Friday, September 09, 2016

On Listening to Us: A Follow Through on the Brooklyn Commons

As you probably know, Brooklyn Commons, a progressive space in New York, hosted a 9/11 truther anti-Semitic conspiracy theorist by the name of Christopher Bollyn yesterday. For an account of the event and the (apparently small, but present) protest, Ha'aretz and the Forward both have good write-ups.

My Tablet article on what progressives can learn from the debacle has gotten a relatively positive reception, and I wanted to take a moment to follow-through now that we're starting to get a better sense of how the broader progressive community is reacting to the event. And the first thing I want to flag is how one group, in particular, has responded. The Brooklyn Institute for Social Research -- a resident organization of the Commons -- distinguished itself off the bat by organizing an early letter condemning the event that gathered the signatures of nine other Commons tenants. They have also now announced they are withdrawing from the Commons outright, and their Executive Director issued a thoughtful personal letter situating the sort of conspiratorial anti-Semitism Bollyn peddles as the handmaiden of fascism.

I make special note of this because one of the "costly" measures I suggested to be taken in opposition to this form of anti-Semitism -- in addition to the "cheap" action of condemning a neo-Nazi -- was to leave the space. And BISR has done that, and they deserve genuine credit and praise for that. This not to downplay the importance of the other "costly" actions I suggested, but it is fair to note that things like "take Jewish claims of anti-Semitism more seriously" are not the sort of things one can demonstrate in the course of the day. In terms of immediate, tangible, concrete steps I outlined, "leaving the space" topped the list, and BISR did it. Kudos to them.

In general, there was much to be proud of in how the progressive community responded to this event. But there still remain areas of worry. And perhaps the most worrisome thing, for me, was the frequency with which groups condemning Bollyn and the Brooklyn Commons coupled their condemnations with assertions -- really, assurances -- that this event certainly didn't mean that most anti-Semitism claims, by most Jews, were worthy of credence. The Bollyn event was cast as the exceptional case where an anti-Semitism claim was on target -- and you know it was on target because the Good Jews, the ones who recognize the typical falsity of the charge, were telling you so. Even as they affirmed that this was a Real Deal anti-Semitism, they still rushed to reinforce the narrative that anti-Semitism claims are typically fake, ginned-up, bad-faith efforts to secure political advantage.

Consider the statement of IfNotNow (which hosted an event at the Commons last week but has threatened to pull them going forward):
As a Jewish movement focused on the relationship between the American Jewish community and Israel, we have thought deeply about contemporary anti-Semitism and the ways it is often falsely invoked for political gain. Criticizing the policies of the Israeli government — or any government — is not anti-Semitism. Blaming a cabal of malicious Jews for orchestrating the tragic events of 9/11 is. Christopher Bollyn is a real anti-Semite.
Jewish Voice for Peace's initial statement -- to my shock -- did not invoke this trope. But that changed when one of their officials took an entire column in Forward to stress that, in contrast to the "true" anti-Semitism of Bollyn, most of what most Jews call anti-Semitism are false alarms:
It’s unfortunate that Bollyn and his ilk are not the only ones who conflate the state of Israel and the Jewish people. It does not help us fight truly dangerous anti-Semitic narratives when the state of Israel claims to represent all of us Jews, nor when American Jewish organizations use the power that they have to silence criticism of the state. 
[...]
We all have to be able to challenge real anti-Semitism when it occurs. The prevalence of false accusations of anti-Semitism against those who advocate for Palestinian human rights, including those who see boycott, divestment and sanctions as tools to achieve those rights, are harmful toward the goal of fighting all forms of bigotry and oppression.
Both organizations are saying much the same thing: We recognize that most or many claims of anti-Semitism aren't credible, are lies, are bad-faith political gambits. And so when we tell you this is "real" anti-Semitism, you should listen. But you should also continue to feel free to ignore those other Jews, most other Jews, the purveyors of falsehoods. Don't listen to them, listen to us.

