Saturday, May 11, 2013

To Know is not To Understand


Reprinting a status update from David Hirsh, whose Engage organization is simply an indispensable resource for those concerned with anti-Semitism and are looking for an unabashedly progressive and unapologetic approach to combating it:
There is a huge reluctance amongst many antiracist Jews to see antisemitism; to understand it; to oppose it, to defend their fellow Jews, to educate their fellow antiracists. They have lost the ability to sniff antisemitism. They know, without knowing, that to do so puts them outside of the intellectual and political world in which they live. They know, without knowing, that to see, understand, sniff or oppose antisemitism is considered vulgar, selfish, dishonest, dishonourable, disgraceful; It is the end of them being considered progressive, intelligent, antiracist, engaged. The act of knowing is itself punished by exclusion, yet this fact itself does not help them to know.
I'm reminded of a story recounted by Steve Cohen (the British Marxist, not the Tennessee Congressman), who famously described himself as an "anti-Zionist Zionist" ("at least that should confuse the bastards"), about a review of his classic pamphlet "That's Funny, You Don't Look Anti-Semitic". If you click the link and/or read the pamphlet (which you should -- it's one of the most important works of modern anti- anti-Semitism ever written), it is evident immediately that Cohen is a sharp critic of Israel and Zionism -- to a far greater degree than I support, and in ways that I ultimately think are incompatible with Jewish and human equality. But despite this I've always considered Steve an ally, because it is very clear that he thinks critically about anti-Semitism and is unafraid to call it out and does not shy away from the fact that the existence of anti-Semitism does and should alter what sorts of political programs, tactics, and commitments are permissible. 

Anyway, Cohen publishes his pamphlet, which is quite open in its critique of Zionism in the midst of leveling an equally open critique of anti-Semitism amongst anti-Zionists. And the reviewer acknowledges his critique of Zionism, but dismisses it as hollow because he also criticizes anti-Semitism. The exact words were "It is not enough to trot out platitudes, as he does, about being against Zionism and in support of the Palestinian struggle.".And so Steve replied:
So I'm not allowed into the club even though I fulfil the entry requirements. I'm not allowed in because I recognise and oppose the existence of anti-Semitism on the Left—and this therefore renders all support for Palestinians a "platitude". Well it ain't me who's here confusing anti-Semitism and anti-Zionism.
I encountered a similar situation a few years ago. I had been writing a lot on another blog about anti-Semitism, and a commenter asked me "no offense, but is there any criticism of Israel that you wouldn't automatically consider to be anti-Semitic?" And I told her, guess what? Offense taken. First, because caring about anti-Semitism should not give any inference about what positions I take on Israel (much less an unyielding one that cannot tolerate any criticism); second, because I'd spent considerable time documenting and explaining why I thought various things were anti-Semitic, and now I'm told that this some sort of "automatic," thoughtless, kneejerk expression; and third, because I had (at the time) a searchable blog that made it quite clear that I criticized Israel myself quite regularly. No matter -- opposing anti-Semitism itself was enough to render me a suspicious character in her eyes.

There's a saw about the modern right that it isn't so much "racist" as it is "anti-anti-racist." It doesn't really care one way or the other about racism, but it is very committed to attacking those who attack racism. I feel similarly about much of the left (Jewish and otherwise) with regards to anti-Semitism. It's not so much that they themselves are anti-Semitic (though some are), but they seem to positively recoil if anyone might think they could be so gauche, so (dare I say) provincial, as to actually fight against anti-Semitism. Combating anti-Semitism is viewed as a dead giveaway for all manner of mendacious positions -- an inability to criticize Israel, a desire to see Palestinians dispossessed, silencing of people of color, hatred of cosmopolitanism, outdated tribalism -- take your pick. And if, as in Cohen's case, those charges are manifestly untrue -- it still doesn't matter. The pretension at being progressive is but a platitude.

If I sound too harsh towards the Jews Hirsh is talking about, I don't mean to be. To be Jewish anywhere in the world (except that one place the existence of which non-Jews are so angry about) is to be ultimately at the mercy of others. Knowing how not to get kicked out of the club is a survival skill, and Jews know that talking too loudly about anti-Semitism (and for some, any talk is too loud) is a quick way to be shown the exit. The instinct they feel to duck is a perfectly sensible one. But as Hirsh says, the knowledge that to remain in the majority's good graces they have to sing the majority's praises is a sign of the fundamental inequality they experience. And when they promote the majority's narrative that combating anti-Semitism is a far greater problem and graver evil than anti-Semitism itself, they do damage to other Jews. They block the emergence of a serious, unflinching, and badly necessary conversation about anti-Semitism, and they contribute to the expulsion of those who labor so hard and so courageously to bring that conversation about in what remains deeply infertile soul.

