Wednesday, April 04, 2018

Toronto Prof. Accuses Prospective PhD Student of Being an Israeli Government Agent

A Jewish prospective Ph.D. student in Middle Eastern studies who was seeking informational meetings with professors at the University of Toronto was accused by one department member of being an agent of the Israeli government. The professor, who is active in BDS-linked causes, refused to even meet with the student on "ethical and academic grounds."

The accusation apparently stems from the student's prior status as a former "Hasbara Fellow", a New York-based fellowship organized by Aish HaTorah (in collaboration with Israel's foreign affairs ministry). Presumably, it's the latter connection that provides the foundation for the claim of being an "agent" -- though many governments fund many fellowships that at least partially are designed to serve the goal of public diplomacy, (usually) without their recipients being viewed as clandestine government operatives. There should be a name for the practice of taking relatively ordinary public, political, or social acts and treating them as uniquely nefarious and/or giving them scary names when Jews do them (see: "pinkwashing").*

The source is the Toronto Sun, so a grain of salt is advised (I'd love to see another newspaper pick the story up), but on face -- ugh.

* On this note, it's worth reflecting on how the word "Hasbara" -- which literally means "explanation" (albeit less in the "let me explain how a steam engine works" sense and more in the "let me explain why I'm out on the street at 3 AM, officer" sense -- frequently gets translated as "propaganda". There's something very revealing in that, no? If you're a Hebrew speaker and you try to explain your position, it is linguistically coded as propaganda. Fancy that!

Jewdas and the Good Jews

Shortly after issuing a statement committing to more vigorous opposition to antisemitism within the ranks of the Labour Party, Jeremy Corbyn ruffled yet more feathers by attending a seder hosted by the far-left Jewish group Jewdas.

Here's the thing: I don't have an intrinsic problem with Jewdas. I've even written a nice(-ish) post about them! So I totally agree that some descriptions of them (including by some Jews) have been overwrought.

But I'm in full agreement with Keith Kahn-Harris that this was nonetheless a misstep (at best) by Corbyn, because it looks like he once again is picking-and-choosing his "good Jews" who won't challenge him and will soothe him that everything is okay. David Hirsh suggested that the seder with Jewdas functions as a sort of "reverse dog whistle" -- to people who don't know much about the Jewish community, it seems like a nice gesture; whereas the vast majority of the Jewish community in the UK experiences it as a thumb in the eye -- a very conscious decision to circumvent the Jewish mainstream to hang out with a fringe minority which already thinks he's a-okay.

But not all of the blame can be laid at Corbyn's feet. Jewdas should come in for critique too -- not because its views are in any context unacceptable, but because of what function it is serving in this context. Writes Kahn-Harris:
The irony is that Jewdas was never supposed to be a collective of good Jews. Yet that is what they are being turned into by the Corbynistas, just as Corbyn’s detractors are determined to turn them into bad Jews. It’s all depressingly familiar and very very non-radical.

These days, pretty much anyone who is accused of anti-Semitism can find a group of Jews to give them a pass. In the last couple of weeks we’ve seen the apotheosis of this process, with endless “Jewsplaining” about who the real, good Jews are, the Jews to whom one should listen to about anti-Semitism. In their attempt to perform as “woke” opponents of anti-Semitism, non-Jewish Jewsplainers on the right and left are recapitulating the worst — and most self-hating — of our traits as Jews.

If Jewdas, and anyone else who thinks of themselves as a Jewish radical, is seeking something to smash, it should be this. Non-Jews need to be told to stop picking and choosing which Jews they listen to. Engaging with Jews and fighting anti-Semitism means recognizing that there will be Jews who hold positions you disagree with.

Genuine anti-racism means fighting for the rights of people you despise.

I don’t know why Jewdas invited Corbyn to their seder (and I’ve heard whispers that some of those in attendance weren’t happy about it), but I wish one of them had had the courage to do something truly revolutionary. They should have told Corbyn to get out of his comfort zone and attend a seder held by Jews whose politics he does not agree with. And instead of hosting Corbyn, Jewdas should have invited a different kind of non-Jewish politician who claims to oppose anti-Semitism, one on the right who finds the idea of leftist Jews baffling or disgusting.

That would have been truly radical.
As one journalist noted, it's especially telling how resistant Corbyn is to doing this when it comes to Jews because this instinct is his primary defense for why he was willing to meet with his "friends" in Hamas and Hezbollah. There might be some MPs for whom an evening with Jewdas might expand their horizons in a salutary fashion, but Jeremy Corbyn is almost certainly not one of them.

