Friday, June 09, 2017

Jewish Thoughts on the UK Election

If ever I had sympathy for the plight of "Never Trump" Republicans, it was watching the UK election returns.

Being a progressive, my politics generally align far more with Labour than they would with the Tories. And that would be even without the Conservatives' disastrous embrace of Brexit. Yet like most Jews, I deeply, deeply mistrust Jeremy Corbyn. The last polls of the Jewish vote suggest that only thirteen percent were planning to vote Labour this cycle -- the same proportion, incidentally, as that of Muslims voting for Trump. And even if one thinks that stopping a hard Brexit is the single most important item on the UK agenda -- and I think that's plausible -- the fact that Corbyn himself is at best soft on the issue means that I couldn't even get enthusiastic on that issue.

That said. UK voters don't vote directly for their Prime Minister -- just their local MP. And my sense is that Jewish voters tend to like their MPs (Labour or Conservative) just fine. While several articles in the Jewish press are noting how Labour underperformed in several "bagel belt" districts where anti-Corbyn antipathy might have have saved a few marginal Tory seats, I think it's easy to overstate that story. For starters, for every seat where Corbyn was hurt by the perception that he was tolerant of antisemitism, there may have been another where he was bolstered by the perception that he was standing up to the overbearing Zionists.

But more broadly, I think it's almost certainly true that most people just didn't care about the antisemitism issue. And while that's sobering, it also means that Jewish MPs and their allies actually tended to do fine. Labour critics of Corbynista antisemitism -- like Luciana Berger, Louise Ellman, and Ruth Smeeth -- rode the Labour wave as much as anyone else did. Non-Jewish MPs known for their good relations with the Jewish community likewise saw their margins shoot up as well -- these include Tulip Siddiq, Wes Streeting, and Naz Shah.

Nonetheless, we shouldn't deflect. One of the critical lessons of Donald Trump's success is that all of his supposedly "beyond the pale" characteristics -- the racism, the authoritarianism, the anti-intellectualism -- none of that actually matters. Those of us who had hoped that Election 2016 would be a slap in the face to an increasingly radicalized Republican Party instead watched them learn that they could do all of these things and it was fine. And so, likewise, one of the lessons the left will learn from Corbyn's relative success is that one in fact can completely dismiss and ignore the concerns of terrorized Jews and nobody will care. That's not good. And that's going to have consequences down the line.

It really was an impossible dilemma. Punishing Labour for normalizing antisemitism on the left would mean emboldening isolationist and xenophobic currents rapidly occupying the right -- currents which themselves will invariably lead to antisemitism. Anshel Pfeffer was not wrong in observing that the choice for UK Jews is "Anti-Semitism Today, or Tomorrow?"

All in all, a hung parliament is about the best result I could hope for. While this was certainly an exceeds-expectations performance for Jeremy Corbyn, I admit to being a bit confused at how "getting 55 fewer seats and 800,000 fewer votes than the Tories" counts as "winning". As Matt Yglesias observed, "the left thesis in the US is 'Bernie would've won' not 'Bernie would have lost narrowly to Trump.' That's what Hillary did!" Kept in perspective, I can keep a relatively optimistic view of what happened last night. The main thing Labour successfully accomplished was throwing a serious wrench in Theresa May's efforts to negotiate a hard Brexit. And that is an unambiguously good thing.

Thursday, June 08, 2017

Yet More College Student Entitlement

A student at the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point is suing her poetry professor and demanding that a court award her an "A" in the class (as well as suspend or fire the teacher).

Man, I am so sick of entitled millennial brats demanding special-snowfl -- what's that?

The student is 59 years old? And her complaint centers around the class being too focused on LGBT poetry?

Ahem. As I was saying: it's about time that someone stood up to PC-culture run amok at our public universities, which are after all funded by taxpayer dollars. Maybe if universities started to treat their students more like customers, we'd see less of these outrageously offensive and triggering classes, and more attention to "improv[ing] a student's welfare".

What is Going on at Fresno State?

There's a brewing controversy at Fresno State, where the university has restarted a search for the Edward Said Professorship of Middle East Studies after determining that the current search -- which had already selected a series of finalists -- had various procedural defects in violation of university guidelines (all the finalists were invited to reapply in the new search). An emeritus professor of Linguistics at the university, Vida Samiian, has publicly alleged, however, that this is all a pretext and that the search was canceled due "a documented campaign of harassment and intimidation ... by Israel advocacy groups" seeking to "derail" the search.

That sounds pretty bad. The problem is that, as my friend Steven Lubet has observed, there is virtually no evidence backing up these allegations. The university administration flatly denies having even been contacted by, much less subjected to pressure from, any outside groups. And Ben Sales at JTA interviewed members of the (relatively small) Fresno-area Jewish community had found that nobody there had even heard of the search, much less agitated against it.

