Saturday, October 27, 2018

Who's Afraid of Fighting Antisemitism?

I started writing this post yesterday, before the Squirrel Hill massacre at a Pittsburgh synagogue. I got distracted, and it feels somehow limp to post it today in the face of such an obvious, brutal reminder of the persistence of violent antisemitism in our society (not the least because the Pittsburgh shooting emphasizes what has always been obvious to anyone who cared to look -- that in America, right-wing antisemitism is far, far more dangerous than its left-wing counterpart).

Nonetheless, the points I wanted to make here still have importance, even if comparatively overshadowed -- certainly, insofar as Jews look to see what sort of systemic allyship we can expect from the left not just in this hour but in the days and weeks and months going forward.

There was some controversy over the past few days about the role of Jewdas -- a left-wing non-Zionist British Jewish collective -- taking on a role in doing antisemitism training for Labour. For many years Jewdas as positioned itself as the irreverent, rebellious youth of the Jewish community -- gleefully pricking sensitive areas and popping communal orthodoxies -- a stance which perhaps has some value but whose virtues are maybe exhausted in the current moment.

I don't really want to talk about that specific controversy (coverage here, the activist's response here, if you're interested). But I do think it's worth exploring the standpoint Jewdas is articulating right now on antisemitism, because they are reflective of the current moment on the Jewish left. It is moment that Raphael Magarik captured well in a recent Forward article: a mixture of renewed interest in and deep ambivalence towards actually fighting antisemitism in a robust and systemic way. That's a step forward from even a few years ago, where antisemitism was almost exclusively viewed as a ginned-up distraction by the right to silence the left. But it's still a difference of degree, not kind: the Jewish left's interest in the fight against antisemitism, it seems, is fundamentally managerial in nature -- they want to make sure we don't fight too hard, or too aggressively, lest we "center" ourselves or sap energy from other more important struggles, or (God forbid) actually demand tangible alterations in how Israel and Palestine are talked about in left communities.

A few weeks ago, for example, Jewdas posted an unsigned statement on antisemitism that really demonstrated why it shouldn't be within 40 miles of antisemitism training. I have several problems with it, starting with the way it articulates the "buffer theory" of antisemitism (ask me about how I view Aurora Levin Morales' "antisemitism is what happens when Jews sell out oppressed people to save their own skin and get their comeuppance for it" conception some time).

But what I want to focus on is how Jewdas, even in the course of nominally tackling antisemitism, is at least as (if not more) worried about the possibility that ... people will tackle antisemitism. The vast majority of the essay is spent speaking of all the higher priorities the left should privilege about antisemitism and which antisemitism -- or more aptly, fighting antisemitism -- is distracting energy from. This culminates in the vomit-inducing passage "whereas before antisemitism was encouraged in order to direct the public’s attention away from its exploitation, today antisemitism is vilified in order to divert public support away from the best chance for better living than we’ve had in decades." It's hard to know which aspect of this is more appalling: the blithe acceptance that antisemitism has been successfully "vilified", or the explicit declaration that this is a bad thing.

Indeed, the author doubles down on this point: going on to say that Britain's "moral victory in WW2 is part of what defines us as a nation. Whereas before, antisemitism was part of a nationalist ideology and identity, today it is philosemitism." This is flatly bonkers as an articulation of the national identity of Britain or anywhere else, and is the sort of self-congratulatory vindicatory claptrap that any half-way decent leftist shouldn't be able to write without retching. It should go without saying that neither the UK, nor the US, nor anywhere else in the Gentile world constructs its national identity around its great love for the Jews (or any of its other minority groups); the only people who claim otherwise are those seeking to put down the Jews for being too uppity and demanding (we haven't massacred you lately and yet still it's demand demand demand!).

