Friday, October 14, 2016

Resolved: Trump-Supporting Jews Can Never Call Other Jews "Self-Hating"

Donald Trump's latest speech was notable for basically being a "best-of" compilation of anti-Semitic dogwhistles: A mysterious cabal of "international bankers" who are pushing for "radical globalization" and who have "virtually unlimited" financial, political, and media resources. This was after his second debate performance, where virtually every name he dropped as part of the nefarious Clintonite conspiracy was a Jewish one (Blumenthal, Soros, Gruber....). And that, in turn, follows from his more-or-less explicit promotion of a rabidly anti-Semitic alt-right led by David Duke and an array of other neo-Nazis whom Trump has barely brought himself to disavow.

Yet despite this, Donald Trump still has Jewish supporters. We shouldn't overstate the extent of this -- Jews on the whole are overwhelmingly Democratic to begin with, and even among Republicans Jews have been prominent members of the #NeverTrump movement. I simply observe that Trump continues to have some Jewish supporters. The Republican Jewish Coalition still hasn't pulled their endorsement, for example. Sheldon Adelson remains a high-profile backer. And the New York Jewish Week, in the course of endorsing Hillary Clinton for President (it's first endorsement in its history), especially chided the Orthodox Jewish community for being willing to back a candidate that so openly flouts their purported values of "piety, modesty in terms of sexual contact and respect for leaders with spiritual and intellectual authority."

So these Jews exist, albeit as a small minority of the whole. And to those Jews whom -- after all the contempt that Trump has ladled onto our community and our values -- continue to support Trump, I'll simply say this. I would never call you a "self-hating Jew". I loathe that term; I virtually never use it, and I won't use it here. But if you vote for Trump, you forfeit the right to ever call other Jews "self-hating".


Wednesday, October 12, 2016

Strength, Repentance, and Jewish Diasporism

What is complete repentance? It is so when an opportunity presents itself for repeating an offense and the offender refrains from doing so because he has repented, not out of fear or lack of strength. -- Maimonides

To be contrite in our failures is holier than to be complacent in perfection. -- Abraham Joshua Heschel

Another Yom Kippur has concluded, and as my dad likes to say, the best part is that we're never farther away from another Yom Kippur than we are at this moment. A favored pastime of Jewish intellectuals this time of year is to point out various sins of the Jewish community as a whole -- Israel is a frequent target, though not the only one -- and urge repentance.

I don't necessarily think this is a bad thing, framed properly. Over Rosh Hashanah, my home Rabbi gave a compelling sermon about the need to create a positive Jewish spiritual identity that went beyond "survive!", arguing that our communal Jewish institutions had given my generation the short shrift by failing to conceptualize Judaism as anything other than Fackenheim's 614th Commandment (a Commandment which, to be fair, actually does resonate with Millennial-generation-me). Repentance is about becoming better than we were before, and it's never a bad thing for the Jewish community to be better. The idea of being a "light unto nations" imposes a heavy burden on ourselves, but one we should be proud of striving towards even as we know our light could always shine brighter.

I thought about this while reflecting on Mira Sucharov's thoughtful column about the new "non-Zionist" synagogue that recently opened in Chicago. As Sucharov observes, the synagogue is not really "non-Zionist" in the way that she is a "non-NFL fan". It is by no means indifferent to Zionism. It has very strong opinions about Zionism and Israel generally. In a sense, they care a lot about Israel (in the same way that Sucharov does). But in a sense, it seems quite different. Perhaps they "care" about Israel in the same way they "care" about North Korea: "they simply think that Israel is responsible for a significant amount of evil in the world, and are working to try and rectify it -- there is no sentimentality behind it, anymore than efforts to end North Korean brutality are motivated by deep caring about North Korea."

Maybe that pushes too far -- the synagogue does seem to "care" especially about Israel because it is Jewish. But even here, the linkage to Jewishness is of a contingent and regretful kind: they don't want Israel to change so that it becomes a better emblem of Jewishness in the world, they view it as objectionable that it represents Jewishness to begin with -- that it is a Jewish state. They're concerned with Israel because it gives Jews a bad name, but they don't otherwise view Israel as legitimately part of a Jewish future. Instead, the synagogue is based around the concept of "Diasporism" -- that the Jewish home is everywhere and nowhere. Everywhere, because Jews should view their home as wherever they happen to reside. Nowhere, because there is no particular spot -- Israel included -- that we can claim as ours.

The ideal Jewish role in diasporism is a critical one -- we imagine ourselves as the conscience, the gadfly, the light unto that nation. Sometimes, of course, diasporism keeps us busy simply to remain a surviving group, a clinging-by-the-fingernails group, a deeply marginalized and vulnerable group. By definition we are not the dominant group, the powerful group, the in-control group. We certainly are not the oppressor group.

