Wednesday, April 20, 2016

Rate that Apology, Part 4: Something Smells at Harvard Edition

At an event hosting former Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni, a Harvard Law student stood up and asked her why she was so "smelly." Given the historical usage of the smelly, odorous Jew as a trope in anti-Semitic discourse (and the inappropriateness of asking such a question at an academic event), the student (who remains anonymous) has been roundly condemned by (among others) Dean Martha Minow, the Jewish Law Students Association, and the Middle East Law Students Association. Now the student has offered the following apology:
“I am writing to apologize, as sincerely as I can via this limited form of communication, to anyone who may have felt offended by the comments I made last week. To be very clear, as there seems to be some confusion, I would never, ever, ever call anyone, under any circumstances, a “smelly Jew”. Such a comment is utterly repugnant, and I am absolutely horrified that some readers have been led to believe that I would ever say such a thing. With regards to what I actually did say, I can see now, after speaking with the authors of this article and many other members of the Jewish community at HLS, how my words could have been interpreted as a reference to an anti-Semitic stereotype, one that I was entirely unaware of prior to the publication of this article. I want to be very clear that it was never my intention to invoke a hateful stereotype, but I recognize now that, regardless of my intention, words have power, and it troubles me deeply to know that I have caused some members of the Jewish community such pain with my words. To those people I say, please reach out. Give me an opportunity to make it right. I will assure you, as I have already assured many, that had I known it was even possible that some listeners might interpret my comments as anti-Semitic, there is absolutely no chance that I would have uttered them. I trust that those that know me and have engaged with me on a personal level will not find this at all difficult to believe. Many members of the Jewish community—some of whom hold strong differences of opinion with me—have reached out to me on their own to let me know that they did not interpret my words as anti-Semitic, because they know me well enough to know that that is not at all consistent with who I am as a person. I want to thank them and any others who have given me the benefit of the doubt, and I am writing this note in the hopes that more of you will do the same. I say this, however, fully cognizant of the fact that no amount of writing can serve as a substitute for genuine human interaction. So please, if there remains any doubt at all, do take me up on my offer above and reach out so that I can make this right to you on a more personal level.”
So we'll start with the positive -- the whole "words have power" thing, and the acknowledgment that subjective intent is not the be-all end-all of offensive speech. I suppose apologizing "to anyone who may have felt offended" is better than "I apologize if you were offended" but still not as good as "I apologize for my offensive remarks." I'm interested in the line at the end where he says that "no amount of writing can serve as a substitute for genuine human interaction." I think that's right, and I think there is something to be said for offering to interact with concerned students on a personal level. However, there were some reports that the student asked the "smelly" question as a means of protesting Livni's presence without dignifying it with an actual substantive question. Such genuine human interaction.

In any event, though, this apology to my ears is missing one very simple thing. Orlando Battista famously wrote that "an error doesn't become a mistake until you refuse to correct it." So what was the error here? If it was the use of the word "smelly", I actually believe the student when he says he was unaware of the anti-Semitic cadence of the term, would not have used it had he known about it, and will do so in the future. In that sense, you could say he has corrected his error.

But the thing is, I don't think the error was in using the term "smelly". The fact that he wrongfully thought that calling Livni "smelly" would not be anti-Semitic shows that his instincts regarding what is and is not anti-Semitic are not as reliable as he had thought they were. That was his error -- he was speaking confidently about Jews and Jewish institutions without really knowing about them. The apology should have had two more lines:
I will assure you, as I have already assured many, that had I known it was even possible that some listeners might interpret my comments as anti-Semitic, there is absolutely no chance that I would have uttered them. However, I have now learned that my intuitions regarding what is and is not anti-Semitic are not as robust as I had thought. Clearly, this is an area I need to learn more about and one in which I need to reassess the reliability of my own intuitions and assessments, and I resolve to do so immediately.
This would correct the genuine error, which is not in my view a simple matter of verbiage. What was revealed in this event was that this student didn't know as much as he thought he did about Jews -- about our history, our experiences, and our oppression. That revelation should have more wide-reaching ramifications than simply dropping the word "smelly." Doing that is cheap grace, it costs the student nothing, and so I have no doubt he's glad to do it. Reassessing some of his more tightly-held attitudes about Jews and Jewish institutions? That's costly grace; something I've looked for in cases like these yet rarely found. But that would represent a genuine apology.

Grade: 5.5/10


Jeffrey Bergman said...

I am less impressed than you are. His error was not inadvertently choosing a personal insult with anti-Semitic overtones, it was choosing to personally insult Ms. Livni in the first place. No one, to my knowledge, has accused Jews of having large, ugly ears (noses, yes, ears, no). Our apologizer apparently believes that if he had just chosen a different insult (e.g., "why do you have such big, ugly ears?"), everything would have been OK -- that Israelis in general, or Ms. Livni in particular, are so far beyond the pale of decency that they may be personally insulted with impunity, so long as the insult does not invoke an anti-Semitic trope. So, "I only meant to personally insult her [apparently as a form of protest, but against what? Her actions? Israel's actions? Israel's frustrating and unjust refusal to stop existing?], I didn't mean to personally insult her with an expressly anti-Semitic insult" does not really wash with those of us who believe that Ms. Livni, and Israelis in general, are not per se disqualified from basic courtesies extended to all other humans. The rest of his apology, as Rabbi Akiba might have said, is bullshit.

Jeffrey Bergman said...

And of course, he didn't apologize to Ms. Livni, the person he insulted. That reduces any value of his apology to the other Jews who heard him.

drdonrs said...

How did this student get accepted to Harvard Law with such poor judgement and an obvious bent towards antisemitism?

Binyamin Arazi said...

Hey, is Amptoons having problems? I tried to visit it today (I wanted to cite one of your articles there in a debate) and it gave me a virus, or at least I'm inclined to believe it did (since my computer immediately started beeping and I was presented with a notice, asking me to call a number).

David Schraub said...

Worked fine for me (clearly I'm a great internet citizen, since my first instinct was to go to the site and see if it destroyed my computer too). But you might want to send a message to Barry Deutsch informing him that something may be up.

Sunshine All Day Long said...

He says to reach out to discuss this with him, but then hides his name.