Tuesday, February 19, 2019

Not My President's Day Roundup

Our apartment's water heater is being replaced tomorrow. That means my one true joy in life -- long, languid, hot showers -- will also have to go for the day. It will be terrible.

* * *

China's crackdown on religious liberty threatens the tiny but ancient Kaifeng Jewish community.

One of the few Black mathematicians in American academia recounts the microaggressions and subtle racism which alienated him from his own discipline.

I think the tone of this column is a little off, but the broad point -- that leftist anti-Zionists have no friend more highly placed in Israel than Netanyahu himself -- is on the mark, and it's important that someone like Eric Yoffie is saying it.

Alabama newspaper editor urges the return of the KKK in order lynch Democrats (and insufficiently conservative Republicans). Yes, really.

Apparently, Louisiana has a bad habit of not releasing prisoners after they've finished serving their sentences.

"As a Jew, I’m either furious or eating. Sometimes both."

For all the talk of "creeping Sharia", the fact is that the American Muslim community is actually experiencing something very different: creeping liberalism. For a community that, for much of recent electoral history, at least leaned Republican (especially on social issues), the rapid embrace of feminism, gay equality, and sexual liberation among the younger generation is coming as a bit of a shock to the more conservative old-guard.

Monday, February 18, 2019

Unthinkable Thoughts, Part II: What if the Democratic Party Corbynifies?

Today, seven British MPs -- including Luciana Berger and Chuka Umunna -- announced they were leaving the UK Labour Party and would sit in Parliament as independents. It is, as I understand it, the biggest breakaway of sitting MPs from Labour in recent history (the last comparable action was in 1981, when four senior Labour officials -- two of whom were MPs -- left to form their own party).

There were quite a few issues that prompted these MPs to decamp, including perhaps most prominently the almost complete failure of Labour to commit to fighting against Theresa May's Brexit catastrophe. But of course, looming large on the horizon was the ongoing problem of antisemitism -- a disease ripping through Labour at both the grassroots and at the most senior levels.

The Democratic Party in the United States is not like UK Labour. People who try to argue otherwise are acting in transparent bad faith -- and not just because three-quarters of Jews voted Democratic in the last election, while Corbyn's Labour party polls below 20% in the Jewish community. It is insulting to the American Jewish community to suggest that we can't see antisemitism before our eyes; if the Democratic Party was a toxic place to be a Jew, we -- by which I mean Jewish Democrats, the Jewish majority, not whatever ZOA hack is tweeting their 304th comment of the week at Ilhan Omar -- would be saying so. In reality, Jews remain well entrenched in the Democratic community. Antisemitic incidents remain quite rare, and when they do occur they're handled with considerably more grace and decisiveness than comparable acts across the aisle.

However, as I stressed in my last post, this is not a series about what is, or even what is likely. Unthinkable Thoughts is about what could be, what is now within the realm of possibility. The question, then, is what happens if the Democratic Party becomes "Corbynified"?

Last week, referring to the great Ilhan Omar "AIPAC!" controversy, Anshel Pfeffer declared that Jewish Democrats had just experienced their first "Corbyn moment". The main feature of that moment was not what Omar said, exactly, or in how it was responded to by the Democratic Party as an institution. Indeed, along those metrics, this scandal was a rather minor affair: she did trade upon antisemitic tropes, but she quickly apologized and the party as a whole disavowed them. Can't ask for a better result.

Rather, the scary portion of the incident was in the metadebate -- the discourse about the incident that coursed through sectors of the internet in the hours and days following. It was here where things went well beyond (fair) critiques that Omar's words are the subject of a multi-day media frenzy whilst GOP antisemitism of comparable gravity are given a pass. Instead, we saw the development of a narrative where Omar did nothing wrong, and the contention otherwise is yet another case of Jews smearing good patriots with illegitimate "antisemitism" charges, acting as Israeli stooges, being the face of American racism, and just in general sabotaging the left. Along side this condemnatory narrative was a celebratory one -- that Omar was speaking forbidden truths, that she was telling it like it is, and -- most importantly -- the fact that it made Jews uncomfortable is a point in her favor. In this corner of the internet, Omar scored points because of, not in spite of, how she upset the Jewish community.

This, for me, is the heart of what I mean by "Corbynifying" (at least along the axis of antisemitism). It denotes a state of affairs where Jewish terror and misery is part of the point -- it's an active desideratum, it signals that one's orientation towards the Jewish community is on track. With a few exceptions (exceptions who are both quick to be trotted out but whose loyalty to the cause is always kept under close watch), in a Corbynified party Jews are viewed as part of the enemy camp, and so complaints from Jews about antisemitism are viewed much the same way as complaints of racism are heard by the GOP -- presumptively in bad faith, and if anything a signal that the party is getting things right.

This is, as I've written before, the antisemitism that keeps me up at night. And we're at the point where this future is, if not yet "likely", than certainly "thinkable".

It's worth noting that a "Corbynified" Democratic Party does not necessarily mean a friendly Republican Party. More likely, it'd mean a Democratic Party and Republican Party that are deeply hostile to Jewish values. I've remarked before that trying to imagine what I'd do as a Jewish voter in the UK is the one thought-experiment that generated sympathy for the predicament of "Never Trump" Republicans, and that sentiment carries over.

And it must be stressed: right now the Democratic Party as an institution is not "Corbynified", or anything close to it. It's just not, and the people insisting otherwise are almost exclusively those for whom Corbynification is clearly their desired political future.

Yes, there is a loud cadre of self-described leftists on the internet that is ecstatic about any seeming break-up between Jews and Democrats. Then again, there's also a loud cadre on the internet that is screaming "Barbara Lee is a sellout!" because she endorsed Kamala Harris instead of Bernie Sanders. I feel pretty confident the latter will be very disappointed by the outcome of the 2020 primary. Loudness on the internet is not a reliable proxy for actual popular support.

But still. It's easy to forget that when Corbyn first entered the race to head up Labour, he was considered a fringe joke (a mistake that was also made about our current President). It turned out there was a very large swell of latent progressive energy waiting to be activated, and -- worse yet -- one of the things that activated and mobilized them was the antisemitism. Again -- this is central to Corbyn's appeal in the same way that Trump's racism was central to his appeal. Part of what Corbyn's voters like about him is that they view him as putting the Jews in their place. And so the question is whether there is a similar latent energy in a sector of the American people that burns with a similar desire.

It is a feature of Jewish history that these things can seemingly turn on a dime (I just read an account of how Jews reacted to emergent antisemitism in late 19th century Germany that felt alarmingly topical -- one of the main themes was how the community went from "we're basically fine, outside a few cranks anti-Jewish sentiment is a thing of the past" to having a 5-alarm fire raging around them). Yes, right now Jews are well entrenched in the Democratic Party. But can I imagine a world where Jewish Democrats are systematically targeted for primary challenges -- always somehow being viewed as "too conservative", "too accommodationist", "too establishment", "too Clinton-esque"? I can. I don't think it's likely, and I don't think they'd necessarily succeed. But yes, I can imagine it.

More importantly, we need to reflect seriously on how antisemitism can generate votes and energize coalitions. Too often it is taken as an article of faith that "antisemitism hurts our movement" -- that an antisemitic party is weaker than the one which is successfully fighting antisemitism. I don't think this can be taken for granted. Antisemitism is one of the most powerful mobilizing forces the world has ever seen. It seems wholly within the realm of possibility that a political movement which successfully harnesses antisemitism will be more successful than one that does not. The effectiveness of the "Soros" line of attack is demonstrative of this -- antisemitism, right now, is aiding conservative political movements in America. The Republican Party at least seems to believe that deploying these antisemitic tropes makes it stronger than it would otherwise be.

Indeed, the ties that bind antisemites together often cross normative partisan lines, and that creates significant opportunities for political growth. Antisemitism links together a range of vaguely "anti-establishment" and "anti-elitist" perspectives that, paradoxically enough, mean antisemitism is likely a great entry point for a host of new Democratic voters (consider the left-right convergence around the French "yellow vest" movement).

It would not remotely surprise me if there is a decent-sized clutch of independent-to-right-leaning voters who are suspicious of big financial institutions and angry about what they see as corruption in Washington, who tend to associate Democrats with coastal elitism and "New York money", and for whom Jews represent at least a plausible avatar of what connects what they think is wrong with America and what they think is wrong with Democrats. If this is right, then the path to resolving the  "What's the Matter with Kansas" question is making a grand gesture that says "I reject coastal financial domination." We joke about how antisemitism is the "socialism of fools", but the reason it's earned that label is because the easiest way to signal "I'm standing up to the banks", "I'm standing up to the elites", and "I'm standing up to the unaccountably powerful" -- all in one go -- is to signal "I'm standing up to the Jews". Such a message, it's plausible to imagine, be very well received among that set. It offers a pathway to turning reddish-purple voters blue.

