Saturday, April 15, 2017

Goys Tell Jews How To Fix Passover

When I first started reading this story about a "Passover Against Apartheid" event at Canada's Concordia University, I figured it was about an anti-Zionist Jewish group doing an alternative seder that emphasized various left/liberatory themes and de-emphasizes/degrades Jewish connections to Israel (my understanding is that Jewish Voice for Peace publishes a haggadah for precisely this purpose). And while I'm obviously no fan of such activity on the substance, procedurally speaking I'd have no objection. Jews-not-me are allowed to practice Jewishness in ways I don't like or approve of; the fact that they take a message from Passover that I find distasteful is their prerogative.

But it turns out that the folks reinterpreting Passover as a critique of "Israel's apartheid state" and suggesting alternatives to "Next Year in Jerusalem" were not exactly who I thought:
“Passover Against Apartheid” - put together by the Concordia Student Union, the Fine Arts Student Alliance and Solidarity for Palestinian Human Rights groups - included sponsorship from no Jewish organizations.
So basically, this was a bunch of non-Jews coming in to explain Jews how to do Passover right. Indeed, the manner in which the flyers were distributed suggests that they wanted to avoid substantive Jewish presence at all.  And that I think I am justified in finding extra-special gross.

The term that's being used in a lot of the stuff I'm reading on this is "cultural appropriation", and while for me that concept has quite a bit of baggage (see here for a bit on why) I wouldn't necessarily object to its deployment here. That said, I'd rather just talk of it as part of a perceived entitlement by non-Jews to dictate to Jews the contours of our identity, culture, practices and beliefs. We saw similar behavior out of the Church of Scotland a few years ago, and from the UK's Methodist Church a few years before that. It is among the most central elements of what might be called global antisemitic patrimony: the authority, indeed the right, held by non-Jews to define the Jew. This entitlement, borne initially out of Christian and Muslim domination of Jewish bodies, is deeply embedded into modernity -- hence why it is seen as an entitlement, something non-Jews are simply owed, something that counts as an outrageous loss when it is challenged or stripped.
For thousands of years, for much of the world, part of the cultural patrimony enjoyed by all non-Jews—spiritual and secular, Church and Mosque, enlightenment and romantic, European and Middle Eastern—was the unquestionable right to stand superior over Jews. It was that right which the Holocaust took away, or at least called into question: the unthinking faith of knowing you were the more enlightened one, the spiritually purer one, the more rational one, the dispenser of morality rather than the object of it. To be sure, some people were better positioned to enjoy this right than others. And some people arrived onto the scene late in the game, only to discover that part of the bounty they were promised may no longer be on the table. Of course they’re aggrieved! The European immigrant who never owned a slave but was at least promised racial superiority is quite resentful when the wages of Whiteness stop being what they once were. Similarly, persons who lived far from the centers of Christian or Muslim power where Jewish subordination was forged are nonetheless well aware of what was supposed to be included in modernity’s gift basket. They recognize what they’ve “lost” as acutely as anyone else.
“The Germans,” the old saying goes, “will never forgive the Jews for Auschwitz.” And not just the Germans. Many people deeply resent the Jews for what Auschwitz took away from them—the easy knowledge that their vantage point was elevated over and superior to that of the Jews, the entitlement to be able to talk about Jews without having to listen to Jews.
This is what is happening at Concordia. It is yet another manifestation of  the "willful refusal on the part of the global left to adopt any other position other than teacher/master to Jewish servant/children. To borrow from George Yancy, they 'admit[] of no ignorance vis-à-vis the [Jew]. Hence, there is no need for ... silence, a moment of quietude that encourages listening to the [Jew].'" It is a practice and behavior that is pervasive, is systemic, and is antisemitic root-to-branch. It needs to be rooted out.

Friday, April 14, 2017

Good Shoes Might Save You This Time

This is a very interesting article by McMillan Cottom explaining why poor people seem to "waste" money buying certain luxury goods (especially clothes). Cottom, whose family experienced multigenerational poverty, explains that such purchases can serve important signaling functions that -- sometimes -- facilitate successful navigation of institutions which might allow for upward mobility. The parent who "looks" middle-class (and therefore looks like she knows how to raise a stink) might be more successful at insuring her school doesn't overlook the needs of her child. The job applicant who "looks" professional (and how often have we all gotten the advice of how important professional appearances are!) might be more likely to be picked out for a higher-status job with greater benefits. Even the supplicant seeking public benefits who "looks" like she knows how to navigate the bureaucratic maze may be more likely to get favorable attention from the various officials and functionaries whose discretionary judgment can make or break a case.

