Monday, November 30, 2015

When People Say You're Brave, People Are Describing a Problem

Janet Freedman has an outstanding piece in The Forward on why the National Women’s Studies Association's BDS Vote was "over before it began" (the vote passed by a crushing 653-84 margin). It's a post that demands reading, and it is particularly hard reading given Evelyn Beck's powerful 1988 description of how Jewish women have historically been marginalized in Women's Studies. All that's old is new again, it seems. One wonders how many of the voters are familiar with Beck's article, and how many of those that are, care.

Some themes are beginning to emerge. I had known about the relative marginality of discourse on Jews in feminist circles from Beck's work and, from my own reading, in legal anti-discrimination circles. Then I find out "also anthropology." Then someone else chimes in: "also art history." One starts to notice a pattern.

Freedman also writes the following:
Following my remarks at the BDS round table, there was just one comment from the audience validating some of my points, but I received many private expressions of support and appreciation for my “courage.”  Several people told me it would be damaging to their careers to openly express opposition to the resolution.
I can personally attest to this as well, because it is something I've encountered every time I've given similar remarks in progressive academically-inclined circles. It happens in classroom settings. It happened after the UConn conference. It happened during my ill-fated stint guest-blogging at Feministe (I hadn't read those posts or comments in awhile -- I still can't bear to reread the one's on Feministe itself -- but I'm now amazed at how my reaction parallels some of the arguments regarding "safe spaces" and whatnot found in the campus protests). Invariably, someone or someones come up to me and, very quietly, thank me for saying what I said, lamenting that they don't feel comfortable doing the same, and commending me for my courage.

And if people keep telling me how brave I am for talking forthrightly about anti-Semitism, people are describing a problem. A real problem, not a ginned-up, fake, bad-faith one concocted by over-sensitive Jews always crying anti-Semitism to browbeat good people into obedience. And a problem that contemporary academia is in deep denial about.

Freedman's article also makes evident something else I've only recently come to grips with: However anti-Semitic the BDS movement is, it's never more anti-Semitic than when responding to complaints of anti-Semitism. Here's how the NWSA addressed the contention that the BDS resolution might be anti-Semitic:
"(W)hat is really anti-Semitic is the attempt to identify all Jews with a philosophy that many find abhorrent to the traditions of social justice and universality that Judaism enshrines."
That is nothing short of appalling. It's appalling for the reasons Freedman identifies: it divides out a few "good Jews" from the Jewish people writ large to tag the rest as "abhorrent to the traditions of social justice and universality." It's appalling for imposing an impossible standard of unanimity on an outgroup before their complaints will be addressed; as if the mere presence of disagreement warrants dismissing the community writ large. Compare
"Is urging the exclusion of the Yale student protesters from the academic community racist? What is really racist is the attempt to identify all Blacks with a movement that many find abhorrent to the traditions of free speech and academic freedom."
To call such a statement cringeworthy would be far too generous (#NotAllBlacks?). It is surely incompatible with any commitment to taking the outgroup and its concerns seriously, as equals.

But even if it weren't appalling for any of those reasons, one still must admire the gall of the NWSA in instructing Jews "what is really anti-Semitic." Thank goodness they were there to teach us! Who knows what sort of uppity ideas about "naming our own oppression" we might have come to in their absence!

The fundamental problem is what I outlined in the anthropology post: progressive academics who would recoil at expressions of alienation by many outgroups do not feel the same sense of loss when it is Jews who do the complaining. The reasons why feed into deeply-rooted anti-stereotypes about Jewish power, but Jews are not the only ones who have experienced this. Feminists learned a hard lesson when Cherrie Moraga lamented in 1981 about how dominant women "seem to feel no loss, no lack, no absence" when women of color are excluded, and how this indifference has "hurt [her] deeply". It is a lesson they still have not learned for Jews. And if they don't feel a loss when Jews feel afraid to speak to them -- indeed, if they feel aggrieved when Jews dare to speak to them -- it is unclear how, if at all, Jewish arguments can do any good at changing things.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I wonder if anti-Israel political opinions have kinda gotten rolled in under the radar along with other now taboo PC language. No one is really comfortable rocking the boat because they don't want some college student yelling about how they're a baby murderer and so the anti-Israel position becomes the established one by default. In general I'm skeptical of language policing but particularly so when I feel like the association between anti-Zionism and the left is less ideologically consistent (a 'colonial settler' state? give me a fucking break) and more just a ham fisted way of trying to make antisemitism seem, well, kosher.