Monday, March 18, 2019

Gap Day Predictions

I'm in the aforementioned gap day between my friends' wedding (it was great!) and my honeymoon (leave tomorrow!).

But I've been wanting to lay down my current take/prediction on the 2020 Democratic primary. Because it's never too early, and if I get it right now I will be seen as a God.

In short: I think the field will winnow down to Harris versus Sanders and I think Harris wins that head-to-head.

More specifically, and including potentials as well as the already-announced:

Joe Biden: I didn't think he'd run, frankly. There are two stories to his lofty status in the polls. One is that it's pure name recognition and that, much like all his other presidential campaigns, he'll crater once the race actually gets under way. The other is that Biden is widely liked, is viewed (rightly or not) as very electable, and will lock down the hefty portion of the Democratic primary electorate which misses the Obama years. I think story one will end up beating story two.

Bernie Sanders: I actually also didn't think he'd run (I'm off to a great start). Sanders is helped by a fractured field, because I think he has the largest core of support (though like Biden some of his backing right now is a name recognition thing), but I don't know how much growth he has once other candidates drop out. Twitter I think exaggerates both how much Sanders is loved and how much he is loathed among Democrats, but other than Warren, I'm not sure which other major candidates' voters would go to Sanders once they drop out.

Elizabeth Warren: Her oxygen seems to have been sucked up by Sanders, which I think is unfortunate. I'm also surprised by how much the Cherokee DNA test thing seems to be sticking to her -- not saying it's unimportant, but we have like nine million political scandals each week and this one doesn't immediately jump out as the one that matters. If Sanders wasn't in the race I'd have her as one of the front-runners because she straddles the establishment/insurgent divide very well. But I don't see a lot of Bernie backers jumping ship to her, and that will do her in.

Kamala Harris: I think she's the strongest of the more "establishment" flavored Democratic candidates. The left is hitting her on criminal justice issues, which isn't surprising, but I think she can and will cover that flank pretty well. And other than that, she has a lot of strengths and very few weaknesses. Like Biden, she scratches the "I miss Obama" itch very well without, you know, being Joe Biden.

Amy Klobuchar: The "mean boss" thing doesn't matter as much as the fact that she seems to be trying to position herself as the "moderate" in the race. That's going to be a mistake this time around.

Cory Booker: I always liked Booker, but Harris seems to be occupying his lane of "smart, wonkish mainstream POC liberal who kind of reminds us of Obama". In a large field, I'm not sure he'll have enough space to distinguish himself fast enough to make a real go of it.

Kirsten Gillibrand: I'm honestly not sure why she's not getting any traction. And to the extent it's "because of what she did to Al Franken", I'm outright angry that anyone is holding that against her. She might fare better if/when Klobuchar drops.

Beto O'Rourke: I don't think he should be running for President. If you'd asked me yesterday I'd have said his campaign is DOA, but the $6.1 million initial haul at least raised my eyebrow.

Stacey Abrams: The real wild card. Of all the unannounced candidates this side of Joe Biden, she has the largest potential upside in terms of generating real enthusiasm--in part because she seems well-liked by both establishment and insurgent sorts. But I can also see her ultimately petering out. It's hard to see Democrats, desperate to win in 2020, nominating anyone who lost her last race--no matter how inspiring the campaign was (that goes for O'Rourke as well).

John Hickenlooper: Even more annoyed he's running than I am at Beto. He should be taking a Senate seat from Cory Gardner.

Pete Buttigieg: I'm sure he's very smart, but mayor of South Bend, Indiana (smaller than Miramar, Florida, but you don't see me covering Wayne Messam) is a pretty big leap to President. Maybe try boosting Democratic fortunes in the Hoosier State first?

Julian Castro: Another rising star who probably should've found a different office to pursue before "President". Though, like Indiana, Texas is tough territory for Democrats to win high-profile office, so maybe this is his best option. Still don't see much of a route forward for him. It's a bad sign he's getting even less attention than Buttigieg.

Jay Inslee: In a sense he doesn't count since he obviously isn't running to win, but just to draw attention to climate change. A noble goal. And since there's no Senate race he should be focusing on instead, I'm okay with it--so long as he doesn't pull any sore loser routine or distract from the ultimate nominee.

Tulsi Gabbard: "There are many great candidates running for the Democratic nomination, and also Tulsi Gabbard."

John Delaney: Will never, ever break out of "who?" status with most Americans.

Andrew Yang: I refuse to find out who this person is.

Thursday, March 14, 2019

The Honeymooners

I'm headed off to my honeymoon!

Technically, I'm leaving tomorrow for my friends' wedding in Durham, North Carolina (at 7 AM, since our original flight was grounded). We get back Sunday, and then Tuesday we fly out to Maui for the actual honeymoon!

But brief stop back home aside, it makes sense to view it as one continuous period where I'm out of commission. And while I don't plan to wholly detach myself from the world, I am going to try to make a conscious effort to unplug a little bit. It's a rare thing for me, but it'll probably be healthy.

I get back home -- for good -- Sunday, March 24. See you all then!

Tuesday, March 12, 2019

"Nah, You're Not Worth It"

The DOJ just announced 50 indictments in a massive bribery ring where wealthy parents paid to give their children an illicit boost in the college admissions process. The unlawful assistance included everything from falsely being "placed" on college sports teams (in sports they did not play), to falsification of test scores (or simply getting a smarter student to take the test instead). None of the students themselves are being charged, as the complaint alleges the parents were the primary actors.

Among those charged is Desperate Housewives star Felicity Huffman, and that led to this interesting little part of the story:
Huffman is accused of paying $15,000 — disguised as a charitable donation — to the Key Worldwide Foundation so her oldest daughter could participate in the scam. A confidential informant told investigators that he advised Huffman he could arrange for a third party to correct her daughter’s answers on the SAT after she took it. She ended up scoring a 1420 — 400 points higher than she had gotten on a PSAT taken a year earlier, according to court documents.
Huffman also contemplated running a similar scam to help her younger daughter but ultimately did not pursue it, the complaint alleges.
So I have to ask -- who comes out feel worse here? The older daughter, who now everyone knows had her college admission purchased by mommy and daddy? Or the younger daughter, who mom and dad considered "helping" in the same way but ultimately decided she wasn't worth the effort (hopefully -- hopefully -- because she was smart and talented enough on her own to not need it)?

Anyway, this is a massive abuse of the educational system by people already incredibly advantaged by their wealth and privilege, and I look forward to the results of the criminal process here.

Monday, March 11, 2019

Greetings, Fellow Jewish Youth!

A new organization has emerged, Jexodus, for Jewish millennials who want to "liberate" themselves from the Democratic Party. How exciting! To paraphrase one wag, now the "the grift of 'we speak for Millennial Jews'" has officially gone bipartisan. Watch, as they bask in the adulation of predominantly old conservatives (Jewish and non-) desperate to believe that the authentic wave of the Jewish future is exactly what they already believe, and delighted to find Jewish voices who will validate their decision to ignore the perspective of the Jewish community writ large.

But if you're going to start a conservative millennial Jewish liberation front, you have to start it right. So let me present the most on-brand fact about Jexodus you'll ever see:
Jexodus is the brainchild of Jeff Ballabon — a longstanding fixture in Republican Jewish circles — and an assortment of like-minded activists like Bruce Abramson, Ballabon's frequent op-ed coauthor. 
Yes, this voice of millennial Jewry was founded by Jeff Ballabon, age 57, and Bruce Abramson, age 55. Greetings, fellow youth indeed.

In the tradition of "Blexit", I'm sure this will gain a ton of media attention and maybe even some support from Russian bots, along side approximately zero support from young Jews who weren't already Republicans.

I can't wait.

Thursday, March 07, 2019

The Trouble with (Jewish) Anger

If you read contemporary political theory publications, you've probably seen that "anger" is having quite the moment as a political emotion right now. As against a skeptical literature where anger is viewed as necessarily destructive or reactionary, a bunch of theorists have sought to identify and promote the uses of anger as a tool of public mobilization, asking what anger can do or promote under appropriate circumstances.

Whenever I go to talks or read articles on that subject, though, I always find myself a bit perplexed. The authors seem to concentrate on defending the thesis that anger is powerful -- they suggest that anger (again, in the right circumstances) can accomplish things that might otherwise be out of reach. But it seems to me that the classical knock on anger isn't that it isn't powerful -- virtually everyone concedes that (how many fantasy novels tie anger to a powerful dark side that allows access to eldritch magic?). The problem with anger is that it's hard to control. Anger is difficult to contain and difficult to cabin. Once it is unleashed, it is hard to bottle back up. It ends up hurting those one doesn't intend to hurt, it lashes out in unpredictable and uncontrollable directions. And, of course, anger has the difficult property of being self-generating against critique -- trying to persuade someone that they should be less angry only makes them more angry (convenient, that!).