The essay is a useful corrective to the instinct of many to assume the irrationality of the poor -- particularly when they make choices that at first blush make no sense to us (the infamous "If I Were a Poor Black Kid"  essay is a classic of the genre). Very frequently, choices that seem "bad" from the outside have a logic to them -- albeit often a logic born out of coercion and impossible choices -- that makes them quite sensible to persons actually living in the relevant circumstances. It's easy to say "joining a gang is a bad choice." It's harder to say that if not joining a gang means that the gang will gang-rape your sister, or beat you bloody every day before school. It's easy to say "the quick money from dealing drugs isn't worth the long-term consequences of ruining your future." It's harder to say that if your discounted utility is such that you can say "I might not live to be grown up. My life wasn't promised to me."

Put another way, if people aren't making what we deem to be good, pro-social choices, we can conclude either:
  1. They have malsocial preferences (they're "bad people" who don't have a good set of ends);
  2. They're irrational (their choices don't lead to their desired ends); or
  3. The incentive structures are wrong (their rational choices, in pursuit of reasonable ends, nonetheless don't yield pro-social results).
Frequently, we rush to explanations #1 and #2 -- ones which pathologize the poor (and other outgroups). But explanation #3 will frequently be more plausible (not to mention less degrading). And essays like this, which disturb the idea that poor people are simply stupid or diseased, can help point us towards other interventions that view the poor as we view ourselves -- as generally good, rational people who want a basically decent life and are trying as best they can, within the limits of their resources, to secure those ends.

Wednesday, April 12, 2017

Tomorrow's Predictable Punditry, Today

In a surprise announcement, former Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has thrown his hat in the ring to try and secure his old job. He will likely be running against incumbent President Hassan Rouhani, who brokered the Iran Deal with the US and is perceived as a moderate in comparison to the hardline Ahmadinejad.

Just to save everyone time, allow me to give you an advance copy of the various partisan pundits' takes on the outcome of this election:

If Ahmadinejad loses:

Republicans: "Now that America has gotten tough under Trump, hostile nations like Iran know better than to cross the US!"

Democrats: "Turns out that when you negotiate with a country rather than insist on it being an eternal international pariah, you decrease the appeal of the nation's extremist faction. Fancy that."

If Ahmadinejad wins:

Republicans: "I thought the Iran Deal was supposed to moderate Iran? Thanks Obama!"

Democrats: "Wow, you mean aggressive Islamophobia and saber-rattling by Donald Trump ends up emboldening radical forces in the Middle East? Who could have known?"

Monday, April 10, 2017

Syrian Kids Are Good Enough To Kill For, Not Good Enough To Save

On Syria, I have for the last several years stuck to the position that (a) it's an incredibly complicated and delicate situation with many moving parts that (b) doesn't admit to easy or obvious answers. During the Obama administration, I observed that many Republicans seemed to deal with this difficulty by waiting for Obama to tip his hand as to what he would do, so they could immediately and fervently advocate the opposite. This being a bad way to come to one's policy beliefs, I decided I would refrain from making sweeping pronouncements favoring or denouncing either interventionist or non-interventionist activities.

That logic continues to hold with respect to the recent airstrike launched by the Trump administration, done in response to a horrifying chemical weapon attack perpetuated by the Assad regime that yielded some ghastly images of dead or wounded Syrian men, women, and children. I don't think it is something that should evoke strong feelings -- if for no other reason than it was virtually entirely symbolic (the targeted airfield quickly was restored to operational status). In terms of actual, tangible policy towards Syria, the main differences between Trump and Obama can expressed succinctly as follows:
Trump would rather Syrian children die in Syria than survive in the US.
That's all. I suppose you could also say that Trump's wildly oscillating views on whether Assad should stay or go count as a "difference", and it doesn't strike me as implausible that the Trump administration publicly declaring that we no longer wanted Assad out is what emboldened the dictator to launch his chemical strike.

