Thursday, October 04, 2018

Why I Feel Bad Roundup

Are you watching "I Feel Bad"? I'm excited for it -- not the least because it features British-Indian-Israeli-Jewish actor Brian George. The conceit of the show is Sarayu Blue's character going through all the things in her daily life that make her feel bad (like "I'm turning into my mother"). So in honor of that, here are some of things in my life making me feel bad!

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If the Ben Wittes who wrote that bracing Atlantic article explaining why, even though he knows and respects Brett Kavanaugh, he couldn't vote to confirm him was possessed by a demon, he'd have written this Eli Steinberg article on why, despite (in the very barest possible sense) "believing" Ford he still thinks the only way to "return to normal" and "get[] politics out of the pursuit of justice" is to vote to confirm.

Iran's Supreme Leader uses clips of Aly Raisman, among others, to argue that if women dressed more modestly (namely, wore a hijab) they wouldn't be sexually assaulted. That sound you hear is Raisman preparing to break another world record, this time for longest and loudest continuous cussing out of a single human being.

The Canary Mission -- the "pro-Israel" blacklisting site of (mostly young) people who are too-associated with BDS or Palestinian solidarity politics (read my extended thoughts on them here) has very closely guarded its funding sources. But the Forward found one of the donors -- and it's the San Francisco Jewish Federation. (Why I feel slightly better: the Federation concluded that it's funding guidelines were violated and promised not to allow such donations in the future)

More Canary! Here's a Zionist professor noting that he appears on the Canary blacklist despite opposing BDS, simply because he's also opposed certain proposed legal anti-BDS countermeasures (I wonder if I'm on there too?).

An American student of Palestinian ancestry was blocked from entering Israel to study at Hebrew University. Shades of the Michigan letter of recommendation case, except obviously 98% of people are scrambling to invert their position 180 degrees. Oh, and the Israeli ministry that excluded the student (who obtained a visa from the American Israeli consulate in Miami)? It apparently relied on reporting from ... you guessed it: Canary!

Jonathan Cohn reports on one of those annoying political realities that makes academics' and wonks' heads hurt: Bernie Sanders' "Stop BEZOS" bill was both utterly idiotic as policy, and yet likely responsible (in substantial part, at least) for Amazon's announced $15 minimum wage. It's not just "bad policy = good politics". It's that "promoting bad policies is good politics that sometimes can grease the path to good policies"! For anyone who cares both about good political and policy outcomes and really doesn't want to be a hack, that's a recipe for a big ol' frown-y face.

Wednesday, October 03, 2018

On the Latest Academic Hoax

A new academic hoax story has broken, and it's bigger than ever before.

Three scholars wrote twenty papers, none of which contained the arguments the authors believed (and all of which contained arguments the authors considered to be ridiculous) and sent them off to journals in the "grievance studies" set. By the time they had to pull the plug on the hoax, seven had been accepted, six were either still under review or under some form of "revise and resubmit", and six were rejected outright.

This project was an expansion on an earlier hoax where a gibberish paper called "The Conceptual Penis" was published in a pay-to-publish journal. The present effort distinguished itself both in the number of papers written and in the decision to submit to what the authors called highly-ranked journals in their disciplines. On that latter note, it's hard to assess -- once you start getting into the sub(-sub-sub)field weeds, what really counts as "highly-ranked"? -- but at least a couple of the journals they scored with are recognizable names (Hypatia, in particular, was a good get).

It's also true, as any observer of peer-reviewed scholarly literature can tell you, that a lot of peer-reviewed scholarly literature even in top journals is dreck. So the fact that the authors were able to get arguments that are (or they viewed as, anyway) dreck published is not itself surprising; though perhaps it gives insight into exactly what and how dreck gets through the process.

Nonetheless, I think there are some important limitations on what one can draw from this "study", including significant ethical ramifications in how the "data" was presented. One might say I'm being overly credulous in even treating this project as one that seeks to earnestly improve the quality of academic publishing standards (hint: if that's your goal, sneeringly referring to your targeted disciplines as "grievance studies" is a bad way to start). But, in part we should be self-reflective about the quality of writing and reasoning in academia, I'll take it on its terms.

First, the limits on the conclusion. The authors' methodology was to take arguments that they figured would be appealing to the editorial staff of a given journal but which they, personally, found to be outlandish, and see if they could get them published.