The Jewish community in America is, I think it is fair to say, getting angry. What are we angry about? Well, a few different things, I suspect:

  • We're angry that a community and a politics that we've long called our own seems to be increasingly comfortable with the promotion of antisemitic stereotypes, and is indifferent, at best, to our feelings of hurt and fear at that fact;
  • We're angry that we've been unable to muster any significant public attention towards or mobilization against antisemitism from the mainstream political right, no matter how much effort we expend trying to raise it, and we're angry that media sources who are utterly indifferent when we try to talk about right-wing antisemitism only perk up when we talk about left-wing antisemitism;
  • We're angry at left-wing antisemitism because we're angry about antisemitism generally but this antisemitism is in our home, and also because this is the antisemitism where we actually seem able to touch it and make people pay attention to it and make its perpetrators take notice of us, and so all the anger over the antisemitism where we can't make anyone care about it gets displaced and funneled into this one social arena where somebody will pay attention to it, even as we realize how unfair that is and we're angry about that too;
  • We're angry that we're blamed for how other people talk or don't talk about antisemitism, and we're angry that people seem less interested in hearing what Jews have to say than in cherry-picking the Jews whose views are consonant with the narrative they want to draw and trumpeting to high heaven;
  • We're angry that any time we try to talk about antisemitism in a case that's within a half-mile of "Israel", we're accused of being unable to tolerate "any" (any!) criticism of Israel, or of being in the bag for Likud, or of proving the point that maybe our loyalties are in doubt;
  • And, I think, we're angry that the Israeli government has been racing off to the right, busily making some -- some -- arguments that once were outlandish now plausible, and putting us in increasingly difficult positions. We're angry that we've been basically powerless to stop this decay of liberal democracy in Israel, we're angry that a community and a place that we care deeply about seems not to care about us in return and is mutating into something unrecognizable to us, and we're displacing that anger a bit.
That's a lot to be angry about. It's not unreasonable to be angry, about any or all of that. And I think it's the case that to some degree, anger has fueled some genuine counterattacks against all of these things. Jewish anger has, certainly, prompted some people to issue apologies who otherwise would've continued about their business, engendered some discussions that otherwise wouldn't have have begun, prompted some solidaristic bonding that might not have otherwise occurred. One could, I think, fairly say that Jewish anger has greased the path towards some accomplishments for the American Jewish community.

But anger, as powerful as it is, is also difficult to control. I don't like the political-me when I'm angry -- and more than that, I don't trust the political-me when I'm angry. My tactical choices are often unwise. And when I look out and say how angry we're getting, I worry. I worry that we're not going to be able to bottle it back up. I worry that it is going to burst it's bounds and rage beyond control.

People have been making a lot of (premature, in my view) comparisons between the Democratic Party and UK Labour. But this is one parallel that concerns me right now. British Jews are angry at Labour, and they're by no means unreasonable to feel that way -- I've been quite vocal in calling out the disgusting cesspool of antisemitism that has taken over the Labour Party under Jeremy Corbyn's watch. That's legitimately anger-inducing. And one could even argue that Jewish anger about this has played a significant role in forcing Labour to come to the table and take what (meager) steps it has taken to tackle antisemitism in its ranks.

But I also worry that this anger and bitterness has gotten so deep that it's almost impossible to imagine any set of steps by which Jews and Labour might reconcile. Even when Labour officials do issue statements or take steps that seem genuinely positive as expressions of the importance of tackling antisemitism, the mistrust runs so thick that they're often immediately rejected -- "what good is this statement or that commitment coming from so-and-so, who's been so terrible to us in the past?"

I'm not saying that these statements or commitments will always be followed through on or even that they're always offered in good faith. I'm saying it almost doesn't seem to matter any more, the efforts that are offered in good faith and would be followed through on are swept away just as decisively by the omnipresent feeling of woundedness and mistrust. At a certain level, what Jewish anger wants out of Labour is for it to have never done such awful things in the first place. But there's nothing Labour can promise to satisfy that demand -- and so the anger can never be placated. And that, ultimately, can only lead us to a destructive place, where Jews and the left must be enemies, because there is no longer anything that can be said or done that is interpreted to be a gesture of friendship (even the most perfectly worded statement can be dismissed as a front or a guise, or insufficient given past sins).

American Jewish anger, I worry, is pushing us towards a similar precipice -- one where we can't stop being angry, where there's no plausible pathway through which our anger can sated. 

Consider reactions to the Democratic leadership delaying a proposed antisemitism resolution, with the suggestion that it be redrafted to more explicitly tie the fight against antisemitism to other forms of bigotry. 

One interpretation of this move is that it helps dissipate the notion that Ilhan Omar is being unfairly singled out, and sends a decisive message that the fights against antisemitism, racism, and Islamophobia are united struggles -- they are not in competition with one another. Another interpretation is that it "All Lives Matters" antisemitism, implies that antisemitism cannot be opposed for its own sake but must be laundered through other oppressions in order to matter, and overall represents a capitulation to those who are upset that Democrats are acknowledging the existence of left-wing antisemitism at all.

Which interpretation is right? Well, one would have to see the newly-drafted language, first of all. But I suspect that the answer will be that there is no one right answer. Either interpretation will be plausible. 

So it's up to us to choose which hermeneutic world we want to live in. We could declare, decisively, that we view such a resolution as not excusing left-wing antisemitism but also not singling it out; not suggesting that antisemitism only matters insofar as it can be tied to racism and other bigotry but rather rejecting the claim that vigorous opposition to antisemitism in any way, shape, or form is hostile to opposing these other hatreds. 

And to some extent, our declaration of interpretation will generate its reality. If we choose to believe that this is what the resolution means, that it is an expression of solidarity and of unity, then that is what it will come to mean. If we choose to believe that it means something else, that it is an insult and a capitulation, then it will mean that instead. It is both weird and, when you think about it, not so weird that it is fundamentally up to us whether any such resolution is an act of solidarity or not.

Viewed that way, the right answer is clear. But I think anger is pushing us toward the wrong choice. Yet know this: there is no resolution the Democratic leadership could write that would make it so that we weren't in this anger-inducing reality where such a resolution felt necessary to begin with. If that is our standard, we will never be placated. So the question is how do we move forward in a damaged world? Does anger get us there?

I think not. Anger doesn't look for common ground. It doesn't look for the positive or the best in people, it doesn't offer much foothold for rebuilding. It hurts those we don't actually want to hurt. Like a fire, it rages past borders and over barriers. Even when anger does do its "job" of mobilizing or organizing or signaling the degree of woundedness a given practice is generating, it doesn't easily return to its cage. Often, anger slaps at hands that really are just trying to reach out, really are trying to figure out how to do better. Which, of course, generates anger of its own. And so a cycle emerges, that is very hard to escape from.

As I mentioned above, one of the most difficult aspects of anger as a political emotion is that telling people to be less angry only makes them more angry. Even still, and even recognizing that we have grounds to be angry, I still find myself imploring my community that we need to let go of our anger here. It's rapidly losing whatever productive attributes it has, and I fear that if we don't bottle it back up now, we will completely lose control over it. 

And that thought terrifies me, because I cannot imagine that a Jewish community that is uncontrollably angry at the political community we've long called home will be a healthy, or happy, or productive place to live.

Monday, March 04, 2019

How To Avoid the Trap of the House Antisemitism Resolution

Here's a truncated timeline of certain events today:

  1. I read story about the House considering introducing a resolution on antisemitism, "in response" to certain comments by Rep. Ilhan Omar (D). The story indicated that the resolution came about in part due to a letter from Jonathan Greenblatt of the ADL.
  2. I called my contact at a major American Jewish organization and left a somewhat frank voicemail suggesting that, unless the House Resolution made crystal-clear that it was not solely addressing Omar but equally targeted antisemitic remarks emanating from Republican representatives -- most notably, the Soros-style "wealthy Jewish financiers 'own' us and are pulling the strings behind the scenes" conspiracy theories -- there would a massive backlash and it would be entirely deserved.
  3. Draft text of the resolution was released (it does not mention Omar, or any other elected official, by name).
  4. The official at the aforementioned Jewish org called me back and I had the opportunity to provide a bit more color to my suggestions regarding how they should handle this situation.
  5. I read a statement from Bend the Arc arguing that the House Resolution is a "trap", in that it functions to single out Omar without any sort of concurrent condemnation of antisemitism from elected Republicans like Jim Hagedorn, Kevin McCarthy, and Jim Jordan.
So, as the day closes, here's my question: How do we avoid the trap? How do we tackle antisemitism in a way that does not give succor to the false narrative that the problem of antisemitism in America is solely represented by Ilhan Omar, and not the vicious antisemitic conspiracy mongering flying through the political right?

