Saturday, August 11, 2018

"Hitler Was Right" Candidate Wins Missouri GOP Primary

This past week, Steve West, who has said "Hitler was Right" and that "Jewish cabals" harvest baby parts from Planned Parenthood, won the GOP primary for a Kansas City-area Missouri State House seat.

As many people know, there has been an uptick of racist and antisemitic extremist candidates running on GOP platforms this election cycle (the ADL rounds up some of them). Some of the most prominent, like Arthur Jones in Illinois, come with their own excuses: he was the only candidate on the GOP ballot in a overwhelmingly Democratic seat. In other cases, the seat is so lopsidedly Democratic that the GOP party is basically a random assortment of fringe cranks anyway, so it's arguably unfair to extrapolate.

But this is different. For one, West won a contested primary, taking nearly 50% of the vote in a four-way field. For two, while the 15th Missouri House District has gone uncontested the past two cycles, the last time there was a general election race the (current incumbent) Democrat won by a 56/44 spread. That's a comfortable margin, and in a strong Democratic year like 2018 the seat should be safe, but it is not an overwhelming figure (by comparison, the last time Dan Lipinski -- the Democrat Arthur Jones is running against in Illinois -- faced a general election challenger, he won by a 65/35 margin). Put another way, while this is a distinctively blue-tinted district, it is not the sort of place where Republicans don't exist beyond a bizarre fringe, nor is it the sort of place where it'd be implausible for the Republican to win.

So even though this is far less prominent a race than Jones' congressional campaign, in many ways its a significantly more dangerous signal. In a race where other Republicans were running, in a district where Republicans at least are conceivably competitive, GOP primary voters chose an unabashed, loud-and-proud antisemitic bigot.

Friday, August 10, 2018

The Problem of "Centering" and the Jews

Note: I wrote this piece quite a few months ago, shopping around to the usual Jewish media outlets. None were interested, and I ended up letting it slide. But it popped back into my mind -- this Sophie Ellman-Golan article helped -- and so I decided to post it here. While I have updated it, some of the references are a bit dated (at least on an internet time scale). Nonetheless, I continue to think a critical look at how the idea of "centering" interacts with and can easily instantiate antisemitic tropes is deeply important.

* * *

In the early 2000s, Rosa Pegueros, a Salvadoran Jew, was a member of the listserv for contributors to the book This Bridge We Call Home, sequel to the tremendously influential volume This Bridge Called My Back. Another member of the listserv had written to the group with "an almost apologetic post mentioning that she is Jewish, implying that some of the members might not be comfortable with her presence for that reason." She had guessed she was the only Jewish contributor to the volume, so Pegueros wrote back, identifying herself as a Jew as a well and recounting a recent experience she perceived as antisemitic.

Almost immediately, Peugeros wrote, another third contributor jumped into the conversation.  "I can no longer sit back," she wrote, "and watch this list turn into another place where Jewishness is reduced to a site of oppression and victimization, rather than a complex site of both oppression and privilege—particularly in relationship to POC."

Pegueros was stunned. At the time of this reply, there had been a grand total of two messages referencing Jewishness on the entire listserv. And yet, it seemed, that was too much -- it symbolized yet "another place" where discourse about oppression had become "a forum for Jews."

This story has always stuck with me. And I thought of it when reading Jews for Racial and Economic Justice's guidebook to understanding antisemitism from a left-wing perspective. Among their final pieces of advice for Jews participating in anti-racism groups was to make antisemitism and Jewish issues "central, but not centered".

It's good advice. Jewish issues are an important and indispensable part of anti-racist work. That said, we are not alone, and it is important to recognize that in many circumstances our discrete problems ought not to take center stage. That doesn't mean they shouldn't be heard. It just means they should not be given disproportionate attention such that they prevent other important questions and campaigns from proceeding. Ideally, "central, but not centered" in the anti-racism community means that Jewish issues should neither overwhelm the conversation nor be shunted aside and ignored outright.

Yet it also overlooks an important caveat. Too often, any discussion of Jewish issues is enough to be considered "centering" it. There is virtually no gap between spaces where Jews are silenced and spaces where Jews are accused of "centering". And so the reasonable request not to "center" Jewish issues easily can, and often does, become yet another tool enforcing Jewish silence.

