Sunday, June 20, 2021

"Safety in Solidarity" and the Israeli-American Food Truck

Yesterday, Jewish social media was roiled by the story of a Israeli-American food truck, Moshava Philly, was expelled from the "Eat Up the Borders" immigrant food truck event after reported community pressure and threats. It was a depressing story, obviously, and a story about antisemitism, also obviously. But I have a few slightly-less (I think) obvious thoughts as well.

It is, right now, unclear whether the event organizers made their decision to remove Moshava Philly because they agreed with and/or where sympathetic to those objecting to Moshava Philly's presence, or whether they regretted the decision but felt their hands were tied due to credible threats that could endanger the entire event. The evidence is mixed, but for purposes of this post I'm going to assume the latter -- partially because that seems to be Moshava Philly's interpretation, and partially because if it's the former then there isn't really much interesting-non-obvious commentary to add.

It is a depressing reality that one has to assume that an organization like Eat Up the Borders, dedicated to promoting immigrant businesses in America, has experienced or at least contemplated what would happen if there was a racist backlash to its practices. This is not an unforeseeable development, at least in broad strokes. One has to think they had an idea of what they'd do in a case like this. So the question is whether this -- removing the targeted truck -- is in accord with that idea. People are saying that Eat Up the Borders would not have reacted in the same way had the racist backlash targeted a Mexican-American truck or an Iraqi-American truck or a Chinese-American truck.

Normally, I hate that "imagine if it were X group" argument, in part because is it often acts as if it is inconceivable that there would be a backlash against any other group. To the contrary, I can absolutely imagine a scenario where a racist backlash targeted the food truck of another community; I can even imagine a situation where the backlash got so dangerous and threatening that the event organizers felt no choice but to remove them from the event. It's not implausible.

But. I do think there is something different happening here. If Eat Up the Borders was facing a racist backlash, I think under normal circumstances they would not hesitate to vocally name it as a racist backlash. It might be a backlash that temporarily defeated them, it might be one that forced them to make a decision they'd rather not make. Racists can be powerful that way. But by naming it, they would lay the foundation for a counterattack: leverage the community to rally against the racists and provide the necessary support, resources, and security to ensure that all are welcome at the event and that the racists would not win in the end.

"Safety in solidarity". That's the motto we hear -- that threats like this don't need more police, they need a community response that unifies in support to keep everyone safe and included.

Something about this case, though, apparently made turning to that idea feel untenable to Eat Up the Borders. For whatever reason, they did not have the confidence that naming this as a racist backlash would generate the sort of outpouring of solidarity that might yield safety. The core "idea" wouldn't work here. People, Jews and non-Jews alike, sense that the foundations for such solidarity have not yet entrenched themselves, at least for Jews. For Jews, there still are hang-ups and excuses and rationalizations for why solidarity can be withheld -- they're powerful, they're appropriating, they're colonizers ... the list goes on. And they know, too, that to some extent the calls for racist exclusion against Jews are coming from inside the house -- opposing this form of racist backlash isn't about standing tall against big bad bigots "out there", but involves standing up and saying no to people on the inside.

At the end of the day, Jews know that "safety in solidarity" is not, at least right now, a check we're entitled to cash. It might be different if the people who loudly promoted "safety in solidarity" as the proper Jewish response to antisemitism got loud about instances like this. If they put out the call for solidarity and got a response, that could prove otherwise -- a powerful rallying and mobilizing on behalf of Moshava Philly that would blow away the assumption that solidarity would not be forthcoming. 

But they don't. Maybe because they themselves have mixed feelings about the presence of Israeli-American immigrants -- even as those "mixed feelings", at root, cannot be disaggregated from simple antisemitism and xenophobia. If one has a problem with immigrants because of the policies of the nation they immigrated from, or because they do not express outright hatred and contempt for their home, or because one views the entire culture of that nation as irrevocably tainted and grotesque -- that's xenophobia, full stop. If nothing else, Moshava Philly represents a very clean case where all of the supposed guardrails that distinguish "anti-Israel" from "antisemitism" -- from "it's about the government, not the people" to "it's about institutions, not individuals" -- have fallen away.

But mixed feelings is not the only problem here. Even if there is no such ambivalence, even if the "safety in solidarity" crew knows without a doubt that this is hate, I suspect they're quiet because, deep down, they harbor the same doubts as everyone else about what the response to their call would be.  Even if they know this is hate, they don't know that everyone else knows it too. They know the foundation isn't there yet.

It is worth noting that the entity in this sad affair that seems most invested in actually building this foundation is ... Moshava Philly. They've committed to staying invested in this community, of reaching out to Eat Up the Borders and doing the work. I wish I could say with confidence they'll succeed. It's not guaranteed. But it's worth trying, and they deserve our support as they try to use this terrible moment to build up rather than tear down.

UPDATE: NBC Philadelphia reports two new developments I hadn't heard before. The first is that now event organizers are claiming it had a policy of only allowing an Israeli food truck if a Palestinian one was present as well (and vice versa); this time the Palestinian food truck couldn't make it so they removed the Israeli one. That's a profoundly stupid reason, and also very different from what folks on both sides had been saying yesterday.

Second, it appears now the entire festival has been canceled.

UPDATE 2x: That JVP Swarthmore -- which has "safety through solidarity" in its bio -- is enthusiastically backing the expulsion of the Israeli-American immigrant vendor as a righteous example of BDS is almost too on-brand and makes for the perfect coda to this post.

No comments: