Saturday, January 30, 2016

Special Favorite

In 1883, the United States Supreme Court held (in a cluster of cases known collectively as The Civil Rights Cases, 109 U.S. 3 (1883)) that the Civil Rights Act of 1875 was unconstitutional. In doing so, Justice Bradley, writing for the majority, made the following observation regarding the current status of Blacks in America and the legal rights they could justly claim:
When a man has emerged from slavery, and by the aid of beneficent legislation has shaken off the inseparable concomitants of that state, there must be some stage in the progress of his elevation when he takes the rank of a mere citizen, and ceases to be the special favorite of the laws, and when his rights as a citizen, or a man, are to be protected in the ordinary modes by which other men's rights are protected. 
I love this passage, because it so neatly illustrates just how detached the "special rights" complaint is from actual extant conditions faced by minority groups. "Come on -- slavery was abolished, like twenty years ago already! It's time to stop being the law's special favorite and just be equal."

I thought of this upon stumbling across an old Garry Wills review of a book titled "The Popes Against the Jews," which (as the name suggests) documents a variety of Vatican pronouncements targeting the Jewish people.  It leads with the following quote, from a prominent Catholic journal known as an informal organ of the Vatican itself.
The Jews — eternal insolent children, obstinate, dirty, thieves, liars, ignoramuses, pests and the scourge of those near and far . . . managed to lay their hands on . . . all public wealth . . . and virtually alone they took control not only of all the money . . . but of the law itself in those countries where they have been allowed to hold public offices . . . [yet they complain] at the first shout by anyone who dares raise his voice against this barbarian invasion by an enemy race, hostile to Christianity and to society in general.
That quote came in 1880. Italy had only emancipated its Jews in 1861, and in Rome it was not fully actualized until 1870. Yet here we are, complaining about the powerful Jews, controlling all the laws and all the money, yet nonetheless having the temerity to complain "at the first shout by anyone who dares raise his voice" against their "barbarian invasion by an enemy race." Aren't Jews so ridiculously oversensitive?

One hears similar refrains about both Blacks and Jews today -- that they are the law's "special favorite", that the time has long since past where racism or anti-Semitism was a real thing worth complaining about, and indeed the real victims are those chafing under accusations of either prejudice. In doing so, they insist that they do take these forms of oppression seriously, they are just engaged in a sober analysis of the contemporary moment. And yet, isn't it funny how the same argument in the same language appears no matter the historical moment is?

Fancy that.

Thursday, January 28, 2016

I Would Have Liked To Tell Her....

Scout Bratt, who was apparently among the protesters who shut down the "Creating Change" conference event hosted by A Wider Bridge and featuring Jerusalem Open House, defends the "disruption" in the Forward. As an argument, it isn't worth much. It does provide a good example of what I termed the "conspiratorial edge" in rhetoric about Pinkwashing. Bratt asserts that Israel has a "branding" campaign seeking to designate itself as LGBT friendly, which may well be true. But she does not provide any evidence that A Wider Bridge (much less Jerusalem Open House, which is not mentioned in her article at all) has any connection to that effort. Here's the extent of Bratt's case for linking the two up:
It’s because of this interconnected struggle that we can’t sit quietly and watch pinkwashing organizations like A Wider Bridge paper over Israel’s harmful policies toward Palestinians — policies that harm gay Palestinians in Haifa as well as in Ramallah. This pinkwashing is an integral part of Israel’s “Brand Israel” public relations strategy, which appeals to racist ideas of Palestinians, Arabs and Muslims as backward and intolerant in contrast to the supposedly enlightened Western liberalism of Israel.
Well those certainly are two sentences next to one another. How is A Wider Bridge part of the governmental "Brand Israel" strategy? Does the fact that Israel seeks to promote its LGBT policies necessarily make all queer Israelis mouthpieces for the government? What, exactly, does A Wider Bridge do that constructs Palestinians and Arabs as backwards? If A Wider Bridge seeks only to "paper over" Israeli governmental policies, why is it hosting avowedly left-wing organizations like Jerusalem Open House who regularly and openly criticize the Israeli government? Apropos my recent Tablet article, how does A Wider Bridge emphasize Israel's "Western liberal[]" character when it is among the few North American organizations to devote significant attention to Mizrahi and Sephardic Jewish narratives?

One searches in vain for answers which are not forthcoming. And they need not be forthcoming, because the meta-answer is that "whenever queer Israelis are present, they're in on the Zionist plot." What more needs to be said? Two Jews are an argument, three are a conspiracy.

