Friday, December 13, 2019

Trump and the Conservative Judiciary's Legitimacy Crisis

The Supreme Court has agreed to hear a series of cases testing the authority of government to exercise oversight over Donald Trump. Trump has bitterly resisted turning over certain documents to congressional and state regulators, despite most legal commentators viewing his arguments as frivolous.

Now, historically it has not been the case that a SCOTUS hearing bodes well for an incumbent president on matters such as these. Just ask Richard Nixon or Bill Clinton.

But there is a lot of anxiety in legal circles that this might be different. As Scott Lemieux put it: "Supreme Court to indicate exactly how deeply it's in the tank for Donald Trump."

One thought I've been turning over in my head is the possibility that, in a very real sense, the very legitimacy of the conservative judiciary -- especially (though not exclusively) Trump appointees -- is bound up in them ruthlessly dismissing any legal argument that might delegitimize the Trump administration.

This is not something that's been true of every administration. It's probably a myth to have ever thought of a court as wholly apolitical. But I don't think Bush-appointed judges necessarily thought ruling against the Bush administration threatened their legitimacy; ditto for Obama-appointed judges re: Obama.

The big difference is that with Trump, the issue isn't the possibility that here or there administrative actions fell outside the authority of the law (something that will happen to all administrations, at least periodically). It's not even a matter of losing a "signature issue" (as with, say, Obama and the Affordable Care Act). With Trump, the judiciary is repeatedly confronting legal questions that cut to the heart of his basic status as a legitimate leader of a democratic state. Legitimate in the sense of not being a naked avatar of White Supremacy, as in the Muslim ban and immigration cases. Legitimate in the sense of not being a cesspit of pure corruption, as in the Ukraine/Russia and tax returns cases. It's even more extensive of a legitimacy crisis tham the Clinton or Nixon cases, because with Trump it isn't a discrete case of (serious) illicit conduct, but the possibility that his entire administration is a corrupt, bigoted enterprise.

If you're person whose authority to exercise the judicial power comes from an appointment by Donald Trump, and Donald Trump entire presidency is fundamentally delegitimated as either a racist or corrupt criminal endeavor, that starts to crack the foundations of one's own authority. What does it mean for, say, Neomi Rao if her very presence on the bench is attributable to a guy who it turns out is basically a mafia don? One shudders to think. And so it becomes incredibly important for judges in that position to insulate Trump (and by extension, themselves) from that conclusion.

Moreover, I think -- while this is more of a stretch -- that this outlook extends to conservative judges who were not appointed by Trump himself. Trump has appointed, by and large, orthodox conservative judges. This is a bit ironic, given that the conservative legal elite prior to 2016 would probably not have comprised Trump's biggest fans -- they were the sorts of conservatives who would have privately and sometimes publicly contended that Trump was a lawless maniac. That Trump has appointed these judges is taken by these orthodox legal conservatives as a welcome surprise. They are resolutely avoiding pondering what it means if the man who they well know thinks of rule-of-law as an speedbump also thinks that the ideal judges to have on the bench are judges who think and act just like them.

What this means is that Trumpism has effectively tied itself to the orthodox conservative legal movement. If Donald Trump had nominated judges of a very different type than those typical of Republican administrations, "smashing the establishment", then the old guard might have turned against them. Instead, like a medieval lord who marries into the family of a rival, he's drawn them inextricably together. The legitimacy of Trump-nominated judges depends on the legitimacy of Trump, and since Trump-nominated judges are generally indistinguishable from other conservative judges, that means that conservative judges generally -- and the entire conservative judicial philosophy -- depends on the legitimacy of Trump too.

(A similar issue, I think, explains why Republican politicians have closed ranks so decisively around Trump. The same voters who elected them elected Trump, and declaring Trump a corrupt racist means admitting that the electoral coalition that approves of corrupt racists also chose them. Of course, Republican politicians also have to be re-elected, which means that they have not just "legitimacy"-based but also quite practical interests in pandering to the electoral coalition that supports Trump).

This doesn't mean that no conservative or Trump-appointed judge will ever rule against him. But it does suggest that they will be fiercely resistant to making rulings which extend beyond the normal wins-and-losses that all presidential administrations take, and instead suggest a more fundamental rot. They will never rule in a fashion that suggests Trump is a flagrant racist, because that would imply that they were the ideal judicial choice of a racist. They will be loathe to allow investigations that would prove Trump corrupt, because that would imply that they were the preference of lawless, bought-out presidency.

The conservative judiciary has to protect Trump in order to protect themselves. Get ready for the wagons to circle once more.

Thursday, December 12, 2019

My Atlantic Debut: The Story Behind the Firestorm over Trump's Antisemitism Order

I've been keeping a bit of a lower profile this year -- I'm on the job market, and so it just seemed prudent to maybe tamp down on anything that even had the slightest risk of provoking controversy or offending a hiring committee.

Anyway, here I am writing in the giant international platform that is The Atlantic on Trump's antisemitism executive order (this follows on the heels of yesterday's JTA article on Trump's antisemitic IAC speech and the response of groups like the AJC to that).

Fortunately, the stress of managing reactions to a new publication will be canceled out by a relaxing day of following British election returns. I can feel my energy returning already!

Wednesday, December 11, 2019

British Jews Should Announce They Can't Support Corbyn--or Johnson

This was a piece I initially wrote for publication outside of the blog. It had a tumultuous journey, including being accepted in one newspaper before the editor withdrew the offer an hour later. Most recently, it spent two weeks in limbo after the editor who was considering it solicited the draft ... then immediately went on vacation for a week. When he returned, he promised to get to it "first thing Monday". I never heard from him again.

Anyway, the election is tomorrow and there's still no sign that he will get back to me, so you're getting the piece here. It's slightly less timely than I'd like -- though much more timely than if I posted it after election day.

* * *

Earlier this month, The Guardian published a letter from twenty-four prominent non-Jewish figures, publicly declaring that they could not support Labour in the next election due to the raging antisemitism that has enveloped the party under Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership.

For the UK’s beleaguered Jewish community, it was a taste of that elusive elixir: solidarity. The knowledge that Jews do not stand alone, that we do have allies, that there are people who will not stand idly by and do nothing as this wave of antisemitism comes bearing down. That the letter’s signatories included figures like Islamophobia watchdog Fiyaz Mughal, who is intimately and painfully aware of the direct dangers a Tory government would do to him and his community, only makes it more powerful. In a very real sense, this is what it means to have true allies.

These past few years have been rough on British Jews, but if there is a silver lining, it is in moments like these: the public witnessing of all those who remain willing to plant their banner and fight antisemitism. The statements of resignation from persons who no longer can associate with a party that has become a force for hatred against the nation’s Jews. The figures—some Jewish (like MP Ruth Smeeth), some not (like London Mayor Sadiq Khan)—still bravely resisting antisemitism from within the party.

And there is grim satisfaction to be taken in Corbyn’s almost comically-high public disapproval ratings—which have reached upwards of 75% in some polls. For this, too, is at least in part a public and visceral repudiation of the brand of antisemitism Corbyn has come to represent.

Yet it is the ironic misery of the Jewish fate that we cannot even take unmediated satisfaction in those rejecting Labour antisemitism. Why? Well, because of the primary alternative to Labour: the Conservative Party, led by Boris Johnson.

The Tories have their own antisemitism problems, although—and as a liberal it pains me to say this—they pale in comparison to those afflicting Labour, at least today. And for me, I’ve probably written more on Labour antisemitism than I have on any other social problem outside of America or Israel.

But if the Tories are not today as antisemitic as is Labour, where the Tories can be aptly compared to Labour is along the axis of racism, Islamophobia and xenophobia. It is fair to say that on those issues, the Conservative Party is institutionally xenophobic in a manner that is on par with Labour’s own institutional antisemitism. Or put differently: Boris Johnson is to Muslims, Blacks, and Asians what Jeremy Corbyn is to Jews.

This is hardly unknown, and the latent nativism of the Conservative Party’s Brexit policy is only the tip of the iceberg. We saw the ugliness of Conservative racism in the Windrush Scandal, where Afro-Caribbean British citizens were harassed, detained, and even deported as part of the Tories’ pledge to create a “hostile environment” for undesired immigrants in the country (notwithstanding the fact that the Windrush Generation consisted of natural-born British subjects). We saw it in the game efforts by Muslim Conservative politicians to draw attention to festering Islamophobia amongst Tory candidates and politicians, and the grinding resistance of the Conservative political leadership to seriously investigate the issue—surely, this resonates with Labour’s own kicking-and-screaming approach to rooting out antisemitism inside its own ranks.

