Wednesday, November 14, 2018

The Antisemitism that Keeps Me Up at Night

What is the type of antisemitism that keeps you up at night?

For me, believe it or not, it isn't the violence. It isn't Pittsburgh. Pittsburgh is scary, but -- rightly or wrongly -- I continue to think that this sort of antisemitism is and will remain a rare occurrence in the United States.

The antisemitism that gives me nightmares is a different sort, and requires some explaining. But the short version is that it's the antisemitism of negative partisanship (or "the politics of hurt").

Here's what I mean by that. Antisemitic acts are sometimes done by people who don't conceive of themselves as antisemites. In such cases, we'd expect that the reaction of Jews to those acts -- the declaration that "this was antisemitic" and "this hurt us" -- to count as a negative. The actor would not have desired that result, that his or her action elicited such a response would count against it. And even if the actor isn't so chagrined, we'd hope that this would be the impact on social observers. If people see that Jews reacted negatively to something -- that we thought it was scary, or unjust, or antisemitic, or what have you -- then they'd be less favorably disposed towards whatever it was that caused us to react so poorly.

But this isn't always what happens. Sometimes, in some cases, a poor Jewish reaction isn't viewed as a negative. It's viewed as a positive. It shows that you're poking the right people. It shows you're standing up to power. It shows that you haven't been cowed. "If you're taking flak, that means you're over the target", as the saying goes -- a saying which assumes that those firing the flak are also the enemy to be targeted.

Consider Tamika Mallory's infamous remark, in response to Jewish criticism of alleged antisemitism, that "If your leader does not have the same enemies as Jesus, they may not be THE leader!" Obviously, in context there was a specific antisemitic valence to the "Jesus" reference that has been much remarked on. But even if you strip that part away, there's a deeper problem: Mallory is casting it as a point of pride that the Jews are critiquing her -- are her "enemies". It's one of the ways she knows she's on the right track. The victim-blaming template Ariel Sobel attributed to the Women's March -- where largely progressive Jewish criticism is transformed into a coordinated right-wing assault (itself an antisemitic maneuver of deep vintage) -- is in the same vein. The goal is to make it so that when people hear these sorts of criticisms from these sorts of people, their instinct is to pull closer towards the object of critique. If they're taking flak from Jews, then they must be over the target.

This is what keeps me up at night, because it subverts any possibility of effective Jewish political action in response to perceived wrongs. If it is a perk that Jews are upset, if it is a positive political sign, then it's counterproductive for Jews even to try and communicate "this hurt us." Expressions of Jewish hurt end up redounding to the benefit of those causing the hurt. What are we to do?

Particularly in political contexts, this can yield dangerous feedback loops. I have no doubt that Jewish dislike of Jeremy Corbyn cost Labour votes in some districts, particularly heavily Jewish neighborhoods. I also have no doubt that, on a national level, the perception that Jews dislike Corbyn gained him at least as many votes as it lost him. There are definitely people for whom the chasm between Corbyn and the Jews is how they know Corbyn is "THE leader". The reason why Labour under Corbyn has so much trouble "quitting" antisemitism is because Labour is, in very real ways, aided by the perception that Labour under Corbyn antagonizes the Jews.

This has effects here at home too. Consider how Minnesota Jews might react to the Ilhan Omar doubletalk controversy I wrote about yesterday. Right now, the way I feel towards Omar, and the way I imagine many Minnesota Jewish community members feel, is something like the following:
We have serious problems with BDS, which for us has deep associations with antisemitism and antisemitic exclusion targeting Jews around the world. But beyond those substantive problems, it's especially upsetting and disrespectful for you to come before a synagogue, say you find BDS 'counteractive', and then once the election is over say 'actually, I've always supported BDS' and pretend like you weren't blatantly misleading us. The moderator "didn't ask a yes or no question"? Don't insult our intelligence. And add this to the 'hypnotize' tweet -- which you've still never acknowledged has antisemitic resonances -- and we've got some very serious concerns right now.
In a healthy political environment for Jews, this sort of sentiment would be viewed as a negative for Omar. It would be damaging, if Jews in her community were reacting this way, that would be a sign she'd done something wrong. I'm not saying it should necessarily be fatal or unrecoverable -- indeed, I think the opposite. In a healthy political environment, the fact that this would be viewed as a problem would motivate Omar to try to heal the damage and mend the rift. It would be bad for Ilhan Omar to be in a state where Jews were upset with her.

