Friday, January 08, 2016

The Nation Plays with Cards

The Nation publishes a column by Steven Salaita which Rabbi Jill Jacobs (Executive Director of "T'ruah: The Rabbinic Call for Human Rights") contends contains anti-Semitic tropes. Specifically, Rabbi Jacobs argues that Salaita characterizes Zionism in such sweeping, world-encompassing terms -- "It is necessary to connect  this Zionist presence with the suppression of all radical ideas," "Zionism is part and parcel of unilateral administrative power," or, "[support for Israel is] an omnipresent but invisible accoutrement to swivel chairs, mineral water, and mahogany tables" -- that it evokes " the well-known bogeyman of a Jewish conspiracy that controls banks, governments, and other seats of authority."

Here is The Nation's reply, in full:
We take it very seriously whenever one of our readers raises the specter of anti-Semitism, racism, or any other form of a targeted prejudice in our pages. As a magazine founded by abolitionists and committed to principles of justice, inclusion, and equality, we abhor anti-Semitism and are acutely sensitive to the dangers it poses. We also recognize how charges of anti-Semitism, wrongly applied, have the power to defame, ruin careers, and silence criticism. While we respect Rabbi Jacobs, we reject her claims about this article. Zionism and Judaism are, indeed, different, just as Zionists and Jews are different. Zionism is a political and national movement—a discourse, as academics, might say; Judaism is a religion, heritage, tradition, and way of life for millions of people. It is our strong belief that critique of the movement, even harsh or challenging critique, is not an attack on the religion or the people.
What's fascinating about this response is how it is conspicuously non-responsive. Rabbi Jacobs' objection did not state that "Steven Salaita's column is anti-Semitic because it criticized Zionism". She leveled specific objections to specific passages which, she argued, summon the specter of classic anti-Semitic tropes regarding world-dominating Jewish conspiracies. One can of course disagree with that assessment, and respond by saying why the passages in question do not in fact raise the tropes that Rabbi Jacobs claims that they do.

The Nation's reply does not do this. It is rather a complete non-sequitur: Judaism and Zionism are different. Indeed they are, but so what? Does that mean that any criticism of Zionism, no matter how it is formulated, cannot be anti-Semitic? Surely, The Nation cannot believe that (can it?). But if we do concede that it is possible to criticize Zionism in anti-Semitic ways (e.g., by doing so in ways which raise the spectre of world-dominating Jewish conspiracies), then The Nation hasn't actually said anything in response to Rabbi Jacobs. It has not taken her claim seriously, it has not provided a substantive reply.

Why does The Nation not feel the need to actually address the argument Rabbi Jacobs makes? Why is it comfortable relying on a position that is responsive only if it adopts the absurd position that criticism of Zionism can never be anti-Semitic?

Hints to the answer can be found in my "Playing with Cards" article, which explores how people systematically dismiss discrimination claims (racism, sexism, anti-Semitism, etc.). The article focuses on the common trope that such claims are routinely offered in bad faith ("you're playing the X card!"), hence, they need not be addressed. At one level, it is unsurprising that The Nation goes down this route in its reply; statements of the form "We also recognize how charges of anti-Semitism, wrongly applied, have the power to defame, ruin careers, and silence criticism" are so cliche nowadays that they almost aren't worth remarking on (though one is doubtful about whether The Nation would add a similar caveat to its declaration about how seriously it takes, say, a charge of racism or sexual assault). On another level, though, it is very revealing that it shows up in this specific reply

What, exactly, is the pertinence of this passage over and beyond a normal on-the-merits disagreement (of the sort that The Nation notably does not offer)? Is The Nation suggesting that Rabbi Jacobs has "wrongly applied" the charge? That she did so dishonestly? Is her sincerity relevant to the question? Is any charge that The Nation "rejects" necessarily "wrongly applied", or is there room for disagreement? One gets the sense that all of this is meant to be left deliberately ambiguous. On the one hand, they claim to "respect" Rabbi Jacobs and take anti-Semitism claims seriously, indicating that she didn't do anything out-of-bounds in raising her concerns. On the other hand, talking about the evils of "wrongly applied" anti-Semitism claims is not germane to The Nation's reply unless we're to understand that Rabbi Jacobs is in the same class as those Jews who are always crying anti-Semitism to "silence" critics of Israel.

