Thursday, April 28, 2016

Staying Classy in San Diego

I'm happy to announce I'll be spending this month guest-blogging at The Faculty Lounge. I may still post independent content here -- we'll see how things go -- but I'll certainly be sure to provide pointers to any content I put up over there. I opened my stint with a reflection on the talk I gave (with Analucia Lopezrevoredo) this past Monday at San Diego State on Mizrahi Jews and intersectionality. It's a bit of a heavy opener, but I've never been afraid to come out swinging.

Wednesday, April 27, 2016

Rate That Apology(/Apologies?), Part 5: Naz Shah

The latest in the ongoing torrent of anti-Semitism scandals to hit the UK relates to Bradford West MP Naz Shah. Shah actually started off the in good graces of the Jewish community for knocking off the truly odious George Galloway to take her seat. But this week bloggers uncovered several social media posts where she, among other things, called for Israel to be moved to the United States (the "transportation costs" would be less than the cost of foreign aid to Israel), said that Zionism was a tool to "groom" Jews to exercise power over other countries, and complained that "the Jews are rallying to" an online polls regarding the Gaza conflict.

She's been suspended from the party. And she also delivered an apology published in the Jewish News.
I am sorry. 
For someone who knows the scourge of oppression and racism all too well, it is important that I make an unequivocal apology for statements and ideas that I have foolishly endorsed in the past. 
The manner and tone of what I wrote in haste is not excusable. With the understanding of the issues I have now I would never have posted them. I have to own up to the fact that ignorance is not a defence. 
The language I used was wrong. It is hurtful. What’s important is the impact these posts have had on other people. I understand that referring to Israel and Hitler as I did is deeply offensive to Jewish people for which I apologise. 
When the “Gaza-Israel” conflict happened I played an active role in highlighting the plight of the Palestinian people, attended demonstrations to stop the bombing and called for equality in media reporting of the issues. 
Feelings were running high across the world and Bradford was no different. Hindsight is a wonderful thing and I’m shocked myself at the language I used in some instances during the Gaza-Israel conflict. 
For this I apologise. 
Since winning the seat of Bradford West I have made conscious efforts in areas around integration, building bridges and community development, in particular around Muslim and Jewish relations. Indeed one of my very first visits was to my local synagogue.  
Only last week I was learning and sharing over an interfaith Passover seder with Reform Movement Senior Rabbi Janner-Klausner, Vice Chair of Conservatives Friends Of Israel Andrew Percy MP and  others at the rabbi’s home. We all read from the Haggadah and learnt more  about Passover. 
I have been asked to consider joining the APPG, (All Party Parliamentary Group) on British Jews because of the work I’m doing locally, which includes building relations through my local synagogue. 
If politicians put their hands up when they get something wrong it would help to restore faith in politics. I hope that by writing to those who I have hurt, I am practicing as I preach and calling myself out. 
For those that I have caused hurt to, particularly the Jewish community, my constituents, friends and family, I sincerely hope my intentions and actions from here on in will win back your trust and faith in me. 
For my part I promise to have open and honest  conversations about such issues  and invite others to do that with me.
This isn't bad. Normally at this stage I'd do an in-depth analysis of the content and arrive at a rating, but this a rare circumstance where the content of the apology is not the most interesting matter to discuss.

Because this wasn't the only apology Shah considered.

Buzzfeed broke the news that Shah had also drafted an apology message that would have deployed far stronger language and commitments than what was found here.

