Friday, April 08, 2016

The Stanford Anti-Semitism Experiment

The Stanford student council is in the process of considering a resolution condemning anti-Semitism. During its deliberations, one senator, Gabriel Knight, objected to language that would have identified claims that "Jews [control] the media, economy, government and other societal institutions" as a form of anti-Semitism. He contended that this was "not anti-Semitism":
“[The clause] says: ‘Jews controlling the media, economy, government and other societal institutions’ [is] a feature of anti-Semitism that we theoretically shouldn’t challenge,” Knight said. “I think that that’s kind of irresponsible foraying into another politically contentious conversation. Questioning these potential power dynamics, I think, is not anti-Semitism. I think it’s a very valid discussion.”
As Yair Rosenberg points out, the reaction by the Stanford community has been markedly better than the muted hand-wringing we've seen at other campuses when faced with anti-Semitism controversies. There have been widespread public outrage, calls for Senator Knight to resign (or lose re-election), a rescission of endorsement from the Stanford newspaper, and a powerful editorial by Winston Shi in the Stanford Daily unequivocally condemning anti-Semitism that is well worth a read.*

I want to write on this event, though, because I think it keenly illustrates some thoughts I've had about the intersection of Jews and "whiteness" as a concept. Were I to try and reconstruct what Sen. Knight was thinking when he said those words (perhaps overgenerously, but I think it's a good thing to at least try to consider the views of others in their strongest light). it would go something like the following:
It is standard practice in opposing racism and white supremacy to note the power and significant control white people have over entities like the media, economy, government, and other societal institutions. So how can it be that the same argument made all the time with respect to white people generally -- and acknowledged to be valid and progressive in that case -- suddenly becomes a form of bigotry when applied to a particular class of white people (i.e., the Jews)? Indeed, we frequently see white people try to deny they possess this power and instead take on the role of the victim; how is this any different.
From the Jewish perspective, by contrast, the argument runs thusly:
It is a standard form of anti-Semitism and anti-Jewish bigotry to argue that Jews have power and control over entities like the media, economy, government, and other social institutions. So why should such claims suddenly cease to be anti-Semitic simply because they cloak themselves in the garb of "anti-racism" or "progressivism"? Indeed, historically speaking there is no oddity in such a connection; anti-Semitism of this form has not just occasionally but frequently manifested precisely in this way -- leftist self-identification and all.
Hopefully this example at least illuminates the sense of talking past one another that was evident in this debate. Senator Knight sees himself as talking about Jews the same way he talks about any other similarly situated group. It is implausible, he thinks, that his motivations suddenly shifted from licit to illicit in the Jewish case, when he's making the same exact same argument he's always made. And meanwhile, from the Jewish vantage point, Senator Knight is talking about Jews the same way anti-Semites have always talked about Jews. It is implausible, we think, that the political valence of the remarks shifted from illicit to licit simply because Senator Knight thinks of himself as an egalitarian, non-prejudiced sort.

That said, I think there is more to be said here than simply dueling narratives talking past one another. What we need to do instead is look at the intersection of "Jew" and "white" as categories, seeing how placing them in relationship with one another creates something unique and hard to spot if one simply takes them in isolation. 

The conflict between the narratives laid out above, of course, rests on the idea of Jews as a class of white people. There are quite a few things we could say about this directly -- the complex racination of even European Ashkenazi Jews, the difficulties presented by the existence of Jews of color, the complicated case posed by Sephardic and Mizrahi Jews. I'll leave those important issues aside for now, and instead accept the more modest point that the image of the Jew, in the relevant public imaginary, is taken to be a white person.

In theory, that shouldn't tell us that much about the standing of the Jew qua Jew. Jews who are white would enjoy white privilege, to be sure, but that wouldn't translate into a Jewish privilege, any more than Sen. Knight's status as a man (with male privilege) translates into a "black privilege". In the latter case, the absurdity is evident -- the fact that some black people have privilege along other dimensions of their identity (they are blacks who have privilege) does not create a distinct "black privilege". Indeed, we would probably recognize that blackness significantly modulates an "unmarked" (read: white) male privilege.

