Wednesday, February 03, 2016

I Suggest a New Strategy: Let the Goyim Win

One of the most troublesome anti-Semitic stereotypes extant in the world today is what I have referred to as the myth of Jewish hyperpower -- that Jews are all controlling, world-dominating figures capable of bending even the most powerful state, civic, or global institutions to their will. Anti-Semitic hatred, as Phoebe Maltz Bovy so aptly pointed out, is not just about people who hate Jews, it also frequently is about people who consider themselves to be oppressed by Jews.

The reason it's troublesome isn't because of its direct effects -- though they are indeed significant -- but because it is so difficult to counteract. Successfully fighting the charge is to confirm it; the only way to disprove Jewish hyperpower is for Jews to lose. Which we often do. Nonetheless, the perception of overbearing Jews dominating conversations with their constant cries of anti-Semitism creates and maintains a reality of silenced Jews with genuine issues of anti-Semitism perpetuallly suppressed.

In Ha'aretz, Mordechai Levovitz has a truly abysmal column on the "Creating Change" fallout. The column's failures are all the more striking because it is exceptionally evident he's earnestly trying to write a good column that is attentive to the issues in play. I provide that caveat because bad arguments can be made without bad motives, and this is I think a shining example. So let me make myself clear from the get-go: this post is not being written because Levovitz elected "to publicly critique a united Jewish response defending Israel." It's being written because the substance of his critique is nothing short of a disaster.

Levovitz's thesis is straightforward: The Jewish community's response to the Creating Change fiasco -- first in protesting the cancellation of the A Wider Bridge/Jerusalem Open House event, then in objecting to the event speakers being driven off the conference stage -- "unintentionally promoted the much more nefarious anti-Semitic trope that Jews wield disproportionate power to get what we want."

Surely, this has to be the moment where that argument breaks past parody. Jews: So powerful, people have to physically drive them off rather than just having demands that they be forbidden from speaking in the first place accepted on face! So powerful that sometimes prominent LGBT voices will even condemn such heckler's vetoes after the fact!

It's not, to be clear, that Levovitz approves of the efforts to silence queer Jewish groups or chants of "From the River to the Sea, Palestine Will be Free." He just offers no other responsive option to the Jewish community other than to capitulate to them. If the problem is that Jews are perceived as wielding "disproportionate power to get what we want", the solution is simply to never get what we want if non-Jews object. On the initial cancellation of the event, Levovitz writes:
While I disagreed with this decision, I came to terms with it by thinking about how hard it would be to throw an LGBTQ Jewish party in an Orthodox Jewish Conference. Maybe there was still work to be done before throwing a party. 
Pat Buchanan couldn't have written that better. Perhaps, instead, one can reasonably expect that a queer conference would not conflate simply being present and speaking one's voice with rubbing everyone's face in it.

It gets worse when he talks about objections to the "From the River to the Sea" chant:
Why complain about a chant unless you are realistically asking that it be banned?
Why indeed! What choices are there between approving of a chant and censoring it? Put aside Levovitz's basic misunderstanding of free speech jurisprudence ("Censoring this chant would likely result in a first amendment suit that is an assured loss" -- well, no, because Creating Change is not a public actor and thus is perfectly entitled to regulate speech in its private proceedings), have we really reached the point where it does not occur to anyone that one can object to speech content without trying to ban it? I have to think the answer is no; and that what's really going on here is that Jewish objections are inherently framed in the most coercive, authoritarian way possible. Levovitz is not alone here, and he's not alone among Jews either. Far from being feckless provocateurs slinging anti-Semitism charges left and right, the image of the hyperpowerful yet oversensitive Jew is a stereotype we've deeply internalized as a community, to our own peril.

It just goes on and on like this. On the immediate aftermath of the reinvitation of A Wider Bridge/Jerusalem Open House:
The abrupt policy reversal was cynically viewed by people at the conference as powerful Jews wielding their influence to get what they want. When I arrived at the Conference, this was the assumption of almost everyone I spoke with. It’s not surprising. For thousands of years, the trope that has been used to justify the murder of millions of Jews was not Israel, but the idea that we control the media, the banks, the government and the major institutions. So, yes, there was an ugly anti-Semitic feeling in the air, but no, it had less to do with Israel, the occupation, or “intersectionality”, and more to do with the feeling that external Jewish power was dictating conference policies. Ironically, if we were to be honest about collective responsibility, we should look inward and ask ourselves if our communal knee jerk alarmist reaction to a situation that most Jews did not fully understand, actually made the situation worse and put Jewish lives in danger.
Note how the initial decision to cancel -- at the behest of a variety of anti-Israel activists -- isn't mentioned, much less problematized at all. That flexing of "political musculature" is taken by both Levovitz and the conference attendees as natural and unremarkable. It's only when Jews start fighting back and -- worse yet -- dare to win the political game that people start snarling about outsiders and their pernicious influence. But it's the former that's emblematic of true power, because true power doesn't need to publicly whip entire communities into line to secure basic representation:
If one only has protections because one devotes every spare vote, dollar, resource and minute to secure them, one can hardly be said to be an equal. Equality comes when equality is normal — so normal, that you don’ t have to be perpetually on your guard to defend it. So normal that it wouldn’t occur to anyone to try and take it away.
What Levovitz is witnessing is not power. It is a response to weakness, albeit sometimes an effective response. The powerful do not need to constantly leverage their entire rolodex of political influence just to have their voices represented on stage. They get that as an entitlement. We don't. "Far from signaling our full inclusion in American society, the political power Jews have amassed is currently serving as brute hedge against the default norm of Jewish exclusion which continues to be expressed."

What's most disheartening about this column is that perhaps the only redeeming factor of the Creating Change fallout was watching other groups, Jewish and non-Jewish, publicly declaring their solidarity and standing with the Jewish organizations whose vulnerability had been acutely demonstrated (as I wrote in the above post, while this is not the same thing as being equal, having access to it is certainly far better than the alternative). Yet Levovitz constructs even these basic solidaristic impulses as Jewish power rearing its overbearing head:
We need to look into how we wield power inside our own community. Let’s be brutally honest. It’s hard for a queer Jewish professional to refuse an LGBTQ national hero and the rabbi of the largest LGBTQ synagogue when they ask you to sign on to a letter. We should only be put in that position in rare emergencies." The demands of solidarity are terrible indeed.  
It's bad enough to feel like nobody has our backs, now we're told that it's affirmatively bad if they do -- that it's a way of "wielding power" that itself victimizes those who so wrongfully feel compelled to stand with Jews who feel hurt, or scared, or marginal or vulnerable.

And so we get back to where we started, with the problem of perceived Jewish hyperpower and what can be done about it. And the answer, it seems, is nothing. Hold a Israeli-Jewish event? Who wouldn't see that as a flamboyant Zionist pool party?  Urge that a cancelled speech be reinstated? What outrageous Jewish interference with internal conference self-governance! Object to a slogan? Who would do such a thing but for censorious motives? Ask others to sign a letter on your behalf? We need to be careful about "how we wield power", for who can resist the unbridled political capital of LGBTQ Rabbis?

This is the way Jewish political, social, and civic participation ends: With the Jews themselves  recognizing the rightness of the rule non-Jews have long sought to impose. "Jews Lose."

1 comment:

Unknown said...

Excellent stuff as always, David.