Thursday, November 24, 2016

Thanks on Thanksgiving

The Wednesday after election day, I woke up to an email announcing that an article I submitted -- my first ever political theory piece -- had gotten a "revise and resubmit" request.

It was that kind of year: Decent, except for the part where America seems on the brink of immolating itself. It was tough to even email my graduate advisors with the "good" news that day: "So, I know that we're all reeling from America electing a proto-fascist, but a paper I wrote three months ago was officially not-rejected (yet)!"

I'm thankful, nonetheless, for the parts of my year which were very good. On a professional level, my writing got more attention. I gave my first invited talk, and developed great new contacts with various elements of the institutional Jewish community. Both the key figures I wanted to serve on my dissertation committee agreed to do so.

On a personal level, I'm also thankful for having an incredible family (with whom I'm currently enjoying a "non-traditional" Las Vegas Thanksgiving), an amazing girlfriend who has stolen the show at both(!) of her two jobs, and great friends both in Berkeley and around the country.

Finally, I'm thankful because I'm well aware of how lucky I am. I'm financially secure. I'm ensconced at an incredible university. I'm no DC power broker, but I "know-people-who-know-people". While things aren't the best for people like me at Berkeley, they're by no means the worst. Knowing people -- brilliant scholars and great human beings -- who are, for example, undocumented keeps things in perspective. And -- keeping on the selfish theme -- my life is better because they're in my life. So I'm thankful for that too.

The next few years could go all manner of different ways. They could just be generically bad, in the same way that having a conservative President tends to be usually be pretty bad. They could be truly appalling, in the same way that the grotesque erosion of basic liberal and democratic norms -- far beyond the normal liberal/conservative divide -- we've witnessed over the past year tends to yield appalling results.

But I'm thankful that -- for the moment, at least -- I still have the wherewithal and the motivation to keep speaking out for what I believe in, and I deeply, deeply believe in both liberalism and democracy. I hope you still do too. And in seeking to keep that spark of liberty and self-governance alive, everybody does their part in their own way. Some march. Some write letters. Some organize. I write.

We all have our part to do. Whether we elect to do it or not is a choice we make every day. But I'll try to keep making a better choice today than I made yesterday, and I hope you will try to do so too. It's never too late to be a little kinder, a little more empathic, a little more responsible, a little more welcoming. And it's never too late to be a little less fearful, a little less close-minded, a little less parochial, a little less callous, a little less uncharitable. It's never too late for any of that.

But it's nice to do it with company.

Because while we all should, individually, try to make better choices today no matter what our fellows do; it will always be apparent that Americans are stronger together.

Tuesday, November 22, 2016

Can Keith Ellison Become America's Sadiq Khan?

In 2006, Keith Ellison was elected to the United States Congress, representing Minnesota's 5th Congressional District. In doing so, he became the first Muslim-American ever to serve in Congress. I was living in Minnesota at the time and so I had the opportunity to follow both his campaign and how it was covered and perceived in both the national press and the local Jewish community.

The first post I ever wrote on Keith Ellison, in October of 2006, I think nails down the story pretty well:
  • Ellison had some past associations with the Nation of Islam and past anti-Semitic remarks which were genuinely problematic.
  • But he put in the work to heavily court the Twin Cities Jewish community, persuading them that those days were behind him and gaining their trust and backing.
  • His position on Israel well-recognized the significant security threats it faced and the culpability of groups like Hamas in the conflict. This view was not remotely in tension with his support for Palestinian rights.
  • He pledged to visit Israel after his election (a pledge he followed through on).
The other major theme in early Ellison coverage was the tragically unsurprising bigoted backlash he faced from elements of the American (including, unfortunately, Jewish) right. The most prominent manifestation came when Dennis Prager (a Jewish writer notorious for being wholly enthralled by the Christian right) accused Ellison of "undermin[ing] American civilization" by swearing his congressional oath of office on Thomas Jefferson's copy of the Koran. 