But does anyone have any confidence that, if such above sentiments were expressed, it would be viewed as a negative for Omar? Is it not possible, even likely, that such a reaction from Jews instead would be evidence that Omar was "bold", was "independent", was "unapologetically progressive" (even though, of course, the base of the controversy was actually that Omar had engaged in a pretty classic case of political weasel-wording)? Wouldn't the Jewish reaction very quickly be recast as a right-wing reaction, even though most Minnesota Jews are quite consciously progressive? Wouldn't many people be even more positively inclined towards Omar than they already were -- proud to see her stand tall against the Jewish onslaught?

Again, this is speculative -- we don't know how, if at all, the Jewish community in Minnesota plans to respond to Omar, nor how Omar plans to respond to her Jewish constituents. And the possibility of turning converting Jewish opposition into political support doesn't mean it's a path that would be taken. A genuine ally would resist the temptation; even if the prospect of adulation for "standing up" to the Jews presents itself, she would not indulge because of her own accord she would be unhappy that Jews were unhappy with her.

Nonetheless, this prospect -- and my fundamental lack of confidence that this prospect isn't actually reality -- keeps me up at night. David Hirsh wrote worryingly that -- more than BDS, more than school or synagogue security, more than the future of relations between Israel and the west, more than anything else -- "what really frightens me is that a generation of left-wing activists are being taught that the enemy is the Jews." Even if you think that's a little overwrought, I would endorse the notion that a generation of left-wing activists are being taught that if Jews are angry at them, that means they're doing something right rather than something wrong.

Naively or not, the cornerstone of my resistance to antisemitism -- what gives me the confidence that it can be resisted -- is a firm belief in the possibility that empathic dialogue and open communication can change minds and alter behavior. I believe -- again, perhaps naively -- that most people don't want to see Jews hurting, and hence that when we express hurt, people will be at least more inclined to change their ways.

If that's wrong, if people -- including the people in my community, including the people that supposedly are my most essential allies against Pittsburgh-style antisemitic violence -- are excited, thrilled, empowered by seeing Jews in distress, then my entire edifice for fighting antisemitism crumbles. And that keeps me up at night.

Tuesday, November 13, 2018

The Train Has No Brakes: International Scouting Edition

Two French Jewish delegates were barred from an interfaith scouting meeting hosted in Tunisia, in response to demands from the Tunisian BDS movement. Neither delegate was Israeli, and the organization they were representing, the International Forum of Jewish Scouts, is an umbrella organization for Jewish scouts across the globe.

There does seem to be some confusion as to who was responsible for the exclusion: the JTA article attributed it to meeting organizers, but the IFJS statement contends that BDS activists and nationalist parties in Tunisia sought and received a judicial order barring the Jewish delegates from attending.

But nobody seems to be contesting that this was a consciously sought-after outcome by Tunisian BDS groups, who had explicitly condemned the participation of the IFJS as "disguised normalization" of Israel.

In conclusion, the BDS movement has nothing to do with antisemitism and Jews who think otherwise are simply incapable of tolerating criticism of French Jewish scouts Israel.

Antisemitic Hate Crime Crimes Spiked in 2017

The FBI has released its hate crimes data for 2017. Jews remain, by far, the most frequent victims of religious-based hate crimes (58% of the total, Muslims were the second-most common victims at 18.6%) -- that's been true since the FBI began recording data in 1992.

Antisemitic hate crimes also surged in 2017, rising 37% from the previous year.

It's unclear whether the FBI figures include the bomb threats that terrorized JCCs early in 2017. Some have tried to argue that these threats (which it turned out were made by an Israeli-American teenager and an African-American journalist) were not antisemitic and that it is thus misleading to include them in a list of antisemitic incidents (I argued strenuously against that position here). My guess, though, is that they were included -- if only because the Department of Justice itself made the decision to indict the Israeli-American culprit on hate crimes charges. I'm not normally one to brag about being backed by the Sessions DOJ, but ....

In any event, assuming the bomb threats were included in the figure (and accounted for 163 discrete incidents), removing them from the total would yield an increase in antisemitic incidents of about 13% -- roughly the same rate as the overall increase in hate crimes across all victim groups.