Although the structure and much of the language remained the same in the published statement, Shah went much further in the draft apology seen by BuzzFeed News. 
That draft included this admission: “I helped promote anti-Semitic tropes. This was totally wrong.” 
But the line was dropped from the published version along with another mention of “anti-Semitism”. 
The draft statement – in which Shah talked at length about her personal shame regarding the comments and pledged her full commitment to fighting prejudice – also included a passage in which she said she wanted to take part in “an intersectional struggle, one where the concerns of Jewish individuals and communities are taken seriously and anti-Semitism is not dismissed out of hand or ignored”. This did not appear in the final version. 
Other sentences deleted from the draft included an apparent admission by Shah of a widespread problem of anti-Semitism among left-wing campaigners and deep concerns about the spread of “toxic conspiracy theories, group-blame and stereotyping”. 
“We on the left must stop procrastinating and tackle oppression within our own ranks, especially anti-Jewish oppression,” the draft said. The sentence did not appear in the published version. 
A reference to “Nazi Germany” was also changed to “Hitler”, prompting mockery from the editor of the Jewish Chronicle. 
“I accept that referencing Israel in a comparison to Nazi Germany was not only wrong, but totally inaccurate,” said the draft statement. “My other social media posts were also deeply offensive to Jewish people.” 
In the final version this appeared as: “I understand that referring to Israel and Hitler as I did is deeply offensive to Jewish people, for which I apologise.”
Initial reports suggested that this latter draft was rejected by Labour Party HQ, but apparently it was only circulated internally to Shah's office. Which raises the question: Why she didn't elect to use it?

Because the language in the Buzzfeed article was very strong. It's pretty close to exactly what I would look for an apology. It doesn't flinch from the problem, it doesn't seek to isolate it, it doesn't seek to excuse it, and it promises concrete steps to tackle it that begin with the very radical act of taking Jews seriously. Had Shah come out swinging with those words, I'd have said she'd done more than demonstrate contrition. She'd have identified herself as potentially a great ally in the fight against anti-Semitism.

But for some reason she elected to go a more timorous route. And again, it's not that the apology she did give was terrible. I probably would have given it a solid if unspectacular grade. In particular, it did seem to possess the quality that was missing in the last apology I rated: the recognition that there was a gap in her knowledge, that to do right by Jews she needed to know more than she did, and a promise to try and fill that gap. But knowing what was initially on the table, it can't help but be a disappointment.

Still, published or not, Naz Shah has offered up a template of what genuine introspection over anti-Semitism on the left might look like. And I think the Jewish community should take advantage of that. If they approach Shah, it should be on the terms of the draft. Is she willing to include Jews in an intersectional struggle? Is she willing to challenge those who don't want "the concerns of Jewish individuals and communities [to be] taken seriously" and do think anti-Semitism claims can be "dismissed out of hand or ignored"? Will she tackle the "toxic" conspiracy theories that run wild about Jews? Will she demand that her party stop procrastinating on these issues?

The jury is still out, obviously. I will say that our efforts to combat anti-Semitism cannot only be about finding the evildoers and excising them from the community. There must also be efforts at reform, about getting people to change their minds, about taking people who once would happily endorse the mass deportation of Jews to America and turning them into allies. We shouldn't be sentimental about it, but we shouldn't dismiss it as a possibility either. It's possible that Naz Shah could become a genuine and valuable ally to have. The Jewish community has every right to be skeptical; as she acknowledged in her (published) apology it is up to her, in word and deed, to "win back your trust and faith in me." But maybe she will. And that would be itself a victory worth celebrating.

Grade: N/A, scoring contaminated by the presence of the alternative draft.

Why Chris Van Hollen Won

Last night, Chris Van Hollen defeated fellow DC-area representative Donna Edwards to become the Democratic nominee for Maryland's Senate seat. Since Maryland is a deep blue state, that means he is likely to become Maryland's next Senator.

The race was hard-fought. Both are staunch progressives. Van Hollen is a white man, Edwards is a black woman. Van Hollen is more of an establishment type, Edwards has more of an insurgent flavor. Ultimately, Van Hollen won by 14 points -- 53% to 39%.

What accounts for Van Hollen's win? The Nation put up its take on the matter, which is worth reading. But as a native Marylander who has followed both Van Hollen and Edwards throughout their careers, and who has supported each from their very first congressional primary, I think I can provide some more fine-grained analysis. The short version, though, is this: Donna Edwards is a fine progressive and a fine politician. But Chris Van Hollen is the type of political talent that only comes along a few times in a generation. He won because he is very, very good at what he does.

