Wednesday, June 09, 2010

Of Matters 101

For obvious reasons, I wasn't going to touch the comments section of this post with a ten foot pole.

But against my better judgment, I did read through it. And while it brought back some nasty flashbacks, I do think it also caused a few things to clear up in my mind.

I feel like there is a distinct aversion amongst blogs that are roughly in the political "range" of Feministe towards discussing anti-Semitism. That's true at least of the blogs that aren't avowedly anti-Israel (those mention anti-Semitism quite often, albeit usually to mock it) -- and despite my rather horrific experience there (which was easily the worst of my blogging career), I would not say that the Feministe crew (at least the two I know well) are anti-Israel. I know this because I know the folks who invited me to contribute, and I know that they did so neither to humiliate, nor to demonstrate how broad-minded and fair they were (to invite a radical such as myself). But amongst these blogs, one sees anti-Semitism mentioned extraordinarily rarely. I think the Feministing post on Helen Thomas was the first time I've ever seen them mention the issue of anti-Semitism (a search for the term on their site reveals no hits, with only a bare handful for "anti-semitic"), and it was, to say the least, sorely lacking (to be fair, the author was quite appropriately raked over the coals for it in the comments).

But back to the main. What distinguishes the rare discussions of anti-Semitism in these forums is not that folks universally mock and deride the concept. On the Feministe thread, you will find many that don't. What is different is that folks that would in other contexts be seen as trolls, here are just "the other side". The lack of 101 penetration is astounding. Respect how the Jewish community describes its own experience. Don't accuse us of being psychopaths, overly sensitive, manipulative, or flat out liars. Don't group our history and experience into the narrative of others. Being a Jew who disagrees with the bulk of the community does not earn you super-standing. The "anti-Semitism card" can and is easily trumped by the "anti-Semitism card card". Calling a particular statement respecting Israel anti-Semitic does not mean one condemns all criticisms of Israel as anti-Semitic. For that matter, critiquing one's statement regarding Israel does not necessarily mean we've called you anti-Semitic at all.

This is basic stuff. But, unlike most "isms", for anti-Semitism there's no consensus around it. And that's a problem. The whole reason why blogs like Feministe are adamant about not letting the basics be up for debate in every thread is that these conversations are incredibly passionate and painful -- too much so to be rehashed over and over again. To have to explain, ad nauseum and in the face of incredibly hostile fire, why certain frames wound, why the majority narrative is inadequate, why the status quo is inadequate, is utterly exhausting.

And so, whereas I think your average anti-racism blog could -- through community self-policing and judicious moderation -- prevent every conversation from devolving this way, the lack of consensus regarding anti-Semitism means we're perpetually stuck in the most emotional and fraught terrain of the endeavor. No wonder people don't want to do it.

But it must be done. I try to do it here. I tried (and failed) to do it at Feministe. I tried (with more success) to do it at Alas, a Blog.

It must be done. There is no other way.


chingona said...

I, too, thought seriously about not reading the comment thread. Oddly, once I started reading, it was very easy not to comment.

I've been back and forth between frustrated and amused with how every mention of her comments elicits a dozen responses along the lines of "What Helen Thomas said is offensive, but Israel is horrible."

Getting back to your 101 point, it's hard to imagine these spaces tolerating that kind of equivocation about any other group. If someone said something really racist against Asians, they wouldn't tolerate someone bringing up the human rights record of the Chinese government as if it were relevant.

chingona said...

As an aside, I assume you saw that Helen Thomas no longer is the graduation speaker at Walt Whitman HS.

David Schraub said...

I had the exact same thought. Insofar as I strongly believe that "anti-Semitism card" discourse is more often used to suppress valid claims of anti-Semitism than it is to exclude invalid ones, I think it is highly probative that people feel the need to verify their "critical of Israel" bona fides even in as clear-cut a case as this one. It indicates that people know (subconsciously or not) that any declaration that anything is anti-Semitic opens one up to the charge that one is just a blind Israel apologist.

(And yes, I did see that Thomas is no longer speaking at WWHS. Probably good -- my beloved alma mater is quite heavily Jewish).

chingona said...

my beloved alma mater is quite heavily Jewish

I knew that. My parents went there, and my grandparents still live in that area.

What's interesting is that Thomas has, for years, asked very pointed questions about the U.S.-Israel relationship. For all the talk that you can't criticize Israel without getting labeled an anti-Semite and being shunned, she continued to work and continued to be honored, even by, say, an invitation to speak at the graduation of a heavily Jewish DC-area high school.

joe said...

David, in cases where people feel the need to stress their pro-Israel bona fides before voicing criticism, wouldn't your reasoning suggest they know that any criticism of Israel opens them up to charges from some quarters that they are big time haters (either from anti-Semitism, being mushy-headed softies on terrorism, hating freedom, or something else)?

And depending on the forum that might become a bigger concern. The prevailing pressures felt in the left blogosphere are some college activist meeting aren't the sameas on, say, cable news.

joe said...

To clarify, I'm not disputing the main point here. Just questioning what makes things probative and why. It's the evidence nerd in me.

David Schraub said...

I think it depends on the context. I doubt that known-quantity friends of Israel (Alan Dershowitz, say) really feels the need to defensively label himself "pro-Israel" before launching criticisms (yes, he has them). People whose status as a friend of Israel is more ambiguous, do.

But also, I don't think they are precisely analogous. It is generally considered good etiquette (and, I think good practice and respectful treatment) to assure someone you are criticizing that, in spite of your criticism, you are not an enemy. This is something parents often reassure children -- "just because I'm upset with you, doesn't mean I don't love you." And friends often speak in the same way -- assuring each other that some misdeed or misstep is not destroying the friendship, even if it had to be called out.

By contrast, we don't typically expect (as a matter of discursive etiquette or practice) that someone who compliments or defends a given person or institution preemptively assure others that they are capable of also criticizing them if need be. That's considerably more extraordinary, and thus a more worrisome development insofar as it has become a localized norm.

Anonymous said...

Any Jew who would hang around clownishly reactionary blogs like Feministe and their ilk almost deserves the thrashing he gets. You should be smarter.