Saturday, March 12, 2016

Strawson on One versus Two States

I linked to it on Facebook and Twitter, but it deserves a mention here: John Strawson has written an outstanding essay on the ongoing "one state" versus "two state" debate with respect to Israel and Palestine. I've noted my admiration for Professor Strawson before (he's on the law faculty at the University of East London, and has also visited at Birzeit University in Palestine), but this is truly an extraordinary work. I don't even want to excerpt it; it should be read in full and distributed widely.

Strawson's essay is part of a Fathom symposium responding to Perry Anderson's "The House of Zion" essay published in the December edition of the New Left Review. Other contributors include Michael WalzerShany Mor, Cary Nelson, and Einat Wilf. All are worth reading, but I consider Strawson to have delivered a truly standout critique.

Wednesday, March 09, 2016

Worse Arguments About Anti-Semitism (Or, "Fighting Anti-Semitism Like Any Other Form of Racism")

Erik Loomis tackles a Roger Cohen column on campus anti-Semitism, which he labels as "Bad Arguments About Israel." I wouldn't really say Cohen's column is "about" Israel except in the barest sense of "The decision to partition this region of the world into both a Jewish and Palestinian state was a good faith effort at resolving valid but competing national and historical claims. Jewish presence in the Holy Land predates 1881, and Jews didn't elect to move there because a dart hit that portion of the globe at a drunken Elders of Zion social event." In reality, Cohen's column is "about" anti-Semitism, and it's alarming how few people can tell the difference.

But that's neither here nor there. Loomis' perspective is a familiar one, and perhaps it's worth exploring just how familiar it is. Loomis' opening gesture waves aside all of the examples Cohen one fell swoop:
What follows [in Cohen's column] is the classic cherry picking from bad campus newspaper articles and student statements used time and time again to generate worry about what the kids are doing on college campuses. Guess what? College students sometimes stay [sic] stupid things! News at 11.
Stupid college students; they have the temerity to express hurt at being subject to ethnic slurs and marginalization without providing rigorous empirical data first! What about all the women on campus who aren't being assaulted? What about all the students of color who aren't being profiled? It must be cherry-picked, based on the empirical data I do have*my own gut instinct that minorities like to make up tall tales about their own experiences to elicit ill-gotten sympathy, coupled with the social power that elevates that instinct into a valid argument as opposed to a raw manifestation of hierarchical dominance.

And even if this a thing beyond the fevered Jewish imagination, hey, sticks and stones am I right? Perhaps Loomis can set up a dinner date with Erika Christakis and they can commiserate together about oversensitive minorities who don't realize that "College students sometimes say stupid things." College is about experimentation and being open to other views; if Jewish students aren't willing to experiment with the view that they were personally responsible for shooting down that Malaysian Air flight, then they're a threat to the very essence of academic inquiry itself.

The next several segments are an extended discourse on colonialism and why U.N. Resolution 181 doesn't count. I have little to say here (since, as mentioned, I view this discussion as properly being about anti-Semitism, not Israel), except to note the sharp eurocentricity. Recognizing that there is an anti-Zionist Mizrahi minority just as there is an anti-Zionist Ashkenazi minority (speaking of cherry-picking, we'll return to that contingent in a moment), I still can't fathom just how tremendously alienating it must be for most Mizrahim to have their presence in the middle east so consistently and casually labeled as a foreign colonial imposition. It alienates me as an Ashkenazi Jew, but there's no question that the level of erasure it entails when applied to non-Ashkenazi Jews dwarfs what I experience.

Back to the main:
Anti-Semitism is a real thing and it needs to be fought like any other form of racism or prejudice. But you can’t take a few idiotic comments by a few random students here and there and then create a huge scare about it in a major newspaper. I’m sorry but there’s no “demonization of Israel” on the left that is worth discussing.
Admittedly "Anti-Semitism needs to be fought like any other form of racism or prejudice: By denying that it exists in non-trivial quantities and vigorously denouncing anyone who presents it as a problem 'worth discussing'" does track some prominent stratagems for "fighting" other forms of racism. I wonder if Ms. Christakis can make room at the table for Reince Priebus and the rest of the RNC to join?

All that's left is an obligatory "Ted Cruz Ben Carson 'BDS has plenty of Jewish supporters' decisively refutes any claim of prejudice worth considering" reference, and we can call it a day: a perfect encapsulation of a particular way of, er, "fighting anti-Semitism like any other form of racism."

* Incidentally, if one does want some data, Jews of college age are more likely than any other age cohort to have been called anti-Semitic names, and more than half report having experienced an anti-Semitic incident within the academic year. Admittedly, the persuasive impact of all of this is dependent on the view that Jewish self-reporting of anti-Semitism is valid. Which is to say, probably invalid to those people who generally think Jews are dishonest and disingenuous in reporting anti-Semitism.

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).

Sunday, March 06, 2016

Arguments from Mediocrity

Scott Lemieux does a brilliant job dissecting Steve Salaita's cliched "voting is primarily about feeling good about myself, and voting for Hillary Clinton won't give me a fuzzy" presentation. Such arguments, as Lemieux observes, are deeply selfish and consumerist (I doubt most people vote because they are "inspired" by their politicians; I vote because I hope the politicians I vote for will make the world materially better compared to the ones I don't vote for. It's not about my feelings.). They also elide completely the very real and material differences in life circumstances for many that would result in a Trump versus Clinton administration -- an elision that no doubt makes sense to someone in Salaita's position because they primarily will impact people not him. That basic fact doesn't change no matter how many times one intones "liberal" or "neoliberal" as if that constituted an actual argument.

I'd only add that Steve Salaita, of all people, should be reticent to disturb those "mythograph[ies]" which have "conditioned us to treat mediocrity as superior." At this stage it's the only thing keeping his professional career afloat.*

* Usual caveats apply about how I consider Illinois' unhiring of Salaita to have been a breach of academic freedom; the university made its bed and should have had to lie in it, etc..