Monday, December 31, 2018

On Alice Walker versus LeBron James

Alice Walker, the renowned African-American author of The Color Purple, has come in for sharp criticism once it became widely known that she was an inveterate antisemite. Her sins on this respect were blatant, and despite her celebrated stature in the Black community few defended her (even as she tried to pull a Full Livingstone and assert that her ravings about the Talmud teaching Jews that they can rape babies is actually "criticism of Israel"). 

Indeed, by and large I've been pleased by the caliber of commentary on Walker -- from Roxane Gay's early contribution that she's taken to at least noting Walker's antisemitism any time she talks about her, to Nylah Burton's longer meditation in NY Mag on how Walker's antisemitism intersects with her own personal history. The consensus view seems to be that while much of Walker's work is important and remains important, she is pretty clearly an unrepentant antisemite and that needs to be acknowledged. It is, sadly, part of her legacy, and not one that anyone should defend.

Meanwhile, LeBron James quoted some rap lyrics that referred to "getting that Jewish money." Upon being informed that this was considered by Jews to be an antisemitic trope, he immediately apologized, and for the most part Jews moved on.
"Apologies, for sure, if I offended anyone. That's not why I chose to share that lyric. I always [post lyrics]. That's what I do. I ride in my car, I listen to great music, and that was the byproduct of it. So, I actually thought it was a compliment, and obviously it wasn't through the lens of a lot of people. My apologies. It definitely was not the intent, obviously, to hurt anybody."
This, too, struck me as how it should be. I'm not saying that this apology would have earned a perfect 10 in my Rate That Apology series, but given the scale of the wrong, it was fine. James made a mistake, he apologized for the mistake, and we accepted the apology (hell, even the rapper who wrote the lyrics apologized too!). His wrong was nowhere near as bad as Walker's (nor does he have Walker's history as a repeat offender on this score), and he didn't defensively double down when people raised concerns. So on my end: no muss, no fuss.

Here, though, there were some writers who seemed very angry that Jews weren't dragging James harder. Dov Hikind -- a (hardly) Democratic New York Assemblyman -- was irate that liberal Jews weren't "slamming" James over the event (given that Hikind has worn blackface to a party and has past links to a extremist Jewish terrorist organization, to say he lives in a glass house here is an insult to the durability of glass). 

James quickly apologized, saying he didn't understand the historical context of the slur, or even that it was offensive.
The NBA and James' Los Angeles Lakers accepted that lame excuse, and now want to move on. No mandatory sensitivity training for James, no scrutiny of pro basketball for evidence of a broader problem. Starbucks should cry foul.
If Starbucks only sin was repeating and then immediately apologizing for repeating offensive musical lyrics, maybe they'd have reason to cry foul. But I digress.

Finley links James to a supposed explosion of antisemitism in the American Black community, starting with Alice Walker. But I think it's actually quite notable how differently the two have been treated -- a difference that reflects extremely well on the Black community and American liberals.

Walker's antisemitism was extreme, conscious, and repeated. James' was inadvertent, mundane, and idiosyncratic. James apologized immediately. Walker has shown no remorse. And so while James has basically been forgiven, Walker has been justifiably excoriated. That's how it should be. And it's all the more striking given that -- with all due respect to King James -- Alice Walker is a far more impactful figure on the Black civil rights movement. At least among the intellectual/political class, it's a far bigger deal to call out Alice Walker than LeBron James. And yet -- proportionately was preserved. The serious offender got serious censure. The more minor misstep was dealt with more gently.

It's things like these that give me this strange feeling of hope. Yes, Alice Walker's statements about Jews are monstrously antisemitic. But despite her celebrated status she really isn't being defended, and her attempt to deflect by citing her Good Progressive bona fides and righteous loathing of Israel didn't bear significant fruit. Yes, it's a troublesome that many people don't know why Jews squirm when folks talk about us holding all the money. But it's good when their first response, upon seeing us squirm, is to apologize -- not to lecture us about how we're just too sensitive and should understand it's a compliment and don't we know we really are all rich-os anyway? And yes, there are terrible columns being written by defenders of the Women's March suggesting that putative Jewish concern about antisemitism is actually a Putin con job. But the authors of those columns are -- remarkably enough -- apparently responsive to Jewish anger at the commentary. These conversations are happening, and they -- slowly, fitfully -- are bearing fruit.

Meanwhile, I don't know who Nolan Finley is (and I do know that Dov Hikind is basically a troll). But people of their ilk seem -- for my taste -- far too excited at the prospect of Black antisemitism. They just love the opportunity to drag on Black people and to feel righteous while doing so. It can't even all be traced back to cynical opportunism against political opponents: LeBron James isn't a particularly political figure, and yet nonetheless there is a clear thrill in getting to call him out, and an equally clear frustration that other Jews are not by and large joining in.

This feeling of thrill, this excessive focus on antisemitism when it emanates from Blacks, is a form of racism -- one that is identical in form to the feeling of thrill over and excessive focus on Jewish or Israeli misdeeds serving as a form of antisemitism. We should recognize it for what it is, because we have quite intimate knowledge of it. And that shouldn't be viewed as an apologia for anyone's antisemitism. But it is a problem when people try to treat LeBron James as a persona non grata in a world where Jim Hagedorn is elected to Congress, when Hagedorn's wrongs are both objectively more severe and completely unapologized for.

We all know why this occurs. As I've written before: people of color can be antisemitic, but they're also more vulnerable to disproportionate, overwrought, hyperbolic or excessively unforgiving attacks on the subject of antisemitism because of racism. The same, in reverse, is true of Jews. It doesn't mean anyone gets a pass, but it is something those of us who write on these subjects have to be mindful of.

I think that the comparative treatment of Alice Walker versus LeBron James -- that (most) people have recognized just how ugly Walker's words were, and (most) people have recognized that James' sin was comparatively minor and not worth a huge stink over -- is a good example of how to do this right. And if we can keep that trend up -- that would make for a nice 2019, wouldn't it?

Saturday, December 29, 2018

Falling on the Reputational Grenade

There is an interesting story to be written about a certain type of Trump administration official, with the following characteristics: They recognize the Trump administration is a moral catastrophe. They recognize that their participation in it will wholly ruin their reputation -- if history remembers them, it will be as a collaborator with evil. And yet they work in the administration anyway because, they believe, that if they don't do it, somebody worse will.

I suspect people like this exist -- Mattis could be one, though I don't have any interest in debating particular names and I certainly don't want to suggest that this is a common attribute of Trump administration officials.

But it's a fascinating possibility, isn't it? We talk a lot about people who sacrifice their safety or even their lives out of a sense of duty. But the idea of someone knowingly sacrificing their reputation -- wholly cognizant that they will be viewed as (at best) a schmuck and that it will be in a large sense well-deserved, but acting anyway because (they think) they're averting some greater evil -- that thought intrigues me.

Friday, December 28, 2018

(How) Do White Jews Uphold White Supremacy? (Part II)

In my post this morning, I explained how -- given the understanding of "White supremacy" and "upholding" that Tamika Mallory was using -- it is perfectly coherent to state, as Mallory did, that White Jews may "uphold White supremacy" even while we are (as Mallory also acknowledged) targeted by White supremacy. I argued that -- putting aside Mallory's own checkered history on the subject -- much of the present controversy was terminological in nature and that while such a semantic debate isn't unimportant, it is a far cry from the sort of overheated rhetoric whereby Mallory was accusing Jews of being tantamount to Klansmen.

In America, pale-skinned Jews of proximate European descent receive many (not all) of the day-to-day advantages of Whiteness. Insofar as White supremacy is understood more as a social condition than a social movement -- the state of affairs whereby White persons are systematically advantaged, not the cluster of individuals and organizations consciously and overtly ideologically committed to promoting the explicit ideal that Whites are superior -- it is fair to say (and almost unquestionably true) that White Jews who look like me are net beneficiaries of that system, and may well act in ways that (implicitly or explicitly) reenact or perpetuate that advantageous state of affairs.

This doesn't mean we don't also face antisemitism (any more than White women don't also face misogyny), and it is also wholly compatible with hating and being hated by groups like the Klan. And if you think the above paragraphs are reasonable, but blanch at labeling them "White supremacy", then the debate you're having is -- again -- primarily one of semantics, not substance.

That said, if the purpose of the first post was to work through how it is fair to think of White Jews "as Whites" (and thereby implicated in White supremacy), at the end of that post I suggested that there was a more layered and complicated discussion to be had about the relationship between Jews and Whiteness, one that can help explain why so many Jews react so fiercely against the label "White" and which puts important limits on the utility of "White Jews" as a concept.

This is a conversation that is short-circuited when people act as if White Jews are not White in any capacity -- a position which, as applied to American Jews with my skin tone, seems wholly at odds with reality. But it is also a conversation that can only occur if it is acknowledged that Whiteness is "of a different color" as applied to Jews -- that the characteristics of Whiteness, including what Jews can "do" with Whiteness, are different than how we might understand Whiteness simpliciter.

