Friday, January 23, 2015

Reveal Yourselves To Me!

I've been getting a flurry of hits recently from this Metafilter thread, where folks are offering up my blog as an exemplar of how to think about and respond to the issue of anti-Semitism. This is gratifying to hear (pro-tip -- most of my posts on the subjects can be found under the anti-Semitism label!). But a few folks in the course of this conversation have been talking about how they've been reading the blog for years, and I'm like, "who are you people? You don't sound familiar at all!" Either they are using different handles when they comment on my blog, or (more likely) they don't leave comments period.

So consider this a thread for lurkers ancient and new to introduce themselves (with as much or as little anonymity as they like). I'm always genuinely interested in who actually takes the time to read my little corner of the internet.

Incidentally, this blog now is automatically cross-posted onto Tumblr (under the title "A Multitude of Commitments"). If you are a tumblr reader of mine, please feel free to participate as well! Either send me a message, or hope on over to the blogspot site and leave a comment with everyone else.

Thursday, January 22, 2015

"Jews Lose": Big Media David Edition

Tablet Magazine invited me to write an essay on the "Jews Lose" doctrine I wrote about previously on this blog. It's obviously exciting to see my name in the big lights, and as an academic I am quite intrigued by this whole "being paid for my articles" concept.

There was one chunk of the article which was cut for space reasons that I wanted to share with you on this space (consider it the "director's cut"). One prominent theme I tried to explore in my essay was this prevailing sense that Jews are the quintessential anti-discrimination "winners". Unfortunately, this label (not accurate to begin with, as my essay demonstrates) isn't always viewed magnanimously, but rather often is presented as an example of unfairness -- why are Jews given so much when other groups have so little? As a result, we get this weird phenomenon where alleged injustices perpetrated against Muslims by non-Jewish institutions (e.g., satirical cartoons mocking Islam) are met with attacks against Jews. A few years ago, we saw this in Holland, where Muslims angry that authorities dropped a hate crimes prosecution against (non-Jewish) Geert Wilders (whose filmed allegedly mocked Mohammed) responded by putting up cartoons mocking the Holocaust.

The broader issue is that presenting Jews as anti-discrimination "haves" often comes in the form of resentment and almost invariably washes away the actual particularities of the Jewish experience. Consider Falguni Sheth’s Salon article exploring the history of Muslim vilification in the context of the recent Paris massacres. She notes that “terrorism” is a “loaded term” that often seems to arbitrarily include only Muslim acts of mass murder. Clearly she has a point, one strikingly illustrated when a former CIA Deputy Director seemingly forgot about Anders Breivik’s massacre in Norway as an example of terrorism in Europe. She also makes the accurate observations that Muslims face considerable pressure to “assimilate” into French society rather than maintain a conspicuous identity as a separate minority group, and that while Charlie Hebdo did satirize Christianity, those cartoons are hardly analogous to those which mock Muslims. Why? Because unlike Muslims, “Christians are neither religious nor ethnic minorities. Christians are not politically vulnerable in the Republic of France; they are the opposite — secure and fully capable.”

All valid points. But then we get to Professor Sheth’s concluding question: “What if the Charlie Hebdo massacre had been committed by Catholic or Jewish extremists?” Wait, what? How did we get roped into this? Are Jews not a distinctive religious group who have faced considerable pressure to assimilate into an unmarked “French” identity? Are they not a religious and ethnic minority experiencing considerable vulnerability, not the least of which is their propensity to be targeted in precisely these sorts of massacres?

The belated appearance of Jews at the end of Professor Sheth’s article does little to advance her argument—it would have just as much force if it solely compared Muslims against a social class that actually was “secure” in its French status. Rather, Professor Sheth seems to include Jews as a means of emphasizing the unjustness of Jews supposedly possessing something other minorities don’t—they apparently do not experience and are not at risk of experiencing the mass vilification and bigotry that Muslims must endure when individual Muslims commit acts of violence. This assertion seems difficult to back up. While thankfully we have not seen a Jewish-initiated mass murder in the West in quite some time, it is notable that we need not wait that long to refute Professor Sheth’s prediction.

Jews don’t have to perpetrate a murderous strike against a vulnerable minority in order for the spotlight to shine on alleged Jewish bad behavior—such rhetoric is a standard part of the conversation any time Jews are the victims of mass political violence. Sometimes it is a BBC reporter lecturing a French Jew at a rally commemorating her murdered peers that “many critics of Israel’s policy would suggest that the Palestinians suffer hugely at Jewish hands as well,” sometimes it is a British parliamentarian whose idea of solidarity with those slaughtered at a Kosher market was to tweet “Je suis Palestinian”, And that does not even get into those who are convinced that Jews are actually responsible for the terror in France—a group that includes the mayor of Ankara, leaders of the Free Gaza movement, the International Business Times (since taken down), and the Ron Paul Institute. My twitter feed may be right that a murder commented by a white guy will be attributed to a “disturbed loner” while a Muslim killer is invariably a “terrorist.” But it is also true that regardless of whether the finger on the trigger is white, black, Asian, Arab, or Polynesian, someone will always be there to insist that the Mossad really did it.

I don't think Professor Sheth wishes that people would attack Jews as a group for individual Jewish sins. But the fact that she doesn't recognize that we do experience this, regularly, for sins real and imagined is worrisome. It demonstrates the power of the assumption that Jews win; even coming in the face of a very high-profile loss of Jewish life that was nonetheless met with the usual discussions about bad behavior by other Jews elsewhere.