Now Ellison is a front-runner to take over the Democratic National Committee  (he's already secured the endorsement of Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer), causing him to again to return to the front pages of national media. Many conservatives -- desperate to draw attention away from the mainstreaming of anti-Semitism brought about by the Trump campaign and seeking to return to the "good old days" where the only anti-Semitism that mattered was on the left -- have sought to portray Ellison as a radical anti-Semite and anti-Israel extremist. I've read several of these dispatches (this one by Jeff Ballabon in Tablet is representative), and it inspired me to once again sort through my thoughts.
  • Ellison's past associations with groups like the NOI were genuinely problematic, and I am convinced that Ellison consciously sought to downplay them. It is reasonable to interrogate them and insure that they no longer are reflective of Ellison's views. 
  • That said, I am equally convinced that he's completely repudiated them.  These links are now well more than a decade old; since being elected to Congress he has completely followed through on his friendship to the Jewish community.
  • On this score, his letter to the Minnesota JCRC on is simply excellent -- a clear, unambiguous admission of responsibility and a full and complete disavowal of the views he once held. In contrast to "apologies" which functionally deny wrongdoing and defiantly assert that it is wholly irrational to even consider one a racist or anti-Semite, Ellison's frank admission that his prior actions did give rise to concern and did demand a response that fully demonstrated an actual change in attitude is refreshing in its honesty. That letter should be distributed far and wide as a model of how one can successfully reengage with a community after committing genuine wrongdoing.
  • It is clear that Keith Ellison cares about Palestinian rights. So do I. So does the majority of the American Jewish community. He has also been clear, time and again, that the full measure of responsibility does not fall on Israel's shoulders, and has always taken care to condemn Palestinian terrorism and incitement. A tweet noting that West Bank Palestinians are accusing Israel of practicing "apartheid" does not falsify this.
  • There is no evidence of any sort I've seen indicating that Ellison supports BDS, and considerable evidence (from his own personal statements to his repeated trips to Israel) cuts the other way. The declaration in Tablet's headline that Ellison "Supports BDS" appears to be flatly inaccurate, and should be corrected (the article presents zero evidence in support of this proposition).
  • The effort to act as if Ellison is the equivalent of -- or, more implausibly, is worse than -- Steve Bannon is both opportunistic and flatly ridiculous. The simple difference is that Ellison has put in the work to earn the support of his local Jewish community on a community-wide basis, and has a few partisan detractors. Bannon, by contrast, has alienated and infuriated the American Jewish community on a community-wide basis, and has a few partisan defenders. Ultimately, if the relevant question on anti-Semitism is "do you trust the instincts of the broad Jewish community," that suggests that Ellison is kosher, and Bannon is treyf.
  • Finally, Shmuel Rosner's assessment back in 2006 that a Muslim congressman giving support to Israel is exceptionally valuable even if he doesn't get a 100% AIPAC scorecard remains absolutely true. A high-profile Muslim leader who does not take the "Israel is always wrong" route, who does not endorse BDS, is a gift for the Jewish community that we would be fools to pass up.
On that final note, the person Keith Ellison may be most likely to emulate is London Mayor Sadiq Khan. Like Ellison, Khan has been a trailblazer for Muslims in Western politics. Like Ellison, Khan had some genuinely troubling associations with Muslim extremists early in his career; and like Ellison, he has since repudiated them. Like Ellison, Khan put in the work to earn Jewish support (and unlike Ellison, Khan had to deal with a political climate where his left-of-center party -- Labour -- was in more-or-less open warfare with the UK Jewish community); like Ellison, he successfully persuaded them that he was a genuine Jewish ally. Since his election, Khan has upheld his promises -- being a steadfast critic of anti-Semitism (including in his own Party) and coming out against BDS.

I think there is a strong chance Keith Ellison could fill a similar role. If he becomes DNC chair, I am confident he will oppose BDS and anti-Semitism. I am confident that he will support Palestinian rights, perhaps more so than has been seen in the official DNC line; I am also confident he will do so in a way that is cognizant and respectful of Israel's genuine security needs.

Keith Ellison's greatest strength is not that he says he's an ally of the Jews. It is not that he publishes loud columns talking about how much he loves Netanyahu or hates the Palestinian Authority. Keith Ellison's strength is that he acknowledged past wrongs, committed to better choices, and has taken it on himself to earn the Jewish community's trust. He put in the work. And that makes him very, very different from certain other alleged anti-Semites who are now demanding Jewish respect as an entitlement.

UPDATE: JTA just put up a very good article on Rep. Ellison, including an explicit rejection by him of BDS.

Sunday, November 20, 2016

How Steve Bannon Rallied the Jews

My Ha'aretz piece asked the question: How would the major players in the Jewish community react now that anti-Semitism was entering the right-wing mainstream? Underlying my post were two observations:
  1. Jewish organizations had largely treated mainstream right-wing anti-Semitism (that is, that which emerged out of significant political figures rather than some crank in the woods) with kid gloves. This was because Jewish organizations suspected that the right would turn on them with a vengeance if they dared speak up.
  2. Despite the significant liberal tilt of the American Jewish community, many Jewish organizations seemed to go out of their way to coddle our relatively small right-wing element. Among the center/left Jewish mainstream, the sense that the Jewish right got to play by different rules and has been allowed to claim the mantle of a (if not the) "Jewish perspective" on politics has led to increasing anger, anger that is now at the risk of boiling over.
And now we see the reaction to Steve Bannon. And it is something to behold.

As has now become clear, the case against Bannon is less that he has personally made utterances of the "I hate Jews" variety, and more that he has actively nurtured and promoted a worldview that provides a welcoming home for old-school anti-Semites of the White supremacist and neo-Nazi variety. And that case is, as far as I and most other Jews are concerned, a sufficient case. Steve Bannon is functionally identical the prototypical anti-Zionist mouthpieces who are very proud to "have Jewish friends", and usually remember to be sticklers about saying "Zionist" rather than "Jew", but have had no problem elevating a social movement that is deeply and notoriously toxic to Jewish equality in the American and international community. As David Hirsh accurately put it: "anti-Semitism is about politics, not personal moral failure." And so with respect to Bannon, we could fairly say that "Globalist" : Breitbart :: "Zionist" : Electronic Intifada.