Start with the question of why many Jews who by all appearances look White seem to so fiercely reject the association. One explanation for this behavior is that it is a rather uninteresting permutation on the practice of many White people to deny the privileges they receive through Whiteness. The retreat to ethnic identity ("I'm not White, I'm Irish") or deracinated individualism ("I'm just a person") are ways to occlude the reality of how Whiteness continues to operate in America. And so, it might be thought, when Jews say "we're not White, we're Jewish", they're simply pulling their own version of that maneuver. Those who are familiar with Whiteness, are familiar with this move, and have long since learned not to take it very seriously.

Now sometimes, something like this account might suffice as the explanation for Jews who resist being labeled White -- particularly in cases where there is the most uncompromising insistence that White Jews are completely unassociated with Whiteness in America, that we gain nothing from America's racial bargain. But often, there's more to it than that. As someone who once rode the "I'm not White, I'm Jewish" train (and who tries to remember the I before I changed my mind), I know there's more at work here.

One problem with Jews-as-White, which has been raised quite a bit in response to Mallory or anyone else who tries to associate Jews with Whiteness in America, is that Jews have often been oppressed precisely because we haven't been viewed as White. White supremacist violence is an obvious case, the Nazi Holocaust is its apex. Given this history, there is something hurtful and insulting to cavalierly declare that Jews are simply "White". Anyone should understand why statements to the effect of "the Holocaust was White-on-White crime" or "we only care about the Holocaust because the victims were White" provoke an apoplectic reaction in the Jewish community. It is a disgusting erasure, and one that is teed up when Jewish Whiteness is assumed as an uncomplicated truth.

It shouldn't surprise, then, that many Jews rebel against being labeled "White" as a means of carving out and preserving space for full recognition of the realities of this persecution. As much as I say a American Jew like me today is functionally White in my day-to-day interactions, that hasn't always been true, it isn't always guaranteed to be true, and it isn't even wholly true right now. To the extent that insisting on Jewish Whiteness denies or diminishes the reality of very real and very live instances of antisemitism, it needs complication.

Another problem with Jews-as-White, less discussed but I think potentially more important, is that Jews are sometimes perceived as excessively White. Particularly in the Nation of Islam brand of antisemitism that Mallory has been associated with, Jews are often cast as embodying or exemplifying Whiteness -- the "iciest of the ice people", in Henry Louis Gates, Jr.'s summation. Bootstrapping onto antisemitic tropes of Jewish hyperpower and control, Jews become a convenient and accessible stand-in for Whiteness at its worst -- its most domineering, its most overprivileged, and its most bloodthirsty (this is a problem I explore in detail in my "White Jews: An Intersectional Approach" article). Hence, calls to focus on Jewish Whiteness are sometimes heard as (and sometimes function as) calls to cast a very specific spotlight on Jews as the worst offenders of Whiteness (and look how they try to slither out of responsibility for it!), or as the focal point for an assault on Whiteness and White privilege. What is cast as a general critique of "White supremacy" ends up being a specific, concentrated attack on Jews as its supposedly paradigmatic constituency.

Hence, if one reason Jews try to downplay their Whiteness is that the concept of White Jews denies circumstances and scenarios where even pale-skinned Jews are not viewed as White, another reason is that concept of White Jews accentuates tropes and understandings whereby Jews are viewed as the most extreme, blinding iteration of White -- generally via exaggerated notions of Jewish hyperpower and privilege. These can and do very easily slip into their own forms of antisemitism, and so it shouldn't surprise that many Jews view the entire discourse quite warily.

These are some reasons why Jews have, I think, an earned skepticism towards Whiteness discourse directed at them, even as I continue to maintain that the concept of Whiteness is fairly and coherently applied to the life trajectory of Jews like me. But I suggested at the outset that I was making a more ambitious claim: not just that we need to be careful when speaking of Jewish Whiteness (lest we stumble into antisemitic tropes of Jewish hyperpower, or erase historical or contemporaneous cases where Jews really aren't being viewed as White), but that Whiteness is different in kind even for those Jews who are (in the American context) raced-as-White.

To drill down on this point, let's return to Mallory's original statement. One way of parsing her words -- and how I think many people think of the relationship between Jews and Whiteness -- is something like the following:
White Jews in America are White in all respects save the important fact that White supremacists want to murder them.
I don't mean for that to sound flip -- being the target of violent hatred by a domestic terrorist movement is no small thing! Rather, what characterizes this view is that the Whiteness of White Jews is identical to the Whiteness of any other White person in America save for a discrete and well-demarcated carve-out. Hence, whatever discourse is validly spoken of "Whites", generally, also applies to "White Jews", specifically (save, again, for the highly specific case of "being targeted for murder by White supremacists"). With very limited exceptions, there's nothing about how we talk about Whiteness that isn't applicable or needs alteration in the specifically White Jewish case.

But I think this view is wrong. Jews, even as White, are differently situated than other Whites, such that it doesn't always make sense to simply cross-apply a Whiteness frame even onto White Jews.

For example, one way it is often said that White people (particularly White women) "uphold White supremacy" is that the majority (or at least a plurality) voted for Donald Trump. To all the White women marching in their pink hats and calling themselves the "resistance", this fact has created a rather compelling demand that they "tend to [their] own garden." As a class, White women are not particularly progressive and not particularly reliable even in the really easy, straightforward case of "don't vote for a naked bigot and unqualified buffoon like Donald Trump."

Yet it should be very obvious why it's troublesome to extend this logic to Jews. Jews voted overwhelmingly against Trump in 2016 (and again against Republicans in 2018) -- 70% voting for Clinton overall (and, given typical gender breakdowns in voting behavior, Jewish women almost certainly went against Trump by even wider margins). With the exception of African-American voters, Jews are and have remained one of the most consistently progressive voting blocs in American politics -- voting Democratic at rates equal to or better than women, Latinos, and Asian-Americans.

I'm not saying that a Hillary Clinton voter can't be racist, of course. But if voting against Trump is one obligation (perhaps the bare minimum obligation) that any decent person must meet in order to not "uphold White supremacy", then it is fair to say Jews have by and large done our job discharging at least that one duty. That part of our garden looks pretty healthy, all told. So it is fair for White Jews to bristle a little bit when they're lumped in with a broader White demographic which has backed Trump. At least as far as voting behavior, "White Jewish" identity has not, by and large, obstructed White Jews from standing against the avatars of White supremacy.

And speaking of tilling your own garden, one common feature of Whiteness discourse is the assertion that White people have a particular obligation to challenge and dismantle racist practices by other Whites. This obligation inheres in part because Whites, as beneficiaries of these practices, have special duties to disgorge any ill-gotten gains, but also because in White supremacist system Whites often are accorded greater power, influence, and credibility enabling them to more effectively disrupt White supremacist practices. Claims or arguments that are made and ignored when raised by people of color are often able to gain consideration when raised by Whites (for example, if you read the arguments in my last post and thought "finally, someone making sense" -- without recognizing that my analysis wasn't really that different from how many Jews of Color had responded to Mallory (see, e.g.) -- (a) thanks for the compliment, and (b) welcome to the problem!

So it could be said that White Jews, as Whites, have heightened obligations to publicly challenge and confront White racism, because (for better or worse) we're viewed as "insiders" with greater credibility and pull than non-Whites when making those challenges.

But is that actually true of White Jews? I'm skeptical. And, perhaps oddly, my skepticism has been most clearly crystallized through observing the Twitter experience of Sophie Ellman-Golan.

Among the many social justice campaigns and priorities of the indefatigable Ellman-Golan, one in particular she often promotes is that need to #ConfrontWhiteWomanhood. It is, as one might expect, a campaign centered around the need for White women to take stock of the ways in which their practices reify White supremacy and other oppressive institutions.

And pretty much every time Ellman-Golan tweets under the hashtag #ConfrontWhiteWomahood, she's immediately hit with a torrent of antisemitic abuse of the form "who you calling White, Jew?"

It seems (and not just from Ellman-Golan's case) that White Jews who try to confront other White people about racism "from the inside" ... pretty quickly cease to be viewed as insiders. We are in fact presented as the epitome of outside agitators, rabble-rousers, and elitist corrupters. The White Jew who confronts White racism becomes a lot less White, and a lot more Jewish, very quickly.

To be sure, I'm not saying its impossible to brush aside an "insider" anti-racism critique made by a White Christian American. But it sure is easier to do it if you can unleash a whole flotilla of "Soros-funded coastal elitist cosmopolitan cultural Marxist corrupting the youth committing White genocide and what about Israel!" antisemitic tropes at the drop of a hat. As it a result, Jews seem particularly poorly situated to engage in these sort of confrontations. Not just because we're at heightened risk of explicitly violent retaliation (though there is that), but because our White-insider status doesn't extend that far: Jews who challenge Whites, aren't recognized as White.

