Saturday, June 20, 2015

The JVP's Untenable Position

I must say, I find this twitter conversation between a (probably*) non-Jewish anti-Zionist and a Jewish Voice for Peace supporter darkly amusing. Basically, the non-Jew is unhappy with the JVP's decision to disassociate from Alison Weir (incidentally, JVP has finally released a public statement to this effect). His Jewish JVP-affiliated interlocutor protests that "JVP is making huge progress in changing the conversation and making it OK to criticize Zionism." The non-Jew, though, sees the Weir disavowal as part of a larger pattern of "gatekeeping, pulling the rug from under people, turning priorities to suit Jewish interests..." To this, the Jewish participant lamely replies that he "understand[s]" why JVP now refuses to work with Weir and that "I've met many Jews in JVP. None of them have some ulterior motive" (as opposed to other Jews?).

What makes this conversation amusing is that it shows the fundamentally untenable position the JVP finds itself in whenever it disagrees with its non-Jewish ideological cohorts. Like most minority organizations vis-a-vis surrounding majority actors, the JVP as a Jewish group is generally accepted by its non-Jewish "allies" only as far as it remains in agreement with them, and no further. This, in itself, does not distinguish them from any other Jewish organization, whose non-Jewish friends also turn with a vengeance whenever the Jewish parties suggest that their behavior may be inappropriate.

Now, the typical move for any minority organization in this position is to argue for a degree of deference or at least tolerance for the decisions of the minority group as part of a commitment to pluralism and respect for group autonomy. Anybody, after all, can like a group when it agrees with you -- the true test is what happens when the group wants to go a different route or offers a dissident voice. And these concerns are only amplified when the subject is oppressive conduct specifically directed at the group in question. Ideally, a true ally would seriously and charitably consider the possibility that their position is inconsistent with their proffered egalitarian commitments, including making a due accounting for the possibility of implicit and structural biases which may initially make such a conclusion seem preposterous or outrageous. After all -- to return yet again to the Christine Littleton well -- equal treatment of minorities starts "with the very radical act of taking [us] 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."

But the JVP can't make that argument. It can't make it because, of course, demanding as a general principle that people take seriously Jewish political appraisals and accord them due consideration as part of our commitment to pluralism and autonomy means demanding as a general principle that people treat Zionism that way, because most Jews are Zionist. The last thing the JVP wants -- or is in any position to credibly assert given that they routinely argue that mainstream Jewish institutions are untrustworthy, opportunistic, paranoid or delusional -- is to promote the sentiment that we should believe "what [Jews] 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."

That avenue being closed off, the JVP must instead make a plea for special treatment. They're the good Jews -- those rare and special few who should be exempted from the (wholly reasonable and salutary) general rule that Jews are generally irrational, delusional, and/or sociopathic. In effect, this is an appeal to "respectability politics". The JVP cites its long history as not just Israel-critics but also (to quote their statement) a group which "know[s] full well that the Israel lobby uses false and misleading accusations of anti-Semitism to silence critics of Israeli policies" and which has "called out that tactic time and time again and stood in defense of those who have been wrongly maligned with this accusation", and demands that it be rewarded for its good behavior.

In their defense, it's understandable why the JVP might expect to receive such special dispensation. The folks they are appealing to often do trot them out as being the rare Jews you can trust; indeed, their status as Jews-who-criticize-other-Jews gives them superstanding and enhanced credibility. But superstanding is a fickle thing -- it lasts only as long as the critic remains critical. Superstanding only applies as against the JVP's fellow Jews; it does not come with any general grant of authority or deference. It is unsurprising that once the JVP tried to draw upon the "credibility" they earned as ideological fellow-travelers to take a position not favored by their non-Jewish allies, they'd find that the well of goodwill suddenly went dry. Superstanding isn't a signal of egalitarian attitudes, its simply the nod of approval when Jews behave in accordance to non-Jewish wishes. When push comes to shove -- that is, when we return to the key case of differentiation and dissent -- there remains no room for Jews to step out of line. Which is why I argued that respectability politics is a doomed strategy.

Because they fail to actually acknowledge anti-Semitism as a serious and systematic problem -- indeed, because they encourage it insofar as they promote the general sentiment that Jews normally can't be trusted -- the JVP falls into a trap of its own devise. It cannot actually advocate against epistemic anti-Semitism because that would require giving credence to the bulk of the Jewish community which adopts positions they wish to see delegitimized. But having helped normalize Jewish status as epistemically unreliable, they find their pleas for a special exception (in recognition of their respectable selves) will fall on deaf ears. It turns out that, in actuality, "good behavior" doesn't in any way diminish the perceived entitlement non-Jews have to dictate Jewish behavior.

That's all I have to say about the JVP. The only thing I want to address before closing is the conclusion some right-wingers draw from this analysis: that because efforts to end the occupation and craft a solution that respects the democratic and self-determination rights of Jews and Palestinians alike won't end anti-Semitism, we shouldn't do it. If the JVP's "respectability politics" position is delusional, then this retort is just pathetic. It snivels that Jew's shouldn't make decisions of our own accord, but solely based on what reaction it draws from others. This is nonsense, and peculiarly at odds with the entire point of Zionism as a project of Jewish self-determination -- the historically near-unprecedented ability of Jews to make decisions about ourselves for our own reasons, rather than with an eye towards averting the next massacre.
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? ,,,, As the black nationalist saying goes: "do for self."
The JVP's position is untenable because it can neither unequivocally oppose anti-Semitism (by demanding that Jewish voices -- all Jewish voices -- be given credence when speaking on Jewish experience) nor can it exempt itself from the system of anti-Semitism (discrediting Jewish perspectives where they differ from those of non-Jews) it tacitly endorses. But for the rest of us, the fact that "criticizing Israel" won't end anti-Semitism is not a relevant objection. We should pursue a just solution for Jews and Palestinians not because of what we expect to gain from it out of others. We should do it for self.

* "Probably" because at one point he asks "What makes you assume I have no Jewish heritage?" But elsewhere he refers to Jews as an external group (literally invoking "I have Jewish friends") and he never actually says he is Jewish. So the whole bit just screams "troll".

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