Friday, May 06, 2016

The State of the UC Jews

Haaretz has a truly wonderful article on the state of Jews on UC campuses. It really gets the situation right, as far as I'm concerned -- avoiding tired cliches of either extreme panic or derisive brush off. There's a middle ground between histrionic calls not to send Jewish kids to Irvine, and snide dismissal that anti-Semitism on campus is not a problem "worth discussing."

The basic mood one gets from the piece is pretty straightforward: First of all, the vast majority of the time, Jewish students are fine on UC campuses. It's not a warzone. We're not under siege. We're not terrified that someone will find out we're Jewish and bash our head into a wall. Yes, there are occasional flare-ups of true nastiness. But the vast majority of the time, we're students, doing student things, and it's pretty unremarkable.

What is true, though, is that there is just that bit of hesitation in being openly -- or too openly -- Jewish. I alluded to this in my reflection on wearing Hebrew letters in Berkeley last year. It's not that if you wear a Jewish t-shirt something bad will happen to you. The vast majority of the time, nothing bad will happen to you. But there's that nagging worry in the back of your head that it might, that there is that little bit of heightened risk and provocation in being "out" in that way, which doesn't happen if you just put on a Minnesota Wild t-shirt inside.

In other words, there's a sense that open Jewishness at UC requires work, that if one decides to be Jewish in any active way you can't just be Jewish but you might have to expend energy -- sometimes quite a bit of energy -- justifying it. And clearly, that's more true in some circles than others; it was quite clear that many Jews didn't feel comfortable articulating a conventional set of Jewish views on our history or our oppression in many leftist circles. So many people just don't. They cover (to use Kenji Yoshino's wonderful concept) their Jewishness.

The Haaretz article mostly spoke to undergraduates, and I've been both a graduate student and a faculty member. So obviously my perspective is different. But I think we're mostly in accord, and that accord is that ... it's complicated. The baseline is just like that of the undergraduates -- the vast majority of the time, I don't feel remotely awkward being a Jew in my department. I've had discussions about Jewish issues and anti-Semitism that I thought have been thoughtful, stimulating and productive. I couldn't ask for a better group of colleagues.

And beyond that baseline, it's a patchwork. On the one hand, I don't have the slightest bit of confidence that, if something bad to happen to me that related to my study of contemporary anti-Semitism, my union would have my back. My sense is that they are rhetorically committed to opposing anti-Semitism but are deeply suspicious of it in practice; having entirely bought into the notion that its mostly a ginned-up attempt at "silencing" criticism of Israel. So it seems that their instinctive reaction, upon hearing a request to fight anti-Semitism, is to assume the caller is an ideological enemy and that the call has been made in bad faith; everyone is innocent until proven Nazi. One could say it is more "anti-anti-anti-Semitic" than it is "anti-Semitic".  And it stinks that I don't feel like I can rely on my own union that way.

On the other hand, I'm friends with both the union stewards in my department, and I've periodically communicated my sentiments to them. They've been receptive and affirming, though generally non-committal (there's not much they can do or promise anyway, particularly about non-specified future conjectures). But it's not like they were hostile or dismissive. They didn't shun or ostracize me. If something bad did happen to me that related to anti-Semitism, I'd feel comfortable going to them, and at the same time I'd be pretty sure they'd be able to do nothing for me. Patchwork.

Likewise in classroom settings. Have I caught myself self-censoring? Yes, it has happened. I thought about using BDS as an example of what Weber had in mind regarding persons who let their "ethics of conviction" run roughshod over their "ethics of responsibility". but I ultimately couldn't bring myself to do it in a room full of critical theorists. But in other classes, I've felt freer -- free enough to speak, anyway, if not free from that twinge of hesitation. And two of my seminar papers have explicitly and sympathetically addressed Zionism, and I have no concerns that they'll be fairly and charitably evaluated by the two (quite-left-of-center) professors who received them.

So it's a mix. It's mostly fine. There are areas of genuine concern. One need not blow them out of proportion to realize that they have proportions, meaning, and impact.

Wednesday, May 04, 2016

Sigal Samuel on the Jews of Color Conference

Sigal Samuel (@SigalSamuel -- follow her) provides powerful reflections on the recent conference for Jews of Color (including Sephardic and Mizrahi Jews). I highly encourage you to read it. There's a lot to be said about it. Some of it is heartening -- it was obvious that for many participants this conference filled a significant void in their Jewish experience which is overwhelmingly dominated by European Ashkenazim. Some of it is disheartening -- Samuel relates how Jews who identified as pro-Israel or Zionist did not feel comfortable voicing those opinions (progressive inclusiveness only gets you so far), and notes the marked absence of Israeli Jewish participants which (in the words of one of the few Israelis in attendance) created an "America-centric" program. Some of it is uncertain, like the promise from an executive at a prominent Arab-American organization that Mizrahi Jews are welcome in her group (are they welcome if they're Israeli-American Mizrahi Zionists who challenge the prefigured understanding of what "Arab" self-determination means? If so, that would be a huge step towards genuine allyship).

Samuel's account makes it clear that this was a conference of a particular political vibe -- lots of talk of "privilege" and "triggering" -- and so one can shake one's head about whether it is truly representative of Mizrahi, Sephardic, or Jews of Color as broader communities. But if one is to register that complaint, one has to interrogate why it was the leftist branch of the community which organized the conference, and why the "representative" Jewish establishment has failed to do so. One can't complain about a slanted conference if one isn't having any conference at all.

It seems that, by and large, this conference was a success, and I'm happy to report that fact. It should be followed up with more. More meetings, more organizing, more latitude, more perspectives. If one is worried that voices outside the ultra-left are uncomfortable in this space, organize spaces where they too feel free to speak. If you're unhappy about the paucity of Israeli voices in this conversation, then put in the work to get more Israelis to the table. Put in the work, or don't complain when others don't do the work to your liking.

I've been hoping for some time to organize a conference on non-European and non-Ashkenazi Jews here at Berkeley (albeit probably more academic than activist-y). It's a daunting task, but it would help shed light on a daunting struggle. I wouldn't see it as a response to this event but the next step following from it. As far as I'm concerned, a thousand flowers should bloom, and Jews of all backgrounds and all political persuasions should have a home in the Jewish community to voice their perspective.

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.