Consequently, if White Jews are not or are not successfully "confronting Whiteness", it might not be because we're indifferent to the project or half-assing it. It might be because even White Jews don't have full access to certain features of Whiteness; we are not White in the same way that other Whites are. And while I don't have direct evidence to support this, my strong suspicion is that if and when White identity becomes a more explicitly marked and salient feature of American discourse (whether via progressive efforts to remove it from an unmarked default and "confront" it, or by reactionary programs to reinvigorate avowed White identity politics), the perception of Jewish Whiteness will become considerably more tenuous.

In sum: clearly it is the case that White Jews in America are White in important respects -- including benefiting from many elements of White privilege and at least sometimes acting to maintain and buttress that advantaged status. At the same time, the frame of Whiteness is not one that can be plopped down on the heads of even White Jews uncritically or without alteration. For one, Whiteness discourse often genuinely does erase important facets of Jewish experience where we aren't deemed White. For two, Whiteness discourse, as applied to Jews, can act as an accelerant for antisemitic tropes insofar as Jews are cast not just as White but as hyper-White -- the epitome or apex of Whiteness via privilege, power, and domination.

Finally, White Jews simply do not experience Whiteness in the same way as do other Whites. If race is, in Sara Ahmed's words, "a question of what is within reach, what is available to perceive and to do ‘things’ with", then Jews simply are able to "do" less with Whiteness. We don't have the same capacities to "challenge from the inside", our position as White is too precarious -- and the allure of antisemitic dismissal too powerful -- to allow it.

What's necessary, then, is an analysis of White Jews as a specific case, one that isn't fully known even to those who are well-versed in the contours of "Whiteness" generally. A proper situating of Jews into Whiteness will not deny obvious realities about the racial positioning of Jews who look like me in America. But neither will it easily slide into the default modes of understanding of Whiteness, or assume that Jews like me are "simply" White save for a few piercing but ultimately idiosyncratic exceptions emanating from White supremacists.

The fact is, a lot of people like to talk about Jews without really knowing about Jews. And they're often buttressed by interpretive frames -- Whiteness very much included -- which purport to fill in those epistemic gaps for "free", without needing any specific knowledge about Jews. But knowing Whiteness doesn't mean you know Jews -- even White Jews. And consequently, if the hostile response by many Jews to being labeled "White" rings familiar to many experts on Whiteness, that familiarity is likely a deception. It seduces us into thinking that we already know what needs to be known about White Jews -- that we can draw on the same explanations, that we can identify the same behaviors, and that we can demand the same duties, without putting in any additional specific work.

The virtue of Mallory's statement is that it recognizes both that Jews can back and benefit from White supremacy and also be targeted and hurt by it -- an assertion that, in broad strokes at least, is clearly correct. Zoom in and there is a lot more work that needs to be done: first and foremost, the work of recognizing that there is a lot of work left to be done -- groundwork, foundational work where it accepted that most of us do not yet know what we need to know about the contours of antisemitism and Jewish experience.

If you enjoyed these two posts, you might find interesting my essay "White Jews: An Intersectional Approach", forthcoming in the Association for Jewish Studies (AJS) Review.

(How) Do White Jews Uphold White Supremacy? (Part I)

The fallout to the latest Women's March antisemitism controversy yielded a brand new Women's March antisemitism controversy, centering around the following statement by organizational co-leader Tamika Mallory:
[W]e’ve all learned a lot about how while white Jews, as white people, uphold white supremacy, ALL Jews are targeted by it.
I'm not exactly a Tamika Mallory fan on the subject of antisemitism. Nonetheless, I didn't really share the outrage that this particular quote engendered among many of my Jewish compatriots. That's not to say I think she's demonstrating some sort of penetrating insight or vision on the subject. But I did view the statement as representing a forward rather than a backward step for her.

Much of the negative reaction to Mallory centers on her relatively broad usage of "White supremacy" and "uphold". Many people hear those terms and think of consciously organized endeavors of racial terrorism designed to declare and enforce White dominance. The social movements who most clearly embody these practices -- the KKK, the Aryan Nation, etc. -- almost always target Jews as well. So, the argument goes, it is inaccurate, insulting, and hurtful to accuse Jews of being part of these movements and these practices. Indeed, it is so implausible that Jews are mass supporters of these sorts of far-right extremist organizations that the argument otherwise rings antisemitic -- how could one think that but through a sort of 7-dimensional "the Jews are behind all our misfortunes" conspiracy theory?

But that response relies on that particular understanding of "upholding White supremacy" as meaning overt participation in these sort of far-right violent movements, and Mallory was almost certainly thinking of those terms differently. For her, White supremacy less describes a movement, and more a social condition. White supremacy is the state of affairs where White people systematically occupy a superior social position vis-a-vis non-White people along the axis of race. Put differently, there can exist White supremacy (the social condition where White people are systematically advantaged) even in contexts where few if any people are White supremacists (avowedly ideologically committed to a state of affairs where Whites-qua-Whites are systematically advantaged). Consequently, the fact that White supremacists hate Jews doesn't necessarily mean that those Jews who are -- to most everyone else -- viewed as White will fail to reap the (majority of the) benefits of White supremacy.

Likewise, "uphold" might be thought to imply a conscious effort to facilitate and buttress conditions of White domination -- again, most obviously instantiated by membership in overt White Power organizations. But here too it seems clear that Mallory means to speak more broadly. There are all manner of ways to uphold an extant status quo without making that one's primary mission in life.

Most obviously, persons who are beneficiaries of a set of privileges -- for example, White people who benefit from living in a society where they are systematically favored -- might have little interest in disturbing that state of affairs, an indifference that manifests as apathy rather than public support. They might not notice the advantages they receive, and thus unknowingly reenact or support social practices that reify those advantages. They might deprioritize the struggle against racism, acknowledging the reality of certain unjust practices but viewing them as comparatively unimportant as sites for investing their energy and attention. Or they might recognize and frown upon certain practices they acknowledge as racist but be willing to overlook them in pursuit of more important agenda items (think the proverbial Trump voter who genuinely doesn't like all the racism, but just cares about getting his taxes cut more).

These all represent ways one can be complicit in, perpetuate, and uphold White supremacy that fall far short of joining the Klan -- that are, in fact, quite compatible with both hating the Klan and having the Klan hate you right back. If you're Jewish, think of all the times you've read something like "if you're marching in the Women's March" (or voting UK Labour) "that doesn't make you an antisemite -- it just makes you someone who doesn't care that they support antisemites". These are ways of talking about people "upholding" antisemitism without themselves necessarily being antisemitic or desiring antisemitism. They are targeted at people who do not share Mallory or Corbyn's views on Jews, and may in fact be repelled by them, but nonetheless think that on net that matters less than whatever other factors drive them towards the Women's March or Labour. If it is at least coherent to speak of that as "upholding antisemitism", then one should also grasp how one could speak of similar complicity in movements or practices that (among other things) rely upon, perpetuate, or act out a system where Whites are advantaged over non-Whites "upholding White supremacy".

The point is, upholding White supremacy, in this context, is not meant to solely encompass people "running around in white hoods or marching with tiki torches". There are no doubt extraordinarily few Jews playacting as Klansmen. But White Jews in America absolutely receive many -- not all, but many -- of the benefits accorded to White people in our society. We don't tend to be shadowed in department stores, we don't tend to be randomly stopped-and-frisked by police, we don't tend to have our murder victims cast as "not exactly angels". And so it is quite possible and plausible that White Jews can and do "uphold" White supremacy in that they are relatively content with a state of affairs where they don't (but others do) experience shadowing, stop-and-frisks, and insinuations that our crime victims were nothing but trash anyway.

When I frame the controversy in this way, many of my Jewish friends are relatively receptive to the basic thrust of these arguments -- but suggest that they aren't the things people generally associate with a phrase like "upholding White supremacy". Mallory's terms are misleading; the connotation is all wrong, suggesting far more explosive allegations than this. Sure, it is fair to say that many White Jews benefit from many White privileges, and may even act in ways that perpetuate this status quo, and all of that is worthy of critique. But to label it a case of Jews "upholding White supremacy" implies that they're doing something far worse than that -- something tantamount to being a Klansman or a White Power activist -- and that's wrong.

As it happens, I have some sympathy for this view -- persuasive definitions can be dangerous things. But note that if this is the gravamen of the controversy, then what we really have here is a semantic argument about terminology. I'm not saying terminological debates don't matter -- they can help avoid fiascoes like this -- but they're different debates than what we've been having, and hardly deserve the level of venom that's being directed towards Mallory. If we agree that White Jews can and do benefit from the prerogatives of Whiteness in our society, and that we often are complicit in allowing the social condition where that racially unequal distribution of prerogatives exists, then we agree with the thrust of Mallory's underlying point (even if we might have expressed it differently).