A bit of background on the candidates. Chris Van Hollen was born in Karachi, Pakistan to diplomatic parents, and came up through the ranks of the Maryland state legislature. I first became aware of Van Hollen in 2002, when he was running in the Democratic primary to challenge my incumbent congressional representative, Connie Morella (R). I remember that race distinctly because I was very excited at our prospects of beating Morella that year -- because "she's being challenged by a Kennedy!" The Kennedy in question was state delegate Mark Shriver, and he started the race as a front-runner (as Kennedys are prone to do in Democratic primaries). But as I did more research, I became more and more impressed with Van Hollen. The guy is smart, a true policy wonk. That might be enough to make me swoon, but of course being a wonk is only one attribute of an ideal politician. You also want someone who can actually get things done -- a legislator, a dealmaker. And you also, of course, want someone who can connect with the voting population, who cares about what everyday people think and can sell his proposals on the ground. A lot of politicians only have one of these skills. Very good ones have two. Chris Van Hollen has all three. I sensed that in 2002, and jumped ship to support him in the primary, which he won (and then did unseat Morella in the general). And my instincts have been 100% confirmed by his tenure in the House, where he has been both a staunch progressive and a guy who gets things done.

Donna Edwards emerged on the political scene in 2006, when she challenged a Democratic incumbent -- Albert Wynn -- in Maryland's 4th congressional district. Wynn was out-of-touch, perceived as in the pocket of big business, and way too conservative for his district. Edwards barely lost the 2006 primary, but came back to rout Wynn in 2008 and entered Congress. I was glad to see her -- again, it is a good thing when staunch progressives replace out-of-touch conservatives. And the fact that she was the first black woman elected to Maryland's congressional delegation was worth cheering for too. In Congress, Edwards' voting record has been nearly identical to Van Hollen's -- unabashedly progressive. But as befits someone who came to power by challenging an incumbent in her own party, Edwards has been more of a confrontational figure. That's not necessarily a bad thing, and it has certainly helped her popularity in some quarters. But it does mean that she -- and even her backers will concede this -- did not build up the same level of relationships as did Van Hollen and was less concerned with the nuts and bolts of getting things through Congress. In a sense, she's much like Bernie Sanders -- great at rallying a crowd, but less concerned with the in-the-weeds work of making things happen.

Chris Van Hollen has been laying the foundation of a Senate bid for a long time. And that meant he had been cultivated allies throughout Maryland for years. There's a reason why most of the Democratic establishment lined up behind Van Hollen, and there's a reason why most of the establishment that didn't stayed out entirely (for example, only three members of the Congressional Black Caucus endorsed Edwards, the caucus as a whole stayed neutral). It's because he had spent years putting in the time and effort to work Marylanders of all stripes and all backgrounds. He didn't just rely on his progressive record in the abstract, strong as it was. He put in the work.

There's another thing to remember about the "establishment" support Van Hollen earned in Maryland. Maryland is unique state in American political life. There are six states in the U.S. where more than 25% of the population is Black. Maryland is one of them. The other five are Mississippi, Louisiana, Georgia, South Carolina, and Alabama. One of these states is not like the others. One of these states is solid blue. There are many states where the state Democratic Party has a large and influential Black base. And there are many states where the state Democratic Party effectively runs the show, because the state is reliably Democratic. Maryland is the only state that is in both column "a" and column "b". And what that means is that Van Hollen being backed by Maryland's Democratic establishment meant getting a lot of backing from a lot of powerful Black officials. And that, ultimately, is what proved to be the difference.

The easy way of putting this is by noting that Van Hollen did better among Black voters (Edwards won them 2:1) than Edwards did among White voters (Van Hollen took them 3:1). But, while true, even that's misleading. There are two main knots of Black voters in the state of Maryland: Prince George's County and Baltimore City. PG County is Edwards' base, and she ran up the score there (as Van Hollen did in his base of Montgomery County). But Baltimore was neutral turf -- neither one represented the city in Congress. And in Baltimore Edwards barely got over 50% of the vote, even though the city is 2/3 African-American.

