Thursday, August 13, 2015

Anti-Semitism as Structural and the Iran Deal Debate

Given that three of my last eight posts have been about the question of anti-Semitism as part of the Iran deal debate, it may surprise you that I've actually been reading even more articles which touch on the issue without comment. These include Jonathan Greenblatt (solid piece), Yair Rosenberg (thoughtful), Jon Chait (good except for the title), James Tarento (blech), Matt Duss and Todd Gitlin's rebuttal to that awful Tablet editorial (strong), and Lee Smith's rejoinder (predictably dreadful).

This has been a trying issue for me, since it puts to the teeth one of my lodestone political commitments: namely, that one folks make an "=ism" charge (be it anti-Semitism or anything else), we should take it seriously it not facially dismiss it as opportunistic or made in bad faith. Obviously, and as my previous posts make clear, I find the particular charges leveled here difficult to swallow. But since my aforementioned principle does not contain a "unless I, David Schraub, personally think the charges aren't going to hold water" exception, that's no object. And I will say that I've recognized this tension from moment one and tried to mold my posts according to said principles. While I've certainly been cutting in my responses to Smith in particular, I have endeavored to explain why his allegations are wrong on their substance, rather than simply dismiss them as part of some pattern or practice of opportunistic wolf-crying. There is a difference between rejecting a charge on its merits after engaging with it, and refusing to consider it in the first place, and I've done my best to stay within the former camp.

Take, for example, the "lobbying" question, which has been a core area of contention between myself and people like Smith. My litmus test for discussion here has always been broad by design: Is the challenged behavior plausibly anti-Semitic under a plausible theory of anti-Semitism? That standard is designed to allow for considerable breadth both in matters of theory (what do we think anti-Semitism is?) and interpretation (what is the best reading of the challenged statements?). And I think that "lobbying" does clear that preliminary hurdle for discussion: the practice of demonizing a nefarious Jewish lobby as fundamentally illegitimate and destructive of political discourse is sufficiently embedded in Western culture such that -- when the term is deployed on an issue where Jewish contributions to the debate have high salience -- it is worth at least investigating the possibility of anti-Semitism. Now, as I've made clear, I think the results of that investigation are wholly exonerative: the use of "lobbying" in this debate has been entirely indistinguishable from standard, boilerplate usages of the term across all manner of political discussions, making it infeasible to impute it to anti-Semitism here. But that's how one concludes a discussion, not how one initiates it, and I think it is worthwhile to maintain that discussion.

All that said, I've also realized that I've been baited into having a conversation about anti-Semitism on terms that don't really track how I think the issue should be addressed. All the talk about "dog whistles" (much less Tablet's explicit invocation of white power rallies) casts anti-Semitism in a particular mold: a matter of bad intentions and deliberate (if sometimes sotto voce) deployments. Such debates go to the state of mind of the relevant actor, and determining that is inherently a judgment call. If one thinks of the President as a miserly, underhanded figure who's long displayed hostility to Jewish causes, one will be inclined to impute bad motives. If one thinks of him as someone who has consistently enjoyed the support and friendship of the Jewish community and in turn proven himself time and again to be an ally, by contrast, that inference will sound ridiculous. There isn't much that can be done to resolve that debate.

I also don't think it's a particularly useful frame. While anti-Semitism certainly can take the form of explicit (or implicit) prejudicial attitudes, I think it is better to generally theorize it as a structural phenomenon -- exploring how the grooves of our social practice result in situations where Jewishness is problematized, leveraged against the Jews, or otherwise is blocked off from inclusion in democratic deliberation on full and equal terms. One question I've heard from some folks who, like me, are skeptical that the President is campaigning on anti-Semitism to drum up support for the Iran deal have asked "who is it supposed to appeal to? Who are the gentile fence-sitters who will come around to support the deal once they realize its an opportunity to stick it to those disloyal, warmongering Jews?" But even I, fellow-skeptic, can answer this one: The target of such a campaign isn't the goys, it's the Jews -- namely Jewish Democrats. The point (the argument goes) is to tell those politicians that if they vote against the deal they're among the bad Jews, the disloyal Jews, the one's at the beck and call of a foreign power. You don't want to be a bad Jew, do you? And that argument, which leverages the insecure position Jews have against them, would obviously be anti-Semitic.

Now, one thing we can say about the "bad Jews" argument is that it cuts both ways: for every person saying (explicitly or implicitly) "you're a bad Jew if you vote against the deal", there's someone else saying "you're a bad Jew if you vote for it. You're a Jew-in-name-only, you'll sacrifice your people out of blind loyalty to the Democratic Party, Evangelicals are better Jews than you, you Kapo, you who (in Huckabee's striking words) would lead your fellows straight to the oven doors." This argument is anti-Semitic in in the same way the above one is -- it leverages Jewishness against the Jews -- and to the extent it is being made by folks like Governor Huckabee it is equally condemnable to any Daily Kos cartoon attacking Schumer for dual loyalty. This is one of the great joys of the Jewish condition -- we're always taking it from all sides.

But the larger point is that the "bad Jews" argument doesn't need to be made, to be made. That's not a "dog whistle" argument: I did not write "doesn't need to be made loudly to be made". It doesn't need to be made at all. Even if the President finds this entire line of argument appalling, and has no intention (explicit or implicit) of leveraging it -- it's still there. The grooves of society still place Jews in this precarious position, and so we still feel the pressure to demonstrate that we're true patriots who don't vote on provincial lines (or, for that matter, that we're more than just liberals-with-surnames-containing-"Stein", we're Jews and our progressive politics are reflective, not betrayals, of that identity). That's the point of looking at structural phenomena -- it isn't about bad guys using either racist bullhorns or sneaky dog whistles. Structural anti-Semitism is like potential energy -- the fact that it is there, available to be harnessed at any time, is sufficient to effect the risk calculus and thereby alter behavior.

One important dimension of anti-Semitism is political -- specifically, the idea that Jews dominate politics and use their dominant position to oppress and exclude others. This isn't always a visible problem when Jews aren't advocating anything that steps on the toes of powerful interests, but it becomes a big issue when Jewish political advocacy becomes salient on a sharply divided issue (like the Iran deal). For all our supposed political clout, Jews are very uncomfortable when put in a situation where we're a noticed player in an ongoing and contentious issue, precisely because there is nothing worse for the Jews than being seen as ("being seen as", of course, being a matter of perception that need not match reality) the driving force for a policy that many people sharply oppose (or vice versa).

So it's not surprising at all that many Jews -- no matter their politics -- are uncomfortable with the progression of the Iran deal debate. This is a terrible issue for us, one where "Jewish-identified" issues are placed smack in the middle of a fraught and contentious debate, in a cultural context wherein Jews successfully defending their interests (however conceived) in a contested forum is considered to be proof of a political malfunction. But these problems aren't problems of dog whistles; they're problems of structure. The debate thus far has obscured that important truth, and caused many people to misdirect their fire.