And—like with Corbyn’s Labour party—Tory xenophobia starts right at the top. In 2018, Boris Johnson was slurring Muslim women in Europe as “letter boxes”. Advocates at that time urged then-Prime Minister Theresa May to withdraw Johnson’s whip. She declined. Now he’s Prime Minister. In the meantime, Islamophobic instances in the country surged 375%.

There is a terrible commonality here: the legitimate fears Jews have about a Corbyn-led British government are mirrored by the equally legitimate worries BAMEs (Blacks, Asians, and Minority Ethnics) about the prospect of another term of Conservative rule.

To be clear: the Jewish community has not endorsed these Conservative predations. They are overwhelmingly opposed to Brexit. They have spoken out and stood out against racism, Islamophobia, and xenophobia, and have done so consistently.

But there is another step that has not yet been taken. The Jewish community might return solidarity with solidarity, and write their own letter announcing that they cannot sanction voting for Labour—or the Tories. Twenty-four Jewish luminaries, each pledging that just as Labour’s antisemitism means that they cannot support Labour, Conservative racism and xenophobia preclude them from backing the Tories.

The UK, after all, is not a complete two-party system, and in many constituencies there are very live options that extend beyond Labour and Tory. The resurgent Liberal Democrats, for one, bolstered by refugees repelled by Labour antisemitism or Conservative xenophobia and showing renewed strength particularly in marginal constituencies where Labour is flagging. Regionally, the SNP or Plaid Cymru also are often competitive. Even the Greens, in some locales, are a viable option.

None of these parties are perfect. One does not need to search far to find instances of antisemitism in these other parties, for example, and the Liberal Democrats still have trust to re-earn following their disastrous stint as junior coalition partners to the Tories less than a decade ago.

But imperfections notwithstanding, none of these parties has completely caved to gutter populism in the way that both Labour and Tory have. They are cosmopolitan in orientation. They have faced antisemitism and other forms of prejudice, but they’ve responded decisively to it. They are not perfect, but they are viable choices, in a way that neither the Tories nor Labour can at this point claim to be.

And yet, still this companion letter—rejecting Conservative hatred with the same public moral clarity as The Guardian writers rejected Labour hatred—hasn’t been written. As much as many dislike Conservative politics, as much as many loathe Boris Johnson and the insular nativism he stands for—we have not forthrightly declared that the bigotry of his party is of equal moral weight and equal moral impermissibility at the bigotry of Corbyn’s party. We have not insisted that both be rejected.

Responding to the argument that Labour antisemitism had to be overlooked because of the pressing necessity of avoiding the disasters of a Tory government, the Guardian letter writers asked “Which other community’s concerns are disposable in this way? Who would be next?”

One could perhaps forgive the Windrush Generation for taking a tentative step forward in reply.

So again: why hasn’t that companion letter been written? Why hasn’t there been the declaration that the Windrushers, the migrants, the Muslims—that these community’s concerns are indispensable in the exact same way that the Jewish community’s concerns should (but often are not) be viewed as indispensable? Why has the wonderful solidarity demonstrated by the Guardian letter not been returned in kind?

The most common answer is that as terrible as Johnson is and as repulsive as Tory policies are, only a Conservative majority can guarantee that Corbyn will not become Prime Minister. Even the LibDems might ultimately elect to coalition with Labour if together they’d form a majority (ironically, many left-wing voters who dislike Corbyn but loathe Johnson express the same worry in reverse to explain why they can’t vote LibDem—they’re convinced that Jo Swinson would instead cut a deal to preserve a Conservative majority). As terrible as Johnson is, stopping Corbyn has to be the number one priority for British Jews. And a vote for anyone but the Tory candidates is, ultimately, a vote for Jeremy Corbyn.

Jewish voters who act under this logic, they would say, are by no means endorsing Brexit, which they detest, or xenophobia, which they abhor. They hate these things, genuinely and sincerely. But their hand has been forced. In this moment, they have to look out for Number One.

I understand this logic. I understand why some Jews might believe that in this moment, we cannot spare the luxury of thinking of others.

 I understand it. But it is, ultimately, spectacularly short-sighted.

To begin, if we accept that British Jews are justified in voting Tory because we are justified looking out for our own existential self-preservation, then we have to accept that non-Jewish minorities are similarly justified in voting Labour in pursuit of their own communal security and safety. We cannot simultaneously say that our vote for the Tories cannot be construed as an endorsement of Conservative xenophobia but their vote for Labour represents tacit approval of Corbynista antisemitism. Maybe both groups feel their hands are tied; trapped between a bad option and a disastrous one. And so we get one letter from the Chief Rabbi, excoriating Jeremy Corbyn as an “unfit” leader, and another competing letter from the Muslim Council of Britain, bemoaning Conservatives open tolerance of Islamophobia.

But if the Jews reluctantly vote Conservative “in our self-interest” and BAME citizens reluctantly vote Labour “in their self-interest”—well, there are a lot more BAME voters in Britain than there are Jewish voters. So the result would be a massive net gain for Labour. Some pursuit of self-interest.

Meanwhile, those Brits who are neither Jewish nor members of any other minority group are given no guidance by this approach. There is no particular reason, after all, for why they should favor ameliorating Jewish fears of antisemitism over BAME fears of xenophobia. From their vantage point, these issues effectively cancel out, and they are freed to vote without regard to caring about either antisemitism or Islamophobia. At the very moment where these issues have been foregrounded in the British public imagination in an unprecedented way, insisting upon the primacy of pure self-interest would ensure that this attention would be squandered and rendered moot.

Of course, all this does not even contemplate the horrible dilemma imposed upon those persons who are both Jewish and BAME—the Afro-Caribbean Jew, for instance. They are truly being torn asunder, told that no matter how they vote they will be betraying a part of their whole self.

And finally, whatever we can say about the status of Tory antisemitism today, painful experience demonstrates that tides of xenophobia, nativism, and illiberal nationalism reflected in the Conservative Party will always eventually swallow Jews as well. That day will come, and if history is any guide it will come quickly. Jews should think twice and thrice before contemplating giving any succor to that brand of politics, no matter what seductive gestures it makes at us today.

So no—it will not do for Jews to back the Tories out of “self-interest”, for doing so will ultimately fail even in protecting ourselves. Ultimately, the reason that Jews should clearly and vocally reject both Labour and Tory is not sentimentality, but solidarity—solidarity in its truest and most robust sense. There simply are not enough Jews in the United Kingdom to make going it alone a viable strategy. We need allies, and so we need to find a way to respond to the reality of Labour antisemitism in a way that binds us closer to our allies rather than atomizing us apart. The solidarity they showed us must be reciprocated in kind.

If there is one theme I have heard over and over again from UK Jews, it is the fear of becoming “politically homeless”: unable to stomach voting for Tory nativism, unable to countenance backing Labour antisemitism.

But as The Guardian letter demonstrated, Jews still have friends, and allies, and people who will have our backs no matter what. And if you’ve got friends, allies, and people who have your back, what do you do if you’re worried about homelessness?

I’d say, you start building a new house—one with room enough for all of us.

This Jew is Tired

It's been a rough week (he says, on a Thursday [dear God it's still only Wednesday -- DS]).

It began with President Trump once again dipping back into the antisemitism well in a speech before the Israeli American Council -- repeatedly treating American Jews as if we were Israelis and not American, calling us "not nice people" who would nonetheless vote for him because our great "wealth" was at stake.

It continued when Jewish communal representatives -- typified by the AJC -- could only issue the most mealy-mouthed half-condemnations (couched in lots of insulating rhetoric about how wonderful Trump has been as a friend of the Jews). One could see American Jews start to steam in frustration that, once again, antisemitism on the right would be given a pass (it already feels like forever since I wrote this, but it was actually just released on JTA a few hours ago).

Then a few days later, the New York Times put out what appeared to be a bombshell story contending that the Trump administration was going to issue an Executive Order reclassifying Jews as a separate "nationality". Already raw from the IAC speech, and mistrustful of our communal representatives who seemed to discount the threatening subtext of that speech, Jews boiled over -- furious at the prospect that American Jews should be viewed as being of any nation but America.