Finally, it has to be emphasized that this is not solely a home-grown problem of the left. The right -- and particular Bibi Netanyahu -- shares a sizable chunk of the blame. Indeed, it is actively and I think intentionally trying to accelerate these dynamics. Much of contemporary politics is organized around negative partisanship, and the brazen of alignment of Netanyahu with Trump and other forces of far-right reactionary politics has very predictable effects. We can have a thousand conversations about nuance and Israeli society not being a monolith, but the fact is low-information voters aren't going to know much more about Israel than what it's government is doing, and if the government of Israel is blasting "WE, THE JEWISH STATE, ARE JUST LIKE TRUMP, ORBAN AND BOLSONARO" at 160 decibels, it's going to leave a sour impression on those people for whom Trump, Orban, and Bolsonaro are not friendly faces.

But the fact that blame would be overdetermined is not much of a consolation for ensuing political homelessness. If the Democratic Party ceases to be a home for the Jews, it would signal more than just a realignment. It would almost certainly mean that the liberal politics that much of the Jewish community has rallied behind for the past half-century will have finally failed. And it's hard to imagine that any of the candidates that might emerge in its place -- from Corbynista socialism to Trumpian authoritarian populism -- will be particularly favorably disposed to the Jews.

Saturday, February 16, 2019

The Strongest Point

A UK court has upheld the incitement conviction of Alison Chabloz, a singer-songwriter with a propensity for Holocaust denial. I don't want to get into the free speech concerns here -- the UK has different free speech rules than we have in the states, their merits or demerits are a matter for another time. Certainly, there's no question that Chabloz is a raging antisemite. Highlights of her lyrics include:

  • "Did the Holocaust ever happen? Was it just a bunch of lies? Seems that some intend to pull the wool over our eyes. Eternal wandering liars haven’t got a clue, and when it comes to usury, victim’s always me and you."
  • "Now Auschwitz, holy temple, is a theme park just for fools, the gassing zone a proven hoax, indoctrination rules."
  • "Tell us another, come on, my brother, reap it, the cover, for tribal gain. Safe in our tower, now is the hour, money and power, we have no shame."
  • "History repeats itself, no limit to our wealth, thanks to your debts we’re bleeding you dry. We control your media, control all your books and TV, with the daily lies we’re feeding, suffering victimisation. Sheeple have no realisation, you shall pay, all the way, until the break of day."
For added effect, she set the songs to the music of traditional Jewish folk music like Hava Negila (a tune she claimed she had made up herself).

But for whatever reason, I cannot stop cracking up at this highlight from the trial:
At one point, [Chabloz's attorney] suggested that the Nazis did not deliberately murder Anne Frank, declaring “She died of typhus, there is no dispute. They didn’t deliberately murder her. They might be responsible for her death by mistreatment.” Judge Hehir stopped the debate, telling Mr Davies: “I’m not sure that’s your strongest point Mr Davies.”
Indeed, I imagine not. Or maybe so, if you're hanging out in the right parts of the British internet. But -- just lawyer to lawyer -- if you're defending a Holocaust denier against the charge that they've engaged in hateful antisemitic speech, maybe just pivot away from the "did the Nazis really murder Anne Frank" debate.

Thursday, February 14, 2019

America's Israel Policy is Primarily Dictated by Non-Jews. Therefore ... What?

Periodically, you see people on the internet take great pains to stress that America's Israel policy is primarily dictated by non-Jews -- usually (particularly if we're talking about conservative Israel policy) Evangelical Christians.

When this point is made, as it usually is, by Israel-critical sorts, it is often a means of stressing that opposing these conservative policies is not a case of being anti-Jewish, since it isn't Jews who are driving the policies to begin with.

It is a point often made in ragged fashion, without following through to its logical end-point. For example, people might use it to say "AIPAC drives the agenda in Washington on behalf of Christian donors" rather than "maybe AIPAC doesn't drive the agenda in Washington, it's now largely been surpassed by explicitly Christian 'pro-Israel' organizations whose agenda AIPAC is forced to react to, and our assumption that its AIPAC that runs the show is a legacy of an antisemitic assumption of Jewish control."

Still, the broad point is correct. American policy towards Israel is mostly a function of what non-Jews want it to be. That doesn't mean that there aren't Jews who, fortuitously, happen to overlap with this or that Israel-policy agenda. But they're fundamentally epiphenomenal.

One might think that the next step in the analysis would be "so let's start asking: what do Jews want us to be thinking about regarding Israel?"

But more often, the next step instead is "so therefore, we don't have to listen to anyone but ourselves on this issue!"

Put differently, these actors might recognize -- correctly -- that American Jewish voices are actually relatively marginal to the state of American discourse about Israel (it's worth noting that Israel itself plays a part in this marginalization). But they don't actually mind that marginalization or seek to rectify it -- if anything, they exploit it so that they can engage in their own discourse about Israel in American without feeling guilty about stepping on the Jews. They're happy to keep on going as they always have, impervious to critical Jewish perspectives (though happily relying on the epiphenomenal Jews who happen to already agree with them).

Recognizing that Jews aren't running the show in Washington (on Israel or anything else) is step one. Step two is empowering Jewish voices -- not to the exclusion of other salient perspectives (most notably, Arab or Palestinian voices), but as part of a larger recalibration of the debate so that those with the most at stake have the most influence.

If you think step two is redundant because we already hear -- overhear, if anything -- Jewish perspectives, then you haven't actually absorbed the lesson of step one. And if you think step two is problematic because you're afraid that elevating actual Jewish perspectives might conflict with your pre-established political agenda, then you just approve of the political marginalization described by step one. Either way, no one should be fooled by the play.

Wednesday, February 13, 2019

Unthinkable Thoughts, Part 1: What if Israel Doesn't Agree to a Fair Peace Deal?

The working title of my dissertation is "Hard Thoughts" -- thoughts that we don't want to think, that challenge some deep-seated ideological or cultural prior that we have, but the consideration of which is tremendously important if a full and fair deliberative system is to flourish.

In that spirit, I'm thinking of starting a new series on "Unthinkable Thoughts". These are questions that I hate to ask, and whose answers are deeply uncomfortable for me, but which I've generally been able to get away with not asking because I've viewed their premises as sufficiently remote as to not require consideration. Now, by contrast, I think they're plausible questions that someone like me does have to think through.

That "plausible" is important to stress. For example, today's unthinkable thought is "What if Israel doesn't agree to a fair peace deal?" What if it's the case that Israel would reject even a fair deal put on the table?

In raising this question, I'm not asserting that I now believe "Israel will not agree to a fair peace deal." I'm saying that it is no longer unthinkable that Israel would so not agree, at least not without some degree of external pressure. It's a sufficiently realistic possibility that someone with my commitments has to reflect on it.

Of course, different people have different thoughts which are "unthinkable" for them. For me, some other questions I'm thinking of working through in this series include:

  • What if the Democratic Party "Corbynifies"?
  • What if a one-state solution becomes the only plausible solution?
  • What if leveraging antisemitism is the most effective way to advocate for Palestinian rights?

Some of you have thought the above thought for years -- congratulations. This is not an invitation for you to pass judgment on what should and shouldn't be a hard thought to think. If these thoughts come easily to you, then feel free to come up with your own unthinkable thoughts and contemplate them.

That said, I think I occupy a sufficiently well-populated ideological space within the Jewish community that I imagine some of these thoughts that have been unthinkable for me, are also starting to nibble at a good few of my peers as well. And so I hope that, if nothing else, this series provokes some renewed thought among that set.

* * *

So -- today's unthinkable thought is the prospect that Israel might not -- of its own volition, anyway, agree to a fair peace deal with the Palestinians. The proximate cause of thinking about this came upon reading a variety of people -- some earnest, some not -- asking what tactics the Palestinian people could use in order to pressure Israel for their own liberation if BDS (and, obviously, violence) were taken off the table?

I have some answers to that direct question, but what I want to focus on here is why that question I think has typically not been contemplated by many in the pro-Israel camp. Simply put, it is an article of faith among pro-Israel sorts -- and this is one of the rare things that still unifies left, right, and center pro-Israel sorts -- that Israel "wants to make a deal". They may be skeptical of the Palestinian Authority's ability to deliver, they may be pessimistic that Palestinian leadership will come to a table, but they are absolutely sure that if a deal was put forward, Israel would accept.

The reason why that article of faith matters is it suggests that the only thing standing in the way of a Israeli/Palestinian peace accord is Palestinian rejectionism. It's a step beyond the (fair) point that the failure to make a deal isn't solely Israel's responsibility -- of course it isn't, it takes two to tango. But this view posits that Israel bears no responsibility. Palestinians need to be pressured or induced into cutting a fair deal; Israelis are simply waiting for that pressure to bear fruit. If and when it does, Israel will sign on.

There's a historical narrative that supports this view -- starting from Israel's acceptance of the UN partition plan alongside Palestinian/Arab rejection, and moving through Camp David at the turn of the millennium. We know Israelis would make a deal because they have put forward such deals, and its been Palestinians who have said no.

