Saturday, March 02, 2019

A Month of Black Jewish History

At the start of February, a Twitter friend of mine -- Shawn Harris -- issued a challenge: for the entire month, write one post a day on some aspect of Black Jewish history. I interpreted that broadly -- to include everything from historical articles, to academic essays, to simply linking to the profiles of Black Jewish writers whose work I've enjoyed or learned from over the years.

My thread begins here. But I also thought it might be worth collecting the month's worth of posts in one spot, on the blog.

A good chunk of the entries were simply promoting Black Jewish figures. That included some prominent academics and writers, like Lewis Gordon, Julius Lester, and Jamaica Kincaid, Rabbi Capers Funnye of Beth Shalom B'nai Zaken Ethiopian Hebrew Congregation, as well as personal friends like Jake Grumbach (soon to be an assistant professor of political science at the University of Washington) and Twitter connections like Blewish. My last entry of the whole month was dedicated to Shawn Harris herself, in honor of her inspiring the thread in the first place.

For others, I linked to a particular essay that had spoken to me -- this included Adam Serwer on Tamika Mallory and Louis Farrakhan, Stacey Aviva Flint on the Movement for Black Lives platform, Tema Smith on Ilhan Omar, and an omnibus collection of Black Jewish reflections on MLK Day. My book recommendation, MaNishtana's "Ariel Samson: Freelance Rabbi", and academic article recommendation, Carol Conaway's "Journey to the Promised Land: How I Became an African-American Jew Rather Than a Jewish African American", also fall into this category.

One entry that particularly tickled me was this interview with rapper "Young Gravy" -- mostly because I was the guy who suggested doing such an interview to the Forward's culture editor in the first place. Other musical entries include rapper Nissim Black and the spoken word poetry of Aaron Levy Samuels.

Black Jews are Jews. That is the case inside the Jewish community and outside as well. On the former, consider this profile on Ilana Kaufman, focusing on her work trying to further foster the elevation of JOC voices in American Jewish leadership positions, or Shekhiynah Larks on doing "Birthright while Black". On the latter, here's Michael Twitty saying the Shehecheyanu while accepted the James Beard award, and a list of Black Jews nominated for NAACP image awards.

The Ethiopian Jewish community is by no means the only part of Black Jewish history, but it does matter. My first entry in the whole series was on the efforts of Ethiopian Jews to help serve their European compatriots during the Holocaust. Other entries focused on the Ethiopian Jewish community include this one by Haftam Yitzak-Heathwood on racism against Ethiopians in Israel, and profiles of Pnina Tamano-Shata (the first Ethiopian Israeli women to be elected to Knesset), "Miss Israel" Titi Aynaw. and Mehereta Baruch-Ron (former Deputy Mayor of Tel Aviv). There also is a vibrant Jewish community and history in Africa outside of Ethiopia, as this conference sought to emphasize.

It's important to not overstate "conversion" as an element of the Black Jewish experience, but certainly that is an important of some Black Jewish stories. Here's the conversion arc of former NFLer Calvin (now Yosef) Murray.

And finally, for my birthday, I stretched a bit and plugged my own article: White Jews: An Intersectional Approach, which is forthcoming in the Association for Jewish Studies Review.

Friday, March 01, 2019

UNHRC Releases Report on Rights Violations in Gaza "March of Return" Protests

The UNHRC has released the results of its investigation into alleged human rights violations that occurred during the "Great March of Return" on the Gaza/Israel border last year (see my contemporaneous post on use-of-force issues written at the time of the protests). It concludes that there is "reason to believe" that Israeli forces committed human rights violations related to the excessive use of lethal force against protesters. Pro-Israel NGOs, unsurprisingly, rejected the findings.

I read the report. And I have some quibbles with some of its conclusions, which I'll mention at the end. As has become usual in these cases, it was unable to take testimony from the Israeli side (because Israel refused to cooperate with the investigation, arguably with good reason). In general, I take a relatively dim view of the UNHRC, and I think it is fair to appropriately discount any of its findings simply based on the source. The UNHRC, as a body, really is structurally biased against Israel.

