Saturday, February 07, 2015

The Platonic Ideal of Wrong

I just read a very short essay by Bruce Robbins that purports to respond to an article by Doron Ben-Atar relating the latter's attempt to fight back against the American Studies Association's boycott of Israel (he claimed the boycott was anti-Semitic; a fellow faculty member was so aggrieved by the suggestion that she filed a harassment complaint against him). Robbins is the Old Dominion Foundation Professor in the Humanities at Columbia University. I provide Robbins' title because my initial assumption on reading it was that it was the misbegotten work of a doomed graduate student (in which case I wouldn't be picking on the poor fellow, but Robbins is in the position to take a few lumps). Though I came across the article on academia.edu, I later discovered it had also been published on Mondoweiss. This is not remotely surprising.

Robbins has written an essay that really deserves to be read in the original crayon. If ever there was a crystelline encapsulation of the wrongs I've been trying to get at in Playing with Cards and my general writing on anti-Semitism, it would be here. It is just the gift that keeps on giving. Arguably, it's too perfect -- one might think that the only wrongdoers are those who embrace the mistakes with Robbins' gleeful abandon. But I can't help but share. There's a kind of beauty in its perfection.

For example, one of my arguments in Playing with Cards is that people elevate the gravity of racism, anti-Semitism, sexism, etc., as a defensive maneuver to remove actual extant cases from its ambit and impose heightened obligations on claimants who, after all, are leveling a very "serious" charge. Take it away Robbins!
But to call someone an anti-Semite is a very serious charge. It is an accusation that can produce a great deal of personal unhappiness, destroying friendships and careers. No one has the right to make such a charge lightly or irresponsibly. Whether or not it counts as harassment in a court of law, anyone falsely accused of anti-Semitism has a non-negligible claim to have been victimized. So there really is reason to ask: who is persecuting whom?
It should be obvious to anyone why presenting discrimination claims (even ones we disagree with) as harassment (or, worse yet, "persecution") sets a dangerous precedent -- and if it's not obvious, plug in popular conservative discourse on false rape accusations or the dreaded "race card". That Robbins so merrily chirps along with this line of argument is astonishing; and the suggestion that it is even up for debate whether such claims should be viewed "as harassment in a court of law" puts him well past the outer bounds of all but the most delusional MRAs.

What's next? Oh of course, our favorite old chestnut:
In his article, Ben-Atar claims to possess professional competence on the issue of anti-Semitism. It is true that he has published on the subject. But the suggestion that any criticism of Israel can only be anti-Semitic casts some doubt on his scholarly acumen.
Now I'll make a confession -- I'm unfamiliar with Ben-Atar's work on anti-Semitism, so I suppose that it is possible that he has in fact argued that "any criticism of Israel" is anti-Semitic. But Robbins does not provide any citation or quotation to this effect, in fact, he does not cite or link to anything at all. And given the pervasiveness of this particular assertion -- conflating calling particular instances of "anti-Israel criticism" anti-Semitic with saying that any criticism of Israel is anti-Semitic -- I feel confident that it's Robbins who's in the wrong here.

To his credit, though, Robbins doesn't rely on Ben-Atar's lack of qualification on matters of anti-Semitism. No, he proceeds to make a much bolder claim -- one I cannot help but applaud for its forthrightness:
And even if he [Ben-Atar] had all the acumen in the world, he would not have the right to decide who is and who is not an anti-Semite.
Now that's a new one, even on me. Even Jews who are conceded experts on the matter do not "have the right to decide who is and who is not an anti-Semite." Which raises the question: who does? The Jewish community writ large, as expressed through our communal institutions? Presumably not; they agree with Ben-Atar on the moral status of the ASA resolution. The broader Fordham community? Because if there's anyone more qualified to opine on anti-Semitism than the Jews, it's the Jesuits.

Unsurpsingly, Robbins doesn't say, and one gets the distinct sense that the answer is that no one has the "right" to decide that anything is anti-Semitic. Gosh, how convenient. I've heard of folks saying that anti-Semitism is so serious that nothing can possibly be anti-Semitic; I had until now never heard the claim that anti-Semitism is so serious that nobody even has the right to adjudicate claims of anti-Semitism.

Well, not no one. Certainly, Bruce Robbins' right to make definitive declarations on the matter is unimpeachable:
Consider the fate of Steven Salaita and the Reverend Bruce Shipman. Their victimhood is not open to doubt. Real victims like them suffer every time someone cries victim when nothing has been done to them.
I'll spot Robbins Salaita -- not because he's right, but because understanding why he's wrong at least requires thinking multiple thoughts (Salaita is a victim not because his tweets weren't anti-Semitic -- they were -- but because their anti-Semitism is irrelevant to the academic freedom question). But Reverend Shipman is no victim -- no matter how fervently Reverend Shipman believes he is. Not only did he not hold an academic position in the first place, the idea that there is something wrong with suggesting (as Shipman did) that the remedy for beating up Jews is for the Jews to behave better is not actually that hard of a call.

And then we get to our inevitable conclusion. The real problem is not with anti-Semitism itself. It is that people are just too gosh-darn willing to believe Jews when they make obviously outrageous anti-Semitism claims:
The fear of even appearing to tolerate anti-Semitism is so great that institutions will not always stop and check to see whether the particular grievances have any justification whatsoever. There are too many irresponsible charges of anti-Semitism out there, blackening the names of individuals and institutions as well as shutting down legitimate and much-needed debate about Israeli policies.
Really? Really? Inquiring whether a boycott that targets the world's only Jewish state and nowhere else might be anti-Semitic lacks "any justification whatsoever"? Is not just contestable on its merits, but so clearly wrong as to be "irresponsible" to even entertain? Ditto, "Zionists, transforming 'antisemitism' from something horrible into something honorable since 1948"? And ditto Rev. Shipman's contention that the onus is on Jews to be more critical of Israel if they don't want to be beaten on the streets? These claims aren't just wrong, but obviously, flagrantly, unquestionably so? And we're the one's with the supposed inability to think critically?

Elsewhere, in his piece, Robbins makes his thesis quite clear: "The real issue here is anti-Semitism; that is, accusing people of it". Note he doesn't say "falsely" or "baselessly" or "groundlessly". These terms are, for him, redundant. Any accusation of anti-Semitism is a false one, an obviously false one, a so-clearly false one that it's irresponsible to even make the insinuation one. Normally, people making this argument at least have the grace to throw up a perfunctory cloud of dust to mask the obvious untenability of the claim. Robbins has done us all a great service in taking the quiet parts and blasting them out with a megaphone, and for that I am truly grateful.

1 comment:

Rebecca said...

David, this is a brilliant essay!