Friday, April 08, 2016

The Stanford Anti-Semitism Experiment

The Stanford student council is in the process of considering a resolution condemning anti-Semitism. During its deliberations, one senator, Gabriel Knight, objected to language that would have identified claims that "Jews [control] the media, economy, government and other societal institutions" as a form of anti-Semitism. He contended that this was "not anti-Semitism":
“[The clause] says: ‘Jews controlling the media, economy, government and other societal institutions’ [is] a feature of anti-Semitism that we theoretically shouldn’t challenge,” Knight said. “I think that that’s kind of irresponsible foraying into another politically contentious conversation. Questioning these potential power dynamics, I think, is not anti-Semitism. I think it’s a very valid discussion.”
As Yair Rosenberg points out, the reaction by the Stanford community has been markedly better than the muted hand-wringing we've seen at other campuses when faced with anti-Semitism controversies. There have been widespread public outrage, calls for Senator Knight to resign (or lose re-election), a rescission of endorsement from the Stanford newspaper, and a powerful editorial by Winston Shi in the Stanford Daily unequivocally condemning anti-Semitism that is well worth a read.*

I want to write on this event, though, because I think it keenly illustrates some thoughts I've had about the intersection of Jews and "whiteness" as a concept. Were I to try and reconstruct what Sen. Knight was thinking when he said those words (perhaps overgenerously, but I think it's a good thing to at least try to consider the views of others in their strongest light). it would go something like the following:
It is standard practice in opposing racism and white supremacy to note the power and significant control white people have over entities like the media, economy, government, and other societal institutions. So how can it be that the same argument made all the time with respect to white people generally -- and acknowledged to be valid and progressive in that case -- suddenly becomes a form of bigotry when applied to a particular class of white people (i.e., the Jews)? Indeed, we frequently see white people try to deny they possess this power and instead take on the role of the victim; how is this any different.
From the Jewish perspective, by contrast, the argument runs thusly:
It is a standard form of anti-Semitism and anti-Jewish bigotry to argue that Jews have power and control over entities like the media, economy, government, and other social institutions. So why should such claims suddenly cease to be anti-Semitic simply because they cloak themselves in the garb of "anti-racism" or "progressivism"? Indeed, historically speaking there is no oddity in such a connection; anti-Semitism of this form has not just occasionally but frequently manifested precisely in this way -- leftist self-identification and all.
Hopefully this example at least illuminates the sense of talking past one another that was evident in this debate. Senator Knight sees himself as talking about Jews the same way he talks about any other similarly situated group. It is implausible, he thinks, that his motivations suddenly shifted from licit to illicit in the Jewish case, when he's making the same exact same argument he's always made. And meanwhile, from the Jewish vantage point, Senator Knight is talking about Jews the same way anti-Semites have always talked about Jews. It is implausible, we think, that the political valence of the remarks shifted from illicit to licit simply because Senator Knight thinks of himself as an egalitarian, non-prejudiced sort.

That said, I think there is more to be said here than simply dueling narratives talking past one another. What we need to do instead is look at the intersection of "Jew" and "white" as categories, seeing how placing them in relationship with one another creates something unique and hard to spot if one simply takes them in isolation. 

The conflict between the narratives laid out above, of course, rests on the idea of Jews as a class of white people. There are quite a few things we could say about this directly -- the complex racination of even European Ashkenazi Jews, the difficulties presented by the existence of Jews of color, the complicated case posed by Sephardic and Mizrahi Jews. I'll leave those important issues aside for now, and instead accept the more modest point that the image of the Jew, in the relevant public imaginary, is taken to be a white person.

In theory, that shouldn't tell us that much about the standing of the Jew qua Jew. Jews who are white would enjoy white privilege, to be sure, but that wouldn't translate into a Jewish privilege, any more than Sen. Knight's status as a man (with male privilege) translates into a "black privilege". In the latter case, the absurdity is evident -- the fact that some black people have privilege along other dimensions of their identity (they are blacks who have privilege) does not create a distinct "black privilege". Indeed, we would probably recognize that blackness significantly modulates an "unmarked" (read: white) male privilege.

