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.

Wednesday, March 25, 2015

The Sum of All Fears

This is a very interesting Tablet Mag piece on whether there remains a place for Jews in the UK Labour party. I'd have thought the article was hyperbolic -- not the least of which because a Jew is currently the head of Labour -- but it certainly is provocative. I had no idea that Jews were already voting at nearly 60% for the Conservatives.

All that said, I think the most important pull quote comes from a young English liberal explaining his reticence to link up with Labour:
“Some people on the left, educated people, are so quick to use the word Holocaust against Israel, almost with a grin because they think they legitimately can. Don’t get me wrong, Israel does a lot I don’t agree with, but I don’t find myself criticizing them to anyone who isn't Jewish because I don’t want to be associated with people who freely use words like holocaust and ethnic cleansing.”
Both sides of that resonate with me. I've definitely met people who love to use Holocaust-talk to describe Israel and do so with a smirk -- they're temperamentally identical to the folks who call Obama a "slave master" -- and I have the same recoil to them. They call Israel "the new Nazis" because they know it wounds Jews, and because they know in their circles they'll get away with it, and probably because they think it is so so unfair that Jews "get" the Holocaust and want to take it away from them.

And as for the second half -- well, that rings true too. Some people worry about criticizing Israel because they're afraid they'll be called anti-Semitic. Other worry because they're afraid that they'll give succor to people who are anti-Semites, or be associated with persons they consider to be anti-Semitic, or reinforce worldviews that are promoted by anti-Semites. One hears a lot about the former but much less about the latter, but the latter seems to be a more worrisome problem. After all, there is no entitlement to be free from the vicinity of anti-Semitism claims. But it is the case that we can't control the cultural meaning of the words we speak, and hence a world suffused with a certain type of anti-Semitism will and should act as a constraint on what sorts of statements people are comfortable making even if, out of context and in isolation, those statements would seem to be innocuous or even salutary. The problem, in that case, isn't that one is "worried about being called anti-Semitic" (a worry I'm not particularly sympathetic to), the problem is that one is worried about one's words reifying anti-Semitic attitudes or institutions even if that wasn't your intent (a worry I'm quite sympathetic to).

Of course, perhaps the reason one hears a lot about the former but much less about the latter is that the former instructs us to care less about anti-Semitism and what Jews have to say, and the latter demands that we be more attentive to anti-Semitism and what Jews have to say. But I'm sure that's just a coincidence.

Tuesday, March 24, 2015

It's a Trap!

David Bernstein warns us not to "believe Obama's faux-outrage at Netanyahu". "Faux-outrage?", you might ask -- "doesn't seem very 'faux' to me." And you'd be right, and Bernstein would agree: "I'm not claiming that Obama isn't sincerely outraged at Bibi; rather, the outrage, disgust, hostility, whatever you want to call it, has little to do with the events of the past week." Having retreated from the implausible, Bernstein then shifts to the banal: the frustration Obama is expressing with Netanyahu is not something that developed just this week, but rather stems from much longer-lasting animosity that has developed over a period of years.

This, presumably, is not a revelation: It has been beyond obvious to anyone with a pulse that Obama and Netanyahu do not like each other. Obama, I imagine, thinks that Bibi is craven, a sabre-rattler, at best indifferent to the creation of a Palestinian state, and committed to expanding Israel's settlements regardless of the impact they have on the Palestinian people. Bibi, for his part, seems to think that Obama is weak, unconcerned with Israel's security, too-focused on an (at best) tertiary issue of securing Palestinian statehood, and is in opposition to the settlement project that Bibi and his party fervently support. There is no reason to think that the two would be besties. And so it is not surprising that bibi would prefer a disempowered Obama in favor of an emboldened Republican Party, and that Obama would rather see Bibi kicked to the curb in favor of a more left-wing coalition. The idea that people prefer their ideological compatriots is not anything astounding.

So Bernstein begins with an argument that is unsupportable and ends with one that is unoriginal and uninformative. What on earth is in the middle? And here is where things go off the rails, for Bernstein has in his head an elaborate plot where President Obama is deliberately seeking to hurt Netanyahu in order to undermine the U.S./Israel relationship (Sayeth Bernstein: the current flap-up mostly derives from "the president’s discomfort with the (positive) trajectory of U.S.-Israel relations (i.e., 'no daylight') in the Clinton and Bush years"). This, presumably, is meant as a counter-hypothesis to the more-immediately intuitive one, which is that Obama is taking the actions that he is because he genuinely thinks that a two-state solution is important and he's genuinely skeptical that Netanyahu has any serious intention of pursuing one. What's the evidence?