Pegueros' account is one striking example. I'll give another: several years ago, I was invited to a Jewish-run feminist blog to host a series of posts on antisemitism. Midway through the series, the blog's editors were challenged on the grounds that it was taking oxygen away from more pressing matters of racism. At the time, the blog had more posts on "racism" than "antisemitism" by an 8:1 margin (and, in my experience, that is uncommonly attentive to antisemitism on a feminist site -- Feministing, for example, has a grand total of two posts with the "anti-Semitism" tag in its entire history). No matter: the fact that Jewish feminists on a Jewish blog were discussing Jewish issues at all was viewed as excessive and self-centered.

Or consider Raphael Magarik's reply to Yishai Schwartz's essay contending that Cornel West has "a Jewish problem".

Schwartz's column takes issue with West's decision to situate his critique of fellow Black intellectual Ta-Nehisi Coates by reference to "the neoliberal establishment that rewards silences on issues such as Wall Street greed or Israeli occupation of Palestinian lands and people." Magarik's reply accuses Schwartz of making the West/Coates dispute fundamentally "about the Jews", exhibiting the "the moral narcissism in thinking that everything is about you, in reading arguments between Black intellectuals about the future of the American left and asking: How can I make this about the Jews?"

Now, Magarik is surely correct that the Jewish angle of West's critique of Coates is a rather small element that should not become the "center of attention" and thereby obscure "the focus [on] Black struggles for liberation." But there is something quite baffling about his suggestion that a single column that was a drop in the bucket of commentary produced in the wake of the West/Coates exchange could suffice to make it the "center of attention". If Magarik believes Schwartz overreacted to some stray mentions of Jewish issues in an otherwise intramural African-American dispute, surely Magarik equally brought a howitzer to a knife fight by claiming that one article in Ha'aretz single-handedly recentered the conversation about the West/Coates feud onto the Jews.

What's going on here? How is it that the "centering" label -- certainly a valid concern in concept -- seems to routinely and pervasively attach itself to Jews at even the slightest intervention in policy debates?

The answer, as you might have guessed, relates to antisemitism.

As a social phenomenon, antisemitism is very frequently the trafficking in tropes about Jewish hyperpower, the sense that we either have or are on the cusp of taking over anything and everything. Frantz Fanon described antisemitism as follows: "Jews are feared because of their potential to appropriate. ‘They’ are everywhere. The banks, the stock exchanges, and the government are infested with them. They control everything. Soon the country will belong to them.” If we have an abstract understanding of Jews as omnipotent and omnipresent, no wonder that specific instances of Jewish social participation -- no matter how narrow the contribution might be -- are understood as a complete and total colonization of the space. What are the Jews, other than those who are already "everywhere"?

Sadly, the JFREJ pamphlet does not address this issue at all. When "central" crosses into "centering" will often be a matter of judgment, but while the JFREJ has much to say about Jews making "demands for attention" or paying heed to "how much oxygen they can suck out of the room", it does not grapple with how the structure of antisemitism mentalities often renders simply being Jewish (without a concurrent vow of monastic silence) enough to trigger these complaints. It doesn't seem to realize how this entire line of discourse itself can be and often is deeply interlaced with antisemitism.

JFREJ's omission is particularly unfortunate since Jews have begun to internalize this sensibility. It's not that Jewish issues should predominate, or always be at the center of every conversation. It's the nagging sense that any discussion of Jewish issues -- no matter how it is prefaced, cabined, or hedged -- is an act of "centering", of taking over, of making it "about us." When the baseline of what counts as "centering" is so low, I know from personal experience that even the simplest asks for inclusion are agonizing.

As early as 1982, the radical lesbian feminist Irene Klepfisz identified this propensity as a core part of both internalized and externalized antisemitism. She instructed activists -- Jewish and non-Jewish alike -- to ask themselves a series of questions, including whether they feel that dealing with antisemitism "drain[s] the movement of precious energy", whether they believe antisemitism "has been discussed too much already," and whether Jews "draw too much attention to themselves."

Contemporary activists, including many Jews, could do worse than asking Klepfisz's questions. For example, when Jews and non-Jews in the queer community rallied against the effort by some activists to expel Jewish and Israeli LGBTQ organizations from LGBT conference "Creating Change", Mordechai Levovitz fretted that they had "promoted the much more nefarious anti-Semitic trope that Jews wield disproportionate power to get what we want." Levovitz didn't support the expulsion campaign. Still, he worried that even the most basic demand of inclusion -- don't kick queer Jews out of the room -- was potentially flexing too much Jewish muscle. In this way, the distinction between "central" and "centering" collapses -- indeed, even the most tertiary questions are "centering" if Jews are the ones asking them.

