Tuesday, January 31, 2006

Alas, A Debate

So Ampersand has issued a lengthy and interesting response to my series of posts regarding the link between anti-Semitism and assaults on Israel. I want to briefly respond to a few points here.

The first thing I want to observe is just a generic difficulty in argumentation. Most people (myself included) argue by analogy--X is like Y, so X should be treated like Y is treated. The problem is that X and Y are never exactly alike, so many debates become an indefinite spiral of distinction-drawing between the various Xs and Ys put out on the argumentative table. And I think we're seeing a bunch of that here.

Consider, for example, Amp's claim that by indicting Chomsky solely on "mixed signals", I'm being unfair and unjust to him.
To answer David, yes, we should require more than "mix signals" before we slander someone with this most serious of accusations. Ticking-bomb scenarios aside, there is no reasonable standard that says "the more serious the accusation, the less important it is to find clear evidence." We do not, for instance, require less evidence to find someone guilty of murder than of jaywalking, on the grounds that murder is so important an issue that even mixed evidence should be enough.

This confuses the standards we apply for legal versus social sanction. If Chomsky were on trial for "anti-semitism" or whatever, then clearly "mixed signals" shouldn't be enough to convict. The standard is "guilty beyond a reasonable doubt", and that's true regardless of the crime. Fair enough--but I don't make my social decisions of who to interact with and who to avoid using the "beyond a reasonable doubt" standard, and I don't think anyone else does either. If I reasonably suspect that someone I know is either ambivalent toward the Holocaust's existence, or denies that it has meaning, or is perfectly comfortable associating herself with those who deny the Holocaust's existence/meaning, then I feel perfectly justified no longer associating with that person. Just because he wasn't convicted at trial doesn't mean I have to be friends with O.J. Simpson. Furthermore, I do think that in social matters it's okay if we have sliding scale for "crimes" of differing magnitudes. Reasonable suspicion that someone is a drug user probably won't make me abandon my friendship, reasonable suspicion that they are a murderer probably will. The standards we use in public law versus private conduct are and should be very distinct.

Similarly, Amp analogizes my description of Chomsky and Pappe as being the Jewish versions of Clarence Thomas and Ward Connerly with my previous denunciation of Black critics who try and strip conservative Blacks of their "Black status." I say specifically in my post that this isn't my goal with Chomsky or Pappe--but Amp just says that there is no logical distinction between the two cases. I think the fact that I specifically disclaim the intention to strip Chomsky of his "Jewishness" is a major distinction that has great relevance, especially given the point I was trying to make:
That doesn't mean that they don't have the right to express their opinions, or that they should be expelled from the Jewish/Black community, I advocate neither. But it does mean that if we, as progressives, are going to address anti-semitism in the same manner as we do racism, as a structural matter deeply ingrained in the fabric of global society, then we can't be side-tracked simply because a few reactionaries have decided to join forces with those who'd deny or minimize the presence/importance of these ills in the modern world.

That strikes me as a fair compromise between abandoning identity politics entirely (because it's impossible to ever group everyone into one position), and exiling any speaker who doesn't conform to the prefigured determination of what their identity ought be.

I also want to point out that I don't oppose all criticisms of Israel (I've done it too), as Amp implies, but I am indicting people who think Israel shouldn't exist as a Jewish state, and think that given the global history of anti-Semitism it is important to subject general critiques to critical analysis to see how, if at all, they are undergirded by anti-Semitic myths, mentalities, or practices.

I think at this point it would be useful to clarify just how one can be anti-Semitic with regards to Israel. This tends to defy easy delineation, but I'll try anyway.

1) Explicitly or implicitly linking anti-Semitic stereotypes or sentiments to the critique (regardless of what the substance of the critique is). I think everyone agrees that the statement "The Kikes need to take down the Security Wall" is anti-Semitic (even if one thinks the wall should be taken down). That's explicit. Implicit means absorbing the anti-Semitic aura of society and applying to Israel subconsciously (I talked in my last post about the "mark of Cain" myth and how I think it's applicable). Subconscious racism/anti-Semitism, basically.

