Friday, December 07, 2018

Antisemitic Hate Crimes are Like Any Other Hate Crimes

I want to flag three different stories about antisemitic hate crimes, all in service in the same fundamental message: Hate crimes which target Jews are not distinct from other hate crimes. They'd do it to Jews, they'd do it to other people too.

Case #1 is a sentencing decision in New York, where a judge gave no jail time to a man who
allegedly entered a Jewish nursing home in the Bronx and proceeded to "terroriz[e] residents," punctuating his rampage by "repeatedly bashing an 84-year-old man on the head with a fire extinguisher while shouting, 'I’m going to kill you, you mother f—ng Jew!'"
The judge concluded that the offender had a drug and alcohol problem, and recommended in-patient treatment in lieu of incarceration.

As someone who generally thinks we overincarcerate, I'm always leery about coming down too hard on judges for handing down sentences viewed as too lenient (this was always my worry in regarding the successful recall effort of Judge Aaron Persky, who gave only a six month sentence to a Stanford student convicted a rape). Of course, one can think we overincarcerate and also believe that a zero day prison term seems a bit light. But the bigger point is just to emphasize that Jews are not different from other groups in that, even in cases of brutal assaults, it is not the case that the rage of the criminal justice system reflexively rouses itself on our behalf.

Case #2 concerns a recent spate of alleged attacks on Bukharin Jews in Queens, which the NYPD has thus far refused to classify as hate crimes. I mention this in the context of the oft-reported statistic that Jews are among the most common victims of hate crimes in America (including, by far, being the most targeted religious group), and the occasional retort one hears to this fact that most of the reported cases are "only" vandalism or property crimes.

As these cases demonstrate, though, there is considerable concern in the Jewish community that many of the more severe attacks against us don't get recorded as hate crimes (even if they are acknowledged as crimes). To take a striking example: the 2014 FBI hate crimes dataset records no instances of homicides stemming from antisemitic motivations. Why is that striking? Because 2014 was the year where a White Supremacist killed three people at a Kansas City-area JCC. While it was reported at the time that the suspect would face hate crimes charges, the offense apparently never made it into the FBI database.

Again, the point here is that it isn't the case -- as some imply -- that the high levels of reported antisemitic violence is an artifact of the police being ready to jump on each and every incident which has even a whiff of antisemitic motivation. For Jews, like for anyone else, it can be a hard, uphill slog to even have severe violence against us acknowledged to be, and reported as, an incidence of hate.

Case #3 is actually two cases -- one of the Queens incidents mentioned above, and a Menorah vandalized in broad daylight in Cambridge, Massachusetts. In both cases, non-Jewish bystanders immediately came to the aid of the victimized Jewish community -- chasing away the attackers in Queens, helping put the Menorah back upright in Cambridge.

Here, we see a different sort of similarity between Jewish and non-Jewish hate crimes targets: For each, there are good people of all backgrounds, races, religions and creeds, who will stand up and do the right thing. Antisemitism is real, racism is real, Islamophobia is real, misogyny is real, homophobia is real -- all these things are real. But there are allies, and there are helpers. We're not alone. Thankfully, having friends who have our backs is another thing that Jews and non-Jews still have in common.

Thursday, December 06, 2018

Lessons from the UN's Failure to Condemn Hamas

A UN General Assembly resolution that would have condemned Hamas for terrorism and incitement was rejected today. The resolution received a majority of votes (87-57, with 36 abstentions), but did not pass after an earlier vote pushed by the Arab League successfully required the resolution to secure a two-third majority.

Some lessons to draw:

  • Let's not get too excited about Israel's new "friendship" with Arab states. There's been a lot of talk about Israel's increasingly warm ties with Arab nations, and to be fair, it isn't entirely a mirage. But it hasn't progressed anywhere close to the point where an Arab state is willing to vote to condemn a Palestinian actor in an international forum. American diplomats had sought to pick off at least a few Arab League nations as aye votes -- not only did they not succeed, they didn't even convince these countries to adopt the potentially face-saving route of voting against the resolution while allowing it pass or fail on a majority vote. Push came to shove, and the Arab League continued to stand as a rock-solid wall against anything that looks like it might deviate away from the UN's extreme and reflexive anti-Israel slant.
  • Nothing that is viewed as a "victory for Trump" is going to pass easy, particularly when it comes to the Middle East. As much as everyone likes to tout Nikki Haley, miracle-worker, the fact is that the Trump Administration's bull-in-a-china-shop orientation to foreign policy has severely circumscribed its negotiating leverage in international fora. This resolution, had it passed, would have been viewed as a major international triumph for the Trump administration. Nobody wants to give Donald Trump a major triumph in anything right now. In large respect, the failure of this resolution is the fruit of Trump's alienating unilateral recklessness in decisions like the embassy move. Trump-tactics come with a cost, and it's paid in the defeat of resolutions like this.
  • Is criticizing Palestine the "last taboo" in international diplomacy? We hear so much about how it's "impossible" or "taboo" to criticize Israel. Clearly, nobody has ever told the UN that -- it criticizes Israel all the time (indeed, sometimes it seems like it literally spends all of its time criticizing Israel). But, as this resolution demonstrates, even a single solitary denunciation of Hamas (not even the Palestinian Authority -- just Hamas!) yields a knockdown, drag-out fight -- and a fight that few are surprised to see Hamas ultimately win. That's a testament to just how sacrosanct and untouchable the United Nation's anti-Israel orientation really is.
  • Chile, New Zealand, Norway, and Switzerland (among many others) are weasel states. I mentioned before that the Arab League successfully moved to require that the anti-Hamas resolution require a two-third majority. That vote was extremely close -- it passed by a 75-72 margin, with 26 abstentions. Among the abstaining states were Chile, Norway, New Zealand, and Switzerland -- all of whom proceeded to vote in favor of the resolution they'd just ensured could not pass. Nice try. Even worse than them were states like Argentina, Japan, and the Bahamas, who outright voted in favor of the two-thirds requirement before voting to pass the resolution. Nobody is fooled by this play.

Edward Said on the One-State Solution

Edward Said was a fervent proponent of a one-state, binational solution to the Israeli/Palestinian conflict. But unlike some, he at least recognized legitimate reasons to worry about it. These quotes, from an interview Said did with Israeli journalist Ari Shavit, are very illuminating:
 On the status of the Jews in the bi-national state he tirelessly advocated, Said told Shavit, “But the Jews are a minority everywhere. They are a minority in America. They can certainly be a minority in Israel.” 
Regarding the fate of that minority in Arab Palestine, Said conceded, “I worry about that. The history of minorities in the Middle East has not been as bad as in Europe, but I wonder what would happen. It worries me a great deal. The question of what is going to be the fate of the Jews is very difficult for me. I really don’t know. It worries me.” 
In addressing this concern, the critic of imperialism looks to “the larger unit” and recalls another empire. “Yes. I believe it is viable. A Jewish minority can survive the way other minorities in the Arab world survived. I hate to say it, but in a funny sort of way, it worked rather well under the Ottoman Empire, with its millet system.  What they had then seems a lot more humane than what we have now”
Each of these are interesting in their own way. The first is striking for just how blase it is -- Jews have been minorities before, they can be minorities again. What's the big deal?

Of course, history suggests that it might be quite a big deal, and in the next segment Said -- to his credit -- at least acknowledges that. In contrast to those who suggest that only an Islamophobe could possibly worry about the status of Jews as minorities in a single state, Said at least has the historical literacy to recognize there are real reasons for concerns. It "worries" him. It worries us too! It's a very real and live worry!

And then the final section, which is perhaps the most ironic -- calling back to an older, truly imperial order where the territory was not in Jewish or Palestinian hands. Maybe things were better off when some third party was in charge and could force the Jews and the Palestinians to stop squabbling and live together. Call it the "no state for two people" solution -- but the yearning for a far more explicit period of foreign dominion is, to say the least, fascinating from a figure like Said.

Wednesday, December 05, 2018

Republicans Don't Care About Democracy

I remember, after Trump won, but before he was inaugurated, reading some cockamamie plan for how Democrats could get Merrick Garland's nomination through the Senate. It had to do with when new Senators were sworn in and Joe Biden presiding over the Senate for the last time and basically meant slamming the nomination through during an extremely short period when the new Senate members hadn't officially taken office so the body was operating at just two-thirds of normal capacity -- with those two-thirds happening to have a Democratic majority.

I had no idea if it would actually work. And it's not as if I didn't understand the temptation. But I distinctly remember -- as despondent as I was over the election results, and as furious as I was about how Senate Republicans acted regarding Garland -- that this just wasn't fair play. It was an obvious abuse of form over substance, designed to subvert the outcome of a democratic election. There were, I thought, deeper dangers that lurked about when that sort of move became acceptable.

