Saturday, December 17, 2016

The Real Problem the Right Has With J Street (It's Exactly What You Think)

Perhaps the most grotesque part of David Friedman's record regarding Israel was when he referred to J Streeters as "far worse than Kapos" -- Jews who collaborated with Nazis during the Holocaust.

In a post titled "The Real Problem with J Street" (twitter teased with "it's not what people think") the right-wing pro-Israel blog "Israelly Cool" more or less endorses the attack, writing that while Kapos were "forced" to betray their coreligionists, "J Street turned against its own people all by themselves. They didn’t need Nazis pointing guns to their heads to do that." I've said what needs to be said on that bit of viciousness, and won't rehash.

But they also contend that the reason Friedman and others dislike J Street actually has nothing to do with its advocacy for a two-state solution.
Let’s be real guys, J street isn’t about two states. Friedman would not have called them that if they were just a bunch of liberal Jews fighting for a two state solution. Heck, the Likud does not oppose two states. I don’t see Friedman having problems with them. I wouldn’t be against J Street if all they were about was advocating a two-state solution.
So what is it? Well, we're told, the problem is that J Street is nothing but a scold. It never praises Israel when it does things well.  It never backs Israel up when it's under attack. All it does is nag, nag, nag.
J Street is that snitch who screams about all your wrongdoings to not only your parents but also your aunts, uncles, cousins, your hairdresser, your manicurist, your dogsitter, your straight edge friend whom you know might judge you, and even that cute frum guy from shul who you’ve been trying to attract for the last few months. 
When you do right J Street is quiet. You get an A on an exam in a class you’ve been failing? Quiet. You defend a kid at school who is being bullied? Silence. You win a medal for citizenship? Silence. You sneeze the wrong way and you get a 2-hour lecture.
“You can never learn from praise, only criticism can make you better, so praise is pointless.”
That’s J Street’s motto. It was also something my mother said to me several years ago when I asked her why she never praised me, and then she apologized and changed her ways and now she’s great. J Street has no plans to apologize anytime soon. Actually everything is Israel’s fault.
I've never been a member of J Street. But I've seen them attacked this way a lot.* And it's untrue. Obviously, transparently, easily-proven-to-be untrue. As a public service, below is a small list of recent occasions where J Street praised, defended, or otherwise backed Israel:
August 23, 2016: J Street Condemns Fatah Boast of Murdering Israelis.

September 13, 2016: J Street Welcomes US-Israel Memorandum of Understanding [securing $3.8 billion of annual US aid to Israel].

October 9, 2016: J Street Saddened and Outraged by Jerusalem Terror Attack.

October 13, 2016: Resolution Adopted by UNESCO Member States Shows Contempt for Jewish People's Ties to the Temple Mount.

Oct. 26, 2016: Authorization of New Palestinian Construction in West Bank is Welcome Step; Must be Followed with Further Action.

Nov. 25, 2016: J Street Stands with Victims of Fires in Israel and West Bank.
Of course, this is not all that J Street does (nor should it be all J Street does). But it does falsify the argument from a certain class of J Street critics that their objections have nothing to do with J Street's policy ambitions and are simply due to the organization being "silent" any time Israel does something good or needs legitimate aid. When Israel does praiseworthy things, J Street praises it. When it needs backing, J Street urges it. These are mixed in -- as they should be -- with criticism when Israel does critique-worthy things, and pressure when Israel needs pressure to do things.

So why do people pretend that their problem with J Street is something that it isn't? Earlier this month  on Twitter, I wrote the following:
That is the rub. The right's problem with J Street isn't that their criticisms are illegitimate. The right's problem with J Street is that's its criticisms are, by and large, entirely fair play. And thus they sting. And to alleviate that sting it is easier to project them into a different class of critic -- one that does exist! -- who only levels ridiculous, outrageous, one-sided attacks on Israel and does nothing else, than it is to grapple with the hard, jarring, disorienting thought that they might well have a point that needs attending to.

In short, the real problem the right has with J Street is exactly what you think it is: They don't like that J Street makes them think difficult thoughts about Israel. Nothing more. Nothing less.

* Well, not the mommy issues part. That one's new.

Thursday, December 15, 2016

Do You Think Many Jews are Nazi Collaborators? The Trump Admin's Got a Post For You!

Early in the Trump transition phase, it looked as if Mike Huckabee would be appointed Ambassador to Israel. Huckabee had recently accused Jews of plotting false flag hate crime hoaxes to frame Donald Trump supporters; he also has a bit of a history of tossing out casual Holocaust comparisons and then getting really angry when Jews cry foul.