Of course, Pro-Palestinian historians have a different take on this, but for my purposes I can accept it simply by observing that Israeli politics today are very different than they were in 2000, let alone 1948. So can we say, with absolute confidence, that if Abbas came forward today and said "okay -- we're ready to sign on the dotted line: compensation for refugees but no right of return, Israel keeps big settlement blocs near the Green Line in exchange for corresponding land swaps, Palestinian capital in East Jerusalem but Israel maintains control over Jewish neighborhoods," that this Israeli coalition would say yes? Really?

Absolute faith blinds us to troublesome reality. I mentioned this when Jonathan Tobin spoke of Benny Gantz saying settlement blocs (including some which could not remain under Israeli control under any reasonable peace deal) will remain Israeli "forever". Tobin said this proved that even the Israeli center doesn't see much hope in a peace deal "right now" or "for the foreseeable future". I pointed out that "forever" is quite a bit longer than "right now" or "the foreseeable future."

Maybe if the right opportunity presents itself, someone like Gantz will change his mind. Maybe he'll be able to bring 61 votes in the Knesset with him. I think it's plausible. But it's hardly guaranteed.

The fact is, there is no circumstance where a peace deal between Israel and Palestine will not require a leap of faith. And so there will always be a temptation -- even among people who say that they want a deal, even among people who in some sense genuinely do want a deal -- to step back from the precipice, and find a reason to say "no". Can we trust them? Will they follow through? Is this border a kilometer too deep or too narrow? Is that detail a dealbreaker?

Given all this, it may well be that Israel will not, of its own accord, accept even a fair deal if it were put out on the table. Which means it might need a little push. That doesn't mean they're the only party that might need pushing; but nonetheless, it is plausible that Israel will have to be induced into accepting a deal.

And that raises the question: what are the viable candidates for that "push"? What can justly be done, and what is a bridge too far?

These are uncomfortable questions -- and I don't think the right answer is "by any means, no matter the cost." But surely the answer also cannot be "nothing -- if a fair deal is on the table and Israel rejects it, then that's that." And given Israel's increasingly rightward tilt, I think we in the pro-Israel community need to start thinking through these questions sooner rather than later -- because if we don't, others will do the thinking for us.

Tuesday, February 12, 2019

Max Rose is My Hero

Rep. Max Rose, a freshman Democrat from New York (and one of the real "out of nowhere" wins in the 2018 cycle), was one of the first members of the Democratic caucus to criticize Ilhan Omar's "Benjamisn" remark.

Then, when Omar apologized, Rose accepted the apology, observing that the best way to work with Omar is to work with Omar (Omar, in turn, thanked Rose for calling on her to do better).

And then he had a little thing to say to the gathered media hordes.
I do want to point out to all of you that when Kevin McCarthy said that it was Bloomberg and that it was Soros and it was Steyer pulling the strings behind the scenes, none of you camped out. And their caucus stayed united and had his back, and none of you called him out on that. So I just want you all to acknowledge that there is some hypocrisy going on there too, okay? That caucus can't be chickenshit in the face of antisemitism either. In the face of antisemitism we don't acknowledge party, in the face of any hate, any vitriol, we don't acknowledge party. So seriously -- you're not agents of the Republican Party.
You can feel free to inject that paragraph directly into my veins, because it's a point I've harped on for years. Rose's broadside, if only a little bit, has seemed to have moved the needle. He may well have finally prompted a little reflection on the double-standard that meets Republican versus Democratic antisemitism.

And if we're being honest, we in the Jewish community share a bit of the blame here. I stress "a bit", because one of the great fictions about American Jewish life is that discourse about American Jews is primarily a function of what American Jews want it to be. The patterns that characterize how people talk about Jews are not established by Jews, and they're strikingly resistant to disruption from Jews. In many ways, I'm dubious that the Jewish community could generate equal outrage about mainstream right-wing antisemitism even if were committed to it (a fact evidenced by the reality that many of us have been committed to it, with little success to show for it).

But still, there's no question that our communal institutions have played their part in propagating this double-standard. We do not hold mainstream conservatives to the same standards we hold mainstream liberals to. Too often, it seems like mainstream Jewish groups are good at three things:

  1. Paying very close attention to explicit far-right and neo-Nazi hate organizations;
  2. Paying very close attention to adjunct professors of media studies at Northwest Idaho State University who've endorsed BDS; and
  3. Paying very close attention to every word that comes out of the mouths of Linda Sarsour, Tamika Mallory, Ilhan Omar, and Rashida Tlaib.

That's not tenable. It's chickenshit. It illustrates the
sharp disjuncture in how the Jewish community reacts to problematic left versus right behavior. The left is met “with the full sound and fury for every toe out of line,” while the right “must engage in the most flamboyant provocation to elicit even a murmur of discontent.” The left is “policed to the letter,” while the right is “treated with kid gloves.” 
Remember what happened when the ADL did try to hold Mike Huckabee accountable for cavalier Holocaust comparisons? Did Huckabee apologize and try to make amends? Oh no -- he demanded the ADL apologize to him for their chutzpah, while darkly warning that "Israel and Jewish people need to make friends, not insult the ones they have."

Can you imagine if Ilhan Omar had taken that approach? If she had replied to her Jewish critics by demanding they apologize to her and then suggesting "Jewish people need to make friends, not insult the ones they have"? We'd have a collective rage aneurysm. But Huckabee, of course, gets away with it. Because we don't treat antisemitism on the mainstream right the same way as we do antisemitism on the mainstream left.

So let's be clear: there is antisemitism in America -- far more than many of us would like to admit. But the key difference between Democrats and Republicans isn't that one has an antisemitism problem and the other doesn't.

They key difference between Democrats and Republicans is that Democrats are actually apologize when Jews express concerns about antisemitism in their ranks. Republicans almost never do.

Monday, February 11, 2019

It's My Birthday and I'll Roundup If I Want To!

Happy birthday (actual birthday, not blog birthday) to me!

I'm actually not doing anything in particular today, though Jill and I will be going to a hockey game this weekend. In a few weeks, we're planning to invite friends over for board games. If you're wondering "why in a few weeks, David?", the answer is I just had a Super Bowl party, and in typical neurotic millennial fashion I fear it's way too soon to ask my friends to voluntarily hang out with me in a party-like setting again.

* * *

David Roberts summarizes the Green New Deal proposal. He's pretty favorable towards it. So am I.

Weird headline aside, this is an interesting article on Israel's current state of play in Africa. In particular, Islamic extremists on the continent are starting to link their attacks to the Palestinian cause, which is in turn pulling African governments closer to Israel.

Much work needs to be done, but Israeli universities are at the forefront of supporting and integrating Israel's Arab minority, and deserve a ton of praise for it.

Partners for Progressive Israel, on the message that needs to be sent to both the right and left on Israeli and Palestinian rights

Antisemitic flyers at the University of Montana claim "Jews" are attacking the First Amendment.

On the antisemitic roots of the "Jews controlled the slave trade" canard.

Friday, February 08, 2019

The Cruelty is the Point: SCOTUS Edition

In my roundup the other day, I included the case of an Muslim death row inmate in Alabama who had received a stay of execution by the 11th Circuit because the state was refusing to let his Imam be with him during his execution (the state would have allowed a Christian chaplain, who was a prison employee, in the room). I noted that Alabama appealing the stay -- but I almost didn't bother, since in my head I figured there was no chance the Supreme Court would get involved. Why would they? The stay was at most a minor inconvenience, the Establishment Clause problem seemed obvious and extreme, and there was no pressing issue here that demanded high court intervention to stop the case from proceeding at its own pace.

Shows what I know. In a 5-4 decision (over a brutal Kagan dissent), the Supreme Court vacated the stay and allowed the execution to proceed. The inmate had filed his challenge too late -- not that it was actually barred, mind you, the Court just decided of its own discretion that the inmate was dilatory and that therefore it wouldn't allow the 11th Circuit to hear the case (never mind that, based on the record available, it seems that the inmate filed his case in a perfectly timely fashion).

I have to confess, this rattled me -- more than I would have anticipated -- and I'm clearly not the only one. There are times when courts issue rulings I disagree with, and there are times that courts -- even the Supreme Court, with near-infinite discretion over its own docket -- are effectively compelled to step in and issue a decision in fraught circumstances where some people are going to be displeased with the outcome.

But this wasn't one of those cases. There was no need for the Court to step in here; indeed, it was a shockingly aggressive intervention in a case where the balance of equities seemed to run decisively in favor of the inmate. In this context, the Court's decision -- and the meager faux-technical rationale behind (that doesn't even seem to stand on its own weight) -- feels worse than wrong. It feels petty. It feels mean-spirited, and it feels cruel. And while there are many times where I disagree with this Court on important issues, it is rare that I've felt that they were cruel.

But that's what this decision was. I don't have a philosophical objection to the death penalty (though I have a welter of objections to how it is administered in practice). But I've always felt very strongly that it is important to treat even condemned inmates with respect and dignity -- that capital punishment does not license dehumanization. We're already locking them in a cage and then killing them, visiting further indignities upon them seems gratuitous. So whenever I see rabble-rousers start targeting "last meals", or a prisoner's few hours of "recreation time" because they're prisoners, they're the worst of the worst, I blanch. Such minor nods towards the continued humanity of the condemned are deeply rooted in our nation's history and tradition; they are part of what separates a justice system from unchannelled and unconstrained vengeance.

