Saturday, March 28, 2015

The Making of a Martyr at the Virginia State Bar

Late Friday afternoon, the President of the Virginia State Bar, Kevin E. Martingayle, sent an email announcing the cancellation of a seminar trip to Israel. The email cited "unacceptable discriminatory policies and practices pertaining to border security that affect travelers to the nation.,,, [presenting] enough legitimate concern to warrant cancellation of the Israel trip and exploration of alternative locations."

I'm not a member of the Virginia Bar (though my dad is); I was admitted in Maryland and waived into DC. So I comment as an observer, not a stakeholder. And as an observer, I'm more than a little surprised. To put it mildly, one would not expect a Virginia state governmental agency to be sticking its neck out on an issue like this. And one would expect other organs of the Virginia state government to react with less than equanimity to the news.

Does the author of the email recognize the blowback that's going to hit? Some signs point to yes -- the email was sent late Friday afternoon, which is a classic burial strategy, and there appears to have been no public deliberation or announcement of any kind before the decision was announced as fait accompli. On the other hand, the message's tone is so casual -- bordering on cavalier -- that it is hard to imagine the author knows he's in for a fight. Without knowing what sort of leverage the state government or the lay membership has over the Bar, I would still put better than even odds that this email will result in the end of Mr. Martingayle's tenure as leader. Yet in the email text, he acts as if the main "disappointment" emerging from his decision would be that people would have to rebook their flights. That, I think is evident, is going to be the lest of the Bar's concerns flowing out of this. So what gives?

One possibility is that Mr. Martingayle did not see this as what it is being interpreted as -- an effective endorsement of the global boycott, divestment, and sanctions campaign against Israel. One hint that this might be the case comes from careful parsing of the rationale -- it refers not to Israel's policy on Palestine or the occupation generally, but rather to "discriminatory policies and practices pertaining to border security that affect travelers to the nation," which to my ears sounds like a commentary on Israeli profiling practices at its airports. The most generous way to interpret this move is an individualized assessment by Mr. Martingayle that certain VSB members would be targeted by unacceptable profiling by Israeli security services, and that the seminar should be held in a place where that would not occur. Mr. Martingayle might have been totally unaware of the cultural meaning of his actions. Now to be clear, if that was his (non-)thought, then he's mistaken and disastrously so. And he still should have anticipated that there would be a reaction, though perhaps not as strong. In the U.S., the BDS movement as thus far largely confined itself to a few activist student boards and some feisty academic malcontents. For it to move into a staid white-collar professional organization is a big leap, and one that people will notice.

The second possibility, though, is that Mr. Martingayle is going in with eyes wide open. He knows the backlash that will emerge, and he fully expects it, and he fully expects it to win. Again, given what I know about Virginia and Virginia state politics, I do not believe that Mr. Martingayle has the political backing to take a stance like this and survive the fallout. But provoking an overreaction is a form of strategy too. A too-vitriolic response by the rest of the Virginia government -- a direct encroachment on the Bar's autonomy, for instance -- could have disastrous long-term consequences even if it ousts Martingayle in the short-term. And more generally, Mr. Martingayle benefits from the truth of any political controversy that has Jews at the center: If he wins, he's the man who boldly stood up to Jewish power. If he loses, he's the martyr who sacrificed himself before the unstoppable juggernaut of Jewish power. We still live in a polity where the exercise of Jewish political agency is presumptively illegitimate insofar as it clashes with gentile preferences. One reason that Jews Lose is that any situation where we don't lose is coded as a system failure. Jews losing means the system is working properly, Jews winning means we've successfully subverted the system. It creates a severe double-bind, and means that someone who comes in and is willing to play the martyr to demonstrate the malevolence of the big bad Jewish lobby will have little difficulty succeeding.

There is one last thought I wanted to share. I mentioned above that the most generous interpretation of what was going on here is that there might be a member (or members) of the VSB who would have liked to attend this conference, but knew he or she would be profiled (and perhaps denied entrance) at Israel's border. And so the Bar decided to relocate to a new space where everybody who wanted to attend would be able. Would that be so bad? Would that be so scary?

Maybe not, in the abstract. But in my last post, I quoted a English Jew who refrained from certain critical behaviors towards Israel "because I don’t want to be associated with people who freely use words like holocaust and ethnic cleansing." One of the many, many sins the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions regime has upon its head is that it has associated behaviors like this -- no matter what subjective motivations might lie underneath it -- with a truly vicious and uncompromising form of Jew-hatred. The cultural meaning of the VSB's decision is to associate with the BDS movement writ large, and the cultural meaning of that is to associate with those who really find independent Jewish agency to be history's greatest monstrosity. This sort of political action has effectively been taken off the table, for any reason, because of the message it communicates. And, whether or not it has anything to do with this decision in particular, that is a true cost.

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