Sunday, May 11, 2014

To The Students of SJP Vassar

SJP Vassar has replied to my Innocent Until Proven Nazi post. It reads as follows:
To be clear, we definitely did back down. Our responses have been slowed up due to finals week, but we definitely do not condone the publications!

Your point on the reactions and whether the content would get the same reaction without the inflammatory source is interesting, and something we talked about as well. I think it would not have gotten the same response, as we have posted much more radical things than a description of Zionist trolls and a cartoon about the UN ignoring the ongoing genocide within Palestine. I’m wondering if you've looked at any of our other content tho, because I want to ask if you see the content of which we post as anti-semitic?

Are you the kind of zionist defender who equates critiques of zionism with antisemitism? and if not what about our content is anti-semitic?
The issue here is not, and never really was, whether you "condone" white supremacist publications. The key takeaway from my post should not be "Would the reaction have been the same [had the source not been a bunch of white supremacists]?" The key takeaway should be this:
If you call yourself an anti-racist but find yourself nodding along with neo-nazis, maybe that's a sign that your anti-racist bona fides aren't quite what you think they are. Clearly they don't view themselves as anti-Semitic, but one wonders what exactly would be evidence to these students that this self-appraisal isn't reliable? In large part, this discussion is about Jews who are describing their oppression and gentiles who call us crazy for doing so.
This is not to say you should not be more careful -- and I note that, "apology" notwithstanding you currently have a Nazi (no "neo-"; this dates from 1944) poster gracing your front page. But the issue is not about sourcing. In many ways it isn't even about content. It's about epistemics. How do you know what you think you know? You think you're anti-racist. You think you're not anti-Semitic. But you're well aware that most Jews disagree. What do you derive from that?

You make a statement. Jews say they believe it is anti-Semitic. Now you have a decision to make. If your response is "it's probably just Jews being pathological liars and/or delusional, as usual", you can hardly claim in the next breath to not be anti-Semitic. To borrow from George Yancy, people "admit[] of no ignorance vis-à-vis the [Jew]. Hence, there is no need for ... silence, a moment of quietude that encourages listening to the [Jew]." Instead, "the louder we speak, the crazier we are."

And this was the true problem with the "Zionist trolls" post, and your flippant question about whether I am "the kind of zionist defender who equates critiques of zionism with antisemitism." All of this starts from the exact opposite presumption -- that what the mainstream Jewish community says is inherently suspect and probably done in bad faith. It's "race card" politics. When we're talking about the critical institutions that mediate Jewish lives (and the gentile responses thereto) the issue of anti-Semitism properly should be at the foreground. It would be strange if such a discussion did not substantially implicate issues of anti-Semitism, and if you're talking about such institutions without talking about anti-Semitism, you're talking about it poorly. But it's not a conversation that can had on egalitarian footing if Jews aren't accepted as valid exponents about Jewish history, Jewish experience, and Jewish lives. It is what we need In Order To Begin this conversation.

This is why anti-racism politics is hard. If you're serious about it, it requires sacrifices, sometimes of things we hold very dear:
if one isn't willing to consider as even potentially legitimate Jewish criticisms that one's statements are or engender anti-Semitism, one can't act surprised if they don't give your own criticisms much weight or attribute them to hostility. After all, it seems quite likely that a person whose immediate response to Jewish objections is "as usual, Jews are lying/suppressing free inquiry/insane" is someone who in fact does harbor inegalitarian views towards Jews. 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.
I have on many occasions said what I take to be the heart of counter-anti-Semitic method, borrowing from Christine Littleton's description of the heart of the feminist method: it 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."

And that's the central point. We shouldn't need the smoking gun of neo-Nazis. We deserve to be treated as credible witnesses regarding our own condition. It might require you to reassess some core beliefs. But if your "anti-racism" never causes you to alter anything of value to you, it's not much of anti-racism at all.