They say that proves a serious malfunction in the peer-review process. I say "haven't they just passed an ideological Turing test?"

An ideological Turing test measures one's ability to mimic the beliefs of the "other side". You "pass" if you successfully convince members of that side that you really are one of them. So let's say I, a liberal, adopt a pseudonym and submit an article to Breitbart. I do my best to make it look, feel, and sound like a Breitbart-style conservative article. Now clearly, I wouldn't believe what I was writing about. The key question is whether they'd recognize the sham: would they say "this sounds like what a liberal thinks a conservative sounds like" (which is, indeed, what it actually is) or would they believe that this is an actual conservative writing? If the latter, then I've passed the test.

The thing is, nothing about passing the Turing test, on its own, demonstrates the falsity of the beliefs or arguments successfully mimicked. Someone on Twitter (I can't remember who) suggested the case of a young-Earth Creationist who submits an article to a biology journal that "mimics" tenets and presumptions of mainstream biological science. If his "hoax" succeeds, would we say "aha! The biological sciences are hopelessly corrupted, to be taken in by this prankster!" No -- we'd say that the author has, albeit disingenuously, written an actual good argument (that he happens not to believe). Likewise, if I successfully spoof Breitbart, I doubt they'd take that as decisive evidence that they've gone off the rails.

The case for why these papers are different, then, can't simply turn on the fact that (a) the authors don't believe the arguments they made and (b) they were nonetheless accepted. There has to be something else in the argument that makes them objectively bad, such that it represents a failure (beyond the fact of the disingenuous motives of the author) for the journal to have accepted it. So what might these be?

This is hard to assess, because the authors don't link to the full papers (the accepted versions have, unsurprisingly, now all been retracted) and because their summaries are by design written to make their claims sound as outlandish as possible. But at least in some cases this isn't facially self-evident.

Take the paper they got into Hypatia. Its thesis is "That academic hoaxes or other forms of satirical or ironic critique of social justice scholarship are unethical, characterized by ignorance and rooted in a desire to preserve privilege." One certainly understands the extra-dose of gleeful "gotcha-ness" the hoaxers enjoyed in getting this paper into Hypatia. But it's hardly the sort of article whose "wrongness" transparently stands out such that reviewers should have obviously known, on face, that it was ridiculous. After all, one could absolutely believe that satirical critiques of this sort of scholarship are unethical and rooted in a desire to preserve privilege (the "characterized by ignorance" is, I concede, at least arguably performatively contradicted by the ability of the authors to sufficiently effectively mimic these arguments such that they got their papers published. But even then, that would just show that one prong of the element was, after the fact, demonstrated to be falsified).

Ditto their Fat Studies paper on fat bodybuilding. Again, the article isn't accessible anymore, but if the basic thesis is that there could be various ways to present "fat" bodies as (in the authors' words) "legitimately-built bodies" worthy of attention and praise, even now I won't say that is a transparently ridiculous assertion. Think of what the ESPN Body Issue has done on this score, for example -- quite a few of its models, at the very least, undermine the notion that "fat" and "athletic" (or even "muscular") are mutually exclusively categories (quoth one of the athletes, a Major League pitcher: "As a baseball player, if I'm pitching 35 times a season, seven innings a pop, 100 pitches a game, I need some fat. I need some extra meat on my body."). And to the extent the "obvious wrongness" is based on the thesis being "positively dangerous to health", I call foul both because it oversimplifies what the research actually shows regarding the linkage between health and what is deemed "fat" in contemporary American society, and because "mainstream" bodybuilding very obviously also doesn't represent the apogee of healthy living either.

Again, I'm not saying that either of these claims are clearly right. But they're not, at least as presented, transparently wrong such that nobody (not just not-the-authors) could find them believable or worth engaging with.

Another potential reason why we could say that reviewers "failed" in not recognizing the wrongness of the article is where there is outright falsification of data. This is something they (apparently) did in the "Portland dog park" paper (they claim to have "tactfully inspected the genitals of slightly fewer than 10,000 dogs whilst interrogating owners as to their sexuality"). Maybe a good reviewer should have recognized that this seemed suspicious. But here I'd say that peer review is actually quite bad at catching this sort of outright fabrication (political science had it's own scandal on this score not too long ago). Perhaps unsurprisingly, peer review works best on the presumption that the author is earnestly presenting genuine arguments obtained by honest means. Our peer-review system would be even more dysfunctional than it already is if the first question reviewers asked is "is this paper lying to me?"

