Friday, August 29, 2014

Respectability Politics and the Causes of Anti-Semitism

The civil rights leaders were saying to the country: “Look, you guys are supposed to be nice guys, and we are only going to do what we are supposed to do. Why do you beat us up? Why don’t you give us what we ask? Why don’t you straighten yourselves out?” For the masses of black people, this language resulted in virtually nothing.

-- Stokely Carmichael & Charles Hamilton (1967)

I've been doing some more thinking about Rev. Shipman's letter about which I posted on earlier. The letter posited that the best thing Jews (or "Israel's patrons") could do to stop anti-Semitism abroad would be to lobby for changes in Israel's policies. Many people, myself included, lambasted Rev. Shipman for victim-blaming.

The primary defense of Rev. Shipman has been to assert that his was a mere descriptive observation that anti-Semitism spikes when Israel takes actions that anger others (in a semi-apology Rev. Shipman refers to it as a "correlate"). See, for example, the comments here or Phoebe Maltz Bovy's interlocutors. What's so objectionable about noting a correlation? The first answer is that his letter wasn't just a descriptive observation but actually focused on a normative prescription -- objectionable Israeli acts correlates with anti-Semitism, therefore, people should object more strenuously to objectionable Israeli acts. The description does not lead to the prescription -- if such a correlation exists, the prescription could just as easily be objectionable Israeli acts correlates with anti-Semitism, therefore, people should be exceptionally vigilant against and display zero-tolerance towards those who target Jews writ large under the guise of "objecting to Israeli policies". It may or may not be true that female alcohol use "correlates" with sexual assault; nonetheless, the right prescriptive response is to take a stronger stand against those who would exploit vulnerable women, not "women shouldn't go to bars."

But I also want to unpack the alleged correlation on its own terms a bit, because I think doing so leads to some interesting observations. The argument is basically one of "respectability politics" -- that the way for a group to overcome prejudice against it is to act in ways that earn the respect and esteem of their fellows. And on the one hand, there's a degree to which the descriptive claim is true to the point of banality -- Jews are less likely to be disliked if prominent Jewish actors don't take actions that people dislike. The problem is that this framework enforces anti-Semitic impulses in that it tacitly accepts the entitlement of non-Jews to dictate Jewish behavior. When a group is forced to tailor its behavior to match the preferences of dominating outsiders, the outsiders will be very likely to view such acquiescence as its birthright and be more incensed if and when the dominated group does take independent and disapproved actions. This, as I argued recently, lies at the core of modern anti-Semitism and its linkage to Israel:
It is a unique feature of the past 60 or so years that . . . . sometimes, in some contexts, Jews can criticize Christians without the automatic specter of a massacre looming. Or -- and this I suspect is worse than Jewish criticism -- Jews can sometimes ignore Christian criticism without immediate and obvious consequence. For people who view their power over Jews as an entitlement, this I think is what really rankles: there is an entity, that is Jewish, that Christians criticize, that sometimes does not listen.
If being seen as an equal requires acting as if one is an equal, a huge part of that is not adhering to the demands and mores of the dominant group but rather (when appropriate, not for its own sake) making conscious decisions to sometimes disregard them. This was a key part of the argument that Zionism would reduce anti-Semitism over time -- like the picked-on kid who stands up for himself and thus earns the respect of the bullies, the existence of Israel places Jews in a historically near-unprecedented position of political and social agency akin to that enjoyed by various gentile majorities through much of history. Expressing that agency and autonomy places Jews on the same plane and therefore creates a descriptive equality which (the hope goes) will change attitudes to match. The call -- from non-Jews at least -- for "respectability politics" is really just a call for Jews to revert to the subordinate state of affairs where they do, as a matter of course, listen to gentile demands.

Put another way, it probably is the case that a non-Jew is less likely to punch a Jew in the face if he perceives Jews (as a group) as largely behaving in ways he sees as salutary. But that does not mean there is necessarily less anti-Semitism in such a state of affairs, if this view is transformed into an entitlement to such agreeability from Jews. That's just anti-Semitism in a different form; the "safety" it provides to Jews purchased at the price of their independence. Anyone can have positive attitudes towards groups who behave in ways they like; the true test of egalitarianism is respecting the minority when it behaves differently than how you'd want it to.

I don't mean to minimize the difficulties here -- there might be no more nettlesome problem facing pluralists than deciding when we must defer to alternative political practices we find distasteful versus when we're obliged to speak out against them. I don't take the view that people from one group can never criticize those of another -- including members of traditionally privileged groups vis-a-vis their historic subordinates. But respect for pluralism means there must be that basic acknowledgment of the right of differentiation, the right of the other to make choices different from those which we imagine we would make were we in their shoes. And perhaps more difficult than that, due accord for history means being appropriately skeptical that the dominant group has it right in every case where majority and minority disagree (even passionately) about important normative questions:
Privilege -- gentile or otherwise -- means that one can always choose to maintain the primacy of one's own perspective on matters affecting the marginalized group. A very large part of anti-oppression analysis is about convincing the privileged to at least suspend that outlook and recognize that it is possible -- maybe even likely -- that the marginalized person is epistemically more credible on the subject, and that our own view -- even if honestly arrived at, even if fervently held -- may be suspect after all. Persons consistently unwilling to engage in that "quietude" towards Jewish voices cannot claim any presumption of egalitarian views vis-a-vis Jews.
It is precisely because we have the duty to hold these things together -- our right to be critical of others, our duty to respect difference, and our obligation to be mindful of our privilege -- that I have asserted the need to foreground discussions of anti-Semitism when discussing Jewish institutions. It ensures that the positions we take about Jews "seriously grapple with the ways in which historical and present anti-Semitism implicate the positions that [we] hold and how [our] arguments account for the actual facts of Jewish existence and what they need to exercise their individual and collective rights as a people." Such grappling, I suggest, is a prerequisite to thinking about Jews well.

As for me, I tend to doubt both the respectability politics position (that if Jews behave well, people will like us and anti-Semitism will go away) and the muscular Zionist counter (that if Jews vigorously demonstrate their independent agency, people will respect us and anti-Semitism will go away). In many ways, I view anti-Semitism as a constant -- I'd like it to disappear, of course, but I don't think Jewish political energies are best spent trying to convince non-Jews to "straighten yourselves out." Zionism is important not because Jewish agency makes people respect us but because it makes it matter less if they do or not -- they can fulminate all they want about how much they hate Jews, because unlike years past we've got some big fucking tanks backing us up. And in turn, I don't support Palestinian equality and national aspirations because I think being nice to Palestinians will make people like Jews more. I do it because, well, the whole point of being an autonomous agent is that we get to make the choices, and I want to choose to do the right thing. People who say that we can't create a Palestinian state because of this or that thing Palestinians do or refuse to do drive me nuts: what's the point of Zionism if Jews are going to sit on their hands and complain while waiting for someone else give us permission to make a decision? (You may sense the roots of my support for unilateral withdrawal). As the black nationalist saying goes: "do for self."

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