Tuesday, June 20, 2017

Epistemic Antisemitism

On Twitter, I flagged this great article on antisemitism in left spaces by Spencer Sunshine and promised to write more about it. Then I got distracted. But it really does deserve at least a little additional comment, because there was a particular passage I wanted to highlight:
It’s almost always deeply frustrating to convince Leftists to sever these ties [to antisemitic actors] — but often it’s achievable. Leftists know these people taint their movement, even though they are often hesitant to be drawn into what seem like endless controversies about anti-Semitism. There is almost always disbelief when you broach the topic, and a tendency to dismiss any documentation that comes from the normal watchdog organizations. And it can also make you the center of unwanted attention; Barrett is running a smear campaign against me in retaliation for exposing him. But Leftists usually change their mind once they understand that these unsavory alliances generate critical media attention. 
Leftist Jews often come to me privately and complain about anti-Semitism they’ve experienced, but feel cowed into being silent about it. But the more people speak out against this from within the Left, the less likely the antisemitic conspiracy theorists are to find a welcoming platform.
The emphasized portion (emphasis my own) is what I wanted to highlight. It goes to what I want to call "epistemic antisemitism". Epistemic antisemitism is the process and practices which discredit Jews as knowers, particularly as knowers of their own experience (e.g., their experiences as victims of antisemitism). The default "disbelief" that comes when Jews say "that's antisemitic" -- and Sunshine soft-pedals here, since it is not usually just "disbelief" but a far more aggressive assumption that the antisemitism claim is (as usual) being made it bad faith -- is a particularly dangerous case. Prejudice yields the injustice, and then insulates said prejudice from critical review. In this way, antisemitism claims can be routinely dismissed across the board.

To be clear: "epistemic antisemitism" is not solely or, I'd suggest, even primarily a "left" phenomenon. The right is no more willing to credit antisemitism charges when it implicates them and theirs. To the extent "left" antisemitsm gets more attention, it is because most Jews are part of the (broadly defined) left and so exclusion there hits closer to home. It's also because of a sense that the left has the methodological tools that render it theoretically capable of addressing this wrong in a way the right does not (the right doesn't even purport to believe in things like "be appropriately deferential to marginalized groups when they articulate their own experiences).

In any event, if we are to root out antisemitism in our movements, I firmly believe that tackling epistemic antisemitism has to a top priority -- it stands as the guardian shielding all the other forms from challenge. And so it needs to be made crystal-clear that one cannot hold oneself out as an ally of the Jews if one is not willing to listen attentively, respectfully, and open-mindedly when they proffer critiques -- even when those critiques sting, even when they challenge deeply-felt commitments.

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