I can accept that Jewdas' brand of -- let's call it "irreverent" -- humor has its place in Jewish life (its infamous "Please God, smash the state of Israel" line in its Haggadah serving as a sort of exaggerated self-parody). But that doesn't mean it is an appropriate venue for a non-Jew, facing criticism for being unable to recognize antisemitism and being allegedly cold towards the Jewish community writ large, to begin his outreach. And Jewdas has an obligation here too that I don't think it fulfilled -- the sort of moves and jokes and commentaries it likes to make may well be inbounds among fellow community members, but that doesn't mean it should be inviting random outsiders to take part -- at least not without significant proof of trustworthiness and engagement with Jews that suggests their genuine allies. Insofar as Jewdas including Corbyn in this seder indicates their attempt to hechsher Corbyn along that criteria, that's a very valid thing to critique.

Someone gave the analogy to former Orthodox Jews who walk around in Orthodox Jewish neighborhoods holding flyers with scantily-clad women on them, as a mocking commentary on retrograde Orthodox gender norms. I wouldn't do that myself, though I see the value in taking down a peg the obsession with regulating women's bodies in the Orthodox communities. But while I can see the case for former Orthodox Jews engaging in that sort of parodic (arguably trollish) act, I'd be infuriated if a non-Jew (particularly one in Corbyn's position) took part.

As Kahn-Harris observes, there's irony here in Jewdas taking on the role of the "good Jews". But that all relates back to the difference between how one speaks inside the community versus outside of it. When interacting with the British Jewish mainstream, Jewdas is an important outsider perspective -- giving voice to viewpoints sometimes not heard and puncturing community shibboleths. But when it steps outside of the intra-Jewish debate and wades into the broader debate Labour is having on these issues, the same statements and jokes and performances are less critical than confirmatory, less challenging than soothing, less outsider and more insider. It takes a certain intellectual and organizational adroitness to deftly switch between those two modes, and I don't think Jewdas did itself proud in the navigation.

Tuesday, April 03, 2018

Living in the Machinery of Death, Part II

Last year, I wrote a post about my clerkship on the United States Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit. Being a clerk on a federal court of appeals is one of the great honors a young lawyer can have, and one of the great honors of my life. It was a fantastic experience. I was privileged to be mentored by a fantastic judge, to gain a first-hand experience of the legal system across a wide range of cases, and to work with some outstanding colleagues whom I'm still friends with to this day.

I also said then, and will reiterate now, that if you tallied up all the cases I had a hand in during the course of my tenure of my clerkship, and judged them based on whether they effectuated justice or injustice, I'm convinced that on net they made the world a worse place.

And the reason really boils down to immigration. Our immigration docket was a relentless, sustained, unending exercise is ruining lives. That's all we were doing. And because our review was so perfunctory (it was perfunctory because the legal standards are aggressively anti-immigrant), we got  through a lot of them. I suspect that, in terms of raw numbers (though certainly not in time spent reviewing), we handled more immigration cases than any other type of case save criminal appeals (which, incidentally, also generally involved one-page affirmances of viciously overlong prison sentences).

Anyway, I bring it up again in reference to this story about Henry, a former teenage member of MS-13 who fled to America to escape the gang, ended up forcibly conscripted back into it, and so voluntarily turned himself into the police and freely gave them information essential to arresting other members of the gang. He thought in doing so he could get a fresh start, that the FBI would protect him.

Instead, he was betrayed. Once his usefulness was over, his handlers handed him over to ICE for deportation -- making no effort to hide the fact that he had informed on MS-13 (even as he was kept in a detention center with other MS-13 members), almost assuredly marking him for death at the hands of the gang either back in El Salvador or (if by some chance he is released) back home in Long Island. Sometimes I write on such stories that they're "worse than a crime, they're a blunder" (how does one expect to get people to inform on criminal gangs if the police so nakedly stab them in the back afterwards?). But here, the blunder -- real as it is -- is outweighed by the crime. Irrespective of any tactical assessment, we shouldn't lose sight of the more fundamental reality that our immigration system took a man who was by all accounts trying to do the right thing and sold him out in a way that quite foreseeably may lead to his murder. That's something we need to forthrightly acknowledge about ourselves.