A few of us familiar with the civil rights context -- in particular, that Title VI only covers "race, color, and national origin", but not religion -- suspected that the EO was really just going to reiterate a policy interpretation dating back to the Obama and Bush administrations: that when antisemitism targets Jews on basis of actual or perceived ethnicity or ancestry, it is covered under the statute. But we found ourselves shouting into a void as people worked themselves into a greater and greater frenzy. Jews who a few days ago were singing the praises of neo-Bundism were now emphatic that Jewishness was "just" a religion -- a position which would, if adopted, remove Jews from the ambit of Title VI protections altogether.

I could see decades worth of civil rights progress unraveling in the face of an ever-increasing frenzy. Reflexive opposition based on incomplete information was making otherwise sensible people start putting out ideas that would virtually dynamite huge swaths of the legal apparatus standing against antisemitism -- and they were doing so under the banner of fighting antisemitism. And on a personal level, after spending literally years trying to draw attention to the mainstreaming of antisemitism on the political right, this is what gets the Jewish community to finally blow its top? This is what we rebel against? I was actually getting nauseous.

Thankfully, things died down a little today as the EO's text was actually released and people realized it was not redefining "Jew" out of "American". Attention now has shifted to the EO's implementation of the IHRA antisemitism definition -- a non-legal definition that was not designed for use in legal enforcement actions and whose vagueness and imprecision risks, if not managed carefully, chilling protected First Amendment activity.

But I scarcely have the bandwidth to dive into that issue (and boy does it ever need diving into), because while all of this was happening there was a shoot-out at a Jewish grocery store in New Jersey, killing five. At first, police said they didn't think it was "terrorism-related". Then the story shifted -- maybe the store had been specifically targeted. Now we've learned that at least one of the perpetrators was a Black Hebrew Israelite -- portions of which have long been associated with radical antisemitic activity. And that, in turn, has brought out some of the ugliest iterations of the Twitterati, who are just transparently delighted that this shooter was Black and are eager to let actual Black Jews know it. It's despicable. It's despicable that Black Jews aren't even allowed to mourn antisemitic violence without someone insisting they take responsibility for it.

Want to know one difference between being a White Jew and a Black Jew? When a White guy shoots up a synagogue, I don't worry that the next time I show up people at my shul will look at me and question whether I'm one of them.

But what we should really be focusing on is that this appears to be an antisemitic shooting, and it confirms what -- contra a particular sort of grievance-monger would have you believe -- is in fact very well-known and very well-attended-to in the Jewish community: that there is a branch of radical antisemitism in other minority communities that can and has turned violent against Jews. Black Hebrew Israelites do not fall neatly on a left-right spectrum (you should read this entire Emma Green column, and not just because it makes this point), and it's crude and debased to think that just because Black therefore Left. But regardless of where one situates it ideologically, it is certainly a distinct form of antisemitism that needs to be taken seriously as distinctive.

Not that anyone needed to tell us that. But by golly you can bet people will tell us that, over and over again, as if we didn't already know, as if we needed the lecture while we grieved.

What a week. What a terrible, tiring week.

Monday, December 09, 2019

Can We Just Resist the Bauble for Once?

The Justice Department Inspector General completed its review into the FBI's counterintelligence investigation into links between the Trump campaign and Russia, and found no wrongdoing. If you're Attorney General Bill Barr, this is obviously The Wrong Answer, and by golly he's going to keep on creating new investigations until someone gives the Right One.

At which point, we all know what's going to happen, right? The newspaper headlines will blare "Justice Department: FBI Behaved Inappropriately in Trump-Russia Investigation." Trump will declare victory. The media will put on its sternest contemplation face as it ponders this new revelation. Nobody will have the guts to say it's an obvious concoction, and not worth any attention at all.

But -- futility aside -- I'll still issue my plea: Can we not? Given that we all know exactly what it is coming, why it's coming, and what it is -- can we just resist the shiny bauble? Just this once?

I know, we can't. But still ... please?

Wednesday, December 04, 2019

What To Do With The Two Truths About Kamala Harris

Ever since Kamala Harris prematurely ended her once-promising presidential bid, I've seen a host of progressive takes making roughly the same claim about two simultaneously "truths":

  1. There are plenty of legitimate reasons not to have preferred Senator Harris as one's number one candidate; and
  2. Senator Harris was held to a higher and more unforgiving standard because of her race and sex.
And indeed, both of these things are true. Obviously, people are allowed to have policy beliefs that align with other candidates more than Senator Harris. And equally obviously, racism, misogyny, and misogynoir also factor in to how people weigh various issues and commitments in assessing the different candidates, as well as in governing how people move along the spectrum of "not my speed, but that's okay" to "she-devil COP!"

But what I haven't seen is a lot of people taking the next step, and asking what we do with these two truths.

This isn't, after all, just a Kamala Harris problem. These truths will emerge in any circumstance where we believe that unjust social prejudice is systemic and ingrained, such that it will manifest not just in fits of irrational hatred but also in "normal politics". An important implication of viewing racism and sexism as systemic is that it will still exert force -- often considerable force -- in political and policy disputes where there are perfectly valid reasons to take a variety of different positions. So the remedy can't be "don't oppose Kamala Harris" (there are legitimate reasons not to support her!), but neither can the existence of legitimate reasons to oppose Kamala Harris be taken as decisively falsifying any influence of racism and/or sexism.

Obviously, this is a question I've pondered for awhile, since it roughly corresponds to how I think the antisemitism-Israel relationship works (there are perfectly valid reasons to dislike many things Israel does, and also Israel gets held to a more exacting and unforgiving standard because of its Jewish character). And there too, the answer can neither be "never oppose Israeli policies", nor can it be "because there are legitimate bases to oppose Israeli policies, antisemitism isn't an issue." The uncomfortable truth is that antisemitism still operates even in the arena of legitimate opposition to Israeli conduct, and by the same token the fact that antisemitism still operates in that arena doesn't in itself delegitimize the validity of opposing Israeli actions.

Boiled down this way, the problem is even thornier than many have let on: under conditions of ingrained, systemic racism and sexism, there is probably no way to have a discourse about Kamala Harris that is not affected by racism and sexism. There's two trade-offs here: the one I already mentioned, where Harris opponents can't say "there's no racism or misogyny at work here, we have legitimate reasons for our views"; but also another one where Harris proponents can't say "in any case where we can say racism or misogyny is doing work, that case is per se delegitimated."

Why can't the latter claim work? Because one implication of viewing racism and misogyny as pervasive social forces is that there isn't a way to extract a "pure" discussion of her that is innocent of them. They'll always be there. Which means -- since again, the conclusion can't be "everyone is obligated to support Kamala Harris" -- we have to figure out what it means to ethically participate in a political discourse about prominent Black women in conditions where racism and misogyny simply will be present. People are not taking that problem seriously enough, because they retain a fantasy whereby via either sufficient cognizance or self-discipline we can neutralize the effects of racism and misogyny and drop them from our analysis. If that's not possible, and the racism and misogyny must always factor in even as they don't control, we're in far more discomforting terrain.

Sunday, December 01, 2019

Post-Thankful Roundup

I was thankful on Thanksgiving, but now the holiday is over and I'm back to being misanthropic.

* * *

The Chronicle of Higher Education profiles Kate Manne (congrats on her baby, by the way!).

I'd find these complaints about how the right is rewriting Mizrahi history to suit its political agenda more compelling if the left hadn't completely abandoned this arena for years (with occasional exceptions for hopelessly idealized histories that are equally political, just with different motivations).

A new survey on British antisemitism is out and making waves. I think several of their methodological choices are questionable, to say the least, which prevents me from endorsing its conclusions without reservation. That's unfortunate because there is some interesting data in there, but it's occluded by the authors' own manifest ideological biases. I might write separately on this.

Shocking-not-shocking, part one: A Jewish member of the McGill student government was given an ultimatum to either withdraw from a trip to Israel or resign (she's doing neither, and daring the body to impeach her). Shocking-not-shocking, part two: A non-Jewish student government member going on the same trip was weirdly overlooked and given a pass.

Ohio legislators introduce bill threatening life imprisonment for any woman, girl, or doctor who has or performs an abortion. "Abortion", here, includes not reimplanting an ectopic pregnancy, which is currently not medically possible.

Anti-Vaxxers make headway in Samoa; dozens of people die of measles in Samoa.

Is there a word -- presumably, a German word that's four words smashed together -- for the distinct feeling of anger one gets at a person or object precisely because one knows one can't reasonably be angry at that person or object? Inquiring minds would like to know.

Saturday, November 23, 2019

We Need More (and Better) Polling on BDS--Ask Me How!

A new poll, from the left-wing "Data for Progress" outfit, has dropped on BDS. This is the second poll that's devoted significant attention to BDS to have been released in the past month (I talked about the first, which came out of the University of Maryland, in this post).