And that moves me to the ethical qualms I have in how the hoax authors have presented their findings -- most notably, in how they treat the peer reviewer comments. Each of the papers they submitted -- including those which were rejected -- comes with a selection of peer review comments, all of which are positive. The idea, presumably, is to demonstrate that even their worst papers that didn't get accepted nonetheless were not treated with the sneering dismissal they deserved.

There are two problems with this presentation. First, I think it is actually capturing trends in peer-review to be more constructive, charitable, and supportive towards the papers under consideration -- all good things. One of the reviewers quoted (who had recommended rejecting the article) explained his more positive feedback as an attempt to "buy in" to the paper and provide constructive comments explaining why the article itself didn't work without discouraging the author from the field entirely. It is, I think, a good thing to read articles in their strongest possible light -- to try to think of the best interpretation of the claims the authors are trying to make rather than the most nefarious. This is a practice that hoaxes, in particular, exploit -- they gain their force precisely in the knowledge that their readers will commit the terrible sin of trying to take them seriously.

The second problem with the way the reviewer comments were presented is simultaneously more and less serious. Simply put: if the hoaxer's goal really was to provide a pathway for identifying what is and isn't "working" in these academic disciplines (and I concede that may be far too optimistic), then there is no justification for not including the negative or critical reviewer comments that (presumably) explained why papers were not accepted. Partially, this is simply a matter of misrepresentation -- only giving the positive comments but not the negative ones oversells how receptive readers were to these pieces.

But more importantly, the part of me that wanted to earnestly take this hoax seriously as a genuine effort to constructively critique certain academic disciplines was the most thirsty for learning the content of the negative reviews. What is it that gets a paper rejected in Sociology of Race and Ethnicity (or what have you)? Clearly, it isn't a wild west where anything goes so long as you mimic the right politics (the authors -- somewhat begrudgingly -- admit that their project conclusively falsified that hypothesis). Consequently, figuring out where the borders are, what raises flags and what doesn't, is actually incredibly important to the extent the project is actually meant to have any sort of constructive edge. That these weren't included is powerful evidence about what the ambitions of the hoaxers really were. So it's a more serious critique to the extent I take the hoaxers seriously as trying to have a constructive impact on academic publishing; and a less serious critique to the extent that ascribing such seriousness of purpose is absurd.

In any event. I don't need persuading that academic publishing includes a lot of terrible work, and I don't need persuading that there are certain common markers as to what gets terrible work published. But this hoax overshoots the mark -- mostly because its goal isn't really to build a better scholarly mousetrap but rather to grind certain ideological axes.

My recommendation, therefore, is revise and resubmit.

Sunday, September 30, 2018

Why Left Anti-Semitism?

Below is the written version of the talk I gave at SF Hillel earlier today. They invited me to speak on the subject of left anti-Semitism after reading my article on Open Hillel's intervention in the litigation over antisemitism at San Francisco State University. I asked if I could specifically speak on the question "Why Left Anti-Semitism?", and this was the result (I've added some hyperlinks where useful for context).

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I was invited here to talk about “left anti-Semitism.” This makes sense: It is a topic I’ve written about frequently, including in the context of the ongoing controversies at S.F. State and at Berkeley. So it’s an issue that I’m comfortable talking about and which I feel is important to talk about.

But on another level, some might ask: why left anti-Semitism? Why, right now, should that be our specific focus?

I have an answer to that question, and I’ll get to it in a few moments. But it is a valid question to ask—for a variety of reasons, but I’ll lead with the one that casts the largest shadow:

In the United States, in 2018, the anti-Semitism most likely to put a bullet in my brain comes from the right.

It sometimes seems as if that obvious yet terrifying truth is overlooked. We are living in an America and a world seeing a surge—and mainstreaming—of right-wing antisemitism the likes of which haven’t been seen in my lifetime. A White Supremacist stabbed to death a gay Jewish college student in southern California. A man carves swastikas into his rifle and then killed 17 people at a Florida high school that is 40% Jewish. Printers at UC-Berkeley have been hacked into to spit out Nazi iconography; just one of a flurry of similar incidents occurring at colleges across the country.