Wednesday, May 08, 2013

An Israel Roundup

A smattering of Israel links sitting on my browser:

Left and right groups agree: Israel is freezing new settlement construction.

Norm Geras has a great article up in Fathom about Israel as an "alibi" for anti-Semitism.

In a similar vein, Eve Gerrard has her own piece about the "pleasures of anti-Semitism". She identifies three: "the pleasures of hatred," "the pleasures of tradition," and "the pleasures of moral purity". The last of these is the one that I see as the most important and most striking.

Stephen Hawking canceled an academic trip to Israel, in what was initially reported to be a boycott move, then a health decision, and now is back to being a boycott statement. Carlo Strenger pens an open letter in response, calling the boycott movement a "way to ventilate outrage about the world's injustices where the cost is low."

The Attorney General of Israel just issued a sweeping and sharp directive aimed at mandating gender equality in sectors of Israeli society where Haredi influence has long propogated segregation.

... and one more: leading Shas MK urges Bibi to accept the Arab Peace Plan. I keep on forgetting that Shas in the opposition right now.

Tuesday, May 07, 2013

With Friends Like These....

A Facebook friend, with the ever-so-wry "just sayin'", just posted a quote attributed to a certain Father John Sheehan, S.J.:
“Every time anyone says that Israel is our only friend in the Middle East, I can’t help but think that before Israel, we had no enemies in the Middle East.”
As a pure statement of history, this is of course false. The U.S. has had its share of pre-1948 enemies in the Middle East (the Barbary Pirates, the Ottoman Empire in WWI, various Arab factions which sided with the Nazis in WWII, etc.).

But pushing beyond that, I think this statement needs to be unpacked a bit even if we took it at face value. The argument being made by our friendly Jesuit priest is that prior to Israel's establishment, we were all buddy-buddy with the dominant powers in the Middle East, but that all went to hell once the Jews had the temerity to establish their own state. Damn Jews.

This, of course, is an interesting view over how we should think about "friendship," to wit, that the most important consideration is whether it allows us to maintain and preserve preexisting relationships of power. Which ... okay, so that's one way of looking at it. Charles De Gaullte did say that "nations do not have friends, only interests." But I'd hope that's not the only way that we would think about how we select our friends.

Consider the following statement as a parallel:
"Every time anyone says that Blacks are Democrats' only friends in the South, I can't help but think that before Blacks were allowed to vote Democrats had all the votes in the South."
As a historical matter, this is at least as true (and probably more so) than Sheehan's statement. And some people do seem to resent Blacks for that, and essentially blame them for the Democratic Party's misfortunes in the American South. But most of us, one hopes, would recognize that supporting civil rights was the right thing to do regardless of whether it ultimately helped or hindered Democratic electoral fortunes. And if we're looking for someone to blame, it should be the White voters who decided that supporting civil rights was a dealbreaker, not the African-Americans who had the temerity to want to be treated as equals.

How much of the current strain between America and the countries of the Middle East can be attributed to the existence of Israel is debatable, but it is fair to say that most of these countries are less than keen on the friendship or the existence of an Israel at all. And they expressed that antipathy quite cogently, in the form of a series of wars and ethnically cleansing 99% of the Jewish population from the Arab World. Such actions don't always result in American opposition, particularly when (as noted) such opposition places us in conflict with the local elites. But where it does, it seems weird to object on the grounds that we weren't sufficiently solicitous of the preexisting hierarchy.

After doing all this work, I got interested in the provenance of the quote itself and who this "Father John Sheehan" is. And that is a surprisingly difficult proposition. The quote shows up a lot on Google, but it is almost invariably unsourced except to say "John Sheehan, S.J." The closest thing I've found to a source is a citation to Volume 21, No. 2, p. 34 (2002) of the Journal of Historical Review. The problem being that the Journal of Historical Review is the house journal of Holocaust-deniers -- it's a conspiracy website with footnotes. Meanwhile "John Sheehan" might as well be "John Doe" if you're thinking of generic name for a Jesuit Priest -- while that could just explain why it's so hard to find the particular "John Sheehan" who said it, it also might explain why there seemingly is no information of the :"John Sheehan" who supposedly said it.
The bottom line is that I think the quote is a hoax -- it flies around various anti-Zionist and anti-Semitic circles, but I don't think it's real.