Henry does not have a spotless record -- even less so than Juan Coronilla-Guerrero (whom I wrote about in my last post). But he does not deserve to die. It is not just our immigration system that may kill him. But it is by no means innocent. It is a machinery of death, and all those who touch it -- myself very much included -- have blood on our hands.

Sunday, April 01, 2018

Satyagraha at the Gaza Border

Israeli government officials blamed Hamas for "provoking" a conflict and said its response was justified due to the risk of a mass attempt to breach the border.

That response is a problem. Let me explain why.

Non-combatants attempting to cross a border may be a crime, but it isn't a crime that can justify the use of lethal force. Lethal force can only be justified in cases where the target poses an imminent threat to life. Yet even under the Israeli narrative, threats of that scale were only sporadic (two of the dead Palestinians are alleged to have opened fire at IDF soldiers -- that probably warrants a lethal response -- but that leaves up to 14 who didn't). In a simplicitor case of attempted unlawful border crossing, the only lawful remedy is arrest and trial -- not bullets.

The main apologia we're seeing on that score is the claim that some (not all) of the shot Palestinians were members of terrorist groups. Even if that turns out to be the case (and that hasn't been independently corroborated yet), it'd be less of an absolution of the IDF than apologists might believe. Put aside the general thorniness of whether someone who's a member of a terrorist organization can be treated as a "combatant" even when partaking in civilian (in this case, protest) activities. I'm skeptical, but we can even stipulate that they could be. The bigger issue is that the lawfulness of the use of deadly force has to be justified based on what was actually known, or reasonably should have been known, by the shooter at the time -- and there's no evidence that the IDF soldiers were aware of the identities (let alone affiliations) of the Palestinians they were firing at in the moment. For example: If I fired into a crowd in a city street, and it just so happened that the person struck by my bullets was a member of a terrorist group, my action would still be unlawful because I had no way of knowing that fact when I opened fire. Likewise, the affiliations of those killed by IDF bullets could not in themselves legalize the decision to open fire -- that can only be justified based on specific threats to life that were reasonably perceived at the time (of which simply approaching the border is not one).

The other argument I can imagine being made is that -- in the context of a mass march on the border -- "arrest and trial" isn't a feasible response. It'd be impossible to arrest them all; the only viable means of deterrence may well be the use of lethal force. But this is a rather dangerous and hypocritical position -- the same in form as the argument that suicide bombings are justifiable because the power imbalance between Israel and Palestine means the latter can't win a traditional military conflict. The laws of war and humanitarian international law in that case say that if you can't win a conflict without suicide bombings, then you don't win the conflict (as much as it might seem unjust). They likewise say that if you can't stop non-violent attempts to cross a border without resorting to lethal force, then you don't stop the attempts (as much as that might seem unjust). In either case, the rule of law quite properly does not contain an "unless you'd lose" exception.

And this really gets to the rub of the problem. Were these protests a perfect exemplar of non-violence? Almost certainly not. But it seems equally clear that the Israeli government (and many of its defenders) wouldn't accept the legitimacy of protests of this nature even if they were. They view it as a form of cheating, precisely because it likely would succeed but-for the use of violent force that can't actually be justified. But that's an untenable position. A protest or resistance strategy doesn't become illicit on the grounds that it does work, nor because it forces Israelis to do things they'd otherwise not want to do or puts them in a position they'd otherwise not like to be in. That's not, and cannot be, the standard for what conduct by Palestinians is acceptable (it obviously isn't the standard for what Israeli actions are justifiable vis-a-vis Palestinian actors). Palestinians are allowed to come up with ways to put pressure on Israelis, and massed civil disobedience falls into that category.

Indeed, this is in many ways the power of resistance strategies of this sort -- they are difficult to counter without resorting to violence that both appears to be and juridically is excessive and unjustified under the circumstances. This is why civil rights leaders placed young activists in the path of Bull Connor's firehoses, this is the efficacy of Gandhi's satyagraha. What violence there was on the Palestinian side was a sterling example of "worse than a crime, it was a blunder," because it allows dust to fly up around this basic point. But while I don't want to as far as to say this violence was a "distraction", I do think it must not occupy the entirety or even the majority of our attention, because the Israeli response -- almost by its own admission -- wasn't keyed into the sort of violence that could warrant resort to lethal force, and because the Israeli government has no answer to what it would do if the protests really did meet the platonic ideal of satyagraha.