Still, at the end of the day? I read the report. And I think it's pretty fair. It does mention Palestinian rights violations (notably, the use of incendiary devices to torch the Israeli countryside, but also violent attacks on Israeli border guards). It expressly considers cases where Israeli soldiers resorted to lethal force in circumstances where there was an ongoing or imminent attack, and declines to find cause for a rights violation in those cases. Where someone is firing a rifle at Israeli soldiers, the Israelis are allowed to fire back.

But the big problem here is that the Rules of Engagement Israel put in force for dealing with the protests really were too loose. I agree with the commission that the March of Return cannot, in toto, be cast as a military operation -- it was primarily a civilian campaign, albeit one that at various times Hamas tried to infiltrate into a military one (this is one of my quibbles -- the report doesn't treat with sufficient seriousness the problem of Hamas' admixture of its military operations into civilian protests -- a decision which bears significant responsibility for putting the protesters at risk).

In such a circumstance, Israel is acting in a law enforcement capacity, and can only resort to lethal force in cases where there is an imminent threat to life or limb. "Imminent" threat, as the Commission correctly notes, is measured as a matter of "moments", not hours.

Yet the Israeli RoE was considerably more expansive -- it effectively authorized the use of deadly force as a riot dispersal technique, including targeting "main inciters", which was recklessly irresponsible and predictably would lead to the use of lethal force in inappropriate circumstances. Even assuming marchers breaching the fence could constitute an "imminent" threat, it does not warrant the use of deadly force against persons who are still a football field's length away.

The problems with the RoE are one of the reasons why I'm less (not un-) concerned that the commission wasn't able to get the Israeli "side" of the story. Yes, that might make a difference in assessing individual cases. But there isn't much serious dispute regarding what the RoE was, and it is reasonable to infer that an RoE which viewed riotous protests at the border as tantamount to an "imminent" threat would at least somewhat predictably lead to uses of lethal force that are indefensible under international law.

The common objection to reports like these is that they act to "second-guess" on-the-ground military decision-making in a hot zone. And in a sense, they do -- though, again, it seems wrong to characterize the entirety of the protests as "hot" in the relevant sense. The widely shared clips of violence occurring by protesters are, if not irrelevant, than certainly incomplete. In cases where protesters were violent, that can warrant the use of deadly force; but the existence of violence among protesters does not create a blanket authorization for firing live ammunition anywhere and anywhere. Again, this is the point of the "imminence" requirement: lethal force is justified in particular moments characterized by a particular threat; the justification of using lethal force in this spot at this moment does not transfer to any use of lethal force at any time during the broader protest. Indeed, the core of the problem is the proposed transitivity, which is what ends up getting you to Avigdor Liberman's "there are no naive people in Gaza" claim and sanctions anyone and everyone as a target.

But more broadly: the reason we have rules regarding laws of war and international humanitarian law is, in a sense, to do that "second-guessing". It is to judge conduct in precisely the sort of situations that occur here. To dismiss such judgments as second-guessing is to moot this entire arena of law. That simply cannot be right.

This broad endorsement of the report is not wholly unqualified. I mentioned one problem already -- the report in my view gives the short-shrift to the manner in which the intentional mixing of military or otherwise violent actors into the civilian protests played a role in creating dangerous conditions for the civilians. Likewise, the report doesn't seem to take much account of the obvious fact that bullets travel and sometimes miss their intended target -- it is too much to assume that any bullet that hits any civilian actor is necessarily aimed at that actor. While some of the incidents described in the report attempt to paint a reasonably full spatial picture of where the victim was in relation to other protesters (most importantly, those who were acting violently or in ways that otherwise could have warranted a lethal response), the authors were inconsistent on this score.