It is perhaps unsurprising, then, that the heart of Bratt's column does not focus on seriously arguing for why the sort of exclusion she promotes is justified. The heart of it, rather, is an ode to how good it feels to be part of this protesting community. I'll quote her at length:
So often, calls for dialogue or critiques of protest rhetoric are invoked to mask the deep need for self-reflection and critique. Rather than listening to and grappling with the urgent cry for justice expressed at Creating Change, many commentators have reverted to the usual accusations. 
Yes, banning an organization from a conference or protesting the reception it hosted may have been disruptive. But why are we so afraid of disruption? 
At our alternative Shabbat service, hosted by Jewish Voice for Peace-Chicago and Coalition for a Just Peace in Israel-Palestine, I saw a community united by a shared sense of what it will take to bring about the world we want to see. Sometimes, that will include disruption. As we read from the weekly Torah portion about the splitting of the Red Sea, we asked one another, “What does it mean to divide and conquer? How can my true liberation be bound up in your drowning, your oppression, your suffering?” What we were welcoming that Shabbat was not rest, but action. Not comfort, but empowerment. The sea parting for all of us, or none. The world that is on its way, not the world as it is. 
As the space filled with yearning and energy, we drank up the feeling of being surrounded by those who shared our commitment to building community in the name of justice for all.
The ecstatic, almost messianic zeal one reads in these words is meant to be uplifting. It is actually terrifying. When I read this passage, I immediately turned to Milan Kundera's thoughts on the matter:
She would have liked to tell them that behind Communism, Fascism, behind all occupations and invasions lurks a more basic, pervasive evil and that the image of that evil was a parade of people marching by with raised fists and shouting identical syllables in unison.
And so we get the earnest question about why anyone should be concerned about "banning an organization from a conference or protesting the reception it hosted." What could possibly go wrong, when it feels so right to be "surrounding by those who shared our commitments," and off they went with fists raised and march slogans (of "from the river to the sea, Palestine will be free") chanted in unison?

Bratt concludes with what has to be a sick joke: lamenting the "increasingly personal attacks on activists [in Israel], legislating against human rights organizations, and escalating state and vigilante violence that goes unchecked." To write that even as her cohort precipitated just such an attack, even as it drove off such an Israeli human rights organization, even as it used its coercive power and implied threat of violence against progressive Israelis secure in the knowledge that they would go unpunished, is an outright mockery.

But it did crystallize one further thought in my mind. A few days earlier, Maya Haber put out a call urging progressive Jews to invest in liberal and progressive infrastructure in Israel. Through the 1990s, conservative Jews dedicated vast sums of money funding think tanks and NGOs and programming and institutes, which paid dividends in prompting the nation's right-wing drift post Oslo. The left should respond in kind; building its own civic society network to revive Israel's dormant progressive base. And I agree with her. whole-heartedly! That is one of the most important things that progressive Jews and non-Jews can do to help precipitate a just peace wherein both Jewish and Palestinian self-determination rights are actualized on equal terms.

But the problem Haber overlooked is that a considerable element of the left doesn't want to see a reinvgorated Israeli left. Certainly, they claim to be appalled by efforts to marginalize Israeli peace organizations; groups like Breaking the Silence or B'tselem. Yet it turns out that when such groups try to present their message to the world, they're targeted with the same exclusionary zeal as all other Israelis. Ami Ayalon is among the highest-ranking Israeli security officials to support "Breaking the Silence". But when he came to speak at Kings College London, it was at the invitation of the Israel Society, and it was anti-Israel protesters throwing chairs and smashing windows in a bid to drown him out. Likewise with Moshe Halbertal at Minnesota, preparing to explain why military forces (Israelis included) are obligated to put their own troops at risk in order to protect civilian populations.  And likewise with Jerusalem Open House. JOH has to be counted among the human rights organizations Bratt claims to care so much about. Yet when the chips were down, she was among those demanding they be silenced, and A Wider Bridge was the organization that had their backs.

The reason for this incongruity is that, once you're deep enough down the rabbit hole, the prospect of a "Zionist left" is more threatening to them than a Zionist right. The latter only confirms their prejudgments about what Zionism is and inevitably must be. The former, by contrast, challenges these preconceptions, it would force them to reckon with alternate possibilities and consider richer narratives. Jerusalem Open House, A Wider Bridge, Ami Ayalon -- they aren't protested because they're going to say something outrageous to progressive ears. They're protested because they'll say something that, if truly considered as part of an egalitarian commitment to deliberation, would probably have resonance.

It wouldn't, to be sure, be the sort of resonance that leads to raised fists and chanted slogans. It would not be the sort of feeling Bratt would want to "drink up". But it would provide the foundations for a genuine progressive step forward. And with regard to that ambition, Bratt is not an ally. She's a saboteur.