This narrative is not sustainable as a means of fighting anti-Semitism. Indeed, it is itself a form of anti-Semitism. One cannot be committed to the idea of Jewish equality while simultaneously thinking most Jews are pathological liars about our own experience. One cannot be committed to the idea of Jewish inclusion while simultaneously maintaining that most of us can and should be excluded and ignored in public dialogue about ourselves. No serious struggle against anti-Semitism can proceed unless it is accepted that Jews have the right to have our claims regarding anti-Semitism taken seriously, even -- especially -- when it challenges what other people consider to be anti-Semitism. Elsewhere in the JVP post, the author urged Jews "to stop acting as if any criticism of [Israel] is" anti-Semitic. My standing offer continues to apply: I'm happy to agree to that statement (I don't know who doesn't agree to that statement) if she agrees that some criticism of Israel is. Some is anti-Semitic, some is not, and we determine what's what by looking at the particulars of the case, rather than sweeping them all aside as some sort of mass Jewish communal psychosis.

It's not a fair deal, of course: I never wanted to maintain that "any criticism of Israel is anti-Semitic," it costs me nothing to give it up. But it costs the JVP everything to agree that it is always valid to consider anti-Semitism in the context of a given criticism of Israel; that we have to go through the inquiry, that we have work past the easy cases of conscious bias to dig in the rough soil of structural discrimination and implicit bias. All this talk about the regularity of bad, bogus, false, bad-faith anti-Semitism allegations is fundamentally about avoiding that terrible obligation. The only way we can plausibly justify preemptively dismissing anti-Semitism as even a possibility is by casting the whole discourse as diseased, as a form of "silencing" -- the classic conservative move that trumps the (largely mythical) "race card" with the (very real) "'race card' card".

One of the wonderful outcroppings of my post was a great conversation I was able to have on twitter with Daniel Sieradski (who, as I noted, did great work to put Bollyn's appearance on the left-wing Jewish map and to organize a communal response to it). It spanned wide, but it did eventually come around to this topic and how alienating it was to continually read left-wing Jews promote the systematic, preemptive, presumptive dismissal of anti-Semitic claims. I told him that I respect the right of dissident Jewish groups to dissent from the conventional Jewish views on anti-Semitism. It cannot be the case that Jews are obligated to censor their own truly-felt beliefs simply because other Jews disagree. The only obligation such Jews incurred, I argued, was that they could not offer their perspective as a replacement for listening to other Jews. They cannot validly say "don't listen to them, listen to us."

And Daniel wrote back with a very understandable reply: "Except we don't want the Jewish establishment speaking for us." By definition, dissident Jewish leftists (and, for that matter, Jewish rightists -- the same logic applies to ZOA types who also want to discredit the median liberal Jewish position) think the establishment is getting it wrong -- and wrong in a very serious way. Of course they want other people to listen to "us" and not "them." And for groups frustrated that they feel unheard or uninfluential in the Jewish community, of course it is tempting to promote narratives which elevate their credibility and undermine that of those institutions they think are getting it badly, badly wrong.

An understandable response. But ultimately, not a sustainable one -- which becomes clear if one looks at it from the vantage of the non-Jew's obligations vis-a-vis Jews and anti-Semitism. Because clearly, a non-Jew seriously committed to engaging with Jewish perspectives cannot fulfill that duty by cherry-picking the Jews he or she already agrees with. Engaging with the other cannot be an exercise in "looking over the crowd, and picking out your friends." Black conservatives have the right to dissent from their communal orthodoxy. But White conservatives cannot say that they've engaged in full, thoughtful consideration of matters of racism or Black experiences by reading Clarence Thomas, Herman Cain, and Ben Carson.

