Saturday, December 23, 2017

North African Jewry and the Holocaust

Haaretz has an interesting piece up on the general failure to include North African Jews in our narratives about the Holocaust (despite the fact that Jews in lands occupied by Germany were interned in forced labor camps and later deported to death camps). The article runs through a variety of reasons why these stories aren't told (ranging from straight-forward Ashkenormativity, to cultural misunderstandings by largely European Jewish chroniclers of the Holocaust, to attempts by leftist Mizrahi activists to minimize the salience of the Holocaust to their own cultural narratives out of fears that it might shine light on pre-Independence Zionist ideologies within their community).

One thing I can recommend, at least on the cultural side, is the movie The Wedding Song, which is set in Tunis during World War II and traces the relationship of a Jewish girl and her Muslim friend as the Nazis began more aggressively targeting the local Jewish population. I saw the film at a screening sponsored by JIMENA -- Jews Indigenous to the Middle East and North Africa -- and it was quite illuminating.

Wednesday, December 20, 2017

On Hating the Players While Loving the Game: The Progressive Dilemma in Israel and America

Donald Trump is effectuating a sea change in progressive Zionism.

That's not a novel hypothesis. But I mean to make the argument differently than it's usually presented.

If you asked me five, ten, fifteen years ago to associate "anger" at a country with a political orientation towards that country, I'd have said "revolutionary." If I am outright angry at a country, then I'm saying it needs to be (metaphorically, at least) burned to the ground, flipped over and radically restarted. Those who are angry at America do not also love America -- they think America is a poisoned chalice, a false promise. To be clear, I've never thought (and I don't think now) that dissent is incompatible with loving a nation. But this sort of quaking rage is a different beast -- if this is what one feels, it's because one thinks the entire endeavor is not worth saving.

And yet, right now, the attitude I feel towards America and its leaders is anger. I am angry at Donald Trump, and I'm angry at the congressional Republicans who enable him. More than that, I'm angry at the direction America has taken. Democracies are as they do, and as Richard Rorty once observed, "There is nothing deep down inside us except what we have put there ourselves." So, in a real sense, I'm deeply angry at America.

Many progressives share that sentiment. And some of them, certainly, channel that anger into a revolutionary critique. The election of Trump, and the careening of the Republican Party into a far-right political movement, demonstrates that America as we know it really is corrupted root-to-branch.

Yet most of us, I think, aren't going down that road (whether we should or not is a debate for another time). Our anger is not leading us to the conclusion that America cannot be saved, or that it is in its entirety a failed experiment. We continue to care about America; we continue to love America, we do not think that the current political environment -- rage-inducing as it may be -- indicates that "America" as an idea should be abandoned, tossed aside for something else.

And this, I think, is offering a new model for progressive engagement with Israel. If you asked me five, ten, fifteen years ago, "what is the political orientation towards Israel of someone who is angry at Israel," I'd have said "revolutionary." They want to destroy the Zionist state root-to-branch, and replace it with something else.

For Jews, an unbreakable syllogism created an unstable binary. The syllogism was that "If you're angry at Israel (not just "opposed to X policy", but angry) -- its practices, its leaders, its direction -- then you must want to see it destroyed." And so persons who started to feel anger were forced to choose. If they loved Israel, believed in it as a state, then they couldn't be angry towards it -- they had to sublimate and suppress those feelings, because accepting them meant (by syllogism) that they must want Israel to be destroyed. And by contrast, if that anger was irresistible, if they couldn't not be angry at this policy or that leader or those practices, then they had no choice (again, by syllogism) but to endorse the idea that Israel was a false promise, an indelible corruption, which must be torn out from the ground.

Now, to be sure, there are many people for whom anger at Israel really does come hand-in-hand with seeking its destruction. I'm not saying they don't exist, or that they represent the majority of those who have historically held attitudes like "anger" towards the Israeli state. But I don't think that connection holds syllogistically, and it is (amazingly enough) Donald Trump who has allowed me to see that.

The antipathy I hold towards Bibi Netanyahu is not different in kind to my attitude towards Donald Trump, and to be honest it's not that far off in degree either. And Netanyahu isn't even the worst actor -- proceed to the next circle out (not even to the fringes, but still people well within the Israeli political mainstream), look at your Miri Regevs and your Bezalel Smotrichs and your Naftali Bennetts and your Oren Hazans and your Ayalet Shakeds, and things get far worse. And for progressive Zionists, it is hard not to react to this with despair. I detest these people and all that they stand for, but they represent the dominant political coalition in Israel today. So if I loathe them and their policies ... where does that leave me? What's the point of caring about Israel, if this is the Israel of today?

Well, it leaves me in the same place I'm left vis-a-vis America today. The dominant political coalition in America is repulsive to me, it is horrifying, it is sickening. And yet my reaction to it has not been to throw up my hands and give up on America (nor has it been to softplay just how horrible Trump and his cohorts are). I care about America and believe in the idea of "America" -- maybe I shouldn't, but I do -- and so the implied association between anger and revolutionary rupture has not, yet at least, come to pass.