Yet for Jews, it seems things are different. The whiteness of Jews doesn't yield the unremarkable kyriarchical observation (that people are privileged along certain axes and subordinated along others). The prototypical whiteness of Jews goes further -- it assimilates the Jewishness. This is how, in Senator Knight's narrative, we can make the jump from being able to talk about the power and influence held by whites qua whites to justify the same discourse regarding Jews qua Jews.

Why do Jews seems particularly vulnerable to this particular elision? Here is where taking seriously the Jewish narrative becomes important. Part of the historical discursive pattern of anti-Semitism is the notion of Jewish hyperpower -- that we are dominant, tyrannical, world-controlling figures. Anti-Semitism isn't just people who hate Jews, it's people who think they're oppressed by Jews -- who place Jews into the role of the oppressor class (there is a reason why anti-Semitism has been often called "the socialism of fools"). It is easy to see how a concept like "whiteness" -- bound up as it is in its own history of dominance and power -- would intersect with this particular anti-Semitic stereotype in a particularly pernicious way. What emerges is an inversion of the general kyriarchical framework -- instead of seeing Jewishness as being a source of disadvantage distinct from privileges yielded by whiteness (indeed, one that likely modulates -- though does not erase -- "white privilege"), Jewishness is taken to accentuate the privilege. Jews are not just white, they are the paradigm or epitome of whiteness.

From here, we are in a position to respond to the first narrative directly. Why is it the case that the "same argument" deployed against "other whites" becomes invalid as against white Jews? Well, in part, its because as argued above it isn't quite the same -- there is a jump being made here. But more importantly, the argument is different because intersecting the categories of "Jew" and "white" creates a social position that is not, in fact, assimilable into "white" as a simple category (this is the basic insight of intersectionality). It is not surprising that the impact would be different (and it helps to adopt the progressive standpoint of thinking that more matters here than subjective ill-intent), nor is it surprising that we'd miss certain important elements if we are not attuned to the basic Jewish narrative about what arguments like these mean.

So what lessons can we glean? Well, for starters, concepts like intersectionality are actually really useful tools for a full understanding of issues of oppression and discrimination given our complex and multi-layered identities. Beyond that, though, is the importance of recognizing the value of perspective, of not assuming that one already knows what one needs to know about the group one is talking about. The problems in Sen. Knight's statements are clear enough once one takes the Jewish vantage point seriously, and moreover, I'd like to say they tell us something important about the other related concepts in play here as well (like "whiteness" or "privilege"). There is a useful epistemic humility worth developing regarding our intuitions regarding outgroups whose perspectives are simultaneously often not aired and often not viewed as needing to be aired in ordered to have a conversation about them (I won't quote Christine Littleton or George Yancy again, but, you know, here they are). That's true across the board, but it is perhaps worth special emphasis with respect to Jews because Jews are often particularly (and wrongly) assumed to have already been heard -- if not overheard -- in the dominant discursive strains.

In a sense, these are not anything remarkable to persons versed in current progressive understandings of discrimination and inequality. Do intersectional analysis. Take seriously the perspective of the other. And so on. But I think we are getting a glimpse of why these seemingly unremarkable concepts -- which one would think would be, if not second nature, then at least readily recognizable by your average contemporary progressive advocate -- seem to have trouble penetrating in the Jewish case. The particular cocktail of anti-Semitic stereotypes -- whether by luck or design -- seems mixed precisely to immunize it from these otherwise powerful critical counters. That's unfortunate. But there isn't much to be done about it except to insist, with as much vigor and clarity as we can, upon making the connections.

* With respect to Shi's editorial, I do have to digress and observe again -- since this is important to say when prompted by one's allies as much as one's adversaries -- that "hate speech" and "free speech" is a false binary. On the one hand, hate speech is a form of (hateful) free speech. And on the other hand, that something is free speech does not immunize it from condemnation; the response to Sen. Knight's comments -- including Shi's editorial and the calls for Knight to resign or be voted out of office -- are exactly the sorts of challenging counterspeech that one would hope would constitute the response to free-yet-vile speech.