Yet for Jews, it seems things are different. The whiteness of Jews doesn't yield the unremarkable kyriarchical observation (that people are privileged along certain axes and subordinated along others). The prototypical whiteness of Jews goes further -- it assimilates the Jewishness. This is how, in Senator Knight's narrative, we can make the jump from being able to talk about the power and influence held by whites qua whites to justify the same discourse regarding Jews qua Jews.

Why do Jews seems particularly vulnerable to this particular elision? Here is where taking seriously the Jewish narrative becomes important. Part of the historical discursive pattern of anti-Semitism is the notion of Jewish hyperpower -- that we are dominant, tyrannical, world-controlling figures. Anti-Semitism isn't just people who hate Jews, it's people who think they're oppressed by Jews -- who place Jews into the role of the oppressor class (there is a reason why anti-Semitism has been often called "the socialism of fools"). It is easy to see how a concept like "whiteness" -- bound up as it is in its own history of dominance and power -- would intersect with this particular anti-Semitic stereotype in a particularly pernicious way. What emerges is an inversion of the general kyriarchical framework -- instead of seeing Jewishness as being a source of disadvantage distinct from privileges yielded by whiteness (indeed, one that likely modulates -- though does not erase -- "white privilege"), Jewishness is taken to accentuate the privilege. Jews are not just white, they are the paradigm or epitome of whiteness.

From here, we are in a position to respond to the first narrative directly. Why is it the case that the "same argument" deployed against "other whites" becomes invalid as against white Jews? Well, in part, its because as argued above it isn't quite the same -- there is a jump being made here. But more importantly, the argument is different because intersecting the categories of "Jew" and "white" creates a social position that is not, in fact, assimilable into "white" as a simple category (this is the basic insight of intersectionality). It is not surprising that the impact would be different (and it helps to adopt the progressive standpoint of thinking that more matters here than subjective ill-intent), nor is it surprising that we'd miss certain important elements if we are not attuned to the basic Jewish narrative about what arguments like these mean.

So what lessons can we glean? Well, for starters, concepts like intersectionality are actually really useful tools for a full understanding of issues of oppression and discrimination given our complex and multi-layered identities. Beyond that, though, is the importance of recognizing the value of perspective, of not assuming that one already knows what one needs to know about the group one is talking about. The problems in Sen. Knight's statements are clear enough once one takes the Jewish vantage point seriously, and moreover, I'd like to say they tell us something important about the other related concepts in play here as well (like "whiteness" or "privilege"). There is a useful epistemic humility worth developing regarding our intuitions regarding outgroups whose perspectives are simultaneously often not aired and often not viewed as needing to be aired in ordered to have a conversation about them (I won't quote Christine Littleton or George Yancy again, but, you know, here they are). That's true across the board, but it is perhaps worth special emphasis with respect to Jews because Jews are often particularly (and wrongly) assumed to have already been heard -- if not overheard -- in the dominant discursive strains.

In a sense, these are not anything remarkable to persons versed in current progressive understandings of discrimination and inequality. Do intersectional analysis. Take seriously the perspective of the other. And so on. But I think we are getting a glimpse of why these seemingly unremarkable concepts -- which one would think would be, if not second nature, then at least readily recognizable by your average contemporary progressive advocate -- seem to have trouble penetrating in the Jewish case. The particular cocktail of anti-Semitic stereotypes -- whether by luck or design -- seems mixed precisely to immunize it from these otherwise powerful critical counters. That's unfortunate. But there isn't much to be done about it except to insist, with as much vigor and clarity as we can, upon making the connections.

* With respect to Shi's editorial, I do have to digress and observe again -- since this is important to say when prompted by one's allies as much as one's adversaries -- that "hate speech" and "free speech" is a false binary. On the one hand, hate speech is a form of (hateful) free speech. And on the other hand, that something is free speech does not immunize it from condemnation; the response to Sen. Knight's comments -- including Shi's editorial and the calls for Knight to resign or be voted out of office -- are exactly the sorts of challenging counterspeech that one would hope would constitute the response to free-yet-vile speech.