Yet, reading the report holistically and taking theses shortcomings into account, they do not ultimately negate the core conclusion -- that there are reasonable grounds to believe (which is not, it is worth noting, the same as "definitively proven") that Israeli forces -- likely as a result of decisions made regarding the rules of engagement -- violated international law regarding excessive use of lethal force against Gazan protesters.

I remarked in my post from last year that too many people who style themselves "pro-Israel" seem more concerned with calling the IDF "the most moral army in the world" than in it being such. To be a "moral army" requires actually adhering to certain rules and standards, and punishing people when they violate them. It's not simply a matter of assertion; there is no law of the metaphysical universe which makes it conceptually impossible for the Israeli army to commit rights violations. We figure out whether they did or did not by investigating the possibility seriously, and without predisposition to either a "guilty" or "innocent" verdict.

In terms of that project, it is indeed unfortunate that the UNHRC has shot its credibility to hell and back on the matter of Israel; it makes it easy to reflexively dismiss this report based on its provenance. But dismissal and then silence should not be an adequate response -- indeed, it is just as partial and biased as the UNHRC is (fairly) accused of being. If one does not trust the UNHRC investigation, the right call is to launch one whose partiality is less questionable. Either the results will confirm that Israeli forces fired only when there was an imminent risk of death or serious injury -- or they won't. We cannot prejudge that outcome based on what we hope the answer will be.

Wednesday, February 27, 2019

Chris Williamson Suspended from Labour

The most antisemitic member of the UK House of Commons almost certainly isn't Jeremy Corbyn.

It's Chris Williamson.*

Basically, if there is an antisemite on the left, Williamson has been there to defend them.

When Jackie Walker -- currently suspended from Labour after (among other things) accusing Jews of being the primary backers of the slave trade, complaining that Holocaust Memorial Day is too Jew-oriented, and challenging the need for heightened security at Jewish schools and synagogues as the product of exaggerated and embellished fears -- sought a venue to host her new film "Witchhunt" (guess who the witch-hunters are?), Williamson happily offered to give her a room in parliament -- a decision the Board of Deputies of British Jews likened to an act of "trolling".

When Ken Livingstone -- who said that Hitler was a "Zionist" -- was suspended from the Party, Williamson was manning the ramparts demanding that he (and Walker) be let right back in.

When Jewish Labour MP Ruth Smeeth was accused by Marc Wadsworth of being a right-wing operative because she was challenging antisemitism in her party, Williamson accused Smeeth and her backers of being the faces of "White privilege" (Wadsworth was eventually expelled from Labour).

When people were organizing to deplatform vicious antisemitic musician Gilad Atzmon, Williamson signed a petition ... defending Atzmon and urging that he be permitting to perform (Williamson did apologize for that one, saying that he -- somehow -- didn't know of Atzmon's antisemitic record, despite that being the only reason he's of any public prominence at all).

Williamson has said that he's "never seen antisemitism in the Labour Party," -- a fascinating argument coming from someone who's twice had to apologize for his own antisemitic dalliances. Perhaps he doesn't own a mirror?

But today, finally, Chris Williamson was suspended from Labour after telling a cheering crowd that his party -- which just saw a mass exodus of members prompted in part by worries of institutional antisemitism -- had been "too apologetic" about antisemitism.

Apparently, the suspension occurred only after an intervention by Corbyn himself. Not to facilitate the suspension to show that Labour was done soft-playing antisemitism in its upper ranks. Rather, Corbyn was trying to shield Williamson from consequences for his actions -- perhaps not surprisingly, since he's naturally one of Corbyn's most vocal allies in the party.

A massive blowback from within the Labour Party forced Corbyn to back off. And so, for now, Chris Williamson is under suspension.

* Incidentally, the most antisemitic member of the UK legislature is not a Labour member. That would have to be Baroness Jenny Tonge, formerly of the Liberal Democratic Party (though she was suspended and eventually resigned under a cloud of her own antisemitism controversies).