It should be needless to say that allowing a man facing execution whatever comfort and support he might get from a pastor of his faith is also part of that tradition: it is cruel -- obviously and needlessly -- to deny him even that much. Indeed, the obviousness of this point is why Alabama has a (Christian)  chaplain on staff and available to begin with. So to deny that small comfort to an inmate because of his Muslim faith represents such a striking departure from tradition and practice that it is hard not to see it as motivated by religious animus -- that Muslims don't deserve whatever comfort and pastoral care they might receive from their false clerics. Particularly in the wake of the Muslim ban decision, one could forgive those who now seriously wonder if the basic human equality of the Muslim community is acknowledged at the highest court in our land.

This decision is not a "great" decision. It sets no sweeping precedent, it's (nominal) basis on the alleged "delay" in filing means it doesn't even constrain future cases brought under similar facts. But in a way, its insignificance makes it worse rather than better. This was not a great case. It was a petty case. And the Court's pettiness in interceding is, in its way, far more indicting of its character than many far more jurisprudentially consequential rulings.

Wednesday, February 06, 2019

Fraud Squad! Roundup

In a meeting, I got a phone call from my bank about potentially fraudulent transactions on my credit card. Had I recently ordered $50 worth of fast food pizza? No, I hadn't -- and so the account is frozen, and presumably the charges will be reversed.

An hour later, upon returning to my desk, I had the bizarre joy of seeing a confirmation from Domino's promising me that my "pizza is on the way [to Houston, Texas]!"

Anyway, long story short: I'm getting pizza for dinner tonight.

* * *

Jenny Singer of the Forward interviews Young Gravy, a Black Jewish rapper (and GW student). It's a really interesting and worth your time (I'm saying that not just because I think I played a role in putting the interview together!).

I think I missed this when it came out, but a Texas court struck down the Indian Child Welfare Act's adoption rules this past fall, saying that act's preferences for Indian children to stay with Indian families was racially discriminatory against non-Indians. The Judge, incidentally, was Reed O'Connor -- the same guy who just struck down Obamacare. He's certainly setting himself up as the go-to-guy for tip-of-the-spear conservative judicial activism.

Alabama was all set to execute a Muslim inmate -- but refused to allow a Muslim chaplain to be present with him during the execution (they did offer a Christian chaplain, which unsurprisingly the inmate did not consider to be a satisfactory substitute). 11th Circuit stays the execution due to the "powerful Establishment Clause claim" (and plausible RLUIPA claim). Alabama is appealing to the Supreme Court.

A new poll finds that over half of Israeli Jews agree that the controversial "nation-state" law must be either abandoned outright or fixed to confirm the state's commitment to democratic equality for all citizens.

A Cameroonian official has apologized for threatening an ethnic minority group by comparing them to Jews in pre-WWII Germany, namely: "In Germany, there was a very rich community who wielded all economic power .... They (the Jews) were so arrogant that the German people were frustrated. Then one day, a certain Hitler came to power and put them in the gas chambers."

I have no takeaways from the Likud primaries except celebrating Oren Hazan's imminent departure from the Knesset. Goooood riddance.

Iraqi Jews commemorate family members who were "disappeared" by state secret police.

Tuesday, February 05, 2019

What We Like About Each Other

Daniel Gordis has an interesting piece in Bloomberg about a co-existence program that brings together Palestinian and Israeli teenagers in the Gush Etzion area (which is inside the West Bank, just south of Jerusalem).

Aside from the substantive content of the piece, there were two tertiary elements that stood out. One is the notation that Gush Etzion had Jewish residents prior to Israel's establishment -- these Jews were expelled when Jordan took over the territory in the wake of Israel's independence war. Many of the current settlers in that territory descend from families which were forced to flee.

That sort of story is rarely raised. And to be clear, in a large sense for me it doesn't matter -- I've long maintained that part of a permanent settlement between Israel and Palestine will likely include a proviso that not everyone gets to live on the precise patch of land they'd most prefer, and that applies to Jewish families whose roots in Gush Etzion go deep as much as the descendants of Palestinian refugees who fled pre-67 Israel during the Nakba. But it is nonetheless a complicating narrative in a region where simplicity is too often craved, and I think that's important.

The other interesting portion came at the very end:
“I have another question,” an Israeli teenager asked her Palestinian counterparts at a recent meeting. “Is there anything about our culture that you actually like?”
The Palestinian kids were quiet for a moment, and then they laughed. “We love your music,” they said. Specifically Eyal Golan, an Israeli rock star who sings in Hebrew, but in a Middle Eastern, almost Arabic-sounding style. “We don’t understand the Hebrew; but we listen to him all the time; we know all the words by heart.”
The way this is framed by Gordis, one might think Golan -- an Israeli who sings "in a Middle Eastern, almost Arabic-sounding style" -- is appropriating culture that isn't his (think of consternation regarding Israeli Jews selling hummus, or wearing a keffiyeh). Yet as one might have suspected, Golan is himself a Middle Eastern Jew -- his family hails from Morocco and Yemen. So when he sings in a "Middle Eastern" or "Arabic-sounding" style -- that's his style. He has equal claim to as compared to any other person from Yemen or Morocco.

Anyway, as I said, these are tertiary points. The article is pretty light, all told, but worth a read nonetheless.

Monday, February 04, 2019

The Ballad of a Black Republican

Thomas Farr was a Trump nominee for a North Carolina district court judgeship.

Senator Tim Scott (R-SC), the sole Black Republican in the Senate, opposed his nomination, citing concerns about Farr's racial history. This isn't something Scott does on the regular; indeed, he's been a consistent supporter of President Trump's judicial nominees.

Now, as we know, the Republican position on racism has long been to angrily deny that they're okay with racism, while at the same time insisting that any alleged instance of racism that inconveniences them in any way is a left-wing smear that (sadly!) distracts attention from the "real" racism. In the event "real" racism does rear its head, the Republicans insist, they will be its most uncompromising foes.

So one might think, then, that if one of the few Black Republicans in Congress, who has not made a habit of accusing Trump nominees of racism, says "hey -- this guy presents a problem", that they might take that claim seriously and abandon Farr for a different Trump nominee whose legal views are almost certain to be materially identical to Farr in virtually all respects. After all, surely nobody could accuse Tim Scott of only leveling a racism claim reflexively, against any and all Republicans, to benefit a left-wing political agenda?

Alas:
In the three-page memo [signed by 31 conservative leaders], they urged Scott to reconsider his position, arguing a smear campaign was launched by “unprincipled left-wing activists who hate Tom” and suggesting Scott was complicit in the partisan attack.
“In these difficult days, when allegations of racism are carelessly, and all too often deliberately, thrown about without foundation, the result is not racial healing, but greater racial polarization,” they wrote. “Joining with those who taunt every political opponent a ‘racist’ as a partisan political tactic to destroy their reputations is not helpful to the cause of reconciliation.”
Scott, to his credit, remains unbowed:
“For some reason the authors of this letter choose to ignore ... facts, and instead implicate that I have been co-opted by the left and am incapable of my own decision making,” Scott said in a statement to McClatchy, adding he votes for Republican judicial nominees “99 percent of the time.”
“Why they have chosen to expend so much energy on this particular nomination I do not know, but what I do know is they have not spent anywhere near as much time on true racial reconciliation efforts, decrying comments by those like (Republican U.S. Rep.) Steve King, or working to move our party together towards a stronger, more unified future,” Scott continued, referring to the Iowa congressman who recently suggested he was sympathetic to white supremacists in a New York Times interview.
But you'll note -- and this is not Scott's fault -- that whatever credit Scott might have thought he'd earn as a good Republican soldier was unable to be cashed at the conservative bank. Much like the anti-Zionist Jew who finally sees an attack on Israel he actually thinks is antisemitic, the Black Republican who finally sees a case of conservative racism will find that he is viewed no differently than any other Black person who levels a charge of racism -- untrustworthy, unthoughtful, probably a tool, definitely a liar. That he generally buys into the conservative view on politics -- it doesn't matter. That he's more often ran cover for conservatives on questions of racism -- it doesn't matter.

That's the sad ballad of the Black Republican. Tim Scott might genuinely think that the reason that racism claims are discredited by Republicans is that so many of them are, in his view, made by bad actors acting in bad faith. But he'll find that, in truth, all it takes to become viewed as a bad actor is to be a Black actor who speaks of racism in a way that inconveniences Republican. Push comes to shove, they don't trust him any more than any other African-American public figure

Sunday, February 03, 2019

How the NFL Was Integrated

Apparently, the NFL was integrated a year before Major League Baseball, when the LA Rams signed former UCLA college standouts Kenny Washington and Woodrow Strode. It's never had the same cultural resonance as Jackie Robinson breaking baseball's color barrier -- probably because the NFL wasn't that big a deal in the 1940s.

But there's also a key difference in the narrative. In baseball, Branch Rickey looms large, and he represents White America's favorite civil rights story: White people, more or less out of the goodness of their hearts, deciding of their own initiative to do the right thing.

