Thursday, May 03, 2012

Silly Studies, Part II

Last year, Rep. Darrell Issa (R-CA) put out a list of NIH-research items that he deemed frivolous and examples of wasting tax-payer dollars. I found the list interesting, because pretty much all of the studies he picked sounded quite worthwhile -- providing useful information about various health and safety risks and the best responses to them.

In this same vein, I'm left gobsmacked by this Chronicle of Higher Education hit piece against the field of "Black Studies". I mean, the piece is appalling on a ton of different levels, but let's start with the most obvious: The author (Naomi Schaefer Riley) by admission didn't actually read the dissertations she's mocking. All she had was brief synopses of the proposed dissertations. This would be cringe-worthy enough without reading the title of her post: "The Most Persuasive Case for Eliminating Black Studies? Just Read the Dissertations." Oy. You first, Ms. Riley.

Amazingly, Riley defended herself in a follow-up post by attempting to argue that "it is not my job to read entire dissertations before I write a 500-word piece about them. . . there are not enough hours in the day or money in the world to get me to read a dissertation on historical black midwifery." One would think before dismissing a whole area of study, one would actually read full, completed works of scholarship in the field. One would vastly overestimate the prerequisites Ms. Riley thinks necessary before she confidently tries to bring the banhammer down on a whole discipline of study. (I will, however, agree with her that there likely is not enough money in the world to justify spending any of it on having Riley read much of anything, or employing her in jobs that would seemingly make that into a requirement).

But what's really getting me is that even on Riley's own terms (her incredibly, incredibly poorly argued terms), I don't see her point. All three of the projects she identifies seem like clearly valuable and important scholarly endeavors -- and I don't think that about every project I see. The first one, "'So I Could Be Easeful': Black Women's Authoritative Knowledge on Childbirth" (that's the Black midwifery one), is part of an important area of literature on laws and cultural meaning given to reproduction. This is an area I'm obviously prone to defend, given that my girlfriend's area of expertise is anthropology of reproduction, and this is an area that has historically been strongly mediated by race. From mandatory sterilizations to the mainstream American belief that teen pregnancy in the Black community is community-destroying pandemic, these sorts of issues have both historical and contemporary import (hell, one of the areas Ms. Riley says people should focus on instead of on Black midwifery is Black teen pregnancy! I'd ask if she even is listening to herself, but I suspect that the sort of "research" she wants done on the latter area can be summed up as "tongue-clucking").

The next dissertation is "Race for Profit: Black Housing and the Urban Crisis of the 1970s." Government, housing policy, race -- what could possibly go wrong? Again, finding out how various housing policies were or weren't motivated by racial ideologies, or did or didn't have important impacts that affect the current racial state of affairs -- important information! Why am I supposed to think that it isn't, exactly? Well, apparently, I'm supposed to dismiss this line of research unless I think that race is the only important social force in America today and that its salience has not changed in any way since 1954. Of course, all one actually needs to show is that race is an important social force in America today, and it's probably better from an intellectual novelty standpoint that it's salience has changed in important and measurable ways over the past several decades. Which it has -- but those changes do not include "everything that ever happened with respect to race no longer matters, and we can treat the past several hundred years as a really bad dream."

Speaking of which, how about that last thesis, which explores the role Black Republicans have played in conservative attacks on the mainstream civil rights establishment. That would seem to be exactly the sort of "change" that might be worth exploring, no? It specifically locates its agenda in cultural transitions that took place in the 1980s. But no -- the problem here is that the author doesn't like these Black conservatives, and thinks their contributions malignant. This is very upsetting to Ms. Riley, and if people have differing normative commitments than she does -- bzzzt! Not real scholarship. Seriously, that's all the last attack boils down to -- the author and Ms. Riley have a political disagreement. How we jump from that to "and therefore, what she's doing isn't academic" I have no idea, except that a true scholar would never, ever say anything that Naomi Riley would disagree with.