Monday, November 12, 2018

The Senate as a Minority Set-Aside: A Modest Proposal

Every state receives 2% (2/100) of America's Senators. This is true for big states like California (12% of the US population) and small states like Wyoming (.18% of the population). The result is that smaller states have political influence grossly in excess of their number of citizens. Indeed, just nine states comprise half of the American population -- meaning that half of America is represented by 18 Senators, while the other half gets a whopping 82. And thirty-three states -- Missouri and smaller -- have a larger proportion of Senators than they do a proportion of the American population (which is to say, their state's population comprises less than 2% of the American total).

Critics of this arrangement contend that it is anti-democratic. But defenders say that's exactly the point. The Senate is designed to avoid tyranny of the majority; it is part and parcel of a broader commitment to protecting minorities from the predations of the majority.

On this view, we can think of the Senate as a minority set-aside program. A quota of seats is reserved for members of a given political community (those who live in small, less populous states); they are guaranteed representation far in excess of what they'd likely receive in a purely "meritocratic" (democratic) selection process.

Surely, the concern about tyranny of the majority is a valid one. And that got me thinking: why stop there? After all, if we're worried about tyranny of the majority, that concern is at least as robust -- maybe more! -- when talking about racial minorities compared to the minority of people who happen to live in the middle of nowhere, Nebraska. If the point of the Senate is to protect these vulnerable minority groups from being run roughshod by the majority, don't racial minorities deserve at least as much protection as Nebraskans?

So here's my proposal: The 25 least populous states have less than 20% of the American population, but nonetheless hold half of all Senate seats. Call them the "set-aside" states -- they get extra Senate representation to protect the minority from the majority. My proposal is that in the set-aside states, one of two Senate seats should be voted on only by people of color. So in Kentucky (26th most populous state), one of the Senators would be voted on by all residents in Kentucky, and the other only by non-White residents.

Now you might be thinking: that's not fair! Why should only a small subset of the population (Kentucky is approximately 15% non-White) get an entire Senate seat allocated to itself, one which most Kentuckians aren't able to vote for? But that's the same "tyranny of the majority" logic rearing its head again: after all, one could say the same thing regarding why tiny Kentucky -- barely a tenth the size of California -- should get two whole Senate seats all to itself. If the way we protect minorities is by setting aside half of our Senate seats to numerical minorities, then there's no reason why geography should be our sole or even primary metric.

Think of how minority-protective this would be! Currently, there are just nine non-White U.S. Senators even though people of color comprise 23% of America (again, contrast that to 50% of all U.S. Senators hailing from states comprising just 20% of the population). But if the set-aside states -- Oklahoma, Iowa, Utah, Mississippi ... all the way down to tiny Wyoming -- all took their principled devotion to avoiding tyranny of the majority and applied it to race, that number would shoot way up. Assuming each of these states elected a racial minority to one of the two seats, we'd have another 25 non-White U.S. Senators -- a total of 34%! Admittedly, this still wouldn't be as lopsidedly disproportionate as the overrepresentation of rural states -- indeed, it'd be closer to proportionate representation than the status quo -- but in service of avoiding tyranny I think we we can let that slide.

The color of skin you're born with is morally arbitrary, but then, so is living in Montana versus New York. Since I keep hearing that malproportioned electoral representation is absolutely crucial to avoiding tyranny of the majority, and since tyranny of a racial majority has historically been a far greater threat to American liberty than tyranny of the California, Texas, Florida .... Georgia majority, I can't fathom any reason why this proposal wouldn't gain the support of all those principled defenders of the Senate as a bulwark of minority rights.

Doubletalk from Ilhan Omar

While campaigning in the Democratic primary for Minnesota's Sixth District, then-candidate (now Congresswoman-elect) Ilhan Omar participated in a debate at a local synagogue. She was asked about BDS, and responded as follows:
 "I believe right now with the BDS movement, it’s not helpful in getting that two-state solution. I think the particular purpose for [BDS] is to make sure that there is pressure, and I think that pressure really is counteractive. Because in order for us to have a process of getting to a two-state solution, people have to be willing to come to the table and have a conversation about how that is going to be possible and I think that stops the dialogue. I want to make sure that we are furthering policies and advocating for things that get people closer to having that conversation."
It was a statement which assuaged some (though not all) of the Jewish concern about her 2012 tweet accusing Israel of having "hypnotized the world".

But now, the website Muslimgirl* claims to have a quote from Omar's campaign that suggests she's flipped on the issue: "Ilhan believes in and supports the BDS movement, and has fought to make sure people’s right to support it isn’t criminalized. She does however, have reservations on the effectiveness of the movement in accomplishing a lasting solution."