This is bad enough in a world where, we are told, oppressions are inextricably connected (you can tell whose perspective is and isn't valued in these communities based on whose attempts to speak are taken to be remedying an oversight and whose are viewed as self-centered derailing). But it verges on Kafka-esque when persons demand Jews "show up" and then get mad that they have a voice in the room; or proactively decide to put Jewish issues on their agenda and yet still demand Jews keep silent about them.

Magarik says, for example, that Jews "were not the story" when the Movement for Black Lives included in its platform an accusation that Israel was creating genocide; we shouldn't have made it "about us". He's right, in the sense that this language should not have caused Jews to withdraw from the fight against police violence against communities of color. He's wrong in suggesting that Jews therefore needed to stop "wringing our hands" about how issues that cut deep to the core of our existence as a people were treated in the document. Jews didn't demand that the Movement for Black Lives talk about Jews, but once they elected to do so Jews were not obliged to choose between the right's silence of shunning and the left's silence of acquiescence. To say that Jews ought not "center" ourselves is not to say that there is no place for critical commentary at all. We are legitimate contributors to the discourse over our own lives.

I'm not particularly interested in the substantive debate regarding whether Cornel West has a "Jewish problem" -- though Magarik's defense of West (that he "has a good reason for focusing on Palestine" because it "demarcates the difference between liberalism and radicalism") seems like it is worthy of some remark (of all the differences between liberals and "radicals", this is the issue that is the line of demarcation? And that doesn't exhibit some sign of centrality that Jews might have valid grounds to comment on, not the least of which could be wondering how it is a small country half a globe away came to occupy such pride of place?). The larger issue is the metadebate about whether it's valid to even ask the question; or more accurately, whether it is possible -- in any context, with any amount of disclaimers about relative prioritization -- to ask the question without it being read as "centering". The cleverest part of the whole play, after all, is that the very act of challenging this deliberative structure whereby any and all Jewish contributions suffice to center is that the challenge itself easily can become proof of our centrality.

But clever as it is, it can't and shouldn't be a satisfactory retort. There needs to be a lot more introspection about whether and how supposed allies of the Jews are willing to acknowledge the possibility that their instincts about when Jews are "centered" and when we're silenced are out-of-whack, without it becoming yet another basis of resentment for how we're making it all about us. And if we can't do that, then there is an antisemitism problem that really does need to be addressed. When discussing their struggles, members of other marginalized communities need not talk about Jews all the time, or most of the time, or even all that frequently. But what cannot stand is a claimed right to talk about Jews without having to talk with Jews. The idea that even the exploration of potential bias or prejudice lurking within our political movements represents a deliberative party foul is flatly incompatible with everything the left claims to believe about how to talk about matters of oppression.

West decided to bring up the Jewish state in his Jeremiad against Coates. It was not a central part of his argument, and so it should not be a central part of the ensuing public discussion. But having put it on the table, it cannot be the case that Jews are forbidden entirely from offering critical commentary.

One might say that a column or two in a few Jewish-oriented newspapers, lying at the tertiary edges of the overall debate, is precisely the right amount of attention that should have been given. If that's viewed as too much, then maybe the right question isn't about whether Jews are "centering" the discussion, but rather whether our presence really is a "central" part of anti-racism movements at all.

Drawing the line between "central" and "centering" is difficult, and requires work. There are situations where Jews demand too much attention, and there are times we are too self-effacing. But surely it takes more than a single solitary column to move from the latter to the former. More broadly, we're not going to get an accurate picture of how to mediate between "central" and "centering" unless we're willing to discuss how ingrained patterns of antisemitism condition our evaluations of Jewish political participation across the board.

