Saturday, August 22, 2020

What Should We Think About "United Against Hate"?

A coalition of left-wing groups has announced a new initiative, "United Against Hate", seeking to counter antisemitism in American society. The Jewish organizations involved are IfNotNow, The Jewish Vote, Bend the Arc: Jewish Action, Never Again Action, and JVP. The non-Jewish groups associated with the endeavor include the Movement for Black Lives, Dream Defenders, Mijente,  United We Dream, the Arab American Institute, MPower Change, Emgage, and the People’s Collective for Justice and Liberation.

What should make of this?

At one level, it's hard to say because the website associated with the endeavor appears to be broken. Moreover, there is certainly something a bit brazen about launching a new counter-antisemitism initiative titled "United Against Hate" the same week as many of the same groups pushed "Drop the ADL". Be united, but not that united, I guess.

In my view, though, an initiative like this could have four different priorities in a variety of different mixes,  and how they prioritize among them will ultimately dictate how beneficial or detrimental it is. Those priorities are:

  1. Combating right-wing antisemitism, which is a violent threat to Jews and -- through conspiracy theories like QAnon and various "Soros" theories -- is increasingly becoming mainstream in American conservative politics.
  2. Combating left-wing antisemitism, which debilitates progressive movements and marginalizes Jews in the political community most of us call home.
  3. Shielding left-wing antisemitism, by providing a Jewish seal of approval to progressive actors accused of more mainstream actors of antisemitic activity.
  4. Punching at mainstream Jewish groups, seeking to further decay their clout in American politics and redistribute their influence and power to more left-wing alternatives.
As you can imagine, I think the first two priorities are salutary and the latter two malicious. The group members have experience with all four. Some have consistently fought against right-wing antisemitism, some have made contributions in undermining left-wing antisemitism. JVP has a long history of declaring alleged left-wing antisemites "not guilty (with a Jewish accent)", and IfNotNow's raison d'etre is centered on seething hatred for mainstream Jewish outlets.

A coalition like this doesn't necessarily have to choose -- the question is how it will balance these potential missions. But -- speaking from a purely realist, cold-blooded political calculus -- one way they could be very effective is by only focusing on right-wing antisemitism. A relentless, one-sided, unshaded, nakedly partisan attack on right-wing antisemitism could have a real impact on how antisemitism is perceived in the US.

I say this would be good only from a "cold-blooded" perspective because it reflects an attribute of politics that I hate: the necessity of "bad cops". In this case, that means intentional, partisan bias against the right on the subject of antisemitism -- all attack, no defense; against targets fairly and unfairly identified. This, after all, is how the right has treated antisemitism for the past few years -- hammering its existence on the left while refusing to even acknowledge its presence at home. Unlike the progressive community, which has (haltingly and unevenly) sought to grapple with antisemitism in its ranks, the right simply does not take up the issue at all. They're assisted by the fact that, up to this point, the left hasn't made fighting right-wing antisemitism a direct priority -- too often their response when it pops up is instead make an indirect whine about media bias ("can you imagine if Ilhan Omar said this?"). Even if the complaint has some merit, it suffers from the same defect as all other charges of hypocrisy: if Ilhan Omar said it, we know these same voices would be defending her to the hilt and calling the whole thing a smear. Attacks of this sort aren't actually attacks on right-wing antisemitism, they're attacks on paying attention to antisemitism at all. So it's not surprising that they don't yield sustained attention to bad conservative actors.

The result of all of this is that antisemitism controversies on the left stay in the news for weeks, while right-wing controversies fade after a day or so. I very much believe that one of the gravest mistakes the American Jewish community has made in recent years is that we've made it so that an honest though incomplete attempt at redressing antisemitism is viewed as worse than refusing to reckon with it at all. But that is, sadly, the world we're in. And in that world, United Against Hate offers the potential of shifting the narrative a little bit -- if it can maintain message discipline. That means mostly ignoring antisemitism on the left -- not defending it, not attacking it (you'll note that the RJC spends very little time defending someone like Jason Lewis -- whenever his name comes up, they ignore him and start talking about Ilhan Omar again). It means resisting the cry of "hypocrisy" -- a sword that nearly always cuts both ways -- and a simple, relentless concentration on right-wing antisemitic activity in America. Over and over, until the drumbeat becomes irresistible.

There is room for a movement like this, because to some extent the United Against Hate people are right -- mainstream Jewish groups haven't fully risen to the occasion of the moment. Of course, neither have the groups in this coalition: for the most part, they've manifestly failed to be productive actors in the fight against antisemitism; until now the overwhelmingly majority of their contributions to the subject was denying that the problem exists in non-trivial quantities. And there is very good reason to be skeptical that they will not be able to resist falling into old habits -- spending 90% of their time explaining why attacks on antisemitism in the Women's March are "smears" or insisting that blacklisting the overwhelming majority of the Jewish community is wholly compatible with fighting anti-Jewish hate.

But -- maybe they won't do that. Maybe they'll "just" attack right-wing antisemitism in a single-minded, unmediated fashion. In its best possible form, United Against Hate will likely be aggressive, one-sided, unnuanced, and occasionally even unfair. And in the terrible world that is 2020, that still might make them a useful corrective to our scarred discourse about antisemitism.


matthewtheunhumbled said...

This is the nicest eulogy I've ever read for a stillborn movement against antisemitism.

matthewtheunhumbled said...

I can tell you're working very hard at being charitable. No one will ever be able to say that David Schraub killed the movement with hackneyed cries of "antisemitism!"
It's amazing how deft you've become at skating around that challenge. It's a testament to both you and the times we live in.

Rachel Pearl said...

We do need a sustained watchdog putting pressure on the mainstreaming of antisemitism on the right, but I think you're excessively optimistic if that's going to come from any group that includes JVP, who spend a lot of time smearing progressive/liberal Zionists as like, Jabotinsky-loving "Jewish supremacist" Likudniks. ๐Ÿ™„
A campaign that somehow kicks Mort Klein/ZOA out of the CoP would be productive, but I doubt these guys could pull that off.
Having Bend the Arc in there could help in theory, since they explicitly don't do anything Israel-related, but I'm deeply skeptical that this group will do anything but try to attack mainstream liberal Jewish institutions and further hurt intercommunity relations and intracommunity solidarity.