In other words, Jewdas' program on antisemitism centers around the claim that the danger of antisemitism pales in comparison to the danger of opposing it. To the extent the left should fight antisemitism, it's really to pump the brakes, because when Jews (or at least other Jews, Jews-not-them) fight antisemitism, it's a dangerous and scary thing. If we've progressed beyond Bruce Robbins' "The real issue here is anti-Semitism; that is, accusing people of it" (this came in the defense of a Christian clergyman who was outrageously accused of antisemitism for nothing more than his suggestion that if Jews didn't want to beaten up in the streets of Europe, they should try being more vocally anti-Israel), it's not by a lot. Antisemitism may be bad, but people actively contesting antisemitism is a lot worse.

And this isn't just about Jewdas. Magarik, for example, expresses his worry that it is "too convenient" for Jews "to rediscover our own oppression" when we should be reckoning with our own power and privilege. The obsession on the Jewish left with Jewish "centering" -- making it all about us, hoarding resources and energy to ourselves that are more urgently needed elsewhere -- should be read in this register as well (particularly given just how little it takes before the "centering" charge starts to manifest).

Contra Magarik, not all of us have been in the process of "rediscovering our own oppression" because not all of us had the luxury of forgetting about it to begin with. But there's something extra-grating about a cadre of Jews who -- almost (if not quite) by admission -- have been historically terrible at addressing antisemitism, who had been slumbering through its dangers, who have even now great ambivalence about robustly fighting antisemitism, and who are openly distrustful of pretty much all other Jews-not-them, emerging from dormancy and immediately assuming that it should be the acknowledged leaders of the fight against antisemitism as against those of us who hadn't been napping on the subject. That'd be terrible even if half their motivation didn't seem to be to make sure that we didn't fight against antisemitism too hard.

I continue to think that the most important overlooked attribute of antisemitism on the left (though not just there) is its epistemic dimension -- the persistent mistrust, suspicion, skepticism, discrediting, and gaslighting directed at Jews, particularly when Jews talk about our own lives and vulnerabilities. The Jewish left has been deeply implicated in this wrong, and has not come close to extricating itself from its grip -- which accounts for its ambivalence towards any actual fight against antisemitism because such a fight almost by definition requires crediting and empowering Jewish voices writ large.

There has been a genuine shift in the Jewish left over the past few years from almost total dismissal of antisemitism as a extant social phenomenon towards a willingness to kinda-sorta tackle it. But they're not all (or most, or half) of the way there and, more importantly, they haven't done sufficient work to unlearn the practices that made them so unreliable on the subject in the first place. Most notably, they still associate fighting antisemitism with reactionary elements -- with racism rather than anti-racism, with breaking coalitions rather than forging them, with restraining people rather than emancipating them, with the ruination of a chance at a better world rather than a prerequisite for it.

So I welcome the shift. But antisemitism cannot be effectively fought by people who are terrified of antisemitism actually being fought -- who think that vilifying antisemitism is more dangerous than practicing antisemitism. On that basis alone (though there are others), the Jewish left is not, have not been, and is not prepared to be leaders on the subject of antisemitism right now. The best move for them for the time being is to step back and learn from those of us for whom antisemitism hasn't necessitated any "rediscovery" at all.

Thursday, October 25, 2018

Jews Are Just Like Everyone Else, Only More So

Recent trends in Jewish communal life are a lot easier to grasp once you realize that they're basically  the exact thing going on across America, only Jewish (and so therefore distorted by our rather asymmetrical political distribution).

On the right, we're seeing a near-complete collapse of support for basic liberal and democratic principles coupled alongside increasingly bold flirtations with outright fascism. ZOA is the representative group here. A (very small) rump remainder of moderate conservatives is trying to resist this, to little success and functional irrelevance.

On the left, there's growing suspicion -- often spilling into outright antagonism -- towards "establishment" representatives who themselves identify as left-of-center but are thought to be hopelessly compromised. This, of course, is combined with more predictable loathing of the Jewish right -- because, again, the whole fascist-curious thing. The worry is that between the hatred of the right and the disgust towards the not-them parts of the left, the resulting politics ends up being reduced to inchoate, uncontrollable "burn it all down"  rage. I'd say IfNotNow embodies this sect.