So to sum up. Black Studies is bad because (a) three student dissertation proposals which (b) Riley has only read summaries of are (c) personally not interesting to Ms. Riley and, a fortiori, to anyone else (even though actually all three seem very interesting) while (d) potentially demonstrating normative commitments that Riley doesn't like. Oh yes, color me persuaded.


Wednesday, May 02, 2012

The Decision on Who Is To Be the Future of Pro-Israel

J Street's latest campaign is called the Future of Pro-Israel. It makes the point that it is the younger generation -- my generation -- that will be picking up the future of pro-Israel advocacy, and that we want and demand an Israel that is safe, secure, democratic, and living side-by-side in peace with a Palestinian state.

But of course, we're not the only players in the field. Who is and isn't pro-Israel, now and in the future, is always up for contestation. Folks closer to the middle of Jewish institutional life have to make calls everyday over who they align with and who they oppose. At a recent New York conference on Israeli affairs, I think Alan Dershowitz might have gotten a taste of that, after witnessing a largely conservative crowd boo several members of the Israeli security establishment for disagreeing with the Netanyahu government, and loudly applaud denunciations of President Barack Obama by unhinged Israeli columnist Caroline Glick.

Dershowitz was furious: "Do not ever, ever boo a president of the United States” when “speaking in the name of the state of Israel," he scolded. And he was then booed in turn. The people at this conference have a very particular outlook on Israel, and they have no compunction about booing either the President or Israel's security leaders when the deviate from the One True Path.

I'd feel bad for Dershowitz, but I can't help but think he's reaping a bit of what he's sown here. After all, it was Dershowitz who endorsed Jonathan Pollak in his futile quest to knock off Rep. Jan Schakowsky (D-IL), a pro-Israel lawmaker whose sin was ... being too close to Barack Obama. At the time, Dershowitz was quite alright with trying to exclude the pro-Israel left from the community of pro-Israel, trying to act as if support for Obama's aggressive pro-two-state efforts was a betrayal of Israel. And wouldn't you know it if some people take Dershowitz seriously, and start treating Obama as if he was a threat to Israel and its long-term security.

The point of this is that Dershowitz has to take a breath and ask himself who he wants to align himself with. There are competing camps of pro-Israel advocates in the United States, and one cannot straddle the line forever. When Dershowitz gives a wink and a nod to effective one-staters, when he plays in the fever swamps that treat Obama has basically Yasser Arafat in drag, he's using his influence in the Jewish community to make that the future of pro-Israel in this country.

I think, at this conference, he got a taste of where this all leads. I don't think he likes what he saw.

Tuesday, May 01, 2012

Archbishop Tutu Sad To Say That Most Jews are Deranged

Anti-Apartheid hero and Nobel Prize winner Archbishop Desmond Tutu took to the Tampa Bay Times to argue for a divestment campaign against Israel and, in particular, to chide the Jewish community for its widespread and fervent opposition to such programs. He declares that he has come to this decision "painfully." Well allow me to stipulate that my reply is "painful" as well: my continued belief that Archbishop Tutu "does not hold egalitarian views towards Jews." As that link will demonstrate, I do not see Archbishop Tutu as a first-time offender on this score. And his column here only reaffirms my initial judgment on the matter.

To put aside the obvious -- this is not because Archbishop Tutu is "critical of Israel". I am critical of Israel, almost everyone is critical of Israel in one way or another. Nor is it even his endorsement of BDS, though that position is inherently suspect in my eyes. No, it is the way he talks about and treats his "Jewish brothers and sisters" that is so troublesome. It is more than a denial of Jewish experiences, though it is that. It is a denial that Jewish voices matter. It is a presumption that Jews could not possibly have anything worth listening to, any concerns worth addressing, any interests needing defense. This was characteristic of the speech I critiqued in my other post, and it emerges here. It's simply too prevalent and too common in Christian outlooks towards Jews for me to overlook it.