Yet the story of the Rams is different. The team leadership had no real interest in integration. Rather:
The Rams had just moved to Los Angeles from Cleveland, after smelling dollar signs on the West Coast. They needed a home and wanted to play at the L.A. Coliseum. But the stadium was publicly funded — owned by taxpayers black and white alike — and black sportswriters in Los Angeles successfully hammered local officials into requiring the team to integrate if the Rams were to play there.
This is the story where Black political power and influence moves the needle -- a different story, one with much more in common with the Black Power tradition than the sometimes overly moralized normative civil rights story associated (a bit unfairly) with Martin Luther King. The NFL was integrated because Black people in Los Angeles had sufficient clout to force it to happen. This isn't to say that there were no White players who were receptive audiences -- I have no doubt that the community had at least some allies among White movers and shakers in LA. But the central part of the story isn't White people choosing to the right thing, it's Black people being in a position so that it didn't much matter if White people wanted to do the right thing or not.

Friday, February 01, 2019

Rep. Omar Says Something Very Important on Antisemitism

I don't mean to make today Ilhan Omar day, but while doing reading for my last post I came across an incredible passage where Omar addresses how she responded to criticism of her infamous "hypnosis" tweet. It might be one of the most important remarks from a non-Jewish speaker talking about antisemitism, and being accused of antisemitism, I've ever seen:
On Thursday, when [Trevor] Noah broached the subject, Omar compared her defensiveness about her tweet — denying that she was anti-Semitic — to the way poor white people react when some say they still possess “white privilege.”
“With that tweet, what I finally realized is the realization that I hope that people come to when we’re having a conversation about white privilege,” she told Noah. "You know, people would be like, ‘I grew up in a poor neighborhood. I can’t be privileged. Can you stop saying that? I haven’t benefited from my whiteness!’ And it’s like, ‘No, we’re talking about systematic, right?’ And so for me, that happened for me.
“I was like, ‘Do not call me that [anti-Semitic]. ... And it was like, ‘Oh, I see what you’re saying now.’ And so I had to take a deep breath and understand where people were coming from and what point they were trying to make, which is what I expect people to do when I’m talking to them, right, about things that impact me or offend me.” 
Damn, there's a lot of right in here. For starters, she identifies antisemitism as "systematic", rather than something that you can avoid being implicated in if you inhabit other marginal identities (I am sure 94,000 people are busy prepping their "take that Linda 'antisemitism isn't systemic' Sarsour!" hot takes, and I'm over it even before I hear the first one).

But the biggest deal is the explicit comparison of the reflexive defensiveness she felt upon being accused of antisemitism to the reflexive defensiveness many White people have (especially those Whites who are marginalized along other dimensions) to being told they have "White privilege". This is an analogy I've been trying to promote for years -- I think there is a very clear parallel between "White fragility" and what I might term "Gentile fragility", wherein even the invocation of potential complicity in discriminatory structures is taken as a sort of nuclear weapon -- but this might be the first time I've seen a non-Jewish speaker draw the connection.

This call to "take a deep breath" in response to these concerns is such good advice -- it is the actual payoff demanded from calls to show deference when you're accused of engaging in discriminatory conduct, rather than the caricatured "immediately scream out your capitulation, plead guilty to all charges and throw yourself down at the mercy of the Gods" -- and it led her in the absolute right direction.

At root, this relates to the worries I expressed regarding the antisemitism that keeps me up at night -- namely, the possibility that antisemitism, or defying or standing up to the Jews, will become seen as a positive rather than a negative. There's a clear overlap with how White privilege operates: one cannot even count the number of cases where White people confronted with allegations of racism turtle up, cry victim, furiously fulminate about how abused they were by charges of racism and then make a huge scene of defying the PC police -- and in doing so, they gain political traction and authority rather than lose it. One reason why people respond to the "White privilege" discourse the way that they do is that it generates political capital. It is a productive move.

And indeed, my earlier post specifically explored this as a path open to Omar -- she could very easily have cried victim, double-down, made a big show about how she wouldn't be cowed by those oversensitive PC Jews who are always trying to stifle debate and police language -- and the sad fact is many people would love her for it. That's part of the reality of antisemitism today. You can gain power and authority and credence by being seen as the sort of person who stands up to the Jews.

Which makes it all the more praiseworthy that Omar took that breath and chose not to go down that path. Perhaps a bit belatedly, perhaps after a bit of prodding, she nonetheless decided to model in her own case how she wants others to react in parallel cases. The model is important. The recognition that Jews and antisemitism are a valid case of the model is still more important. For that, Ilhan Omar deserves serious praise. Kudos.

That NEVER Happ--Oh, Wait, a Congressman Just Did It

Last month, I wrote a post that got some traction in the Jewish blogosphere, about how we sometimes seem to just randomly demand Black people "denounce antisemitism" among this or that Black speaker even in contexts where they have no real relationship to the particular antisemitic speaker other than shared racial background.

A lot of people responded favorably. But a vocal minority thought I was making the phenomenon up. "Nobody demands Black people condemn antisemitism at random! Where those demands are made, it's only in cases like Tamika Mallory and Louis Farrakhan -- where she's specifically praised the known antisemitic speaker!"

Yes, what an absurd thought? Who would ever do such a th--oh look, here's Congressman Lee Zeldin (R-NY):


If you listen to the voicemail Zeldin posts, one thing stands out very clearly: it's horribly, grotesquely antisemitic.

You want to know what doesn't stand out? Any mention, reference, or connection to Ilhan Omar. Because it's not there. Yet Zeldin just decided he was going to randomly call her out (they were in a larger war of words at the time) and ask "what part" of this antisemitic screed she "disagrees with". The caller doesn't talk about Omar, doesn't quote Omar, doesn't give any indication that there is any relationship to Omar other than presumed shared race (much of the call is about accusing Jews of harming Black people) -- but no matter: Omar apparently can be cold-called to deliver a denunciation.

Rep. Omar actually responded with a lot of grace, condemning the message as "heinous and hateful" and empathizing with Zeldin given that (unsurprisingly) she too gets a flood of bigoted hate mail. Does Zeldin take "yes" for an answer to his unsolicited call out? Of course not! He doubles down, asking her again "Are you saying you disagree w/everything said in that voicemail?"

So, yeah, this happens.

(Incidentally, while my critical readers generally thought my original post was a sub rosa defense of Mallory, she wasn't the case I had in mind -- which is why I wrote about "Black people who really do apologize for Louis Farrakhan's antisemitism" and clarified that "[t]his post isn't about them." The motivating case for me, other than the Charlie Rangel case I cite in the post, was actually Mercy Morganfield's expressed frustration about what happened after she condemned Farrakhan and antisemitism in the Women's March -- namely, that she was demanded to do so over and over and over again.)

Thursday, January 31, 2019

New Data on BDS, "Apartheid", and Antisemitism

A new report from the Institute for Jewish Policy Research explores who and how many in the UK that Israel is an "apartheid" state, how many think we should boycott Israeli goods, and the relationship of both beliefs to antisemitism. It's fascinating just as a treasure trove of data (though I'm not 100% sold on the methodology the authors use to draw inferences from that data). But even just looking at face value, there's quite a lot I find interesting:

First, lots of people in the UK just don't have an opinion on these questions. On the "apartheid" question, for example, the plurality winner was "I don't know" at 37% (only a minority -- 21% -- endorsed the apartheid label, but that was still slightly larger than the 19% who affirmatively rejected it. The remaining 22% neither agreed nor disagreed). Obviously, from a Jewish vantage these are very pressing questions and are occupying a lot of our attention with respect to British politics, but it's useful to remember that a great many people simply don't care about this issue. It isn't as big for everyone else as it is for us.

Second, respondents were far more likely to call Israel an "apartheid" state than to support boycotting it, which surprised me greatly. I figured that those who endorse the "apartheid" label are those who think Israel is the worst-of-the-worst, whereas boycotters would include that cadre but also some number of people with more moderate views who support boycotts for tactical or contingent reason. Instead, boycotting was pretty roundly rejected (9% support, 46% reject, the remainder split along "don't know" or "neither agree/disagree"), which means presumably there's a solid chunk of Brits who think Israel is an apartheid state but don't back boycotting it. I'm not really sure what to make of that.

Third, Labour doesn't stand out in these surveys quite to the degree one might think. Labour voters seem comparatively more supportive of both the "apartheid" label and boycotting Israel compared to Tories, LibDems, or UKIPers, but it's hardly a consensus view and there's far more expression of uncertainty than one would expect given current press coverage. On the apartheid label the breakdown is 27/16, with the rest undecided; and on boycotting Labour voters are opposed by a 16/40 margin (the rest, again, are undecided).

