Saturday, January 16, 2016

"Crying" About Anti-Semitism Beyond the Dogwhistle

In the last Republican presidential debate, Ted Cruz took aim at "New York values" as a means of attacking Donald Trump. Several commenters leveled objections to the phrase, a controversy that the Jewish Telegraphic Agency covered with the following headline:
Ted Cruz says Donald Trump has ‘NY values,’ the Internet cries anti-Semitism.
I'll return to the details of Cruz's case in a moment, which is not clear-cut. But before we get there, something needs to be said about that headline. The Nation couldn't have framed it any better: the notion that Jews are always "crying" anti-Semitism; making mountains out of molehills and whining about imaginary anti-Semitism behind every rock is an ubiquitous feature of our public discourse. So much so that Jews have gotten very defensive about it; preemptively assuring others that they're not the sort of Jew who "calls everything anti-Semitic", that they absolutely understand we need to "tread lightly" around anti-Semitism talk. And so it is that, in contrast to the stereotype, Jews have in fact gotten exceptionally gun-shy when it comes to discourse about anti-Semitism, well aware that even the slightest whiff of the invocation will bring down a furious racket of "there they go again!" JTA's headline, intentionally or not, is demonstrative of just how much we've assimilated this narrative.

In any event, the question of anti-Semitism with respect to Cruz's comments is more complicated than it is given credit for by either side. Much of the discourse has centered around the "dog whistle" concept: that when Cruz said "New York", he meant (and his listeners heard) "Jew" (see, e.g., Jezebel's column "Ted, Just Say 'Jewish'"). People immediately made the link to Toby Ziegler's famous comment, in The West Wing's pilot, in response to a conservative lobbyist's derision towards Josh Lyman's "New York sense of humor":
"She meant 'Jewish'. When she said 'New York sense of humor', she was talking about you and me."
(Apropos my above point, I'd note that nobody quotes the next line: Josh quietly saying "You know what Toby, let's not even go there.").

I thought of that line too, but it was actually the second one that came to mind. The first was a statement by Colin Powell in response to Sarah Palin's denigration of the values of New Yorkers and other urban dwellers in favor of the "real Americans":
When [Gov. Palin] talked about small town values are good -- well most of us don't live in small towns. I was raised in the South Bronx, and there's nothing wrong with my value system from the South Bronx.
The Ziegler line is about dogwhistles; Cruz "meant 'Jewish'". But reducing the question of anti-Semitism or racism to what Cruz "meant" is a spectacularly thin way of conceptualizing the issue. The Powell quote, by contrast, gets at something more subtle: that whether there is a hidden meaning or not, the fact still remains that comments like Cruz's (or Palin's) are profoundly degrading -- and degrading to the specific sorts of people who distinctively live in places like New York. E.g., Jews. Or gays. Or Blacks. Or immigrants. And we might say that, at the very least, someone who really cared about Jews or Blacks or whomever would think in terms of the effects his statements would have on the group.

Whether there was an implied substitution of "Jew" for "New York" is in many ways a side issue. It is groups like the Jews, that is, the people who distinctively live in urban coastal centers, who are presented to the nation as worthy of scorn; and it is those people who will have to deal with the fallout. A dogwhistle sets out to harness anti-Semitism, this merely produces it anew. Surely, when Ted Cruz tells his audience that the value set which describe most Jews are contemptible, it is no far leap for people to accordingly conclude Jews are contemptible too.

The upshot of telling a national audience of partisans that "New York values" are bad values is eminently predictable, and it is not salutary -- for Jews or for many other minority groups disproportionately concentrated in and identified with our urban centers. And so we're left with two possibilities: Either Cruz thought of that. Or he didn't.

Friday, January 15, 2016

If It's a War You Want....

Swedish Foreign Minister Margot Wallstrom provoked outrage in Israel when she alleged that the nation was engaging in "extrajudicial executions" when police forces killed terrorists engaged in stabbing attacks in civilian areas. Israel has responded by declaring that Wallstrom is no longer welcome in the country.

The bases for critiquing Wallstrom are legion, including the usual charges of hypocrisy (police officers in Europe -- including Sweden and France -- have killed armed assailants before, without any fretting by Wallstrom about the deaths constituting "executions"). Harvard Law Professor Noah Feldman also observes that Wallstrom seems to badly misunderstand the relevant international law principles she purports to be defending. Most notably, Feldman observes that even if police use of lethal force in stopping an armed attacker presents an international law question in the first place (far from clear), the international law language she appeals to is that governing armed conflict, not criminal conduct. Questions of "proportionality" and "distinction" refer to the legality of military strikes which will result in civilian casualties in pursuit of a bona fide military objective. Civilian and military targets must be distinguished, and civilian casualties must be proportionate to the military objective pursued. These considerations are simply inapposite where the police are seeking to stop an identified criminal in a civilian context.

