Friday, August 10, 2018

The Problem of "Centering" and the Jews

Note: I wrote this piece quite a few months ago, shopping around to the usual Jewish media outlets. None were interested, and I ended up letting it slide. But it popped back into my mind -- this Sophie Ellman-Golan article helped -- and so I decided to post it here. While I have updated it, some of the references are a bit dated (at least on an internet time scale). Nonetheless, I continue to think a critical look at how the idea of "centering" interacts with and can easily instantiate antisemitic tropes is deeply important.

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In the early 2000s, Rosa Pegueros, a Salvadoran Jew, was a member of the listserv for contributors to the book This Bridge We Call Home, sequel to the tremendously influential volume This Bridge Called My Back. Another member of the listserv had written to the group with "an almost apologetic post mentioning that she is Jewish, implying that some of the members might not be comfortable with her presence for that reason." She had guessed she was the only Jewish contributor to the volume, so Pegueros wrote back, identifying herself as a Jew as a well and recounting a recent experience she perceived as antisemitic.

Almost immediately, Peugeros wrote, another third contributor jumped into the conversation.  "I can no longer sit back," she wrote, "and watch this list turn into another place where Jewishness is reduced to a site of oppression and victimization, rather than a complex site of both oppression and privilege—particularly in relationship to POC."

Pegueros was stunned. At the time of this reply, there had been a grand total of two messages referencing Jewishness on the entire listserv. And yet, it seemed, that was too much -- it symbolized yet "another place" where discourse about oppression had become "a forum for Jews."

This story has always stuck with me. And I thought of it when reading Jews for Racial and Economic Justice's guidebook to understanding antisemitism from a left-wing perspective. Among their final pieces of advice for Jews participating in anti-racism groups was to make antisemitism and Jewish issues "central, but not centered".

It's good advice. Jewish issues are an important and indispensable part of anti-racist work. That said, we are not alone, and it is important to recognize that in many circumstances our discrete problems ought not to take center stage. That doesn't mean they shouldn't be heard. It just means they should not be given disproportionate attention such that they prevent other important questions and campaigns from proceeding. Ideally, "central, but not centered" in the anti-racism community means that Jewish issues should neither overwhelm the conversation nor be shunted aside and ignored outright.

Yet it also overlooks an important caveat. Too often, any discussion of Jewish issues is enough to be considered "centering" it. There is virtually no gap between spaces where Jews are silenced and spaces where Jews are accused of "centering". And so the reasonable request not to "center" Jewish issues easily can, and often does, become yet another tool enforcing Jewish silence.

Pegueros' account is one striking example. I'll give another: several years ago, I was invited to a Jewish-run feminist blog to host a series of posts on antisemitism. Midway through the series, the blog's editors were challenged on the grounds that it was taking oxygen away from more pressing matters of racism. At the time, the blog had more posts on "racism" than "antisemitism" by an 8:1 margin (and, in my experience, that is uncommonly attentive to antisemitism on a feminist site -- Feministing, for example, has a grand total of two posts with the "anti-Semitism" tag in its entire history). No matter: the fact that Jewish feminists on a Jewish blog were discussing Jewish issues at all was viewed as excessive and self-centered.

Or consider Raphael Magarik's reply to Yishai Schwartz's essay contending that Cornel West has "a Jewish problem".

Schwartz's column takes issue with West's decision to situate his critique of fellow Black intellectual Ta-Nehisi Coates by reference to "the neoliberal establishment that rewards silences on issues such as Wall Street greed or Israeli occupation of Palestinian lands and people." Magarik's reply accuses Schwartz of making the West/Coates dispute fundamentally "about the Jews", exhibiting the "the moral narcissism in thinking that everything is about you, in reading arguments between Black intellectuals about the future of the American left and asking: How can I make this about the Jews?"

Now, Magarik is surely correct that the Jewish angle of West's critique of Coates is a rather small element that should not become the "center of attention" and thereby obscure "the focus [on] Black struggles for liberation." But there is something quite baffling about his suggestion that a single column that was a drop in the bucket of commentary produced in the wake of the West/Coates exchange could suffice to make it the "center of attention". If Magarik believes Schwartz overreacted to some stray mentions of Jewish issues in an otherwise intramural African-American dispute, surely Magarik equally brought a howitzer to a knife fight by claiming that one article in Ha'aretz single-handedly recentered the conversation about the West/Coates feud onto the Jews.

What's going on here? How is it that the "centering" label -- certainly a valid concern in concept -- seems to routinely and pervasively attach itself to Jews at even the slightest intervention in policy debates?

The answer, as you might have guessed, relates to antisemitism.

As a social phenomenon, antisemitism is very frequently the trafficking in tropes about Jewish hyperpower, the sense that we either have or are on the cusp of taking over anything and everything. Frantz Fanon described antisemitism as follows: "Jews are feared because of their potential to appropriate. ‘They’ are everywhere. The banks, the stock exchanges, and the government are infested with them. They control everything. Soon the country will belong to them.” If we have an abstract understanding of Jews as omnipotent and omnipresent, no wonder that specific instances of Jewish social participation -- no matter how narrow the contribution might be -- are understood as a complete and total colonization of the space. What are the Jews, other than those who are already "everywhere"?

