Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Who is Who?

Mondoweiss (link warning) reposts Winona LaDuke:
"...euro-americans in the United States can't talk about Gaza, because we can't talk about Israel. Because we can't talk about the fact that the world is not suffering from a Israeli/Palestinian conflict, but that the world is suffering from the fact that Europe has never been able to deal with it's 'Jewish Question' without some sort of intense barbarity and horror from the Inquisition to the Holocaust. And that Europe, in particular 'Great' Britain, the masters of divide an conquer 'solved' the problem by supporting the radical, terrorist, extremist Zionists and their mad plan to resettle the 'homeland.' We can't talk about Israel because we can't talk about Wounded Knee. Because we can't talk about Sand Creek or Carlisle 'Boarding School.' Because we can't talk about forced sterilization or small pox blankets or Kit Carson and his scorched earth policy in the Southwest. Because we have Andrew Jackson on our twenty dollar bill. Because we are one huge settlement on stolen land. We can't talk about Israel because we are Israel."
We need to start with the racist exclusion of Sephardic and Mizrachi Jews from this story, since that exclusion is rampant in virtually all discourse about Israel and particularly shines through here. Israel exists in part because "Europe has never been able to deal with it's [sic] 'Jewish Question' without some sort of intense barbarity and horror," but also in part because the Arab world has been equally fruitless in its effort to resolve its "Jewish Question" without resorting to same. To reiterate: a plurality Israel's Jewish population is of non-White European descent. The median Israeli Jew is in Israel not because Europe couldn't resolve its Jewish problem, but because the Arab world couldn't resolve theirs. We can fairly say that the Arab world had historically been better than Europe in its treatment of Jews, we can also note that isn't a particularly high bar to clear. The important point is that the "Jewish question" is not solely a European phenomenon, and pretending that it is erases both the lives and life experiences of Israel's considerable non-White European population.

But put that aside, and let us unpack. LaDuke observes that the history of Jews in Europe is of Europeans slaughtering Jews. She accurately identifies the conditions Jews were facing in Europe that presaged the Zionist movement. Under normal circumstances if one is caught in an abusive relationship the right rational response to get the hell out of there, which is of course what Jews tried to do. But this response -- not sticking around to be slaughtered -- is labeled by LaDuke as "radical, terrorist, extremist [and] mad." Which just goes to show how upset people are, how jarring they find it to their expectations of what should be, when Jews don't die. Within the space of a single sentence LaDuke concedes that Jews in Europe were subjects of brutality and horror, then presumes that their desire to get out from under that thumb and go somewhere else to govern their own lives is naught but some sort of dominationist psychosis.

Even if one didn't think rebuilding a Jewish state in Israel was a legitimate response to European brutality (which lays upon LaDuke the obligation of proffering an alternative program for Jews beyond "sit around and hope Europe figures out a 'solution' to its 'Jewish question' before the next killing spree"), this is still a rather amazing explication of the mindset surrounding Zionism from the Jewish vantage point. But of course, the "Jewish vantage point" is precisely what's excluded from LaDuke's discussion. What we have instead is a substitution of foreign ideologies and symbolic interpretations of Jewish political action for what Jews said about themselves and perceived their own situation to be. In form, to be sure, this isn't a particularly uncommon form of anti-Semitism, but it is still worth pointing out. And I borrow again, as I love to do, from Christine Littleton: the heart of non-anti-Semitic method begins "with the very radical act of taking [Jews] seriously, believing that what we say about ourselves and our experience is important and valid, even when (or perhaps especially when) it has little or no relationship to what has been or is being said about us."

All that being said, there is a link here between how we talk about Israel and our inability to reckon with our own colonialist history, which can actually fairly be closely tied to colonialist and dominationist impulses. There is amongst the European West a deep desire for absolution from a history of racist sins -- a history of colonialism being only but one. This desire is genuine, but it is also typically "cheap" (as in Bonhoeffer's "cheap grace") -- we want the absolution, but don't want to pay the penance.