But Huckabee will not be our Ambassador. Instead, Trump has tapped close adviser David Friedman for the role. Friedman has called Barack Obama an "anti-Semite" and contended that J Streeters are "far worse than Kapos." He also asserted, in the course of advocating "allegiance" standards for Israel's Muslim citizens, that "In the United States, advocating to overthrow the government by force or violence can get you life in prison" (No, it can't). And of course, he's an opponent of the two-state solution.

It's a little unnerving that the thing Trump looks for in an Israel Ambassador is a propensity to frivolously toss out Nazi comparisons. It's almost like he won't actually be a real friend in the White House. Imagine that.

So let's go back to that little bit where Friedman unfavorably compared a significant swath of the Jewish community to Nazi collaborators. Remember last week, when the Senate passed the Anti-Semitism Awareness Act 97-0 (it was really controversial)? The ASAA incorporates a definition of anti-Semitism which, among other things, considers Israel/Nazi comparisons anti-Semitic. Surely, the spirit of the law also includes other comparisons of Jewish institutions to Nazis or their collaborators, yes?

The ASAA does not contain an "unless you're a right-winger" carve out. Once again, there's an opportunity for Jewish organizations to demonstrate that they're unafraid to call out anti-Semitic rhetoric when it emerges from the right. One does not have to be a J Street member or even a fan to think that comparing them to "Kapos" is grotesque and marginalizing, and should be (what's the word I'm looking for? Help me out, ADL) disqualifying for any administration post -- much less one deeply symbolic for America's Jewish population.

In fact, I hereby pledge to donate to the first Senator who announces their opposition to Friedman by citing their vote for the ASAA. I am 100% serious. It does absolutely no good for the Senate to announce it takes anti-Semitism seriously, than immediately confirm someone who flouts the spirit of the standard they just articulated. Just as Democrats have an obligation to tackle anti-Semitism amongst their allies, it's time that Republicans take seriously anti-Semitism within their own ranks.

UPDATE: An adapted version of this post is now up at Ha'aretz.

Requiem for a Wolverine

One of the things my American Politics students recently learned was the importance of heuristics: cognitive shortcuts we use to come to political conclusions in absence of fully researching and thinking through the issue ourselves. Endorsements are a very prominent heuristic: if I'm a liberal, and I know that such-and-such policy is supported by Barack Obama, I can have some (not total) confidence that it's a policy I'd like. If I'm a conservative, the reverse is true; I'd be more keen on a Paul Ryan endorsement.

So everyone uses heuristics, and furthermore everyone has a tendency to fall in line with their "side". That said, a functioning democracy does require some measure of independent judgment. If we simply blindly follow our party leader d'jour in a complete inversion of our prior political positions, that doesn't speak well of our ideological principles. This goes double in cases where the relevant dispute is not particularly technical -- say, disliking autocratic strongmen who are significant rivals to American international power.

With that said: The change in Vladimir Putin's American favorability over the past few months is nothing short of incredible.

Let's just parse that for a moment. Democrats went from a net -54 favorability rating to a net -62 favorability rating. I think it's fair to attribute that drop to the Putin/Trump bromance and Russia's alleged involvement in the recent election -- aka, a heuristic. The net result was that Democrats went from overwhelmingly disliking Putin to somewhat more overwhelmingly disliking Putin.

Among Republicans, Putin went from a -66 point approval rating to -10 -- close to break-even. That is nothing short of shocking. An eight point move is not all that unreasonable taking the aforementioned heuristic effect into account. A fifty-six point swing suggests that there is nothing going on here but (a) pure partisan glee that foreign political interference benefited Republicans and (b) blind following of Trump.

It is a complete and utter abdication of any principles. Paul Mirengoff tries to put the best spin possible on this, but his ultimate conclusion is correct:
Party rank-and-file should take the views of their president, or president-elect, seriously. When they conflict with one’s own view, it isn’t wrong to take a second look.  

But one can look at Vladimir Putin twenty times and the view should be the same. He is a thug, a butcher, an aggressive, serial destabilizer, and an ally of Iran.
And he's also surging in popularity among the American right. This is a sickness, and it's a sickness the right will have to cure itself.

(Some background on the reference)

Wednesday, December 14, 2016

Indivisible: The Rise of the Constitutional Caucus

This document is "Indivisible: A Practical Guide for Resisting the Trump Agenda." It was coauthored by a friend of mine and some fellow ex-congressional staffers as a how-to for exerting leverage on your members of Congress during the Trump administration. It's drawn directly from the hard lessons they learned enduring the Tea Party wave in response to Obama's election. It's very good: exactly the sort of realistic, practical, no-nonsense advice progressives need right now.  Read it, digest it, circulate it, live it.

