Saturday, April 11, 2015

"...Because It's a Democracy."

There are horrible things happened at the Yarmouk refugee camp in Syria, which is currently under attack from ISIS forces. Prior to ISIS, Yarmouk had suffered attacks from the current Syrian government headed by Bashar Assad.

As these brutal atrocities unfold, a few folks have argued that the relative silence when Palestinians die this way, as oppose to at Israel's hand, exposes a double-standard. Now we should be clear that, as the above links demonstrate, there are plenty of folks paying attention to what's going on in Yarmouk -- particularly among organs of the Palestinian government itself. But it is fair to say that Yarmouk does not seem to be drawing the eye of the external "solidarity" sorts here in the West. Aren't they hypocritical? Against that view, Batya Ungar-Sargon trots out the familiar chestnut that supposedly explains away the problem: Israel is a democratic state. Of course it is held to a higher standard than ISIS. Do we really want it not to be?

There clearly is something to this, and so I don't want this to be read as a full-throated dissent. But there are several problems with this analysis, and a lot of it has to do with who the supposedly hypocritical critics are.

First of all, it is not the case that there are not other democratic states that do wrong towards local ethnic others or minorities. Even in the Middle East one has Turkey, and after the Arab Spring there are other states in the Middle East that have at least something of a democratic character who do not come in for the same sorts of criticism.

Second of all, it is worth asking why being a "democratic state" should matter at all? At the extremes, this risks a sticky slope problem, whereby precisely because Israel is relatively good on issues of human and minority rights (compared to, say, ISIS, or Iran, or Syria), it gets treated worse among some sectors. But putting that aside, the argument alleges that we justly expect more from Israel, as a democratic state, than we do of roving thug gangs like ISIS. "People don’t get outraged at terrorists because that's what terrorists do: commit terror," as Ungar-Sargon puts it. And those of us with a particular stake in Israel's behavior -- because we are Jewish, or Zionist, for example -- have a particular and specific interest in having a country we care about conform its conduct to standards we can be proud of.

What's notable about this argument is who it is focused on. It is perpetrator-perspective logic -- it focuses on the alleged wrongdoer, not the victims. And there is a place for that, certainly, particularly where we very much care about the supposed perpetrator and want it to reform. This explains why I write a lot more about Israel's wrongs (and rights) than those of, say, Gabon or Bulgaria. I have a personal connection to Israel that is relatively unique, and so it makes perfect sense for me to talk about it more. It's the old caring equally problem.

But not everyone has that relation to the Palestinian situation. Some folks are concerned about this not because Israel is the alleged perpetrator, but because Palestinians are the victims. For them, it shouldn't much matter whether the victimizers are folks we should "hold to a higher standard" or not. It's the "Palestine Solidarity Committee", for example, not the "Make Israel Live Up To Its Values Committee". In short, if you care about Palestinians qua Palestinians; not as a vector for being critical of Israel, then the "it's a democracy" excuse falls by the wayside.

Finally, the other reason why this apologia sometimes rankles, though, is because it feels very disingenuous. After all, many of those being accused of hypocrisy do not really believe that Israel is a democracy, or even a valid state at all. They do not speak or act as if they are trying to get a basically liberal state to live up to its stated commitments. They think the liberal commitments are an outright lie and the entire endeavor is fundamentally brutal. In short, while I see a very substantial difference between Israel and ISIS, they don't share that perspective -- hence the popularity of the #JSIL hashtag which explicitly draws the equivalence. For people who have long spoken about Israel as thought it were an ISIS-type organization -- engaged in the rhetoric of demonization and apocalyptic violence -- silence when an actual ISIS comes along can't be chalked up to understanding of the distinction.

All of this goes back to a point I've stressed for a long time, which is that the trouble is not and never has been with people "critical of Israel" in some generic sense. It has always been particular criticisms made in particular ways in particular contexts. The complaint here isn't being leveled at persons who criticize Israel in the context of it being a liberal democracy. It's being leveled at those who have sought to portray Israel as the Fourth Reich. Those people genuinely have something to answer for -- but then, for those people it has always been less about "Palestinian solidarity" and more about beating up on the Jews.

