Monday, December 06, 2021

Will You Miss Me When I'm Gone?

I've been reflecting over the past few days about why it is that BDS/anti-normalization causes such existential panic amongst diaspora Jews -- more so, I'd wager, than it does for Israelis. I've written, of course, about how such movements frequently result in considerable regulation and injury to diaspora Jews who actually can be effectively subjected to external policing, so that's part of it. But as I think about it more, the fear comes from a much deeper place. What we fear is living in a community or a polity where people simply do not care what Jews think, and are content to speak upon Jews without being much concerned about Jewish contributions to the conversation.

As is the case in many such fears, this is not an injury that only the Jews have experienced. To take one adjacent example: the Trump "peace plan", constructed as it was with virtually no Palestinian input, was an effort to resolve the issue of Palestine without being especially concerned with what Palestinians had to say on the subject. Unsurprisingly, they were not so keen about being viewed as dispensable to the process of an Israeli-Palestinian accord; in addition to predictably producing a slanted deal, it was also taken -- rightfully so -- as a form of disrespect and degradation. The "deal" was always going to be stillborn, for that reason alone.

In Israel and Palestine, there are plenty of people who cling to the notion that they can "resolve" the conflict without remotely engaging with the perspective of the other, or actually coming to some sort of accord. For Israelis, this is the intoxication of power -- they have the land and the guns and the status quo high ground, and this is the prerogative of dominion. For Palestinians, there is the fundamentalism of despair -- if a negotiated deal is impossibly out of reach and we're stuck in the realm of fantasies, then why not be a maximalist? There's no opportunity cost to going for broke if there is no next-best alternative being passed up, because there aren't any actual alternatives being passed up at all. And of course, for both camps, the allure of unilateralism is bolstered by a resolute sense of righteousness -- why should we have to give an inch to them, when we are right and they are wrong? Where is the justice in being forced to make concessions to the wrongdoer?

Those who adapt this view may, as Abe Silberstein writes, respond to claims that they're being unrealistic by portentously insisting that they are "resisting hegemonic limitations on what is possible." They're not, and most people, at the end of the day, recognize the unyielding if not always convenient truth that a permanent solution to the Israeli/Palestinian conflict will have to entail some sort of accord or agreement between both parties. Neither side will be able to impose a lasting solution to the situation by force of will alone. Even if you think a two-state solution is dead in the water, a binational state would be roughly 50/50 Jewish and non-Jewish; such a state could only function if there is not just nominal but robust commitment to coexistence and mutual recognition. Neither party is going anywhere, which means that whatever the final status of the land is -- be it marriage or divorce -- it will still involve some agreement on how to live together, each party (if only via necessity) attentive to what the other thinks.

But things are different in the diaspora. Here there are not, objectively speaking, all that many Jews. Here, to imagine a world where one no longer need to speak to or think about Jews is not to imagine something impossible or even implausible. It is quite possible, at least in certain communities and spaces, to have a perfectly pleasant, happy, and functioning existence without any meaningful Jewish contribution whatsoever, and so a situation where Jews are not part of one's community is not necessarily a harbinger of dysfunction or chaos.

The BDS/anti-normalization cadre has made a calculated decision that it does not need to hear Jewish contributions. This is not the same thing as saying it actively does not want Jews. It is, for the most part, perfectly happy to have Jews aboard as passengers for the ride. It just means that this movement does not feel as if it has failed or is endangered in any particular way if it doesn't secure Jewish buy-in, and so if it turns out that it is a movement operating mostly independent of Jewish contribution, that does not represent a problem. 

  • Morally, this calculation manifests as a view that the correct moral answer to the Israel-Palestine question is "Israel is wrong from root to branch", and while it'd be nice if Jews got onboard the righteous train, their failure to do so does not in any way modulate the right answer to the moral question (which exists entirely independent of what Jews think on the subject). 
  • Politically, it is an assessment that their practical campaigns do not need Jewish presence or agreement in order to be functional; they can accomplish what they want to accomplish even if it is perfectly well-known they're doing it over howls of Jewish objection. 
  • Finally, interpersonally, it carries an implied belief that there is no real loss felt to the extent one's circle is purged of (most) Jews -- our absence does not register as a cost, or at most is an acceptable one. Relationships with Jews are dispensable.