Finally, it is worth remarking upon the opening line, wherein The Nation dutifully affirms how, as progressives in good standing, it takes the issue of anti-Semitism seriously. I wish we could declare a moratorium on liberals delivering this recitation, as there is nothing about identifying as a progressive that in any way guarantees one takes anti-Semitism (or sexism or racism or anything else) seriously. But in "Playing with Cards", I make a further observation regarding the strange ubiquity of the pairing: general declarations regarding how "serious" the issue of discrimination is coupled with a facial dismissal of the specific discrimination claim on the table. This rhetorical construction serves several purposes, but one major result is that it constructions discrimination as so serious that it cannot actually be applied to anyone -- and certainly not to me.

At first glance, it is odd that The Nation would open by stating how serious it  takes the allegation of anti-Semitism, only to proceed to deliver an irrelevant aside about "wrongful" complaints followed by a complete non-sequitur that is entirely non-responsive to the allegation made. But to those who have observed the patterns through which discrimination claims -- of racism, of sexism, of anti-Semitism -- are routinely dismissed, there is nothing strange at all. The Nation is simply following a well-worn path enabling actors to perform a commitment to taking discrimination seriously while utterly failing to grapple with it.


Unknown said...

There is nothing that makes me angrier than hearing non-Jews try to decide *for us* who and what we are, and what counts as antisemitism.

David Bernstein said...

The problem here is not the dismissal of discrimination claims; the Nation revels in them. It's about having a double standard for discrimination claims that apply to Jews, don't serve the progressive agenda (in the eyes of theNation) or both.

the sad red earth said...

The Nation'so introduction to Salaita's piece states, "His case quickly became a symbol of both the intensifying crackdown on academic freedom and the suppression of Palestinian human rights advocacy." Both claims accept the radical nonsensicallity of Salaita'so world view, of which the writing that follows is perfectly representative. That the editors would absolve him of the charge was a foregone conclusion. Their own ideological dishonesty is signaled by the following dissonance. They open their reply thus:

We take it very seriously whenever one of our readers raises the specter of anti-Semitism, racism, or any other form of a targeted prejudice in our pages.

Yet when they warn of the dangers of "wrongly applied" charges, the warning is not generically applied to "anti-Semitism, racism, or any other form of a targeted prejudice," but only to antisemitism. Their ideological construct only allows for, permits, the dismissal of one form of prejudice. The reply to Jacobs was preordained.

David Schraub said...

David: I'm inclined to agree that most people a dismissive towards particular classes of discrimination claims while being more receptive to others. The Nation no doubt would much more vigorously interrogate a racism charge than it did an anti-Semitism charge; Commentary often exhibits the opposite vice. Though it's not as simple as that: The Nation would likely take anti-Semitism very seriously indeed when the originators are on the traditional right; Commentary probably takes charges of left-wing racism quite seriously as well. The hard work -- and it's hard work for everyone -- comes in not dismissing discrimination claims when they implicate us or things we care about. I tend to be harder on progressives because they self-consciously adopt such a demand upon themselves, but it is a difficulty that transcends ideology.

David Bernstein said...

I think a crucial difference is that the Progressive left, unlike any part of the right, believes that a major part of its identity and its rationale for considering itself intellectually and morally superior to its opponents is its empathy, concern, what have you for victims of "isms", and strong opposition to the "isms" themselves. This is particularly true of racism, and includes a charitable understanding of and sympathy for even marginal or dubious claims of racism. Anti-Semitism is, in the end, simply racism against Jews, and if you take a completely different approach to anti-Semitism than to other forms of racism, it goes beyond mere standard political hypocrisy and instead leads to the conclusion that a good chunk of the underlying ideology of those who engage in this hypocrisy is a fraud, that the opposition to racism is a mere cover for whatever goals the activists and intellectuals are "really after." Commentary can still be comfortable being Commentary if it takes left-wing racism more seriously than right-wing racism, because that's just ancillary to its ideology; with anti-racism at the core of the Nation's ideology, it can't be the Nation, at least not in the Nation's self-image, if it treats left-wing racism, including anti-Semitism, less seriously.