These are all ways of suggesting that it is entirely appropriate, even necessary, to consider (under whatever label) the fact that White Jews gain many (not all) of the privileges of Whiteness in America and are perfectly capable of acting in ways which perpetuate the continuation of that racialized hierarchy. None of this requires denying that White Jews also face antisemitism -- but that should be a mundane point. There are all sorts of oppressions that one can experience while nonetheless being White: White women still face misogyny, queer Whites still face homophobia, and White Jews still face antisemitism. Being White doesn't displace those oppressions; and those oppressions don't displace being White.

Simply put: those who flatly deny that White Jews in America are White in any capacity -- as if a Jew who looks like me is identically situated to an African-American in my interactions with the police, employers, universities, landlords ... -- are denying reality. They are only obstructing badly-needed reckonings with our community's relationship with racism and racial hierarchy, both in terms of how we relate to community outsiders as well as those Jews of Color inside our community.

But another thing they obstruct is a more nuanced conversation about the precise contours of the relationship between Whiteness and Jewishness. If it isn't the case that it's nonsensical to apply the label "White" to a Jew who looks like me, it's also not the case that one can uncritically apply it to those Jews who look like me -- that anything we know about "Whiteness", generally, we consequently know about the Whiteness of White Jews, specifically.

The obvious example is, of course, that unlike most White people, White supremacists hate me and want me dead. That's a rather significant deviation from standard-issue Whiteness!

But I suggest that it's much deeper than that. White Jews are not simply White people in all respects but-for the bizarre and inexplicable fact that White supremacists want to murder us. Jewishness does things to Whiteness (and vice versa). Understanding the unique cocktail that's created when these identities intersect is critical to understanding the limits of the "White Jew" frame and comprehending why so many Jews resist it with such ferocity. This is the project I will take up in Part II (which I plan to put up shortly).

UPDATE: Part II is now available here.

Wednesday, December 26, 2018

The Nub of the IfNotNow/Birthright Dilemma

The crux of the dilemma in observing the fallout over the latest IfNotNow Birthright protest is as follows:
1) Everything I've seen from institutional and establishment Jewish organizations over the last few years indicates that a group like Birthright is wholly capable of wildly overreacting to perfectly legitimate demands that they take seriously the occupation and the equal standing of Arabs in Israel in Palestine.
2) Everything I've seen from IfNotNow over the past few years indicates that they're exactly the sort of organization whose activists would stage a preplanned massive disruption that completely obstructs the operation of their Birthright trip, then innocently bat their eyes at passing journalists while saying "we were only asking questions!"
Since both #1 and #2 are equally true, the fair-minded observer stands at an impasse. And impasses like these permeate this entire arena.

It is simultaneously true that open questioning and free inquiry are at the heart of any Jewish communal experience worth its salt, and true that operators acting in bad faith can hijack such openness and freedom in order to take over a space in service of a narrow ideological agenda.

It is simultaneously true that no understanding of Israel is complete without a fair and honest reckoning with the reality of the occupation and the continued unequal and subordinated status of Palestinians (both in the West Bank and Gaza, and in Israel proper), and true that not every single Israel-related experience needs to be constantly refracted through that lens at all times.

It is simultaneously true that participants signing up for Birthright presumably know that they are getting only a partial view of Israel (what curated trip could promise otherwise?), and true that Birthright would be betraying its own mission if it ever started to conceptualize itself as a propaganda vehicle sold via the bribe of a free vacation.

It is simultaneously true that there is something tacky about taking Birthright's money and then spitting in its face, and true that there is something tacky about acting like the young Jews who take Birthright's money are somehow cheating if they don't agree that they've been bought off.

These and these are the words of the living God.

Tuesday, December 25, 2018

Unprompted Media Reporting on Racism is the Exception, Not the Norm

I've said my bit on the Alice Walker controversy, but I did have one more thought to add on the meta-controversy -- namely, the complaint that the media hasn't (until the Tablet article, anyway) "covered" Walker's antisemitism. A similar hue and cry has gone up about the Women's March: until Tablet did its big expose, big media sources weren't "investigating" the Women's March for antisemitism.

The idea here is that there is something distinctively passive in the media's treatment of antisemitism. Had it been a different author who'd put up a racist poem on his blog, or had it been a conservative social movement whose leaders had a history of misogyny, the media would have been all over it -- there would have been an endless stream of reportings and investigations and think pieces. But on antisemitism? Silence.

I find this complaint a bit strange, as it appears to live in a media world I'm utterly unfamiliar with. Namely: one where the media, without any particular prompting and without some specific sharp instigating event, just runs a story about a given public figure or social movement's racism problem.

It's only in a world where that happens regularly -- where the New York Times, every other week or so, picks out some celebrated author or actor and of its own accord runs a story about their terrible racist or misogynist or xenophobia viewpoints -- where it seem remotely weird that they hadn't yet done that for Alice Walker. Right? Because otherwise, the failure of the media to run such a story here is utterly normal, and perfectly in keeping with their regular practices.

And the fact is that the media generally doesn't run such pieces. Unless there is a clear instigating event -- something like the Tablet article -- the New York Times doesn't just search about and look for social movements or public figures it can call racist. It mostly studiously avoids such "inflammatory" pieces unless and until it is absolutely impossible to hold off on it. Which is to say, exactly how it's handled the claims of antisemitism in the Women's March or for Alice Walker.

I've said it before, I'll say it again: Whatever they'd do or say about Jews, they'd do or say about others too (and vice versa). What we think is unique to Jews on matters of oppression -- whether we think it's uniquely favorable or uniquely disfavorable treatment -- very rarely is. One can very much believe that mainstream media sources should take on a more proactive posture towards reporting on prominent figures and movements who have problems of prejudice. But when they don't do so in the case of antisemitism, they're doing nothing more than what they fail to do for everyone else.

I Have No Holocaust Survivors in My Family

I have a confession to make.

None of my immediate family were (directly) impacted by the Holocaust.

All of my grandparents were born in the United States, before World War II. My great-grandparents were the immigrant generation, arriving just past the turn of the century. So when the Holocaust began, everyone was already here. I have some distant relatives who were (and are still) in Europe, so I assume they must have some survival story, but I don't know it.

And, weirdly, I feel a strange guilt about this.

The Holocaust, and being descended from survivors, is a huge, central part of the contemporary Jewish narrative (especially contemporary antisemitism). And while I don't feel alienated from it -- indeed, there's an obvious "there but for the grace of God" association -- sometimes I feel like I'm somehow cheating when I refer to it, as if it isn't truly "mine".

And worse still, I sometimes feel as if my very existence is a trap waiting to be sprung by Holocaust deniers. "The Holocaust never happened!" "Yes, it did." "Oh? Tell me you clever Jew: where was your family during this supposed 'Holocaust'", "Well, they were in America, but ..." "Aha!"

I'm not saying this is rational. But it is something I've felt for a long time. I wonder if other Jews with family backgrounds similar to mine feel the same way?

Monday, December 24, 2018

New Year's Resolutions: 2019 Edition

It's that most wonderful time of the year -- New Year's Resolutions! The 2018 edition is here, and the entire series of prior years are collected here.

As always, we begin by seeing how we did last year.

Met: 1, 2, 3, 5, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11 (steak farm reopened!), 12, 14, 15 (and how!).

Missed: 6 (but I should be doing something early 2019), 13 (I think?)

Pick 'em: 4 (definitely an improvement on last year, though!)

Damn, I sure am resolved -- and/or, am good at picking resolutions I feel confident I can meet!

Onward to 2019!

* * *

1) Have completed drafts of at least three dissertation chapters.

2) Complete a draft of a political theory article (it's okay if it draws from a dissertation chapter, but it has to stand alone as an article).

3) Attend a hockey game.

4) Have a permanent plan of attack regarding at least one of the following bodily ailments: knee pain, sore calves/shins when walking up hills, cholesterol deposits around the eyes, and/or cross-link surgery for keratoconus.

5) Do one Vegas trip with friends.

6) Have one fantastic honeymoon in Hawaii.

7) Read a political theory book (broadly defined) by an author whom you've never read before.

8) Read a new political theory book (broadly defined) by an author whom you have read work from before.

9) Publish an article in a non-Jewish "popular publication" or appear on a television segment.

10) Organize one visiting speaker somewhere at UC-Berkeley.

11) Get over 2,500 Twitter followers (current count as of December 24, 2018: 2,298).

12) Add a new home-cooked meal to our regular rotation.

13) Find a new binge-able TV show.

14) Host a Passover Seder.

15) Put up the Mezuzah.

Boycott Buyers versus Boycott Sellers

Is there a difference between how we view buyers and sellers in a "boycott" campaign?

Arguably, a "boycott" only refers to a purchaser, not a seller to begin with. But I don't think in practice most people adhere to that distinction, which tends to melt as applied to more bilateral agreements anyway. There seem to be many boycott campaigns which urge a more broad refusal to transact with a given party -- refusing to purchase their goods and services as well as refusing to allow them access to your own goods and services.

But on face it seems to me at least that our intuitions are very different if the boycotter is buyer-side or seller-side, and I want to know if those intuitions hold.