Well first, Bernstein cites State Department funding of OneVoice, a prominent NGO working in Israel and Palestine to foster grassroots support in both communities for a two-state solution. Indeed, OneVoice may be the single most important NGO in Israel or Palestine devoted to that project; for that reason it is an eminently sensible recipient of State Department funds given that American policy has long been to promote acceptance of a two-state solution within both the Israeli and Palestinian communities? So what's the problem? The problem is that OneVoice came to the conclusion that Netanyahu posed a significant threat to the two-state agenda, and so (apparently after State Department funding ceased) organized and campaigned against him (and in favor of more left-ward candidates). But the fact that an organization (correctly) identified by the State Department as committed to enabling a two-state solution felt the need to campaign against Netanyahu isn't a strike against State, it's a strike against Netanyahu and all those who think that he'll do anything to make that dream a reality. This, in other words, is evidence that independent political actors in Israel committed to a two-state solution don't trust Netanyahu. It's hardly unreasonable or manifest of a plot for Obama to react the same way.

The second bit of evidence, though, takes us much deeper down the rabbit hole. Follow if you dare:
On March 6, less than two weeks before the election, a major Israeli newspaper published a document showing that Netanyahu’s envoy had agreed on his behalf to an American-proposed framework that offered substantial Israeli concessions that Netanyahu publicly opposed. Let’s put on our thinking caps. Where would this leak have come from? The most logical suspect is the American State Department.

So here’s the dynamic: Netanyahu, while talking tough publicly about terms for an Israeli-Palestinian deal, was much more accommodating privately during actual negotiations. Just before Israeli elections, the U.S. government likely leaks evidence of his flexibility to harm Netanyahu. As a result, Netanyahu starts to lose right-wing voters to smaller parties, and the left-leaning major opposition party takes a lead in the polls, putting Netanyahu’s leadership in question, just as the U.S. wanted.

Netanyahu responds by using increasingly right-wing rhetoric (including denying that he ever agreed to the framework in question), to win back the voters from smaller parties that the leak cost him. He wins, and almost immediately announces that his campaign rhetoric was misunderstood, and that he still supports a two-state solution when conditions allow. The Obama Administration then announces it nevertheless has to reassess relations with Israel, allegedly because Netanayahu is no longer committed to the two-state solution.

So you get it? The Obama Administration, or someone with similar motivations, leaks a document showing that in practice, Netanyahu was surprisingly flexible in negotiations sponsored by the U.S. Netanyahu then tries to compensate by sounding tough in the closing days of his campaign. The administration then pretends that this is much more meaningful than its actual experience with Netanyahu, as indicated by the document it likely leaked, because it was out to punish Israel for electing Netanyahu regardless.
Only Imperial Stormtroopers could be precise, said Obi-Wan in one of his less-perceptive moments, and this reeks of that. Under Bernstein's chain of logic, we know the State Department leaked the information in attempt to weaken Netanyahu because ... it had the exact opposite effect. The actual result of the leak, as Bernstein notes, was that it pushed Netanyahu further to the right and caused him to make a declarative statement that a Palestinian state wouldn't occur "on his watch." Even under Bernstein's theory there's no reason why the Obama Administration would have wanted that outcome. And while it is of course possible that State miscalculated and its plan backfired, even under Bernstein's logic it wouldn't make a lot of sense -- as he notes, if it had worked "as planned" the result wouldn't have been to weaken the Israeli right, it would have simply redistributed right-wing votes to parties even further to the right. Again, there's no reason why Obama would want that. As much as Obama dislikes Bibi Netanyahu, I think it's fair to say a Naftali Bennett premiership would be far more distasteful.

Rather than assuming that a counterproductive State Department plan backfired, it would be far simpler to just ask who really benefited from the leak, based on what actually happened. And that's pretty straightforward -- the leak caused Bibi to issue statements quite antagonistic towards the creation of a Palestinian state, which energized the Israeli right and unified them behind Likud. The folks who benefited were members of Bibi's ideological camp who were unhappy with perceived Netanyahu softness towards a Palestinian state and wanted to push him right-ward. Plenty of folks meeting that description; quite few of whom are currently residing in the Obama State Department. I'm not saying that a discontented member of Bibi's coalition was responsible for the leak; I have no idea who did it. I am saying that the chain of reasoning Bernstein presents to concoct an elaborate Obama administration plot is transparently ludicrous.

Really, the roots of the discontent between Obama and Netanyahu are just as straightforward as they appear. Obama thinks the creation of a Palestinian state is really important. Bibi doesn't care one way or the other about it. That's what Israeli NGOs on the ground who are committed to this issue think. And even if you believe Bibi's apologia for his pre-election comments, and take him at his word that he wants a Palestinian state just not under "current conditions", it is still obviously the case that he's not planning on taking affirmative steps towards changing those conditions. After all, he didn't say "I'll do what I can, but ultimately I don't think the Palestinian leadership will sign on the dotted line." When he said "not on my watch," he said that he wasn't going to take any steps, that he had no interest in creating such conditions, or even taking what initiative he could to move things in the proper direction. One does not have to think Israel is entirely or even primarily responsible for the "conditions" not being right for a two-state solution and still believe that there are things a committed Israeli could do to make those conditions more favorable. For those of us who agree with Obama and think that a Palestinian state is a priority now, Bibi's stated preference for a Palestinian state in some undetermined theoretical future is hardly sufficient to label him an ally to the cause.

