Monday, August 21, 2017

On Being in the Room

MaNishtana, a prominent African-American Jewish writer, has a bracing but well-worth-it post on the (generally White) Jewish reaction to a racial justice march being scheduled for Yom Kippur. In some ways, I consider it to be part of the same conversation I was having in my "On Asking Jews To Be More Anti-Nazi" post, although the march here -- being focused on police violence -- is more specified than that.

MaNishtana makes several points, but the core observation is simple: Decisions are made by the people in the room. If even one reasonably-observant Jew or Jewish organization had been involved in the march's organization, they could have pointed out the conflict in advance -- prior to the public announcement of its date. What does it say about us that none of us were in that room? How does that comport with our supposedly fervent desire to be included?

This also relates to the Jewish complaints about Black Lives Matter (really, the Movement for Black Lives platform -- the fact that many of the critics don't know the difference again belies at least some of the sound and the fury). If it seems like they take a hostile stance towards matters important to Jews, can't that be explained at least in part based on who is showing up? This was Jonathan Zasloff's point and one I concurred with in my own assessment of the MBL platform language -- it was, in part, a case of being out-hustled. When Jews aren't present, people who don't really know or care about Jews (or worse, those actively hostile to Jews) get to set the agenda. That those groups beat us to the punch in terms of getting a critical mass of influence inside these emergent grassroots organizations is not something to be proud of.

I also think MaNishtana makes a critical point about the overreliance of White Jews on the legacies of 60s, and particularly Andrew Goodman and Mickey Schwerner. As he observes, this is starting to border on "Party of Lincoln" territory: "If your most significant proof of social engagement and moral uprightness is an event from *three* generations ago, then that is a problem, and you need to figure out why." I agree that it is time to retire the 1960s as proof of Jewish "showing up" for racial justice. It's time for us to make our own history.

So all of that is an endorsement of a necessary critique. Yet, in keeping with my other post, I still think it's important to provide the counterweight. In any conversation about who isn't "in the room", there are explanations that suggest the absent group doesn't really wish to be there, and there are explanations that focus on ways they might be deterred from showing up. In feminist history, there were many instances of predominantly white women's groups "unintentionally" marginalizing women of color, in ways that almost certainly never would have happened if women of color were "in the room" in any significant numbers. And some of the white women would then wonder why they weren't in the room -- didn't they know they were welcome? Didn't they know they were desired? This was taken as axiomatic; it wasn't even considered that there might be reasons why they weren't in the room and that they might not actually feel welcomed or desired.

It is true that many mainstream Jewish organizations simply were flat-footed in getting involved in movements like Black Lives Matter, and their absence is what let groups and persons with a more hostile tone towards Jewish concerns take the lead. Some of that is an issue of medium: Compared to the 1960s, Jewish political organizing has shifted significantly in an institutional direction -- large organizations which seek to connect with and influence other large institutional players through means like lobbying, amicus briefs, political donations, and so on (think AIPAC, ADL, AJC, and so on). These groups actually have solid connections with the institutional elements of the Black community (e.g., the NAACP, or the Congressional Black Caucus) -- one of the reasons why I think the supposed Black/Jewish crack-up is widely exaggerated -- but they are not well-geared towards handling incipient grassroots activism that for the most part did not proceed through these channels. Beyond whatever ideological differences they might have from more institutional Jewish groups, one reason groups like IfNotNow are gaining momentum is that they have the agility to be part of this style of grassroots, street-level activism, in  a way that the hulking behemoths of the Jewish community simply cannot match.

All that said, there absolutely were Jews who really did "show up early" for these causes -- and, importantly, there were non-trivial efforts to push out them out of the room. The case of St. Louis Rabbi Susan Talve is a clear instance of that. The Jews kicked out of the Chicago Dyke March were showing and had been for years. Ditto those at Creating Change -- by definition, they were showing up. Or consider the headline Stacey Aviva Flint got hit with in the Atlanta Black Star when she expressed her ambivalence towards the MBL platform due to its Israel language: "Black Jews Stood with ‘BLM’ Until It Questioned U.S.’ Unrelenting Support to Israel." It's not a universal by any means; indeed, as I noted in my last post there is a strong and significant tradition of African-Americans in particular rejecting efforts to leverage their political organizing as a fulcrum to marginalize or exclude Jews. Certainly, the narrative that African-Americans are especially bad on this issue is simply unsustainable. But in left spaces such exclusion happens often enough such that many Jews will be hesitant to jump into the unknown -- a hesitation that cannot be reduced down to simple white fragility.

All of this flows naturally from the same suppositions as above: decisions are made by the people in the room. The same logic that says Jews should be in the room if they want the decisions to reflect Jewish concerns also tells us that people who want to subordinate Jewish concerns should try to push Jews out of the room. And the logic of racial capitalism, in turn, explains why dissident Jewish factions (in these contexts, generally anti-Zionist Jews -- though in other spaces right-wing Jews occupy a similar role) are often the prime movers perpetuating this exclusion: excluding other Jews enhances the power of the remaining Jews in circumstances where it is symbolically important to have a Jewish presence (as "diversity", or as a bulwark against charges of antisemitism). Put another way: JVP tried to push out Rabbi Talve because a BLM campaign where people like Rabbi Talve are present and active is one where JVP has less influence on BLM than a BLM campaign where people like Rabbi Ralve are excluded. It is a rational political strategy.

