Friday, June 12, 2020

Zioness Has Another Manifesto

Zioness, the progressive Zionist group, has released a new "activist's guide" on the issue of racial justice. It consists of:

  1. One page on the need to overcome implicit bias;
  2. One page on the need to "show up" for racial justice, even when one encounters antisemitism; and
  3. Six pages on how to respond to antisemitic tropes (many, though not all, Israel- or Zionism-related) one might encounter while engaging in racial justice work.

This distribution of attention -- centering antisemitism in a pamphlet supposedly focused on racial justice -- has caused Zioness to be the target of numerous social media dunks. I think many of them are deserved, albeit with a few minor reservations. Here are my quick thoughts:
  • From its inception, my primary critique of Zioness -- and I've expressed this personally to their leadership -- is that they resolutely refuse to declare what progressive values demand with respect to Israel. Their justification for their reticence is that they are a domestic policy organization -- a response that is never going to sit well for a group called "Zioness". And documents like this only emphasize why this stance is untenable: Zioness can't forward opinions about Israel and then say "we don't take a position on that" when people ask them to register opinions on Israel. It's a circle they're never going to be able to square, and until they steel themselves and have the guts to forthrightly say "progressivism demands X, Y and Z out of Israel", people are going to going to be justified in looking at them with a skeptical eye.
  • It may be that a guidebook offering suggestions on how to respond to antisemitic tropes a progressive Jew may encounter while engaging in racial justice activism would be useful. But if you're going to make such a resource, don't title it "Racial Justice: An Activist's Guide". An activist's guide to racial justice should center questions of racial justice -- period. This is the locus of the criticisms Zioness is getting over this document, and it is absolutely correct. Creating a document on "racial justice" that has barely any direct discussion of racial justice is almost impossibly cringe-worthy.
  • Of course, the possibility that it might be useful to have a guidebook on how to respond to antisemitism while engaging in racial justice work also poses the question of whether now is the right moment to center that conversation. There is, shall we say, good reason to be skeptical on this front.
  • What little substance there is on racial justice is, to be generous, perfunctory. I'm probably more attached to implicit bias as a useful framing device for understanding contemporary racism than many of my colleagues in the progressive world (it's falling out of vogue), and even I'd say that talking about that alone is woefully incomplete. This is a case where something is worse than nothing -- if they hadn't made the limp gesture towards talking about racial justice qua racial justice, maybe it would have been clear that this document was meant to serve a different purpose (namely, "Responding to Antisemitic Tropes in Racial Justice Activism"). Of course, if that purpose had been made evident it would have more clearly posed the question of whether now was the right time to center that conversation. See the previous bullet point.
  • I've seen for awhile now the allegation that Zioness is an "astroturf" organization. There's virtually no evidence this is true. Moreover, anyone who knows anything about the constitution of American Jewish community politics should very well know it isn't true. Anyone with a modicum of knowledge about the politics of the American Jewish community -- and Zioness' critics certainly are included -- knows that there are a great many American Jews who (a) have relatively conventional "pro-Israel" politics, (b) have relatively conventional progressive domestic politics, and (c) feel aggrieved when they see these two commitments treated as antithetical to one another. Even if one hates that particular political cocktail, surely there's no dispute about its prevalence. Given that, there's no grounding to the idea that Zioness, which centers its appeal to just that political intersection, could only have sprung up via artificial seeding.* Since I'm confident that Zioness' critics are not ignorant about the political composition of the American Jewish community, I'm equally confident that their use of "astroturf" is entirely as a slur (meaning something like "activist group with more conventional and less radical politics than mine"), not an analytical category.
  • Many of the document's critics have cast it as specifically focused on "defending Israel" rather than addressing antisemitism more broadly. Much of the "antisemitic tropes" they address are Israel-related, but not several are not (ex: "Jews were behind the Atlantic Slave Trade" or "White nationalism isn’t about Jews"). There's something interesting about this, because formally speaking the elision isn't necessary: the locus of the critique -- that, especially right now, the centerpiece of a document on "racial justice" should be "racial justice" -- would I think carry equal punch if Zioness' document were accurately described as talking about antisemitism. So why fudge the description? The answer is that the criticizing "Israel talk" is more comfortable terrain for many compared to criticizing "Jewish talk", and so we see activists instinctively slide into the former even in cases where analytically they're just as much talking about the latter.
The tl;dr is that Zioness is a regular grassroots organization with a pretty obvious base of support, pairing conventional pro-Israel views with conventional mainstream Democratic domestic views. That, on its own, isn't too remarkable. But the document they've produced on "racial justice" is (a) justly being mocked for having a barely even perfunctory focus on racial justice; (b) bad on its own terms; (c) poorly timed with regard to its actual-albeit-understated purpose, and (d) inadvertently demonstrative of how Zioness' ostensible commitment to being a purely "domestic policy organization" that can't be expected to take positions on what progressive values mean for Israel is untenable.

* The closest evidence one has for Zioness being "astroturf" comes from its early funding from the right-wing Lawfare Project and Brooke Goldstein. That would raise legitimate flags, except that Goldstein has been extremely vocal about how much she hates Zioness precisely because they refused to take the pseudo-left concern-troll line that she had expected out of them (which is to say, they've actually been independent). The fallout has gotten so intense that Zioness has outright blocked Goldstein on Twitter. Whatever Goldstein's initial intentions, she'd be the first to agree that Zioness has charted its own path.

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