Finally, the study authors explore the connection between believing Israel is an apartheid state or supporting boycotts and more "traditional" antisemitic beliefs. They survey a battery of non-Israel related statements (e.g.: "Jews think they are better than other people" or "Jews exploit Holocaust victimhood for their own purposes"), and see how many people endorse zero, one, two, all the way up to six or more of these statements. Then they plot that against supporting BDS or the "apartheid" label.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, they find a pretty solid correlation. People who subscribed to none of the antisemitic statements are the least likely to support either boycotts (6%) or the apartheid label (16%). As people support more of the antisemitic statements, the likelihood that they back to the two anti-Israel questions correspondingly rises -- of those who endorse six or more of the antisemitic statements, 47% back the apartheid label and 52% back boycotting Israel.

(Note that I've seen media reports which appear to get this backwards, saying that 52% of boycott supporters also endorse 6+ antisemitic statements. That doesn't appear to be correct, and there is a very large difference between 52% of those who endorse 6+ antisemitic statements back boycotts, and 52% of those who back boycotts endorsing 6+ antisemitic statements. The Jewish Chronicle already issued a correction here -- it seems like this confusion was originally in the actual report as well -- and hopefully others will follow suit).

One thing that's immediately striking about this is, oddly enough, how low the support is for boycotting Israel/calling it an apartheid state is among the "extreme" antisemites (endorsing 6+ antisemitic statements). Intuitively, I'd suspect that someone who dislikes Jews that much would search out any and every possible means for striking out against Jewish-identified institutions. And to be sure, the fact that support for boycotts and the "apartheid" label increases significantly as one endorses more and more antisemitic statements is compatible with that story. But for the pretty sizaable chunk of extreme antisemites who don't seem to endorse anti-Israel practices, I wonder if we're picking up on the existence of significant "pro-Israel" antisemitism (or if another factor is in play).

Even with that caveat though, it's probably not that surprising that antisemites are more drawn to anti-Israel sentiment than are people who possess no antisemitic beliefs. Still, as is often rightly pointed out, correlation doesn't equal causation. For any correlation between A and B, there are three possible causation stories: A causes B, B causes A, or neither causes the other and there is a some other unstated variable that happens to cause both (the classic example of the last case is the correlation between ice cream consumption and crime. Ice cream consumption doesn't cause crime, and crime doesn't cause ice cream consumption. Rather, warm weather causes ice cream consumption and, by causing more people to spend more time outside, also causes increases in crime).

So what causal story can we tell about the correlation between antisemitic attitudes and support for (among other things) BDS? One possibility, of course, is that the correlation is spurious -- there's a confounding variable that explains both (the "warm weather" case). I'm open to that possibility, but I confess I'm not sure what likely candidate is. For example, imagine it was the case (and the data actually doesn't support this) that old people were more likely to be antisemitic and more likely to support BDS. Even if that were true, it seems highly unlikely that their antisemitism and their BDS advocacy were unrelated to one another (compare if there had been a correlation between BDS support and having "blue" as one's favorite color. If that was explained by old people being most likely to support BDS and most likely to favor the color blue, then it'd be very implausible that there was any causal story linking blue and BDS to one another).

Again, I'm open to the confounding variable explanation, but I'd need to hear the story. So let's leave that aside, and explore the other two possibilities.

BDS proponents usually seem most invested in falsifying the causal story whereby BDS support is caused by antisemitism. The reason that's so important is because, in popular argot, BDS is antisemitic if and only if it is motivated (caused) by antisemitic sentiment. This actually strikes me as too great of a concession -- I'm don't think the antisemitism of a given policy position can only be established via the existence of antecedent antisemitic beliefs that motivate it -- but I might be in a minority there.

In any event, the idea here is that if someone arrives at BDS without harboring any antisemitic sentiment, then their support of BDS is not antisemitic (and consequently BDS is not antisemitic at least so far as it is endorsed by that sort of person). Proponents of this view generally might concede that antisemites are attracted to BDS, but maintain that many people support BDS without harboring any antisemitic impulses whatsoever. Or put differently, antisemitism is a cause of BDS, but not the only cause, and it's unfair to tar the whole movement by focusing solely on that one cause.

Though it doesn't directly speak to this question, the JPR dataset does raise questions about this apologia, since only 6% of people who harbored no antisemitic beliefs backed BDS. That doesn't itself show that most people who back BDS harbor antisemitic beliefs -- we'd need to know more about the base rates to establish that. But it does raise the question of what causal force is operating on that 6% that doesn't apply to the 94% of their non-antisemitic peers who don't back BDS?

If that's what we can say about "antisemitism causes BDS", what is there to say about the flip causal story: "BDS causes antisemitism"? Though it gets less attention, for me that's the story that's more interesting (and more worrisome). If this causal story is true, then people might arrive at BDS without any antisemitic ideology whatsoever, but the time spent in the "waters" of BDS would actually cause them to develop more systematically negative views about Jews qua Jews. And that would I think be a far more damning indictment. It's one thing -- arguably a trivial thing -- to say that antisemites will be attracted to any movement which seems to be sticking it to the Jews, and BDS happens to be one such movement. There might not be all that much the BDS movement could do about that. It's another thing to say that people who aren't antisemitic are more likely to become so the more interaction and engagement they have with BDS.

Put differently: it strikes me as likely that antisemites would be more likely to want to punish Bernie Madoff extremely harshly compared to the population writ large. It also seems likely that there are plenty of people who want to punish Bernie Madoff extremely harshly who are not motivated by antisemitism. But it strikes me as relatively unlikely that non-antisemites who want to punish Madoff harshly will emerge "out the other side" of that campaign as antisemitic. If BDS is different -- if people come in without antisemitic attitudes and come out with them -- that would be extremely worrying, and it would suggest that there is something fundamentally rotten going on inside the movement, such that it is actually generating of antisemitism.

That claim requires a lot more research to establish. But if that causal story is plausible, then we have to be able to talk about BDS as potentially antisemitic notwithstanding the fact that many of its arrivees don't start off as motivated by antisemitism. A movement which converts non-antisemites into antisemites is antisemitic even if the recruits don't come in with any particular desire to disparage Jews. This alternative causal story demands a different way of thinking about antisemitism beyond the question of antecedent motivations.

If Benny Gantz Becomes PM, It Will/Will Not Be a Big Deal

Benny Gantz is getting people whispering about an impossible possibility:

Bibi Netanyahu might not win reelection as Israel's Prime Minister. Gantz's new party is surging in the polls, and he's pulled even with Netanyahu in the "who should be prime minister question" -- an area where Bibi has reigned unchallenged for years (except for the always popular "someone else").

Is that a big deal? Well, yes. And no. It depends on your vantage.

On the one hand, if Gantz does take over the top spot, you can be prepared for the usual leftist voices to dismiss it as utterly meaningless. Since for them, Israel can never improve, only decay, they will immediately call Gantz a war criminal and indicate that he's not materially different than Bibi anyway. Since for them, the idea that Israeli society can meaningfully change via normal democratic processes is an anathema to the more fundamental proposition that Israeli society is rotted through and through, they need to deny the possibility that Gantz could possibly represent meaningful change.

But while the more uncompromising version of the "it's no big deal" take can be dismissed, it would likewise be wrong to view Gantz as the harbinger of some sort of resurgent Israeli left. Gantz is not a leftist. His roots are on the center-right, he's very much the consummate "good soldier" -- competent, effective, patriotic, and a good executor, but without much of an internal ideological drive.

Yet that doesn't mean his election would be no big deal.

First, Gantz is part of the "soft center-right",  generally comprised of political or military officials who, precisely because their main focus has been on military and security affairs, have concluded that the uncompromising Israeli right poses a long-term danger to Israel's security and survival. Given the complete disarray that currently characterizes the Israeli left, Israeli politics these days basically is a debate between "right-wingers who are marching full out towards annexation" and "ex-right-wingers who see the writing on the wall."

But while that might sound like a cynical way of putting it, the fact is that "security-minded ex-right winger who pivots to the center" includes several figures who have taken some of the most prominent steps towards Israeli/Arab peace. Ariel Sharon is the obvious name, but Tzipi Livni also comes from these roots. And more broadly, if there's one trend in Israeli politics that's seemingly remained stable over its existence, it's that the Israeli public is more willing to cut deals when they know that the dealmaker carries a big boomstick in case things go wrong. That applied to Sharon, obviously, but also Begin and Rabin.

Second, it is almost certain that Gantz's coalition will be well to the left of the status quo -- there's even been murmurs that some Israeli Arab parties will break their longstanding suspicion of joining a coalition. A coalition with Gantz at the head, needing to satisfy demands coming from his left, is going to be leaps-and-bounds different than a coalition with Bibi at the head, needing to satisfy demands coming from his right.

And finally, Gantz winning means Bibi loses. That's a huge deal on its own. Netanyahu has been seemingly untouchable for a long time -- even the prospect of a criminal indictment hardly seemed like it would be a bump in his political road. Just dislodging the man on the throne is a legitimate shake-up in its own right. And it offers hope that things can change, that Israel can get out of the rut it's been stuck in and move in a different direction. Just the possibility of energizing a different cohort of voters beyond the settler right has the potential to be a game-changer.

So go Benny! You wouldn't be my first choice as Prime Minister, but if you can take down Netanyahu, I wish you the best of luck.