Thursday, August 09, 2018

I'll Tell You What's Really Detestable, Mr. Wiesenfeld

How is it that every time I see something embarrassing being done by an American Jew, Jeffrey Wiesenfeld's name pops up?
Trump isn’t perfect, of course, say some of his Orthodox supporters. Jeffrey Wiesenfeld, a former political aide to Republicans and Democrats (Mayor Koch, Gov. Pataki and Sen. D’Amato), referenced the Trump administration’s family separation policy for arrested illegal immigrants, including asylum seekers, at the Southern border. “Yes, the policy was not carried out with finesse, no question about it,” Wiesenfeld said.... But, added Wiesenfeld, “what’s really detestable is when this gets compared to the Holocaust.”
Is it opposite day? Let me fix that for you:
"Yes, some of the comparisons have not been carried out with finesse, no question about it. But what's really detestable is ripping small children away from their families at the border."
You know what that's called? Perspective. Wiesenfeld should try it out.

Other Wiesenfeld highlights include trying to bar Linda Sarsour from speaking at CUNY's graduation and leading the fight to block Tony Kushner (whom he compared to a "kapo" -- though he chivalrously put the words in his mother's mouth) from receiving an honorary degree. More recently, Wiesenfeld was furious that Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez gave a speech at the Museum of the Jewish Heritage.

How Trump v. Hawaii Will Be Overturned

Leah Litman has a good essay up on Trump v. Hawaii and Korematsu. Litman persuasively demonstrates how the former is a continuation of the latter's legacy (despite the majority's attempt to disavow the connection), and in that respect it makes for a maddening read. But the good news is that, as Litman further argues, part of Korematsu's legacy is that it became part of the anti-canon and eventually overturned -- and that, she predicts, will be Trump's fate as well.

I agree with Litman on this front, and for me the only question is when. But my true fantasy -- which I doubt will come true but dreams are dreams -- is that Trump be overturned and disavowed while members of the majority (especially Roberts) remain on the Court.

They deserve that. They deserve to have to sit there are watch as their opinion is relegated to history's dustbin. If there's justice in the world, they will be there the day Trump v. Hawaii finishes Korematsu's arc.

Tuesday, August 07, 2018

Post-Op Thoughts on Tonight's Elections

With one major exception -- the Kansas Republican gubernatorial primary -- most of the big races from tonight have been called. The biggest, of course, is the special election in the Ohio 12th, where Republican Troy Balderson looks to have just eked out a victory over Democrat Danny O'Connor to keep this seat red. That about exhausts the good news for the GOP, though -- a sub-1% win in an ancestrally Republican district that voted for Trump by double-digits can hardly be thought of as good news. If the country swings the way this district did, the Democrats take back the House by a comfortable margin.

That's the obvious takeaway. But what else have we learned tonight?

  • O'Connor improved on Hillary Clinton's numbers pretty much everywhere in the district (save Balderson's base of Muskingum County) -- which you kind of have to, in order turn a double-digit deficit into a near-dead heat. But where he really outperformed is in juicing turnout in the most Democratic part of the district: Franklin County, home to The Ohio State University. What does that mean? Well, on the one hand it supports those who argue that the route to Democratic success lies in exciting the core base rather than chasing swing voters. But on the other hand, it also suggests that the core base is perfectly happy to get energized about a relative moderate like O'Connor (at least in the right district).
  • The other tea leaf we're seeing is that Democrats are casting more ballots in these primaries than Republicans, even in locales that have generally been thought of as Democratic stretches. So far, more Democrats than Republicans have cast ballots in the WA-03 and WA-08 primaries, and are tight in the WA-05 -- all GOP districts (Reps. Jamie Herrera-Beutler and Cathy McMorris Rodgers hold the WA-03 and WA-05, respectively, while in the WA-08 Dino Rossi will be looking to hold retiring Rep. Dave Reichert's seat). Ditto the MO-02, where incumbent Rep. Ann Wagner was thought to be a tough, if reachable, target for Team Blue.
  • Gretchen Whitmer's victory over Abdul El-Sayed in Michigan's Democratic gubernatorial primary shows what should be obvious: sometimes Sanders-style progressives win primaries, and sometimes they don't. Democratic Party voters are neither implacably opposed to left-wing candidates nor are they congenitally averse to them.
  • Finally, Missouri voters soundly rejected proposed "right-to-work" anti-union legislation, overturning the legislatively enacted bill by a crushing 2-1 margin. There's been a noticeable trend of union and working-class victories in some traditionally red-territories (think the teachers' strikes in Kentucky, West Virginia, Oklahoma, and Arizona), and this seems like further evidence of a shifting tide on the issue.