So we shouldn't be surprised that there will be barriers to mainstream Jewish participation in these movements -- plenty of people have an incentive to throw those barriers up. This doesn't mean that such barriers are the whole story anymore than it means Jewish apathy to racial justice is the whole story. As I said, I'm presenting a counterweight, not a counterargument.

There's one further thought that sprang to mind on this. There is a tension between the logic of the "if you want to influence the decisions you have to be in the room" argument" and the normative request that Jews or other Whites ought not "police" POC-led initiatives. MaNishtana's critique posits that Jews should have had enough presence and power within the organization setting up a march for racial justice such that they could ensure that the date didn't fall on Yom Kippur. Fair enough. But surely we all know that there are other critiques of (particularly, but not exclusively White) Jewish standing in such spaces that focus precisely on our alleged propensity to take over the spaces -- to arrogate decision-making power to themselves in a way that impeded Black self-determination of their own struggle. This controversy was what lay behind the decision by SNCC to forbid Whites from holding leadership positions in the organizations (which led to the expulsion of several Jewish leaders). Years later, in the early 1980s, it led to a boycott of the class Jack Greenberg was co-teaching with Julius Chambers on race and the law at Harvard Law School. Greenberg had helped argue Brown v. Board, succeeded Thurgood Marshall as chief lawyer for the NAACP, and was founding member of MALDEF. He was certainly someone who had absolutely been "in the room"; whatever else the controversy might have been about it, it couldn't be about that. That said, Black students were not wrong to be concerned that Harvard's record of hiring Black professors was appalling, and that there was something especially grating about the implied suggestion that even in the field of race the only option was for the class to be (co-)taught by a White guy.

I don't want to simplify these stories -- I think they are complex, and I think often they were more a case of Jews being caught in the cross-fire of a valid impulse towards self-determination than any conscious desire for antisemitic exclusion. At the same time, I think Jews are particularly vulnerable to this sort of "critique" due to antisemitic tropes wherein the Jews is portrayed as all-powerful, all-controlling, conspiratorial, pulling the strings, taking over the movement, and so on. The result is a catch-22 where, too often, there is virtually no gap between "why aren't Jews showing up" and "why are Jews dominating the space?"

Any non-trivial Jewish presence and participation -- particularly when it takes a critical form -- will quickly be recoded in this way. Rosa Maria Pegueros recounts her experience on a email list for contributors to This Bridge We Call Home where two -- two -- messages mentioning Jewishness were enough to elicit complaints that the listserv was turning into (in Pegueros' words) "a forum for Jews." I can relate (the complaint discussed in that post about "excessive" focus on Jewish issues was triggered by my own stint guest-blogging at Alas, a Blog. Barry Deutsch, the owner of the site, observed that even with my contributions the number of posts tagged "racism" outnumbered those tagged "antisemitism" by more than an 8:1 margin). Reacting to the Creating Change fiasco, one Jewish commenter lamented the exclusionary impulse which tried to kick out Jewish and Israeli LGBTQ organizations, but was more concerned that the Jewish community was publicly and effectively organizing to resist it, sympathetically describing the sentiment of conference attendees "that external Jewish power was dictating conference policies." (What they were "dictating" was that an LGBTQ conference shouldn't arbitrarily and at the last minute exclude either Israeli LGBTQ organizations or the North American Jewish LGBTQ groups who partner with them).

Like with the last post then, my ending line is meant to be ambivalent. There absolutely is a propensity within the Jewish community to rest on the glory days of the 1960s as an excuse for why we need not do the hard work of jumping back into the racial justice fray today. That needs to stop, and while different people participate in the cause in different ways, simply venerating dead Jews who marched with King is not actually a form of participation. Yet a full look at why -- to the extent it is so -- Jews are hesitant to fully link up with contemporary social justice organizing has to critically engage with the full structure of antisemitic exclusion, an inquiry which necessitates a deep dive into how antisemitism and Jewish marginalization manifest historically and contemporaneously. It can, after all, be simultaneously true that some Jews don't want to participate in contemporary racial justice causes in any way beyond the perfunctory, and that others really are trying to "show up" but face genuine barriers, both prejudicial and structural. And on the situation of White Jews particularly, I firmly believe that an intersectional analysis that seriously looks into what Whiteness and Jewishness do to one another is the only way to get a clear handle on the actual circumstances being faced here.

1 comment:

8e1c37d4-d286-11e4-b580-4b7432e703be said...

If MaNishtana is correct that [white] Jews have mostly been absent from racial justice conversations someone should inform white supremacists who appears to believe that all left-wing movements are spearheaded and driven by liberal Jews. That's why they were chanting "Jews will not replace us." Sickeningly I have to take the supremacists side on this over MaNishtana. Left-wing radical groups (including BLM but all over the spectrum) have disproportionate participation from Jews, including white Jews. Almost certainly there were white Jews in the room when the date was chosen for Yom Kippur. I wouldn't surprised however to learn that these Jews were not aware of the scheduling conflict when the date was chosen, or if they were, if they simply didn't care. Something white supremacists don't really understand is that religion isn't very important to Jews that far on the fringes of the left.