Wednesday, January 30, 2019

Ethiopian Jews Stage Massive Protest Against Police Violence in Israel

The story is here. The immediate spark of the protest was the fatal shooting of 24-year old Yehuda Biadga (he allegedly charged police with a knife; his family says he suffered from PTSD and claims the police used excessive force), but as one of the protest organizers put it that particular event was "the last straw" for a community that has long alleged it has been victimized by violent policing practices and other forms of discrimination in Israeli society.

In terms of demands:
The demonstrators are calling for a judge to look into Biadga’s death rather than the Justice Ministry department responsible for investigating police incidents. They are also calling for an emergency Cabinet meeting on police violence, beefing up a government task force on racism and the full implementation of the recommendations of the Palmor Committee on ending discrimination against Ethiopian Israelis.
Online, there's an interesting divergence going on among lefty-ish commenters who caught wind of the protest -- half of whom seem to think the march is against Zionism (it isn't) and are accordingly all for it, the other half of whom recognize that the marchers do not identify as anti-Zionist and accordingly think they deserve whatever they get. It's charming.

In any event, though, the Ethiopian Israeli community deserves our full support. Racism exists in Israeli society just as it exists across the world, and we cannot be in denial about it. All this talk about how "a Jew is a Jew is a Jew" just isn't reflecting the reality of Jewish experience -- if it was, we wouldn't be seeing protests like this. And I hope that Jewish organizations around the world -- inside Israel and out -- rally in support of our Ethiopian compatriots, standing with them as they define their ambitions, not imposing whatever narrative we wish they might be speaking of.

Tuesday, January 29, 2019

When is a Boycott Not a Boycott?

When I go to Las Vegas, I don't stay at the Venetian.

It's a lovely hotel, don't get me wrong -- strikingly beautiful, in its way.

But Sheldon Adelson is a schmuck, and I don't want to give him my money, so I stay elsewhere.

Am I boycotting the Venetian?

I don't think so. In my mind's eye, I've never thought of myself as "boycotting the Venetian". But why not?

Some might say I am boycotting the Venetian, I just don't want to admit to myself that's what I'm doing because I don't like thinking of myself as a boycotting sort.

Perhaps. But there are some other potential distinctions. First, I don't position what I'm doing as part of any broader expressive mobilization campaign against Sheldon Adelson. I don't publicly announce "I don't stay at the Venetian" (other than the context of this post, of course), I don't link up with other "boycotters" to amplify my voice or try to convince others not to stay at the Venetian either. If boycotting feels inherently like collective action, my choice is personal and private, and I have no interest in extending it beyond that.

Second, my "boycott" -- if it is that -- is extremely lightly held. I've walked through the Venetian, taken pictures at the Venetian, shopped at the Venetian, ate at restaurants at the Venetian. There's no real coherency to it. And more than that, if (say) a friend was hosting a bachelor party in Vegas and booked us a suite at the Venetian, I'd attend without concern. It's not where I'd pick, but I wouldn't view it as violating any ethical commitments on my part. Boycotts seem to me like they have to positions of principle; at most my avoidance of the Venetian expresses a ceteris paribus distaste (one could characterize what I'm doing is drawing a line in the sand -- I'll patronize the Venetian to this extent, but no further -- but that's certainly not how I think of what I'm doing. In all honesty, I have a mild preference against staying at the Venetian, which can be overriden by any number of relatively mundane circumstances).

That raises a third issue, which is that people decide not to buy certain products or patronize certain businesses all the time, for all sorts of reasons. Surely, if I don't go to a restaurant because I think the food is gross, it'd be weird to characterize me as "boycotting the restaurant" (even though one could say that my refusal to patronize is an attempt to pressure them to improve their menu quality). And that logic doesn't seem to change if my decision is based on the owner being rude, or the spokesperson annoying me, or any number of other reasons.

"Boycott" places a collective ethical imperative on decisions that ordinarily would simply fall under the ambit of private choice. There's no problem with that, except when the term colonizes actions that the actor doesn't intend to portray in that fashion. I know people who don't buy wines from the West Bank. They wouldn't say they're boycotting Israel, or even boycotting the settlements. And they generally don't view their decision as a means of exerting "pressure" on Israel (even to end the occupation). All it is that, for whatever reason, wine from the West Bank makes them squicky, and so they don't purchase it. I think a lot of people would characterize their conduct as a "boycott", even as I'm confident they don't see their action in those terms.

My gut instinct is that there is a real distinction here and it's one we should honor. I don't think boycotts are necessarily illegitimate -- their moral propriety depends on a host of questions including their scope, criteria for inclusion, and goals -- but I also don't think they conceptually cover any individual consumer's choice to abstain from purchasing a particular product. To boycott, to me, involves a self-conscious decision to join in collective action for purpose of publicly expressing a critical view with the goal of inducing a change in behavior.

If I decide to stay at Caesars rather than the Venetian, I don't self-consciously view myself as boycotting the Venetian, I don't locate what I'm doing into any sort of collective action, I don't publicly declare it as representing a critical or political view, and I don't view myself as trying to induce Sheldon Adelson to behave better.

I just think Adelson's sort of a schmuck. And so, all else being equal, I'd rather not give him my money.

Monday, January 28, 2019

My Thoughts on Jewish Organizations

There are a lot of Jewish organizations out there. And I have thoughts on them. Some I like a lot. Some I like less. I'm a progressive Zionist with more of an academic than a political bent, which means I don't like anti-Zionist or right-wing groups, and all else equal I prefer groups who are "wonkish" or "scholarly" to "political" or "activist". But the former part matters more than the latter -- I understand the importance of political organizing, even if it isn't my style; whereas groups which actively back settlements or BDS go a ways beyond "not my style".

Anyway, these are just my opinions -- do with them what you will (and yes, I know I forgot your absolute fave/mortal nemesis. It's not comprehensive).

* * *

AIPAC: Kind of an old, creaky battleship at this point. I actually think AIPAC probably does see the threats to its core mission -- namely, the growing partisanization of Israel as an issue -- but is too large and unwieldy to actually do anything about it. For all its supposed power, it's actually not that effective anymore (though it's very effective at being a boogeyman for "the all-powerful Israel Lobby").

Ameinu: I like them a lot. The former Labor Zionist Alliance has the right political orientation and tends to take a careful approach to things, which I appreciate. Its "Third Narrative" initiative is definitely my cup of tea.

American Jewish Committee: Deeply uneven. Sometimes stands out in front on human rights. Sometimes falls over itself to praise Jair Bolsonaro. Definitely not adjusting with the times, and definitely needs to fire whoever is running their Twitter account.

American Jewish Congress: Are they still a thing?

Americans for Peace Now: Of the true "left" groups, definitely my favorite. That's probably because its the only one that's still okay with Zionism, but also because it does genuinely important and substantive work and provides a much needed critical progressive voice inside Jewish communal structures.

Anti-Defamation League: My favorite of the major "mainline" groups. Does it bat 1.000? No. But it's right more often than it isn't, and it takes a lot more flak than it deserves. The effort by conservative voices to place it in the pocket of the left is ludicrous.

A Wider Bridge: In late 2015/early 2016, I started looking up which Jewish organizations not specifically focused on Mizrahi/Sephardic issues nonetheless mentioned Mizrahi/Sephardic Jews. My methodology was pretty basic and the bar was pretty low: do a google site search for "Mizrahi" or "Sephardic". The results were ... disappointing. A Wider Bridge was an exception. Generally does very good work, and the fact that it does good work is probably why its opponents are so desperate to smear it with the "pinkwashing" label.

Be'chol Lashon: Can't rave about them enough. They deserve infinitely more attention, resources, and support from the rest of the Jewish community. I dare say the future of the vitality of diaspora Judaism depends on the success or failure of Be'chol Lashon's work.

Bend the Arc: Another group I'm generally positively disposed towards, though I have little to say on them specifically.

Conference of Presidents: More of an umbrella group, but it needs mention because for too long it's been far too solicitous of its right-wing members (see ZOA). American Jews vote for the Democratic Party at the same proportion as Idahoans vote Republican -- our conservatives should have exactly as much communal power as an Idaho Democrat.

HIAS: If you don't like HIAS, you're a monster.

Hillel: Desperately needs a dose of democracy. They're still the center of Jewish life on many campuses, and that's important in its own right. They're not the evil leviathan Open Hillel makes them out to be, but because they're not accountable to the student population they serve, they constantly fall into easily avoidable pitfalls. They certainly can't be trusted with something as sensitive as a partnership guideline. In my dream world, they become the bureaucratic arm of the American Union of Jewish Students.

IfNotNow: Everything you don't like about BernieBros, but trying to rip apart the Jewish community instead of the Democratic Party. Sanctimonious, smug, hackish, theatrical, and almost unfathomably self-righteous. For them, sparking a civil war within the Jewish community isn't a risk they hope to avoid; it's the point of the movement. "Some people have never met a forest fire they didn't ache to pour gasoline on." I went from "cautious optimism" to "deep disdain" in a hurry.

Israel Policy Forum: Somehow I'm always overlooking them. Don't know why -- they do really good work. Overall, I take a positive view.