There's another point worth making here that Feldman does not raise. Obviously, some defenders of Palestinian attacks on Israel would argue that these are military, not criminal actions. It's possible that this is the view that Wallstrom is seeking to channel: the stabbing attacks conducted by Palestinians against Israelis are part of an ongoing military conflict between Israel and Palestine, and so therefore Israel's response should be thought of in terms of the laws of war.

Obviously, the goal of this framing is to elevate the stabbing attacks beyond that of unsavory criminality. The stabbers are not mere criminals, but soldiers, entitled to all the respect that position entails. Now there are all sorts of reasons why characterizing stabbing attacks as military operations is problematic, and another lengthy list of reasons why if they are "military" they're also war crimes. But putting that aside, Wallstrom and other advocates of "militarizing" Palestinian stabbing attacks overlook one essential characteristic of the laws of war relevant to this conversation:

Soldiers can be killed.

This is a bedrock feature of the law of armed conflict: it is obviously not illegal (in of itself) to kill a soldier on the battlefield. They can be killed immediately, without warning, and without opportunity to surrender. And one can kill as many soldiers as one wants. There is no "proportionality" requirement with respect to combatants. Nor is there a requirement that they be given judicial process. A combatant who does legitimately surrender is entitled to have that surrender accepted, and upon capture is entitled to various protections as a POW. But there is no obligation to try and take enemy soldiers alive. If they're there and they're active, they can be killed -- even if they aren't an immediate threat to kill someone.

In this way, one might say, it's sometimes better to be a criminal than a soldier. Criminals are entitled to judicial process; that's the process through which they are punished. Killing a criminal on the street is only justified if there is an objective, imminent threat to someone's safety (the officers or surrounding civilians). None of that is necessary to kill a soldier. This oddity exists because, odd as this might sound, killing a soldier is not taken to be punitive. We don't kill soldiers on the battlefield as punishment for them breaking a law (being a soldier does not, in itself, break a law). We kills soldiers on the battlefield because that's what war is. And so by the same token, a captured soldier cannot be punished simply by virtue of their status as a soldier. Detention in a POW camp is also non-punitive; it is lawful as a means of incapacitating an enemy force. To punish an enemy soldier -- e.g., to hang him -- you need to charge him with a crime (such as a war crime). But judicial process is not something that exists on the battlefield itself.

For my part, I think it is evident that the Palestinian knife attackers are not soldiers, but ordinary criminals. And so that does mean that they are subject to ordinary rules of policing, which means they cannot be killed unless they pose an imminent safety threat. But if their defenders want to cloak them in the garb of the soldier, they need to accept the consequences of the label. Soldiers can be killed in war. That's what war is. And if it's a war Palestine wants, Israel is not under any obligation to lose it.

Wednesday, January 13, 2016

Bibi Narrowly Avoids Mature Response to Brazilian Diplomatic Imbroglio

A few months ago, I noted a brewing foreign policy disaster for Israel stemming from Bibi's selection of a prominent settler leader, Dani Dayon, to be Ambassador to Brazil. Brazil indicated that it would not accept the appointment, and as of the start of the year it looked like Israel had gotten the message and was withdrawing Dayon's nomination. It was seemingly the only mature response to yet another ridiculous unforced error by the Netanyahu administration, which has spent the last few years playing demolition derby with Israel's already-fragile standing in the global community.

Which makes it only appropriate to find out that this aforementioned mature response has apparently now been reversed. Instead, Bibi has reportedly informed Brazil that if they don't accept Dayon, they won't get an ambassador -- a de facto downgrading of relations with South America's largest nation. Who does this help? No one. Who does it hurt? Israel (Brazil will survive mostly unscathed, one suspects). What's the point of this? To protect the Israeli right's fragile ego? To bluster and fulminate and show that Israel won't be pushed around? Or just to demonstrate that Bibi has taken up the mantle of how Abba Eban once described Israel's Arab adversaries: he "never misses an opportunity to miss an opportunity."