The closest thing to actual evidence that Samiian has in her letter is a few instances of relatively anodyne expressions of concern by Jewish faculty members about how the search was progressing. She histrionically labels these "harassment", but they deserve that label only if it expands to encompass "Jews saying words." And again, none of them speak to any sort of campaign or concerted effort by anyone to have the search canceled (there is one stray reference to "outside" concerns about the search, but again, nobody has presented any proof of any such outside pressure manifesting).

Of course, a complete lack of evidence didn't stop JVP from rapidly circulating a letter taking as fact that the search was canceled "in response to pressures from Israel advocacy groups" who "launched a campaign to cancel the search altogether". Abba Eban once famously quipped that "If Algeria introduced a resolution declaring that the earth was flat and that Israel had flattened it, it would pass by a vote of 164 to 13 with 26 abstentions." So too, it seems, that if JVP circulates a letter saying Fresno State was devoured by a hellmouth and Israel had summoned it, it would amass 500 signatures within the week.

Lubet uses this to coin the term "Occam's BDS razor": the simplest explanation, anytime anything on campus doesn't go precisely the way pro-Palestinian advocates would like, is the interference of nefarious pro-Israel lobbying. We can see how that mentality shook out at Fresno both "vertically" and "horizontally". "Vertically", a few offhand remarks that were critical of the search proceedings got elevated to cases of "harassment". And "horizontally", these few remarks were roped together to form the locus of an imagined conspiracy of intimidation against the entire search. The ease at which these jumps are made is itself illustrative of antisemitism in its structural dimension -- even the tiniest shreds of Jewish public or private  discourse immediately metastasize into dark threats of domineering power. Such moves, I have to think, wouldn't fly (or wouldn't fly as easily) were they not so easily slotted into the grooves of antisemitic discourse.

So underneath all of this sound and fury, is there any there, there? It seems supremely unlikely that there was any "pressure" or "campaign" from Israel advocacy groups with respect to this search. But if there is a bare kernel here, I suspect it's something like the following: the administration admits it was too slow to catch onto the procedural shortcomings of the search (lack of approval by a specific department, failure to form the search committee via departmental election, and unauthorized contact and participation by an external member -- likely Samiian). And I doubt that there are many faculty members at Fresno State or anywhere else who care about such things for their own sake. So, it is entirely plausible that the person who alerted the Fresno State administration to these irregularities did so not because of a deep, dispassionate commitment to the faculty handbook, but because of more, shall we say, substantive concerns about how the search was progressing.

One could say, then, that the irregularities were a "pretext", in that nobody would have cared about such procedural failings had the search not been independently controversial. However, it is also fair to observe that the whole reason we have requirements of procedure is precisely to create confidence in faculty searches in circumstances where controversy is expected. Procedures like these matter most in circumstances where one might worry about efforts to "stack" a search committee or otherwise buttonhole it into a particular ideological or political box -- efforts almost certainly made easier when one circumvents normal requirements of faculty election and oversight. More to the point: It is wholly unsurprising that nobody cares about procedural defaults in cases that nobody cares about. We have procedural rules precisely for the cases that people do care about.

My comments in no way should be taken to impugn those persons who were selected as finalists and have gotten caught up in the middle of this controversy. I know nothing about them, and they may well be superb candidates whose virtues would be recognized by a search committee which was operating entirely above board. But surely we can be concerned with the celerity with which a very inside-baseball procedural dispute was elevated -- on the basis of virtually no evidence -- into a grand conspiracy of Jewish intimidation, and the ease with which many bought into it.

Tuesday, June 06, 2017

Be AsInsured: Gaza 2014 was a "War"

Last year, I noted a lawsuit filed in California that sought to determine whether the events in Gaza in 2014 -- specifically, rocket fire into Israel -- were part of a "war" or "terrorism". The lawsuit wasn't filed by a human rights NGO, or survivors of the violence, but rather came about in the most mundane possible fashion: an insurance dispute, where a policy excluded coverage for damage due to war, but covered damage due to terrorism.

Anyway, the district court has issued a ruling, and determined that the events in question were indeed a "war". Thanks, insurance industry, for providing helpful clarity on this issue!

Sunday, June 04, 2017

More Evidence of the Travel Ban's Discriminatory Intent

Following the horrific car ramming and stabbing attacks in London, President Trump tweeted the following:
I haven't been able to find any information on who the suspects were and, more importantly, where they come from. But assuming they were not immigrants from the countries targeted by the travel ban, this tweet is yet more evidence that Trump's intention behind the travel ban is to target Muslims. After all, if there's no link via nationality, then the only thing that connects Trump's travel ban to the London attacks is Islam. That would further confirm what President Trump has publicly insisted -- that his executive order was his effort at targeted Muslims for exclusion from America, dressed up in a way that he thought would pass legal muster.

As I've blogged several times, when it comes to the travel ban we keep seeing rather bizarre arguments which posit that it's somehow unfair to use straightforward evidence of discriminatory intent to establish discriminatory intent. But it isn't. And the fact that President Trump is congenitally incapable of not saying the quiet parts out loud doesn't give him special exemption from the laws of the land.