The thing is, believe or not -- lots of us fully see the trap. That includes the mainline Jewish organizations. They're frustrated by what seems like the endless foot-in-mouth/apology/foot-back-in-mouth cycle Omar is going through, but they're also frustrated at the expectation that the primary subject of their counter-antisemitism energy should be Ilhan Omar. There are many, many other antisemitic things in the world, and they understand how bad a look it is that Omar seems to be catching the brunt of all the attention. 

We should be casting scrutiny on the Soros-style antisemitic conspiracy theories that run riot through the GOP at its highest levels. When we condemn antisemitism, that should be front and center in our attentions. The fact that it isn't represents a real problem, and Omar and her backers have a legitimate grievance here. There's a reason why I opened my column on Omar by talking about Jim Hagedorn, and there's a reason why nonetheless nobody seems interested in having me write a column or giving a quote on Jim Hagedorn. The "bad look" is, at least in part, a product of a bad reality.

But how do you change that reality?

The text of the House Resolution doesn't single out Omar. It doesn't single out anyone; it names no names. Yet nonetheless, there is no question that it is perceived as a swipe (albeit a sub silentio swipe) at Omar, specifically. Nobody is reading this resolution and saying "wow, the House Democratic leadership is really turning the screws on Jim Jordan!"

Is that reading unfair? The text of the resolution is a bit meandering, but on the whole it focuses on the type of antisemitism -- allegations of "dual loyalty" -- that Omar is alleged to have engaged in. There is no significant mention of Soros-style conspiracy theories; these are at best very briefly alluded to and then dropped. In context, I can't say that readers are unfair in viewing the resolution as targeting Omar. And then we're right back to where we started: a very legitimate grievance Omar and her backers have that alleged antisemitism doesn't seem to matter unless it's being done by people who look like her, in a political climate where there is very real and very dangerous antisemitism that is an exceptionally live part of mainstream conservative discourse.

So the first step -- an obvious step, a step I can't believe I have to suggest because it's should have been blindingly self-evident step -- to avoiding the trap is that the resolution should dedicate equal time to the type of antisemitism that we see on the mainstream political right: conspiracy theories about wealthy Jewish financiers pulling the strings on political and social campaigns, "owning" certain politicians or slyly controlling American society from the shadows. Such antisemitism has a deep historical pedigree in America -- dating at least to Henry Ford, and almost certainly beyond that -- and there is a straight-line between it and such atrocities at the Tree of Life massacre. 

Or put differently, and with apologies to Max Rose, the House shouldn't write a chickenshit antisemitism resolution. The first step to changing the bad optics of the resolution is to change its bad reality, and that makes holding the active forms of conservative antisemitism accountable too.

Would that be enough? It's hard to say. We've gotten very keyed into a narrative whereby if we're talking about antisemitism in American politics, we're talking about Ilhan Omar, and the media hates giving up a perfectly good narrative without a fight. If a few paragraphs about that sort of antisemitism were inserted into the resolution, it still likely wouldn't be seen as an equivalent swipe at GOP antisemitism, even if that was the intent, and even if that was the fairest reading of the resolution. Something has to be done to break the narrative. Somebody has to stop playing the part the narrative insists that they play.

And so my suggestion to the Jewish organization went. I suggested that, if they really wanted to avoid the trap -- if they really were as tired as they said they were about being perceived as one side of a "the Jews vs. Omar" controversy -- they needed to take a bold step:

They needed to insist -- explicitly, and publicly -- that they will not back the House Resolution unless it clearly condemned the Soros-style antisemitic conspiracy-mongering which is the other prominent antisemitic trope currently raging through our polity. They needed to come out and say that an resolution purporting to fight antisemitism is not acceptable unless it speaks out clearly and decisively against that form of antisemitism too.

That'd be a man-bites-dog story. That'd be a case of someone not playing their role. That might actually break the narrative of "the Jews vs. Omar." Might. I'm not confident, because fundamentally I don't believe that the behavior of Jewish groups exerts much influence on how the non-Jewish pres talks about Jews.

Still, as an added bonus, one thing it almost certainly would do is get a change in the resolution text. One has to think that the Democratic leadership thinks that it is satisfying the mainstream Jewish community with this resolution; its concern is how it will be received on its left flank. If it doesn't even have the backing of mainline Jewish groups, and the reason it doesn't have such backing is because the resolution needs to be adjusted to satisfy the concern that it is too soft on the right, then all the vectors of political pressure are in accord, and the resolution will change in a positive direction.

The fact is, it is a trap to agree to premise that the fight against antisemitism in America boils down to a fight against Ilhan Omar. It is a trap stemming from the right -- which wishes to pretend as if their own antisemitism isn't real and doesn't matter; and it is equally a trap emanating from the left -- which wishes to frame the fight against antisemitism as nothing more than the fight to silence politicians like Ilhan Omar. The right wants us to believe that if the House condemns antisemitism in America, they are condemning nobody but Ilhan Omar. And the left wants us to believe the exact same thing.

We need to avoid that trap. I can't make it happen. But if the big Jewish organizations have the guts to do what is necessary and step out from their default roles -- we may just manage to avoid it.

Sunday, March 03, 2019

A Month of Black Jewish History

At the start of February, a Twitter friend of mine -- Shawn Harris -- issued a challenge: for the entire month, write one post a day on some aspect of Black Jewish history. I interpreted that broadly -- to include everything from historical articles, to academic essays, to simply linking to the profiles of Black Jewish writers whose work I've enjoyed or learned from over the years.

My thread begins here. But I also thought it might be worth collecting the month's worth of posts in one spot, on the blog.

A good chunk of the entries were simply promoting Black Jewish figures. That included some prominent academics and writers, like Lewis Gordon, Julius Lester, and Jamaica Kincaid, Rabbi Capers Funnye of Beth Shalom B'nai Zaken Ethiopian Hebrew Congregation, as well as personal friends like Jake Grumbach (soon to be an assistant professor of political science at the University of Washington) and Twitter connections like Blewish. My last entry of the whole month was dedicated to Shawn Harris herself, in honor of her inspiring the thread in the first place.

For others, I linked to a particular essay that had spoken to me -- this included Adam Serwer on Tamika Mallory and Louis Farrakhan, Stacey Aviva Flint on the Movement for Black Lives platform, Tema Smith on Ilhan Omar, and an omnibus collection of Black Jewish reflections on MLK Day. My book recommendation, MaNishtana's "Ariel Samson: Freelance Rabbi", and academic article recommendation, Carol Conaway's "Journey to the Promised Land: How I Became an African-American Jew Rather Than a Jewish African American", also fall into this category.

One entry that particularly tickled me was this interview with rapper "Young Gravy" -- mostly because I was the guy who suggested doing such an interview to the Forward's culture editor in the first place. Other musical entries include rapper Nissim Black and the spoken word poetry of Aaron Levy Samuels.

Black Jews are Jews. That is the case inside the Jewish community and outside as well. On the former, consider this profile on Ilana Kaufman, focusing on her work trying to further foster the elevation of JOC voices in American Jewish leadership positions, or Shekhiynah Larks on doing "Birthright while Black". On the latter, here's Michael Twitty saying the Shehecheyanu while accepted the James Beard award, and a list of Black Jews nominated for NAACP image awards.

The Ethiopian Jewish community is by no means the only part of Black Jewish history, but it does matter. My first entry in the whole series was on the efforts of Ethiopian Jews to help serve their European compatriots during the Holocaust. Other entries focused on the Ethiopian Jewish community include this one by Haftam Yitzak-Heathwood on racism against Ethiopians in Israel, and profiles of Pnina Tamano-Shata (the first Ethiopian Israeli women to be elected to Knesset), "Miss Israel" Titi Aynaw. and Mehereta Baruch-Ron (former Deputy Mayor of Tel Aviv). There also is a vibrant Jewish community and history in Africa outside of Ethiopia, as this conference sought to emphasize.

It's important to not overstate "conversion" as an element of the Black Jewish experience, but certainly that is an important of some Black Jewish stories. Here's the conversion arc of former NFLer Calvin (now Yosef) Murray.

And finally, for my birthday, I stretched a bit and plugged my own article: White Jews: An Intersectional Approach, which is forthcoming in the Association for Jewish Studies Review.

Friday, March 01, 2019

UNHRC Releases Report on Rights Violations in Gaza "March of Return" Protests

The UNHRC has released the results of its investigation into alleged human rights violations that occurred during the "Great March of Return" on the Gaza/Israel border last year (see my contemporaneous post on use-of-force issues written at the time of the protests). It concludes that there is "reason to believe" that Israeli forces committed human rights violations related to the excessive use of lethal force against protesters. Pro-Israel NGOs, unsurprisingly, rejected the findings.