Donald Trump has illuminated the space for genuinely caring about, and investing in, a political community even as one is repelled by its leaders and its current political orientation. I live in that space every day right now, as an American. And learning how to do that is something that progressive Zionists have desperately needed, because the old binary -- abandon anger, or abandon ship -- wasn't going to work for much longer.

This is a lesson that Jews have learned at least once before. The post-Holocaust theology advocated by scholars like Yitz Greenberg and David Blumenthal have suggested that what Jews need to preserve a relationship with God is the legitimized ability to express anger towards God; in my scholarship I've extended this argument into the political context as well. It's a dangerous lesson because anger is a dangerous emotion, and because (at least in my formulation of it) this sort of anger does not imply any ethical obligation to continue to preserve the relationship going forward.

Nonetheless, one virtue of legitimizing a qualified role for anger in our political relationships is that it need not occupy the field. After the Holocaust, Jews may be angry at God -- but we are not just that. We'd be far more likely to become "just that" if our anger was delegitimized -- a sort of irrational hysteria, or proof that we are no longer Jews -- but it wasn't, and so we haven't.

Maybe I'm too sanguine. In part, this is because I dislike anger as a political emotion. I don't like myself when I'm angry; anger doesn't make me feel validated, it makes me feel sad. More to the point: I don't trust my political instincts when they're inflected by anger. I was not surprised to find that I've specifically critiqued anger as a political emotion in the context of Israel and Palestine. Yet I've also recognized that anger can have productive uses here, if it is appropriately cabined and doesn't metastasize into the dominant mode of relating to the conflict (on this more generally, see also). Because I don't like being angry, I'm less worried about the risk I'll want to stay angry for its own sake -- for me, allowing anger is a means of working through it to someplace more productive. But maybe that's not really the case, or at least not the case for everyone.

That's a nettlesome problem, and I'm not sure how to resolve it. I can't imagine a way of being a progressive Zionist that doesn't allow for one to be positively repelled by the current Israeli political climate, any more than I can imagine being a progressive American today who isn't horrified by our own nation's descent into an alt-right fever dream. Nonetheless, I do think that Trump has crystallized a mode of relating to Israel for progressive Jews that allows us to genuinely, in our bones, be upset at the direction Israel has taken -- not simply a bad headline here or there, but core features of its current politics -- without feeling the need to let go of it entirely. If I can do that for America, I can do it for Israel too.

Israel's First Arab Rhodes Scholar is a Disabled Muslim Woman

"Israel’s first Arab Rhodes scholar has the chutzpah to love her country, and to try to change it."
That's the headline of the JTA on Lian Najami, a disabled Muslim Arab Israeli who soon, presumably, will be studying at Oxford.  

She speaks five languages, has worked for Democratic (and Jewish) U.S. Senator Brian Schatz of Hawaii (on counter-terrorism policy), opposes academic boycotts, and thinks Israel should be a democracy for all of its citizens, irrespective of background. It's a good piece, and she sounds like an interesting (and of course incredibly accomplished) woman. I wish her all the best.

Tuesday, December 19, 2017

Every Vote Counts: Virginia Edition

A recount in Virginia's 94th state house district now has Democrat Shelly Simonds winning by ... 1 vote. And if that result holds, it will be enough to push the state house of delegates into a 50-50 tie.

Yes, yes, this is an incredibly vivid demonstration of the "every vote counts" principle. But have you taken a moment to spare a thought for the Green Party voter who is really, really angry that he didn't successfully spoil the race and teach a lesson to those neoliberal sellouts who are exactly the same as Trump?

I'm sure he's devastated. Pour one out for the guy tonight, will you?

Monday, December 18, 2017

What Should You Do When Linda Sarsour is Accused of Covering Up Sexual Harassment? Investigate It!

Some of you might have seen a Daily Caller article reporting on a former employee at the Arab American Association who accused Linda Sarsour, then the AAA's Executive Director, of enabling sexual harassment against her in the workplace.

Some of you might not have seen it, because thus far it has basically only been picked up by other sites within the conservative bubble (the only non-right-wing site I've seen running the story is Newsweek).

And that's a shame. Not in the cheap shot, "where are you on this, lib-tards!" sort of way, but because the story deserves to be investigated by a real media source in order to figure out what's going on.

The Daily Caller, after all, is not the most credible of sources. And the author of the piece is Benny Johnson, whom you might recall got fired from Buzzfeed due to repeated acts of plagiarism. So it's not per se unreasonable to cock an eyebrow at the veracity of the story.

That said, aside from the website and the byline, there are quite a few factors about the story which are significant indicia of credibility. There is a named accuser on the record, Asmi Fathelbab, who likewise names a specific harasser, Majed Seif. Fathelbab gives details on her employment at the AAA and when and how it ended, these can all be easily verified. Likewise, other reporters could presumably find the same sources that the Caller did who corroborate Fathelbab's story.

Fathelbab also appears to have a twitter account. Up until the last few days, when she posted about this story, it had lain dormant since 2016 -- her last tweet was a retweet: "Sarah Palin endorses Donald Trump. The bible says these two names in the same sentence signifies the end times." She wasn't the most active contributor to social media, but it doesn't seem like she was in the tank for the right.