The main takeaway I'm getting from reading these polls is, first and foremost, that most people don't know that much about BDS. The UMD poll, for instance, found that strong majorities of respondents had heard either "a little" or "nothing" about BDS; the Data for Progress memo acknowledges that it got an abnormally high amount of "not sure" responses even after dedicating lengthy paragraphs explaining to respondents what BDS (supposedly) is.

This actually is reflective of a larger methodological problem facing polls like this. They want to generate data that's neither just noise or "I don't knows". But since most people don't know anything about BDS, that means the surveyors need to explain what BDS is. This, in turn, creates two problems:
  1. "BDS" is a fragmented idea; there are a host of different tactics and programs which have at one form or another fallen under its ambit. Any effort to explain BDS in a remotely brief fashion inevitably will end up elevating and promoting a particular iteration of BDS over potential competitors.
  2. The more description one has to do, the more opportunity there is to inject surveyor bias -- describing BDS in terms that reflect the questioner's own support or opposition to the movement.
In the case of both surveys, but especially this new Data for Progress one, it is pretty evident that the questioner is at the very least BDS-sympathetic. The cynic might say that all these polls are therefore demonstrating is that when BDS is described in exactly the manner its supporters would want it to be described (It's non-violent! It seeks nothing more than the end of the occupation! Opponents want to take speech pathologists out of the classroom because of their beliefs!), it gets a respectable amount of support. Fancy that! Draw up a push poll pushing in the opposite direction, and it's likely you'd get different results.

Still, one could nonetheless find these surveys useful as a means of message-testing, i.e., telling us whether particular ways of framing BDS are likely to gain a sympathetic hearing. Perhaps unsurprisingly, framing BDS relatively narrowly -- targeted divestment from a company that "provides services and equipment to Israeli prisons" -- generates support in a way one would suspect might dissipate if one instead illustrated its demands more broadly -- say, "severing ties with all Israeli colleges and universities". BDS critics will accordingly say that these messages are based on lies -- BDS, after all, isn't narrow in this way. But as I've written elsewhere, I expect BDS to behave like other social movements in that it will moderate as it mainstreams. So I actually do think polls like these are emblematic of and may accelerate a trend whereby "BDS" supporters will coalesce around narrower actions like targeted consumer boycotts of particular companies (e.g., settlement goods), and jettison more ambitious actions like blanket boycotts of all Israeli companies, period.

That said, I'd actually like to test my hypothesis that more moderate forms of BDS poll better than more radical versions. And I'd also like to sidestep the problem that most people don't know what BDS is, and the problem of injecting my own biases in describing to them what BDS "actually" is.

So if someone wanted to fund my survey -- and if you do, feel free to email me -- what I'd do is avoid asking about BDS (other than a raw, unadorned "do you support or oppose the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions campaign targeting Israel" [yes/no/not sure]), since it's a term that it seems most people don't know and is quite pluralized even for those who do know it. Instead, I'd just ask questions about support for various campaigns or policies that have, at one time or another, been promoted under the BDS banner, to see what people actually do and do not back.

Here are my rough ideas for questions:
1. Should products from Israeli companies operating in the West Bank be labeled as coming from "Israel" or "the West Bank"? [Israel/West Bank/other/not sure]
2a. Some people support a consumer boycott of Israeli products which are made or manufactured in the West Bank. Do you, personally, support such a boycott? [Yes/no/not sure]
2b. Some people support the US government banning the sale of Israeli products which are made or manufactured in the West Bank. Do you, personally, support such a ban? [Yes/no/not sure] 
3a. Some people think investors such as pension funds and university endowments should divest from specific companies operating in Israel or the Palestinian territories which are accused of assisting in human rights violations against Palestinians. Do you, personally, support such divesting? [Yes/no/not sure]
3b. Some people think investors such as pension funds and university endowments should divest from all Israeli companies. Do you, personally, support such divesting? [Yes/no/not sure] 
4. Some people think America should place conditions on foreign aid to Israel, for example, by requiring that such aid not be used to support settlement construction. Do you support placing such a condition on foreign to Israel? [Yes/no/not sure] 
5. Some people think that Americans should refuse to do business with all Israeli or Israeli-owned companies operating in the United States. Do you, personally, support boycotting all Israeli or Israeli-owned businesses? [Yes/no/not sure] 
6. Some people think that American universities should sever institutional ties with all Israeli colleges and universities (for example, ending research partnerships, study-abroad programs, and student exchange programs). Do you, personally, believe American universities should sever institutional ties with all Israeli universities? [Yes/no/not sure]
7. Some people think that Israeli teams should be forbidden from participating in international athletic competitions, such as the Olympics and the World Cup. Do you, personally, support barring Israeli national teams from international athletic competitions? [Yes/no/not sure]
8. Some people think that Israeli artists and cultural figures should not be invited to perform at American theaters and centers. Do you, personally, support a policy of refusing to invite Israeli artists and cultural figures to perform in America? [Yes/no/not sure]
9. Some people think that American colleges should not host talks from Israeli political or academic officials. Do you, personally, believe colleges should not host talks given by Israeli political or academic officials? [Yes/no/not sure]
10. Some people think that American governmental officials should not work with counterparts in the Israeli government (for example, by traveling on trade missions to Israel or participating in training exercises with Israeli colleagues). Do you, personally, believe American governmental officials should refuse to work with counterparts in the Israeli government? [Yes/no/not sure]
11. Some people think that Jewish student organizations at American colleges should be defunded, and that other student groups should refuse to work with them, because these Jewish student organizations are "pro-Israel". Do you, personally, support defunding and/or refusing to work with Jewish student organizations because they are "pro-Israel"? [Yes/no/not sure]
My hypothesis is that we'd see significant differences in levels of support as we moved through these different questions. And if there is significant stratification across these various questions, that suggests (a) that asking people whether they support "BDS" doesn't tell us that much, because the term encompasses a huge variety of different proposals which carry different levels of support and (b) that support for "BDS" is not "in for a penny, in for a pound" -- people can support "BDS" while not supporting all campaigns which fly the BDS flag.

I'd also like to ask a few follow-up questions the answers to which I think might be very illuminating:
12. In general, the decision by a corporation to refuse to do business with Israeli customers or Israeli businesses because they are Israeli should be ... [Protected, as a matter of free speech/Prohibited, as a form of nationality-based discrimination/not sure]
13. Which of the following statements do you most agree with?
(a) We should encourage closer connections between Israelis and Americans, as a means of transmitting shared values and facilitating understanding across cultures; or
(b) We should sever connections between Israelis and Americans, as a means of signaling disapproval of Israeli policies and putting pressure on Israelis to change them.
14. Some people believe the state of Israel should be eliminated and replaced by a state of Palestine. Do you believe the state of Israel should be eliminated? [Yes/no/not sure]
Anyway, if you'd be interested in the answers to these questions and have access to funding for survey work, let me know! My contact details are very available on the internet.

Thursday, November 21, 2019

Things People Blame the Jews For, Volume LVI: The Impossible Burger

Have you tried The Impossible Burger -- the plant-based veggie patty that actually tastes like a regular, meatified hamburger? I have -- at White Castle, of all places. Impossible Burgers are pricier than their dead-animal counterparts, and I figured a slider was a cheap way to try it out with minimal risk in case I didn't like it.

(A friend told me that I was especially brave to try an Impossible Burger at White Castle. I remarked that it would have probably been braver to eat the meat patties there).

How was it? Well, my assessment is in line with the conventional wisdom, I think: it's not the best burger I've ever had, but it's not the worst either, and most importantly it does taste like an actual burger. That puts it head and shoulders above any other competitor, as far as I'm concerned.