Wednesday, January 21, 2015

Meanwhile, Back in Northfield...

I had a lovely conversation with some of my students yesterday during office hours. It was quite wide-ranging, but one thing we talked about was the Jewish cultural-shock of moving from (very Jewish) Bethesda, Maryland, to (very not-Jewish) Northfield, Minnesota for college. Northfield was, by and large, a perfectly fine place to be a Jew. Still, it was markedly different from Bethesda if only because there were so much fewer of us. And going from a place where everyone was intimately familiar with Jews (even if not Jewish themselves, they had a year-long crash course in synagogue practices from riding the Bar and Bat Mitzvah circuit), to a place where many people had never met any Jews at all, does change things. For example, I noted that unlike in Bethesda, at Carleton I did have to contend with people who believed that "the Jews killed Christ". Now technically, I heard that once in Bethesda too. Someone said it in 9th grade social studies, and the entire class burst out laughing. But that, to me, emphasizes the difference all the more -- it's not that there is nobody with anti-Semitic beliefs in Bethesda, it's just that the community culture is such that any such views are going to be marginalized and ridiculed. The difference in Northfield is not that I thought any large proportion of Carls thought I was a Christ-killer, but I didn't think that such views would be immediately understood as transparently ludicrous the way that they were back home.

All of this is a segue to my collegiate town reentering the news in the worst way possible. The local watering hole, The Contented Cow, is hosting a series of talks by a prominent conspiracy theorist of the "Holocaust-denial, Israel is responsible for 9/11" sort. Because nothing goes with a pint like a side of HoloHoax1!!11!.

In any event, I am pleased to see that the community has, apparently, risen up in protest (the conspirator in question, James Fetzer, is complaining that Northfield has not accorded him the "powerful, positive response" he is used to). And in a sense there is nothing more that should be said on this. The pub proprietor's response is to change the format from a "lecture" to a "debate", but I agree with my former Professor Louis Newman that there are some ideas that are better off ignored.

Yet, I can't resist one more comment. The pub, you see, wants to make one thing very clear about its Holocaust-denying, 9/11-was-a-Mossad-operation guest. Can you guess what it is?
“Fetzer is critical of the Israeli government. Does that make him an anti-Semite? No."
Like clockwork.

Tuesday, January 20, 2015

Downton Dreaming

Three episodes into Downton Abbey this season, and I have come to the conclusion that I have greatly wronged Cora in my heart. I had always thought of her as dopey, simpering, and obviously not the brightest bulb in the ceiling. In my defense, there was no point where I didn't recognize her as the smarter of her couple -- Lord Grantham has always been dumb as a post -- but I just thought the two were made for each other. Now I see that I've misestimated Cora greatly. The trick to Cora is that, as an American, she doesn't play the game. It's not that, as I thought, she's oblivious to all the political machinations that surround her. It's that she just doesn't care. In contrast to Ms. Bunting or (sometimes) Tom, Cora isn't actively antagonistic to the trappings of Edwardian nobility. But neither is she defined by her role in it. Cora cares about what Cora cares about, and for the most part she seems happy and content because she happily and contentedly pursues her own interests (and is quite successful in doing so). You'll note that on the rare occasions where she seems to be stymied in her goals, she is quite good at marshaling her power to get what she wants. You'll also note that true power and influence does not lie in constantly overcoming adversity; true power exists where it just wouldn't occur to anyone to be adverse to you.

Cora's influence on the house is subtle but obviously salutary. She's liberal, pragmatic, and modern -- in fact, I think she's very quintessentially "America" her in manner. She generally intervenes on the side of "outsiders" like Tom and Ms. Bunting, and does not seem particularly invested in her daughters following a hidebound and traditional life path. This isn't to say she's opposed to that either; indeed, that remains the default option. It's only that when the girls seem to be taking a different path, Cora rarely seems perturbed by it.

This past episode Cora mentioned that she was half-Jewish (on her father's side). I had my suspicions -- her last name was "Levinson" and she was from Cincinnati, which had a significant Jewish population -- but now it's confirmed and I really want the show to explore this aspect of Cora's identity. I'm not asking that she start fasting on Yom Kippur or hang a Mezuzzah outsider her door (though A Downton Seder would immediately supplant Rugrats as the iconic television Passover of my generation). But there was (and is) a lot of anti-Semitism in England at the time, including a very particular and virulent ("genteel") variety in the upper-crust; it would astound me if Cora never encountered that. Jewishness was highly racialized in England at the time, so it is not as if this quantum of "Jewish blood" would have gone unremarked upon. There's another angle to this too -- when Gregson announced he was going to Germany there was a suspicion that Edith might eventually turn into a Nazi-sympathizer. I don't know if that would have made sense from a character arc perspective, and in any event Gregson has since fallen off the radar. Nonetheless, the coming events in Germany (and Edith's tenuous German connection) makes the family's Jewish background quite salient.

That being said, I honestly wonder if the girls are even aware of their (partial) Jewish heritage. When mentioning it to Bricker Cora didn't act as if it is was something hidden or secret. Still, it is notable that it has never come up before. Cora obviously doesn't seem to be particularly invested in it, though just based on her general character I can't imagine she isn't sympathetic to the Jewish people and their struggles at the time.

In any event, there is a lot to be done here, and I want the show to do it. Cater to my desires, damn it! Where's my hotline to the Jewish-controlled media when I need it?