And so then we move to a fantastic article in Tablet by Bari Weiss. He, too, echoes this powerful observation:
We will never know what’s in Steve Bannon’s heart. What we know is that he is proud to have provided the bullhorn for a movement that unabashedly promotes white nationalism, racism, misogyny, and the relentless identification of Jews as the champions of the country’s most nefarious forces, like “globalism” and “elitism,” that the alt-right seeks to destroy. It’s no coincidence that a publication that identifies as the “platform” for this movement thinks nothing of calling Bill Kristol “a renegade Jew” or smearing Anne Applebaum: “Hell hath no fury like a Polish, Jewish, American elitist scorned.”
Last time I checked, we Jews come from a faith that judges not by intention but by deed.
Even John Podhoertz at Commentary recognized this: "the key moral problem with Steve Bannon," he wrote "is that as the CEO of Andrew Breitbart’s namesake organization, he is an aider and abetter of foul extremist views, including anti-Semitic ones." Podhoertz distinguishes this from Bannon, himself, being an anti-Semite -- but see Weiss and Hirsh above. In any event, the precise verbiage doesn't matter so much to me. What matters, as Hirsh observes, is the politics.

Alas, not everyone on the right has been as strong as Podhoertz. And Weiss has some sharp words for them as well:
Yet Jews on the center-right seem to be facing a particular challenge when it comes to Bannon and this administration. The anti-Semitism coming from the left is worse, they say. Let’s hold our fire. Maybe it’s not worth it to use our political capital on this guy. Maybe he’s not so bad.
Is it frustrating to watch left-wingers who remained mum about Jeremiah Wright now protesting in the streets about the president-elect’s appointment? Is it maddening to witness the sudden sensitivity to anti-Semitism of so many Jews who are willfully blind to it among their political ranks? Who have nothing to say about the BDS movement, the bullying of pro-Israel students on college campuses across this country, the bellicosity of Iran, and of a nuclear deal that so clearly emboldened the ayatollahs?
Yes.
Get over it. We don’t have the luxury of holding political grudges in an age where Steve Bannon is going to be the president’s right-hand man.
Hawkishness on Israel is not the litmus test of a person’s decency. To hold your tongue as the godfather of the alt-right is installed in the West Wing is deplorable.
Damn straight (and -- as someone on the left who has consistently called out left-wing anti-Semitism over and over and over again -- I'd add that it's equally frustrating to watch right-wingers who went absolutely wild over even the thinnest-reed of anti-Jewish sentiment from Barack Obama suddenly act like they don't know what a dogwhistle is, or that anti-Semitism only occurs in the form of someone openly declaring "I hate every Jew").

Steve Bannon is an outrage, not just to the protest-sorts currently marching in New York, not just to the institutional Zionist left -- groups like Ameinu, T'ruah, and the Jewish Labor Committee, but to center-line institutions -- the ADL, the Reform Jewish movement and the Conservative Jewish movement.

These groups are not going to be impressed by one's implacable support of settlements. If anything, they find it offensive that the label "pro-Israel" is being wielded as a Get-Out-Of-Bigotry-Free Card. That rhetorical move isn't the act of a genuine friend, it's the act of someone who holds Jews in deep, deep contempt and thinks we can be played. They're in for a rude surprise. The Jewish community, I think, has just woken up a bit and recognized that we don't have the friends we thought we did. We're mobilizing, we're vocal, and we're angry.

The ground is changing under Jewish organizations' feet. Groups like the AJC -- which stayed quiet on Bannon and whose post-election statement excused Trump's plethora of racist remarks as mere campaign "crowd pleasers" that could not fairly form the basis of "judgment" -- will find that this sort of coddling of the right will no longer be tolerated by the community for which it speaks. The Jewish community voted for Hillary Clinton by a 3:1 margin. It is not going to have indefinite patience for its communal representatives kowtowing to a tiny minority which will excuse any amount of illiberal hatred so long as its progenitors line up behind Bibi.

And as for groups like ZOA, who openly backed Bannon and invited him to its gala (in the height of irony, he no-showed)? They need to be reminded that they are a fringe minority, Jews who advocate for policies and persons most Jews find deeply abhorrent and threatening. They are the mirror image of the anti-Zionists groups they claim to abhor (they even agree on the one-state solution). As such, they should be given no more attention and no more credence than any other marginal Jewish clique.

The days when Jews were afraid to tackle right-wing anti-Semitism are over. And they days where we showed infinite patience with Jewish collaborators are likewise numbered. If you're on the left, you don't get to play the moral purity game and try to undermine mainstream Jewish institutions because they're "Zionist". And if you're in the right, you don't get the luxury of sniveling that Liberals Are Worse and crying about what Keith Ellison said 15 years ago. We're way past that, and it's time to accept a new reality of Jewish life in a world many of us thought had passed us by. The gloves are off. It's time to fight.