I read the report. And I have some quibbles with some of its conclusions, which I'll mention at the end. As has become usual in these cases, it was unable to take testimony from the Israeli side (because Israel refused to cooperate with the investigation, arguably with good reason). In general, I take a relatively dim view of the UNHRC, and I think it is fair to appropriately discount any of its findings simply based on the source. The UNHRC, as a body, really is structurally biased against Israel.

Still, at the end of the day? I read the report. And I think it's pretty fair. It does mention Palestinian rights violations (notably, the use of incendiary devices to torch the Israeli countryside, but also violent attacks on Israeli border guards). It expressly considers cases where Israeli soldiers resorted to lethal force in circumstances where there was an ongoing or imminent attack, and declines to find cause for a rights violation in those cases. Where someone is firing a rifle at Israeli soldiers, the Israelis are allowed to fire back.

But the big problem here is that the Rules of Engagement Israel put in force for dealing with the protests really were too loose. I agree with the commission that the March of Return cannot, in toto, be cast as a military operation -- it was primarily a civilian campaign, albeit one that at various times Hamas tried to infiltrate into a military one (this is one of my quibbles -- the report doesn't treat with sufficient seriousness the problem of Hamas' admixture of its military operations into civilian protests -- a decision which bears significant responsibility for putting the protesters at risk).

In such a circumstance, Israel is acting in a law enforcement capacity, and can only resort to lethal force in cases where there is an imminent threat to life or limb. "Imminent" threat, as the Commission correctly notes, is measured as a matter of "moments", not hours.

Yet the Israeli RoE was considerably more expansive -- it effectively authorized the use of deadly force as a riot dispersal technique, including targeting "main inciters", which was recklessly irresponsible and predictably would lead to the use of lethal force in inappropriate circumstances. Even assuming marchers breaching the fence could constitute an "imminent" threat, it does not warrant the use of deadly force against persons who are still a football field's length away.

The problems with the RoE are one of the reasons why I'm less (not un-) concerned that the commission wasn't able to get the Israeli "side" of the story. Yes, that might make a difference in assessing individual cases. But there isn't much serious dispute regarding what the RoE was, and it is reasonable to infer that an RoE which viewed riotous protests at the border as tantamount to an "imminent" threat would at least somewhat predictably lead to uses of lethal force that are indefensible under international law.

The common objection to reports like these is that they act to "second-guess" on-the-ground military decision-making in a hot zone. And in a sense, they do -- though, again, it seems wrong to characterize the entirety of the protests as "hot" in the relevant sense. The widely shared clips of violence occurring by protesters are, if not irrelevant, than certainly incomplete. In cases where protesters were violent, that can warrant the use of deadly force; but the existence of violence among protesters does not create a blanket authorization for firing live ammunition anywhere and anywhere. Again, this is the point of the "imminence" requirement: lethal force is justified in particular moments characterized by a particular threat; the justification of using lethal force in this spot at this moment does not transfer to any use of lethal force at any time during the broader protest. Indeed, the core of the problem is the proposed transitivity, which is what ends up getting you to Avigdor Liberman's "there are no naive people in Gaza" claim and sanctions anyone and everyone as a target.

But more broadly: the reason we have rules regarding laws of war and international humanitarian law is, in a sense, to do that "second-guessing". It is to judge conduct in precisely the sort of situations that occur here. To dismiss such judgments as second-guessing is to moot this entire arena of law. That simply cannot be right.

This broad endorsement of the report is not wholly unqualified. I mentioned one problem already -- the report in my view gives the short-shrift to the manner in which the intentional mixing of military or otherwise violent actors into the civilian protests played a role in creating dangerous conditions for the civilians. Likewise, the report doesn't seem to take much account of the obvious fact that bullets travel and sometimes miss their intended target -- it is too much to assume that any bullet that hits any civilian actor is necessarily aimed at that actor. While some of the incidents described in the report attempt to paint a reasonably full spatial picture of where the victim was in relation to other protesters (most importantly, those who were acting violently or in ways that otherwise could have warranted a lethal response), the authors were inconsistent on this score.

Yet, reading the report holistically and taking theses shortcomings into account, they do not ultimately negate the core conclusion -- that there are reasonable grounds to believe (which is not, it is worth noting, the same as "definitively proven") that Israeli forces -- likely as a result of decisions made regarding the rules of engagement -- violated international law regarding excessive use of lethal force against Gazan protesters.

I remarked in my post from last year that too many people who style themselves "pro-Israel" seem more concerned with calling the IDF "the most moral army in the world" than in it being such. To be a "moral army" requires actually adhering to certain rules and standards, and punishing people when they violate them. It's not simply a matter of assertion; there is no law of the metaphysical universe which makes it conceptually impossible for the Israeli army to commit rights violations. We figure out whether they did or did not by investigating the possibility seriously, and without predisposition to either a "guilty" or "innocent" verdict.

In terms of that project, it is indeed unfortunate that the UNHRC has shot its credibility to hell and back on the matter of Israel; it makes it easy to reflexively dismiss this report based on its provenance. But dismissal and then silence should not be an adequate response -- indeed, it is just as partial and biased as the UNHRC is (fairly) accused of being. If one does not trust the UNHRC investigation, the right call is to launch one whose partiality is less questionable. Either the results will confirm that Israeli forces fired only when there was an imminent risk of death or serious injury -- or they won't. We cannot prejudge that outcome based on what we hope the answer will be.

Wednesday, February 27, 2019

Chris Williamson Suspended from Labour

The most antisemitic member of the UK House of Commons almost certainly isn't Jeremy Corbyn.

It's Chris Williamson.*

Basically, if there is an antisemite on the left, Williamson has been there to defend them.

When Jackie Walker -- currently suspended from Labour after (among other things) accusing Jews of being the primary backers of the slave trade, complaining that Holocaust Memorial Day is too Jew-oriented, and challenging the need for heightened security at Jewish schools and synagogues as the product of exaggerated and embellished fears -- sought a venue to host her new film "Witchhunt" (guess who the witch-hunters are?), Williamson happily offered to give her a room in parliament -- a decision the Board of Deputies of British Jews likened to an act of "trolling".

When Ken Livingstone -- who said that Hitler was a "Zionist" -- was suspended from the Party, Williamson was manning the ramparts demanding that he (and Walker) be let right back in.

When Jewish Labour MP Ruth Smeeth was accused by Marc Wadsworth of being a right-wing operative because she was challenging antisemitism in her party, Williamson accused Smeeth and her backers of being the faces of "White privilege" (Wadsworth was eventually expelled from Labour).

When people were organizing to deplatform vicious antisemitic musician Gilad Atzmon, Williamson signed a petition ... defending Atzmon and urging that he be permitting to perform (Williamson did apologize for that one, saying that he -- somehow -- didn't know of Atzmon's antisemitic record, despite that being the only reason he's of any public prominence at all).

Williamson has said that he's "never seen antisemitism in the Labour Party," -- a fascinating argument coming from someone who's twice had to apologize for his own antisemitic dalliances. Perhaps he doesn't own a mirror?

But today, finally, Chris Williamson was suspended from Labour after telling a cheering crowd that his party -- which just saw a mass exodus of members prompted in part by worries of institutional antisemitism -- had been "too apologetic" about antisemitism.

Apparently, the suspension occurred only after an intervention by Corbyn himself. Not to facilitate the suspension to show that Labour was done soft-playing antisemitism in its upper ranks. Rather, Corbyn was trying to shield Williamson from consequences for his actions -- perhaps not surprisingly, since he's naturally one of Corbyn's most vocal allies in the party.

A massive blowback from within the Labour Party forced Corbyn to back off. And so, for now, Chris Williamson is under suspension.

* Incidentally, the most antisemitic member of the UK legislature is not a Labour member. That would have to be Baroness Jenny Tonge, formerly of the Liberal Democratic Party (though she was suspended and eventually resigned under a cloud of her own antisemitism controversies).

Monday, February 25, 2019

What if Everything is Antisemitic?

We've been talking a lot about the avoidance of antisemitic "tropes" when criticizing Jews or Jewish institutions. Aside from very obvious expressions of antisemitic hate, there are lengthy lists of words or concepts to avoid when talking about Jews, because they are linked up to historical antisemitic beliefs about Jews -- e.g., Jewish wealth, Jewish conspiracies, Jewish cabals, Jewish bloodlust. It's fine to be critical of Jewish institutions, but if you use such words or concepts (tropes) in doing so you start to wander into antisemitic territory. So just avoid the tropes!

This makes sense, in its way. But there's a big lurking problem nobody really wants to grapple with: what negative or critical assessment hasn't been attached to an antisemitic ideology at one time or another?