Prior to the establishment of Israel, the Jewish existence was diasporic. It did, largely, take on the qualities identified above. It can be and is romanticized, of course -- more focus on the first sentence (conscientiousness and critique) and less on the second (vulnerability and marginalization). The reason diasporism failed in the 20th century is that, between the roughly 50 years of having a state and 50 years of not having one, Zionism decisively beat diasporism on the all-important "not nearly being annihilated in a cataclysmic genocide" scoreboard. But there is no question that having a state, having a place where Jews were more than just a critical voice but a dominant voice, an in-control voice, a powerful voice was a very novel experience for Jews. And one upshot of having power is abusing that power. Of using that power to deeply, seriously, significantly wrong others. As Israel as done. As happens with power. Power gives one the opportunity to do things: terrible things and great things alike. The same dynamic that allows Jews to govern ourselves rather than exist as supplicants, also allows us to dominate others rather than coexist in equality. The same dynamic that allows Jews to save ourselves rather than pray for salvation, also allows us to hurt others rather than to respect their dignity. The coin of power allows either and both to be purchased -- one cannot have the opportunity for one without the opportunity for the other.

Diasporism sees Jewish wrongs -- genuine wrongs -- and yearns to go back to a time when Jews didn't act that way. And it is true: before there was an Israel, there was also no occupation, no Gaza incursions, no military law over Palestinians, no West Bank barrier, and so on. Jews in the diaspora did not need to worry about occupying anyone; we had no nation that could occupy. We would never be responsible for promulgating unjust laws; the laws were not ours to promulgate. We had no risk of significantly hurting others; the hand on the sovereign sword was not ours. Even our uprisings and resistances were blessed in their hopelessness. In Max Weber's terms, we could live a pure ethics of conviction, with zero concern for the ethics of responsibility. There is no true responsibility in diaspora, nothing really falls on our shoulders.

Diasporism is, at root, the Jewish fear of Jewish power. It knows that powerful Jews have the potential to be bad Jews -- in fact, it sees powerful Jews acting as bad Jews -- and its solution, its teshuvah, is to give up the trappings of power and return to the disempowered diaspora state. But as Maimonides observes, this is not repentance. The man who cuts off his tongue so that he cannot slander his neighbor has not repented, he has made true repentance impossible. Complete repentance must coexist with the opportunity, the strength, the power to commit the sin once again and the free choice not to. To "repent" for the sins derived from Jewish power by abolishing that power is no repentance at all -- it is a tacit belief that Jewish power will always, unavoidably, inherently be sinful power. It is a choice precisely to avoid the hard work of repentance, to avoid uncomfortable holiness of having to be contrite in our failures.

Diasporism is in some ways the mirror image of a completely self-satisfied Zionism, the sort that is convinced that nothing is Israel's fault, that all the problems and tribulations of the region are completely attributable to the malfeasance of Palestinians or other Arabs (or the UN, or the EU, or Iran....). In both cases, there is a complacency in (imagined) perfection. And both, in their own way, exhibit a preference for Jewish weakness, a desire to not have the choice to do right.

So on this Yom Kippur, I say we reject both. I say we recommit to Jewish strength -- including the strength to recognize and correct our sins, not because we have no choice, but because we once again are faced precisely with that choice.

Monday, October 10, 2016

Three Things I'm Scared Of Right Now

A new NBC/WSJ poll taken in the aftermath of the Donald Trump sexual assault comments has Hillary Clinton up a whopping 11 points in a four-way race (it jumps to 14 points in a two way). FiveThirtyEight has her chances of winning the presidency at 82%; Daily Kos Elections has her at 94% (and while I wouldn't normally trust a partisan site like Daily Kos, DK Elections is the successor to the old "Swing State Project" site -- a group I very much trust and whom I'm found to be eminently impartial and reliable in their electoral analysis). The polls look good, and that makes me feel good.

But still worried. Here are three things that will keep me up at night until the moment Hillary Clinton gets a check mark next to her name on election day.

(1) From Brexit to the Columbia peace deal, this year it seems like polls have consistently underestimated the electoral allure of right-wing resentment. Do they underestimate it by enough to overcome an ever-widening Clinton lead -- and Clinton's far superior campaign organization and ground game? I don't think so, but who knows? This one boils down to "can I trust the polls", and while the answer to that isn't always yes, it's never reliably no, so I'm trying to put this one aside.

(2) If Trump wins, how much unrest will we see in America's streets? Trump's "Second Amendment" comment raised the question of whether his supporters would even accept a Clinton election (and it took a long time for him to say if he'd do so when answering that question directly in the first debate). But there is a simmering mix of anger and fear of a Trump presidency in many corners of America too -- anger that America has not been living up to its promises of equal justice under law, and fear that Trump is the manifestation of White Americans preference that we continue not to do so. If there are marches or demonstrations in American urban centers, we could see a genuine, military-style crackdown from a Trump administration. It's not like he has much care or respect for the bounds of law.

