Friday, May 01, 2015

Have Another Thought

Maya Rosen and Joshua Leifer, two Jewish Princeton students who head the campus chapter of the Alliance of Jewish Progressives and supported the failed divestment vote at the University, have penned a column with their thoughts on the matter and their demands of the Jewish community.

There is a lot here that is frustrating -- try to follow their shifting logic on the role "consensus" should play in these sorts of debates -- but what is perhaps most aggravating is their disdain-verging-on-contempt for anyone who disagrees with divestment as a tactic. I've remarked before on the shared incentive the far-left and far-right have to portray Israel debates as being amongst two camps: If you don't support ZOA, you're an anti-Zionist monster. Or, if you don't support BDS, you're in the bag for the most irredentist wing of Likud. This column is a sterling example of the latter -- it goes so far as to say that the failure of Jews to support divestment hinders efforts to "decouple Judaism from right-wing Israeli policies", blaming Jews for ongoing anti-Semitic attitudes on campuses nationwide.

Of course, there are many reasons one could oppose divestment that have nothing to do with favoring right-wing Israeli policies, and are indeed endorsed by sharp critics of those policies. One might be concerned about the association with the global BDS movement, a train which seems to have no brakes. The BDS campaign at its best is cavalier about the validity of Jewish self-determination and liberation, and has often bled into blatant anti-Semitism (in the link above, BDS was the frame for urging the expulsion of all Jewish students from a South African university). Certainly, the tropes put forward in this column -- whereby Jews who oppose BDS are said to be beholden to a "conservative establishment" which insists that "all Jews support [all?] Israeli policies" -- don't exactly inspire confidence that this is a movement that actually respects that polyphonic character of the Jewish community. Or one might recognize that the same capacities which enable Israel to continue its occupation of the West Bank are those which enable it to protect itself from suicide bombers, and that the divestment campaign's studied refusal to recognize the entanglement suggests that they don't think Israel has any valid claim on security at all. Or perhaps they are just sick of the persistent demand to view Israel/Palestine as a quest to find bad guys to scold, and would rather a politics that sought to identify good guys and empower them to do more good.

The divestment advocates say that the debate demonstrated widespread desire amongst Princetonians to take a more proactive stand on this issue; that students hunger to do something to prod the situation in the Middle East closer to justice. And I bet that's true! The 53% which voted no may have various reasons why divestment is off the table, but that doesn't mean there is no proposal that wouldn't garner their support. And of the 47% that voted yes, I'm doubtful that all of them are "BDS or bust." They might have supported that resolution, but it's not the only resolution they'd support.

What we do know is that a majority of Princeton students oppose divestment, and that there is no likely scenario where divestment could be anything but bitterly divisive. So my question them is simple: What's your next thought? Are you seriously trying to say that a divestment resolution is the only arrow in your quiver? Even if you genuinely believe it "is the best way", even if you're absolutely certain that "political and economic pressure are our most effective nonviolent means" for effectuating change (maybe you can take a break and demand reinstatement of our Cuba sanctions), are they really your only thoughts on the matter? Is your only move, when Princetonians reject this particular strategy, to go back to the same well once more?

If divestment is a non-starter, what are some other thoughts we might have? The obvious answer is investment. Instead of cutting ties with the putative bad guys, try to forge new ones with the good guys. Instead of looking for bridges to burn, search for places where bridges are worth building. In Israel and Palestine right now, there are a great many civil society organizations who are committed to creating the conditions for Jewish and Palestinian freedom and self-determination. By far the best of these is OneVoice, a parallel Israeli and Palestinian project "that amplifies the voice of mainstream Israelis and Palestinians, empowering them to propel their elected representatives toward the two-state solution." It's based on the notion that the most important players and most powerful agents of change are the people of Israel and Palestine, the everyday folks who have no interest in dominating or subjugating the other, but just want to live in harmony with their neighbor and work together for a better future. What if Princeton partnered with OneVoice and lent its prestige and brainpower to the cause of democratic empowerment as a means of change (some of us have a sentimental preference for that sort of work over economic coercion).