Having My Back

Here’s a message I got recently: “Anybody who helps or even protects the enemy Jew is a traitor. This is not a biased opinion, but an objective matter of fact. On the matter of enemies and traitors we must be clear where we stand. The punishment is DEATH.”
As a Jew, I'm grateful to anyone who takes time out of their life to be an advocate against anti-Semitism and in favor of Jewish equality. But I'm particularly grateful to those who do so in circumstances where such an act puts them in quite real physical peril. So I just want to say thank you to Siavosh Derakhti, a Swedish Muslim who founded "Young People Against Anti-Semitism and Xenophobia" (formerly "Young Muslims Against Anti-Semitism"). As the above quote makes clear, this is not a risk-free action on his part. So it is worth noting, and it is worth praising.

Thursday, April 09, 2015

A Hack at the Times of Israel

A piece supposedly penned by an Australian Jewish leader which called for mass murder of Palestinians supposedly justified by Talmudic laws has been pulled by the Times of Israel, and the putative author has announced that "I didn't write that shit!" He is contending that the TOI website was hacked to put up the inflammatory piece under his name.

I'm assuming for sake of argument that this was a hack. Obviously it might not -- this would hardly be the first time someone penned something awful then yelled "hacks!" to get out of trouble -- but given the supposed authors' prior work (which is not remotely similar to this column) and his non-religious background that makes a discourse on Talmudic ethics unlikely ("I am a secular atheist ffs."), most people seem to be in agreement that he was not in fact the actual author.

That said, folks are wondering if TOI has a quality control issue. This is the second time that the TOI has been embroiled in a "call for genocide" controversy; the first involved a program whereby certain contributors could post their columns without any editorial oversight. This one is different since apparently the author, wasn't, but some are contending it still raises questions because presumably somebody on the TOI staff had to approve the column before it was posted (this was the reform that was imposed after the last controversy). I would point out, though, that whether that's true depends on the nature of the hack -- it is possible that somebody just impersonated Bornstein to gain access to his credentials, but it is also possible that a hacker was able to unilaterally put up a post without any actual staffer's permission.

All of that being said -- what a terrible, terrible thing to do. Outside of actual violence, it's difficult to imagine something more awful. Not only did the perpetrator damage -- perhaps irreversibly -- an innocent man's reputation. Not only did they give the impression that views such as this were mainstream in Jewish institutions. But they brought more hate into the world. The world is a terrible place, often, and often it is because people do tragically believe awful things about their fellow humans. We have enough of that in reality to not bring in extra just to prove a point. It is a terrible thing that was done here, and I hope the perpetrator is caught. And I hope that there are legal remedies against them, because they deserve to be punished severely for all the people who they hurt.

Wednesday, April 08, 2015

8th Circuit Releases Gay Marriage Panel

It won't really matter, because the Supreme Court will have the last word soon enough, but the 8th Circuit has released its panel assignment for the pending challenges to gay marriage bans in Nebraska, Missouri, Arkansas, and North Dakota. The trio hearing the case will be Judges Roger Wollman, Lavenski Smith, and Duane Benton.

The best thing you can say about this panel, if you favor same-sex marriage rights, is that it isn't the worse panel one could draw from the 8th Circuit. Judge Gruender isn't on it, for instance, nor is Judge Colloton or Chief Judge Riley. That said, I think it is very unlikely that this panel will produce anything but a 3-0 decision upholding the bans (unless the Supreme Court instructs otherwise).

All three judges are Republican appointees -- not surprising, since the GOP has an 8-3 advantage amongst active judges. Judge Wollman, a Reagan appointee, is probably the most moderate of the three, while Judge Benton (G.W. Bush) is the most conservative. Judge Smith (G.W. Bush) is in the middle, and has shown a bit of an iconoclastic in discrimination cases in the past. That said, Judge Smith is rumored to have his eye on a Supreme Court nomination if a seat opens up during a Republican administration. And in any event, it would take a more than a bit of iconoclasm for Judge Smith to side with the plaintiffs here, given his voting record and general social conservatism. Basically, while I can imagine a world in which Judge Wollman and/or Smith voted to strike down gay marriage bans, neither seems particularly likely to do so and both of them doing it at the same time seems like a real stretch.

So the 8th Circuit will likely join the minority camp on this issue, and we can only hope that the Supreme Court will correct the error.