Wednesday, November 14, 2018

The Antisemitism that Keeps Me Up at Night

What is the type of antisemitism that keeps you up at night?

For me, believe it or not, it isn't the violence. It isn't Pittsburgh. Pittsburgh is scary, but -- rightly or wrongly -- I continue to think that this sort of antisemitism is and will remain a rare occurrence in the United States.

The antisemitism that gives me nightmares is a different sort, and requires some explaining. But the short version is that it's the antisemitism of negative partisanship (or "the politics of hurt").

Here's what I mean by that. Antisemitic acts are sometimes done by people who don't conceive of themselves as antisemites. In such cases, we'd expect that the reaction of Jews to those acts -- the declaration that "this was antisemitic" and "this hurt us" -- to count as a negative. The actor would not have desired that result, that his or her action elicited such a response would count against it. And even if the actor isn't so chagrined, we'd hope that this would be the impact on social observers. If people see that Jews reacted negatively to something -- that we thought it was scary, or unjust, or antisemitic, or what have you -- then they'd be less favorably disposed towards whatever it was that caused us to react so poorly.

But this isn't always what happens. Sometimes, in some cases, a poor Jewish reaction isn't viewed as a negative. It's viewed as a positive. It shows that you're poking the right people. It shows you're standing up to power. It shows that you haven't been cowed. "If you're taking flak, that means you're over the target", as the saying goes -- a saying which assumes that those firing the flak are also the enemy to be targeted.

Consider Tamika Mallory's infamous remark, in response to Jewish criticism of alleged antisemitism, that "If your leader does not have the same enemies as Jesus, they may not be THE leader!" Obviously, in context there was a specific antisemitic valence to the "Jesus" reference that has been much remarked on. But even if you strip that part away, there's a deeper problem: Mallory is casting it as a point of pride that the Jews are critiquing her -- are her "enemies". It's one of the ways she knows she's on the right track. The victim-blaming template Ariel Sobel attributed to the Women's March -- where largely progressive Jewish criticism is transformed into a coordinated right-wing assault (itself an antisemitic maneuver of deep vintage) -- is in the same vein. The goal is to make it so that when people hear these sorts of criticisms from these sorts of people, their instinct is to pull closer towards the object of critique. If they're taking flak from Jews, then they must be over the target.

This is what keeps me up at night, because it subverts any possibility of effective Jewish political action in response to perceived wrongs. If it is a perk that Jews are upset, if it is a positive political sign, then it's counterproductive for Jews even to try and communicate "this hurt us." Expressions of Jewish hurt end up redounding to the benefit of those causing the hurt. What are we to do?

Particularly in political contexts, this can yield dangerous feedback loops. I have no doubt that Jewish dislike of Jeremy Corbyn cost Labour votes in some districts, particularly heavily Jewish neighborhoods. I also have no doubt that, on a national level, the perception that Jews dislike Corbyn gained him at least as many votes as it lost him. There are definitely people for whom the chasm between Corbyn and the Jews is how they know Corbyn is "THE leader". The reason why Labour under Corbyn has so much trouble "quitting" antisemitism is because Labour is, in very real ways, aided by the perception that Labour under Corbyn antagonizes the Jews.

This has effects here at home too. Consider how Minnesota Jews might react to the Ilhan Omar doubletalk controversy I wrote about yesterday. Right now, the way I feel towards Omar, and the way I imagine many Minnesota Jewish community members feel, is something like the following:
We have serious problems with BDS, which for us has deep associations with antisemitism and antisemitic exclusion targeting Jews around the world. But beyond those substantive problems, it's especially upsetting and disrespectful for you to come before a synagogue, say you find BDS 'counteractive', and then once the election is over say 'actually, I've always supported BDS' and pretend like you weren't blatantly misleading us. The moderator "didn't ask a yes or no question"? Don't insult our intelligence. And add this to the 'hypnotize' tweet -- which you've still never acknowledged has antisemitic resonances -- and we've got some very serious concerns right now.
In a healthy political environment for Jews, this sort of sentiment would be viewed as a negative for Omar. It would be damaging, if Jews in her community were reacting this way, that would be a sign she'd done something wrong. I'm not saying it should necessarily be fatal or unrecoverable -- indeed, I think the opposite. In a healthy political environment, the fact that this would be viewed as a problem would motivate Omar to try to heal the damage and mend the rift. It would be bad for Ilhan Omar to be in a state where Jews were upset with her.

But does anyone have any confidence that, if such above sentiments were expressed, it would be viewed as a negative for Omar? Is it not possible, even likely, that such a reaction from Jews instead would be evidence that Omar was "bold", was "independent", was "unapologetically progressive" (even though, of course, the base of the controversy was actually that Omar had engaged in a pretty classic case of political weasel-wording)? Wouldn't the Jewish reaction very quickly be recast as a right-wing reaction, even though most Minnesota Jews are quite consciously progressive? Wouldn't many people be even more positively inclined towards Omar than they already were -- proud to see her stand tall against the Jewish onslaught?

Again, this is speculative -- we don't know how, if at all, the Jewish community in Minnesota plans to respond to Omar, nor how Omar plans to respond to her Jewish constituents. And the possibility of turning converting Jewish opposition into political support doesn't mean it's a path that would be taken. A genuine ally would resist the temptation; even if the prospect of adulation for "standing up" to the Jews presents itself, she would not indulge because of her own accord she would be unhappy that Jews were unhappy with her.

Nonetheless, this prospect -- and my fundamental lack of confidence that this prospect isn't actually reality -- keeps me up at night. David Hirsh wrote worryingly that -- more than BDS, more than school or synagogue security, more than the future of relations between Israel and the west, more than anything else -- "what really frightens me is that a generation of left-wing activists are being taught that the enemy is the Jews." Even if you think that's a little overwrought, I would endorse the notion that a generation of left-wing activists are being taught that if Jews are angry at them, that means they're doing something right rather than something wrong.

Naively or not, the cornerstone of my resistance to antisemitism -- what gives me the confidence that it can be resisted -- is a firm belief in the possibility that empathic dialogue and open communication can change minds and alter behavior. I believe -- again, perhaps naively -- that most people don't want to see Jews hurting, and hence that when we express hurt, people will be at least more inclined to change their ways.

If that's wrong, if people -- including the people in my community, including the people that supposedly are my most essential allies against Pittsburgh-style antisemitic violence -- are excited, thrilled, empowered by seeing Jews in distress, then my entire edifice for fighting antisemitism crumbles. And that keeps me up at night.


Rebecca said...

I suspect you won't like this response - but the risk of something like this happening, on the left or on the right, is why I am a Zionist.

David Schraub said...

Why wouldn't I like that response? Sustained and justified mistrust of non-Jewish political attitudes towards Jews is a very resonant justification for Zionism, IMO.

Raphael said...

"Why wouldn't I like that response?"

Hm, people who are relatively new to your blog might assume you have a more negative view of zionism than people who've followed your blog for a longer time.

marni s said...

A while ago there was a JVP video, gleefully extolling someone "owning Israel supporters". The reactionary "owning Israel supporters" seems to be the progressive corollary to trump reactionaries "owning the libs". to hell with cost or content. What matters is hurting "the opposition".

So too does there exist the progressive corollary of racism as an acceptable price of admission. In the case of the jvp video "I don't support the group I'm saying I support the content of the video". And the more personal "I know he's an anti-semite but he's my friend".

To that end I sometimes think maybe I should take solace that this has nothing to do with Jews per se and more to do with us being the left's favorite stand in for piss poor argument trends and so much shouting on Facebook.