To repeat if I wasn't clear: I highly recommend it, and I highly recommend you distribute it. That all goes double for those of you in even vaguely (and "vaguely" here is defined as broad as possible) competitive states and districts. It is far more important that you read it than you read the short addendum I put out below.

* * *

Okay, now my far less valuable two cents. The above document is focused particularly on how to interact with one's own Congressperson -- a very worthy aim. I have two minor additions of my own that are mostly beyond the scope of the document, but I think supplement its advice nicely.

First, the Tea Party was successful in large part because it really transformed Republican politics on the local level. That meant getting its people onto school boards, county councils, and state assembly seats. These sorts of low-information, low-turnout elections are precisely where a small group of motivated individuals can make an outsized impact. They offer the opportunity to acculturate people into voting Blue. And they build up a Democratic bench for later on.

Second, names matter -- and the Tea Party was a great one. One reason it was excellent is that it evoked a classic protest moment in American history. Another was because nominally, it was not affiliated with a particular party. Obviously, in practice it was -- it operated as a faction and arm of the Republican Party. But I think it would have been far less successful had its name including "Republican" in it -- they weren't the Republican Party, they were the Tea Party! Much of its appeal was precisely to persons who styled themselves as independents (even if that's mostly a special-snowflake syndrome) fed up with party politics but who thirsted for an alternative avenue to participate in politics. One certainly can see a similar instinct among liberals in the Sanders crowd -- many very much liked that he was not technically a "Democrat" but an "Independent". Particularly for persons who have a dim view of politics generally but are attracted to a strong populist message (like many Sanders voters were), not branding oneself as a "Democratic" organization probably is a good idea.

Like the Tea Party, it would be great if there was a national label identifying the resistance movement being generated here. The document authors are fond of the name "Indivisible", and while I like it too, it's a bit abstract to be used as a group descriptor ("We're the Indivisibles" is a little harder to grasp than "We're the Tea Party"). Like the Tea Party, one wants a name that evokes a unifying element of American history that also resonates with the values we are seeking to defend and which Donald Trump clearly places under threat.

So my working recommendation for a unifying name is the "Constitutional Caucus". We are Americans from across every corner of the nation, united in common cause to defend the values and principles of constitutional law and liberty that today are graver peril than they've been in my lifetime.

Welcome to the Caucus. There's work to be done.

Levy's Defense of Identity Politics

Jacob Levy has a truly phenomenal essay providing an old-school liberal defense of identity politics. I really cannot recommend it highly enough. He notes, accurately, that virtually all of the "identity politics are Why Trump Won" commentators are persons who hated identity politics before the election; making their current diagnoses more than a little suspect. He also notes that making sweeping judgments based on 80,000 votes in three rust belt swing states is a precarious thing. But his most important contribution is on offense. Here's a taste.
If you think—as I think any liberal who cares about liberty, whether classical, market, neo-, welfarist, Rawlsian, or whatever, must—that the combination of mass incarceration and aggressive policing amounts to a grave injustice, then you need to be able to think in race-conscious terms. What brought about this crisis? The war on drugs and police militarization, some readers will say. Okay, but what brought about the war on drugs and police militarization? The answer isn’t some simple intellectual mistake. The answer is deeply tied up in American racial politics.
The disproportionate impact of mass incarceration and aggressive policing on African-Americans isn’t some unfortunate side-effect of well-intentioned policies. The politics of drug prohibition, the war on drugs, and the subsequent expansions of police power and imprisonment were never racially innocent to begin with, and it is no accident that Nixon launched the War on Drugs when the ink was barely dry on the formal end of Jim Crow segregation and disenfranchisement.
As has so often happened in American history, state power expanded in order to persuade white voters that blacks were being kept under control. The appropriation of the language of freedom and anti-statism by those seeking to defend state-level racial tyrannies in the south fools more people than it should, but illiberal state power has far more often been caused by white racism than resisted by it. To think otherwise, one has to think that police and prisons don’t count as instances of state power at all.
Let’s return to [identity politics critic Mark] Lilla:
The moral energy surrounding identity has, of course, had many good effects. Affirmative action has reshaped and improved corporate life. Black Lives Matter has delivered a wake-up call to every American with a conscience. Hollywood’s efforts to normalize homosexuality in our popular culture helped to normalize it in American families and public life.
On the other side of the scale, he puts… the demands on college campuses to allow students to identify the gendered or non-gendered pronouns by which they wish to be addressed. Treating these as comparable in magnitude suggests a deep failure of perspective.
Black Lives Matter has provided the first truly large-scale political mobilization against police violence and mass incarceration since the War on Drugs began. It’s perfectly true that many liberal (very much including libertarian) scholars and analysts have been calling for reform of police practices, an end to police militarization and civil forfeiture abuse, respect for civil liberties, and drug decriminalization or legalization for a long time. It’s true that it’s possible to offer those analyses in a race-neutral way. But given that the policies aren’t race-neutral, it shouldn’t surprise us that opposition to them isn’t either, and that the real political energy for mobilizing against them would be race-conscious energy.
Again, read the whole thing.

