Wednesday, March 22, 2017

Fortune Favors the (Not So) Bold

This week, we talked about intersectionality in my class (on "Just Political Participation"). I am a fan of intersectionality, which of course puts me squarely in the mainstream of the contemporary campus zeitgeist. Nonetheless, I suggested that intersectionality, far from being a good mechanism for securing collaboration and solidarity across diverse marginalized groups, actually has a deeply problematic relationship with "coalitional" organizing. I suggested that the understanding of intersectionality as the idea that "all oppressions are linked as one", such that they are best tackled by a universal front of "the oppressed" working in tandem elides important points of differentiation and tension among marginalized groups -- both "horizontally" (are the interests of gay Latinos necessarily harmonious with Black women?) and "vertically" (will addressing the marginalization of Black women necessarily redound to the benefit of Black men?). As my examples, I discussed:

  1. Sexual violence on campus, and how it interacts with race. Programs and policies which make it easier for administrators to sanction persons accused of sexual misconduct may well be necessary for securing the equal educational status of women (including women of color) on campus. But given the central space "sexual misconduct" occupies as a tool of terrorizing black men, it is also likely that such reformations will exacerbate racist judgments against that community -- particularly when dealing with subpopulations (like black male athletes) who are already racialized as hypersexual and predatory).
  2. The Israeli/Palestinian conflict, and the particular salience of the Mizrahi Jewish community which does not fit neatly into standard accounts of either the "Jewish" (coded as Ashkenazi-European) or "Middle Eastern" (coded as Arab-Muslim) narratives. Mizrahi Jews are suspicious of the left (identified as European and associated with significant oppression and marginalization from Israel's establishment to the present), suspicious of Ashkenazi Jewry (identified as self-satisfied and monopolizing valid Jewish identity, dismissing the legitimacy of Mizrahi ways of being), and suspicious of the Arab world (associated with their marginalization and dispossession under anti-Zionist banners). Understanding that is critical to understanding the posture of Israel contemporaneously -- but it does not suggest and indeed undermines too-easy efforts at "solidarity" where Mizrahi Jews are assumed to be easily subsumable into dominant Ashkenazi (Israel is the place where all Jews are respected as Jews) or Middle Eastern (Israel is the colonial interloper that blocks the self-determination rights of Middle Easterners) narratives.
Based on what the popular press tells us about University of California-Berkeley students, I should be dead by now.

We know -- don't we? -- that it is impossible to disturb college shibboleths about the glories of intersectionality and the universal front of oppression we all share against the evil White man. And we know -- don't we? -- that one cannot suggest any potentially unfair or deleterious outcomes associated with reforming college practices vis-a-vis sexual violence. And we all know -- it goes without saying -- that even the slightest hint that Israel might not solely stand as a European colonial imposition that is the height of global imperial evil is enough to get you run out of this college town on rails. Right?

Well, as usual wrong. I've said it before and I'll say it again: The Berkeley kids are alright. Deal with these issues with charity, thoughtfulness, nuance, and respect, and they'll respond in kind. Berkeley students, in my experience, continue to prove themselves to be exactly what you'd hope for from the student body of the greatest public university in the world. They are thoughtful, engaged, curious, and very eager to deal with the complexities and difficulties posed by the subjects put in front of them -- with no "safe harbor" for the supposed campus orthodoxies that shall-not-be-questioned. That was my experience this week, where I presented some very "hot" issues in ways that certainly did not perfectly map onto how they're commonly portrayed on campus ... and the result was nothing more than a good, solid, thought-provoking discussion. As class should be.

Monday, March 20, 2017

Metastasizing "Partnership Guidelines" Knock Jewish LGBTQ Group Out of Ohio State Hillel

Last year, a talk by Black trans activist Janet Mock at Brown University was canceled after various leftist groups protested the involvement of Hillel, the Jewish student group. Mock is not Israeli, and her talk was not going to be on the subject of Israel. Nonetheless, the mere presence of Hillel as the host -- along with many, many other sponsoring organizations -- was enough to elicit a protest and the eventual cancellation.

It was an outrageous incident that spoke to the dangers of "anti-normalization" currents on some college campuses. Or, if you're Hillel International, a model for it to try emulating itself over at Ohio State.

