Wednesday, July 10, 2019

"Navigating Intersectional Landscapes" for Jews: Half Bad, Half Good, Sadly Incoherent

The Reut Group, in partnership with the JCPA, has written a new set of guidelines for Jewish community professionals seeking to deal with the "challenge of intersectionality" to Jewish engagement on Israel.

It's a fascinating piece, in that I disagree with much of the diagnosis but agree almost entirely with the prescriptions. Normally one sees the opposite -- agreeing with the problem but disagreeing on how to solve it. Here, I think the guidelines do an exceedingly poor job in identifying the issues but -- miraculously -- ends up urging action-items that are very close to what I'd propose anyway. It creates a whiplash document which is myopic in the first half and insightful in the second half. It's a 43-page document that should be started at page 23.

Start with the positive. The guidelines decisively reject uncompromising approaches that effectively write-off huge swaths of the Israel-critical Jewish community unless they agree to become Bibi-cheerleaders. It says that communal "redlines" and definitions of Israel "delegitimization" should be drawn narrowly and with an eye toward a big tent, and suggests that this tent should include even harsh Israel critics (the "wedge" point, the guidelines suggest, should be peeling off "harsh critics" from outright radical anti-Zionists -- the former kosher, the latter not). It notes that many Jewish youth express feelings of "betrayal" when their only pre-collegiate education on Israel consists of simplistic cheerleader narratives, and thus insists we'll need to prepare them for tough conversations. It speaks out against the propensity of some Jewish writers and organizations to effectively carpet bomb the slightest whisper of "anti-Israel" activity from progressive writers and political figures, especially from racial minorities, and says that we should be more willing to unite around issues of common concern even when there are sharp disagreements over Israel. Critics of Israel should be encouraged to structure their concerns in ways that manifest continued engagement (e.g., BLM-sympathizers should aid Ethiopian Jews protesting police violence; immigration activists should work on behalf of Eritrean asylum-seekers, all in ways that try to shore up and bolster humanitarian and liberal institutions currently operating in Israel).

Overall, the document preaches a message of engagement and putting in the work, and understands that overreaction can be as damaging as the initial blow. Finally, while framed around the "challenge of intersectionality", the article doesn't present intersectionality as solely an enemy to be destroyed but rather a resource to be harnessed -- you beat bad intersectionality with better intersectionality (though I might suggest here that part of that project is starting to wean ourselves off the reflexive treatment of intersectionality as a "challenge").

All of these are things that I like. But it's weirdly difficult to see how they got to this fabulous destination given the route that they took in identifying the problems they purport to tackle. The first, diagnostic half of the document almost entirely fails to recognize the fact that Jewish anxiety around Israel stems from tensions emanating from two sides, not one. Yes, there's the problem of people on the far-left demanding Jews "check their Zionism at the door", or submit to humiliating ideological litmus tests before being acknowledged as one of the good Jews. But there's the equal problem of people in the pro-Israel community demanding Jews "check their progressivism at the door", insisting that they are traitors to the Jewish people if they insist on applying progressive values to issues surrounding Israel or even, sometimes, just for being progressives generally. Both sides of this are troublesome, and both sides contribute to the problem.

I suppose the authors might argue that the goal of this document is simply to focus on the "intersectional" aspect of the challenge, and grappling with the challenge of rigid and uncompromising pro-Israel fanaticism is best given its own treatment. One problem with this apologia is that I've never seen a document of this sort written by a body like the JCPA which takes as its "challenge" the way rigid and uncompromising pro-Israel fanaticism prompts American Jewish disengagement. You can't argue for division of labor if you never actually assign anyone to cover the other half of the work. Moreover, the very topography of the document seems to make this problem incognizable: its taxonomy of "American Jewish tribes" re: Israel -- "aligners", "moderate critics", "harsh critics", and "radicals" -- is presented as a continuum from most safe to most threatening. "Aligners" -- those who "consider Israel to be an integral part of their Jewish identity and generally support the State of Israel" -- lock down one side of the spectrum and are presented as wholly unproblematic and uncomplicated figures, as against the "critics" who, though not portrayed as "enemies", are viewed as at-risk.

Yet pretty much any of us in the "moderate" or "harsh critic" camp have a lot of experience with an unnamed and unmarked fifth tribe -- the "zealots". These are the people who radically identify not just with "Israel" but with its most extreme, irredentist settler right, and who actively seek to sabotage or demolish any Israel discourse -- in the Jewish community or outside -- that is viewed as a threat to the Greater Israel project. It is a problem, and an increasingly unforgivable problem, that we refuse to call this group out or treat it as if it isn't a meaningful player. Is it representative of the majority of "pro-Israel" Jews? No. Is it at least as prominent, toxic, and destructive as the anti-Zionist "radicals" that are the "bad guy" focus of documents like this? Yes.

For many Jews, then, the forces which end up yielding disengagement from Israel aren't (just) looming pressures from the far-left, which they may be closer to or more distant from as they traverse from "aligner" to "moderate critic" to "harsh critic". Rather, it's bidirectional -- the left-radicals tug us from one side and the zealots from the other, and (pinching towards the center of the continuum, if not necessarily the political spectrum) we see ambivalence or apathy from the "aligners" or the "harsh critics" who seem unwilling to challenge the bad behavior of their neighboring extremists.

