Sunday, August 13, 2017

On Asking Jews To Be More Anti-Nazi

The second job I wanted to be when I grew up was a cartoonist (the first was omelet chef at a Marriott. Little kids have weird goals). I loved Calvin & Hobbes, and later Dilbert, Doonesbury, Foxtrot, The Boondocks, and many others. My ambition, alas, quickly foundered against the reality that I have no artistic talent whatsoever. But occasionally I still draw cartoons in my head (where their artistry and technical virtues are unimpeachable).

My most recent imagined cartoon is set in Auschwitz, 1944, where a portal opens up and a time-traveler steps through. It is a literal "Social Justice Warrior" -- from the future, armed to the teeth, and ready and eager to "punch some Nazis". After completing his task, some Jewish inmates approach to thank him for rescu--

BAM!

He clocks them too. "Did I say 'Zio-Nazis excepted'?"

I was thinking about this after reading this tweet by Ferrari Sheppard, where he says "Can't be anti Nazi pro Israel."



I read that tweet, in turn, shortly after reading this thread by Sophie Ellman-Golan urging White Jews to "join" the fight against the neo-Nazi resurgence we saw in Charlottesville.


It is, she says, a fight Jewish institutions have been "shamefully late" in adopting as our own.

I reflect on this, and I'm torn. My thoughts are scattered; they fly all over the place.

Consider the ADL -- called out by name by Ellman-Golan. I recall excoriating them for selling out liberal Jews in their appalling silence on David Friedman's "kapo" comments. Then I think of the immense pressure the ADL has come under from the right, which accuses it of taking too hard a line on right-wing racism. I remember the shamefully equivocating tweet ADL chief Jonathan Greenblatt put out yesterday, drawing equivalence between Nazi and "antifa" violence. Then I remember the following tweet thread which was so much better. I also remember how a sizable chunk of the negative responses to Greenblatt's original equivocation somehow managed to work "Israel" into the message -- because that's what it's always about, isn't it? I consider how it seems many of the ADL's critics are eager, even happy, to infer the worst about it. They like the idea of "Jews who don't really oppose Nazis". They seem to revel in the idea that the Jews aren't anti-Nazi to their satisfaction.

The Jewish community -- institutionally and otherwise -- is a varied and diverse bunch. That variation and diversity applies as much to our presence in social justice organizing as anything else. The explanations for this diversity will be similarly varied.

After all, I, too, have written fusillades decrying the tepidity of many Jewish groups in calling out the ascendant tide of right-wing racism. So clearly I concur there's a problem here.

At the same time, I also think that there's something truly grating at the idea that Jews have to prove themselves "anti-Nazi." Mia Steinberg wrote something very telling about how this debate plays out for Jews: "Instead of 'would I have stood up to Nazis in WW2', the thought experiment for me has always been 'would I have survived?'" The Holocaust was not an arena for Jews to prove our moral valor, and when our reaction to Nazism doesn't adopt appropriately heroic tones that is not proof of Jewish "complicity" in anything. The celerity with which people seem eager to tell Jews we're the new Nazis, or we don't care about Nazis, or we're not responding to Nazis in a way that gives non-Jews sufficient confidence that we're really anti-Nazi, is degrading and infuriating.

Yet again -- I can't fully go down that road either. Surely, the groups like ZOA who have explicitly lined up behind the Trump/Bannon alt-right wing have no moral legs to stand upon. And even as I bow to no one in downplaying the seriousness of the growing clouds of antisemitism, Ellman-Golan is simply right -- I refuse to tolerate people denying this -- that in its current manifestation in the United States Black people are more violently targeted by the forces of White supremacy than are Jews. That doesn't mean Jews aren't targeted, and aren't targeted in ways that are worthy of genuine fear and concern. But it is not wrong for there to be a focus on racist violence, so long as that focus doesn't come via denying the reality of antisemitic violence.