For example: suppose John Smith refuses to buy a Sodastream because he's boycotting Israel. Many people would say "he has the right to do that", even if he's misguided. Indeed, on one level it's a bit perplexing to think through what it would mean to say he doesn't have the "right" to do that -- can he be compelled to buy a Sodastream? One Sodastream for every American, whether they want it or not?

Now imagine the reverse scenario: John Smith wants to buy a Sodastream, but Sodastream really dislikes his politics. So the company decides, unilaterally, "we won't sell to John Smith". Is that okay? Aside from some hardcore libertarians, I think this would be broadly condemned. There is an expectation that businesses which are generally marketed to the public will make their goods available to the general pubic in an open and non-discriminatory fashion.

Perhaps it's just our political sympathies driving this answer. But I'm dubious. When right-wing "Christian conservatives" tried to boycott Disney World for being too pro-gay, I thought that the boycotters were disgusting bigots, but I thought they had the "right" to express that bigotry via refusing to go to Disney World (again, what's the alternative? Mandatory Disney vacations?). But I'm not sure I would have been okay with Disney World deciding on its own to close its doors to conservative Christian families who otherwise are coming in and adhering to park rules. 

The same logic applies to conservative bakers who don't want to serve gay couples -- there is an asymmetry in that the gay couple could very much say "I don't want to patronize this business", but I'm warier of the business saying "I don't want these sorts as my customer."

Another possibility is that the distinction isn't really buyer/seller, but rather individual/business (or institution). This could cover cases of solo contractors -- an artist, say -- who limit who they'll accept commissions from to those who share their values. They're "selling" art, but do we view them same as a company? On the other hand, if that artist was on Etsy and just picked certain ethnic groups or nations or religions she'd refuse to ship her wares to -- how would we view that?

I don't have a clear answer to these questions. But I do think there are some intuitive distinctions that are driving a lot of public discourse. There's a naive (dare I say) neoliberalism that treats boycotts as simple a matter of free contract -- anyone can transact (or not) with anyone they want, for any reason; the decision to refrain from buying or selling from a given person is purely a matter of individual taste expressed through the market. But I don't think that view actually is sustainable, and doesn't account for our actual views on these questions. There's a clear difference between saying "John Smith can't boycott Sodastream" and "Sodastream can't boycott John Smith", one that belies any superficial parity between buyer and seller as free contractors.

Saturday, December 22, 2018

Alice Walker and the Full Livingstone

Many of you know the term "Livingstone Formulation". It refers to a manner of responding to an allegation of antisemitism by saying something like "For far too long the accusation of antisemitism has been used against anyone who is critical of the policies of the Israeli government, as I have been." Those were London Mayor Ken Livingstone's exact words, but the formulation applies to any such dismissal of antisemitism claim by contending that it is a slur directed against those "critical of Israel".

What many people don't realize is that the Livingstone Formulation can and is used against claims of antisemitism unrelated to Israel at all. Indeed, the original Livingstone Formulation came in just such a case -- Livingstone was accused of calling a Jewish reporter a "Nazi" during an altercation after a party (it had nothing to do with Israel), the reporter took offense, the mayor doubled-down. And yet even here, in this wholly non-Israel-related case, Livingstone said "I'm just being hounded for criticizing Israel."

Call this "the Full Livingstone". If the Livingstone Formulation is a contention that a claim of antisemitism is actually a means of suppressing criticism of Israel, the full Livingstone is the contention that a claim of antisemitism that isn't about Israel is still nonetheless a means of suppressing criticism of Israel.

Alice Walker, for example, just pulled a Full Livingstone. Saying the Talmud teaches the Jews to enslave the goyim (or that Jews are a major part of a lizard-people conspiracy of alien domination) is antisemitic for reasons wholly unrelated to one's views on Israel. And yet, Walker nonetheless contends, she is being targeted for censure because she "criticizes Israel". It's a Full Livingstone!

Thursday, December 20, 2018

Almost Floridian Roundup

On Saturday, Jill and I depart for our annual holiday trip to Florida (her family winters in the panhandle, and mine has begun the traditional Jewish relocation to Boca Raton). We'll be there for about a week before heading up to Boston for New Year's.

* * *

Given the ongoing tensions between "Bernie Bros" and racial minorities, this article on the DSA's race problems is wholly unsurprising (I know some East Bay DSA folk, and they -- the organization, not the folks I know -- have a gender problem too).

Netanyahu is frantically trying to stop Trump from releasing his Mideast Peace plan (which sounds like it is basically ... the Clinton peace plan), worrying it will make him vulnerable to a right-wing challenge. This is torture for me, because normally a Bibi-Trump fight is a "root for injuries" situation, but here I actually have to be constructive and want whatever makes a just peace agreement most viable (and I honestly don't know if "releasing it now" or "later" is more likely).

I had been meaning to link to this outstanding meditation by Erika Dreifus on being a Jewish-American writer in 2018, and just never found the right moment. Well, no moment like the present.

This is an okay -- not great, not terrible -- article on how toxic masculinity intersects with ZionismI think I did a better version, though.

Albania expels Iranian diplomat after alleged plot to attack an Israeli soccer match.

When I read that the Women's March was consulting with "Jewish groups" on the question of antisemitism, I just assumed it would be JVP-style groups. But I was wrong, and I'll give due credit: the NCJW, Bend the Arc, and JFREJ represent a fair spectrum of progressive Jewish organizations to give perspective on these matters.

What Eight Great Teachers Taught Me About Teaching

Last night, I was reflecting on how lucky I was to have had so many great teachers in my life. From pre-K to post-12, I've been blessed to have had an overwhelmingly positive educational experience. My time as an official student isn't quite over yet, but it is winding down, and soon I will be a full-fledged member of the teacher's side of the podium. So I thought I'd share some of what I've learned about teaching from my very best teachers.

* * *

Ms. Curry: Elementary school is a pretty fuzzy memory at this stage, but I remember adoring my First Grade teacher Ms. Curry. She saw the very earliest flickerings of my political self when I did a report on Jackie Robinson, and mostly managed to keep a straight face when I sternly informed the class that "nobody should be aggravated on a bus!"

From Ms. Curry, I learned that both teaching and learning can be joyous, and that joy can be both very deliberate and very unintentional.

Ms. Skelton: By any objective measure, I was a good and well-behaved student in high school. Always got good grades, never once got a detention, never got called into the principal's office. Subjectively, and on reflection ... I was probably a handful to deal with for a lot of teachers. I had a contrarian streak a mile wide, and I had opinions about pedagogy -- to wit, if I didn't understand why something was useful to learn, I didn't want to learn it. And no class was the subject of this wrath more than English.

I believed then -- and to some extent believe now, though slightly less dogmatically -- that the only purpose of writing was to clearly communicate and persuasively justify ideas. Faced with English classes where we read a ton of literature that, to me, seemed like exercises in willful obtuseness justified because it uses "metaphor" or "connotative language", and I was effectively in open rebellion. In my first essay for Ms. Skelton in 11th grade, I wrote an extended diatribe about why most of the focus of the class -- "analyzing" the use of language rather than evaluating the content of the work -- was useless and pointless. I don't have a copy of it anymore, but with the benefit of hindsight I'm absolutely sure it was self-righteous and obnoxious (really, how could it not be?).

I'd written essays like this before -- and since I was a good writer, in spite of it all, I usually got a good grade with perfunctory comments. But Ms. Skelton did something none of my other teachers had ever done before:

She responded. She wrote extended comments on the paper, taking my position seriously and making her case for why I should, indeed, care about this material.

She didn't persuade me. But she did earn my undying loyalty that day. From Ms. Sketlon, I learned that if you take your students seriously, and treat their contributions as worthy of respect, they'll be willing to explore nearly any horizon you place in front of them.

Kim Smith: There were three types of political science classes I took at Carleton. There were required courses. There were courses I took with visiting faculty. And there were courses I took with Kim Smith. This wasn't exactly intentional -- it's just that Kim Smith happened to teach pretty much every interesting class I wanted to take in the entire department. Constitutional Law and African-American Political Thought! Impossible combination to beat! I took four classes from her -- tied for the most of any Carleton professor.

I did well in her classes, but Kim was notoriously unsparing in her comments on essays submitted to her class. I have distinct memories of entire paragraphs circle or crossed out with "oh please" or "that's lame" written next to it. Some people were terrified of her, but I thought it was fabulous. And there's no doubt she made my writing better. And of all my college professors, she's the one with whom I have the closest friendship with to this day.

Kim once told me her teaching philosophy was "it's better to be feared than loved". That doesn't give her enough credit though; I would say that from her I learned instead that if you play your cards right, you don't actually need to choose.

