Friday, August 24, 2018

The Julia Salazar Questions NO ONE Is Asking

Here at The Debate Link, we don't shy away from the hard questions. The ones on everybody's minds, but few dare ask. The ones other news sources are afraid to tackle.

You might have read Tablet Magazine's expose on Julia Salazar, who has made some waves as a Jewish Latina socialist running for a state senate seat in New York (she's challenging Democratic incumbent Martin Dilan).

The Tablet article makes several revelations. Salazar was not (as she had sometimes claimed) an immigrant (she was born in Miami), and her father was not (as she had sometimes claimed) Jewish (though it does appear that she has other Jewish relatives). In addition, Salazar used to identify a (conservative) Christian, and was a campus leader of CUFI (Christians United for Israel) who was also involved with a host of other pro-Israel organizations (ranging from AIPAC to the World Zionist Organization). Over the course of her college career, she tacked sharply to the left -- moving from CUFI to J Street to Mondoweiss-territory -- and converted to Judaism in the process.

Many people are now asking whether Salazar is "really" Jewish or to what extent she misrepresented her background.

But as I said, here at The Debate Link, we don't deal with the questions "many people" are asking. If those are the questions you want to talk about, go elsewhere. Rather, there are two questions burning a hole in my pocket, whose answers I haven't seen anyone really grappling with publicly.

(1) What is the deal with Martin Dilan?

As noted, Salazar is challenging an incumbent Democrat, Martin Dilan, for his New York State Senate seat. When I read that a progressive challenger getting a lot of enthusiasm for her race against an incumbent Democratic New York State Senator, I just assumed that Dilan was probably a member of the IDC -- a group of renegade Democrats who for the past several years had joined forces with Republicans to give the GOP control of the chamber despite a nominal Democratic majority. The IDC is almost single-handedly responsible for blocking a raft of progressive agenda items in a deep-blue state, and as far as I am concerned they can all burn in a fire. They are the epitome of Democrats who deserve primary challenges.

But it turns out that Dilan wasn't an IDC member. Which raises the question: What exactly has he done to raise progressives' ire so? Of course, it's possible the answer is "nothing" and he's just a target of opportunity. But two years ago, a primary challenger who admitted to beating her son as a teenager still took 41% of the vote against him -- suggesting that there is something going on making him vulnerable. But I haven't heard what it is yet.

In general, I view lawmaking and legislating as a skill, and I'm suspicious of populist waves which treat political experience is a vice and amateurism a virtue (see: "Trump is a businessman, not a regular politician"). Fulminating about out-of-touch politicians on Facebook and sharing articles about bad government actors d'jour is easy; actually writing good laws that are fair and respectful to all relevant stakeholders is really difficult. And the people least likely to meet that difficulty curve are those who effectively deny that the project is hard in the first place. Those sorts become demagogues far more frequently than they become effective agents of legislative change.

In practice, that means that I'm generally averse to primarying out veteran politicians unless the incumbent is significantly underperforming compared to what one could expect from their voter base (occasionally, I think it would be good if a given incumbent got a good scare from a primary but still won -- a situation which makes it very difficult to determine how to cast one's own ballot!).  Basically, if you're doing a fine job and you generally vote the right way, then I think experience should carry the day.

But I don't mean for "fine job" to be an impossible bar to meet, and there are absolutely Democrats who deserve to be primaried into dust. The IDC Democrats are an obvious example, and frankly Andrew Cuomo would be another for me (Rep. Dan Lipinski of Illinois is yet another). By contrast, I never got a strong answer on what Joe Crowley supposedly did wrong, or the case against Mike Capuano in Massachusetts, other than a vague call for "fresh blood" or "new voices".

So, is Martin Dilan in the set of Democrats that deserves a primary challenge? I have no idea. But I find it weird that, with as much attention as Salazar has gotten even before this story broke, I've yet to see much in the way of discussion about either why he-qua-him should go or should stay.

(2) What does Salazar's evolution on Israel tell us about the CUFI model of engagement with young people?

As the Tablet article notes, it isn't exactly uncommon for young people's political views to evolve sharply while they're in college. Still, it's worth reflecting on how her story interacts with the narrative some on the pro-Israel right are pushing. They claim that the reason young people are growing less attached to, or more overtly critical of, Israel is because they're only being exposed to one side of the story. The problem is biased narratives and indoctrination.

But say what you will about Salazar -- that argument can't work on her. She spent considerable time in her early college days suffused in the best hasbara the right had to offer: there's no way a World Zionist Organization's campus fellow simply wasn't exposed to the claims and arguments that the pro-Israel right wants to promote.

And indeed, it gets worse: the Tablet story indicates that Salazar's conversion moment -- where she really came to second-guess her staunch pro-Israel commitments and began her journey to the left -- came in the course of a CUFI-sponsored trip to Israel.
According to people who knew Salazar at Columbia, and to messages and social media postings, a distinct shift occurred after the CUFI trip. After the official part of the mission ended in August of 2012, Salazar stayed in the region and visited the West Bank cities of Bethlehem and Hebron—where, according to messages from Salazar seen by Tablet, she empathized with the plight of the territory’s Palestinian population and questioned the pro-Israel narrative in which she had once wholeheartedly believed. She appears to have broken off her affiliation with CUFI as soon as she returned to the United States, just before the 2012 fall semester began.
Basically, not only did immersion in CUFI-style Israel advocacy not immunize Salazar from a left-ward shift, it apparently made her more vulnerable to it. And once the bulwark collapsed, it collapsed completely -- she transitioned over a very short period of time from a hard-core Israel lover to a hard-core Israel critic. Right-wingers crowing over Salazar's now-public life journey fail to acknowledge how she's living repudiation of their entire narrative about pro-Israel politics on campus.

There's a lesson here, if pro-Israel stalwarts would care to learn it: Uncritical rightists become uncritical leftists and vice versa. It's David Horowitz syndrome, and we've seen it over and over again. Wallowing in a happy, uncritical pro-Israel narrative doesn't shield young people from anti-Israel sentiments on campus. The further we isolate our youth from serious, critical reckoning with Israel's flaws alongside its virtues, the harder it's going to hurt when reality hits.

* * *

So those are the questions I care about. You want my stance on the ones everyone else is talking about? Well, basically I endorse Batya Ungar-Sargon's take. I could care less about the details of Salazar's Jewish journey. I've known plenty of people who discovered or reconnected with their Jewish heritage in college, not all of whom had a claim on matrilineal descent, and I've never felt it was my business to police an identity they have genuine ties to and claim in good faith (this is on top of my general uneasiness with hard adherence to rules about matrimonial descent; not to mention the very specific point that Jews of Color are far more likely to be the targets of such scrutiny).

But when you run for office, people are going to research the claims you make and the narratives you tell. That's not wrong; that comes with the territory. If you say you are an immigrant, and it turns out you're American born, there's going to be an article on that and you're going to take a few lumps. It's great that young people, some of whom have little prior experience in the public limelight, are now stepping up and running for significant public office. But that's going to come with scrutiny, and when you take that step you can't then hide behind "I'm young, I'm inexperienced, I'm just an average Joe or Joanna from the block" to ward that off.

The fact is that several elements of Julia Salazar's narrative, at least as presented by her campaign, rest on uneasy factual foundations. When you're a private citizen, that's not news. When you're a political candidate, that's very much news, and it's not foul play for a journalist to dig into it.

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