And then we get the Jewish establishment, which is more-or-less the center-left. Fortunately for it, the Jewish left-of-center establishment is considerably more dug-in than counterparts on the center-right, and so its ship does continue to sail -- albeit not without effort. On its best days, its representatives are trying to chart a course that both vigorously opposes the dangers of the right while not acceding to what sometimes seems to be essentially nihilist fury emanating from the further-left. On its worst, it engages in bland "both sides"-ism while practicing its best "Rome burning" fiddle routine. Does this describe, say, the ADL or the JFNA? I'd say so.

It's all obviously familiar, and yet standing in the middle, I somehow didn't really perceive the parallels. The major difference in the Jewish case is that there are proportionally a lot more left-of-center representatives, which alters how that branch of the conflict shakes out a little bit. But that has more impact on who is democratically legitimated to win the fight than it does on the fundamental battle-lines of it.

In short: What the Jewish community is going through right now is pretty much what America is going through, if America had backed Hillary Clinton by nearly 50 points.

Tuesday, October 23, 2018

Tuesday Quick Reviews

It hasn't just been Assassin's Creed: Odyssey for me these past few days (though there certainly has been a lot -- a lot -- of Assassin's Creed). Jill and I have also picked up a bunch of new (or "new", for us) television. So you get ... quick reviews! (Potential mild spoilers below).

Mozart in the Jungle

It's weird to describe a show with four seasons that won a Golden Globe as "flying under the radar", but I never heard of it until a friend recommended it a few weeks ago. It's a very entertaining, very self-assured show, whose biggest strength is in its embrace of the weird, insular, sort-of-elite but sort-of-working-class New York Symphony Orchestra. We accidentally watched the first episode of season four before anything else, and it worked so well as a pilot we didn't even realize we were on the wrong episode until we went to the main menu.

The characters include the world's first (as best I can tell) depiction of a Manic Pixie Dream Boy in conductor Rodrigo de Souza (Gael Garcia Bernal). Other standouts include Bernadette Peters (looking amazing as she rounds 70) as the chairman of the orchestra's board, and Saffron Burrows as a lead cellist and semi-mentor figure for the female lead, an aspiring oboist played by Lola Kirke (who's fine, if not quite on the level of some of her peers). Burrows in particular deserved far more screen-time -- she shone in every scene and plot she was in. The male characters -- de Souza included, but especially emeritus conductor Malcolm McDowell -- do seem to suffer from a lack of any meaningful character growth (or in McDowell's case, jack-knifing wildly between complete pompous ass and comradely mentor figure).

One thing the show does very well with Kirke is depict the sheer amount of work that goes into, not being the best in the world, and not even being the second best in the world, but being someone who can barely scrape their way onto the very edge of an orchestra that is consistently (if mostly passingly) described as decidedly middle-tier. This isn't the story about talented wunderkinds floating through the rarefied world of the musical elite (well, except for Rodrigo). It's a story about how if you're incredibly talented, work exceptionally hard and do everything right -- well, congratulations, it's possible you'll succeed. Or you possibly won't. It's a toss-up.

Jack Ryan

It's been awhile since I've immersed myself in the world of Tom Clancy. I've read a good chunk of the books, and played Rainbow Six -- but only the original (which came out in 1998). Anyway, this show is really scratching those Homeland itches, but without any characters as annoying as either Carrie or Brodie, which is an immediate mark in the plus column. It also did one of the best -- and most bracing -- depictions of how terrifying a terrorist attack is (probably not the best call to watch it before bedtime).

I never watched The Office, so beefy John Krasinski isn't strange to me, and I find he makes a competent if not outstanding Jack Ryan. Indeed, I don't think any of the characters really standout in either good or bad ways: Wendell Pierce as Ryan's boss James Greer and Dina Shihabi as the terrorist's runaway wife are probably the best of the bunch.

