Wednesday, September 23, 2015

For The Sins Anyone Has Committed....

It is Yom Kippur today, the Jewish Day of Atonement. Today the Jewish community collectively fasts and repents for the sins we have committed. Indeed, one of the most famous prayers on Yom Kippur, Al Chet, is a litany in which each line beings with "For the Sins We Have Committed...." (e.g., for the sins we have committed under duress or willing, for the sins we have committed by hard-heartedness, for the sins we have committed inadvertently, and so on). This is a time of taking responsibility for ourselves, and resolving to do better.

Peter Beinart thinks the Jewish community has sinned in how we are responding to the problem of anti-Muslim bigotry in American politics. But his column says, I think, more about him and his blind spots than it does about its putative subject. This is a lazy column, and in many ways an ironic column, and even at times a worrying column. The one thing it is not is an insightful column.

Beinart's piece is roughly divided into two parts. In the first, he takes note of the prejudiced and bigoted comments made by several Republican candidates for President (Ben Carson, Donald Trump, and Ted Cruz). Pulling out how Muslims have been treated on the campaign trail, he asks he we Jews would feel if we were being treated the same way -- if people challenged our eligibility for the presidency, or shunned our synagogues, or claimed that our faith was incompatible with the Constitution, or nodded along at someone who urged "getting rid of us." And the answer is obvious -- it'd feel pretty terrible! It's a terrible thing to go through that, and that Muslims are experiencing that this campaign season is testament to the power and persistence of anti-Islamic bigotry in America.

Now, it's not immediately clear why any of this needs to be framed in terms of Jewish experience; and especially in Beinart's tone of "look how lucky you ingrates have it" (he even alludes at several points to Jewish "privilege", which, ugh). Beinart's point seems to be that Jews, being anti-discrimination winners, are not just lucky to live in a country where we're treated relatively well. He seems to think that we are beneficiaries of an injustice because we're treated relatively well in comparison to Muslims tout court. But this is obviously too pat. Certainly, I absolutely believe that on the campaign trail in America it is better to be Jewish than Muslim. But that's hardly the only axis we can look -- along the dimension of hate crimes in America Jews are considerably more likely to be victims than Muslims. Does that show how "privileged" American Muslims are vis-a-vis Jews? Not really. It does show that this mode of analysis is pretty silly. Different forms of oppression manifest differently -- a point I'll return to in a moment.

The second half of Beinart's essay attacks Jews for not adequately "confronting" the anti-Muslim sentiments of Carson et al. Faced with the uncomfortable fact that groups like the ADL do, in fact, do this (the ADL condemned Carson's statements, for example), Beinart acknowledges that actually this does occur "sometimes" but then remarks on the ADL's opposition to the Park 51 Mosque in 2010. I think it is fair to say that I was appropriately apoplectic when the ADL made that announcement, which was a true and abject disgrace. But surely even Peter Beinart has to acknowledge the strangeness of an argument which runs "Jewish groups don't condemn Muslim bigotry. Well, yes, they do, now, but five years ago one of them did something that was itself bigoted." Beyond the Park 51 fiasco, Beinart cites a variety of right-wing Jewish organizations who have, unsurprisingly, said bigoted and nasty things about Muslims. Most of these groups (ZOA, the RJC) you'll be unsurprised I find repulsive. But again, for someone so interesting in comparing Jews and Muslims against each other, how much does this echo a very common form of Islamophobia (and racism, for that matter)? "If any member of your ethnic group says or does something wrong, all members are presumed to endorse it unless each and every one loudly condemns the relevant action to the extent and volume deemed satisfactory by the majority. Oh, and if you yourself ever made a misstep, you're permanently tainted no matter what is done in the future."

This sort of requirement, of course, is something that Jews and Muslims share. But I will submit it operates differently for Jews than it does for other groups. The initial targets of Beinart's column, the sinners Jews were supposed to call out, were Ben Carson, Donald Trump, and Ted Cruz. None of those three, you might note, is Jewish. Together they currently draw support from less than 14% of Jews combined. Republicans as a whole garnered a little over 37% of Jewish support -- a figure which would be a high-water mark for the GOP in recent years. To put that in perspective, Barack Obama got 38% of the vote in Alabama in 2012. Looking at Jews when Ted Cruz says something idiotic is like taking the latest Alabama abortion policy and turning to Obama with a "what the hell, man?" look.

But this idea, that Jews are collectively responsible not just for the sins we have committed but for the sins anyone has committed, runs deep. I've sometimes joked that what makes Jews different from other groups is how we're blamed for anything and everything. Other groups have this in a limited sense where a wrong by one will be imputed to all -- e.g., Muslim terrorists attacked us on 9/11, therefore, all Muslims are terrorists. And Jews experience this too (Bernie Madoff swindled people out of millions, therefore, all Jews are swindlers). But it stretches beyond that to encompass events that have no connection to Jews at all. Muslim terrorists attacked us on 9/11? Jews were responsible for 9/11. Vladimir Putin invades the Ukraine? Jews ordered Vladimir Putin to invade the Ukraine. Massive tsunami hits Japan? Who gave the Jews a tsunami machine?!?

And this doesn't seem to happen to other groups, Muslims included. Both Jewish and Muslim organizations regularly, of course, face demands to condemn this or that bad act by one of their compatriots. But I've never seen a case where someone -- even the usual hardcore anti-Muslim bigots -- has demanded that Muslim groups condemn anti-Semitism or violence or whatever propagated by non-Muslims. When Ann Coulter railed about the "fucking Jews" in the last debate, or when an NPR reporter contended that Bernie Sanders was a dual-citizen of the US and Israel, we didn't scramble over to see if CAIR had put up a condemnation. The thought of that is baffling. Yet as applied to Jews, it apparently makes perfect sense to take a member of another faith, who belongs to a political faction whose Jewish support hovers between "small" and "trivial", and be outraged that only some Jewish organizations immediately took the lead in condemning his bigotry. Along this dimension, we might ask "what if we talked about other groups the way Peter Beinart is talking about Jews"? Different forms of oppression manifest differently, and here is a case where Jews seem to be comparatively worse off than others.

Now I should say that I actually like that Jewish organizations do step beyond our own parochial concerns and take the time to oppose bigotry promoted by others, against others. I want us to be a "light unto nations", and I think this is part of that. But I don't view it as some sort of special unique obligation (of Jews or of anyone else), and I don't think of it as some sort of unique moral failing when Jews don't do it to the extent Peter Beinart finds satisfactory. This campaign season, Muslims in America are facing some horrific prejudice the sort of which it's difficult to imagine being foisted against other American religious groups. But Peter Beinart's column, in terms of its criticisms and of its demands, is of the sort that is difficult to imagine being written towards any other group in America but the Jews.

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