Sadly, the JFREJ pamphlet does not address this issue at all. When "central" crosses into "centering" will often be a matter of judgment, but while the JFREJ has much to say about Jews making "demands for attention" or paying heed to "how much oxygen they can suck out of the room", it does not grapple with how the structure of antisemitism mentalities often renders simply being Jewish (without a concurrent vow of monastic silence) enough to trigger these complaints. It doesn't seem to realize how this entire line of discourse itself can be and often is deeply interlaced with antisemitism.

JFREJ's omission is particularly unfortunate since Jews have begun to internalize this sensibility. It's not that Jewish issues should predominate, or always be at the center of every conversation. It's the nagging sense that any discussion of Jewish issues -- no matter how it is prefaced, cabined, or hedged -- is an act of "centering", of taking over, of making it "about us." When the baseline of what counts as "centering" is so low, I know from personal experience that even the simplest asks for inclusion are agonizing.

As early as 1982, the radical lesbian feminist Irene Klepfisz identified this propensity as a core part of both internalized and externalized antisemitism. She instructed activists -- Jewish and non-Jewish alike -- to ask themselves a series of questions, including whether they feel that dealing with antisemitism "drain[s] the movement of precious energy", whether they believe antisemitism "has been discussed too much already," and whether Jews "draw too much attention to themselves."

Contemporary activists, including many Jews, could do worse than asking Klepfisz's questions. For example, when Jews and non-Jews in the queer community rallied against the effort by some activists to expel Jewish and Israeli LGBTQ organizations from LGBT conference "Creating Change", Mordechai Levovitz fretted that they had "promoted the much more nefarious anti-Semitic trope that Jews wield disproportionate power to get what we want." Levovitz didn't support the expulsion campaign. Still, he worried that even the most basic demand of inclusion -- don't kick queer Jews out of the room -- was potentially flexing too much Jewish muscle. In this way, the distinction between "central" and "centering" collapses -- indeed, even the most tertiary questions are "centering" if Jews are the ones asking them.

This is bad enough in a world where, we are told, oppressions are inextricably connected (you can tell whose perspective is and isn't valued in these communities based on whose attempts to speak are taken to be remedying an oversight and whose are viewed as self-centered derailing). But it verges on Kafka-esque when persons demand Jews "show up" and then get mad that they have a voice in the room; or proactively decide to put Jewish issues on their agenda and yet still demand Jews keep silent about them.

Magarik says, for example, that Jews "were not the story" when the Movement for Black Lives included in its platform an accusation that Israel was creating genocide; we shouldn't have made it "about us". He's right, in the sense that this language should not have caused Jews to withdraw from the fight against police violence against communities of color. He's wrong in suggesting that Jews therefore needed to stop "wringing our hands" about how issues that cut deep to the core of our existence as a people were treated in the document. Jews didn't demand that the Movement for Black Lives talk about Jews, but once they elected to do so Jews were not obliged to choose between the right's silence of shunning and the left's silence of acquiescence. To say that Jews ought not "center" ourselves is not to say that there is no place for critical commentary at all. We are legitimate contributors to the discourse over our own lives.

I'm not particularly interested in the substantive debate regarding whether Cornel West has a "Jewish problem" -- though Magarik's defense of West (that he "has a good reason for focusing on Palestine" because it "demarcates the difference between liberalism and radicalism") seems like it is worthy of some remark (of all the differences between liberals and "radicals", this is the issue that is the line of demarcation? And that doesn't exhibit some sign of centrality that Jews might have valid grounds to comment on, not the least of which could be wondering how it is a small country half a globe away came to occupy such pride of place?). The larger issue is the metadebate about whether it's valid to even ask the question; or more accurately, whether it is possible -- in any context, with any amount of disclaimers about relative prioritization -- to ask the question without it being read as "centering". The cleverest part of the whole play, after all, is that the very act of challenging this deliberative structure whereby any and all Jewish contributions suffice to center is that the challenge itself easily can become proof of our centrality.

But clever as it is, it can't and shouldn't be a satisfactory retort. There needs to be a lot more introspection about whether and how supposed allies of the Jews are willing to acknowledge the possibility that their instincts about when Jews are "centered" and when we're silenced are out-of-whack, without it becoming yet another basis of resentment for how we're making it all about us. And if we can't do that, then there is an antisemitism problem that really does need to be addressed. When discussing their struggles, members of other marginalized communities need not talk about Jews all the time, or most of the time, or even all that frequently. But what cannot stand is a claimed right to talk about Jews without having to talk with Jews. The idea that even the exploration of potential bias or prejudice lurking within our political movements represents a deliberative party foul is flatly incompatible with everything the left claims to believe about how to talk about matters of oppression.

West decided to bring up the Jewish state in his Jeremiad against Coates. It was not a central part of his argument, and so it should not be a central part of the ensuing public discussion. But having put it on the table, it cannot be the case that Jews are forbidden entirely from offering critical commentary.

One might say that a column or two in a few Jewish-oriented newspapers, lying at the tertiary edges of the overall debate, is precisely the right amount of attention that should have been given. If that's viewed as too much, then maybe the right question isn't about whether Jews are "centering" the discussion, but rather whether our presence really is a "central" part of anti-racism movements at all.

Drawing the line between "central" and "centering" is difficult, and requires work. There are situations where Jews demand too much attention, and there are times we are too self-effacing. But surely it takes more than a single solitary column to move from the latter to the former. More broadly, we're not going to get an accurate picture of how to mediate between "central" and "centering" unless we're willing to discuss how ingrained patterns of antisemitism condition our evaluations of Jewish political participation across the board.

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