Tuesday, December 13, 2016

La Foule, C'est Moi, Part II

Mob rule, 2015: A Tea Partying GOP Congressman, seeking to head off charges of RINO because he supported (of all people) Paul Ryan for Speaker, declares "I’m the guy with the pitchfork."

Mob rule, 2016: David Clarke, Sheriff of Milwaukee County and potential Trump pick for Secretary of Homeland Security, rallies a crowd against Trump/Pence opponents by asking "Do you have the pitchforks and torches ready?"

The mob is the state.

Needing a True Friend in the White House, Part II

In December of 2008, at the close of Obama's first year in office, I wrote on how he represented a true friend of Israel in the White House. Being a true friend is very different being a sycophant; as I put it then, "Part of being a good ally means knowing when to take your friend aside and tell them to chill."

Democrats have this relationship with Israel because Jews are a prominent and valued presence in the Party, and so our Party's Israel relationship develops out of genuine concern rather than empty rhetorical flourishes and grandiose symbolic posturing.

I was reflecting on this because I think Jewish pro-Israel conservatives are going to learn a hard lesson about what sort of "friend" they have in the White House right now. Because Republican policy towards Israel isn't based on any sort of organic care or concern. They don't care about Israel qua Israel, at most they care about it as a symbolic bulwark against dark Muslim hordes; at least they care about it simply as a domestic partisan wedge issue. And this means that Republican policy towards Israel is predictably skewed towards grand rhetorical pronouncements and against thought-out and considered policy agendas. More importantly, to the extent that Israel is purely a rhetorical concern of Republican leaders, it will always lose out to things they are concerned about on substance -- and Israel's Mideast rivals have a lot of substantive things to offer a fossil-fuel hungry Trump administration.

We're already seeing a little of this with the floating of Rex Tillerson -- deeply connected to Arab oil states and (of course) the Russian government -- as Secretary of State. Many right-wing Jewish groups are nervous -- persons with Tillerson's profile rarely are particularly fond of Israel, which they see as a barrier to increased friendly  relations with Gulf oil producers. There was also some pushback against James Mattis as Secretary of Defense, who complained of the "price" Americans paid in terms of their Middle East support for backing Israel and forthrightly acknowledged that if Israel does not find a way to disengage from the West Bank "Either it ceases to be a Jewish state or you say the Arabs don’t get to vote — apartheid" (aside -- can you imagine if a prominent Democratic official said half as much? I bet Keith Ellison can.). In both cases, it's demonstrative of the deprioritization of even conservative pro-Israel politics in the Trump administrative. He'll pay good lip service, but it isn't actually an important concern for him.

What we can expect from Trump regarding Israel is simple: For the most part, he'll ignore them and let them run free. There will be no "telling them to chill," because for the most part Trump won't give two hoots about what Israel does. Some people will term this being an ally. Those people are simpletons.

In terms of actual policy, we'll see things that have high rhetorical impact (moving the Embassy to Jerusalem) but do little in the way of actual materially altering Israel's regional or international standing. And, most importantly, when genuine Israeli interests knock up against other American priorities -- like, say, Saudi oil -- they'll get kicked to the curb. Because Donald Trump isn't actually a friend of Israel. Friends care. And Donald Trump doesn't.

Monday, December 12, 2016

David's Multimedia Blitz Reviews

I've been consuming a variety of media over the past few weeks. Here are assorted thoughts on them(potentially mild spoilers).

Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them
  • Entertaining -- not mindblowing, but I didn't expect it to be.
  • Hard to keep track of all the different beasts, which seemed to enter and exit the story at will.
  • Speaking of, what was up with the other son of the newspaper magnate? That storyline seemed to get dropped, hard.
  • I know that "scrappy investigator is pushed aside by superiors, keeps up her work, is vindicated in the end" is a classic storyline. And I know that the "vindicated in the end" part is supposed to heal all wounds. But was it just me, or was the President of the American wizarding community kind of an unredeemed bitch throughout?
Civilization VI
  • Definitely some improvements to the classic formula.
  • Still ends up feeling mighty repetitive; a lot of turns of just hitting "enter" and waiting for everyone else to go.
  • There is something undeniably delightful about declaring a colonial war on England, though.
  • A very good show that thinks it's great. That's less of an insult than it seems--maybe if it didn't aspire to be great, it wouldn't even be very good.
  • I keep on saying "The Dollhouse vibe is obvious, but there's also a definitive streak of Portal 2." This, I fear, vastly overestimates the number of people who watched Dollhouse (though you should!).
  • I know that we're supposed to view Felix and (by the end) Ford as the good guys, but in the midst of our fuzzies let's not forget they may have set off an extinction-level event for humanity.
  • Best season of this show in awhile (which I continue to think is one of the best on television, period).
  • The show has always been pretty explicit about Lip's natural gifts. But it has more subtly been consistent about Fiona having a real knack for business and sales as well. She makes some bad self-sabotaging decisions, of course, but it's not out-of-nowhere that she has real skills too.
  • I'm going to miss Svetlana as an integral part of the cast.
  • Getting too formulaic.
Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.
  • Getting too convoluted.
Rayman Legends
  • Awesome side-scrolling platformers never go out of style.
Brooklyn Nine-Nine
  • Still the funniest show on television right now.
  • Stephanie Beatriz could order me to kill a man and I'd probably do it if she smiled at me.
The Good Place
  • Kristen Bell stars as a woman who was an asshole in life but accidentally makes it into "The Good Place" after death. I like to think of this as the direct sequel to House of Lies.
  • D'Arcy Carden is a treasure as Janet. It even makes me forgive her name being "D'Arcy" (which would be bad enough if she was born with it, but no, she changed it from "Darcy". By all rights everyone should hate her).

Sunday, December 11, 2016

Pre-Examinations Roundup

My Intro to American Politics students have their final exam tomorrow. They grow up so fast! Also, if you're thinking "what an interesting time to teach American Politics!" -- you're right.

* * *

Great piece by MaNishtana on the reaction to Trump's election from Latino Jews.

Honestly, this profile on the ADL in Trump's America is pretty dreadful. Seeking reactions on the ADL's stern stance on Steve Bannon, it talks to the whole spectrum of the Jewish community, ranging from those who think the ADL is making an honest mistake to those who think it's making a regular mistake. Missing are those who think it can stand to show even sterner stuff in standing up to the resurgent right. Also: "Greenblatt’s outspokenness put him in something of an awkward position in a community where, after all, almost a third of Jews who voted cast a ballot for Trump." If by "almost a third" you mean "less than a quarter", then sure. And somehow, nobody thinks it's "awkward" when Wyoming's representatives actually profess the views held by most Wyoming denizens.

The headline is overwrought, but the fact that anyone thought it was a good idea to feature neo-Nazis in a Cadillac ad is worrisome.

A BDS backer ran for President of the UK's Union of Jewish Students. He got annihilated (article doesn't give the full vote breakdown, but he came in third with less than 10% of the vote). BDS isn't popular amongst millennial Jews either.

Sigal Samuel has a great contribution -- from a Mizrahi perspective -- on the great "are Jews White in Trump's America" debate.

Also on the Mizrahi beat, great to see Loolwa Khazzoom's name back in print.

I actually think there are a lot of good insights from Abe Foxman about where the American Jewish community is headed over the next few years. One thing I absolutely agree with is that -- fairly or not -- the greatest risk of rupture between the American Jewish community and Israel is if Israel keeps on showing contempt towards non-Orthodox Jewish streams.

Updates on the Ryerson University walkout to block a Holocaust Memorial resolution: Here is a Jewish student who attended the meeting, and here is a news story on some administrative reactions to the events.

Richard Jeffrey Newman on Jews, Whiteness, and Blackness

My friend Richard Jeffrey Newman has written an extraordinary meditation on anti-Semitism, Whiteness, and race. Titled "The Lines That Antisemitism and Racism Draw: Reflections on White Jewish Intersectionality",* it was first published on Unlikely Stories as a sort-of-but-not-quite entry on their #BlackArtMatters (the "sort of" bit is a story in itself, explained in the introduction).

It truly is an exceptional piece of work -- thoughtful, heart-felt, nuanced, provocative -- that I cannot recommend highly enough. And, rarer for me, I don't really have any parts that I can justly excerpt or even comment on in a way that adds to the original -- at least for the moment. I do expect that they will significantly inform my thinking on this cluster of issues going forward. For now, all I can say is read it.

* The above link has the letters on separate pages; this link provides all of them on one.

UPDATE: Richard gives some more background on the project here.