Monday, February 25, 2019

What if Everything is Antisemitic?

We've been talking a lot about the avoidance of antisemitic "tropes" when criticizing Jews or Jewish institutions. Aside from very obvious expressions of antisemitic hate, there are lengthy lists of words or concepts to avoid when talking about Jews, because they are linked up to historical antisemitic beliefs about Jews -- e.g., Jewish wealth, Jewish conspiracies, Jewish cabals, Jewish bloodlust. It's fine to be critical of Jewish institutions, but if you use such words or concepts (tropes) in doing so you start to wander into antisemitic territory. So just avoid the tropes!

This makes sense, in its way. But there's a big lurking problem nobody really wants to grapple with: what negative or critical assessment hasn't been attached to an antisemitic ideology at one time or another?

The almost-infinite mutability of the content of antisemitic ideology as one of the most striking features of antisemitism over time. Moshe Lilienblum's 1883 remarks, where he described how Jews were cosmopolitans to the nationalists and nationalists to the cosmopolitans, radical free thinkers to the religious and close-mindedly superstitious to the atheists, conservatives to the liberals and liberals to the conservatives ... on and on forever, is compelling illustration.

I think all "-isms" display this mutability to at least some degree -- think of racist iconography of Black men as happy-go-lucky simpletons right up until they're bestial brutes -- though it's possible that antisemitism represents an extreme case. The fact of the matter is, though, that for pretty much any negative (or potentially negative) human characteristic you can name -- greed or miserliness, violence or cowardice, close-minded religiosity or arrogant secularism, univeralism or particularism, licentiousness or frigidity -- somebody has associated with the Jews.

One upshot of this is that it gives a hint as to the causal story of stereotypes: it's the hate that drives the stereotyping, not vice versa. People dislike Jews, and so associate Jews with things they dislike. If the hatred stays constant but the dislikable characteristics change, the stereotype shifts to match.

But if this is true, it creates a practical dilemma for the "just avoid antisemitic tropes" advice. Because if any negative evaluative concept has been imputed to Jews in an antisemitic way, then there might not be a clear way to speak in negative evaluative terms about a Jewish institution.

And that's a dilemma; one I haven't quite figured out how to solve. Obviously, the answer can't be "we can't speak negatively about Jewish institutions, because it will always be antisemitic." But it also seems wrong to say "antisemitic tropes are so omnipresent that it's unfair to cite them in a particular case." So what to do?

One potential solution is to say that, just because a given concept has been used as an antisemitic trope, that doesn't mean its usage in a particular case is motivated by antisemitism. It could just be happenstance, and indeed if every negative evaluative concept is associated with antisemitism, but only some usages of that concept are motivated by antisemitism, by definition there is a significant set of cases where a given evaluative concept, assessed against a Jewish actor, only by happenstance is associated with antisemitism.

This, I imagine, is what many of those who are charged with relying on antisemitic tropes wish to rely upon -- "yes, I said AIPAC was greedy and money-grubbing -- but it has nothing to do with their association with Jewishness! Sometimes greed is just greed!" -- but it comes with problems. The most immediate issue is that, if the prevailing question is one of intent, under normal circumstances the use of an antisemitic trope is among the most probative bits of evidence we have as to motive. We can't see into the hearts and minds of men, and so if we decide that the use of tropes associated with antisemitism are no longer evidence about one's heart or mindset towards Jews, we're left with a situation where antisemitism's ubiquity paradoxically makes it virtually impossible to prove (outside a small set of cases where the perpetrator admits to the crime).

The bigger problem is that this entire outlook depends on motive being the dispositive question. Yet antisemitic tropes still retain their antisemitic power even when used innocently. Antisemitism is familiar and in tune, it makes things "ring true". Those who argue -- fully free of antisemitic intent -- that AIPAC is greedy and money-grubbing nonetheless are more likely to have their argument "taken up" because of the antisemitic trope that Jewish-identified institutions are greedy and money-grubbing. It fits into our web of belief better than a comparable claim would in a epistemic network where such a stereotype was not present.