Anyway, if you're like me and you've had an Impossible Burger, take a moment to thank -- or blame -- your local Jew. Because ...
[E]nter a new food-borne Jewish plot: the menacing Impossible Burger.
You may recognize that creation as a non-meat-based patty that claims to be indistinguishable in taste and texture from a traditional hamburger.
But one Joseph Jordan and one Mike Peinovich claim to have uncovered the sordid truth. They announced on their paywall-protected white power podcast — that the fake meat is, as you may have suspected, part of a Jewish scheme to destroy the white race.
It is an odd accusation (aside from its essential oddness), since the scientist-founder of Impossible Foods Inc. is a lily-white gentleman by the name of Patrick O. Brown. But who knows? Maybe his decidedly un-Jewish name is as fake as his burgers, he has bleached his skin and hidden under his T-shirt lies a tallis kattan.
It’s not entirely clear how the newfangled burger ties into the Jewish plot. But it apparently has something to do with the purported dangers of soy and an intent to, as Messrs. Jordan and Peinovich assert, “make it impossible for working people to be able to afford meat, make it impossible for working people to drive automobiles, make it impossible for average people to live in an industrial society.”
And should that case somehow prove less than convincing, Mr. Jordan adds, “They wanna make us into India!”
Making things even more undeniable, he adds that “the new breed of hyper-wealthy Judeo-capitalists in the tech industries especially” want to usurp industries currently run by “goys.”
Mr. Peinovich then provides the coup de grâce: “Oh, you’re not gonna believe this: it’s kosher!”
I do believe it, actually, seeing as the Impossible Burger is -- again -- a plant-based product.

Tuesday, November 19, 2019

"Pinkwashing", Hen Mazzig, and the Silencing of Mizrahi Jewish History

I have mixed feelings about Hen Mazzig. But I have unambiguous feelings about the justification SJP Vassar just gave for protesting his talk on "The Indigenous Jews of the Middle East: Forgotten Refugees." at Vassar College the other day. It really demonstrates the impossible toxicity of the manner in which SJP seeks to police Jewish -- and often especially minority Jewish -- voices.

The author, Ezra Mead, begins with the nominal affirmation that "[t]he stories of Mizrahi Jews and their struggle both outside and within Israel deserve attention." But by contrast, he argues, "there is no room for 'diverse viewpoints'" or "'free exchange of ideas'" around Israeli military actions in the Palestinian territories.

But of course, Mazzig's talk was not offering [SEE UPDATE BELOW] any viewpoint ("diverse" or otherwise) on the occupation or Israeli military policies, it was -- again -- a talk on "The Indigenous Jews of the Middle East" (i.e., Mizrahi/Sephardic Jews), and he was going to tell the story of his own families dispossession in Tunisia and Iraq that ultimately led them to come to Israel. Mead is engaging in a non-sequitur -- unless, of course, Mead thinks that the mere fact that Mazzig is an Israeli Jew who is not openly contemptuous of his state's existence automatically makes anything he chooses to speak upon an apologia for Palestinian dispossession.

Which is, of course, exactly what he thinks.

It is no surprise, then, that Mead also accuses Mazzig of "pinkwashing", for I've sometimes described "pinkwashing" as encompassing nothing more than being "gay, Jewish, and not visibly burning an Israeli flag". Again: Mazzig's talk was on the history of Jews from North Africa and the Middle East (with a particular focus on his personal family history). It's far from clear that he was going to offer any significant discussion of his sexuality, specifically -- it is certainly a part of his identity he is quite open about, but it did not seem to be the direct focus of the talk itself. But no matter: a gay Jew talking about anything Jewish- or Israel-related is presumed to be and intrinsically coded as part of a plot. You know Jews -- they're only after that one thing.

The fact of the matter is that SJP protested this talk because Mizrahi Jewish history is an uncomfortable subject for them. It does not fit comfortably in the boxes that anti-Zionists (or Zionists, for that matter) wish to lay out for it. Mazzig's talk probably wasn't speaking directly to the IDF or the settlements or the occupation or military operations in Gaza. But it would speak very directly to the brute fact that the most tangible social accomplishment that has occurred under an anti-Zionist banner has not been the enfranchisement of Palestinians (even in circumstances where they live under anti-Zionist political jurisdictions) but the massive dispossession and virtual eradication of ancient Jewish communities throughout the Middle East.

The last thing the SJP wants to do is own that history. So they obstruct that conversation by re-narrating Mizrahi Jewish political narratives generally as being right-wing apologias for Israeli state action no matter what their substantive content is, presumably with a narrow carve-out for those few Mizrahi Jewish activists whose politics are suitably harmonious with SJP's preconceived political commitments about Israel -- i.e., the ones in which they don't have to reckon with what anti-Zionism has tangibly, brutally, concretely meant for that community.

"There is no 'free exchange of ideas' to be had about forced dispossession and ethnic cleansing" indeed.

UPDATE: Hen says that at his talk "I did speak about the occupation and voiced my opposition to it and discussed Palestinians." My guess -- again, given the title -- is that this was not the primary focus of the talk (nor did it have to be!), but perhaps I am mistaken. The broad point remains (if anything, it is strengthened given that Hen contra his SJP "interlocutors" is not "ignoring" Palestinian issues): Mizrahi Jews, Hen Mazzig included, are entirely within their rights to narrate their own history without pausing every forty-five seconds to say "and by the way, the occupation is terrible".

Saturday, November 16, 2019

Labour Candidate Advised Holocaust Deniers on How To Avoid Being Expelled From Labour

This is a hell of a story:
A Labour Election candidate organised and ran a secret Facebook group which advises party members, including alleged Holocaust deniers, how to beat charges of antisemitism. 
Maria Carroll, a Jeremy Corbyn ally who is standing in the marginal seat of Camarthen East in Wales, co-founded and administered the site which instructed Labour Party members accused of antisemitism on how to avoid expulsion. 
Among those who joined the group are members who cast doubt on the murder of six million Jews by the Nazis and others who repeated the antisemitic trope that there is an international ‘Jewish conspiracy’ controlling politics, the economy and the media.
The Mail on Sunday has established that Carroll personally advised alleged Holocaust deniers. Yesterday she said she had not seen the social media posts in which they circulated these repellent views.
I want to sit on this last paragraph for a second, because what it means is Carroll's defense boils down to the following: "I was so convinced that all the Jews complaining about antisemitism in Labour were lying that I didn't even check what people were being accused of before I jumped to their assistance!"

Again, that's the damage-control version of this story. It really hammers home the depth of the problem here.

Friday, November 15, 2019

Deval Patrick and the Return of the Ballad of Johnny Unbeatable

Former Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick has entered the 2020 Democratic presidential primary, thus joining the many, many candidates for the nomination who I (a) like and (b) am basically annoyed at for running.

For months now, I've been puzzled with every new entrant into the Democratic field. What's their lane? What makes them look upon the (literally!) dozens of excellent people who already declared for the race (and also Tulsi Gabbard) and think "there's a niche here that nobody but me would be occupying"? How can it be that we have what seems to be a historically strong primary field and yet people still cast their eyes outward for an option not on the menu?

But over the past few weeks, other aspects of my personal life have given me renewed insight into what I think is going on. Here's my best thrust:

Democrats want to beat Trump. That's all we want. We're desperate for it. This primary is barely about ideas or vision or policy disputes. The overwhelming question driving us is "which candidate will beat Trump in 2020?" And of course, since we expected Trump to lose in 2016, we're feeling especially anxious about our own apparently malformed instincts on the question -- we don't know how to answer the question we're asking.

What we want is "Johnny Unbeatable". Johnny Unbeatable is the candidate who is guaranteed to beat Trump. He (or she) has all upside, no downside. Every aspect of their biography, every vote they've taken, every policy stance they've taken, every speech they've given, is perfectly tailored to appeal to swing voters while revving up the base. They can lock down Wisconsin and Michigan while turning Arizona and North Carolina (and even Georgia and Texas!) blue; they are a comforting presence for Boomers and Gen-Xers while representing exciting, sweeping change for Millennials and Gen-Z. If Johnny Unbeatable was the nominee, we could rest easy knowing the election was safe in hand.

The problem, of course, is that there is no Johnny Unbeatable. There can't be, even in concept. Not only is nobody perfect, and not only do elections carry intrinsic uncertainty, but we don't know what Johnny Unbeatable looks like. Take gender as just one example: Is Johnny Unbeatable a woman, designed to rev up the base of pink pussy hat wearers radicalized after Trump's inauguration? Or is he a man, a safe choice who'd better appeal to heartland voters? It seems Johnny Unbeatable would have to be a woman and a man -- combining the "best" political attributes of both -- but for the love of God not non-binary (you see the problem?).

No candidate can be Johnny Unbeatable, which means all candidates who have declared will always have that residual feeling of existential dread -- they could well lose -- attached to them. The quest for another option, another choice, stems from that persistent feeling of dread and anxiety that none of the candidates can fully dispel. Those Democrats on the outside of the race can sense that anxiety as much as anyone else, and see -- in some ways accurately -- that none of the declared candidates has an unbreakable grip on their supporters. Everybody is looking for something they don't yet have. We're all still looking for Johnny Unbeatable.

