Saturday, April 23, 2016

The Master's Tools versus The Master's House

"The master's tools," Audre Lorde wrote, "will never dismantle the master's house." It's one of her more famous lines. I appreciate the appeal. I appreciate the poetry.

I've just never been convinced that it's right.

For starters, what tools aren't the master's? One of the perks of being master, it seems, is that one can grab any or all of the tools. Even if the slaves develop a tool of their own, the masters have proven quite adept at appropriating or co-opting it to preserve and ratify their own regime. "Color-blindness," for instance, didn't start off as one of the master's tools -- it was a radical attack on the very structure which underwrote slave power and white supremacy. A century and a half of ideological drift later, and now colorblindness is the ultimate master's tool.

Or take race itself. Lorde's essay is focused on the need to take race and racial identity (among other things) seriously if we are to remedy structures of racist exclusion. I couldn't agree more -- but isn't race the ultimate master's tool? It was the original instrument used to forge our system of racial supremacy itself. And again, I agree with Lorde that it would be impossible to tear down that structure without utilizing race as a central category of analysis. But that gets us to the opposite position: The master's tools are the only way to dismantle the master's house.

I was reflecting on this point when thinking about why I'm so committed to using the tools of progressive analysis against the problem of anti-Semitism, when so often those tools have been employed to justify, legitimize, and ratify anti-Semitic domination. One cannot be a progressive Jew today and not hear the sing-song snickers of the Jewish right calling you a deluded fool -- "why bother? What does the left have to do to prove they're not your friend?"

At one level, this betrays a naivete of the Jewish right, for the conservatives aren't their friends either. But I don't necessarily disagree with them that "the left", as constituted as a largely non-Jewish social movement, is not a friend of the Jews. It's long become clear to me that for the most part, people only care about anti-Semitism when the victims are people they like, and will excuse it when it happens to people they don't like. This isn't really different from how I view anti-racism commitments -- it's no accident that progressives don't seem to care about racism directed at Clarence Thomas, and it's no accident that conservatives seem to care about racism only when it's directed at Clarence Thomas. Most people are at most fair-weather friends. "Allies", primarily, exist in the mythical space that develops when a group's high-salience members and activities are generally liked by the ally.

The reason I use these tools, then, isn't because of some belief that the people who developed them or who mostly use them today are my friends. I use these tools because they work. Because they provide a more robust and realistic account of discrimination and oppression than their competitors, and anti-Semitism desperately needs to accounted for in a robust and realistic manner. If Jews ceded every instrument that had helped construct the edifice of anti-Semitic domination, we'd left with a rather pale and impotent toolbox. Why on earth would I be foolish enough to handicap myself so?

Lorde's essay, for example, makes a powerful argument for why the perspective of women like her -- and not just her, not simply a token -- is indispensable to doing progressive analysis right. If we're worried that people now feel they can exclude or marginalize Jewish voices (or at least, all but a few token Jewish voices who will tell non-Jewish audiences what they want to hear about Jews), this is an important tool in our toolkit. When progressive writers asked us to look at modern associations and to see how norms of exclusion and oppression are often woven into their histories without ever having been excised -- well, more than a few academic disciplines could stand to be reminded of that vis-a-vis the Jews. When progressive writers urged the broader community to stop reflexively assuming that all discrimination claims were just minorities "playing the race card", goodness knows that's a norm Jews are well accustomed to.

I am not a panglossian. I don't know if anti-Semitism will be cured in my lifetime, or even if we will see a net change in the right direction. But I do know that if anything is going to dismantle the house of anti-Semitism, it will be the tools the left has pioneered -- not because the left hasn't mastered anti-Semitism too, but because I believe we can use the tools better to liberate us than others can use  them to oppress us.

Friday, April 22, 2016

The Stanford Anti-Semitism Experiment, Part 3

Stanford's student council has unanimously passed its resolution condemning anti-Semitism. Now, one can always be skeptical of these resolutions -- as a student in the UK noted, they can come off as box-checking rather than a genuine attempt to grapple with the injustice -- but on my read of the text it is strong enough. The decision to not just mandate yearly anti-Semitism training, but enlist the ADL to assist in the project, is particularly welcome. The decision to recognize "the collective rights to self-determination of the Jewish people that are no different than any other people" is also very good.

There was nothing in there that directly or indirectly tackled the blood libel or the propensity to promulgate such conspiracies, which is a shame given that this apparently holds appeal to at least one Stanford professor, but I suppose that was a long-shot. While there was no specific mention of the comments by a Stanford senator earlier regarding the legitimacy of debating "Jewish power", he had already been censured by the senate and the resolution preserves the language he objected to condemning "the myth about a world Jewish conspiracy or of Jews controlling the media, economy, government or other societal institutions."

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

Sunday, April 17, 2016

Reflexive UN Votes

I often hear people complain about the United States "reflexively" voting against any UN resolution critical of Israel. I think such complaints are overstated -- at the very least, they should explain which part of the Negroponte Doctrine they object to -- but there is a certain abstract sense to them. There's no reason to think that every resolution that is critical of Israel is worth voting against.

But it is telling that there is no equal ire -- indeed, no commentary at all -- on the 150 countries or so who "reflexively" vote for any UN resolution critical of Israel, no matter how outrageous or even outlandish. Those decisions are just taken to be part of the diplomatic fabric of the universe, I suppose. Here's the latest one that got through a UNESCO committee:
 A UNESCO resolution does not recognize a Jewish connection to the Western Wall and the Temple Mount and calls Israel an “occupying power.”
[...] 
The resolution, which condemns Israeli actions in eastern Jerusalem, the West Bank and Gaza Strip, accuses Israel of being an “occupying power,” of “planting Jewish fake graves in other spaces of the Muslim cemeteries” and of “the continued conversion of many Islamic and Byzantine remains into the so-called Jewish ritual baths or into Jewish prayer places,” according to Israeli newspaper reports.
It also criticizes Israel for its decision to build an egalitarian prayer area in the Western Wall Plaza and for “illegal measures against the freedom of worship” at the “Muslim holy site of worship.” The resolutions refers to the cities of Hebron and Bethlehem as solely Muslim, and raps Israeli control over the Tomb of the Patriarchs and Rachel’s Tomb, both in Hebron.
Maybe the United States would be more inclined to favor an "even-handed" approach at the United Nations if "even-handedness" had even the most trivial constituency in its favor in Turtle Bay. But since it doesn't, it doesn't bother me too much that we have basically decided to write that august institution off when it comes to resolutions related to Israel.