Friday, November 11, 2016

Hebrew Letters in Berkeley, Part II

First, a bit of background.

On Wednesday, the Vice Chancellor sent out a message noting the concern and fear that many felt as a result of happenings this election, and providing a message of support from the Berkeley administration and a thoroughgoing commitment of the university to principles of equality, inclusion, diversity, and tolerance. Her note included a very lengthy list of groups that were "in particular" affected by the election, the rhetoric leading up to it, and its potential aftermath. Jews were conspicuously absent. I thought about writing on that omission, but ultimately elected not to (for reasons that my letter will explain).

On Thursday, the Vice Chancellor sent out an additional message which specifically assured that Berkeley's leaders "condemn bigotry and hatred in all forms, including the anti-Semitic rhetoric of the recent campaign season." Though not expressly mentioned, it was pretty clear that this message was sent due to expressions of concern regarding the omission of Jews from the first email.

What follows is the email I sent to the Vice Chancellor following this second message. I wrote it this afternoon; independently, Richard Jeffrey Newman also authored a thoughtful post about how many progressive groups are -- consciously or not -- omitting Jews from those groups which are seen as threatened by the Trump movement and what it represents. I endorse his post in full as well, and I highly encourage you to read it.

* * *

[Name,]

I wanted to write and thank you for the email you sent out today, acknowledging the anti-Semitic rhetoric of the campaign season and affirming Jewish inclusion in our campus community going forward. As a Jewish student (and faculty member) who is feeling renewed concern about his place in our community and country, it meant a lot to me that you transmitted this message.

I assume this particular email was sent as a follow-up to yesterday's, which did not include Jews among the lengthy list of communities in concern. I admit I had noticed the omission as well. Two things made the absence particularly stand out to me.
  • First, all of us probably had a moment Tuesday evening which was particularly piercing for us. For me, it was a Jewish journalist who spent much of Tuesday retweeting message after message gleefully promising him a swift trip to the gas chambers. It drove home for me the real danger that had been unleashed, fanned, and validated this election cycle. Other people of all backgrounds undoubtedly experienced their own iterations of the same. It is a terrible commonality we shared in fear.
  • Second, following the first, I considered on Wednesday morning wearing a Hebrew-language t-shirt and additional identifiably Jewish garb simply to send the message "I am not afraid." But ultimately, I did not do so. There were many reasons for this, but one was the fear that my gesture would not be recognized as a rallying point for solidarity; that for many in our community it would not even register that I was threatened by these developments too, in a very real and material way.
Because of those considerations, I had considered writing about the message that was sent when, in such a lengthy listing of groups expressly mentioned as experiencing fear and concern, mine was not among them. But I elected not to. In part, this was because this day and this message was not just about me, and I did not want to center myself as the focal point of the conversation when so many of my peers were hurting in their own way. And in part, it was because I continued to fear that even asking for this gesture of inclusion would be seen as some as an imposition, as illicit, even as a form of theft.

And this hurts. It hurts to feel like one has to beg for the scraps of communal solidarity. And it hurts to feel that, if one does so, it will be viewed by some as fundamentally dishonest -- even appropriative.

The failure to include Jews in lists like these at the outset, without prompting or prodding, matters. It is not because it would ever be possible to list off every single group, but because the lack of Jewish inclusion is read not as an oversight but rather as locating them as similarly situated to the groups that "won" with Trump (even though Jews voted Clinton 70/24). The failure to instinctively perceive Jews as among the communities threatened by waves of populist prejudice goes hand in hand with the presumption that Jews are not entitled to access these forms of solidarity; that when we do ask for support on equal terms, we are arrogating to ourselves something that is not ours, that we are stealing a precious resources from the "real" marginalized communities and hoarding it to our perfectly-privileged selves. 

There is, in short, a particular instantiation of structural anti-Semitism in which Jews are viewed as anti-discrimination winners, the outgroup that's in. Jewish oppression very often goes hand in hand with the view that Jews are if anything hyperpowerful, surely not in need of more of the bounty they already possess. The particular way one shows solidarity for Jews in cases like these is to recognize that we count, that we are not artificially but naturally a part of the communities that this week need our help.

The hope of all of us is that each and every community one day will be able to count on that instinctive form of solidarity -- that if we're hurting or threatened or vulnerable, our fellows will be there to have our back not because they were pressured to do so, or persuaded to do so, but simply as a basic reflex. That's our hope not just in Berkeley, but nationwide. It is, perhaps, a particularly distant hope this week. But the first step is to try and cultivate those instincts right here in our own backyard. That is the hard, trying, difficult work that we are tasked with.

Of course, if everyone already perfectly possessed those instincts, we'd be having a very different conversation this week. So I will return to where I began: Thank you for sending the follow-up. It does matter, and it is appreciated. If, as Orlando Battista once said, "an error doesn't become a mistake until you refuse to correct it," then I appreciate the attempt to correct the error and the commitment that next time, it will be right the first time.

Thanks again for all of your had work in this difficult time,

--
David Schraub
Lecturer in Law, UC-Berkeley
Senior Research Fellow, California Constitution Center, UC-Berkeley
PhD candidate, Department of Political Science

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