Wednesday, November 13, 2019

Assorted Thoughts on the Sanders Antisemitism Essay

Bernie Sanders wrote a piece in Jewish Currents on antisemitism. People are talking about it. I read it this morning (I've been traveling -- I knew of its existence, but I only had time to actually read it today). Here are my thoughts:

1) It is, on the whole, a very good piece. I like it. It's not perfect, but I don't expect perfect pieces on antisemitism from my politicians. On the spectrum of political analyses of antisemitism offered from a progressive vantage point, it definitely falls on the good side. I'd frankly be hard-pressed to think of another such essay by a prominent politician on this subject that I like better.

2) While I liked the piece, the reaction by some of his supporters to the ensuing conversation about it -- that if you didn't snap your neck violently nodding in agreement with every word, you were a traitor to the progressive cause -- really encapsulates the giant gulf between how I feel about Bernie (positively!) and how I feel about "the Bernie movement" (decidedly more wary).

3) That notwithstanding, my impression is that the essay is generally being well received, though of course those commenting on it tend to emphasize their points of disagreement or where they think there needs to be an expansion (generally on a more robust tackling of distinctively progressive iterations of antisemitism) -- which is reasonable and how commentary works. This isn't to say that every reaction to it is a good one (it pains me to say it, but I found Deborah Lipstadt's reply to be actually quite tendentious). But there was a lot of good out there, and not just from those naturally disposed to be Sanders' allies. See, for example, pieces by Yair Rosenberg and Alex Zeldin, as well as (from a further-left perspective) Abe Silberstein.

4) In particular, it is extremely notable, and laudatory, that Sanders expressed admiration for Israel's founding, and the reality of antisemitism that manifests as "criticism of Israel" in terms of seeking dissolution of the state outright or conspiratorial assertions of Jewish hyperpower. And it's especially notable, and laudatory, that he did it in this forum, with this audience. He deserves tremendous praise for that, just as he did for going on al-Jazeera and rejecting BDS.

5) It is also striking how little pushback I've seen (though I confess I haven't had time to do a full canvass) from Sanders allies -- some of whom are publicly rather ... let's go with "zealous" ... on this issue -- regarding Sanders' positive statements about Israel, the importance of its founding, the reality that anti-Israel rhetoric can be antisemitic, and his own personal connection and attachment to the nation. There have been few howls of betrayal that I've seen, few angry denunciations. That, too, tells us that the demand for uncompromising anti-Israel positioning as a political litmus test is weaker than it's often made out to be, even on the political left that makes up Sanders' base.

6) Finally, on that note -- one thing I'm hearing a lot from Bernie's critics dismissing this article is something like the following:
"What do we make of Sanders' claims that he's pro-Israel, thinks we should respect the enormous achievement of establishing Israel, and opposes calls to dissolve it given that people like Linda Sarsour and Rashida Tlaib (etc.) are his surrogates?"
But this cuts both ways -- for we could and should also ask:
"What do we make of Sarsour and Tlaib's (etc.) supposedly extreme and uncompromising hostility to Israel and all of its supporters, given that they both have enthusiastically endorsed a Jewish candidate who has publicly and explicitly declared his affinity for Israel, the need for progressives to respect its accomplishments, and the antisemitism latent in calling for its dissolution?"
If you harmonize the two questions with the answer "it means Bernie Sanders is lying, and his surrogates know he's lying", ask yourself what reason he has to lie -- given this publication, given his base, given what you say is the current trajectory of the left wing of the Democratic Party. Why would he bother?

So no: I don't think he's lying, and I don't think his surrogates think he's lying. What does it mean, then, that he's telling the truth -- and that he is nonetheless drawing in the supporters that he is?

Well, maybe it means that Sarsour and Tlaib and their fellows are less uncompromising on this matter than one might think. Maybe everyone's views are more nuanced, or less rigid, than we make them out to be. Maybe there are opportunities to make connections and do work together that are being falsely portrayed as impossible -- and perhaps the tenacious clinging to the belief in their utter impossibility is really just an excuse to avoid doing the hard work.

That'd be what I'd make of it all, anyway.

Tuesday, November 05, 2019

Israeli Supreme Court Upholds Deportation of Shakir

The Israeli Supreme Court has upheld the Israeli government's move to deport Human Rights Watch activist Omar Shakir from the country, citing his alleged support of BDS. The Court declined to say that HRW was itself a "a boycott organization", and therefore noted "it can request the employment of another representative who is not involved up to his neck in BDS activity."

There are ample reasons why I think Shakir was a poor choice for HRW to send off as its representative in Israel, and plenty of occasions where I think the quality (and neutrality) of his work could be justifiably questioned. Nonetheless, the standard for "expulsion from the country" is not coterminous with "work I think is subpar", and healthy democracies do not fear criticism (even when sometimes ill-formed). This is a dark day for those of us trying to stem the increasingly-rapid erosion of Israel's liberal character.

On that note, here's Interior Minister Aryeh Deri, celebrating:
[A]nyone who works against the state should know that we will not allow him to live or work here.
Tell me that isn't creepy as all get out.

Sunday, November 03, 2019

Things People Blame the Jews For, Volume LV: Chernobyl (and the Titanic, and 9/11)

A Russian television show ran a short film that, well, it mostly just tried to pack this whole "Things People Blame the Jews For" series into one segment:
Jews are responsible for the sinking of the Titanic, the nuclear disaster at Chernobyl and the terrorist attacks in the US on 11 September 2001, according to a short film broadcast recently on REN TV.
The documentary is an updated version of an earlier version broadcast in 2012, in which it was alleged that a group of “300 Jews, Illuminati and Freemasons” was behind the sinking of the British ship 100 years ago in order to cause an international crisis and take over the world.
We've already covered the Titanic here, and if 9/11 hasn't gotten an entry it's only because it was too easy. But I think Chernobyl, we genuinely haven't done before. Fukashima, yes (twice, in fact), but not Chernobyl.

So well done, REN TV, for keeping things at least a little fresh.

(Also, in a sign of the times, the Jewish Chronicle article linked to above was shortly after posting bombarded with social media trolls "thanking" them for their "revelation" about Chernobyl).

Almost Midway Roundup

It's been a hellacious semester for me -- I massively overcommitted, and have been traveling nearly every week for the past month or so. But we're approaching the end of the tunnel. This weekend I'm flying to Chicago for a conference, and then I have one more trip scheduled after that, and then I should be pretty well clear until Winter Break.

In reality, I'm probably past the midway point. But for the Chicago trip I'm flying into and out of Midway airport. Get it? Almost Midway? I know, I'm a riot.

Anyway, roundup time.

* * *

Last year, the University of Oregon Hillel was vandalized with the message "Free Palestine You Fucks". Everybody was appalled by this antisemitic act. But I noted that under certain relatively popular mantras about what antisemitism is, including those backed by groups like Open Hillel, one very easily could deny the antisemitic character of the incident. And lo and behold -- it appears the University of Oregon decided it could get away with not characterizing the event as an antisemitic hate crime.

Right-wing parties in Italy decline to support formation of a commission investigating antisemitism. BuT I ThoUghT aNTi-SeMitiSm iN EUroPe OnlY caMe frOM tHe leFT (and Muslims)!

This is not a parody: children attending the White House Halloween party were told to "build the wall". This is not a parody either: Trump staffer defends the decision by saying "Everyone loses their minds over everything, and nothing can be funny anymore."

Thursday, October 31, 2019

Patterns of Discourse and Omar's "Present" Vote

As you've probably seen, Rep. Ilhan Omar voted "present" on a House resolution recognizing the Armenian Genocide. She contended that the resolution, which passed 405-11 (not including the "present" votes of Omar and two of her colleagues), was a "cudgel in a political fight" and that recognition and accountability for human rights atrocities "should be done based on academic consensus outside the push and pull of geopolitics." She also suggested that the U.S. had no standing to speak out on the Armenian Genocide without recognizing the horrors of the transatlantic slave trade and Native American genocide.

This explanation did not seem to satisfy many people. That includes me -- I think this was a terrible vote paired with a terrible apologia for the vote, and she deserves to be raked over the coals for it.

But since, apparently, a bit of genocide wishy-washiness is less hot and emotionally fraught than a debate over "Benjamins" (seriously: this is The Bad Place), I wonder if we might take this opportunity to reflect -- with cooler heads -- on some patterns that I think are repeating themselves

On the one hand: A great many people otherwise fond of or sympathetic to Ilhan Omar have been very sharply critical of her vote. She does have some defenders, but at the outset they seem to be relatively few and far between. On the other: many of Omar's critics are not people "otherwise fond of or sympathetic to" Ilhan Omar, and are less disappointed than they are elated to have a valid excuse to launch another pile-on.