At OSU -- which just defeated a BDS resolution -- the local Hillel chapter just cut ties with the Jewish LGBTQ group B’nai Keshet after the latter cosponsored a fundraiser for queer refugees alongside (among other groups) Jewish Voice for Peace. JVP, of course, supports BDS and Hillel International decided that its standards of partnership mandated expulsion -- even though the event had nothing to do with Israel and JVP was just one of 15 cosponsoring organizations.

I'm not intrinsically opposed to Hillel having partnership guidelines which say "We will not host or sponsor BDS events" (I give a fuller account of this issue and the arguments of "Open Hillel" in this post). But that is radically different than contending "Jewish groups under our umbrella cannot collaborate with anyone who supports BDS, even on topics that have nothing to do with BDS or Israel." That is an example of the partnership guidelines metastasizing to the point of absurdity; it is the mirror image of the anti-normalization campaign against campus Hillel chapters wherein they're excluded from partnership even on topics which have nothing to do with Israel (let alone on those which do have something to do with Israel). And, as B'nai Keshet observed, this outrageously expansive application of the guidelines functionally cuts them off from the majority of LGBT communal programming (since -- unfortunately -- many of the LGBT groups at OSU have endorsed BDS in one form or another).

Much like Israel's appalling new law barring entry to BDS advocates -- a law which may make it impossible for the Association of Israel Studies, of all groups, to continue hosting conferences in Israel -- we are seeing more and more cases of "anti-BDS" turning into "self-BDS"; a tool of exclusion wielded against Jewish individuals and organizations rather than a shield of protection. Indeed, the OSU Hillel decision is even worse than the Israeli law, which has the decency to encompass only actual BDS advocates (however expansively defined). OSU Hillel, by contrast, will kick out Jews if they're even in the same room as BDSers -- no matter what the conversation is, no matter what the context is.

This isn't sustainable. If it is to retain credibility, Hillel International must rein in its wild overextensions of the partnership standards. Because right now, it isn't so much opposing BDS as it is imposing it from the other side -- and it's groups like B'nai Keshet caught in the middle.

#JewishPrivilege Comes to Chicago

The concept of "Jewish Privilege" is one of those concepts that flits between the far-right and far-left (Rania Khalek tried to promote it amongst leftists, but David Duke (link alert) beat her to the punch). It has a deep antisemitic pedigree, which makes it alarming to see it starting to creep into the discourse of liberal Jews who should know better (Peter Beinart and Mira Sucharov). Whatever we might think about the ways Jews are advantaged by certain Israeli policies, the term "Jewish Privilege" is inextricably bound up in a history of trying to get Jews killed. It should not be used.

As if to illustrate the point, several flyers at the University of Illinois-Chicago make quite explicit the attempt to leverage the concept of "Jewish Privilege" as a means of fomenting a left-right alliance against the Jews. The theme of the flyers is that battling "white privilege" is really about battling "Jewish privilege", where Jews are cast as the real beneficiaries of illicit social gains. The flyers contend that (a) Jews are the predominant members of the "1%", (b) Jews are vastly and illegitimately overrepresented at elite universities, (c) Jewish donors are responsible for the "unhiring" of Steven Salaita at the University of Illinois, (d) one is allowed to "question" everything but the Holocaust, and (e) Auschwitz and Gaza are identical. They conclude by asserting that raising these points is not "antisemitic" or "insulting" or "defamatory", but "social justice" or a "human right" -- and conclude by adopting several putatively leftist hashtags (e.g., #BlackLivesMatter or #WeAreAllMuslim).

My instinct is that these are far-right efforts to attract support from leftist groups to antisemitic causes (though honestly, these are the sorts of endeavors to which the Universal Extreme Left-Right Convergence Theory applies). I have seen condemnations (and disavowals of responsibility) of these flyers from various left-wing groups that are implicated by the hashtags (here's BLM Chicago, and I saw a separate statement by various leftist UIC campus groups that was circulated by email but not posted online).

But again, the ease in which this sort of rhetoric is appropriated to obviously antisemitic ends should rightfully give pause. The arguments made in these flyers are not, unfortunately, that far off from ones that one does see percolating in leftist spaces -- from demands that we interrogate excessive Jewish power to vicious comparisons identifying Israel with Nazis. Efforts to craft collaborative left-right antisemitism don't come from nowhere. They come because the antisemites know fertile ground when they see it. That doesn't make the condemnations less welcome. But it does suggest that there is work that needs to be done beyond the issuance of a press release.