To give you a flavor of what the accusations are, here are some details from the Caller's story:
The problems began in early 2009 when a man named Majed Seif, who lived in the same building where the Arab American Association offices are located, allegedly began stalking Fathelbab.
“He would sneak up on me during times when no one was around, he would touch me, you could hear me scream at the top of my lungs,” Asmi Fathelbab tells TheDC. “He would pin me against the wall and rub his crotch on me.”
Asmi claims one of Majed’s alleged favorite past times was sneaking up on her with a full erection.
“It was disgusting,” she tells The Caller. “I ran the youth program in the building and with that comes bending down and talking to small children. You have no idea what it was like to stand up and feel that behind you. I couldn’t scream because I didn’t want to scare the child in front of me. It left me shaking.” 
The Daily Caller was provided with a link to Seif’s Facebook page and confirmed his identity, location and employment. 
Fathelbab says she went to leadership at the organization to report the sexual assault. She alleges she was dismissed by Sarsour outright. “She called me a liar because ‘Something like this didn’t happen to women who looked like me,'” Asmi says. “How dare I interrupt her TV news interview in the other room with my ‘lies.'”
According to Fathelbab, Sarsour threatened legal and professional damage if she went public with the sexual assault claims.
“She told me he had the right to sue me for false claims,” Asmi recalls, adding that the assaulter allegedly “had the right to be anywhere in the building he wanted.”
Desperate after multiple dismissals by Sarsour, the distraught employee says she went to the president of the board of directors, Ahmed Jaber.
“Jaber told me my stalker was a ‘God-fearing man’ who was ‘always at the Mosque,’ so he wouldn’t do something like that,” Fathelbab claims. “He wanted to make it loud and clear this guy was a good Muslim and I was a bad Muslim for “complaining.”
A furious Sarsour allegedly raged against Fathelbab for continuing to report her sexual assault in the building. According to Fathelbab, her allegations would result in her getting written up for disciplinary action. She told TheDC she was once forced to talk to a detective from the community liaison division about the consequences of making false claims to the authorities.
After Fathelbab’s contract was up, Sarsour allegedly threatened to keep her from working again in the city.
“She told me I’d never work in NYC ever again for as long as she lived,” Asmi says. “She’s kept her word. She had me fired from other jobs when she found out where I worked. She has kept me from obtaining any sort of steady employment for almost a decade.”
Two people who knew Fathelbab during her time at the Arab American Association spoke with TheDC on condition of anonymity. Both corroborate her story, recalling that Asmi would return “emotionally distressed and in a panic” from work, often describing it as an “unsafe” work environment.
Another New York political operative, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, claims that Sarsour was “militant against other women” at the Association. This operative, who has worked for over 12 years with the Arab American Association, says they remember Asmi and witnessed her getting harassed in the building.
“They made it about her weight, saying she was not attractive enough to be harassed and then swept it under the rug,” the source said. “It was Linda Sarsour, Ahmad Jaber and Habib Joudeh who took care of it.” Habib Joudeh is the vice president of the Arab American Association of New York.
The source even identified Fathelbab’s alleged assaulter without prompting, “Majed Seif, the man who lived in the building.”
The operative, who is a practicing Muslim in the community, says a toxic culture at the Arab American Association led to the environment of harassment.
There's plenty of information here which would unravel quite quickly if it's all a concoction by an admitted plagiarist writing for a hack right-wing website. Which, of course, is all the more reason for someone not an admitted plagiarist writing for a hack right-wing website to investigate it. To my knowledge, nobody has tried to re-report the story (as far as I can tell, the sites that have picked it up are simply writing about the Caller's investigation, they haven't done any independent reporting).

What I'm trying to say is this: If your thought upon seeing this article was that a Daily Caller article by Benny Johnson attacking a prominent progressive activist maybe should be taken with a grain of salt -- you're right! But that's not a reason for more credible media sources to ignore the piece, that's a reason for them to try and replicate it. There's a myth that suggests feminists demand, at the first whiff of anyone accusing anyone of sexual harassment, that the accused be strung up on a lamppost. But that's not true. The demand is that we take these claims seriously enough to actually investigate and look into them.

And that's what the next step here should be. If it turns out that the Daily Caller piece is a drive-by on Sarsour, that will be valuable to know. And if turns out that it's a credible accusation of Sarsour contributing to a toxic, harassing environment in her workplace and retaliating against a woman who sought to speak up -- well, that's important to know too.

UPDATE: Buzzfeed's article is the first (I've seen) to try to do additional reporting. It certainly doesn't seem to be in dispute that Fathelbab had made complaints at the time, and that Sarsour ultimately concluded they lacked merit (though the precise nature of the complaints is under dispute, and Sarsour denies engaging in any of the "body shaming" behavior alleged).

Sunday, December 17, 2017

Marvel at our Global Community

Well this sure is a lede:
A Nigerien man stabbed two Danish journalists in Gabon, saying it was a revenge attack against the United States for recognizing Jerusalem as Israel’s capital.
It appears that the victims will recover.