The almost-infinite mutability of the content of antisemitic ideology as one of the most striking features of antisemitism over time. Moshe Lilienblum's 1883 remarks, where he described how Jews were cosmopolitans to the nationalists and nationalists to the cosmopolitans, radical free thinkers to the religious and close-mindedly superstitious to the atheists, conservatives to the liberals and liberals to the conservatives ... on and on forever, is compelling illustrations.

I think all "-isms" display this mutability to at least some degree -- think of racist iconography of Black men as happy-go-lucky simpletons right up until they're bestial brutes -- though it's possible that antisemitism represents an extreme case. The fact of the matter is, though, that for pretty much any negative (or potentially negative) human characteristic you can name -- greed or miserliness, violence or cowardice, close-minded religiosity or arrogant secularism, univeralism or particularism, licentiousness or frigidity -- somebody has associated with the Jews.

One upshot of this is that it gives a hint as to the causal story of stereotypes: it's the hate that drives the stereotyping, not vice versa. People dislike Jews, and so associate Jews with things they dislike. If the hatred stays constant but the dislikable characteristics change, the stereotype shifts to match.

But if this is true, it creates a practical dilemma for the "just avoid antisemitic tropes" advice. Because if any negative evaluative concept has been imputed to Jews in an antisemitic way, then there might not be a clear way to speak in negative evaluative terms about a Jewish institution.

And that's a dilemma; one I haven't quite figured out how to solve. Obviously, the answer can't be "we can't speak negatively about Jewish institutions, because it will always be antisemitic." But it also seems wrong to say "antisemitic tropes are so omnipresent that it's unfair to cite them in a particular case." So what to do?

One potential solution is to say that, just because a given concept has been used as an antisemitic trope, that doesn't mean its usage in a particular case is motivated by antisemitism. It could just be happenstance, and indeed if every negative evaluative concept is associated with antisemitism, but only some usages of that concept are motivated antisemitism, by definition there is a significant set of cases where a given evaluative concept, assessed against a Jewish actor, only by happenstance is motivated by antisemitism.

This, I imagine, is what many of those who are charged with relying on antisemitic tropes wish to rely upon -- "yes, I said AIPAC was greedy and money-grubbing -- but it has nothing to do with their association with Jewishness! Sometimes greed is just greed!" -- but it comes with problems. The most immediate issue is that, if the prevailing question is one of intent, under normal circumstances the use of an antisemitic trope is among the most probative bits of evidence we have as to motive. We can't see into the hearts and minds of men, and so if we decide that the use of tropes associated with antisemitism are no longer evidence about one's heart or mindset towards Jews, we're left with a situation where antisemitism's ubiquity paradoxically makes it virtually impossible to prove (outside a small set of cases where the perpetrator admits to the crime).

The bigger problem is that this entire outlook depends on motive being the dispositive question. Yet antisemitic tropes still retain their antisemitic power even when used innocently. Antisemitism is familiar and in tune, it makes things "ring true". Those who argue -- fully free of antisemitic intent -- that AIPAC is greedy and money-grubbing nonetheless are more likely to have their argument "taken up" because of the antisemitic trope that Jewish-identified institutions are greedy and money-grubbing. It fits into our web of belief better than a comparable claim would in a epistemic network where such a stereotype was not present.

This, to me, suggests a need for a more fundamental reframing. Rather than trying to divide up our discourse into kosher and treyf -- this statement is permissible, that one is antisemitic; this phrasing is fine, that one is a no-no -- we would do better to think of antisemitism as permeating the social sphere. Or put differently, instead of asking what antisemitism is, better to ask what antisemitism does. Antisemitism mobilizes, unifies, and encourages. It makes the unreal real and the implausible plausible. The practical consequence of this is that it is simultaneously true that there will be plenty of cases where a given "antisemitic trope" deployed critically against a Jewish institution will be both validly arrived at through non-antisemitic motivational pathways while also being true that even in those cases the antisemitic character of the trope alters how that trope is received and the impact it has on the deliberative community.

Ultimately, the "everything is antisemitic" dilemma is a dilemma primarily because we think we can successfully create a sort of "clean room" in our discourse about Jews where antisemitism can't infect, and that such a discursive state is the success condition of a proper epistemic state of affairs regarding Jews. The goal is to cordon off antisemitism, demarcate and isolate it, so that we can stay away from it and for the remainder of the conversation no longer think about it. I suspect the solution will ultimately run in the opposite direction: we will have to think about antisemitism a lot more often and in a lot more depth, because it really is everywhere. There is no "clean room". The flip side is that we also need to develop criteria for talking about Jews in a world where antisemitism has not and cannot (for the foreseeable future, anyway) be extirpated. If antisemitism is everywhere, it also lies in the places and cases where Jewish actors are doing bad things that need and deserve criticism. The fact of the latter doesn't negate the former, but the fact of the former can't delegitimize the latter.

Sunday, February 24, 2019

Yes, I'm Alive

A couple of days ago, I wrote a column for Haaretz on the Netanyahu-facilitated merger of the far-right Jewish Home Party with the neo-Kahanist Jewish Power party. Since -- back in the 1980s -- prominent members of the Jewish community (including leaders of the AJC) analogized Kahane to Louis Farrakhan, and since we've all over the past year or so gotten very adept at declaring what one's obligations are when a Louis Farrakhan enters our political orbit, I suggested that it was "put up or shut up" time for Jewish community groups that regularly take stances on Israel-related issues.

Anyway, I sent the column to my editor Wednesday afternoon, so it could run Thursday morning. Then I did a bit of work, and then I tried to go to sleep.

Only to realize that somehow, all of the sudden, I was experiencing one of the worst head and chest colds I've had in my life.

It was frankly astonishing how fast it snuck up on me. I'd love to tell a story about how I pushed out this column with my last bit of strength before succumbing -- but actually I felt pretty much fine all of Wednesday afternoon into the evening. It just felt like a light-switch -- one moment I was fine, and the next it's 4 AM and I haven't even gotten a wink of sleep because my entire face is more congested than a Bay Area freeway.

The immediate upshot was that I basically wasn't able to follow any conversations that might or might not have occurred over my column. I was able to write a quick update when the AJC finally did release a statement on Jewish Power (they had not written one at the time it was published, and had indicated they would not be commenting) -- which really was my last gasp of energy, and after that I ended up staying in bed until 5:30 PM (yes, PM).

Anyway, I'm finally feeling a bit better (a lingering cough seems to be the long tail of this whole ordeal). So what did I miss?

Well, let's see: the White House is considering appointing William Happer to a climate change committee. Who is William Happer?
"The demonization of carbon dioxide is just like the demonization of the poor Jews under Hitler," Happer said on CNBC. "Carbon dioxide is actually a benefit to the world, and so were the Jews."
"Just like" it. You know, I've heard of Jews being dehumanized by being compared to animals, or even vermin. But this must be the first time we've been reduced to the level of a gas molecule.

In conclusion, I kind of want to just go back to sleeping all day.

Tuesday, February 19, 2019

Not My President's Day Roundup

Our apartment's water heater is being replaced tomorrow. That means my one true joy in life -- long, languid, hot showers -- will also have to go for the day. It will be terrible.

* * *

China's crackdown on religious liberty threatens the tiny but ancient Kaifeng Jewish community.

One of the few Black mathematicians in American academia recounts the microaggressions and subtle racism which alienated him from his own discipline.

I think the tone of this column is a little off, but the broad point -- that leftist anti-Zionists have no friend more highly placed in Israel than Netanyahu himself -- is on the mark, and it's important that someone like Eric Yoffie is saying it.

Alabama newspaper editor urges the return of the KKK in order lynch Democrats (and insufficiently conservative Republicans). Yes, really.

Apparently, Louisiana has a bad habit of not releasing prisoners after they've finished serving their sentences.

"As a Jew, I’m either furious or eating. Sometimes both."

For all the talk of "creeping Sharia", the fact is that the American Muslim community is actually experiencing something very different: creeping liberalism. For a community that, for much of recent electoral history, at least leaned Republican (especially on social issues), the rapid embrace of feminism, gay equality, and sexual liberation among the younger generation is coming as a bit of a shock to the more conservative old-guard.

Monday, February 18, 2019

Unthinkable Thoughts, Part II: What if the Democratic Party Corbynifies?

Today, seven British MPs -- including Luciana Berger and Chuka Umunna -- announced they were leaving the UK Labour Party and would sit in Parliament as independents. It is, as I understand it, the biggest breakaway of sitting MPs from Labour in recent history (the last comparable action was in 1981, when four senior Labour officials -- two of whom were MPs -- left to form their own party).

There were quite a few issues that prompted these MPs to decamp, including perhaps most prominently the almost complete failure of Labour to commit to fighting against Theresa May's Brexit catastrophe. But of course, looming large on the horizon was the ongoing problem of antisemitism -- a disease ripping through Labour at both the grassroots and at the most senior levels.