Tuesday, January 26, 2016

B.o.B.'s Pro-Flat Earth, Pro-Holocaust Denier Diss Track

So this happened. The rapper B.o.B. put out a diss track targeting Neil DeGrasse Tyson for the mortal sin of noting that the earth is, indeed, round. The track, titled "Flatline" (get it?), also contains quite a few other conspiracy theories, including a shoutout to Holocaust Denier David Irving and the lyric "Stalin was way worse than Hitler/That’s why the POTUS gotta wear a Kipper."

For the most part, I find this more amusing than anything, though I am worried that I may not be able to listen to my two different versions of "Haterz Everywhere" guilt-free anymore. I do want to briefly point out two things, though:

(1) It's amazing how conspiracy theories hang together, and how the Jews always get roped into them. Flat earthism is nuts in its own right, but there's no inherent reason to think its adherents should have any particular views on Jews. Yet of course it is entirely unsurprising to hear Jews pop up here.

(2) The Gawker post actually doesn't mention the Holocaust denier thing at all (they do allude to there being more conspiracy theories in the lyrics other beyond belief in a flat earth). To be sure, pointing that out might kill the buzz of "haha, B.o.B is so stupid and ridiculous, beefing with Neil DeGrasse Tyson." Flat earthism is just dumb, but it doesn't really hurt anyone; anti-Semitism is more of a killjoy. Still, it strikes me as unlikely that other overt forms of racism or intolerance would pass by similarly unremarked-upon. The distinction, I feel, is that pointing out anti-Semitism -- even in such clear terms -- is considered to be gauche. It isn't something that we should keep a critical eye on and interrogate when we see it, it is something that we're all too sensitive towards and should be more willing to let slide.

Now to be sure, I'm not particularly threatened by this musical track (frankly, associating Holocaust denial with "Earth is round" denial is doing me a favor). So in a functioning deliberative space regarding anti-Semitism, I wouldn't really mind simply laughing this incident off. Indeed, (as much as a performative contradiction as this is) I don't think there's much more to say about B.o.B.'s Holocaust denial other than to snicker at how idiotic he's being. But it still stands out to me that it wasn't mentioned at all, and I think that failure is reflective of something worth pondering about.

Monday, January 25, 2016

"An Intersectional Failure" To Include Mizrahim

Tablet Magazine has just published an article, "An Intersectional Failure: How Both Israel’s Backers and Critics Write Mizrahi Jews Out of the Story", that looks at recent discussions concerning intersectionality and how they might apply to the situation of Mizrahi and other non-Ashkenazi Jews. The article, coauthored by JIMENA's Analucia Lopezrevoredo and myself, notes that even as there has been a recent flurry of  writing on intersectionality as it pertains to the Jewish community, none of the writers (critics or defenders of the concept) have even mentioned Mizrahi or Sephardic Jews. This absence echoes a larger erasure of non-Ashkenazim from both Jewish and non-Jewish conceptions of the global Jewish community.

Title notwithstanding, this is not a problem restricted to the context of Israel. Certainly, discussions about Israel -- whether they seek to cast it as a "White" state by and for European colonists or downplay the very real discrimination and mistreatment non-Ashkenazi Jews continue to experience in Israel -- are one very important forum where this phenomenon can be identified. But there are more broad cultural implications as well, including disrupting the assumption in Western circles (Jewish and non-Jewish) that Ashkenazi culture is the default Jewish culture, emphasizing and celebrating the long history many Jews had in the Arab world and their important contributions to Arab and Middle Eastern culture, and incorporating the plight of Jews driven out of Arab countries into broader discussions of achieving a Mideast peace.

These issues, as one might expect, do not lend themselves uniformly to either conventional "left" or "right" narratives.  But too often, "non-Ashkenazi Jews are engaged with only as far as they support someone else’s narrative. Once they seek to speak in their own voice, their putative allies disappear." That needs to change.

Our concluding paragraph reads as follows:
Mizrahi, Sephardic, and other non-Ashkenazi Jews have stories and demands which pose a challenge to Jewish and non-Jewish groups of any political persuasion. But the obligation to be intersectional does not end when a marginalized group ceases to say what one wants to hear. Taking non-European Jews seriously means taking them seriously on their own terms. This basic principle of justice is one in which both the non-Jewish and Ashkenazi Jewish communities have often failed to uphold. They, and we, need to do better.
Speaking for myself, I hope that this column triggers a needed discussion both in and out of the Jewish community. Serious consideration of non-Ashkenazi Jewish perspectives is not an option for groups that want to talk about Jews, or Middle Easterners, in a just and egalitarian fashion.