Saturday, July 02, 2016

Elie Wiesel Dies at 87

Elie Wiesel, Holocaust survivor and human rights advocate, has died today at age 87. Many have spoken of the influence his book Night, a memoir of his time in the concentration camps, had on their life. I personally was more taken by his play The Trial of God -- an essential work in post-Holocaust Jewish theology (even if it is nominally set in 17th century eastern Europe).

Wiesel, of course, was a life-long human rights advocate who never shied away from standing at the center of causes for justice. In doing so, Wiesel was never under any delusions that his status would shield him from the slings and travails that target any human rights campaigner, and Jewish ones in particular. There are too many instances of this to count, but I recall distinctly the time at the Durban Review Conference where an Iranian delegate referred to him as a "Zio-Nazi". I can't imagine how painful this must have been for him, but I also know he went into such events with eyes open.

The world is lesser for his passing. May his memory be a blessing.

Thursday, June 30, 2016

Thoughts on the UK Labour Chakrabarti Inquiry into Anti-Semitism (and Aftermath)

UK Labour today released the text of the Chakrabarti Inquiry into anti-Semitism (and other forms of racism). I'm trying to think about how to describe it. "Bad" would not be fair -- it's not bad. "Milquetoast" is perhaps the best word for it. Shami Chakrabarti was put in an extraordinarily difficult situation when she was commissioned to lead this inquiry, and did her best not to offend anyone. And I'm not offended, so in that I guess she was successful.

But I am to some degree annoyed at myself that I'm not more annoyed at how small-ball it went. The non-procedural recommendations -- "Zio" is a racist epithet, "resist" comparing Israel to the Nazis (is the temptation really that overwhelming?), don't engage in stereotyping -- would be insultingly banal if they did not in fact need to be said. But banality is the order of the day.

Chakrabarti thankfully doesn't engage in any significant victim-blaming or lecture Jews on how we need to stop making anti-Semitism claims up for our own nefarious ends, so thank God for that. Yet everything in her report is calculated to be assure everyone that this problem is not much of a problem at all.  David Hirsh's reaction is here (his characteristically excellent submission to the inquiry is here), and I think it strikes some important chords. This is a superficial report to a problem with much deeper roots. One does not, upon reading the inquiry, get the sense that there is any true danger to Labour anti-Semitism. Nobody is really that bad, we just sometimes use some overwrought rhetoric in the heat of the moment that we should probably "resist". Ultimately, I doubt these recommendations will hurt, but I likewise doubt they will do much to help either. The report condemns stereotypes but gives no guidance on how to root them out; it discusses bias but doesn't even raise the issue that they might be implicit. It speaks broadly about the significant wrong anti-Semitism represents, but it shies away from directly considering anything to be anti-Semitic.

Perhaps most frustratingly, it does not address what to me is the most important issue of all -- the epistemic marginalization of Jews and Jewish voices when we complain about anti-Semitism. Any effort to combat anti-Semitism will fail if it is not coupled with a commitment to take seriously allegations of anti-Semitism. The persistent drumbeat that anti-Semitism is a bad faith charge that serious people should not waste their time with is the single greatest barrier to Jewish inclusion in communal conversations. It suggests that we are unreliable narrators of our own experience -- delusional at best, liars at worst. If that understanding is accepted, then Jews will never be able to be equal participants in dialogue because everything we say will be preemptively discounted -- at least, if it doesn't accord with the preexisting beliefs of our partners.

The Chakrabarti Inquiry should ideally represent the beginning of the conversation on combatting anti-Semitism, not its end. And judging by how the inquiry was received, well, there is more to be had in this conversation. The unveiling was yet another Corbyn catastrophe -- a Jewish Labour MP was chased out the room after being accused of organizing a media conspiracy to get at Corbyn, and Corbyn himself possibly compared Israel to the Islamic State (reports vary on whether he said "Islamic State" or "Islamic states" -- his written text suggests he meant the latter, but many people reported hearing the former). Corbyn certainly did nothing to protect his colleague who -- in a press conference about anti-Semitism, no less -- was victimized by an anti-Semitic trope of the precise sort Chakrabarti identified as being intolerable.

People who don't take anti-Semitism seriously won't fight anti-Semitism seriously. I do think Chakrabarti tried and delivered a seriously flawed but nonetheless sincere effort in her report. Jeremy Corbyn has no interest in fighting anti-Semitism, and so we can expect even the meager gains Chakrabarti gave to use to amount to virtually nothing.