So there is a dark symbiosis at work here. The JVP-types leech credibility from Jews as a whole and arrogate it to themselves -- this is what it means to say "don't listen to them, listen to us." And meanwhile, those non-Jews who want very much to disbelieve Jews, to discredit Jews, to mistrust Jews, to marginalize Jews -- of course they will be delighted to hear (from other Jews, no less!) that their instincts are correct. They are hearing exactly what they wanted to hear, and receiving the validation that they desperately crave. And so they happily credit as exceptional "good Jews" those who provide them what they thirst for.

Ultimately this approach won't even work for the dissidents. For they will find that their enhanced standing (to borrow from Derrick Bell) withers away as soon as they cease to agree with their partners. Why wouldn't it? If someone is listening to you because they genuinely care about what Jews think, they'll continue to listen even if you say something that discomforts them. But if they're listening to you because you're saying what they already wanted to hear, of course they'll move on once you stop. JVP has certainly found this out -- when it (finally) condemned Alison Weir, Weir's supporters did not stop to reassess -- they turned on JVP and simply lobbed back the standard lines about Jews always crying anti-Semitism that JVP has been peddling for years. Where engagement isn't predicated on a baseline commitment to listen to the other even when it doesn't say that which you already believe, this is the inevitable result.

Indeed, I suggest we saw this dynamic in the Brooklyn Commons case. Certainly, many progressive organizations rallied against Bollyn and the Commons. But I doubt most of them needed persuading that 9/11 trutherism and the Protocols were anti-Semitic (and thank goodness for that!). We were not asking them to act against their instincts, to consider Jews in a hard (costly, differentiated) case. By contrast, it is the reaction of the proprietor of the Commons, Melissa Ennen, that is more interesting -- for she was herself a 9/11 truther, she didn't come in already agreeing. For her, we were asking her to listen and heed us even when the initial claim didn't resonate. And people -- people whom she had worked with, people who considered her a friend, people who had been part of her community for years -- expressed shock that their condemnations and pleas seemed to have no effect on her.

I'm not shocked. For ask yourself this: How many times do think Ennen, in her political circle, among her friends, within her community, had been told of the "prevalence of false accusations of anti-Semitism" (JVP)? How many times had she heard that anti-Semitism is "often falsely invoked for political gain" (If Not Now)? That was her atmosphere, that was the air she breathed. Is it really that surprising that, when the moment of reckoning came, she would dismiss us? She was merely applying the lessons she had been taught.

The narrative that anti-Semitism claims are frequently false, often in bad faith, and rarely need to be engaged with seriously and charitably -- this is the narrative that ultimately kneecaps our efforts to get others to confront anti-Semitism when it isn't easy, or natural, or cheap. Until persons agree to take that radical, scary, costly step 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," we will reenact these incidents over and over again. If our script remains the same, the play will never end differently.

3 comments:

Mari Cohen said...

Hi! I'm a progressive Jew who really enjoyed your Tablet article and looked you up because I had specific questions about this part of your analysis. I'm glad you followed up on it here. I'm sensitive to the argument you make: it's been driving me crazy lately to try to talk about anti-Semitism and to know that some people are going to automatically associate me with false claims of anti-Semitism. It's sending shivers up my spine how some Gentiles are responding to disturbing incidents of anti-Semitism unrelated to Israel ( The Swarthmore piece, Jill Stein's running mate's connections, etc) by saying "oh, you're just an Israel supporter who thinks everything is anti-Semitic." And, I agree with you that some Israel criticism is, certainly, anti-Semitic (there's a group of people who have been protesting my hometown synagogue for 13 years under the guise of being opposed to Israel policies, but they're actually Holocaust deniers). Many anti-Semites do try to appropriate the language of Palestinian solidarity and we do need to be vigilant.