Or what about TULIP -- Trade Unions Linking Israel and Palestine? TULIP's goal is to forge connections between Israeli and Palestinians unions as a means of building political momentum towards two states. There was a time when building solidarity amongst labor unions and the working class would have been the first thought of a group with a name like the "Alliance of Jewish Progressives". Alas, we live in different times, and so I guess now it takes some prodding. But again, call me sentimental, but I am a fan of the power of workers to unite around a common interest in economic empowerment, and recognizing that spending precious lives and resources on a fruitless conflict is antithetical to that cause.

What if Ms. Rosen and Mr. Leifer proposed a resolution centered on those parameters: identifying groups in Israel and Palestine that are working to change conditions on the ground such that both sides respect the legitimate national aspirations of the other, suggesting that Princeton should take official steps to partner with and otherwise support these groups, and urging that Princeton take greater steps to invite persons affiliated with those groups to the Princeton campus so that Princetonians could gain a first-hand perspective on their struggle and how they could help? How much of the vote do you think that resolution would get? 65%? 75%? It wouldn't be unanimous -- there are people who really do support right-wing Israeli policies, after all. And there are people who genuinely are "BDS or bust", because their end goal isn't a two-state solution or any solution at all that respects Jewish equality -- they're in the field to annihilate Israel outright.

But I don't think those sort of people are the majority of either the 53% or the 47%. A resolution like this could unify the Princeton campus around a strategy that breaks free from the tired "punish the evildoer" mold. It wouldn't be consistent with BDS fundamentalism -- no strategy which acknowledges that both Israelis and Palestinians have an indispensable contribution to a just resolution of the conflict would be -- but Ms. Rosen and Mr. Leifer claim not to be fundamentalists.

Whether they are or aren't is not something I pretend to know. I do know that Naomi Klein once claimed that BDS was "a tactic, not a dogma," and that this has proven to be one of her less-than-stunningly accurate pronouncements of the past decade. Everything we've seen from the BDS movement indicates that it cannot contemplate other strategies other than BDS; even amongst those adherents who don't sign on to the more maximalist parts of the agenda. BDS squeezes out any and all alternative strategies, but it is especially hostile to those which ask how we can help Israelis and Palestinians work together. For some reason, once people board this particular train, it does not even occur to them that there might be other routes to their goal.

I'm not asking Ms. Rosen or Mr. Leifer to denounce BDS (though of course I'd be happy if they did). All I'm asking is that they think one step further -- that they have another thought after divestment. Rather than assuming that Jews and non-Jews who oppose divestment are denouncing any measure that might further a just two-state solution, they should think a little harder about what other steps they might take that would unify their community and the Princeton community around a salutary goal. To that end, a resolution which specifically endorses organizations like OneVoice and urges Princeton to take additional steps to provide them with institutional support would be an easy winner that would build on the dialogue the first resolution sparked and unite proponents and opponents alike under a positive and constructive banner.

Anyway, it's a thought.

Thursday, April 30, 2015

Things People Blame the Jews For, Volume XVII: Vaccines!

Though it is by far the most popular feature of this blog on Tumblr, I really prefer not to do back-to-back segments of my things people blame the Jews for series. I even had to resist putting up a striking example blaming Jews for massacres of Muslims in Myanmar. But my resolve cracked when I saw this post detailing anti-Semitism in the anti-vaccine movement.

This is, of course, a match made in heaven. On the one hand, the anti-vaccination craze is probably the most mainstream-yet-still-absolutely-bonkers conspiracy out there that doesn't, on its face, involve the Jews ("did we land on the moon" is equally crazy but far more fringe; global warming denialism, though based off horrendous science, doesn't rely on quite the same level of tinfoil as do the anti-Vaxxers). On the other hand, given those characteristics of course Jews are going to get roped in sooner or later. Much of the anti-vaccination movement is based on hyperventilation about big pharmaceutical companies, so its obvious that somebody is going to do the whole "greedy Jews" thing ("Just calling out this PAID ZIONIST PHARMA TROLL" who is contributing to "the Judaification of America[, you] are evil scumbags.").

What is more creative is the "special Jewish handshake" theory about how we're getting the real, non-poisonous shots.
Go to Wal-Mart and look at the children in the check out line.... They usually all have blank stares now .... Walk the check outs until you see a kid who is totally engaged with people, smiling, bright and acting intelligently. Ask the mom if she vaccinated her baby, and if hse says yes, ask if she is Jewish.... I never figured out the method, but I can definitely state that somehow, "they" do not get the same shots.
He adds later "You know something like this can be going on with so many Jewish doctors out there."