9 comments:

Unknown said...

Jews are not ethnically 'White' and that includes Ashkenazi Jews. Ashkenazi Jews are biologically half Middle Eastern and half northern Italian. Having fair skin doesn't make you ethnically 'White'.

Lellen said...

What a great piece. Here's (one of), my takes- since we "successfully" overcame the hate of the holocaust, (forget about the Farhud since we should just shut up and count our blessings that the world finally decided to recognize our genocide..), and walked all over the Arabs with our Zionist boots to establish the Jewish nation, we now need to stop whining about the tactics used against us and re-accept the abuse we once took in the form of "taking one for the intersectional team". Those are the rules of gracious winning right? ��

Daniel Goldberg said...

I'm not sure that your point about Jewishness being the epitome or paradigm of whiteness follows from the preceding premises, and I also don't see where it really gets us.

It should be obvious that I agree with the notion of Jewish hyperpower as a core feature of anti-Semitism, and that constructing Jewish identity as White assimilates Jewishness into Whiteness (indeed -- this is partly what makes it an exercise of epistemic injustice. It erases the complex history you note in the interest of seeing Jews as powerful and oppressors). But I do not see how this intersection accentuates the privilege of Jewishness into Whiteness. Or at least, that move is not really explained in this blog post.

I suppose that once we erroneously mark Jews as White, the relative indices of "social success" might stand as a marker for the kind of hyperpower we are discussing, but IMO it is debatable whether this qualifies as an accentuation of white privilege or is merely a separate species of racialized discourse altogether. I mean, why do we need to see Special Whiteness to mark the Jew as all-powerful? Constructing Jew as White is important to establishing Jewish power, but, once established, it's not clear to me why it matters socially and politically whether that power is taken to be a special species of Whiteness or simply cast as "Jewishness" in its own right.

I'm also not sure I see where the additional analysis after "Jew as White" really gets us. I tend to agree with some of what Binyamin Arazi has written in the sense that the construction is itself the principal move of epistemic injustice. At least as to American Jews, it totally ignores the actual and extensive history in the US of Jews being regarded -- at best -- as second-class whites, and frequently being regarded as not White at all when it suited the interests of the powerful to so regard. (This is to say nothing of the excellent arguments you've been pushing re Mizrahim, Sephardim, etc.) I understand that you want to grant the move for the purpose of pushing the argument, but I honestly do not really see where the extension gets you.

Seeing Jews as White just so is the principal violation, and it enables all sorts of mischief. Do we need more than this to understand Knight's behavior? I do not see why.

(Obviously, I do not disagree at all on the larger issues of epistemic injustice, etc. I'm just a bit lost in your argument here).

David Schraub said...

I'm having a little trouble parsing your objection. I think I agree that the end result of the "Jews as the paradigm Whites" gets us very close to a traditional "Jewish hyperpower" anti-Semitism (that's the point of the second narrative I put forward above). But it seems evident that many people who would not be comfortable making the argument directly are willing to do so indirectly by channeling Jews through the vessel of Whiteness (that's the point of the first narrative). There is a non-trivial set of people who can get to the traditional hyperpowerful Jew trope by "bank shotting" it off "Jews as White," which allows those tropes to be activated while denying that they're being activated because the subjects are Jewish (I'd challenge the apologia, but the point is about deniability). So we could just call it "old wine in new bottles," but I'm interested in the methodology.

Daniel Goldberg said...

I agree with everything you say in your response, but it seemed to me like you were trying to do something more in your post (i.e., moving beyond "simple" discussion of how objectionable it is to cast Jews as White). So you discussed how the intersection of Jew and White somehow becomes Jewishness to become an epitome or paradigm of Whiteness. No?

I guess I just did not follow that point and I didn't see why we need to go any further than objecting to the "just so" characterization of Jews as White to a form of epistemic injustice. This may also be me speaking more as a historian than a theorist, but I generally think it's better to emphasize the historical context -- that's what grounds the argument that the move here is an erasure, after all -- than decontextualize it to make a political analysis (I am not accusing you of doing this; your arguments are virtually always sensitized to history IMO). But if it's the specific history of Jews both in the US and in Africa/ME that most acutely grounds the injustice of casting Jews as White, then we should seek primarily to advance the argument on those historical grounds.

Anyway, I'm not sure if this clarifies, so I'll leave it at that!

David Schraub said...

Can you explain what you mean when you characterize calling Jews white as an "epistemic injustice"? I'm not saying it isn't, but I wouldn't intuitively associate the two. How does calling Jews white wrong Jews in their capacity as knowers? I see a connection insofar as white assimilates Jews such that particularly Jewish perspectives aren't seen as an independently necessary discursive contribution beyond what we've already gotten from "white". But note that saying many lesbians are white would not in itself diminish the uniqueness of a lesbian perspective (this is my kyriarchy point); the ease of the total assimilation of Jews into White seems something that Jews are uniquely vulnerable to.

I can say that I'm not the only thinker on anti-Semitism who has identified the "Jews as super whites" strand of anti-Semitism. Melanie Kaye/Kantrowitz talks about it too in her book The Issue is Power (she cites some Nation of Islam sources that make this precise argument). In a sense, it can also be a way of attacking "whiteness" while still holding out the possibility of working with whites -- it allows whiteness itself to be externalized onto the Jewish figure whom "normal" whites can join in opposing.

Daniel Goldberg said...

It's stock testimonial injustice, IMO. Jewish history in the 20th and 21st century is literally a testament to the (at-best) contingent Whiteness that Jews have been granted by the powerful. This is very obviously true with the history of American Jewry, but is also well-documented in the Third Reich (of course). The very existence of large numbers of Jews who do not even enjoy the perquisites of skin color privilege within Whiteness because they are of Sephardic/Mizrahi heritage suggests to me that casting such groups just as White entirely erases their own experiences of "non-Whiteness." I mean, denying all of this history -- in various parts of the world -- is nothing so much as a denial of Jewish's people's rights to narrate the contours of their own experience. How could this be anything other than a testimonial injustice?

David Schraub said...

Almost sounds closer to a hermeneutical injustice the way you're describing it (that we simply lack the language to articulate Jewish experience in a way that is coherent given dominant conceptual categories about Jews). But I think I get the point.

Binyamin Arazi said...

There is another key argument against the construction of Jews as "white" that hasn't been fully addressed yet.

Middle Eastern ethnic groups (along with other non-European groups) are nowadays widely recognized as non-white, as 'people of color' so to speak, even if their skin and features are ostensibly "white" (as they often are). This is more or less a byproduct of the marginalized status of Middle Easterners, an important marker indicating that we haven't quite "made it" yet (and yes, this is precisely what many people believe about Jews; that we have "made it", we have achieved "whiteness", we're not oppressed/subordinated anymore, etc). Constructing the Jewish people as white not only divorces us from our core identity (as an indigenous people of the southern Levant) and rewrites us as "Europeans of the Jewish faith" (a trope that is very popular in anti-Israel circles, for obvious reasons), but as Daniel Goldberg point out above, it whitewashes (pun not intended) the exclusion and marginalization we have faced (and in many cases, still do) on the grounds of our non-whiteness, and ignores the ongoing oppression and marginalization we still face.

There is, of course, an important distinction to be made between 'whiteness' and 'white passing'. By white passing, I am referring to minority ethnic groups (e.g. many Native Americans, Hispanics, and Middle Eastern groups, Jews included) who are fair skinned and ambiguous enough in appearance to elude some of the more "immediate" effects of non-whiteness (and of course, even this benefit tends to disappear once the minority in question is 'outed'), but are still generally excluded from white privilege as a full package deal. Having a white appearance doesn't give us access to white privilege per se, it just makes us harder to detect. Also important to note that there are other markers (e.g. name, culture, accent, passport, neighborhoods of residence, etc) that make it easy to identify someone as non-white.

I am likewise hesitant to include Ashkenazim in the "whiteness" category for the above mentioned reasons, and also due to the fact that many Ashkenazic Jews have a darker, more "Middle Eastern" appearance.