The Democratic Party in the United States is not like UK Labour. People who try to argue otherwise are acting in transparent bad faith -- and not just because three-quarters of Jews voted Democratic in the last election, while Corbyn's Labour party polls below 20% in the Jewish community. It is insulting to the American Jewish community to suggest that we can't see antisemitism before our eyes; if the Democratic Party was a toxic place to be a Jew, we -- by which I mean Jewish Democrats, the Jewish majority, not whatever ZOA hack is tweeting their 304th comment of the week at Ilhan Omar -- would be saying so. In reality, Jews remain well entrenched in the Democratic community. Antisemitic incidents remain quite rare, and when they do occur they're handled with considerably more grace and decisiveness than comparable acts across the aisle.

However, as I stressed in my last post, this is not a series about what is, or even what is likely. Unthinkable Thoughts is about what could be, what is now within the realm of possibility. The question, then, is what happens if the Democratic Party becomes "Corbynified"?

Last week, referring to the great Ilhan Omar "AIPAC!" controversy, Anshel Pfeffer declared that Jewish Democrats had just experienced their first "Corbyn moment". The main feature of that moment was not what Omar said, exactly, or in how it was responded to by the Democratic Party as an institution. Indeed, along those metrics, this scandal was a rather minor affair: she did trade upon antisemitic tropes, but she quickly apologized and the party as a whole disavowed them. Can't ask for a better result.

Rather, the scary portion of the incident was in the metadebate -- the discourse about the incident that coursed through sectors of the internet in the hours and days following. It was here where things went well beyond (fair) critiques that Omar's words are the subject of a multi-day media frenzy whilst GOP antisemitism of comparable gravity are given a pass. Instead, we saw the development of a narrative where Omar did nothing wrong, and the contention otherwise is yet another case of Jews smearing good patriots with illegitimate "antisemitism" charges, acting as Israeli stooges, being the face of American racism, and just in general sabotaging the left. Along side this condemnatory narrative was a celebratory one -- that Omar was speaking forbidden truths, that she was telling it like it is, and -- most importantly -- the fact that it made Jews uncomfortable is a point in her favor. In this corner of the internet, Omar scored points because of, not in spite of, how she upset the Jewish community.

This, for me, is the heart of what I mean by "Corbynifying" (at least along the axis of antisemitism). It denotes a state of affairs where Jewish terror and misery is part of the point -- it's an active desideratum, it signals that one's orientation towards the Jewish community is on track. With a few exceptions (exceptions who are both quick to be trotted out but whose loyalty to the cause is always kept under close watch), in a Corbynified party Jews are viewed as part of the enemy camp, and so complaints from Jews about antisemitism are viewed much the same way as complaints of racism are heard by the GOP -- presumptively in bad faith, and if anything a signal that the party is getting things right.

This is, as I've written before, the antisemitism that keeps me up at night. And we're at the point where this future is, if not yet "likely", than certainly "thinkable".

It's worth noting that a "Corbynified" Democratic Party does not necessarily mean a friendly Republican Party. More likely, it'd mean a Democratic Party and Republican Party that are deeply hostile to Jewish values. I've remarked before that trying to imagine what I'd do as a Jewish voter in the UK is the one thought-experiment that generated sympathy for the predicament of "Never Trump" Republicans, and that sentiment carries over.

And it must be stressed: right now the Democratic Party as an institution is not "Corbynified", or anything close to it. It's just not, and the people insisting otherwise are almost exclusively those for whom Corbynification is clearly their desired political future.

Yes, there is a loud cadre of self-described leftists on the internet that is ecstatic about any seeming break-up between Jews and Democrats. Then again, there's also a loud cadre on the internet that is screaming "Barbara Lee is a sellout!" because she endorsed Kamala Harris instead of Bernie Sanders. I feel pretty confident the latter will be very disappointed by the outcome of the 2020 primary. Loudness on the internet is not a reliable proxy for actual popular support.

But still. It's easy to forget that when Corbyn first entered the race to head up Labour, he was considered a fringe joke (a mistake that was also made about our current President). It turned out there was a very large swell of latent progressive energy waiting to be activated, and -- worse yet -- one of the things that activated and mobilized them was the antisemitism. Again -- this is central to Corbyn's appeal in the same way that Trump's racism was central to his appeal. Part of what Corbyn's voters like about him is that they view him as putting the Jews in their place. And so the question is whether there is a similar latent energy in a sector of the American people that burns with a similar desire.

It is a feature of Jewish history that these things can seemingly turn on a dime (I just read an account of how Jews reacted to emergent antisemitism in late 19th century Germany that felt alarmingly topical -- one of the main themes was how the community went from "we're basically fine, outside a few cranks anti-Jewish sentiment is a thing of the past" to having a 5-alarm fire raging around them). Yes, right now Jews are well entrenched in the Democratic Party. But can I imagine a world where Jewish Democrats are systematically targeted for primary challenges -- always somehow being viewed as "too conservative", "too accommodationist", "too establishment", "too Clinton-esque"? I can. I don't think it's likely, and I don't think they'd necessarily succeed. But yes, I can imagine it.

More importantly, we need to reflect seriously on how antisemitism can generate votes and energize coalitions. Too often it is taken as an article of faith that "antisemitism hurts our movement" -- that an antisemitic party is weaker than the one which is successfully fighting antisemitism. I don't think this can be taken for granted. Antisemitism is one of the most powerful mobilizing forces the world has ever seen. It seems wholly within the realm of possibility that a political movement which successfully harnesses antisemitism will be more successful than one that does not. The effectiveness of the "Soros" line of attack is demonstrative of this -- antisemitism, right now, is aiding conservative political movements in America. The Republican Party at least seems to believe that deploying these antisemitic tropes makes it stronger than it would otherwise be.

Indeed, the ties that bind antisemites together often cross normative partisan lines, and that creates significant opportunities for political growth. Antisemitism links together a range of vaguely "anti-establishment" and "anti-elitist" perspectives that, paradoxically enough, mean antisemitism is likely a great entry point for a host of new Democratic voters (consider the left-right convergence around the French "yellow vest" movement).

It would not remotely surprise me if there is a decent-sized clutch of independent-to-right-leaning voters who are suspicious of big financial institutions and angry about what they see as corruption in Washington, who tend to associate Democrats with coastal elitism and "New York money", and for whom Jews represent at least a plausible avatar of what connects what they think is wrong with America and what they think is wrong with Democrats. If this is right, then the path to resolving the  "What's the Matter with Kansas" question is making a grand gesture that says "I reject coastal financial domination." We joke about how antisemitism is the "socialism of fools", but the reason it's earned that label is because the easiest way to signal "I'm standing up to the banks", "I'm standing up to the elites", and "I'm standing up to the unaccountably powerful" -- all in one go -- is to signal "I'm standing up to the Jews". Such a message, it's plausible to imagine, be very well received among that set. It offers a pathway to turning reddish-purple voters blue.

Finally, it has to be emphasized that this is not solely a home-grown problem of the left. The right -- and particular Bibi Netanyahu -- shares a sizable chunk of the blame. Indeed, it is actively and I think intentionally trying to accelerate these dynamics. Much of contemporary politics is organized around negative partisanship, and the brazen of alignment of Netanyahu with Trump and other forces of far-right reactionary politics has very predictable effects. We can have a thousand conversations about nuance and Israeli society not being a monolith, but the fact is low-information voters aren't going to know much more about Israel than what it's government is doing, and if the government of Israel is blasting "WE, THE JEWISH STATE, ARE JUST LIKE TRUMP, ORBAN AND BOLSONARO" at 160 decibels, it's going to leave a sour impression on those people for whom Trump, Orban, and Bolsonaro are not friendly faces.

But the fact that blame would be overdetermined is not much of a consolation for ensuing political homelessness. If the Democratic Party ceases to be a home for the Jews, it would signal more than just a realignment. It would almost certainly mean that the liberal politics that much of the Jewish community has rallied behind for the past half-century will have finally failed. And it's hard to imagine that any of the candidates that might emerge in its place -- from Corbynista socialism to Trumpian authoritarian populism -- will be particularly favorably disposed to the Jews.

Saturday, February 16, 2019

The Strongest Point

A UK court has upheld the incitement conviction of Alison Chabloz, a singer-songwriter with a propensity for Holocaust denial. I don't want to get into the free speech concerns here -- the UK has different free speech rules than we have in the states, their merits or demerits are a matter for another time. Certainly, there's no question that Chabloz is a raging antisemite. Highlights of her lyrics include:

  • "Did the Holocaust ever happen? Was it just a bunch of lies? Seems that some intend to pull the wool over our eyes. Eternal wandering liars haven’t got a clue, and when it comes to usury, victim’s always me and you."
  • "Now Auschwitz, holy temple, is a theme park just for fools, the gassing zone a proven hoax, indoctrination rules."
  • "Tell us another, come on, my brother, reap it, the cover, for tribal gain. Safe in our tower, now is the hour, money and power, we have no shame."
  • "History repeats itself, no limit to our wealth, thanks to your debts we’re bleeding you dry. We control your media, control all your books and TV, with the daily lies we’re feeding, suffering victimisation. Sheeple have no realisation, you shall pay, all the way, until the break of day."
For added effect, she set the songs to the music of traditional Jewish folk music like Hava Negila (a tune she claimed she had made up herself).