The point is, anti-vaccination and anti-Semitism are two repulsive tastes that unsurprisingly mix perfectly together. I, for one, look forward to finding my Jewish doctor to give my Jewish baby his or her special Jew shots, and raising another generation of smiley and intelligent scumbags.

Wednesday, April 29, 2015

Things People Blame the Jews For, Volume XVI: Baltimore

Not the Charm City itself, mind you. Jews are, of course, blamed for the police violence which has led to the latest batch of protests. The link is that Baltimore County (not City -- they're separate jurisdictions) police officers are offered training in Krav Maga, an Israeli-developed martial arts form. If you've watched a movie fight seen and wondered why it didn't end in 15 seconds with a joint break, Krav Maga is for you -- it emphasizes ending physical confrontations quickly by immediately incapacitating the opposition. For this reason, it is purely a "functional" fighting style (it isn't designed for aesthetics or competition, for example). Police and military units sometimes train in Krav Maga because it offers effective means of dispatching armed violent attackers (many Krav Maga scenarios involve, for example, an unarmed person being attacked with a knife).

In any event, the Nation of Islam saw the "Jewish martial art --> political jurisdiction bordering Baltimore City" link and immediately decided that the whole thing was a Mossad/Shin Bet plot. Needless to say, Max Blumenthal jumped all over it too.

Somehow, one gets the feeling that if a police department was trained in Tae Kwon Do, folks wouldn't immediately rush to blame acts of violence on the Koreans. But that's all part of what makes being a Jew so special.

Sleeping in Fear

As we reflect on the Baltimore protests and how they have once again focused our minds on how many Americans simply cannot have confidence that the authorities are there to protect them, rather than oppress them, a local Texas official gets at the heart of the problem in poignant fashion:
"It's a sad when people's greatest fear is their own government," [Bastrop County Judge Paul] Pape said. "Think about the ramification of that. If Americans go to sleep at night worrying whether their own government is going to sell them out before morning, it'd be hard to sleep."
A striking sentiment.

Of course, Pape was talking about local Texas residents convinced that America was about to launch a military takeover of Texas, seeking to " "confiscate guns or implement martial law" under guise of a major military exercise. But, you know, I'm sure this experience of rampant paranoia will attune them to the tribulations of their fellow Americans who have far more rational reasons to view their own government with trepidation.

AAUP: Illinois Board's Rejection of Salaita Violates Academic Freedom

Their media release is here, the full report can be read here. The gist of their position is that, once Salaita had been offered and accepted a tenured position at Illinois, he was effectively a tenured member of the faculty and entitled to due process from "summary dismissal." The board approval was widely known to be pro forma, particularly in circumstances where their approval would come after Salaita would have already begun teaching. Chancellor Wise's invocation of "civility" as a reasonable standard for dismissing a tenured faculty member is vague and unworkable; who decides what is and isn't "civil"? Finally, in the press release, the AAUP Committee Chair emphasized something absolutely correct and worth reiterated:
e. "The issue in the case has never been the content of Salaita’s message. One may consider the contents of his tweets to be juvenile, irresponsible, and even repulsive and still defend Salaita’s right to produce them.”
Having read the release and skimmed the report, I have no objections to anything of substance. The AAUP is right on this issue. One can find Salaita's tweets to be hateful, repugnant, and anti-Semitic, and nonetheless think it has no bearing on the academic freedom issue his case presents. Salaita had for all intents and purposes already been hired by the University of Illinois. It made its bed and it should of had to lie in it, even if we think the appointment itself was a mistake or the result of poor judgment. We can criticize his scholarship, and we can even criticize the decision to hire him in the first place, but academic freedom is a constraint on remedies, and here it means that the remedy of dismissing (or "unhiring") Dr. Salaita in such a belated manner should have been off the table.