Jewish Community Relations Councils/Jewish Federations: Depends on the federation, naturally. As always, I worry about the democracy deficit. Are they responsive to genuine community sentiment, or are they responsive to their donor base?

Jewish Voice for Peace: Ugh.

JFREJ: Everytime I read something from JFREJ, my reaction is always "meh". It's never particularly bad. It's never particularly good. It's meh. I'm if anything impressed by how consistently they make me shrug.

JIMENA: Sometimes takes a more conservative line than I would like, but overall an important voice for the Mizrahi and Sephardic Jewish community. When I've worked with them, I've had no trouble integrating my progressive Zionist positions into what we've done together.

J Street: Overall I like J Street (I definitely like this statement it just released on its commitment to Israel's future). It's a political lobbying shop, which means it makes certain compromises I wouldn't (less on issues, and more on using rhetoric that is mobilizing more than it is precise), but that comes with the territory -- a classic "not my style, but someone needs to do it" case. And, far and away, no group is maligned further out of proportion to its actual sins than J Street. It's not even close.

OneVoice: Not exclusively a Jewish organization, but it's so important I'll give them a pass. You want durable and just peace in Israel and Palestine? Do the hard work of building grassroots support and political infrastructure for non-extremism and co-existence. That's what OneVoice does.

Partners for Progressive Israel: I don't end up citing them a lot -- Ameinu ends up filling their niche -- but I'm generally positively inclined.

T'ruah: Another very good progressive organization. Their commentary on the UN resolutions criticizing Israeli settlements is one of my favorite statements by a prominent Jewish organizations on any Israel-related topic, ever. Definitely endorse.

Zioness: Came in deeply suspicious of them. Current posture is cautiously okay. They've filed off some of the rougher edges, and they haven't done what some groups in its niche love to do -- spend 90% of their time wailing about how mean people treat Israel before "proving" their progressive bona fides by writing a post about how terribly Saudi Arabia treats women (*cough* Women's March For All). They actually spend most of their time advocating for progressive ends that have no clear relation to Israel. Good on them! Still think they need to confirm that their progressivism extends to Israel itself, though.

Zionist Organization of America: It's tough competition, but Mort Klein might be the worst. And since ZOA has become almost exclusively a vehicle for his hard-right, racist, xenophobic, anti-Palestinian politics, they're the worst too. The only difference between them and JVP is that ZOA gets to be the worst from inside the communal tent -- which goes to show how systematically biased the Jewish community in favor of our fringe right-wing voices.

Saturday, January 26, 2019

Should We Retire "Hasbara" From Our Vocabulary?

If you ask someone on the street "What does 'hasbara' mean?", they will stare at you blankly.

That's because, contrary to what the internet might have you believe, random people on the street do not know the ends and outs of rhetorical tropes involving Israel or Israeli society.

But if you ask someone somewhat more engaged "What does 'hasbara' mean?", they'll probably give an answer that is something like "propaganda". Hasbara is Israeli propaganda.

Of course, that's not actually accurate. The Hebrew word "Hasbara" translates to "explanation", not propaganda. Now to be sure, it's a particular type of explanation -- a justificatory explanation. Explaining to someone the physical processes by which the moon revolves around the Earth is not hasbara. Explaining to your skeptical spouse why your cable bill is so much higher this month (you bought a big boxing pay-per-view), that would be hasbara.

But right from the get go, this mistranslation should alarm us. There's something very revealing, after all, about a world where Jewish "explanations" are literally heard as "propaganda". All this time we've talking about antisemitic tropes where Jews deceive, manipulate, or hypnotize the world -- and "hasbara" fits right into that.

When people talk about how this argument is "hasbara" or how back in the day they had been subjected to a ton of "hasbara", they're saying more than that they disagree with an argument or that their views have evolved. They're saying that the argument was dishonest or manipulative, that they've learned to recognize the string-pulling. Even when it's Jews doing it, the rhetorical power of dismissing something as hasbara stems almost entirely from antisemitic roots: these Jews are the bad Jews, the manipulators and spin-doctors; I'm an honest Jew who not only sees through the lies, but recognizes the Jewish pattern when I see it.

Ultimately, the way "hasbara" is used is almost always an effort to degrade Jewish claim-making. It relies on tropes of Jewish manipulation and insincerity; it literally collapses, in the Jewish case, the distinction between explanation and propaganda.

For those reasons, I don't really use "hasbara" much myself (at least not unironically), even when speaking of right-wing arguments defending various Israeli actions that I find utterly ridiculous. I've made an effort (not wholly successful) to remove it from my vocabulary. And so if you go through my archives, I mostly use it either (a) ironically, to refer to people dismissing Jews as "hasbara shills" or (b) in literal reference to Hasbara Fellows on campus.

The existence of Hasbara Fellows offers up a new dimension on this discussion. Most obviously, Israel is not the Empire from Star Wars; it does not give its own actors self-consciously evil names like "Death Star" or "Avarice". So the fact that it uses the term "Hasbara Fellow" is a pretty strong hint that the word itself does not have an intrinsically malicious meaning. It'd be like sending off "Deception Fellows" to campus -- who would do that?

On the other side, promoters of calling out "hasbara" might contend that they are referring to something specific -- official Israeli governmental efforts to cast Israel in a good light and foment positive dispositions towards the country. That's hasbara (and that's, literally, what Hasbara Fellows are for). So it can't be wrong to call it by its name.

One problem with this is that the term hasbara is not limited in application only to Israeli government speakers. Pretty much any Jew who speaks in a remotely apologetic tone for Israel -- no matter their capacity or connection to Israeli governmental actors -- can and will be accused of engaging in hasbara at one point or another. If anything, the government linkage serves more to expand the scope than to limit it: Jews who sound "hasbara-ish" will typically be accused of being outright Israeli governmental agents -- because who else would spout hasbara other than someone on the Israeli payroll?

But the larger problem is that we already have a term for states seeking to present themselves in a good light and make people feel positively towards the country: public diplomacy. Now, to be sure, public diplomacy is motivated -- the "explanations" it will give regarding questionable state conduct are in service of a diplomatic end; they aren't the pure dispassionate appraisal one might get from a wholly disinterested scholar. Obviously, anyone who is listening to acts of public diplomacy should listen with a critical ear.

But there's nothing wrong with public diplomacy per se, it's an unremarkable fact of everyday statecraft. And so the real function of "hasbara", as its used in public discourse, is to take something normal and mundane and delegitimate it by slapping a scary-sounding foreign word onto it.

Public diplomacy is a fact of life, you handle it by not shutting down your critical facilities. Hasbara is something undefineably more nefarious -- we don't know exactly what it is (the fact that the average person probably has no idea what the words means helps, rather than hurts), but it sure sounds scary. Any country can engage in public diplomacy (hell, any country can engage in propaganda), but only Israel can do hasbara. It's another way of exceptionalizing Israel and suggesting that nothing it does can be analyzed through "normal" processes -- we need new and special words, new and special concepts, new and special standards to accurately assess anything it does. And, I'd suggest, it's implicitly orientalist as well. It is the foreignness, the mysterious impenetrability of the word hasbara, that gives it such power.

Is it fair to say that there are arguments made by Israeli government defenders which strike me as ludicrous, bad-faith, or just impossible to take seriously? Of course -- I can think of a half-dozen examples instantaneously. And so I can understand the desire to have a pithy word which just puts those arguments in their place. "Hasbara" can fill that niche nicely.

But really, what we do get by keeping "hasbara" in our vocabulary that we wouldn't otherwise have? When Rep. Ilhan Omar apologized for her "hypnotize" tweet -- and I give her credit for that -- it was striking to see how many people rushed in to condemn her for the apology. They were insistent that Israel really does "hypnotize" the world, that hypnosis is the best way to describe how it is that Israel ever persuades anyone of anything. In effect, they really do believe that all Jewish "explanations" for Israel are naught but propaganda.

In this way, the main utility of "hasbara", as a term, isn't to enable us to call out bad-faith arguments when they appear. The main function is to suggest that the entire sweep of the discourse is bad-faith, manipulative or hypnotic. It's not that this argument is a bad argument; the entire discursive sphere about Israel (or more specifically, the Jewish and non-explicitly anti-Zionist contribution to it) is defined by manipulation and deceit. Hasbara, we might say, is a structure, not an event -- it's not a discrete set of bad arguments we reject as failing the smell test, it's the entire state of the world where Jews endeavor to bend reality into unreality.

That sort of outlook just can't be sustained -- at least, not in a way that is compatible with the fair inclusion of Jewish voices in deliberative arenas. The fact is that there are certain words and terms which have genuine usefulness but which do far more damage than good, and whose use is consequently not justified. For me, "self-hating Jew" is one such term -- I understand the desire to put down Jews whose public persona seems entirely dedicated to slamming other Jews, but the degrading, marginalizing character of "self-hating Jews" is just too harmful to justify its usage -- and so I don't use the term.

The more I think about it, the more I think "hasbara" falls into the same boat. And so I think it's time that it gets retired as well.