The Archbishop describes his call for BDS as "painful". Why? One would hope it would be painful because he is aware of the depth of Jewish feeling on this issue, their sincere belief that BDS is antithetical to their liberation as a people and their free and equal standing in the global community. It would stem from knowledge of the long history of boycott campaigns targeted against Jewish institutions as a crucial component of anti-Semitic domination. It would come tied to a cognizance of the credibility deficit largely Christian institutions bring to the table when they seek to lecture Jews about matters of justice and equality. In short, it would take the widespread Jewish opposition to such plans seriously as legitimate questions of moral and political justice that deserve serious thought and consideration.

Instead, we get this:
I have reached this conclusion slowly and painfully. I am aware that many of our Jewish brothers and sisters who were so instrumental in the fight against South African apartheid are not yet ready to reckon with the apartheid nature of Israel and its current government. And I am enormously concerned that raising this issue will cause heartache to some in the Jewish community with whom I have worked closely and successfully for decades.

In sum, it is painful for Archbishop Tutu to call for BDS because he knows it will hurt the feelings a group of people who are willfully deluding themselves about reality. At no point -- nowhere -- does Archbishop Tutu even gesture in a direction approaching an acknowledgment that Jews have anything worth saying at all on these questions. The sum total of the mainstream Jewish contribution to the Israeli/Palestinian conflict is a sort of mass communal psychosis blinding them to the oppression of the Palestinian people.

When Archbishop Tutu sees that 1,200 Rabbis have signed onto letters urging opposition to various divestment proposals being forwarded in Christian churches, his thoughts are not "wow -- a community whose opinions I respect and who have long faced ingrained prejudice and hate believe a proposal I support reinscribes this history of prejudicial domination. I need to think carefully about that." Rather, his conclusion immediately jumps to "wow -- 1,200 Rabbis just outed themselves as delusional." They possess "blinders", they are "not yet ready to reckon" with reality -- a reality Archbishop Tutu is confident he can perceive without mainstream Jewish assistance or contribution.

These Rabbis, in Archbishop Tutu's perspective, are like the White liberals Martin Luther King critiqued from Birmingham Jail, who repeat the mantra that "I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I cannot agree with your methods of direct action." He misses an essential difference -- as Jews, we cannot say with confidence that we do agree with the goal being sought. We have no way of knowing what that goal really is. Is it one that treats Jews with respect? Is it one that respects their right to national self-determination and autonomy, not to mention safety and security? Is it one that acknowledges Jews have the right to act, advocate, and influence independent of what others think we should say? Is it one that fundamentally views Jews as equal? Christians have not earned the right to come to the table and simply demand that Jews accept their good faith on these questions. They certainly don't have the right to demand that Jews accept their absolute prerogative to determine, for Jews, what counts as a valid answer.

The White liberals did not (and did not claim to) have any credible fears regarding the desire or capacity of the civil rights movement to impinge on any serious rights- or justice-claims Whites might have in the reconstructed America. This is not the case when the question is Jews and the gentile world, including in the particular forum of the Israeli/Palestinian conflict. Plenty of people with plenty of power have explicit ideological commitments that would see Jews tossed into the sea. Plenty of others may well find such an outcome perfectly acceptable, and plenty more would be appalled but would not find themselves willing to stand up for Jews and stop it. Both the history of anti-Semitic oppression and the contemporary status of Jews in global society give us ample grounds to raise our own questions of justice and to demand more from our interlocutors than arrogant assertions of good intentions. The Palestinians are not the only people whose liberation remains "on the table".

It is because Archbishop Tutu is so committed to reducing Jewish voices to so much discordant noise that he gives short-shrift to how mainstream Jewish institutions approach this conflict in ways that are a far cry from "doing nothing and for standing aside." TULIP is obvious example. The OneVoice movement -- bitterly opposed by the BDS campaigners -- is another. The Abraham Fund would be a third. I could go on. More to the point, Jewish campaigners who are not enthusiastically playing the role of Herman Cain could have gone on. But one only sees those alternatives when one (a) recognizes that when the Jewish community speaks, their words are worth listening to and (b) that the Jewish community has valid, substantive, non-hypothetical concerns about justice, equality, and respect with respect to both the final resolution of the Israeli/Palestinian conflict and the role of Christian players in it. Archbishop Tutu demonstrates no awareness of either, and so his stunted view of Jewish humanity leads him to a stunted view of the options before us beyond BDS.

