Monday, May 02, 2016

BDS, Snitching, and Solidarity

Peter Beinart had a column a few days ago which tried to explain the Jewish BDS community in terms of personal morality versus Jewish solidarity. It's better than it sounds, given how conditioned we are to think that morality should trump solidarity. Beinart's point was that simply acting according to one's personal conscience will necessarily fray the bonds of communal fraternity. When Jews elect to cut off large swaths of the Jewish community from the currents of political conversation, they are making a choice that carries consequences they should be prepared to accept. He analogizes it to "calling the cops on your drug-addicted brother." Maybe it really is for his own good. But you can't necessarily expect your family to love you for it.

I think the analogy is decent. But I'd add one more element: It's like calling cops on your drug addicted brother, when those cops are part of an institutionally-biased system.

If one thinks about the "stop snitching" movement, the motivating force behind it isn't that crime is okay when black people do it. Rather, it is based on the sense that each time one brings the police into a community of color, one is allocating power over black bodies to an entity which does not necessarily have the well-being of those bodies at heart. Maybe the cops show up and they're great -- they resolve the problem, they mete out justice justly, and people feel content. Maybe they don't -- they come in guns blazing and kill someone, or they slap your "drug-addicted brother" with a charge that carries an outrageous mandatory minimum. The point is, it's not up to you. It's up to them. And they aren't accountable to you.

One does not have to full-throatedly endorse "stop snitching" (and I don't) to understand that this reality makes calling the police a decision with significant gravity in communities of color. It's not just about making sure wrongdoers get punished. It's also about handing over yet more power to external actors who -- not always, but often enough -- use that power to oppress. Each call to the police is a roll of the dice, and the caller isn't just (or often even primarily) gambling with his own life.

BDS is similar. BDS, we can stipulate, responds to real Israeli wrongs (it also sometimes concocts Israeli wrongs, but there are real and serious wrongs too). And it responds to those wrongs by appealing to external authorities to (literally) sanction the Jewish wrongdoers. These authorities are not Jewish, are not accountable to Jews, and have historically proven themselves to be not particularly invested in treating Jews as equals. BDS amplifies the power non-Jews exercise over Jews, and under conditions of anti-Semitic domination that is a decision that always carries with it gravity. I made this point in more detail when critiquing the "Zionist BDS" case forwarded by Steven Levitsky and E. Glen Weyl
[T]he sequence of events Levitsky and Weyl hope to see happen is that a bunch of people boycott Israel in order to exert pressure that will change the status quo vis-a-vis the Palestinians; Israeli policymakers feel the pinch and adopt policies desired by Levitsky and Weyl; and then the conflict is resolved and the boycott dissolved. That middle step has a big problem, which is that the authors fail to explain why Israeli policymakers will be responsive to the expressed desires of Levitsky and Weyl specifically as against other boycotters who -- by their own admission -- are seeking to send a very different message and have very different objectives.... 
And this is where the claims that the authors are not signing up for the BDS movement fall apart -- not because they secretly share the same motivations, but because their entire program depends on leveraging the BDS movement proper to make their own boycott sufficiently expansive so as to compel an Israeli response. The whole reason why Levitsky and Weyl don't see themselves as two cranks yelling at clouds, but actually engaged in a potentially consequential political project, is that it is not just them but all these other people boycotting Israel too. But it is "all these other people", not Levitsky and Weyl, who will dictate the message sent by the boycott campaign. The only function of Levitsky and Weyl will be to boost the signal of the BDS movement as a whole; their idiosyncratic expressive desires won't come across and won't dictate Israel's response.... 
Levitsky and Weyl certainly will object that by talking about non-Jews exercising coercive authority over a Jewish institution in the context of critiquing their column, I'm acting as if they are not Jewish (that they're the non-Jews seeking dominion over Jewish lives). But that misses the point. Levitsky and Weyl are absolutely Jewish -- but once again, they're not the ones who will be holding the leverage in the event their boycott movement succeeds. It will be a non-Jewish institution that is in a position to make demands, whether that be the United States, or the EU, or the UN, or Israel's Arab neighbors, or the PA, or PACBI, or someone else. It may be the case that a boycott will successfully force Israel to listen, but there is no plausible universe where a boycott will force Israel to listen to progressive Jews. The best progressive Jews could hope for is that whatever non-Jewish third party which ends up holding the cards will exhibit policy preferences mirroring those of progressive Jews. History suggests that this is a dim hope.
The difference between group solidarity and simple chauvinism is that the former is seeking to undermine a broader structure of dominating power. One thing BDS does is that it amplifies the global historical trend of placing decisions about Jews in the hands of non-Jews. This is a power that has typically not been exercised justly, and solidarity is justified as a means of resisting that domination and reasserting a self-determination right that has, for Jews, not generally been acknowledged. Palestinians have experienced the same thing, which is why there can be no just solution to the Israeli/Palestinian conflict that does not provide them space for genuine self-determination, free from Jewish and Israeli control (this, in short, is why I'm a committed two-stater).

To be sure, one can't go all in on one or the other. A world in which we simply obeyed the dictates of our community would be dead if not fascist, a world in which we threw off all communal bonds in favor of our own personal moralities would be chaotic and anarchic. What Robert Cover would call the imperial and paedaic attributes of our lives must be kept in careful balance.

And so the point isn't that Jews must always be entirely inward forcing because any appeal to the goyim means reinscribing anti-Semitic domination. But it does mean recognizing that reality as an ubiquitous fact of Jewish standing in the global community. It is always one of the stakes on the table. It might not always trump. But it always must be taken seriously.


Unknown said...

Admittedly, I didn't read it because of the title (my tolerance threshold for anti-Israel agitprop isn't as high as it once was), but after this post I will take a look.

Unknown said...

"Palestinians have experienced the same thing,"

I disagree with this part. There have been injustices inflicted on Palestinians to be sure (kidnappings, arbitrary arrests, among other things), but I don't think it can be compared to the systemic domination that Jews face worldwide.

David Schraub said...

It's not a contest. The history of Israeli/Palestinian relations is such that Palestinians are more than justified in assessing that a polity in which people-not-them (in the case of Israel, Jews) are in control and who are not, by and large, accountable to Palestinians (as the Israeli government is not) will not deal with them justly.