Monday, January 11, 2016

No, Obama is Not Going To Be The Next UN Secretary General

"There comes a point in every plot where the victim starts to suspect; and looks back, and sees a trail of events all pointing in a single direction. And when that point comes, Father had explained, the prospect of the loss may seem so unbearable, and admitting themselves tricked may seem so humiliating, that the victim will yet deny the plot, and the game may continue long after."*

Some things just seem to attract conspiracies. Jews, for one. Barack Obama, for two. The latest conspiracy theory about the latter is that he is seeking to become the next UN Secretary General. It appears to trace back to a Kuwaiti newspaper Al Jarida, which not only got the scoop but snagged exclusive quotes from senior Netanyahu aides seeking to block the appointment -- no small feat given that Kuwait and Israel have no diplomatic relations and Kuwait bars entry to anyone with an Israeli stamp on their passport. It has bounced around the usual far-right suspects -- Breitbart, Arutz Sheva, the American Spectator; some of whom admit in text that the report seems "far-fetched", others of whom go straight to the hyperventilation machine ("OBAMA COULD BECOME PRESIDENT OF THE WHOLE WORLD"). Or check out this hot take from the prominent Israeli cartoon Dry Bones:

That came with a caption from the author: "Apparently it's True!!! YIKES!"

So obviously, this is in fact not true. It is rather transparently ludicrous. The story has no corroboration outside of a single Kuwaiti newspaper which has no way of getting the information it purports to have, and would certainly not be rebroadcast by Breitbart magazine in any other context.** There's no reason why Barack Obama would want a thankless position like UN Secretary General, which is about as far away from being King of the World as you can get. And, most importantly, the UN Secretary General cannot come from a citizen of any of the permanent UN Security Council members -- so Obama isn't even eligible.

Hell, even in the realm of "unrealistic high profile positions Barack Obama might want upon leaving office", there's a better candidate: United States Supreme Court Justice. There's precedent for the President-to-Justice move, in the form of William Howard Taft, and it fits better with Obama's background as a law professor and overall temperament. Of course it will never happen because Republicans would pitch a fit in the Senate, but at least it'd be the regular type of implausible.

Individual conspiracy theories aren't really interesting to me. But what I am interested in is what causes people to not just buy into conspiracy theories, but go back to the same wells over and over again. There are some people who read this on Breitbart or Dry Bones and or whatever and simply won't accept that it's not true. But there's another cadre who might accept that it isn't true, but won't engage in any reassessment about their instincts in determining who is a reliable purveyor of information and who is not. They'll continue to draw from the same sources in the same ways and get duped, over and over again. The game continues long after the plot becomes clear.

* Source.

** The one thing that can over come right-wing Islamophobia and anti-Arab racism is when they can unify in hatred of Barack Obama. Then suddenly uncorroborated Kuwaiti media arms are wholly credible of resting an entire story upon.

Sunday, January 10, 2016

What Do (EU) Jews Actually Consider To Be Anti-Semitic?

One of the lodestones of progressive understandings of discrimination and inequality is that marginalized groups are in a privileged position to "name their oppression." At the extreme this can be expressed as an unassailable authority to define what their oppression is (a position I can't endorse). But more modestly, the idea that we should give a pretty healthy presumption to how marginalized groups understand their own experience -- and that certainly, their views are relevant and important (indeed, essential) inputs into how we work through these issues -- strikes me as exactly right.

In that vein, I've just come across some really interesting survey data from the EU which asks Jews about (among other things) what they consider to be anti-Semitic.

If you click through you can see the charts more clearly. The results clarify certain intuitions while falsifying other stereotypes. To begin, as one would expect most Jews do not, in fact, view "criticism of Israel" by a non-Jew as anti-Semitic. Only 34% take that view, which, to provide some context, is also roughly the same percentage of Idaho voters who cast their ballot for Barack Obama in 2012. So the next time you hear people talking about "Jews think any criticism of Israel is anti-Semitic," replace in your mind "Idahoans are strong backers of Barack Obama" and reflect on how silly that sounds.

Widespread rejection of the generic formulation that criticism of Israel equals anti-Semitism, of course, doesn't mean that no specific criticisms can be so labeled (The Nation, take note). 72% of Jews think that a boycott of Israeli goods or products is anti-Semitic. Likewise, 81% think that saying Israelis behave "like Nazis" to Palestinians is definitely or probably anti-Semitic, and 90% believe that saying "Jews exploit Holocaust victimhood" at least probably qualifies as anti-Semitic (Naomi Klein, take note).

These are striking figures. To be sure, as noted at the outset, they do not end the discussion over what is anti-Semitism. But they do provide an important beginning. Talking about anti-Semitism, first and foremost, must start from talking about how Jews perceive anti-Semitism. Most Jews are well-aware of the obvious truth that criticism of Israel is not anti-Semitic simply by virtue of that fact; and the equally obvious truth that particular criticisms in particular contexts made in particular ways may well be. Now it's time for the rest of the world to catch up.