This story does come with a happy ending though: I posted all of this (including my sense that the quote was fake) on my friend's Facebook wall, and you know what she said? She thanked me for my sleuthing, admitted she had probably taken in, and resolved to be more careful next time (and affirmed that the quote did not express her views on the American/Israeli alliance, which she says should be preserved).

Monday, May 06, 2013

Quote of the Evening

Tonight's quote of the evening was found while reading Joseph William Singer's The Player and the Cards: Nihilism and Legal Theory, 94 Yale L.J. 1 (1984), which ranks quite high on my list of "titles I'm bitter are already taken." But the quote itself isn't from Singer, but rather Nelson Goodman:
A rule is amended if it yields an inference we are unwilling to accept; an inference is rejected if it violates a rule we are unwilling to amend.
Nelson Goodman, Fact, Fiction, and Forecast 64 (4th ed. 1983).

I Would Come Here

Why am I blooging this? Because it makes me happy, that's why. Do I need another reason?
If he could only afford it, Geoff Ramokgadi says he would temporarily transplant himself to Hungary and launch a grassroots drive to eradicate rising anti-Semitism here.

Ramokgadi, a black convert to Judaism, represents one of the smallest Jewish communities of the world: the 14-family-strong Jewish community of the Kingdom of Swaziland.
[...]
Rather bewildered by the recent surge in anti-Jewish sentiments in Hungary, Ramokgadi says he would like to engage in dialogue with the locals here to figure out what lies behind the trend. “We must sit down the people here and ask them, ‘Why are the Jews being singled out? Where should they go?’” he says. “Yes, Israel is a country for them, but here is where they are born, so why are they being treated like aliens?”

Walking down the street the other day, recounts Ramokgadi, he encountered two boys who were playing guitar and asked to join them. “They saw my tag and asked if I was Jewish. I told them I was. Then I took out 10 euros and handed it to one of the boys. He was about to cry when I did that. It all starts with changing one person. One person changes another and then you have shalom. This is all I want. If only I had the money, I would come here.”
Some days my mood is "I bet if I could just talk to these people, they'd see I'm a human just like them" and some days my mood is "they'll never change, so I'll just curse them into hell from here." I like the former mood better.

Keep on representing the Tribe, Ramokgadi.

The Oppressor Class

Phoebe Maltz nails it, discussing the creation of a late 19th century German colony established, in part, to keep good Aryans away from those meddlesome Jews:
Anti-Semites weren't - aren't - just people who think they're better than Jews. They're people who think they're being oppressed by Jews.
This is part of the reason why anti-Semitism so easily finds footing among certain branches of the far-left. To be sure, it's also why anti-Semitism finds footing among the far-right -- the right certainly has no trouble imagining untrustworthy aliens who threaten Our Way of Life. But the left's rhetoric of opposing "oppression" and "hierarchy" can easily incorporate anti-Semitic prejudices insofar as they buy into popular narratives of Jews and the quintessential oppressing class.

This also relates to some popular prescriptions of how Jews can end anti-Semitism (much like ending rape or ending racism, this is of course typically presented as the obligation of the victim rather than the perpetrator). Jews will cease being hated when they cease possessing power, whether it be social (control of Hollywood), political ("the Jewish lobby"), national (Israel), or what have you. See, for example, this piece of work (proof that finding yourself on a Google Book Search isn't always a happy day). A Jew who has the temerity to succeed (and in particular, succeed at persuading others) is a Jew who is playing to stereotype. A polity where Jews are successfully convincing non-Jews to adopt policies Jews find amenable is a polity that clearly, clearly, has been damaged or diseased in some way. How else could Jews possibly win but by dirty pool?

The corollary is that Jews have a normative obligation to be weak, to be at the sufferance of others. It is wrong for Jews to win, and it is extra wrong for Jews to win based on their own decisions and determinations (as opposed to being gifted a privilege by the benevolent majority). Jewish power is always taken to be Jewish oppression; hence, the bare fact that Jews sometimes are in a position where they don't have to answer to the Gentile world is itself an outrage. This is why so much of the "critical" (so to speak) assault on Jewish institutions focuses not on what they do, but the fact of their continued existence. That Jews have institutions which can make decisions which impact the world without -- gasp -- gentile permission; this is the anathema. The problem is when Jews are subjects -- actors who have the ability to influence the world around them. The solution is to make them subjects -- subjugated and controlled by others who know best.