With what we're seeing in Wisconsin, Michigan, and North Carolina, that is feeling more and more like a sucker's move.

As the 2016 election season closed, we all remember the alarms raised when Donald Trump indicated he wouldn't necessarily accept the results if he lost. That fear was mooted when he ended up winning -- though we got a taste of it in North Carolina -- but now two years later we're seeing these anti-democratic impulses surge back in full force.

What has become evident is that the principle of majority rule scarcely even has pull as a reason when it comes to the Republican Party. The blase attitude toward the fact that in four of the last five presidential elections their candidate has lost the majority vote is one thing, as is their unsurprising reverence for the massively anti-democratic effects of the Senate.

But couple it to the ruthless use of partisan gerrymandering, which has allowed for Republicans to retain massive legislative majorities even in states where they are in the electoral minority. Couple with it open use of voter suppression techniques, often tracking racial lines, usually done with the outright endorsement of conservative judges. Couple it with transparently partisan power grabs like those we're seeing this week. And couple it, of course, with the overwhelming popularity amongst Republicans of an undemocratic thug like Donald Trump occupying the Oval Office.

Put all those couplings together, and you have a Republican Party that at this point that cannot be said to value democracy. Indeed, given their conduct over the past few years, it's almost impossible to put together a good-faith case that Republicans do care about majority rule. That's not something we could say 20 years ago. But it poses an existential threat to the continued vitality of the American experiment.

So let's be clear: If the republic falters, it will be the Scott Walkers, the Robin Vos's, the Pat McCrorys, just as much as the Donald Trumps, who will deserve blame, and who will and should go down as villains in the American history books.

Monday, December 03, 2018

Vectors of Threat for Academic Freedom

The prospect that Temple Professor Marc Lamont Hill might be dismissed from his tenured university position -- the Chair of the Temple University's Board of Trustees said he would "look at what remedies we have", but suggested that many on the board and the administration would like to fire Hill -- has sparked a renewed round of the ever-popular "who's the real threat to academic freedom" game. For all the belly-aching conservatives have issued over liberal universities which can't tolerate opposing viewpoints, there sure are a lot of cases where conservatives have successfully censored progressive academics!

I doubt that Hill will end up being fired, and it's been good to see many conservative academics make clear that any such university sanction would be an egregious violation of academic freedom (see, e.g., Robert George, Jonathan Marks, and Keith Whittington -- FIRE, which sometimes is viewed as conservative though I don't think that reputation is deserved, also has come out swinging backing Hill's academic freedom rights).

But this case did help crystallize in my mind the different vectors of threats to academic freedom, which may help explain how both the left and the right think it's self-evident that the "other side" is the real danger (beyond the usual self-serving reasons I mean). To generalize:
When threats to academic freedom bubble "up" from below -- come from students or faculty -- they tend to come from the left;
When threats to academic freedom percolate "down" from above -- come from politicians or the Board of Trustees -- they tend to come from the right.
Front-line administrators (like Deans), who can encounter pressure from both sources, are "swing votes".

No doubt there are exceptions. And I hasten to add that this typology only holds on a political axis -- along other axes of campus identity (e.g., racial, sexual, or religious lines), there are different stories to be told about who and what prevents certain groups from engaging as equals in campus discourse.

But on the purely political side of things, and based on my admittedly non-scientific recollection of cases, this distinction seems to hold up pretty well. Start with the threats progressives face: It is the Temple Board of Trustees threatening Hill's job. Steven Salaita was "unhired" by the Univeristy of Illinois' Board, validating a decision by the Chancellor. It was UNC's board which voted to shut down centers and clinics which clashed with conservative political priorities, for nakedly political reasons.

If you move over to cases of conservative academics being targeted, examples like Bret Weinstein at Evergreen State or Charles Murray at Middlebury are primarily cases of student behavior. Academic BDS campaigns almost exclusively emanate from students or faculty, while facing strong administrative resistance (see Pitzer or Michigan). And the more general claims that conservative views are "unwelcome" or that college is an "unsafe space" to be a conservative are typically directed at the conduct and outlook of students and faculty.

No doubt this divergence is in large part attributable to the relative political make-up of college faculties and students versus governing boards or political overseers (in retrospect, it also explained the instincts behind my "Do Jews Need a Protest Politic" post, which posited that campus groups who protect their rights via administrative action rather than student protests will automatically code as conservative). But the differences between these threat-vectors has significant practical ramifications, that go far in explaining why both conservatives and liberals think they're the primary victims of academic freedom violations.