This belief represents a radical reimagination of the contemporary liberal political landscape -- it is very much not the status quo in the Democratic Party. Right now, the mainstream moral position amongst liberals is that a just solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict must be one that is acceptable to both sides; there is no party for whom it is right to simply see crushed.* Right now, it mostly remains the case that political legitimacy on matters of Israel depends on some amount of non-trivial Jewish buy-in -- it is not the case, as is often alleged, that this buy-in is withheld unless one goes all-in for Likud, but it is true that consensus Jewish redlines against extreme anti-Israel positions do roughly track the line between reputable and disreputable Democratic politics. Democrats believe that hearing from Jews (not just from us, but us too -- "necessary" is not "sufficient") and securing Jewish buy-in is necessary to come to the right decisions on Israel, and that hearing from Jews is necessary to come to politically viable decisions on Israel.

Most importantly, the degree to which Jews are imbricated into the fabric of mainstream liberal politics means it would actually be really hard, on a national level, to extricate oneself from ties and relationships with Jews without immense cost. To a far greater degree than any other diaspora nation, Jews are present all over the place in contemporary Democratic politics -- in Congress, in interest groups, among staff, in policy workshops, and in coalitions. To ask your average Democratic politician to detach themselves from any Jew whose views fail to line up with this radical reimagination is to ask them to divest themselves of countless rooted, meaningful attachments, built over years, which will not be dislodged so easily. These relationships are absolutely not dispensable, and as SunriseDC found out, that degree of embeddedness and entrenchment is quite resilient to challenge

Yet, unlike in Israel-Palestine, here in the US this radical reimagination is not an impossible reimagination. It is possible to conceive of. Most clearly, the people pushing this reimagination believe that hearing from Jews and securing buy-in from Jews is not necessary to develop morally correct postures on Israel. And as a matter of politics, the necessity of Jewish buy-in may be true on a national level, but it won't hold in every district or locality (there just aren't enough of us), to say nothing of the advantages in staking out a passionate minority position. Moreover, there is a difference even in how, say, Ilhan Omar orients to the Jewish community -- she does, however haltingly and ineffectually, try to engage with us -- and, say, what I've been seeing out of Imani Oakley (from whom antipathy towards engagement with Jewish community appears to be central to her political identity in a way that is unrivaled by any member of Congress I can think of, Squad absolutely included). I know little about the Newark-area district Oakley is running in (as a primary challenger to Donald Payne, Jr.) or about whether Oakley has any real shot at winning, but certainly she senses that overtly positioning herself in this way is not necessarily toxic.

Finally, the imbrication of Jews across liberal politics is true now, but it is not an inevitable fact of nature. So the reimagination begins by chip, chip, chipping away at the ability of Jews to enter into the room freely -- an ideological litmus test here, a campaign against interfaith work there, all serving to gnaw away those interpersonal connections which serve as hedges preserving relationships where political necessity fails. It is a tide lapping at a cliff-face, and the erosion can be slow even as the progress is steady. The DSA maybe can't expel Jamaal Bowman, and Bowman ("given his community") will not ditch his Jewish constituents so easily -- but what would be high cost in the case of Bowman is low cost when it comes to a city councilor in Des Moines or state representative in Raleigh. Old bonds die hard, but new institutions and spaces and visions that lack decades of accreted history will find it much easier to promulgate norms obstructing the development of new ones. Chip, chip, chip -- intervene to stop the connections from forming at the point of conception, and the roots won't be wide or deep enough to serve as a check if and when there is a moment of reckoning.

Cherrie Moraga wrote years ago of how "so often the women seem to feel no loss, no lack, no absence when women of color are not involved.... This has hurt me deeply."** The Jewish terror is that this reimagined politics is one where it is not even felt as a loss if Jews are not present. Ironically, as much as Israel is the fulcrum for the politics' development, as a much as those who promote it insist to high heavens they're just talking about Israel and Zionism, not Jews, it is Jews-not-in-Israel who will feel the brunt of it, because it is they who are actually in a position to be excluded from communities and spaces and places which had been and otherwise would be their own.