But at the same time, what do we do about the Jews who are misusing the term "anti-Semitism" and cheapening it? While you might think "no one really thinks all criticism of Israel is anti-Semitic," there are a lot of Jewish organizations that operate on essentially this model. Not to mention the non-Jewish organizations/people that try to jump in on this and assume all criticism of Israel is anti-Semitic, whether or not most Jews think so. Shady right-wing organizations like Canary Mission basically make it their goal to try and smear all Palestinian solidarity activists as anti-Semites. So, if we're going to talk about who got us into this mess, I really don't think it's fair to put the blame on JVP and IfNotNow. It's not fair to ignore the contributions of Jewish right-wing organizations that have used "anti-Semitism" to malign people who disagree with their Israel politics (or, another thing I've seen, which is people using their status as Jews facing anti-Semitism to avoid reckoning with their white privilege).

If we're going to fix this, we can't just call on the left to stop apologizing for false claims of anti-Semitism. We must call on the right to stop using anti-Semitism this way. Of course, anti-Semites always find a way to be anti-Semitic, and I'm not blaming anyone in my community for that. But the right has sure as hell made it harder for me to call anti-Semites out.

David Schraub said...

Mari: Thanks for this thoughtful comment. I have three observations that hopefully can clarify what to do about those cases where groups allege anti-Semitism where we think the charge is inapposite.

To begin, I'll stand by the statement that "no one really thinks all criticism of Israel is anti-Semitic" -- but in a very specified way. The obvious example is that even the most hardened Likudnik would not deem anti-Semitic the statement "traffic is terrible in Tel Aviv, and the buses are too inefficient to make up for it." Or, I think, "Israel should adopt civil marriage." Or take "it was outrageous that Israel ever withdrew from Gaza" -- many right-wingers would endorse that criticism.

Now you could fairly rejoin that while I'm literally correct, these aren't really the sorts of criticisms anyone has in mind. But these examples do matter, because it shows that for all actors the issue is not some generalized inability to tolerate "criticism of Israel", but specific criticisms in specific contexts that are deemed objectionable, and the way to respond that argument is by reference to the specific merits and demerits of the claim. Put another way, if I say "X criticism of Israel is anti-Semitic", it's not responsive to reply with "no, it's not, because not all criticism of Israel is anti-Semitic" -- that proposition almost certainly doesn't form the basis for my argument. One would have to, and should, respond by explaining why X is not anti-Semitic. And so I suggest that the reason people cling so ferociously to a framing that they concede is (obviously) literally false is so they can bypass this on-the-merits response in favor of the general non-response "not all criticism of Israel is anti-Semitic."

That said, I imagine the thrust of your argument is that there are some prominent classes of specific critiques which are frequently called anti-Semitic but which you and I do not think are so. And I suspect that's true, but my second observation would be that I don't think the persons leveling the anti-Semitism objection are lying or otherwise acting in bad faith. I suspect rather that they are working off a different definition or conception of anti-Semitism than I am (or, at worst, a poorly thought-out conception). In which case, again, the right response is to tease out the conception of anti-Semitism being appealed to and explain why its inadequate. The assumption of bad faith's primary purpose, again, is to allow us to skirt this on-the-merits reply in favor of a general dismissal that they're simply smearers.

Finally, I think it's important to remember that determining whether or not X criticism of Israel is/isn't anti-Semitism does not exhaust the relevance of anti-Semitism as pertains to X. Anti-Semitism is not an on/off switch, it is also an everpresent mediating condition in any substantive discussion about Jewish institutions; to talk about a Jewish institution without also talking about anti-Semitism is to talk about it poorly. By way of analogy, I can say that "not all criticism of affirmative action is racist" (true). And I can level a particular criticism of affirmative action that, under fair review, is not racist (true again). But this would not entail that I would then be entailed -- even in the context of my own critique -- to have a discussion of affirmative action that excluded racism from its borders. How could that even work -- a conversation about affirmative action that does not address racism as a pretty central point is an exercise in gibberish!

Gerard O'Neill said...

I personally wear the "anti-Semite" badge with some pride. We will never forget the destruction of our beautiful civilization by the Judaic religion of Christianity, and its perverted little brother, Islam. The world will burn and from the ashes the Germanic spirit will prevail!