People in the first category have certainly observed the fact of the second category and are uncomfortable contributing to the "pile-on", which they see as reflecting particular anti-Black and Islamophobic biases. After all, why is there such intense focus on Omar's "present" vote, as compared to the eleven Representatives who actually voted "no" (all Republicans) or even the other two "present" votes (Republican Rep. Paul Gosar and Democratic Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson)? For example, Rep. Johnson, who apparently has gone on the record saying she denies the Armenian Genocide outright, would seemingly deserve an even greater degree of scorn. And of course, those who outright voted against the resolution should face even more intense condemnation.

There is, to be sure, an answer to the "why Omar" question that doesn't boil down to "because of her identity". She has a much higher profile than does Eddie Bernice Johnson or Paul Gosar, she styles herself as a human rights advocate, there are many people who are disappointed in her that probably have no particular interest or hope in what Virginia Foxx does. Nonetheless, it is hard to say with a straight face that Omar's identity is playing no role in the dynamic. And the effect remains that the Black Muslim women makes a mistake and gets obliterated for it even as other, predominantly White colleagues effectively get a free pass for the same or worse conduct.

And here's the real kicker: the genuine, non-prejudicial, fairly-motivated critics of Omar who are speaking out based on sincerely held and non-opportunistic commitments to human rights? I don't think there is anything they could have reasonably done (save not speaking out at all) to prevent their condemnation from contributing to the pile-on effect. Even if that's not what they want, even if it makes them queasy. The dynamics in play here go beyond them; in the current moment there is not a way to in any robust sense speak critically about Omar (including justifiably critically) without carrying the risk that it will be harnessed by more primordial political actors eager to hoist up the pinata again. It would be wrong to say that this outcome was desired by the genuine critics; it would I suspect be equally wrong to say it could have been avoided by those critics.

Do you get it? Do you see the pattern? In l'affaire Benjamins, it was often claimed that Omar's critics were wholly and entirely right-wing smear merchants, and that it was their fault -- or more than that, their desire -- that she be subjected to a completely over-the-top orgy of histrionic condemnations that seem far disproportionate to her offense. This allegation, in turn, infuriated those of her critics who were genuinely motivated by non-opportunistic liberal instincts and concerns about antisemitism, and who wanted to both send a clear message that "this is not okay" but had no desire to endorse a witch-hunt.  Yet Omar's defenders, in effect, viewed that entire posture as disingenuous -- crocodile tears by political arsonists. Omar's critics are her critics -- some just put on a better figleaf of respectability than others.

One might hope that this go-around might offer some critical distance illuminating the pattern. Some of Omar's defenders in the last controversy are among her critics this time; perhaps they can learn to empathize with their peers in recognizing the genuinely uncomfortable position they find themselves in, and the difficulty (if not impossibility) of insulating their valid criticisms from enlistment into more unsavory political projects. And I'd also hope that some of Omar's critics, for those whom this issue has a less immediate pull on their psyche, can see how she really is being singled out in a way that seems anomalous given her degree of offense compared to other wrongdoers (a recognition which by necessity acknowledges there is a degree of offense!). In the history of debates over recognizing the Armenian genocide, after all, she is by no means the only actor to have gotten it wrong.

Monday, October 28, 2019

Booing Trump in Washington: The Appearance isn't the Reality, But the Reality May Become the Appearance

Many of you saw that President Trump, who attended Game Five of the World Series in Washington yesterday, was roundly and loudly booed.
When the president was announced on the public address system after the third inning as part of a tribute to veterans, the crowd roared into sustained booing — hitting almost 100 decibels. Chants of “Lock him up” and “Impeach Trump” then broke out at Nationals Park, where a sellout crowd was watching the game between the Washington Nationals and Houston Astros. 
For many of the folks on my Twitter feed, this was not just a feel-good moment (though it was). It was also highly symbolic -- proof that the President is weak, that he has lost the support of the people, and that maybe his grip on the GOP in the Senate might weaken just enough to make impeachment actually viable.

I remain skeptical. Partially, that's because I don't think congressional Republicans are responsive to anything remotely resembling "the popular will" at this point. But partially, it's because I know the demographics of the areas surrounding Washington DC. Below are the 2016 electoral margins of DC and surrounding counties (all went for Hillary Clinton):
Washington (DC): 91/4
Montgomery County (MD): 75/19
Prince George's County (MD): 88/8
Fairfax County (VA): 64/29
Arlington County (VA): 76/17
Alexandria City (VA): 76/18
This is an area of the country where (to its credit!) Trump has always been despised. And if anything relatively wealthy suburban professional counties have gotten even more sour on Trump since 2016, and I'd suspect relatively wealthy suburban professional counties surrounding DC to be "even more so" on that front. So it maybe doesn't tell us that much about the views of America as a whole if a stadium full of fans from places like DC, Montgomery County, and Fairfax loudly booed Donald Trump.

But if one is looking for a silver lining, here it is: it might not have to.

The appearance of widespread revulsion at Donald Trump doesn't match a reality where Americans, as a whole, are very different from DC metro residents, specifically.

But it is also the case that, as a matter of psychology, the appearance of widespread revulsion at Donald Trump can help move the needle on the reality, even in circumstances where that appearance is in many ways an artifact of local demographics.

Most people don't know the particular political orientation of the metro DC area. Most people just see a crowd full of regular Joes and Josettes who roundly despite the President, and take that as a data point that the President is despised by many, many regular folks. And we know in politics that people often follow herds -- the political positions they take are constrained by the set of political positions they know to be acceptable. Trump appearing weak can easily cascade into Trump being weak. And given that Trump really is weak -- perhaps not as overwhelmingly disliked as he would be at National Park, but certainly sporting consistently mediocre poll ratings -- a high-profile, high-salience event where Americans seemed to unite around thinking Trump is awful may well actually do real political work. Even if the appearance mostly is artificial.

Things People Blame the Jews For, Volume LIV: Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi

You may have heard that ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi has been killed.

You may not have heard that ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi is actually a Jewish Mossad agent by the name of Simon Elliot.

Hopefully, the reason you haven't heard the latter is because it's ridiculous. It's been floating about the more conspiracy-minded portions of the internet for years now, and of course is bubbling back up now that al-Baghdadi has been killed.

And if al-Baghdadi and ISIS really are Israeli/Jewish/Zionist plots, doesn't that mean America has spent the last several years bombing Israeli agents? You'd think that the anti-Israel conspiracy theorists would be thrilled!

In any event, I'll just quote the well-spoken words of a U.S. Congresswoman on the occasion of al-Baghdadi's death:
Abu Bakr al Baghdadi was an evil man and a terrorist, who terrorized the world with violence and a message of hate. 
The world is a safer place without him.
We have deep gratitude for the brave men and women who carried out this dangerous operation.

Wednesday, October 23, 2019

Working Through Two New Polls on Antisemitism and BDS

Two very interesting surveys have just dropped on the subject of BDS and antisemitism in America.

The first is the AJC's survey of American Jews on the subject of antisemitism in America.

The second, a "Critical Issues" poll out of the University of Maryland, surveys all Americans on various Middle East policy related questions, including BDS.

Both have some intriguing findings that are worth discussing.

Start with the AJC poll. There's a lot of great stuff to unpack in here on how American Jews assess the lay of the antisemitic land. For one, it finally gives me some data on what American Jews think about BDS. Unlike Americans writ large, who've barely heard of BDS (we'll get into that more in the other poll), Jews have definitely heard about the BDS movement (76% are at least a little familiar with it, and 62% of "somewhat" or "very" familiar). There isn't a direct "do you support BDS" question, but they do ask about BDS and antisemitism. 35% say BDS is "mostly" antisemitic, 47% say it has "some antisemitic supporters", and 14% say it is simply "not antisemitic".

Of course, that middle response is vague -- it could mean anything from "BDS is not inherently antisemitic, but it's got a significant antisemitism problem" to "BDS is mostly fine, but sure, obviously it has some antisemitic supporters." Nonetheless, paired with some of the other responses -- such as the 84%(!) who view the statement "Israel has no right to exist" as antisemitic -- I think it is fair to infer that the majority of American Jews are, to say the least, not BDS fans.

In terms of broad assessments on antisemitism in America, things don't look great: 88% of Jews say it is a "very" or "somewhat" serious problem and 84% say it has increased in severity over the past five years. The silver lining is that most Jews have not been victimized by either physical or verbal antisemitic attack and most Jews are not avoiding Jewish spaces or advertising their Jewish status out of fear of antisemitic attacks.

