Monday, March 07, 2016

Do Jews Need a Protest Politic?

I don't like protesting.

I don't like sit-ins or marches or chanting or lists of ultimatums. Perhaps some of this is that I don't feel comfortable in these spaces -- you never know when you think you're objecting to high tuition only to find out that it's really all the Zionists' fault -- but it's also temperamental. Odd as this may be to say, I don't like confrontation. I'm an introvert and a writer, I like to take my time and consider various positions and grapple with other perspectives, and much of the performance of protesting seems orthogonal to all of that. So protesting has never been a big part of my political M.O..

And yet, I've begun to wonder whether Jews -- the Jewish majority, that is -- need to develop more protest tactics to counter rising tides of anti-Semitism.

When one thinks about why protests "work", there are two main considerations. Sometimes, protests succeed because of their direct coercive effects:a boycott inflicts enough economic pain to force a change in policy, a sit-in is sufficiently inconveniencing that an administration has to yield. More frequently, protests exert indirect power: they put an issue "on the map", demonstrating the depth of feeling that exists behind it and its significance as a issue of concern to the relevant protesting community.

Neither of these map on well for Jews. Protests rarely can muster enough coercive power to mandate direct change, and in any event if Jews tried to utilize such power we'd immediately run into a hammerfist of "World Dominating Zionist Conspiracy strikes again!"  In terms of indirect effects, well, whatever other problems afflict the Jews, people being unaware that we see a link between certain segments of anti-Zionist practice and anti-Semitism isn't one of them. The issue isn't that people aren't aware of our broad-stroke position, it's that they're utterly dismissive of it as a valid concern.

But I think there is another potential dimension to protest politics that the foregoing doesn't capture. The great legal scholar Robert Cover (I think) once said something to the effect that minorities must act in a manner that demonstrates that they believe they are entitled to equal rights and equal standing in the relevant social communities. They must take those steps that clearly assert that they are here and part of the community that they are making a claim on, equal in value to everyone else.

At least on campuses, it seems that certain brands of protest have become the language through which communities communicate that they are part of the circle of progressive concern. We can identify an issue as a "progressive" one by reference to how its advocates perform their demands -- the medium rather than the message. If something is demanded through a sit-in or a march, that's an issue that's in the progressive pantheon. Something that is pressed through a Board of Trustees resolution, not so much.

Thus far, Jewish groups on campus have almost never organized their political activities this way. They've mostly done things the way that I would like to do them -- letters to the editor and newspaper columns, blog posts and editorials, and when all else fails urging the political branches to step in and be that brute hedge against outright marginalization. And while I don't want to say these tactics have met with no success, they have acted to further isolate Jews from the space of progressive concern. Communities progressives are concerned about don't get Board resolutions passed. Indeed, such resolutions can be dismissed as proof that the Jews are really in the dominant camp; they are part of the structure of power to be smashed rather than a fellow marginalized group to be engaged with.

And so I wonder: What would happen if Jews started acting through the medium of contemporary progressive protest? What would happen if Jews occupied the office of UCSD's Curtiz Marez, demanding that he take anti-Semitism seriously and renounce the anti-Semitic elements latent in the BDS movement he champions (why target Prof. Marez when there are many academics who support BDS? "One has to start somewhere".)? What would happen if Jewish campus institutions voted no confidence in their student governments when they passed BDS resolutions? What would happen if Sephardic and Mizrahi Jews staged sit-ins in Middle Eastern student spaces, demanding that they stop perpetuating their marginalization and accord them equal standing to articulate what Middle Eastern identity means? What would happen if Jews rallied on campus lawns and occupied the quad and said they weren't going anywhere until student government and administration alike took forceful steps to integrate Jewish perspectives into the multicultural curriculum and concretely demonstrate that anti-Semitic conspiracy theories and exclusion are wholly intolerable on a modern campus?

I honestly don't know. The cynic in me thinks that we'd get the same old rolls of the eyes, with a healthy dose of "co-opting" and "appropriating" charges ladled on top. But maybe not. There's a lot of talk about how progressive Jews need to speak in progressive language, but language is about the medium as much as it is the message. It might be the speaking in a medium that is identifiably-left, that suggests that Jews will no longer treat anti-Semitism as politics-as-usual, might make a dent.

As I said, I don't like any of this one bit. Not occupying professors' offices, not staging sit-ins at another group's meetings, not rallies and marches on the quads (resolutions of no confidence is maybe the closest to what I'd generally be okay with). They aren't my style, and they aren't what I'm comfortable doing. I'm certainly not endorsing any of this. But if someone like me -- who really instinctively recoils at this sort of practice -- is nonetheless having these thoughts, perhaps that's a very big sign that they are thoughts worth taking seriously (even if they shouldn't be converted into concrete action).


Mark said...

My work has not been affected by boycott's ... which might work if they affected my bottom line, but I'd have to say I've never witnessed a protest that didn't lower my opinion of the cause for which the protest was held.

