Friday, June 26, 2020

Israel as Contagion

There's a narrative bubbling in certain areas of the left which seeks to tie American policing abuses to cross-training exchange programs some police departments do with Israeli counterparts. The narrative has its roots in Jewish Voice for Peace's "Deadly Exchange" campaign, which uses the claim as a means of further its campaign to see Israel isolated and ostracized in global society. As the issue of police violence surges to its place at the top of the public's deliberative agenda, the deadly exchange claim likewise attracted those eager for a anti-Israel or antisemitic hook. Just yesterday, new Labour leader Keir Starmer sacked Rebecca Long-Bailey -- a prominent Jeremy Corbyn ally and one-time rival for party leadership -- from her position in Labour's shadow cabinet after she approvingly shared an article where actress Maxine Peake claimed, without evidence, that "The tactics used by the police in America, kneeling on George Floyd’s neck, that was learnt from seminars with Israeli secret services."

This is not true. Many have cited an Amnesty International report where, they say, it is proven that Israeli police train their American counterparts in human rights violations. But Amnesty has since come out and said explicitly that "Allegations that US police were taught tactics of ‘neck kneeling’ by Israeli secret services is not something we’ve ever reported." This is not surprising, as the content of these exchange programs by all accounts rarely, if ever, focuses on what we might euphemistically call "interpersonal" or "tactical" elements of police activity (it generally concentrates on strategic questions regarding operational responses to mass atrocities -- a subject upon which Israeli security forces sadly carry much expertise).

So what is going on? The stock response from those objecting to the link is the simple but truthful observation that American police hardly need Israeli help on the subject of how to harass racial minorities. Some have argued that, because it is true that there are Israeli and American policing exchange programs (and apparently some Minneapolis officers had partaken), it is ipso facto fair to draw a connection between American abuses and those training seminars -- without any regard to what actually is or is not done in those programs. The argument, in effect, a contagion theory: anyone who associates with Israelis, we can assume, is at least partially corrupted by the contact. They're worse off coming out than coming in.

In apologizing for her comment, Peake said something very interesting: she said "I was inaccurate in my assumption of American police training and its sources." Assumption is the key word there: she had, presumably, read about Israeli and American police training together, and so she assumed that the bad American practices had Israeli roots. But the only evidence was the bare fact of contact -- that's what's driving the narrative. Hence: contagion.

This, I submit, is something antisemitism does. It allows such assumptions to become naturalized. They feel right. American police have done exchange training with counterparts in dozens of other countries, ranging from the UK to Germany to Mexico to Tanzania. Even those who take a dim view of, say, the Mexican police however would likely not jump from mere contacts to causality. If someone said "American police learned chokeholds from Tanzanian police," they'd ask for evidence. If the only evidence is "there are exchange programs between American and Tanzanian police", that likely wouldn't be sufficient. But antisemitism gives a smoother cognitive ride down -- it makes little connections look huge, and implausible leaps seem manageable. It is not accidental that the narrative is about Israeli police exchanges and not German or Mexican or Tanzanian ones.

This is an unorthodox but I think ultimately more accurate way of understanding what antisemitism does. We think of antisemitism often as a motive: because I hate Jews, I think or say or do this thing. But antisemitism is more often a force or process. We usually ask "did Burke or Long-Bailey say what they say because they hate Jews?" The answer to that may well be no. But that's not the right question. The right question is "did a particular way of thinking about Jews render what Burke or Long-Bailey said plausible or resonant in a way it otherwise would not have been?" And there I think it is quite clear that the answer is yes. It is because we think about Jews in a particular way that this contagion theory of Israeli culpability in American policing injustices -- a narrative which objectively stands on such a thin reed -- is plausible when it otherwise wouldn't be. That is the work of antisemitism.

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