain how one who genuinely believes that a given statement had anti-Semitic overtones should raise that issue without being summarily dismissed.

This question returns to the fore of my mind with the news that the progressive Truman National Security Project has expelled Joshua Block for his role in a spat where he said certain statements by Center for American Progress bloggers were "borderline anti-Semitic". I'll refrain from commenting on the substance of that particular dispute, save to note again my belief that the term "Israel-firster" does carry with it anti-Semitic overtones (and one of the authors who used that language has since apologized for it). Rather, I want to focus on the tropes of what arguments are permissible and which ones are "silencing", and how that impacts our broader state of discourse about the Israeli/Palestinian conflict.

In the email informing Block of his expulsion, Truman National Security Project head Rachel Kleinfeld wrote:
"This has nothing to do with your policy views, and is a decision solely made on the basis of the need for this community to privilege the ability to debate difficult topics freely, without fear of mischaracterization or character attacks," she said in the email. "Your actions outside the community have caused too many to fear conversation within the community. That fear is not baseless, given your own actions. As the point of the Truman Fellowship is to help the next generation of leaders think about hard topics together, we need people to feel that they can debate with security."

One certainly understands what Kleinfeld is getting at here. It is damaging to be called an anti-Semite, or be told that one's writings echo anti-Semitic themes. It makes people nervous. And given some of the background on Block's behavior, where he was accused of specifically shopping "oppo research" on his colleagues to conservative outlets, one can understand how this comes off as a breach of trust between Block and his fellows.

Yet still, left unsaid in this report is how it would be appropriate to raise the issue of anti-Semitism, if one genuinely believes that it is in play within certain rhetorical tropes or arguments being played out amongst ones colleagues. Clearly, the answer can't be "never" -- that would be a form of silencing far more egregious than even the worst spin on what Block is accused of. If the goal of the Truman Project is to "debate difficult topics freely", well, how anti-Semitism interacts with global perceptions of Israel and its conduct is the very embodiment of such a "difficult topic".

What's needed, and what I think would be a very salutary development by Kleinfeld if she was able to put it together, is some set of guidelines delineating how one can appropriately raise the specter of anti-Semitism without it being automatically dismissed as a "personal attack" or a "mischaracterization". After all, this is an issue that is dogging progressives, not because they're more prone to anti-Semitism, but because of the dissonance between an intellectual tradition that (rightfully) leans towards hearing the complaints by minority groups that they face prejudice and discrimination, and a growing structural unwillingness to actually engage with those complaints (the right has the latter characteristic but not the former). This would also help dissipate the cynicism some hold that there is no such mechanism for raising the issue of anti-Semitism, that it will always be derided and dismissed, that it will always been seen as in bad faith.

One thing that makes the Israeli/Palestinian conflict so difficult to discuss is that there are a ton of very complicated, controversial issues that one needs to have a handle on before any conversation can even begin without it dissolving into gibberish. One issue is the very real, very salient hardships and injustices the occupation imposes upon Palestinians on a daily basis. Another is the very real, very salient security threats Israel faces from its neighbors who continue to yearn for its destruction. And a third is the very real, very salient specter of anti-Semitism, which doesn't just magnify the threat that Israel faces in the Jewish mind's eye, but also has noticeable and concrete consequences with respect to how Israel is treated, perceived, and evaluated in the global sphere. Discussing that can be difficult, and I don't envy Kleinfeld for having to navigate this very difficult terrain. But it's the project she's laid out for herself, and it's an important one.


Cycle Cyril said...

Since most of the progressives in this world have their chosen minorities, and in their eyes Jews are not chosen, don't hold your breath waiting for any real acceptance of anyone opposing anti-Semitism.

Most progressives do not go beyond the question "is a protected minority the focus" of a statement and delve into the substance of a statement or action independent of who is who.

I first ran across this reaction in my college years in the 1970's among the radical left and since then seen it expand to liberals. It is the essence of political correctness with its intolerance of opposing ideas.

PG said...

Most progressives do not go beyond the question "is a protected minority the focus" of a statement and delve into the substance of a statement or action independent of who is who.

Why is this sentiment -- that a less-powerful group can be more victimized by a statement or action than a numerically/economically/politically dominant group would be -- intrinsically intolerant of opposing ideas?

On the contrary, I think you'll find that within the left there are some pretty hot debates about it, and at various levels: self-victimization by minority groups (e.g. black people's using the "n-word"); the kyriachy arguments over whether "safe spaces" are a good idea when they leave out disempowered minorities; etc & ad nauseum. For an example of the kyriarchy argument, my college roommate (a women's studies/ anthropology major, if you want her lefty bona fides) wrote a thesis on the subject of the Michigan Women's Music Festival's exclusion of transgendered women.

I know that this is all pretty invisible/ inaudible to folks who couldn't care less about the oppression of transfolk, but the fact that you don't know about opposing ideas within the left is poor evidence for the claim that they don't exist.