Edwards remarked at some point -- I think it was in her concession speech -- that it is not enough for Democratic politicians to parachute into Black churches the Sunday before election day and call it a day. And she's right! And the reason that Chris Van Hollen won, ultimately, is that he didn't do that. He had been working with the Black community, and many other communities throughout Maryland, for years -- in all the small and miniature ways that don't make headlines but do add up come election time.  He put in the work. And if there's another White progressive out there who's hoping to follow in the footsteps of Bernie Sanders, he or she could do better than to look to Chris Van Hollen on how to earn the support of a diverse community, not just assume it as a birthright.

Monday, April 25, 2016

Kansas' Same Day Reversal

When I was an appellate clerk on the 8th Circuit, we decided the case of United States v. Bruguier, 703 F.3d 393 (8th Cir. 2012). The case involved the interpretation of a sexual assault statute applicable to Indian reservations, specifically, a provision that prohibited a person from "knowingly"
(2) engag[ing] in a sexual act with another person if that other person is — 
(A) incapable of apprising the nature of the conduct; or
(B) physically incapable of declining participation in, or communicating unwillingness to engage in, that sexual act....
The question was whether the "knowingly" requirement only applied to "engaging in a sexual act" (one had to know one was engaging in such an act) or also applied to the subsection (one had to know that the victim was incapable of consent). By a 2-1 vote, the court decided that the knowledge requirement only applied to the former, and therefore upheld Bruguier's conviction.

There's nothing remarkable about that -- except that on the same day, a different 8th Circuit panel considered the same issue and came to the exact opposite conclusion in United States v. Rouillard, 701 F.3d 861 (8th Cir. 2012). Two opinions, released on the same day, with contradictory legal rulings. It was, to say the least, unusual.

But it wasn't an accident. Under normal circumstances, a prior panel decision binds a later one. But once the judges become alerted that two different panels were considering an identical challenge at the same time (and coming to opposite conclusions), it seemed silly to determine the law based on who managed to rush their opinion out first. Instead, we released the opinions on the same day, with the understanding that the case would go en banc and be decided by the whole court.  Which we did -- and in a 6-5 vote (could it be any closer?), the court decided that knowingly applied to both sections of the law -- one could only be convicted of sexual assault under this section if you knew that you committing a sexual act and knew that the person was incapable of consent.

I didn't think that story could be topped. But the Kansas Supreme Court just outdid us -- releasing a constitutional ruling, and then overturning that ruling in the same day. The cases involved a Kansas statute which requires certain felons to register with the state -- including those who were convicted of crimes before the registration act was passed. The question was whether this was an ex post facto law. The first decision said yes. And then that decision was subsequently overruled the same day. Both rulings were by a 4-3 vote.

This bizarre circumstance occurred because of a vacancy on the Kansas Supreme Court. The first case was briefed and argued while the seat remained vacant, and the Court had tapped a district court judge to sit "by designation" to fill the slot. He was in the majority that determined that the registration law was unconstitutional. But the second case was argued after the vacancy had been filled, and that judge switched sides -- reversing the ruling that was handed down that day.

Putting aside whatever one thinks about the proper application of stare decisis in such a case (let alone the right legal outcome), this has to rank as one the more bizarre legal turns of events I've ever come across. At least our court's mutually-contradictory opinions were released by design. This, by contrast, gives off the feeling of complete arbitrariness.

"An Intersectional Failure" Comes to SDSU Tonight

7 PM tonight at San Diego State University, Analucia Lopezrevoredo and I will be presenting a talk based off our Tablet article "An Intersectional Failure: Situating Mizrahi and Sephardic Jews in Contemporary Jewish Discourse" (we've retitled it from the original). Details on the event are here, and it is open to the public if any readers are San Diego denizens. This is actually the first time I've been specifically invited to give a talk like this, so I'm excited to see how it goes.