Archbishop Tutu is a great hero in the anti-Apartheid movement. There is no questioning that, and I do not question that. He does not get to use that status to simply assume a sense of egalitarian respect towards Jews (any more than civil rights icons cannot be deeply sexist, or feminist reformers deeply racist). Archbishop Tutu offers nothing to demonstrate even a modicum of respect to Jewish perspectives other than a haughty assertion that he does, in fact, respect them. I have no obligation to accept his word, and I have compelling reasons not to. His credibility is zero with me. And until he demonstrates that Jewish protestations will be treated as anything more than an annoying buzzing in his ears, I'm not sure why I should accord his columns speaking about me any more respect than he gives to me.

Oh Yeah ... It's a Walk Out

A group of George Washington University students silently walked out of a speech given by Israeli ambassador Michael Oren. Oren asked them to stay and participate in a dialogue, but they refused, instead protesting outside.

And you know what? Fine by me. This isn't UC-Irvine, where students yelled and attempted to overtly prevent Oren from speaking. They stood up and made a point in a manner that did not materially affect Oren's ability to present.

Do I prefer dialogue to this sort of action? Sure, I guess. But people have a right to protest in ways other than my own preferences. So long as they aren't being disruptive or interfering with the ability of others to present their views, I have no grounds to complain.

Livni Resigns

After getting ousted as Kadima chair by Shaul Mofaz, Tzipi Livni has resigned her Knesset seat. She did, however, promise to stay in public life, and warned of the "existential threat" the current Netanyahu government is placing Israel in:
In her speech, Livni warned of an existential threat Israel faced under its current leadership, saying that "Israel is on a volcano, the international clock is ticking, and the existence of a Jewish, democratic state is in mortal danger."

"The real danger is a politics that buries its head in the sand," Livni said, adding that it didn’t "take a Shin Bet chief to know that" – an apparent reference to recent comments made by the former chief of the security service Yuval Diskin, critical of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's policies on Iran and Middle East peace.

Livni said she didn't regret the decisions that may have brought on her political downfall, saying she wasn't "sorry for not backing down in the face of political blackmail, even when the price was staying outside the government, and for not being willing to sell the country to the ultra-Orthodox.

"And I'm definitely not sorry for the main issue I promoted – even if the Israeli-Palestinian conflict isn't in vogue right now, there's an urgent need to reach a permanent agreement with the Palestinians as well as with the Arab world," she added.

Livni is an example of all that is right in Israel. I wish her luck as she tries to Safeguard Israel and lead it towards a brighter, safer, freer tomorrow.

Monday, April 30, 2012

It's the Bad Law ... That You Just Didn't Pass

The UNHRC has added Israel to its list of countries which restrict the activities of human rights groups. The reason is a proposed law that restricts foreign funding to domestic NGOs. Now, I'm no fan of this law (though I don't know how it compares to other regulations countries have about international funding of domestic groups), indeed, I view it as another instance of waxing illiberalism in Israel's political sphere.

But there's a reason why "proposed" is in the other sentence: the law never actually passed the Knesset. Prime Minister Netanyahu ordered it frozen after it was determined that the law likely wouldn't pass muster with Israel's high court. So one would think happy ending, yes? Not according to UNHRC chieftain Navi Pillay:
“In Israel, the recently adopted Foreign Funding Law could have a major impact on human rights organizations, subjecting them to rigorous reporting requirements, forcing them to declare foreign financial support in all public communications, and threatening heavy penalties for non-compliance.”

Obviously, Pillay has a different definition of "recently adopted" than most people, who would presumably require the law to be, you know, adopted at all. But when the subject is the UN and the opportunity is to flambe Israel, there is no need to get hung up on such technicalities. It's repulsive.