Israel is valuable because it serves as a useful point of projection for our own sense of moral inadequacy. Opposing Israel offers psychological guilt-release. It is a scapegoat in the literal sense -- we can place our sins upon it and, through sacrifice, gain absolution (the goat, of course, actually pays the penalty). Moreover, unlike more plausible targets for absolving Western sins (e.g., the European states themselves), Israel is relatively marginal, relatively weak, and relatively isolated. One cannot express rabid anti-Americanism of this sort without incurring significant costs. The US isn't going anywhere, and if it did, it would entail severe costs on the people seeking absolution. Israel could plausibly be thrown down, and if it did it would entail virtually no costs on those "repenting". As I remarked once before: "all the joy of liberal guilt-induced self-flagellation, except the wounds show up on someone else's body." For all the talk about Israel's terrifying power, it's Israel's relative marginality and weakness (compared to Europe or America or England) that renders it an attractive target.

The framework of "we are Israel" is very interesting from this standpoint. Wouldn't it make more sense to say "Israel is us"? After all, even if we thought that Israel was a valid case of colonialism (which it isn't), surely it isn't the paradigm case. When the United States distributed smallpox blankets or massacred Native Americans, we weren't emulating the Israeli example. The absolute worst you can say about Zionism -- ignoring, as LaDuke does, the massive difference in motivations and circumstances, and erasing non-European Jews entirely, and making a ton of other concessions to unreality -- is that it was emulating the European example. If that's the case, Israel is flawed as we are, but also as complex as we are and as redeemable as we are.

But note the subtle shift of responsibility here -- our misdeeds are characterized as following another's evil example. Israel stands in for our own misdeeds -- it is the platonic ideal of our own wrongs. We are not intrinsically bad, we're only bad insofar as we're "Israel". Our absolution comes when we're no longer Israel. It offers a way to maintain a sense of moral growth and possibility by externalizing the source of the sins onto another body deemed irredeemably corrupt.

This move only works effectively when "we" and "Israel" are unified as a single entity -- it would not be penance to oppose somebody else's wrong, after all. And so Israel must be refolded into the very European community whose brutal anti-Semitism caused (in part) its formation in the first place. This is why adopting an independent Jewish narrative of Zionism is so dangerous -- acknowledging there is such a narrative and that it runs independent from (and often orthogonal to) the story of European depravity would threaten the fictive unity between Israel and "us", essential for the vitality of the repentance project. And so it is that the Jewish perspective is squeezed out and replaced with a foreign entity; our own evil spirits personified. That, of course, is something very useful. But it is cheap grace.

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Talking About Israel When Israel's at War

This exchange between Jeremy Ben-Ami (J Street) and Yossi Klein Halevi (Shalom Hartman Institute) is a model for how intelligent, civil discussion (and disagreement!) can occur within the Jewish community on Israel. Needless to say, on the merits I agree with Ben-Ami on the propriety of criticizing Israeli policies while Israel is at war -- as both participants agree, being at war is not exactly a conducive scenario for thinking clearly, and Ben-Ami is quite right that a default of silence is a "dangerous gift of unquestioned power to those choose to engage in hostilities."

I also note that Halevi's position isn't entirely clear -- his "head" seems to agree with Ben-Ami on all points, but he is worried about issues of "tone" and the pragmatic effects of making such critiques in the middle of wartime hostilities. Both of these concerns are legitimate, but both also are compatible with well-taken criticism. The issues, and the lack of resolution, Halevi raises are also implied from Phoebe's post here, which likewise tries to grapple with the tensions between being an honest critics who care about Israel while swimming in a pool that contains many dishonest critics who don't. There's no question there are difficulties there, but we have to be attentive to both sides of the problem: those who criticize Israel from a vantage point of caring about Jewish rights, equality, and security have to be attentive to the broader environment where many do not care about these things, but we can't let the presence of these people act to sabotage actually taking necessary steps required to preserve Jewish equality and self-determination either.

In news unrelated except in that it signals a probable improvement in the tone of the Israel debate -- ZOA appears to be in chaos. Is there some irony in applauding the demise of a Israel-related Jewish group while also extolling the importance of tone? Sure is -- but I think ZOA has been such an unabashedly negative influence on these questions and such a prominent contributor to rendering the debate toxic that I'm willing to swallow it.