(3) Russians hacking the polling machines. This one might be my greatest fear, because even if we catch it, it would still throw our nation into chaos without clear route to recovery. The risk is real, and I'm honestly not sure why Russia wouldn't try it. Imagine how it would play out: We start seeing suspiciously high Trump numbers in precincts he shouldn't be close in. The President and the head of the CIA announce that they are sure that the polling machines have been compromised by a Russian intrusion. Does anyone think any Republican would believe it? They'd immediately go in on how Obama and Hillary are trying to steal the election! Even if the evidence of Russian tampering is clear, it will no doubt be technical and not amenable to "smoking gun" images or videos. Circumstances like this require trust in our governmental institutions, and the rise of Donald Trump is the rise of a large swath of Americans who have been willing to believe anything and everything about Obama, Clinton, and the entire federal government. There's no way they'd accept a hacking story, even if it was entirely true

Sunday, October 09, 2016

2016 Presidential Debate #2: Quick Reactions

I have never, in my life, seen a debate where expectations where set so low for one of the candidates. Donald Trump would have done "better than expected" if he managed to go the whole evening without being kicked off the ballot by his own party. And yet, at the start, he managed to possibly sink below a bar that was literally lying on the ground. He looked like hell. He could not stop sniffing. His answer to the question about his sexual assault braggadocio was beyond awful. His constant whining about the terrible biased moderators was simply pathetic. And then there was his horrifying promise to jail Hillary Clinton when the night was over -- a statement that goes well beyond "will Donald Trump be bad for America" and crosses into "will Donald Trump preserve democracy in America?"

He did, to be sure, get better as the night went on. For the most part, "better" just meant that he was merely incoherent -- repeating buzz words and talking points without even the semblance of substance behind them. Still, you could at least spot some potentially plausible themes (Clinton is all talk, no action) that could have resonance. And Clinton, for her part, didn't seem as comfortable with the format as she did in the first debate. Her big strength the first time around was basically acting as if Donald wasn't in the room -- refusing to engage him, refusing to give him oxygen. The more free-wheeling town hall format (and Trump's incessant interruptions) seemed to nudge her towards feeding the troll Trump, and not to her benefit. Finally, it has to be said that Trump's last answer ("say one nice thing about your opponent") was actually, genuinely, not-grading-on-a-curve excellent.

But still, the absolute best you could say for Trump was this was a draw (CNN's instant poll gave Clinton a solid victory, YouGov gave her a narrower win). And a draw isn't going to cut it for a candidate who is falling behind and whose  campaign is floundering.

So right now, I'm less focused on the horse race aspects, and more on where we are as a nation. Ezra Klein got it right a few days ago:
But the question isn’t whether Trump has any decency. We’ve known for some time that he doesn’t. The question is whether we have any decency — whether we will elect this man, or even come close to electing this man, knowing all we know about him.
What's sad about tonight is the way it represents such a retrogression for our nation. The world is changing at a breakneck pace, and with these changes come new and novel concerns. The problems that have emerged -- getting universal health care for everyone, ensuring that equality is true in practice as well as creed, overcoming unprecedented environmental hazards that threaten our entire ecosystem (just to name a few) -- are both difficult but also solvable if we put our heads down and work on them. Yet what the Trump candidacy has shown -- even if he loses -- is that we're still stuck on the basics. "Do we jail our political opponents?" "Do we brag about our ability to assault women?" "Do we impose flat bans on entire religious groups?" This is all 101-level material, and yet this is what we are spending our political efforts on.

America deserves better than this. But we're not going to get it, not because Hillary Clinton isn't qualified to tackle these issues -- she absolutely is -- but because Trump has dragged us back from a mature democracy to a faltering, barely functioning one. And that is truly unforgivable.

(See my reaction to the first debate here)

To the Edge Roundup

Yesterday, I did the unthinkable. I not only left Google Chrome, I left it for a Microsoft browser (Edge). Chrome had basically stopped running Facebook and Twitter, and so far so good on Edge (though it seems to have trouble with Berkeley's proxy server).

Anyway, the high holidays and related travel kept me off the blog for awhile, so I have quite a few things to clear off the ol' browser.

* * *

Yaacov Lozowick remarks on his Israeli Orthodox shul's experience with a newly-hired female Rabbi. It is fascinating reading.

Venezuela creates the "Hugo Chavez Prize for Peace and Sovereignty", awards it to Vladimir Putin. I think I can honestly say that there's no more deserving recipient.

This is a stellar, stellar piece by Brown undergraduate Benjamin Gladstone on the links between anti-Zionism and anti-Semitism. It really deserves more than "roundup" status on this blog, but I find myself without much more to say on it other than "read it".

An Israeli lawmaker for Kulanu is pregnant through IVF ... and the father is her gay best friend (I could write headlines for US Weekly)! And best news of all -- her colleagues and her country seem to support her regardless of whether they fall on the ideological spectrum.

There's a controversy burbling in some corners of the conservative "academic watchdog" (for lack of a better term) community regarding off-color remarks by Yale Philosopher Jason Stanley, and he's issued a response to that controversy that I found exceptionally thoughtful and perceptive.

One of the most important skills to develop as an academic is the ability to read things you disagree with and nonetheless recognize how they can be insightful, nuanced, and perceptive. Since Zionism and "settler-colonialism" is in the news (see my extensive remarks here), I thought I'd give a recommendation to one such paper I just read: "When Does a Settler Become a Native? (With Apologies to Mamdani)" by Tel Aviv University scholar Raef Zriek. It's a very interesting paper, even though I don't find all the analysis compelling (and I've communicated to the author that his argument would greatly benefit from engaging with the Mizrahi case).