Louis Newman: Louis Newman was one of the very first people I met at Carleton. Somehow, my dad found out about him -- in retrospect, that he found the head of Judaic Studies at Carleton is probably not coincidental -- and we were introduced before I even attended my first class. He actually persuaded me to drop my freshman seminar and instead enroll in his upper level Jewish Ethics class. Again, that actually might not have been the best advice in the abstract, but in my case it worked out great. He's the other professor I took four classes from; if Carleton had a Judaic Studies concentration, I would have done it.

Louis was distinctive in the degree to which he cared about his students as human beings, not just as students. He was a warm and paternal, but never paternalistic figure. From him I learned that the best teachers care about the whole student, not just their submitted work.

Melvin Rogers: Melvin is my great "I knew him when" story -- I knew Melvin Rogers when he was a post-doc at Carleton, just starting out his career. Even then, everyone knew he was brilliant, and everyone knew he was going to be something special. Carleton basically hacked together a position just to offer it to him, and his job talk was something else. Most job talks have one, maybe two students in attendance, quietly listening in the back corner. Melvin's job talk was given to a packed room, with several of us literally holding a "We Love You Melvin Rogers!" banner against the back wall. It didn't work, he ended up going to UVA, and given how his career subsequently took off I can't say he made a mistake. But certainly we pulled out all the stops, and were right to do so.

Again, everyone knew he was a brilliant scholar. But he was also a brilliant teacher. Those two qualities aren't always associated together -- but I think that's a mistake in our profession, and one we should work harder to rectify. From Melvin Rogers I learned that brilliance in scholarship is wholly compatible with brilliance in teaching, and nobody should tell you that greatest in the one is an excuse to neglect the other.

Martha Nussbaum: Martha Nussbaum is a very famous, very important person. I am not a particularly famous, particularly important person. And while I was technically one of her "students", in practice I took two of her law school courses that each had at least 30 students enrolled. She had no ongoing obligations towards me, and certainly had and has enough on her plate not to bother with me. She would have been well within her rights never to have once thought of me after handing in my final grades.

And yet. Martha Nussbaum has written me letters of recommendation -- repeatedly, for several different types of positions. She's read drafts when I've sent them to her, she's met with me when I've returned to Chicago. She's even shot the breeze with me over email regarding our shared interest in Project Runway (she's worn Season 7 winner Seth Aaron Henderson). I was and am little, and she was and is big, and yet somehow she's made time to be a mentor for me -- for no other reason than that I took a couple of her classes and did well in them.

Martha Nussbaum is another example of someone whose brilliant scholarship pairs with brilliant teaching. But from her, I also learned that even the most successful, amazing, prominent figures still can find time to care about and mentor their students -- and if she can do it, we all can.

David Strauss: I once joked that there was a period where every idea I had for a law review article had already been written by David Strauss between 1985 and 1997. It was disappointing, in a way, but it was also a sign that I had good ideas, at the very least -- just a generation too late. He provided a model for me regarding what good scholarship was and what good teaching was. There's probably nobody on earth of whom I'm more clearly a "disciple" of  than David Strauss.

And on top of that -- he was a great teacher, in a completely different way from Kim or Martha or Melvin. The fact is, I'm probably not and will never be as scary as Kim Smith. I'm much too goofy for that. But then again, so was David, and he commanded classroom attention just fine. From David Strauss, I learned that the best way to be the best teacher and scholar I could be, was to be me.

Sarah Song: And now we get to my current adviser, Sarah Song. When I was applying to law schools, I was admitted to Berkeley's Jurisprudence and Social Policy program, and had I enrolled Sarah would have been my Ph.D. adviser in that program. Six years, five cities, four jobs, and one degree later, and I end up in a Ph.D. program with Sarah Song as my adviser. For a Chicago grad, I'm not always efficient.

There is an academic adage I didn't learn from Sarah, but which very much applies to her: "Everyone in academia is smart. Distinguish yourself by being kind." Sarah Song is very smart, and very talented, and very everything one would want a great professor to be. But she is distinguished by being, without question, one of the most singularly kind people on the planet. From her I learned just how important that kindness is as part of being a great professor, mentor, and scholar. And I'm grateful to have it and her in my life every day.

Big Media David: In JTA on State Anti-BDS Laws

I'm in JTA with an article on the debacle that are the state anti-BDS laws. As written, they tend to be both PR and constitutional trainwrecks. And that might be a good reason not to write them! But, if you insist, I offer some helpful advice on how to draft them to avoid the obvious pitfalls, including:

  1. Don't single out Israel, and
  2. Don't regulate private conduct, but only demand that the contractor not discriminate in the course of fulfilling the contract.
If you pay close attention, adding these two hints together yields something like ... a generic anti-discrimination pledge, rather than a specifically "anti-BDS" law. This is not a coincidence.

Wednesday, December 19, 2018

George Soros is the Financial Times "Person of the Year"

The Financial Times named George Soros its "person of the year".

This is a bit striking, since the Financial Times is a relatively centrist paper, and Soros of course has a reputation as a hard leftist -- primarily because over the past few years he's become the right's favorite bogeyman.

But maybe this a good moment to reflect on where that reputation comes from. Soros' political reputation was initially built on his efforts to promote democratization and liberal values in states emerging from Soviet dominion at the end of the cold war. His priorities -- open markets, open expression, and open media -- were not particularly controversial, at least in the west, and were in fact widely lauded across the political spectrum. It fit well within the broad post-Cold War political consensus of the 1990s, when globalization was still viewed as an unadulterated positive and the fall of Communism had presumptively left liberal democracy as the only ideological game in town.

What's changed? With respect to Soros' politics, the answer is very little. His agenda is still that of an Open Society, and his political work continues to center on relatively run-of-the-mill promotion of basic democratic and liberal values across the world.

What's changed is simply that today's conservatives increasingly reject those values. They don't care about democracy, or a free press, or free speech, or open societies. In fact that are increasingly hostile to all of these things. And no matter your political agenda, it never hurts to be able to cast your opposition as the project of a sneaky wealthy Jew pulling the strings to nefarious agenda. So Soros, unsurprisingly, becomes an object of conspiratorial hatred on the right.

But we shouldn't forget the roots. George Soros is in reality not all that radical. His projects are important, but also workaday -- they don't really ask for anything more than the basic ambitions of a free liberal society. The assumption that he's some sort of fringe figure who wants to bring a wave of globalist communism(?) crashing over old-fashioned American values is groundless.

Put another way: the right doesn't hate George Soros because it hates "the left". Twenty years ago, George Soros' "left" politics would have been little more than the broad American consensus about how formerly authoritarian states should transition into freedom.

The right hates George Soros because it now hates the very idea of a free society where markets, the press, the university, and opportunities are open and accessible to all. And it hates George Soros, in particular and with such particular vigor, because as a Jew with a lot of money and a financial background, he represents the perfect avatar for conjoining their reactionary politics to the power of antisemitic conspiracy theorizing.

Tuesday, December 18, 2018

Three Ways of "Banning" BDS Contractors

I've been a skeptic of state anti-BDS laws. The short version of my view is that (a) such laws, if they are to pass First Amendment muster, must be drafted and implemented very carefully, and (b) such laws will almost certainly neither be drafted nor implemented very carefully, resulting in (c) the regular, expected, and consistent flow of cases which will at the very least be PR disasters.

The latest case comes from Texas, where a speech pathologist lost her job for refusing to sign a stipulation that she does not and would not boycott Israel for the duration of the contract. Texas law requires that state contractors -- including sole proprietorshops -- refrain from boycotting Israel in order to be eligible for state contracts. This requirement was quickly cast on the internet as a "pro-Israel oath" and then an "oath of loyalty", because this is the internet and we can't talk about Jewish things without exaggerating in the most antisemitic way possible.

The sole proprietorship case is obviously the most troublesome, since it seems to prevent individuals-as-individuals from exercising their conscientious right to boycott insofar as they also transact with the state.

But on that score, it struck me that there are two different sorts of ways these laws could be written, with very different constitutional and free speech implications:
1. They could prohibit contracting with entities who boycott Israel "on their own time"; or 
2. They could prohibit contracting with entities who boycott Israel in the course of fulfilling the contract.
The first type of law covers contractors who, just on a day-to-day basis, refuse to buy Israeli products for some presumably ideological (non-business related) reason. The Texas woman, for example, says that she out of personal ideological conviction refuses to buy Israeli products as part of Palestinian solidarity (she is an American citizen of Palestinian descent). That certainly seems to raise very real free speech hackles. It is designed to punish someone for engaging in conduct unrelated to their job because one dislikes the ideological message behind that conduct.

The second type of law only covers and proscribes boycotting Israel in the course of fulfilling the contract. So it would be indifferent to what the Texas woman does or doesn't purchase on her own time, but would tell her that she couldn't -- say -- refuse on ideological grounds to use an Israeli software program that was the best fit for her occupational needs, or decline to serve an Israeli student while serving as a school pathologist. That seems much closer to run-of-the-mill state regulation of its employees' on-the-job conduct, and is much more permissible. The state has a valid interest in ensuring that its contractors-qua-contractors refrain from discrimination and accomplish their tasks in the most efficient manner possible.