2) Criticizing Israel disproportionately or hypocritically with respect to other states. For example, since 2003 the UN has taken 351 Human Rights Actions with regards to Israel--more than any other state. Second place, with 141 (I.E., less than half as many) is Sudan, which, you may recall, is currently in the middle of a genocide. When Israel is critiqued by a global body 2.5x more frequently than is another country in the midst of a mass slaughter, I think it's fair to accuse said body of anti-Semitism. Obviously, there are other factors that go into play beyond a simple "criticize equal offenders equally" equation. Amp argues that disproportionate American criticism of Israel is justified on several grounds: That we provide loads of funding to them, and that Israel was founded by White Westerners in a non-White Western region. I'd first note that there are other factors Amp isn't recognizing that I think play in rather strongly here--most importantly gravity of the offense. Yes, all else being equal I care more about what happens in places where my money is being spent than where it isn't--but the world isn't 'ceteris paribus.' I think it is fair for me to be more concerned about Sudanese Janjaweed systematically raping and butchering black Africans than Israel bulldozers knocking down a house owned by terrorists, even if more of my money went to the latter than the former. But let's take them at face value. If the "money" justification was all that was at work here, we'd see the second highest level of protest against Egypt, which is our second largest aid recipient. But I don't think anti-Egypt protests are all that prevalent. Furthermore, it doesn't explain the asymmetry at the UN--they focus on Israel even though they give them almost no money. As to the second, I reject the framing. Israel was hardly "founded" by White Europeans--the UK almost immediately withdraw its support under heavy Arab pressure, and was pretty much an outright opponent of a Jewish State in Israel by the 1930s. Jews themselves I don't think can be called "White Westerners," even the ones who are from Europe, and certainly not the Sephardic Jews who come from Africa and the Middle East (and who, contrary to Amp's assertion, occupy top positions in the Israeli government at a far higher rate than any other 1st world country).

This second one goes beyond that though, and in my opinion for the most part encompasses critiques of Israel "as a Jewish state." Like Amp, I don't think that Israel should be a religious state (and I should note that there are political parties in Israel, most prominently Shinui, that espouse this precise position). But I still believe it should be a Jewish state, in that it should act as a homeland for the Jewish people. There are certain people who critique nation-states in all forms--that's fine, but also very rare--as I said in my last post, these folks better also be criticizing France, China, Palestine, and basically every other state in the world today. Using Israel (IE, the Jewish State) as the poster child for critiquing the nation-state writ large is discriminatory and wholly unwarranted.

I also think it's very plausible that the anti-Western Westerners might not be focusing on Israel for wholly innocent reasons. Here's something I wrote in an (off-blog) paper I was working on:
Opposing Israel also offers powerful psychological guilt release for leftist liberationists who nominally oppose the hegemonic aspirations of the imperialist West, but are all too painfully aware that true opposition would mean giving up their own, privileged state. The conflation of Israel/Jews with the West/Westerners (and the corresponding opposition that goes along with being labeled "Western") neatly solves this dilemma: All of the fun of opposing hegemony, without the unpleasantness of sacrificing ones own, privileged position. Anti-Semitism is a "convenient way of attacking the existing order without demanding its total overthrow and without having to offer a comprehensive alternative." Since few of the anti-Israel leftists are Jewish themselves (with some notable exceptions), the opposition to Israel is a cost-free endeavor, posing as a legitimate self-critique. As for the Jewish critics, such as Noam Chomsky, opposition to Israel is often a litmus test to prove their leftwing bona fides. [Alan] Dershowitz notes that:
There are also some Jews for whom Israel's growing unpopularity among the radical left is something of an embarrassment. These Jews want to be liked by those whose politics they support on other issues. Accordingly, they tend to distance themselves from Israel and often support the Palestinian side without much thought about the merits of the case. Opposing Israel and supporting the Palestinians is, for some Jews, a way of establishing their left-wing credentials and proving that their political correctness trumps any ethnic solidarity.