But for whatever reason, I cannot stop cracking up at this highlight from the trial:
At one point, [Chabloz's attorney] suggested that the Nazis did not deliberately murder Anne Frank, declaring “She died of typhus, there is no dispute. They didn’t deliberately murder her. They might be responsible for her death by mistreatment.” Judge Hehir stopped the debate, telling Mr Davies: “I’m not sure that’s your strongest point Mr Davies.”
Indeed, I imagine not. Or maybe so, if you're hanging out in the right parts of the British internet. But -- just lawyer to lawyer -- if you're defending a Holocaust denier against the charge that they've engaged in hateful antisemitic speech, maybe just pivot away from the "did the Nazis really murder Anne Frank" debate.

Thursday, February 14, 2019

America's Israel Policy is Primarily Dictated by Non-Jews. Therefore ... What?

Periodically, you see people on the internet take great pains to stress that America's Israel policy is primarily dictated by non-Jews -- usually (particularly if we're talking about conservative Israel policy) Evangelical Christians.

When this point is made, as it usually is, by Israel-critical sorts, it is often a means of stressing that opposing these conservative policies is not a case of being anti-Jewish, since it isn't Jews who are driving the policies to begin with.

It is a point often made in ragged fashion, without following through to its logical end-point. For example, people might use it to say "AIPAC drives the agenda in Washington on behalf of Christian donors" rather than "maybe AIPAC doesn't drive the agenda in Washington, it's now largely been surpassed by explicitly Christian 'pro-Israel' organizations whose agenda AIPAC is forced to react to, and our assumption that its AIPAC that runs the show is a legacy of an antisemitic assumption of Jewish control."

Still, the broad point is correct. American policy towards Israel is mostly a function of what non-Jews want it to be. That doesn't mean that there aren't Jews who, fortuitously, happen to overlap with this or that Israel-policy agenda. But they're fundamentally epiphenomenal.

One might think that the next step in the analysis would be "so let's start asking: what do Jews want us to be thinking about regarding Israel?"

But more often, the next step instead is "so therefore, we don't have to listen to anyone but ourselves on this issue!"

Put differently, these actors might recognize -- correctly -- that American Jewish voices are actually relatively marginal to the state of American discourse about Israel (it's worth noting that Israel itself plays a part in this marginalization). But they don't actually mind that marginalization or seek to rectify it -- if anything, they exploit it so that they can engage in their own discourse about Israel in American without feeling guilty about stepping on the Jews. They're happy to keep on going as they always have, impervious to critical Jewish perspectives (though happily relying on the epiphenomenal Jews who happen to already agree with them).

Recognizing that Jews aren't running the show in Washington (on Israel or anything else) is step one. Step two is empowering Jewish voices -- not to the exclusion of other salient perspectives (most notably, Arab or Palestinian voices), but as part of a larger recalibration of the debate so that those with the most at stake have the most influence.

If you think step two is redundant because we already hear -- overhear, if anything -- Jewish perspectives, then you haven't actually absorbed the lesson of step one. And if you think step two is problematic because you're afraid that elevating actual Jewish perspectives might conflict with your pre-established political agenda, then you just approve of the political marginalization described by step one. Either way, no one should be fooled by the play.

Wednesday, February 13, 2019

Unthinkable Thoughts, Part 1: What if Israel Doesn't Agree to a Fair Peace Deal?

The working title of my dissertation is "Hard Thoughts" -- thoughts that we don't want to think, that challenge some deep-seated ideological or cultural prior that we have, but the consideration of which is tremendously important if a full and fair deliberative system is to flourish.

In that spirit, I'm thinking of starting a new series on "Unthinkable Thoughts". These are questions that I hate to ask, and whose answers are deeply uncomfortable for me, but which I've generally been able to get away with not asking because I've viewed their premises as sufficiently remote as to not require consideration. Now, by contrast, I think they're plausible questions that someone like me does have to think through.

That "plausible" is important to stress. For example, today's unthinkable thought is "What if Israel doesn't agree to a fair peace deal?" What if it's the case that Israel would reject even a fair deal put on the table?

In raising this question, I'm not asserting that I now believe "Israel will not agree to a fair peace deal." I'm saying that it is no longer unthinkable that Israel would so not agree, at least not without some degree of external pressure. It's a sufficiently realistic possibility that someone with my commitments has to reflect on it.

Of course, different people have different thoughts which are "unthinkable" for them. For me, some other questions I'm thinking of working through in this series include:

  • What if the Democratic Party "Corbynifies"?
  • What if a one-state solution becomes the only plausible solution?
  • What if leveraging antisemitism is the most effective way to advocate for Palestinian rights?

Some of you have thought the above thought for years -- congratulations. This is not an invitation for you to pass judgment on what should and shouldn't be a hard thought to think. If these thoughts come easily to you, then feel free to come up with your own unthinkable thoughts and contemplate them.

That said, I think I occupy a sufficiently well-populated ideological space within the Jewish community that I imagine some of these thoughts that have been unthinkable for me, are also starting to nibble at a good few of my peers as well. And so I hope that, if nothing else, this series provokes some renewed thought among that set.

* * *

So -- today's unthinkable thought is the prospect that Israel might not -- of its own volition, anyway, agree to a fair peace deal with the Palestinians. The proximate cause of thinking about this came upon reading a variety of people -- some earnest, some not -- asking what tactics the Palestinian people could use in order to pressure Israel for their own liberation if BDS (and, obviously, violence) were taken off the table?

I have some answers to that direct question, but what I want to focus on here is why that question I think has typically not been contemplated by many in the pro-Israel camp. Simply put, it is an article of faith among pro-Israel sorts -- and this is one of the rare things that still unifies left, right, and center pro-Israel sorts -- that Israel "wants to make a deal". They may be skeptical of the Palestinian Authority's ability to deliver, they may be pessimistic that Palestinian leadership will come to a table, but they are absolutely sure that if a deal was put forward, Israel would accept.

The reason why that article of faith matters is it suggests that the only thing standing in the way of a Israeli/Palestinian peace accord is Palestinian rejectionism. It's a step beyond the (fair) point that the failure to make a deal isn't solely Israel's responsibility -- of course it isn't, it takes two to tango. But this view posits that Israel bears no responsibility. Palestinians need to be pressured or induced into cutting a fair deal; Israelis are simply waiting for that pressure to bear fruit. If and when it does, Israel will sign on.

There's a historical narrative that supports this view -- starting from Israel's acceptance of the UN partition plan alongside Palestinian/Arab rejection, and moving through Camp David at the turn of the millennium. We know Israelis would make a deal because they have put forward such deals, and its been Palestinians who have said no.

Of course, Pro-Palestinian historians have a different take on this, but for my purposes I can accept it simply by observing that Israeli politics today are very different than they were in 2000, let alone 1948. So can we say, with absolute confidence, that if Abbas came forward today and said "okay -- we're ready to sign on the dotted line: compensation for refugees but no right of return, Israel keeps big settlement blocs near the Green Line in exchange for corresponding land swaps, Palestinian capital in East Jerusalem but Israel maintains control over Jewish neighborhoods," that this Israeli coalition would say yes? Really?

Absolute faith blinds us to troublesome reality. I mentioned this when Jonathan Tobin spoke of Benny Gantz saying settlement blocs (including some which could not remain under Israeli control under any reasonable peace deal) will remain Israeli "forever". Tobin said this proved that even the Israeli center doesn't see much hope in a peace deal "right now" or "for the foreseeable future". I pointed out that "forever" is quite a bit longer than "right now" or "the foreseeable future."

Maybe if the right opportunity presents itself, someone like Gantz will change his mind. Maybe he'll be able to bring 61 votes in the Knesset with him. I think it's plausible. But it's hardly guaranteed.

The fact is, there is no circumstance where a peace deal between Israel and Palestine will not require a leap of faith. And so there will always be a temptation -- even among people who say that they want a deal, even among people who in some sense genuinely do want a deal -- to step back from the precipice, and find a reason to say "no". Can we trust them? Will they follow through? Is this border a kilometer too deep or too narrow? Is that detail a dealbreaker?

Given all this, it may well be that Israel will not, of its own accord, accept even a fair deal if it were put out on the table. Which means it might need a little push. That doesn't mean they're the only party that might need pushing; but nonetheless, it is plausible that Israel will have to be induced into accepting a deal.