There's also a third permutation which David Bernstein alerted me to, which is particularly germane in the sole proprietorship case:
3. The laws could prohibit contracting with entities who boycott Israel in their capacity as a contractor.
The difference between a Type 2 and Type 3 law is that in the former the contractor would be free to boycott Israel in all respects save matters related to the contract; whereas in the latter the contractor would have to refrain from boycotting Israel even in its operations that had nothing to do with the state contract.

The difference between a Type 1 and Type 3 law is a distinction between what our speech pathologist does as a private citizen and what she does as a business. This is one of those seemingly fictitious distinctions that is nonetheless exceedingly important in business law: "you" are not the same as "the business which happens to be solely comprised of 'you'". So: does her speech pathology business boycott Israel (again, return to the "would she work with an Israeli exchange student" question), or is her boycotting something she does as a private actor? Is she not buying Ahava cosmetics for her bathroom, or is she not purchasing Israeli software for her practice? These distinctions are arguably relevant.

Or arguably not: one might say that she has the right to run her "company", as much as her private life, in line with her ideological scruples, and so either way there is a threat to free expression. The circumstances where a company can independently claim to possess ideological, moral, or religious interests is controversial (remember Hobby Lobby?), and I don't want to wade into the morass now.

For me, I think that Type 2 laws might be justifiable (though I'd prefer they simply be worded as general non-discrimination provisions than anything Israel specific). Type 1 laws definitely stretch too far, and Type 3 laws probably do too, at least as applied to solo operations.

But then we return back to the thesis of my article: these laws will almost always be written loosely and interpreted poorly, and those facts will inevitably swamp even any valid gains that they may secure. Better to just have general anti-discrimination laws, and make it clear they'll be enforced.

Friday, December 14, 2018

Masuku Hate Speech Conviction Reversed On Appeal

Long-time readers of the blog might recall the saga of Bongani Masuku, a top COSATU official who back in 2009 was found to have engaged in hate speech for a variety of statements about Jews and Zionists. Highlights included:

  • Referring to Zionists as "belong[ing] to the era of their Friend Hitler"
  • Contending that "every Zionist must be made to drink the bitter medicine they are feeding our broathers (sic) and sisters in Palestine," and
  • Expressing his view that "Jews are arrogant, not from being told by any Palestinian, but from what I saw myself."
Lest there be any mistake on the audience for his remarks, Masuku expressly said he was seeking to "convey a message to the Jews of [South Africa]."

Anyway, the South African Human Rights Commission found that Masuku had engaged in hate speech, and (eight years later) the Equality Court upheld that ruling in 2017. But earlier this month, the Supreme Court of Appeals (an intermediate court -- don't let the name deceive you) reversed that decision and concluded that Masuku's comments were protected speech.

Commenting on foreign legal decisions is always a fraught exercise -- needless to say, I'm not familiar with the particularities of South African law, procedure, or precedents that are germane to correctly deciding the case. That's compounded by the fact that I oppose hate speech laws on principle -- none of what Masuku said would be actionable in America, and I'm content with that arrangement. That said, in states which have such laws I don't think Jews should be cast out from their blanket of protection -- something that does sometimes seem to happen. There's a big difference between a court generally adopting a narrow view of what hate speech prohibits, and a ticket good for this ride only that says Jews -- and only Jews -- have to suck it up and learn how to grow thicker skins.

In any event, the opinion itself seems generally skeptical about the strictures hate speech laws place on free speech -- again, a position I'm broadly sympathetic to, albeit one whose application to this case I'm poorly positioned to evaluate vis-a-vis other South African hate speech precedents. The tenor of the opinion also gave the distinct impression that the court believed that Masuku had been provoked, and was simply responding emotionally in an emotional context -- a position I'm considerably less sympathetic to.

In the main, though, the appellate court concluded that none of the statements identified as "hate speech" by the lower court were targeted at Jews (as opposed to at Zionists). Hence, they could not be deemed to hatred directed at a protected group (religion or ethnicity).

Way back in 2009, I suggested that this was going to be the core issue of the case and suggested some arguments establishing why it was proper to view Masuku as targeting Jews (I also expressed skepticism that Jews would ultimately win in South African courts, so, hurrah for vindication?). I won't rehash those here, but I am curious about the status of those statements from Masuku which did seem to make evident that he was referring to Jews-qua-Jews, not "just" Zionists. The appellate court alluded to other statements "included in the complaint", but did not identify them -- focusing only on those statements which were ultimately adjudged to have been hate speech.

This seems odd. A statement to the effect that one is "convey[ing] a message to the Jews of [South Africa]" may not be hate speech on its own, but it seems like pretty strong evidence regarding who Masuku is talking to and about elsewhere in his speech. If Masuku said he's sending a message to "the Jews", then believe him!

But -- as per my above caution regarding commenting on foreign legal rulings -- I don't know the status of that statement or others where Masuku seems more explicitly antisemitic. Were they in the record of the case? If not, why not? There might be wholly justifiable legalistic reasons for why they were not considered -- I just am not positioned to know what they are. But the impression, from my knowledge of the facts as an observer, is that the court concluded that Masuku wasn't talking about Jews by scrupulously avoiding mention of all the parts where Masuku is very clearly talking about Jews.

The case may still yet go up to South Africa's highest court (I wouldn't hold my breath for a successful outcome). And if you want a taste of my terrible life -- here is the article which initially alerted me to the ruling. If you want to hear the court opinion defended in the most openly antisemitic way possible, click the link and prepare to be depressed.

Wednesday, December 12, 2018

On the Tablet Women's March Story

As you've no doubt seen, Tablet published a long investigative piece on the Women's March organization -- covering turmoil in the ranks, weird patterns of money moving around, how the current leadership rose to power and attempted to consolidate its position, and, of course, antisemitism.

Others will no doubt offer more in-depth commentary, but I wanted to give some quick blush reactions to the main themes:

  • This was, on the whole, a well-reported and professional piece. It was not a drive-by, and it was not a hit job. Kudos to the authors on that.
  • I know the antisemitism portions of the article are the sexiest, but I think some are over-extending from the evidence presented. The claims of explicit, overt antisemitism by WM leaders tended to be thinly sourced -- either relying on inference or on accounts by persons unwilling to go on the record. The claims of implicit or negligent antisemitism -- or simple indifference to the needs and concerns of Jewish stakeholders -- were by contrast very well-supported. The latter, of course, is on its own well-worth criticizing.
  • Despite diligent efforts by the authors, it was hard to follow the parts of the article focusing on where money was and wasn't going, or suggestions of improper organizational structures designed to benefit certain insiders. On the whole, the conduct described was the sort where I couldn't really get a bead on how abnormal it was vis-a-vis other like organizations. Were these the sorts of claims you'd could dig up on any decent-sized non-profit if you dug around long enough, or is WM a uniquely bad actor? I couldn't tell.
  • The evidence that the Women's March was liked to Nation of Islam personnel for use in their personal security was relatively well-established. This linkage, of course, casts new light on why the Women's March was so markedly reluctant to condemn Farrakhan. And it is also striking given the conversations occurring on the left critiquing increased police presence in, e.g., synagogues, because of how such presence impacts communities targeted by police violence. The same argument, of course, applies to how queer or Jewish persons must feel knowing that Women's March security relies on a group like NoI. Either Women's March leaders thought about that parallel, or they didn't -- and neither option is all that great.
  • We already knew about serious tension between Women's March national leadership and regional or "rank-and-file" operatives, and this article definitely provides additional support for those who think that some in the former category are really running the ship ego-first, if you will. It definitely seems that some of the leadership viewed Women's March more as their personal fiefdom and launching pad to greater personal glory than as a grassroots, member-led women's organization that wasn't About Them, per se.
Finally, this wasn't in the article, but the response of the Women's March PR flacks -- offering to send journalists a "fact-check", but only if they wouldn't publish it(!?!), while demanding that journalists take down tweets referencing the Tablet story -- has to be one of the biggest own-goals in crisis management we've seen in contemporary journalism. It is the laughing-stock of journalistic Twitter, and -- to the extent the Tablet story suggests the Women's March organization is in disarray and deeply unprofessional -- has done massive work buttressing that narrative.

The Latest Anti-Vaxx Congressman

Newly elected Tennessee GOP congressman Mark Green is a doctor. He's also dipping his toes into the conspiracy theory that vaccines cause autism.
A soon-to-be congressman from Tennessee told constituents Tuesday he believed vaccines may be causing autism, denying data from the Centers for Disease Control and other institutions disproving such a theory. 
Not only did Republican Mark Green, a Congressman-elect from Clarksville who is also a medical doctor, express hesitation about the CDC's stance on vaccines, Green said he believed the federal health agency has "fraudulently managed" the data. 
His remarks came in response to an audience question at a town hall meeting in Franklin from a woman identifying herself as the parent of a young adult with autism. The woman was concerned about possible cuts to Medicaid funding. 
"Let me say this about autism," Green said. "I have committed to people in my community, up in Montgomery County, to stand on the CDC’s desk and get the real data on vaccines. Because there is some concern that the rise in autism is the result of the preservatives that are in our vaccines.
Anti-vaxx conspiracies are actually tend to cross ideological borders, though the precise vectors are a little different. On the left, the conspiracies generally focus on greedy pharmaceutical companies selling a bogus product (or worse, infecting children so they can sell yet more bogus products). On the right, the tale usually is one of malicious government bureaucrats or sneaky elites -- this, obviously, is the approach that Green takes.