On the one hand, it perhaps shouldn't surprise -- though many people were surprised -- that there have been more "political" firings of left-wing professors on campus than right-wing professors, and the gap has gotten bigger over the past few years. And if you think of who has the capacity to issue blunt, sweeping, heavy-handed assaults on academic freedom -- terminating employment, shuttering a program, passing a law -- then that figure makes sense. For the most part, students and faculty can't do that (or at least, not with much greater expenditures of effort).

So the liberals can justly point out to the conservatives that, if they're the political orientation threatened by the elements within academia that have the de jure authority to end a career or eliminate a program with the stroke of a pen, then they are the group more threatened by academic freedom violations -- period.

But there's another way of viewing the problem. It's true that boards and politicians have greater blunt dominative authority which, when exercised, poses a greater threat to academic freedom than any power faculty or students hold. But it's also true that board and politicians "touch" the day-to-day operations of academia far more infrequently than faculty and students do. What the latter lack in bluntness, they make up for in terms of omnipresence -- the conservative complaint regarding the state of academic freedom tends to rely less on direct cases of censorship by administrators and more about an atmosphere or mood where certain views are shunned or difficult to air (see this profile of conservative women at UNC, or this account from NYU). It is not a single act of censorial pronouncement that silences conservatives on campus, but the constant prick and needle of dismissiveness, eye rolls, "jokes", and shunning that together creates a landscape where conservative views are effectively unable to be aired.

So the conservatives could reply by saying that a few stray bolts of administrative lightning might be flashy, but they hardly overwhelm the suffocating blanket of ubiquitous liberalism which they see as draped over their academic communities. It is nuts, they would argue, to suggest that in general academic squelches liberal ideas and facilitates conservative ones.

One reason that I suspect progressives would find this argument frustrating is that it adopts a view of power that conservatives tend not to find attractive in other contexts. When speaking of racism, for example, conservatives are not generally sympathetic to any understanding of the term other than deliberate de jure action by an official authority. The complaints about eye rolls and dismissals are -- dare I say it -- best characterized as "microaggressions", and we all know how conservatives feel about those.

This framework also has some difficulty distinguishing between bad de facto "censorship" and simple widespread negative reactions to ideas. After all, thinking "this idea is wrong" -- or even "this idea is racist" -- is not censorship, it's judgment. That one's speeches are met with protests, one's classroom contributions are met with snickers, and that nobody wants to date you after that column you wrote calling abortion murder -- none of these would be viewed as a form of oppression by conservatives but for the fact that conservatives are experiencing them.

Hence, the conservative appeal to this framework in the academic context reasonably comes off as opportunistic. It also opens the door to a more expansive liberal retort, identifying a still-further basic threat to, if not "academic freedom", then at least the diverse and pluralistic exchange of ideas. If academia is built for a particular type of student -- one who is, on average, wealthier and Whiter than America writ large, then it follows that certain types of views and arguments will most likely be systematically underrepresented and underconsidered. If, for example, campuses are poorly equipped to engage with and include undocumented immigrant students, that likely has an impact on the way campus debates about immigration will proceed. This argument relies on a similar (albeit not identical) understanding of power as does the conservative case; if they admit one, they really should have to admit the other.

Be that as it may, I do think that a focus on the vectors of threats to academic freedom -- the different ways in which those threats manifest when they stem from politicians and boards (right targeting left) versus when they stem from faculty and students (left targeting right) -- can help explain the sense of talking past each other that is so prevalent in these conversations. 

Brazen acts of censorship, firings, or political interference are more likely to stem from the right. Day-to-day discomfort, including microaggressions, and an overall atmosphere of having to "walk on eggshells" are more likely to be the product of the left -- though any consistent theory of academic freedom then has to also admit that these same dynamics might also "censor" or "chill" other campus outgroups (such as racial, religious, or sexual minorities). The former is more nakedly wrong and more individually dangerous, but also rarer. The latter is more omnipresent, but also primarily an issue in aggregate and in any event more complicated at the case level.

And then even below those, there's a whole additional layer of ideas and perspectives which are not aired on campus because their proponents never make it to campus, because campus isn't built for them. Different vectors, all threatening the pluralistic exchange of ideas in different ways.