The result is a feeling of being "pulled apart" on the issue of Israel -- "engaging" with Israel means choosing between two equally unappealing forms of zealotry. This was a major theme of the "safe and on the sidelines" study on Jewish student disengagement that came out of Stanford a few years ago: simply put, students felt like Jewish life on campus meant enlisting in a war. Go to the various social justice groups, and they were asked to join a war on Israel. Go to Hillel, and they're called to join a war for Israel. But these students didn't come to college to fight a war, they came take some classes, have some beers, make some friends, and get their psychology degree. They aren't averse to Israel being part of their Jewish lives per se, but they are averse to becoming ideological soldiers in a brutal trench war, and they felt that both "sides" of the fight refused to leave room for anything but fanaticism. So they disengage.

If you want to write about why some Jews are disengaging from Israel, approximately half the story hence has to target overly zealous and uncompromising efforts by putative "Israel supporters" to impose a "my way or the highway" approach that should be and will be flatly unacceptable to huge swaths of contemporary American Jews. The prescription section gestures at this by insisting that "red lines" and "Israel delegitimization" be drawn narrowly. But the failure to explicitly grapple with the far side of the problem comes at cost -- the document is notably vague in actually laying out what is and isn't a legitimate operating case of "delegitimization", and offers virtually no guidance as to how to respond to those forces in the Jewish community which have recklessly and harmfully expanded the in a bid to exclude giant swaths of the Jewish community (consider the mostly successful efforts to bar J Street from the "communal circle" at the institutional level). Likewise, the document commits one of my cardinal sins in that it does not even acknowledge, much less explore, the possibility that there ought to be right-ward "redlines" -- positions associated with the "pro-Israel" right that, if taken, preclude them from being considered members-in-good-standing of the Jewish communal world. It's not an accident that our redlines are only applied to JVP and not ZOA.

If you only read the diagnostic part of document, you'd come away with the impression that the only reason Jews (and non-Jews) are drifting from Israel engagement is because of unreasonable haranguing from an ideological left that thinks Israel can do no right. The idea that the right side of the political spectrum bears any responsibility for the problem -- including the erosion of Israel as a "bipartisan" issue -- is scarcely even gestured at. The simple reality that a deeply conservative government imposing deeply conservative policies and which has deeply entrenched itself as the dominant force in Israeli politics is going to eventually become deeply unpopular with progressives is not even acknowledged. At some point, asking progressives "why don't you like Israel?" is like asking them "why don't you like Mississippi?" It's not some mysterious-cum-mystical antagonism -- it's because they're both conservative places enacting conservative policies which progressives aren't going to like! There's no strategy for arresting that trend that doesn't entail, at least in part, trying to insist on more progressive policies in those locales.

The astounding lack of attention to the way right-wing forces have their share of responsibility for undermining American Jewish engagement with Israel is only underlined by perhaps its only exception. Buried in footnote 21 (in approximately 3 point font) we see this doozy: "Israel’s lack of a credible and persistent commitment to the two state-solution has become a significant stumbling block in Israel’s relations with World Jewry. Any form of annexation in the West Bank would dramatically and potentially irreversibly accelerate that trend." Yeah, no kidding! Talk about hiding elephants in mouseholes! But taking that seriously means that, if your goal is reversing the disengagement of world Jewry from Israel, you need in part to tackle "Israel's lack of a credible and persistent commitment to the two-state solution" -- and that includes taking on the members of the pro-Israel community who outright oppose a two-state solution and are seeking to affirmatively undermine it at every turn. Yet even as one-stateism has become Republican Party dogma, it gets virtually no attention in favor of an entire section on the "Corbynization" of progressive politics -- a serious problem in the UK, but utterly marginal as a feature of American politics. This sort of abject failure of perspective has long since passed the point of indefensibility.

In essence, prescriptively the document seems to tacitly acknowledge that there are a host of bad practices, most of which generate from overzealous efforts to defend a "pro-Israel" position, which end up backfiring and driving Jews and non-Jews away from even a complicated respect for Israel as a state. But it refuses to actually come out and name the problem in the diagnostic section, instead presenting the challenges as emanating almost univocally from the intersectional left. The result is a document that is functionally incoherent -- and I fear that the generally salutary actions it recommends will end up being corrupted and perverted because of an inability to honestly reckon with the full scope of the problem.

At the meta-level, one of the biggest challenges facing Jewish communal cohesion, unity, and engagement -- on Israel or anything else -- is our ongoing practice of giving destructive right-wing forces free passes. We dedicate pages upon pages of agonizing over every fringe-left march or protest or chant, but when the time comes to apply that same discerning analysis to our right-ward colleagues, we clam up. As many good ideas are contained in the prescriptive sections of this guideline, for me it stands out as embodying that trend, and it's one we just can't tolerate anymore.

This doesn't mean suddenly letting bad behavior on the left go unchallenged. But it does mean we need to start developing principles and guidelines that clearly and unambiguously dictate what sort of behavior from the Jewish right crosses the line, just as we already do with the Jewish left. And when the Jewish right does go past its red lines, we need to simply get over our sniveling fear of calling it out by name.

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