This, to me, suggests a need for a more fundamental reframing. Rather than trying to divide up our discourse into kosher and treyf -- this statement is permissible, that one is antisemitic; this phrasing is fine, that one is a no-no -- we would do better to think of antisemitism as permeating the social sphere. Or put differently, instead of asking what antisemitism is, better to ask what antisemitism does. Antisemitism mobilizes, unifies, and encourages. It makes the unreal real and the implausible plausible. The practical consequence of this is that it is simultaneously true that there will be plenty of cases where a given "antisemitic trope" deployed critically against a Jewish institution will be both validly arrived at through non-antisemitic motivational pathways while also being true that even in those cases the antisemitic character of the trope alters how that trope is received and the impact it has on the deliberative community.

Ultimately, the "everything is antisemitic" dilemma is a dilemma primarily because we think we can successfully create a sort of "clean room" in our discourse about Jews where antisemitism can't infect, and that such a discursive state is the success condition of a proper epistemic state of affairs regarding Jews. The goal is to cordon off antisemitism, demarcate and isolate it, so that we can stay away from it and for the remainder of the conversation no longer think about it. I suspect the solution will ultimately run in the opposite direction: we will have to think about antisemitism a lot more often and in a lot more depth, because it really is everywhere. There is no "clean room". The flip side is that we also need to develop criteria for talking about Jews in a world where antisemitism has not and cannot (for the foreseeable future, anyway) be extirpated. If antisemitism is everywhere, it also lies in the places and cases where Jewish actors are doing bad things that need and deserve criticism. The fact of the latter doesn't negate the former, but the fact of the former can't delegitimize the latter.

Sunday, February 24, 2019

Yes, I'm Alive

A couple of days ago, I wrote a column for Haaretz on the Netanyahu-facilitated merger of the far-right Jewish Home Party with the neo-Kahanist Jewish Power party. Since -- back in the 1980s -- prominent members of the Jewish community (including leaders of the AJC) analogized Kahane to Louis Farrakhan, and since we've all over the past year or so gotten very adept at declaring what one's obligations are when a Louis Farrakhan enters our political orbit, I suggested that it was "put up or shut up" time for Jewish community groups that regularly take stances on Israel-related issues.

Anyway, I sent the column to my editor Wednesday afternoon, so it could run Thursday morning. Then I did a bit of work, and then I tried to go to sleep.

Only to realize that somehow, all of the sudden, I was experiencing one of the worst head and chest colds I've had in my life.

It was frankly astonishing how fast it snuck up on me. I'd love to tell a story about how I pushed out this column with my last bit of strength before succumbing -- but actually I felt pretty much fine all of Wednesday afternoon into the evening. It just felt like a light-switch -- one moment I was fine, and the next it's 4 AM and I haven't even gotten a wink of sleep because my entire face is more congested than a Bay Area freeway.

The immediate upshot was that I basically wasn't able to follow any conversations that might or might not have occurred over my column. I was able to write a quick update when the AJC finally did release a statement on Jewish Power (they had not written one at the time it was published, and had indicated they would not be commenting) -- which really was my last gasp of energy, and after that I ended up staying in bed until 5:30 PM (yes, PM).

Anyway, I'm finally feeling a bit better (a lingering cough seems to be the long tail of this whole ordeal). So what did I miss?

Well, let's see: the White House is considering appointing William Happer to a climate change committee. Who is William Happer?
"The demonization of carbon dioxide is just like the demonization of the poor Jews under Hitler," Happer said on CNBC. "Carbon dioxide is actually a benefit to the world, and so were the Jews."
"Just like" it. You know, I've heard of Jews being dehumanized by being compared to animals, or even vermin. But this must be the first time we've been reduced to the level of a gas molecule.

In conclusion, I kind of want to just go back to sleeping all day.