But really, this is the main difference. Syria is a complex, difficult situation, but what's incontestable is that it is producing a refugee population which wants nothing more than to escape the horrifying violence in Syria. The Obama administration wanted to rescue those civilians. The Trump administration insists that they stay in Syria and die. That's the function of the refugee ban. That's Trump's signature policy vis-a-vis Syria. Not a few rockets from a Navy destroyer.

Anyone who is chest-puffing about the toughness of Trump re: Syria who isn't appalled by the refugee ban gets a first-class ticket to my list of people whom I have no interest in listening to on Syria.

That was the main point I wanted to make, but briefly I also want to discuss concerns over the lack of explicit congressional authorization for the strike. The lack of congressional authorization is what deterred Obama from attacking Assad directly, though he did launch airstrikes targeting ISIS in Syria on a regular basis, and in any event Obama previously had attacked Libya without authorization (misgivings over the results of that action no doubt acted to stay Obama's hands when Syria proceeded to flare up). While I'm not opposed to congressional authorization requirements per se, the fact is that Congress virtually never presses the issue and it's therefore been a non-issue for every presidential administration in my lifetime -- used almost exclusively as one-off partisan attacks. Congress, indeed, seems very much to prefer not having the responsibility for authorizing military force rest on its shoulders -- the same voices crowing about how Trump is strong and Obama is weak seemed utterly uninterested in actually getting the Republican Congress to actually commit to voting to endorse such actions.

So I can't bring myself to care about the lack of congressional authorization either way. Presidents of all parties and stripes take actions like this regularly, it is not worse nor better when President Trump does it. Ditto international law issues, where (as Julien Ku wryly observes) everyone thinks the attack on Syria was illegal except for virtually all the governments in the world.

Sunday, April 09, 2017

Is This a Bit?

Reza Aslan says he's "worried about Israel's future" because of the growing numbers of Haredi Jews. The article (which apparently is a version of a segment he's presenting on CNN's "Believer"), notes the high birth rates of ultra-Orthodox Jews in Israel and suggests that they will do unto Israel what political Islamists did to Iran in the late 1970s.

I have to say, though, I don't think the objective of this piece is to express deep concerns about Israel. I don't even think it's to make genuine observations about Haredi Jewry. Rather, this pieces reads to me like Aslan wanted to do something of a bit: taking well-worn tropes about how people talk about Muslims, Islam, and Islamism, and applying them to Jews.

I'm not a huge fan of this sort of writing, particularly when (as here) it isn't clearly satirical. Indeed, if anything the problem is that it's too earnest -- it speaks in a way that seems to be less about showing the absurdity of certain ways we talk about Muslims, and more in a way that seeks to (further) legitimate talking that way of talking about Jews. Overall, the presentation is done in such a way as to otherize and (dare I say) orientalize religious Jewry. Take the following passage:
[A]ccording to the Pew Research Center, a staggering 86% of ultra-Orthodox Jews want Israel to be a theocratic state governed by Jewish law, known as "halakha."
If the way he's talking about "halakha" sounds exactly like how countless articles talk about "sharia law", it should, because it does. If it makes you cringe to hear halakha presented as simply a force of backwards inegalitarian theocracy then every article which talks about sharia in the same way should make you cringe; and if you cringe at articles which portray sharia as univocally representing the most reactionary and anti-modernist forms of Islam then you should cringe at this piece as well.

To be clear: there are things to be worried about regarding growing Haredi influence in Israel. Their politics aren't mine, and they openly discriminate and subordinate Jews like myself and my partner. Judaism, like Islam, is as it does, and so we as Jews have an obligation to act out Jewishness in ways that are consistent with ethical commitments and to resist those wings of Judaism that are inconsistent with modern, egalitarian forms of life. At the same time, in a world beset by horrible stereotypes of what it means to be Jewish (or Muslim), it should not offend us that these are delicate conversations that need to be handled with considerable grace and care. Broad-brush strokes which seek to delegitimize huge swaths of the faith community en masse are inappropriate, do more harm than good, and often seem more motivated by exclusionary impulses than genuine efforts to facilitate inclusion.