By contrast, as of today, the death toll attributable to intersectional feminists remains firmly at zero. So why left anti-Semitism?

And it’s not just violent extremists. Right-wing anti-Semites are alarmingly mainstream. Many of you know of the American Nazi who’s running for Congress as a Republican in Illinois’ 3rd congressional district—perhaps that one can be excused, since his primary was uncontested in a deep blue district. But it’s harder to overlook Steve King, the Congressman from Iowa whose openly White supremacist rhetoric (“we can’t restore our civilization with someone else’s babies”; “demographics are our destiny”) is paired with regular and unapologetically retweets of Nazis and other right-wing extremists. Or Steve West, who thinks “Hitler was right” and who just won a contested GOP primary for a Missouri state house seat. Or Jim Hagedorn, who said Joe Lieberman voted for the Iraq war because he’s Jewish—he’s favored to win the race in Minnesota’s swing 1st district, which happens to be the one where my wife grew up and my in-laws still live. These things may feel distant for those of us in the Bay Area—but they’re not so distant for all of us.

So why left anti-Semitism? That question invites another: What is the relationship between institutional Jewry and the left?

The other day, I was contacted by a Jewish media professional hawking a new service providing “talking points” on matters of anti-Semitism and Israel. He told me that I “should consider them a consensus view across an extensive spectrum of North America’s Jewish community.” Of the groups he listed as participating in the project, not a single one represented the Jewish left. And I’m not talking about Jewish Voice for Peace—I’m talking about the Zionist left: J Street, Ameinu, Third Narrative, Americans for Peace Now, Partners for Progressive Israel—none were there (also noteworthy, none of the groups were associated with the non-European or non-Ashkenazi Jewish community either). I had to tell this guy that the “spectrum” of American Jewish life does not extend from the right all the way to the center. But too often, that’s been the reality—and it’s a reality that I shouldn’t have to say is deeply unrepresentative of the demographics of the actual American Jewish community (much less the young community Hillel serves on campus). Some would suggest that it is this non-representativeness that is the real answer to the question “why left anti-Semitism?”

At this point, the question “why left anti-Semitism” starts to overlap with another truth which the institutional Jewish community needs to face: Too often, in our community, we police the left to the letter while letting the right run wild.

Sometimes that policing is quite literal: the Forward broke the story the other day that the Israel on Campus Coalition, in partnership with Hillel, had been conducting clandestine surveillance of left-wing Jews on campus—an allegation which, if true, would represent an appalling betrayal of trust and abdication of mission. But it runs deeper than that. In Hillel we see it in the application of the standards of partnership. These standards are meant to establish a minimum baseline of civil and equitable principles that all Hillel community members are expected to follow. And in the course of their implementation, there have been countless cases of tension with left-wing students being judged and scrutinized and checked to make sure they don’t step a toe over the line. But the one time that a Hillel chapter even contemplated applying its standards of partnership to a right-wing speaker, last year at Princeton—the national organization couldn’t issue an apology fast enough. The message was evident: these rules bound the left. They don’t apply to the right.

It’s not just Hillel either. In our Jewish world, a commitment to the two-state solution is an absolute redline for the left—but nobody seems to mind the Zionist Organization of America openly flouting it on the right. In our Jewish world, it is absolutely beyond the pale to ever compare Jews or Jewish entities to Nazis or Nazi collaborators—unless you’re our ambassador to Israel. Then the President of the ADL will, on national television, dismiss it as a “stray comment” that it wasn’t his “job” to challenge.

And on that I have to say: many young Jews in the Bay Area have had the experience of being compared to Nazis because we stake out a left-Zionist position on campuses and in communities where even that is considered an unforgivable sin. We’ve nonetheless dug in our heels and stood our ground in defense of an Israel that is secure and democratic, a homeland for Jews and a state where all citizens are equals. And so it is impossible to overstate the sense of betrayal, when the nominee for the highest ranking American official in Israel was one who had said we were “worse than Kapos”, that the President of the ADL went on national television and said that it wasn’t any of his business. He sold us out. And each and every one of us knew that if it some left-wing adjunct professor of anthropology had called certain young Jews “worse than Kapos”, the ADL would have been all over it. But since it came from right, and targeted the left, it got a pass.