There's something else interesting about this story, though. You'll note that while Green was responding to a question from a woman whose child has autism, her query did not (at least as reported) mention vaccines at all. She was worried about cuts to Medicaid funding.

Needless to say, "cuts to Medicaid funding threaten the health of my child" is not terrain Republican congressmen particularly like to stand on. Green's pivot to vaccines is not just a random grasp at a conspiracy theory. It is a deliberate political move -- an attempt to change the conversation away from Green's own policy positions (which, of course, are brazen efforts to strip health care from vulnerable populations) and onto something else. Don't blame my votes on Medicaid for threatening your child's health -- blame those sneaky, untrustworthy government bureaucrats!

Anti-vaccine politics, in short, are by no means the exclusive redoubt of the right. But at the moment they have a particular tactical benefit for conservative politicians: they are a ready-made narrative, which unfortunately has attraction for a lot of people, that distracts attention from their own unpopular policies and instead diverts attention elsewhere. That it also (in its conservative iteration) helps spread suspicion of "government" and "elites" in the process is a bonus.

Of course, the raw political benefit of relying on anti-vaccine conspiracies has to be balanced against the Republican Party's commitment to truth, the common good, and adherence to basic moral principles over transient political advantage. In other words, expect right-wing Republicans to begin embracing anti-vaccine politics completely and without any hesitation whatsoever.

What Naftali Bennett Teaches Us About "One State" Politics

Batya Ungar-Sargon has a stellar interview with right-wing Israeli politician (and Minister of Diaspora Affairs) Naftali Bennett. I highly recommend you read the whole thing: it is testament to what can be accomplished when an interviewer doesn't shy from the hard questions and doesn't let up until she gets an answer.

Perhaps the most striking revelation Ungar-Sargon manages to extract from Bennett is that his proposed ideal solution to the Israeli/Palestinian conflict is one where many Palestinians are denied full civil rights in perpetuity.
So you’re saying that the security issues, the threat posed by a potential Palestinian state is such that it’s impossible to grant them full civil rights. 
Yeah. And another element is that we just have one tiny home — the land of Israel. They have I believe 200 times the size, the Arab world, the Muslim nation, the Arab nation, has 200 times the size. We don’t have another land. This is our tiny tract of land and I’m not about to sever it or divide Jerusalem, and 90% of Israelis would never do that.
Bennett's proposed solution (leaving aside Gaza) is for Israel to annex "Area C" of the West Bank and grant citizenship to everyone (Israeli or Palestinian) who lives there (Area C encompasses most of the land in the West Bank, and most of the settlements, but not most of the Palestinian population. Basically, it comprises primarily Israeli settlements and empty space, including -- most critically -- the empty space between Palestinian population centers. Areas A and B are not territorially-contiguous with one another, Area C bisects them into many small chunks). In the rest of the West Bank, and for the remaining Palestinians (the majority of them), Bennett proposes limited self-government but not statehood -- in particular, he does not support granting the Palestinian Authority control over immigration or an independent armed force. Israel would remain the ultimate sovereign authority, but most West Bank Palestinians would be barred from citizenship or voting.

As you might recall from the Marc Lamont Hill debacle, much of the controversy over his UN speech was his call for a single state "from the river to the sea." Hill nominally backs such a one state solution only insofar as it promises equal rights and citizenship for all its denizens; there are quite a few reasons to be skeptical about the vitality of those commitments.

But Bennett's proposal is for a one-state solution, from the river to the sea, which does not even purport to provide for equal rights and citizenship. And here we have a problem that I think demands serious attention and reckoning: it cannot be the case that the call for one state from the river-to-the-sea is more controversial if it (however nominally) carries a promise of equal rights compared to calling for a one state solution without even the patina of equality. If Marc Lamont Hill is beyond the pale, then far more so must be Naftali Bennett.

Of course, the hypocrisy argument depends on the relevant forum: nobody considers Naftali Bennett to be a progressive in good standing. But, particularly in Jewish spaces, we have to be honest with ourselves: who gets policed harder, the Hill-type one-staters or the Bennett-types? We might "disagree" with both, but do we ostracize both? Do we say both violate our partnership guidelines? Do we call for firing both from their media perches?

Certainly, for many progressive Jews -- including many progressive Jewish critics of Hill -- the answer is yes, and kudos for that consistency. But for many more mainline Jews, the answer is not yes, and they'd do well to acknowledge how limp their objections to someone like Hill must sound as a result. They can't cry bloody murder ever implicitly inegalitarian overtones in the call for a secular state for all its citizens if our response to its explicitly inegalitarian cousin is a sort of limp "agree-to-disagree" shrug.

There's one more little tidbit about the interview that I think is clarifying in an interesting way. In his effort to duck and dive around the fundamental injustice of his position, Bennett at various points suggests that the refusal to grant Palestinians (outside Area C) Israeli citizenship is no big deal because they could receive Jordanian citizenship instead. A quick look at a map of where Areas A and B are in relation to Jordan provide some suggestion as to why that's not really a useful offer.

But let's suppose Bennett modified his proposal just slightly. Let's say that he proposed to not just give Palestinians in Areas A and B Jordanian citizenship, but outright agreed to cede those territories back to Jordan outright. We can gerrymander the borders so they're territorially-contiguous with Jordan and each other. The result would be that most settlers (and some West Bank Palestinians) are annexed into Israel, with everyone becoming Israeli citizens; while most West Bank Palestinians become Jordanians.

My bare minimum requirement for a just Israel/Palestine solution is "every permanent resident gets full citizenship and voting rights in the state exercising sovereignty over where they reside." A two-state solution satisfies that criteria, as does a single secular river-to-the-sea state.

Some go further and suggest that this minimalist criteria is, more or less, all that matters -- and in particular, that if this criteria is satisfied, that there are no non-racist or ethnosupremacist justifications for caring about the demographic distribution of the new state. This is the claim that "pro-Palestinian" one-staters often level against two-staters -- that they are exhibiting nothing more than illiberal tribalism insofar as they think it is important and preferable that a Palestinian state have a Palestinian majority and Israel retain a Jewish majority. They are ever-so-nonchalant over the fact that their preferred solution would result in a Palestinian majority over the whole territory and state. Oh it does? Well that's democracy for you. Anybody who has a problem with that might as well back apartheid.

But here's the thing: the hypothetical "divide the West Bank between Israel and Jordan" solution would also satisfy this minimal equal-citizenship criteria (putting aside, for the moment, Jordan's decidedly-less-than-fully-democratic character). In that proposal, everyone gets full citizenship in the state that exercises sovereign jurisdiction over its territory. It happens to result in an arrangement where Palestinians are likely not the governing majority anywhere -- but hey, we're not supposed to care about that, right?

Wrong, obviously. I think most of those who purport to care only of establishing a basically liberal order between the river-and-the-sea would not be keen on a gerrymandered solution where the West Bank and Gaza are divvied up between Israel and its neighbors, even if all the governing jurisdictions were appropriately liberal in character. Insofar as such a state would result in Palestinians getting citizenship but nowhere being Palestine, would it really count as respecting Palestinian self-determination?

I think they'd say no. And I think they're right to say no! Palestinians qua Palestinians deserve a state -- they deserve a Palestinian state, where they exercise self-determination and they get to determine their own destiny. Rigging the borders so that one can claim formal neutrality but Palestinians happen to be minorities in every state is not actually a desirable option. And if I'm write, what this demonstrates is that pretty much everyone cares about demographics to some extent -- they care about collective liberation, they want to ensure that Jews and/or Palestinians as peoples get to self-determine. When they pretend like they're content with a sort of atomized individualism, where so long as everyone gets the ballot nobody has the right to complain, they're almost certainly counting on the assumption that their preferred class -- Jews, or Palestinians -- will be electorally dominant.

Again, I don't think that caring about the collective self-determination rights of Jews or Palestinians makes you a bad liberal. I think it is wholly compatible with liberalism, so long as you respect the rights of both groups to self-determination and your account of self-determination still provides for adequate protections for any minority groups in the state.

But the reason I'm a committed two-stater is that it's very hard to think of another outcome that simultaneously respects the self-determination rights of Jews and Palestinians while also satisfying the minimum equal citizenship threshold. The "make Palestine Jordanian again" proposal does, I think, a good job illustrating why even supposedly "secular" one-staters haven't fully drunk their own kool-aid.