Kinda like terrorism, people say it "works" to help the cause the protestor/terrorist is espousing. But I don't see it.

David Schraub said...

Interesting. Would that include the protests against Obamacare (which in my estimation were exceptionally effective in rallying conservative opposition to the law -- not a knock, that was the point after all)? YMMV, but it certainly seems like conservative protests against various Obama administration sins have yielded at least some gains from the perspective of the movement conservative protesters (even as, no doubt, they significantly lowered the estimation of the protester's and their cause in the eyes of liberal observers)

I suspect the impact of protests is complex and depends significantly on how one measures success -- and in many cases, protesters might be willing to trade localized gains for aggregate losses. Consider the "Black Lives Matter" protests against police violence. It seems clear that the protests have been very effective in putting that issue "on the map" as an issue that Democratic politicians at the very least have to grapple with as a major area of concern. It wouldn't surprise me if the protests have also sufficiently antagonized Republicans so as to make the default GOP position "worse" (from the protester's perspective). But if the pre-protest status quo was (we'll hypothesize) a mildly sympathetic but mostly apathetic Democratic Party and a mildly skeptical but mostly apathetic Republican Party, the protests might be willing to take effective access and leverage over one party even if on aggregate public opinion had shifted against them.

Unknown said...

"What would happen if Sephardic and Mizrahi Jews staged sit-ins in Middle Eastern student spaces, demanding that they stop perpetuating their marginalization and accord them equal standing to articulate what Middle Eastern identity means?"

Why not involve all Jews? Why just Mizrahim and Sephardim?

Anthony said...

David, some very interesting thoughts and I have been having similar recently but not specifically about universities. I think there is a benefit to protests that you haven't mentioned that ties in with a reason why the Jewish community is reticent about protesting.

One of the main reasons for a reluctance on the part of the Jewish community to protest publicly is a feeling that things just aren't that bad. We've all grown up (more or less) with the low-level of antisemitism in our local areas and accept that status quo as how life is. When somebody who isn't Jewish becomes aware of what it's like they are genuinely shocked and appalled but Jews just get on with it. We generally believe that we don't have it that bad so we don't protest.

But, the benefit of a protest is that it can bring others in. And those people from outside the community who join bring a perspective that says that the status quo is actually not OK at all. And that can feed back into the community as well.

This is a bit rambling but my point is that the Jewish community (myself included) really ought to move from a position of "being shouted at in the street is just something that happens" to one of "it's not OK for anyone to make my life uncomfortable just because I'm Jewish". Public and repeated protest, not just at universities but everywhere, can help make that change.

Mark said...

I've never heard of or seen "Obamacare protests", but it seems to me your notion that your protesters who think they are trading "protesters might be willing to trade localized gains for aggregate losses" aren't. They are trading localized losses at the cost of larger global losses. You don't bring "local" people to your cause by disrupting their commute, annoying them, or otherwise being a pain in the *ss (or more the the terror comparison, by killing people). What make you think that making people late to work or killing innocents garners local or global support.

I think that a big part your presumption that protests "work" is that the protests you see are sympathetic to your cause. Do you think or imagine that more and more strident protests around Planned Parenthood clinics would tend to make you more or less sympathetic to the anti-abortion side of the argument. If it is more, tell me how. If less, then realize that for people who are undecided or unsympathetic to your cause are moved to be more polarized against not for your cause when they are impacted by protests.

For your particular example of "Black Lives Matter". Look at the impact. Chicago street violence has been going up, police impact and moral going down. If "Black lives" indeed do matter, the effect of the "black lives matter" movement is directly linked to more Black lives lost. This is exactly what the protest would (naively/non-cynically) be against.

David Schraub said...

Me: "It certainly seems like conservative protests against various Obama administration sins have yielded at least some gains from the perspective of the movement conservative protesters."

You: "I think that a big part your presumption that protests 'work' is that the protests you see are sympathetic to your cause."

So, um, no.

My point about "local" gains isn't about physical proximity, it's about gains in particular subgroups -- e.g., anti-abortion protests probably make someone like me more antagonistic towards pro-lifers, but they might solidify support among persons who lean pro-life but don't consider it a big issue. It's not automatically unreasonable for pro-life protesters to make that trade.

Mark said...


I'm still not getting how pissing people off is supposed to garner support. Traffic is impeded is the smallest insult that protesters often create. You miss or are late to an appointment. This is supposed to make you sympathetic?

You write: Me: "It certainly seems like conservative protests against various Obama administration sins have yielded at least some gains from the perspective of the movement conservative protesters."

What protests? Why do you think they made any difference? Why do you think negative impact on peoples lives generates sympathy?

David Schraub said...

There were rallies across the country complaining about death panels and demanding the government take its hands off my medicare (see, e.g., here). Presumably, they signaled to conservative stakeholders that the base was sufficiently passionate about this issue that they couldn't ignore it or fight it via half-measures.

A protest doesn't *have* to shut down traffic, you know (I have no idea if these ones did).