The message young liberal Jews have consistently gotten from our own community is that if we come under attack from a right-wing source with even a modicum of political influence, we’re on our own. And it hurts. It hurts to know, from repeated experience, that our community doesn’t have our backs. When accounting for the rise of groups like Open Hillel and IfNotNow (to say nothing of JVP), I don’t think mainstream Jewish organizations have internalized or reckoned with just how wounded, how abandoned, the community of young progressive Jews feels by those who supposedly represent them.

To be clear: we should support the two-state solution, and push back against those too eager to dispense wit hit. We should say Nazi comparisons are beyond the pale, and I agree with the IHRA antisemitism definition in thinking that such rhetoric is per se antisemitic. And I’m okay with Hillel having standards of partnership, to ensure community members engage equitably and respectfully with one another. But these principles and standards cannot cut one way. And too often, they do, and young liberal Jews notice. And so, in this moment, they might also ask “why left anti-Semitism”, and wonder if focusing on that, right now, is part of this same misbegotten pattern.

So why left anti-Semitism? I promised I had an answer to that question—and I should hope so, since as I mentioned I’ve devoted a considerably part of my career as a scholar and writer to discussing it—and I do have an answer. And that answer is just this:

For many us—for most of us (of course not all of us)—the left is our home. This is where our commitments lie, this is where we make our political stands. The liberal, progressive community is our community, is our family, and of course it is reasonable for us to pay extra attention and exhibit extra concern for what is going on in our own house. Yes, it’s true that anti-Semitic violence in the United States emanates predominantly from the political right. But I’m not a part of the political right, and I harbor no expectations out of the political right. The anti-Semitism that obstructs me from participating in causes, or joining movements, or fighting battles that are very much my own is far more likely to stem from the political left.

Framed in this way, the question “why left anti-Semitism” almost looks insulting. It treats Jews as if we have no stake in the left, as if it was not ours. But Jews do not come to the left as strangers. We have roots here, we have commitments here, and we have as much right as anyone else to lay claim to being part of the left. When people express befuddlement (or worse, rage) at Jews caring so much about left anti-Semitism, they implicitly deny our standing as insiders to that political community.

Progressive Jews often stand in a posture of perpetual probation—always under suspicion, always under review, always viewed as a potential Fifth Column such that if we do raise objections, it is not read as a family member laying claim to the narrative of their own community, but as a saboteur who has revealed themselves as one of the enemy all along. And so left anti-Semitism always comes with a double dose of betrayal: the first being turned upon by those we thought were our friends, the second being the realization that the betrayers don’t even recognize it as a betrayal—it never occurred to them that we were part of their group—that we were friends—to begin with.

So there’s my answer to “why left anti-Semitism”: it’s because Jews are part of the left, and we have every entitlement to care about the future of our own political community in which many of us have invested so much. Now you’ll notice that this is a contingent observation: it applies to those Jews who are part of the left, and while most Jews in America broadly identify as left-of-center, not all do. And that’s fine! Jews come in all political shapes and sizes, and while most are some form of Zionist and some form of left-of-center, deviation from that norm—whether it comes in the form of being a far-left anti-Zionist or a right-wing Trump backer—should not in any way be thought to detract from one’s Jewishness.

But without prejudice to those who break from the mold, I address the Jewish majority—broadly left-of-center, broadly Zionist. And the basic idea here is one that Rabbi Angela Buchdahl ably expressed in her Rosh Hashanah sermon just a few weeks ago: there is a special role in fighting anti-Semitism on your side. Among your allies. Those on the left do and should legitimately pay special care to anti-Semitism in their own ranks. And since most Jews are, broadly speaking, “on the left”, most Jews have every right to be especially concerned with anti-Semitism on the left, among our allies.

Yet here too, there is something that needs to be said about “allies”. To lay claim to the legitimizing power of fighting anti-Semitism “among your allies”, you actually have to be an ally. We can’t keep trotting out who marched with Martin Luther King in the 1960s—a chestnut which, as one prominent African-American Jewish activist observed, is starting to border on "Party of Lincoln" territory. If our best examples of participating in progressive social movements came a half-century ago, that’s a problem. We have to actually be in the room, putting in the work, today.