But  (once more around, and here's where I really want to land) can we honestly say -- unblinking, looked-in-the-eye, full-stop -- that when Jews don't throw themselves into these movements that the primary explanation ought to be "because Jews don't care about Nazism"? Can we be so confident that the movements in question "will fight for us"? The fact of the matter is, too often Jews -- from Chicago Dyke March to Creating Change to Slutwalk -- do try to participate in these movements, and are cast out, or turned aside, or subjected to humiliating ideological litmus tests where we're guilty until proven anti-Zionist. That's part of the reason -- not the sole reason, but part of the story -- why I shy away from protest movements. I don't know that they "will fight for us". That is not something that simply can be wedged into our presuppositions as a demanded default. Much the opposite:
As a Jew, I can't completely cheer at these expressions of left-wing activism because I know there is a real and non-negligible risk that in that crowd someone wants to say the whole thing they're fighting against is a Zionist plot, and there is a real and non-negligible risk that if that person gets a hold of the mic and says so the crowd will erupt in cheers. 
It grates when this is denied, when people act as if the only reason Jews "don't show up" for social justice (to the extent that we don't) is because we're too indifferent or too fragile or too embedded in our own privilege to really care. Such a view doesn't take seriously real practices of exclusion; it assumes them away because it takes "they will fight for us" as an axiom rather than a (often quite dubious) proposition that must be demonstrated. It's the "why do all the black people sit together in the cafeteria" question of Jewish social activism. If Jews are "late" to the social activist party -- and I don't necessarily concede that we are -- perhaps part of the reason is that social convention requires a truly grotesque amount of preparation, costuming, covering, hedging, eliding, and self-effacing before the Jew is admitted through the doors. It's exhausting. And it's hard to blame people for not wanting to show up, when those requirements are allowed to persist unexamined.

Finally, when talking of these exclusions we should be clear that this is not even primarily, let alone solely, a POC thing. Indeed, Black people in America have consistently demonstrated their intolerance of antisemitism and their willingness to stand with Jews against antisemitism even in their own community. That history has to be part of the story too. The story of Black-Jewish relations simply isn't -- much as conservative hagiographers might wish it so -- one of self-sacrificing Jews altruistically defending civil rights only to be sold down the river by ungrateful African-Americans who dived headfirst into antisemitic conspiracy-mongering.

What it boils down to is this:
  • Jews are genuinely threatened by the rise of the alt-right. This is a movement that affects us in a real, tangible way -- not as allies, not as "fragile" White people, but as a vulnerable group that is genuinely imperiled by these social forces. Acting as if Jews don't have skin in this game is a form of antisemitism denial.
  • Currently, the tangible manifestations of extreme-right identity politics have a greater impact on the material conditions of black and brown lives than they do that of White Jews. That assessment in no way falsifies the first bullet point.
  • All non-Jews, to varying degrees, benefit from the social privileges and prerogatives that exist under conditions of antisemitic domination. This assessment in now way falsifies the second bullet point, it merely establishes a kyriarchical relationship where (in the contemporary American context) racial domination has greater punch than also-extant antisemitic domination does.
  • The relationship between (proximately-European) Jews and Whiteness is a complex one. Such Jews clearly do not enjoy an unadulterated White privilege (as the seething hatred of White supremacists makes clear). But it is also clear that we enjoy a great many of these privileges and prerogatives on a day-to-day basis. While possession of these privileges does not falsify the existence of antisemitism, neither does experiencing antisemitism falsify the existence of these privileges.
  • Some Jewish groups have been derelict in their duties to combat this right-wing menace. It is our obligation as Jews to insist that our communal representatives fight against far-right extremist movements both because they threaten us as Jews and because they threat others -- Black people, brown people, queer people, and more -- who may or may not be Jewish.
  • To the extent that some Whites Jews haven't partaken in anti-right resistance movements in the stock ways typically demanded of White allies, the explanations that apply to White people generally who don't "show up" are not always inapposite. But they are frequently incomplete, and a serious conversation needs to be had about the politics of antisemitic exclusion that afflicts Jews who very much do wish to be involved in left-wing activist spaces or otherwise participate in contemporary progressive politics. This conversation cannot take "they will fight for us" as an axiomatic entitlement.
Do these not fully fit together? Then they don't fully fit together. As I said, I'm torn. I don't claim to fully fit together on this.

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