Again, it is not that, for those who promote this reimagination, Jewish absence is an affirmative good, necessarily. It's just that the absence isn't seen as a bad; it is not a failing that needs to be rectified. The people who promote this politics would be happy if Jews sign up for the ride, but they aren't going to adjust themselves a half-inch if Jews instead are registering complaints or seek to alter the trajectory. We are permitted to be passengers (or, perhaps, ballast), but not helmsmen. They don't need us, they will not accommodate us, and their assessment of their own path is implacably indifferent to whether it results in our presence or absence. That is a scary thought indeed.

 * Outside of the liberals, and until recently among many liberals, it was the case that many did believe exactly this -- just of Palestinians: they were the bad guys, and a "just" solution is one where they're punished, to hell what they think of it. I won't say that turnabout is fair play, but the howls of protest demanding "nuance" and acknowledgment of "both sides' legitimate claims" from many Jewish organizations do present a dissonant juxtaposition with the happy acceptance of the decidedly unnuanced and one-sided accounts of the conflict that prevailed for many years to the benefit of Israelis.

** Cherrie Moraga, "Refugees of a World on Fire," Forward to the 2nd ed. of This Bridge Called My Back (Watertown, Mass.: Persephone Press, 1983), 33


Unknown said...

Thanks for this careful exposition. While the context is not identical (mostly due to differences in demographics), I do think what you describe is increasingly the experience of "white (passing) males" in many progressive circles. We are welcome to show up to meetings, but our voices no longer carry any moral or political weight. We are not seen as potential leaders, but as you said, can only be part of the solution if we make ourselves small, willing to be directed by those with more righteous perspectives. Believe it or not, it's one of the reasons white men get anxious about demographic shift in the USA. It's not inconceivable that there will be more and more spaces where we can only enter silently, if we can enter at all. While we don't have the history of Jewish persecution, many white males who grow up in (urban) communities where they are the minority have experienced "radicalized" violence, intimidation, bullying and or marginalization, often resulting in lack of confidence and self-loathing. This, of course, has to be understood within the broader contexts, but it is, nevertheless, true. Moreover, for white male (as with Jewish) liberals, the broader context includes the fact that attempting to find space in white majority (Republican) communities may also be impossible.

L said...

An excellent analysis, and something that I have been thinking about as well. One topic that this post does not deal with, however, is the role of leftist Jews. The groups to whom you allude would counter your argument that they do possess Jewish voices and, indeed, that Jews make up the vanguard of their movement. This is to say that the Jewish voices consulted, though not representative of the broader community, are deemed to be legitimate whereas mainstream institutions are corrupted by the "Zionist Lobby" (or in the language used in DSA's post on Bowman, the "Zionist Media Narrative" and the "Israel Lobby").

This ultimately breaks-down into a good Jew / bad Jew dichotomy. The good leftist Jew (who believes that Israel constitutes the distillation of modern evil) can remain part of the "movement" while the views of the bad, non-leftist Jew may be disregarded. I was struck by the DSA's language about Bowman "challenging his constituents to recognize Israel’s roots in the Nakba," which echoes AOC comments, as you pointed out, about Bowman's merits "given the community that he’s in."

Bad and worrying stuff, all around.

David Schraub said...

For the most part, my views on leftist anti-Zionist Jews in this context is encompassed by what I wrote in my article on "The Distinctive Political Status of Dissident Minorities". I'll say, specifically, that I stand by what I said earlier about how such Jews can be incorporated insofar as the goal isn't exclusion of Jews for its own sake but rather there is no loss felt if Jews aren't present. If some Jews (the anti-Zionist ones) feel comfortable and happy in the movement, that's lovely. If it turns out that few-to-no Jews fall into that category, no loss.

The conclusion of the "Dissident Minorities" article takes aim at the notion, often held by the dissident minorities themselves, that they are welcome as agents in the relevant movements (or as I put it in this post, as "helmsmen" rather than as "passengers" or "ballast"), and I argue for why -- absent a more robust commitment to hearing Jewish voices independent of whether they come with pre-existing agreement with a movement's premises -- this is unlikely.

Jon said...

I don't think Oakley has much of a chance of winning. She spends most of her time on social media making unhinged conspiracy theories about how redistricting is personally targeting her. She lives in a rich town called Montclair, not in Newark, and it will be nearly impossible for a non-Newark resident to win.

Also, in the discourse about Oakley, I'd draw people's attention to this interview, which hasn't really been picked up yet.