But perhaps the more interesting data comes in terms of where American Jews think antisemitism is coming from, and who is mostly responsible for it. It's no surprise that most Jews are Democrats, most Jews lean liberal, and most Jews have an unfavorable view of Donald Trump (by a 22/76 margin -- whoof!). It might be a little more surprising -- at least given how the issue has been covered by both the Jewish and non-Jewish press -- how Jews assess the threat of antisemitism and the response to it on an ideological level.

Jews strongly disapprove of how Donald Trump is handling the threat of antisemitism in the United States -- literally, 62% "strongly disapprove", the overall approve/disapprove spread is 24/73. In terms of where the threat of antisemitism is strongest in America, the answer is "the extreme right" -- 49% of respondents say it is a "very serious" threat, compared to 15% for "the extreme left" and 27% for "extremism in the name of Islam". Add in the "moderately serious" threat respondents and the extreme right gets 78%, the extreme left 36%, and Islamic extremism 54%.

But that's dealing with "extremists". What about mainstream political parties? Here we see something that I think should blow some doors off. Asked to assess the Democratic and Republican parties' responsibility for contemporary antisemitism on a 1 - 10 scale (where 1 is "no responsibility" and 10 is "total" responsibility), Democrats saw 75% of respondents give them a grade of 5 or below (i.e., the bottom half of the scale), versus 22% at 6 or higher (the modal response was a "1" -- no responsibility -- the second most common response was a "2"). For Republicans, by contrast, just 38% of respondents gave them a 5 or below score, while 61% scored them above a 6. Their modal response was an "8", the second most common response a "10".

The way it's been covered in the press, one would think that Jews are fearful of left antisemitism and furious at the Democratic Party for not tamping down on it. In reality, the consensus position in the Jewish community is that the most dangerous antisemitism remains far-right antisemitism, and that in terms of political responsibility the Republican Party is a far more dangerous actor than the Democratic Party is. That consensus has the added advantage of reflecting reality -- it's obviously true that right-wing antisemitism (the sort that gets Jews killed) in America is more dangerous than other varieties, and it's obviously true that the GOP has been nothing short of abysmal in policing itself and reining in its antisemitic conspiracy mongers (thinking instead that its Israel policies entitle it to a nice fat "get-out-of-antisemitism-free" card).

Now the question is whether Jewish institutions and the Jewish media (or -- dare to dream -- the mainstream media) will follow the lead on this, and start reallocating attention and emphasis accordingly.

Now let's move to the Critical Issues poll. It covers a bunch of ground on Mid-East policy, but it is in particular one of the first I've seen to try and gauge American attitudes towards BDS, so let's focus on that.

Perhaps the most striking finding is being slightly misreported -- the Jerusalem Post says it found that 48% of Democrats support BDS. But that's not right -- the true number is probably around half that.

The survey first asked how much people had heard about BDS -- and for a majority of respondents (including 55% of Democrats), the answer was "nothing". They hadn't heard of BDS at all. The next-most common response was "a little" (29%), while "a good amount" and "a great deal" combined for just 20%. Only those who had heard at least "a little" about BDS were then asked whether they supported it or not. Overall, 26% of respondents supported it ("strongly" or "somewhat"), while 47% opposed it, and 26% were neutral. For Democrats, that split was 48% support (14% "strongly", 34% "somewhat"), 37% neutral, and 15% opposed. So that's where the 48% figure comes from -- but again, it excludes the majority of Democrats who've never heard about BDS at all. Add them in (and assume they'll be at "neither support nor oppose"), and the percentage of Democrats supporting BDS probably falls into the mid-20s.

Now obviously, that's itself noteworthy. But it's hard to know what to make of it, especially given that most of those who have heard about BDS still have only heard "a little" about it. That in itself is worth pointing out -- for all the indigestion this issue is causing the Jewish community, it's barely made an imprint on the polity writ large: 80% of all Americans have heard little or nothing about it. It's hardly some sort of generational wave that's caught the attention of the nation.

Still, it would have been interesting to know if those who had heard more were more or less likely to support the campaign -- my guess is actually it would yield greater polarization (those who've heard a lot about BDS would be more likely to either strongly support or strongly oppose it). But -- probably because the number of respondents who've heard more than "a little" about BDS is so small -- we don't have data at that level of granularity.

In any event: What does seem to be the case is that there is a sizable -- though still minority -- chunk of Democratic voters who (a) haven't heard that much about BDS and (b) say they support it "somewhat" (recall the "somewhats" vastly outstripped the "stronglys"). My suspicion is that this represents a set of voters who (a) are pretty pissed off at Israel and Netanyahu right now, and don't feel particularly inclined to think it is pursuing an end to the occupation in good faith, and (b) view BDS vaguely as a means of exerting pressure on Israel to change course, or if not that, at least signal that they don't endorse its current tack. In practice this probably means only supporting more "moderate" forms of BDS (if you even want to call it that) -- sanctions against settlements yes, full-fledged academic boycotts no -- and as I've written before that is actually a predictable consequence of BDS going "mainstream": it will lose some of its harder edges (much to the consternation of its founding, more radical core).

Basically, these are people who are looking for ways to signal "what Israel is doing is not okay", and while I strongly doubt they are ride-or-die on BDS, absent other avenues for expressing that sentiment they'll at least be open to some form of "BDS" -- albeit probably not the more radical iterations of it that, say, characterize the PACBI guidelines. The challenge for pro-Israel Democrats isn't, I think, that the 2020 Democratic electorate is going to demand that the US treat Israel as a pariah state. The challenge is that these voters are looking for ways to vent their frustration at Israel, and are going to want their candidates to speak in terms of sticks as well as carrots with respect to how Israel is engaged with. We're already seeing a bit of that -- and it's frankly a healthy move.

The survey asks a few more message-based questions about BDS (again, only to those who've heard at least a "little" about it), leading questions of the "is it antisemitism or is it legitimate" variety. I'm very much not a fan of the wording of those questions, and don't think they tell us much other than effective messaging frames to make people more positively disposed towards BDS (including that "Opposing Israeli policy does not equal anti-Semitism" is the salt of Israel discourse -- there's no recipe that isn't tastier with at least a sprinkle of it, so why not just toss it on everything?).

The final question the survey asks on this topic returns back to all respondents (not just those who've heard of BDS) and asks about "laws that penalize people who boycott Israel". One can quibble again about the verbiage here (the laws in question impose no criminal penalties, they just bar government contractors from also boycotting Israel -- but then, wouldn't many naturally view that as "penalty", albeit a non-criminal one?), but the numbers are nonetheless striking: 72% of respondents (including 62% of Republicans) oppose such laws. So that's probably something worth keeping in mind (again, might I recommend replacing those laws with general prohibitions on nationality-based discrimination? I bet that would poll much better).

Monday, October 21, 2019

Finding Something Nice To Say: Tulsi Gabbard Edition

My position on the 2020 Democratic primary, and all the diverse candidates running -- from Kamala Harris to Elizabeth Warren to Pete Buttigieg to Bernie Sanders -- has always been "There are many great candidates running for the Democratic nomination, and also Tulsi Gabbard."

That hasn't changed. But you should always find something nice to say about everyone, and here's mine for her.

Nobody should disrespect Tulsi Gabbard's military service. That principle I think is pretty well adhered-to, and obviously it doesn't mean that she's immune from critique due to her military service. But in particular, I do not think it is wrong or hypocritical for Rep. Gabbard to take the positions that she does on international affairs given her military service. That is something I have seen people do -- calling her out for opposing "regime-change" wars in the Middle East given that she effectively participated in such wars herself.

But military veterans are allowed to come to the conclusion that the wars they've fought in were ill-advised or unjust. It is wrong (and foolhardy) to insist that all veterans, to the extent that they rely upon their combat service in public affairs, can only speak out in favor of more interventions or operations of the sorts they participated in.

Rep. Gabbard's foreign policy positions are abysmal (here ends the "nice" part). But they're not more abysmal because of her military service. On that score, she deserves the same respect accorded to any other veteran -- including respecting her right to come to her own conclusion that the military operations she participated in reflected bad American policy.

Anyway, having said all that -- Rep. Gabbard's campaign continues to get no traction, and it is to the Democratic electorate's great credit that they have  shown no evidence of even being slightly tempted by her brand of Assadist-apologizing faux "anti-imperialism".