Tuesday, April 28, 2015

The Maryland Exception

The other day, I went to a talk by Yale Law Professor Akhil Amar, who was promoting his new book The Law of the Land. The conceit of the book is a telling of the "story" of American law and our constitutional ethos via various state-based vignettes (the first one is about Abraham Lincoln and Illinois, the second about Hugo Black and Alabama, and so on). A major theme of the book and talk is an argument about the endurance of America's geographical divides. The list of states that voted against Lincoln in 1860 bears a striking a resemblance to those which voted against Obama in 2012. Of the four states which were genuinely "purple" in 2012 (decided by less than 5 points), three of them were "north-meets-south" states (Ohio, Virginia, and North Carolina). The fourth, Florida, is functionally "north-meets-south" as well, due to its massive population of New York and New Jersey transplants (I've often joked that South Florida is essentially a suburb of Brooklyn).

After the talk, I was able to ask Professor Amar about a state that did not receive a chapter in his book -- my home state of Maryland. Maryland, it seems, is a very stark exception to this tale. It is a southern state -- below the Mason-DIxon line. It was a slave state. It didn't secede, but mostly because it was under Union military occupation. It has a large Black population, which in Southern states had historically been associated with extraordinary racial polarization in voting (that is, in Southern states the more Blacks they were the more conservative Whites voted).

Today, Maryland is not Virginia, or North Carolina, or Ohio. It is among the most liberal states in the country. It is Massachusetts, or Hawaii. If you lived in the beltway suburbs (Montgomery County or Prince George's County) in 2006, there was not a single Republican representing any level of government -- federal, state, or local -- except for the President. I think that remained true until the recent election of Larry Hogan to the Governor's office -- only the second Republican to hold that office since Spiro Agnew (and even with Hogan's election, Democrats maintain a 91-50 edge in the House of Delegates and 33-14 advantage in the State Senate). It is a left-wing state.

Right now, Baltimore is awash in protest, initially sparking by the police killing of Freddie Gray, who succumbed to spinal injuries inflicted while he was in police custody. In some sense, this is just the latest chapter of the ongoing, national unrest that results from the continued exclusion of Blacks from the full fruits of the American dream.

But perhaps not. For as Adam Serwer notes, "Baltimore is no Ferguson, Missouri." Baltimore is a city with "a black mayor, black police commissioner, and a police force evenly divided between black and white officers." This is an exception too; Baltimore "is one of very few cities that burned despite substantial black representation in the city government and police force." For Serwer, this gives lie to the notion "that harmony can be achieved by elevating a few blacks to positions of power within a system that leaves so many impoverished. American cities cannot avoid unrest by simply placing black people at the helm, as long as progress for so many is ephemeral. An unjust system remains unjust no matter the ethnicity of its caretakers."

This is, indeed, a bitter pill, and a noteworthy one. Process-oriented liberals (and not all liberals, to be sure, are process-oriented) have sought to channel racial justice into a narrative of democratic inclusion -- the harm stems from being excluded from the levers of political power and self-determination, the solution is to create conditions of political equality and representation. Yet even as Maryland and Baltimore are in many ways exceptions to the rule where such equality is nowhere to be found, they are not exceptions to the social malfunctions and disasters which provoke the current unrest.

Of course, the conservative response to all of this is simple: Blacks should stop being Democrats. What have liberal politics done for you? What has a Black President done for you? Jump over to our side of the fence! The easy retort, of course, is that locales where Republicans are dominant political players are hardly paragons of racial virtue either -- if anything, they're worse than Maryland, but the best you can say is that it is a non-factor. The bigger problem, though, is that the small-d democratic solution -- self-determination, pick your own leaders -- doesn't seem to be sufficient either. It is a bedrock principle of respecting a group that you respect their choices on how to self-govern, even when one might disagree, even when they seem to be off the mark. The self-governance is the critical consideration; anything else has to answer the charge that it is domination in disguise. Yet Baltimore isn't a situation where the process failed. It's a situation where the substance failed.

I think it is to our nation's credit that we are starting to look seriously at the substance of things -- that substantively speaking too many people view Black lives as expendable and substantively speaking too many people don't care what happens in their neighborhoods. But it is a challenge because when it comes to racial justice people are very uncomfortable thinking in terms of substance. Procedural, representational justice is (conceptually easy), and one could argue that Maryland and Baltimore already achieved that. But debates over substance can be significantly murkier and far more intractable. I'm hopeful, and I believe, that Baltimore and Maryland have the right foundations to tackle these hard questions in a way that makes us an exception -- an exceptional leader in resolving these problems right.