Monday, November 19, 2012

Do Accusations of Racism Alter Expressed Racial Views?

This is an idea for a study I have, and I wanted to get it down on "paper" before I forgot about it and it went away.

Basically, the question is how telling somebody something is "racist" (or sexist, or anti-Semitic, or whatever) impacts their subsequent expressions on racial issues. This interests me, because (assuming that most Americans don't like thinking of themselves or being thought of as racist) one can imagine two very distinct response types.

One hypothesis is that people will moderate their previously held views, or otherwise act in a more minority-friendly manner following the charge. This theory flows somewhat out of (is kind of the reverse, actually) the idea of "moral credentialing". The moral credentialing literature establishes that when people act in a friendly manner towards an outgroup, they gain a "credit" which they can cash-in later to justify subsequent unfriendly acts without damaging their self-image as non-prejudiced. It would stand to reason that calling someone "racist" might create in their minds a moral "deficit", which they would then try to settle by engaging in subsequent friendly acts (so I'll call this the "deficit reduction" hypothesis).

Another hypothesis is that people will "double down" on these views, or otherwise act in a more minority-hostile manner following the charge (the "double down" hypothesis). Once again, we start from the premise that the charge of racism is disturbing to their self-image. But under this hypothesis, this results in either (a) a need to deny the charge and not take actions which seem to implicitly concede the charge is legitimate (which altering one's view might do) and/or (b) increased hostility towards the person rendering the charge, resulting in greater antipathy towards that group (this would presumably vary based on the identity of the person making the charge).

In my experience, I've seen both. Certainly, the premise behind the first hypothesis is pretty deeply inlaid in the entire structure of anti-racist practice: that "calling out" things as racist shames perpetrators and alters their behavior for the better. But the alternate hypothesis I've observed as well -- some people seem to respond even more aggressively when they feel like they are being called racist for taking certain positions. Some seem to revel in this -- they genuinely seem to enjoy "tweaking" their critics -- but for others it seems considerably more defensive and better explained by a desire to preserve their self-image as non-prejudiced.

I envision two separate experiments (the methodology is tentative -- I don't really know methodology). I also envision doing some survey work to help subdivide participants into, for example, "high-prejudice" and "low-prejudice" -- I gather this is something that is regularly done in these sorts of studies and there are established practices):
(1) A subject is asked to give their opinion on a racially-salient topic (say, affirmative action). When they are finished, a researcher tells them that they believe that what they said is racist (it doesn't matter what they actually said). Then they are taken to a different room, with a different researcher, and asked the same question. Their answers to the first and second questions will be coded to see if they become more extreme, less extreme, or stay the same.

(2) The study begins exactly the same way, with the researcher telling the person that they believe their response is racist. In the second part of the study, however, the participant will be given a non-political opportunity to render assistance to a minority in an ambiguous situation (or select between similarly-qualified minority and non-minority candidates for a mock job position).
We would thus be measuring the "double down" effect in two ways. The first study would be more directly political and is thus open to the possibility that the person strongly feels that their original position is pro-minority. The second study resolves that by removing the subjectivity in what decision is pro-minority. It relies on the well-established literature that prejudice manifests in situations of ambiguity.

I make two intersecting predictions. First, I predict that low-prejudice persons will generally be more inclined to engage in deficit-reduction, and high-prejudice persons will generally be more inclined to engage in doubling down. The non-racist self-image of the latter group is more precarious and thus more threatened by assertions of racism. Moreover, the hostility they feel towards the charge will reinforce their extant negative feelings towards the charger. Meanwhile low-prejudiced persons, because they are more secure in their egalitarian self-image, will paradoxically be more willing to contemplate that their views might need to be altered in response to critiques from minority perspectives.

Second, I predict you will see more doubling down across the board in the first experiment compared to the second. This plays off (but somewhat inverts) the observations of ambiguity. Altering one's views after being told one's prior views were racist relatively unambiguously communicates at least a partial concession that the charge was true and legitimate, which people will be reticent to admit. By contrast, the second study does not overtly communicate any message that the subject is recanting their prior beliefs, and thus allows for a restoration of a non-racist self-image without any implied concession that they were previously acting in a racist manner.