Saturday, March 19, 2016

You Know Jews -- They're Only After That One Thing (Part II)

Back in 2009, I wrote a post commenting on the metacontroversy surrounding the appointment of Chas Freeman as chair of the Obama Administration's National Intelligence Council. Freeman was a controversial selection, along a variety of axes. One reason was that he had supposedly criticized Israel in a way that rankled certain pro-Israel voices (I don't recall the nature of his comments, and they're not relevant for this post). But other reasons also existed -- he was not particularly well liked by many in the human rights community, who viewed him as too sympathetic to authoritarian regimes like China and Saudi Arabia.

The issue, though, was that even when Jewish critics framed their concerns about Freeman in terms of the latter issue -- mentioning Israel in passing or not at all -- many commentators were explicit in basically saying the critics were lying. Sure, they said they were concerned about human rights in China -- but that's just a smokescreen. Really, it's Israel that's motivating them. I mean, what else motivates Jews? They're only after that one thing.

All of this predates the "pinkwashing" fad currently popular among some segments of the left. But in many ways, the claims of pinkwashing embody the same basic instinct: that Jews only care about one thing, and that when they purport to care about something else it's a facade designed to distract everybody from their true agenda.

Nominally, "pinkwashing" refers to a specific practice of the Israeli government to promote a "gay friendly" image as a means of distracting progressives from the occupation. Even along that narrow dimension I think this is significantly overstated as a tactic worth commenting on -- it is an argument favored by those activists for whom thinking two thoughts at once is two too many. But more importantly, as a political tool "pinkwashing" has stretched way beyond these relatively narrow boundaries to encompass virtually any Jewish political discussion of any variety -- no connection to the Israeli government required. Commenting on the "Creating Change" fiasco where protesters stormed a reception hosted by a North American and an Israeli LGBT NGO, I wrote that
[e]ven if there were some evidence that the Israeli government is actively seeking to leverage its relatively strong LGBT record to "cover" for the occupation (and I continue to think that's oversold), it's become abundantly clear that the "pinkwashing" label has taken a decidedly conspiratorial edge. Any LGBT organization in Israel, or any Jewish LGBT organization anywhere, that is not avowedly anti-Zionist (which is to say, any of substantial size) will simply be asserted to be part of a grand Zionist pinkwashing plot. At that stage, the "pinkwashing" charge has become anti-Semitic root to branch.
This week, we saw perhaps the apex of this conspiratorial, exclusionary deployment of "pinkwashing". Black trans activist Janet Mock was invited to give a talk at Brown University. She is not Israeli. Her talk was not going to be about Israel. Her invitation was extended by (among others) a Jewish group that takes no position on Israel. The event was to be hosted at the campus Hillel.

Over 100 Brown students signed a petition accusing the proceedings of being a form of "pinkwashing". Mock canceled the event.

This is past the point of parody*: The non-Israeli giving a talk not on Israel whose hosts include a Jewish group which does not take a stance on Israel, with Hillel providing a venue.  Basically, if Hillel hosts anyone on anything it's a facade to cover up Israeli crimes. Because why else would Hillel host someone except to make a point (or avoid making a point) about Israel? What else motivates the Jews? With them, you know it must be a plot.

I hope my tone doesn't understate the seriousness of the problem here. The petition sought to create a norm in which Jews are effectively (certainly presumptively) excluded from deliberative projects along all fronts. This is no trivial thing. The legitimation of the politics of ethnic or religious exclusion should rightfully terrify us -- not the least because Muslim persons are enduring an entire presidential campaign premised around it. The Jewish students at Brown targeted by the petition certainly understood what was at stake:
This petition does, however, make us ask: given that Hillel is the center for Jewish life on this campus — with a mandate to support the interests and meet the needs of a very diverse constituency of Jewish students on College Hill (ranging widely in their political, religious, and cultural inclinations) — does simply engaging in a Jewish space render one unfit to do justice work? 
The discussion of lateral violence within the LGBTQ+ community itself is central to this year’s topic. In challenging the legitimacy of our social justice work based on the group’s Jewish affiliation, the petition seeks to undermine our right to intersectional engagement and implies a need for us to cede spaces and relinquish causes that are very much ours. 
Exceptionally well said. But there is a trend here, and a scary one at that. We saw it when student government officials at UCLA tried to block a Jewish candidate simply because she was Jewish (and therefore biased). We saw it at Vassar when funding for Jewish groups to go to a Haaretz conference in New York were delayed because Jews meeting Israeli Jews was alleged to contradict the campus anti-racism policy. We saw it at Creating Change, when the conference organizers initially said that hearing from North American and Israeli queers would be too "divisive". And we're not that far removed from the days when campus Jewish Societies were being banned (there was a flurry of such activity in Britain in the 70s), because non-Jews did not accept the legitimacy of Jewish voices in multicultural dialogue.

The Brown Jewish community asked "does simply engaging in a Jewish space render one unfit to do justice work?" The answer they got was clear: If you're in a Jewish space, you're doing one thing and one thing only. And if you try to claim otherwise -- well, you know how Jews are.

* I keep on describing things this way, but I'm beginning to suspect that I've simply miscalibrated my mental line between reality and farce .

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