Now, if you squint really hard you might be able to jam those two statements together in a way in which they aren't mutually contradictory. The first statement focuses on why BDS is "counteractive" -- i.e., tactically ill-advisable -- without explicitly disavowing it. The second statement likewise acknowledges "reservations on the effectiveness of the movement" in the course of claiming to support it. It's also worth noting that the first statement is Omar's own words, while the second comes from her campaign -- it wouldn't be the first time a campaign worker issues a statement that runs ahead of what the actual politician wants.

Indeed, my suspicion is that Omar will likely land somewhere in a middle position -- opposing any legislative action to target BDS (she already opposed such a law in Minnesota), and supporting the right of others to boycott Israel, while not outright endorsing the practice on her own personal level.

But really, this just feels like classic doublespeak to me. In a contested primary, in front of a Jewish audience, Omar opposes BDS. Post-election, speaking to a Muslim media outlet, she supports it. It's not exactly the boldest example of progressive leadership. But what can you do? Politicians gonna politic, I guess.

* Most of the MuslimGirl article is a lengthy explanation for why "criticizing Israel isn't antisemitic", helpfully illustrated by the many issues and cases where Jews themselves are critical of Israel. Which, of course, we often are! And one might think that the commonality of such criticism among Jews suggests that the objection to, say, Omar's "hypnotized" comment isn't reducible to it being "criticism of Israel" but instead is something more specified -- say, its overlay with the trope of mind-controlling Jewish hyperpower. 

Alas, we never quite get there. Perhaps this is because MG thinks antisemitism only exists when it has something "to do with religion" -- a ludicrously narrow definition of antisemitism that is abandoned within the same paragraph when the author continues that it "is anti-Semitism ... to erase the opinions of these Jewish people living in Israel and abroad" who are critical of Israel in the author's specified ways. I actually agree it is antisemitic to erase the views and perspectives of Jews to better fit a particular political narrative -- one might suggest that assuming anyone who opposes Israeli settlement policy also gives a blanket get-out-of-antisemitism-free pass to any statement styled as "criticism of Israel" counts as just such an erasure -- but what does any of that have to do with "religion"?

UPDATE: In a text exchange with the writer at a Twin Cities area Jewish website, Omar appears to have confirmed her stance is the one attributed to her by her campaign: "I believe and supports the BDS movement, and have fought to make sure people right to support it isn’t criminalized, re: my vote against the Anti-BDS bill. I do however, have reservations on effectiveness of the movement in accomplishing a lasting solution."

While she denied that her answer at the synagogue forum was "politically expedient" -- she said the moderator “didn’t ask for a yes or no answer" and that she had run an "unapologetic campaign" -- it's pretty clear that this was a case of talking out of both sides of the mouth.

Sunday, November 11, 2018

Cindy Hyde-Smith's "Public Hanging" Remark Actually Perfect Metaphor for Modern GOP

Mississippi Senate candidate Cindy Hyde-Smith (R) (she's headed into a runoff against Democrat Mike Espy) landed in hot water with her ... interesting choice of words to describe a supporter. Said Hyde-Smith:
"If he invited me to a public hanging, I’d be on the front row."
Given Mississippi's long and brutal history of lynchings, it was a rather ill-advised comment.

I admit I've never heard this expression before. But from context, it sounds like the idea behind it is something like "I like this guy so much, if he asked me to do something facially unpleasant, I'd throw myself into it in the most enthusiastic manner possible."

And as an expression of GOP racism, it's hard to think of a more apt metaphor.

David's Novel Post-Election Electoral Proposal

There's been a lot of controversy regarding several extremely close races whose ultimate victor remains up in the air. These include the Arizona Senate race and the Florida Senate and Gubernatorial races (as well as, potentially, whether the Georgia Gubernatorial race will head to a run-off).

Here's my novel proposal to defuse these controversies and ensure that the person ultimately seated has democratic legitimacy:
1) If, after election day, a Democrat is ahead: count all the votes.
2) If, after election day, a Republican is ahead: count all the votes.
3) If, after all the votes are counted and a Democrat is ahead within a preset margin of victory: recount all the votes just to be sure.
4) If, after all the votes are counted and a Republican is ahead within a preset margin of victory: recount all the votes just to be sure.
5) If steps 1 - 4 are scrupulously and fairly followed: seat the winning candidate.
I know it's crazy -- but it's just crazy enough to work!