But if it is true that Jewish groups have more work to be done to be allies, it’s also the case that Jewish non-presence “in the room” is not purely attributable to apathy or closet conservatism. It also stems from conscious strategies of exclusion; indeed, it is a key feature of left anti-Semitism that it tries to lock Jews out of the room. It’s true that some Jews were late to join up with the Black Lives Matter movement. It’s also true that one of the earliest supporters of that movement, Rabbi Susan Talve, faced a concerted push from groups like Jewish Voice for Peace to muscle her out of the room—under the repulsive hashtag #RealTerrorist no less [Update: On further research, this needs some clarification. I'd say it is fair to characterize JVP as part of the movement trying to exclude Rabbi Talve, but they did not use the #RealTerrorist hashtag. They did, however, very pointedly decline to take a position that hashtag -- saying it was "not a conversation we wish to have".].

The paradox of left anti-Semitism is that it indicts Jews for allegedly not showing up, and then pulls out all the stops in order to prevent Jews from showing up. It condemns Jews for not joining the struggle, and then it condemns Jews for asserting that the struggle is ours.

This is no accident. Decisions are made by, and authority is vested in, the people in the room. We’ve seen so many cases—at the Chicago Dyke March, at the Creating Change LGBT conference, at a civil rights fair here at S.F. State, in academic and cultural institutions across the world—of trying to lock Jews (or, at least, the “bad Jews”, which ends up covering most Jews) out of the room. The fact of the exclusion hurts, but it is not just sadism at work here. When groups mobilize to try to lock other Jews out, there are also trying to diminish the authority of those Jews to register claims demanding collective attention. When Jews—or the wrong Jews, the non-hand-picked Jews—aren’t present, then other voices can fill the gap to talk about Jews without listening to Jews. British sociologist David Hirsh has worried that a whole generation of leftists are being taught that Jews are the enemy, outside the community of the good. This project demands that Jews not be admitted into the spaces and organization and communities within which we could performatively contest that label, and instead take on the role of a friend. It is no wonder that our presence is resisted so.

So much anti-Semitism—left and right—is about degrading the authority and credibility of Jews to make claims. The most straightforward instances are also the most familiar: the persistent drumbeat that when Jews speak we’re part of a cabal, or a conspiracy, or an Israeli plot; that we’re lying, or deluded, or acting in bad faith; that we’re Hasbara shills or “crying anti-Semitism”; that we’re pawns of Soros or only interested in shielding Israel from all criticism. Each of these are examples of anti-Semitism taking on an epistemic dimension—it undermines Jews as witnesses and testifiers, as even candidates to possess knowledge that others might have a duty to heed. And the effort to exclude Jews and Jewish groups from progressive organizations and movements is part of this same dynamic. Directly, it impedes Jewish ability to speak for ourselves and to participate in conversations and causes we have very real stakes in. Indirectly, it sabotages our standing as members of our community—writing us out of spaces and places that are very much ours, and recasting us as strangers, enemies, and saboteurs.

The temptation, sometimes, is to walk away. But this isn’t really an option. For starters, where would we go? If the left is our home, then I paraphrase Du Bois: “I would not leave it if I could, I could not leave it if I would.” The right has no real place for us—even in the left’s worst moments, like we’re seeing now in the UK, the choice remains the Labour that snuggles up to Hamas versus the Tories who cozy up to Orban. More often, the choice is between a Trump and a Clinton, and if someone is making that decision by reference to left anti-Semitism, the only possible response is “why?”

In any event, the whole point of that opening soliloquy was that it is not objective danger but rather our familial and ideological bonds to the left that makes its iterations of anti-Semitism sting so badly—a woundedness that can only come from genuine attachment. The right isn’t a home for Jews for the same reason it’s never been a home for the Jews—and it is liable to get worse before it gets better.

But it’s also wrong to walk away because it plays directly into the hands of the anti-Semites seeking to drive us out. If they want to purge the Jews, why should we do their work for them? Why should we cede ground and space that we have every right to stand upon? Make them earn their inches.

“We are here and this is ours”—that was the rallying cry of Loolwa Khazzoom, an Iraqi-American Jewish feminist who organized the first anthology of Middle Eastern Jewish women writers. It also works as a rallying cry for the left-of-center Jewish majority when challenged as to why we care about left anti-Semitism. We care because we are here on the left, and we care because the left is ours as much as anyone else’s. And we shouldn't bow to anybody on either score.