The show does I think lean a little too hard into its action set pieces -- I think it might do well to slow itself down and spend time focusing on the "boring" work of spycraft rather than having every episode culminate in a series of explosions or gunfights. This also could help develop the characters more -- several critics have praised Jack Ryan for its nuanced portrayal of the terrorists' motivations, but I don't really see it. Yes, they're more complex than "I hate the West because it's the West." But there's very little moral complexity or wrestling that occurs as adults -- outside of flashbacks, they're little more than blind fanatics.

I Feel Bad

Sadly underwhelming. I had high hopes for this show, if for no other reason than the Amy Poehler stamp of approval, but it's less than the sum of its parts. Nobody on the show is particularly bad, and Brian George in particular is a treasure, but as a series it is deeply, blandly generic. There's no story here that hasn't really been told before, and what variations there are here aren't presented in an interesting way.

You know what I really want? I want the family to be Jewish. Not just because Brian George really is a Jew of Indian descent, and I doubt he's ever really gotten to play a prominent Jewish role. But because there actually are some genuinely new stories to be told about non-White Jewish families in America. Why does Sarayu Blue feel bad? Because every time she goes to synagogue, she's asked if she's the custodian. Or because everyone assumes she was the one who converted rather than her White husband, even though her family's Jewish lineage stretches back generations. Or because her righteous indignation about all of that is tempered a bit by the fact that she's far more secular than her parents and really doesn't want to go synagogue more than a few times a year.

That would be an interesting, genuinely new story that would fit well inside the show's central conceit. I'd totally watch that show.

American Ninja Warrior Junior

No surprise that this is amazing. Obviously, the kids are incredible (and I like that the producers didn't really "baby" the course for them -- it's scaled down for their size, and there are a few areas where they made it easier, but by and large these are recognizable ninja obstacles). Akbar and Matt look like they're having a blast. Laurie "The Human Emoji" Hernandez is perhaps an acquired taste as a sideline reporter, but she's definitely better than Kristine Leahy.

My main question is why this show is exiled to "Universal Kids", a network I didn't even know existed until I started seeing ads for this show. If Masterchef Junior taught us anything, it's that shows like this can be screaming smash hits on the big boy network. American Ninja Warrior itself started off out on one of NBC's minor league networks before getting promoted to the majors, and I expect ANW Jr. to follow suit shortly.

Monday, October 22, 2018

Mandatory Swastika Recommendations, Part 2

Last year, I wrote about a case in Massachusetts where a teacher was punished for withdrawing a letter of recommendation for a student who constructed a swastika in the school hallway. The school suspended the teacher, accusing her of "bullying"(!) the student. Fortunately, the teacher was unionized, and her union contested the sanction.

Today, I saw that an arbiter reversed the suspension and found almost all of the teacher's actions to be permissible. The one bit of bad news, though, is that the arbiter did find that the school could punish the teacher for following up with the colleges she had sent a letter of recommendation to, informing them of her reason for withdrawing the letter (that is, telling them of the swastika incident). Since the incident was the subject of disciplinary action by the school administration, the arbiter found that the school could legitimately require the teacher to not provide any details herself or, at most, refer those who ask to the administrators. However, the arbitrator nonetheless concluded that this relatively narrow breach did not warrant a suspension but, at most, a letter of reprimand.

I not wild about even that much of the disciplinary decision being upheld, though this is certainly a net-win. But this case had inspired me to add a proviso I make all students requesting a letter from me agree to, that they license me "to write a letter of recommendation ... (including any follow-up messages or other communications [I] deem[] necessary), using any information [I have] that [I] deem[] relevant."

Put another way, if I credibly hear that one of my students is putting up swastikas, I absolutely will rescind the letter and I absolutely will tell the recipient why I'm doing it.