But furthermore, I think that a Jewish state can be justified even within a general paradigm that frowns upon ethnic or national-based states, and it's Amp who explains why. When trying to reconcile his support for Affirmative Action with his opposition to "giv[ing] special legal rights to any group based solely on race, ethnicity, religion, or cultural background," he says that:
Affirmative action is not motivated by racism per se, but by the desire to remove the effects of historic and ongoing racism; just as a surgeon cutting open a stabbing victim is distinct from the criminal who stabbed the victim, affirmative action is distinct from racism.

First of all, I'd note that one can concede that AA isn't "motivated by racism per se" and still believe as a factual matter that it does "give special legal rights to [a] group based...on race." So the footnote really doesn't distinguish the principle. But second, and more importantly, I think that same justification in the footnote applies equally to justify a Jewish state, IE:
[A Jewish state in Israel] is not motivated by [Jewish nationalism] per se, but by the desire to remove the effects of historic and ongoing [anti-Semitism]; just as a surgeon cutting open a stabbing victim is distinct from the criminal who stabbed the victim, [a Jewish state in Israel] is distinct from [other ethnically-based states].

In other words, given the past and ongoing truth that Jews living in gentile states have a disturbing tendency to get robbed, raped, killed, or exiled, we can rationally conclude that the only way to remedy that state of affairs is for them to have a state where they know they'll be protected. As a result, I think that Amp is being unfair to Jews here, because he's randomly carving them out from his general principle that targeted remedial actions that may mirror the historical wrong they address don't have similar levels of culpability.

Nor can Amp save himself by arguing that anti-Semitism has fallen. For one, he only makes the case in America--in Europe, anti-Semitism has been on the rise for some time now--why can't Israel be justified for their sakes then? And of course, recall what sparked this whole conversation: Iran's call for a conference on the Holocaust (which anybody with a pulse can predict will become a forum to bash Jews and Israel). Second, all Amp does is show that (in America) anti-Semitic violence and overt anti-Semitic stereotypes are falling. Well, yes, I'm delighted that I can walk the streets of Northfield without getting beaten, and I won't minimize the importance of it. But I think its a bit triumphantalist to limit "anti-Semitism" simply to cases of "rabid hate...and/or violence" (to paraphrase from a well-known anti-racism scholar). I'm sure American blacks are delighted that lynch mobs have fallen out of fashion, but we'd be deluding ourselves if we said that racism was no longer a problem. I think that the "diminishment" of racism and anti-Semitism has occurred in exactly the same way, and needs to be addressed via exactly the same paradigm. Racism in America today also is not predominantly expressed via overt hate or violence--the structures of racism are kept intact via the insistence that Black Americans are situated in the exact same position as White Americans and thus need no distinct accommodations to succeed in the modern world. Jews suffer from the same thing (what Amp calls "gentile-centrism")--Jews are Christians wearing a Star of David, and thus need no accommodations or privileges in order to be equal in the world today. I just don't think that's true, and I think that even in America this isn't hard case to make, much less the rest of the world (I'm a law guy, so I'll just throw out a few cases that I think buttress this: Gallagher v. Crown Kosher Supermarket, Goldman v. Weinburger, Kiryas Joel v. Grumet, Estate of Caldor v. Thorton, and Commack Self-Service Kosher Meats Inc. v. Rubin). I concur with Richard's comment: I don't think Amp would use this same type of evidence to draw these same impacts were the topic racism as opposed to anti-Semitism. This isn't a "gotcha" thing--nobody treats them the same. But that split is irrational and is precisely what I'm attacking.

This is all a lot of ink (pixels?) spilled over what really is a very simple critique: I don't think the left is behaving honestly when it addresses Israel or Jews. I very simply want them to use the same analytical tools ("looking to the bottom", critical analysis, deconstruction, challenging stories) that they use in looking at every other oppressive hierarchy to look at global anti-Semitism. This rather clearly includes the Israel issue. Right now, such analysis is lacking, and I think it is grossly unfair to exclude Jewishness from the same critical examination that racism, sexism, heterosexism, etc., receives.

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