And that raises the question: what are the viable candidates for that "push"? What can justly be done, and what is a bridge too far?

These are uncomfortable questions -- and I don't think the right answer is "by any means, no matter the cost." But surely the answer also cannot be "nothing -- if a fair deal is on the table and Israel rejects it, then that's that." And given Israel's increasingly rightward tilt, I think we in the pro-Israel community need to start thinking through these questions sooner rather than later -- because if we don't, others will do the thinking for us.

Tuesday, February 12, 2019

Max Rose is My Hero

Rep. Max Rose, a freshman Democrat from New York (and one of the real "out of nowhere" wins in the 2018 cycle), was one of the first members of the Democratic caucus to criticize Ilhan Omar's "Benjamisn" remark.

Then, when Omar apologized, Rose accepted the apology, observing that the best way to work with Omar is to work with Omar (Omar, in turn, thanked Rose for calling on her to do better).

And then he had a little thing to say to the gathered media hordes.
I do want to point out to all of you that when Kevin McCarthy said that it was Bloomberg and that it was Soros and it was Steyer pulling the strings behind the scenes, none of you camped out. And their caucus stayed united and had his back, and none of you called him out on that. So I just want you all to acknowledge that there is some hypocrisy going on there too, okay? That caucus can't be chickenshit in the face of antisemitism either. In the face of antisemitism we don't acknowledge party, in the face of any hate, any vitriol, we don't acknowledge party. So seriously -- you're not agents of the Republican Party.
You can feel free to inject that paragraph directly into my veins, because it's a point I've harped on for years. Rose's broadside, if only a little bit, has seemed to have moved the needle. He may well have finally prompted a little reflection on the double-standard that meets Republican versus Democratic antisemitism.

And if we're being honest, we in the Jewish community share a bit of the blame here. I stress "a bit", because one of the great fictions about American Jewish life is that discourse about American Jews is primarily a function of what American Jews want it to be. The patterns that characterize how people talk about Jews are not established by Jews, and they're strikingly resistant to disruption from Jews. In many ways, I'm dubious that the Jewish community could generate equal outrage about mainstream right-wing antisemitism even if were committed to it (a fact evidenced by the reality that many of us have been committed to it, with little success to show for it).

But still, there's no question that our communal institutions have played their part in propagating this double-standard. We do not hold mainstream conservatives to the same standards we hold mainstream liberals to. Too often, it seems like mainstream Jewish groups are good at three things:

  1. Paying very close attention to explicit far-right and neo-Nazi hate organizations;
  2. Paying very close attention to adjunct professors of media studies at Northwest Idaho State University who've endorsed BDS; and
  3. Paying very close attention to every word that comes out of the mouths of Linda Sarsour, Tamika Mallory, Ilhan Omar, and Rashida Tlaib.

That's not tenable. It's chickenshit. It illustrates the
sharp disjuncture in how the Jewish community reacts to problematic left versus right behavior. The left is met “with the full sound and fury for every toe out of line,” while the right “must engage in the most flamboyant provocation to elicit even a murmur of discontent.” The left is “policed to the letter,” while the right is “treated with kid gloves.” 
Remember what happened when the ADL did try to hold Mike Huckabee accountable for cavalier Holocaust comparisons? Did Huckabee apologize and try to make amends? Oh no -- he demanded the ADL apologize to him for their chutzpah, while darkly warning that "Israel and Jewish people need to make friends, not insult the ones they have."

Can you imagine if Ilhan Omar had taken that approach? If she had replied to her Jewish critics by demanding they apologize to her and then suggesting "Jewish people need to make friends, not insult the ones they have"? We'd have a collective rage aneurysm. But Huckabee, of course, gets away with it. Because we don't treat antisemitism on the mainstream right the same way as we do antisemitism on the mainstream left.

So let's be clear: there is antisemitism in America -- far more than many of us would like to admit. But the key difference between Democrats and Republicans isn't that one has an antisemitism problem and the other doesn't.

They key difference between Democrats and Republicans is that Democrats are actually apologize when Jews express concerns about antisemitism in their ranks. Republicans almost never do.

Monday, February 11, 2019

It's My Birthday and I'll Roundup If I Want To!

Happy birthday (actual birthday, not blog birthday) to me!

I'm actually not doing anything in particular today, though Jill and I will be going to a hockey game this weekend. In a few weeks, we're planning to invite friends over for board games. If you're wondering "why in a few weeks, David?", the answer is I just had a Super Bowl party, and in typical neurotic millennial fashion I fear it's way too soon to ask my friends to voluntarily hang out with me in a party-like setting again.

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David Roberts summarizes the Green New Deal proposal. He's pretty favorable towards it. So am I.

Weird headline aside, this is an interesting article on Israel's current state of play in Africa. In particular, Islamic extremists on the continent are starting to link their attacks to the Palestinian cause, which is in turn pulling African governments closer to Israel.

Much work needs to be done, but Israeli universities are at the forefront of supporting and integrating Israel's Arab minority, and deserve a ton of praise for it.

Partners for Progressive Israel, on the message that needs to be sent to both the right and left on Israeli and Palestinian rights

Antisemitic flyers at the University of Montana claim "Jews" are attacking the First Amendment.

On the antisemitic roots of the "Jews controlled the slave trade" canard.

Friday, February 08, 2019

The Cruelty is the Point: SCOTUS Edition

In my roundup the other day, I included the case of an Muslim death row inmate in Alabama who had received a stay of execution by the 11th Circuit because the state was refusing to let his Imam be with him during his execution (the state would have allowed a Christian chaplain, who was a prison employee, in the room). I noted that Alabama appealing the stay -- but I almost didn't bother, since in my head I figured there was no chance the Supreme Court would get involved. Why would they? The stay was at most a minor inconvenience, the Establishment Clause problem seemed obvious and extreme, and there was no pressing issue here that demanded high court intervention to stop the case from proceeding at its own pace.

Shows what I know. In a 5-4 decision (over a brutal Kagan dissent), the Supreme Court vacated the stay and allowed the execution to proceed. The inmate had filed his challenge too late -- not that it was actually barred, mind you, the Court just decided of its own discretion that the inmate was dilatory and that therefore it wouldn't allow the 11th Circuit to hear the case (never mind that, based on the record available, it seems that the inmate filed his case in a perfectly timely fashion).

I have to confess, this rattled me -- more than I would have anticipated -- and I'm clearly not the only one. There are times when courts issue rulings I disagree with, and there are times that courts -- even the Supreme Court, with near-infinite discretion over its own docket -- are effectively compelled to step in and issue a decision in fraught circumstances where some people are going to be displeased with the outcome.

But this wasn't one of those cases. There was no need for the Court to step in here; indeed, it was a shockingly aggressive intervention in a case where the balance of equities seemed to run decisively in favor of the inmate. In this context, the Court's decision -- and the meager faux-technical rationale behind (that doesn't even seem to stand on its own weight) -- feels worse than wrong. It feels petty. It feels mean-spirited, and it feels cruel. And while there are many times where I disagree with this Court on important issues, it is rare that I've felt that they were cruel.

But that's what this decision was. I don't have a philosophical objection to the death penalty (though I have a welter of objections to how it is administered in practice). But I've always felt very strongly that it is important to treat even condemned inmates with respect and dignity -- that capital punishment does not license dehumanization. We're already locking them in a cage and then killing them, visiting further indignities upon them seems gratuitous. So whenever I see rabble-rousers start targeting "last meals", or a prisoner's few hours of "recreation time" because they're prisoners, they're the worst of the worst, I blanch. Such minor nods towards the continued humanity of the condemned are deeply rooted in our nation's history and tradition; they are part of what separates a justice system from unchannelled and unconstrained vengeance.

It should be needless to say that allowing a man facing execution whatever comfort and support he might get from a pastor of his faith is also part of that tradition: it is cruel -- obviously and needlessly -- to deny him even that much. Indeed, the obviousness of this point is why Alabama has a (Christian)  chaplain on staff and available to begin with. So to deny that small comfort to an inmate because of his Muslim faith represents such a striking departure from tradition and practice that it is hard not to see it as motivated by religious animus -- that Muslims don't deserve whatever comfort and pastoral care they might receive from their false clerics. Particularly in the wake of the Muslim ban decision, one could forgive those who now seriously wonder if the basic human equality of the Muslim community is acknowledged at the highest court in our land.

This decision is not a "great" decision. It sets no sweeping precedent, it's (nominal) basis on the alleged "delay" in filing means it doesn't even constrain future cases brought under similar facts. But in a way, its insignificance makes it worse rather than better. This was not a great case. It was a petty case. And the Court's pettiness in interceding is, in its way, far more indicting of its character than many far more jurisprudentially consequential rulings.