Bernstein concludes by saying that the ultimate goal of the devious Obama plot is to enact "a divide-and-conquer strategy to split off liberal Jewish Democrats from the communal pro-Israel consensus." He doesn't say what "pro-Israel consensus" he's talking about. If it's just the idea that we are "pro-Israel", then there's no split necessary -- advocating aggressively for two-states fits comfortably within the confines of "pro-Israel". If it's the idea that Netanyahu is a true-blue supporter of a two-state solution, then there's no consensus -- indeed, it's difficult to imagine that anybody seriously believes that. Liberals have no need to believe it because they never liked Netanyahu that much, and conservatives have no need to believe it because they never liked a two-state solution that much. In any event, Obama hardly needs to take steps to peel off liberal Democrats from anything -- liberal Democrats were already solid Obama backers to begin with.

No, what's really going on is a much deeper game of which Obama is only a small part of. The "pro-Israel consensus" for the past several decades has been quite clear: a two-state solution is the only valid solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. There have been dissenters from that consensus on both the far-left and the far-right, but a consensus it has been. But recently, there has been an emergent challenge to this consensus from the more mainstream right. Sometimes they've come out and stated their opposition outright, other times it has come cloaked under a muttered mantra of "in theory yes, but...." It is these persons who are trying to crack -- or perhaps more aptly, reshape -- the pro-Israel consensus so that it no longer views pursuit of a two-state solution as a necessary part of what it means to be pro-Israel. And in response, those of us who are committed to that vision are seeking to the hold the line, and reaffirm that ours is the true pro-Israel position, and if you're going to express indifference or hostility to two-states, then you can hang out with your buddies in the JVP.

It is divide and conquer, but the group that we're trying to peel off isn't liberals away from pro-Israel. It's proto-one-staters who want to stay under the mantle of "pro-Israel." That's not going to fly for much longer. Being pro-Israel isn't simply a matter of subjective sentiment or mouthing the right words at the right time. If you aren't willing to put in some elbow grease to preserve Israel's standing as a secure, democratic Jewish state -- which is to say, if you're not willing to actually fight for a two-state solution -- then you have no business calling yourself pro-Israel at all. And if that means the American pro-Israel community finds itself lining up against the third of Israeli MKs who don't seem to share that vision, then that's the way things crumble.

Monday, March 23, 2015

Fancy That!

This past evening, on his show Last Week Tonight, John Oliver criticized Bibi Netanyahu. Specifically, he mocked his flip-flop on whether he supported a two-state solution to the Israeli/Palestinian conflict -- prior to the election he had blustered that a Palestinian state wouldn't be created during his tenure; after the election he was insistent that he's all in favor of the creation of a Palestinian state. Oliver proclaimed that if Netanyahu could get away this stunt, he should "go on the road as Netanya-houdini -- 'words cannot hold him!'"

It was a funny bit. I laughed. And here's what I didn't see happen: Anyone calling Oliver anti-Semitic.

How? How is this possible? We all know, after all, that any criticism of Israel (or its current leadership) immediately tars one as an anti-Semite. And this was a criticism on a popular national television program no less! And it's not the case that he's just saying something everyone agrees with -- many American Jewish groups have taken pains to argue that there was no inconsistency in Bibi's position and, indeed, nothing to see here at all. Yet even though we had a criticism, and even though it's a criticism that (it's fair to say) many mainline Jewish groups disagree with (I'm not among them -- I trust Bibi about as far as I could throw him on the two-state solution area), nobody argued that Oliver was being anti-Semitic. Because, as it turns out, there are plenty of perfectly fair-play criticisms one can make about Israel and its government that won't be called anti-Semitic.

The refrain "you can't criticize Israel without being called anti-Semitic" continues to be a lie, and an obvious one at that. Yet no matter how many times it is falsified, no matter how many stakes are put through its heart, it will no doubt keep on shambling forward.

Sunday, March 22, 2015

The Train Still Has No Brakes

An Australian branch of Hillel asked a Sydney theater if it could put on a series of performances related to the Holocaust. The theater responded thus:
“Our policy does not support ­colonialism/Zionism. Therefore we do not host groups that support the colonisation and occu­pation of Palestine.”
Of course, the shows had nothing to do with either "colonialism" or "Zionism" (and, not to put a fine point on it, but unless this theater is run by Aboriginal Australians there might be something to say about specks and logs here). And the group clarified that it is "apolitical" but supports the creation of a Palestinian state (I did a quick perusal of Hillel's website -- I don't know if they're affiliated with Hillel International -- but found no substantive discussion of issues regarding Israel). It didn't matter.

It was a Jewish group that was putting on a performance regarding Jewish history. And for some, that's too much. The train has no brakes.