Thursday, March 07, 2019

The Trouble with (Jewish) Anger

If you read contemporary political theory publications, you've probably seen that "anger" is having quite the moment as a political emotion right now. As against a skeptical literature where anger is viewed as necessarily destructive or reactionary, a bunch of theorists have sought to identify and promote the uses of anger as a tool of public mobilization, asking what anger can do or promote under appropriate circumstances.

Whenever I go to talks or read articles on that subject, though, I always find myself a bit perplexed. The authors seem to concentrate on defending the thesis that anger is powerful -- they suggest that anger (again, in the right circumstances) can accomplish things that might otherwise be out of reach. But it seems to me that the classical knock on anger isn't that it isn't powerful -- virtually everyone concedes that (how many fantasy novels tie anger to a powerful dark side that allows access to eldritch magic?). The problem with anger is that it's hard to control. Anger is difficult to contain and difficult to cabin. Once it is unleashed, it is hard to bottle back up. It ends up hurting those one doesn't intend to hurt, it lashes out in unpredictable and uncontrollable directions. And, of course, anger has the difficult property of being self-generating against critique -- trying to persuade someone that they should be less angry only makes them more angry (convenient, that!).

The Jewish community in America is, I think it is fair to say, getting angry. What are we angry about? Well, a few different things, I suspect:

  • We're angry that a community and a politics that we've long called our own seems to be increasingly comfortable with the promotion of antisemitic stereotypes, and is indifferent, at best, to our feelings of hurt and fear at that fact;
  • We're angry that we've been unable to muster any significant public attention towards or mobilization against antisemitism from the mainstream political right, no matter how much effort we expend trying to raise it, and we're angry that media sources who are utterly indifferent when we try to talk about right-wing antisemitism only perk up when we talk about left-wing antisemitism;
  • We're angry at left-wing antisemitism because we're angry about antisemitism generally but this antisemitism is in our home, and also because this is the antisemitism where we actually seem able to touch it and make people pay attention to it and make its perpetrators take notice of us, and so all the anger over the antisemitism where we can't make anyone care about it gets displaced and funneled into this one social arena where somebody will pay attention to it, even as we realize how unfair that is and we're angry about that too;
  • We're angry that we're blamed for how other people talk or don't talk about antisemitism, and we're angry that people seem less interested in hearing what Jews have to say than in cherry-picking the Jews whose views are consonant with the narrative they want to draw and trumpeting to high heaven;
  • We're angry that any time we try to talk about antisemitism in a case that's within a half-mile of "Israel", we're accused of being unable to tolerate "any" (any!) criticism of Israel, or of being in the bag for Likud, or of proving the point that maybe our loyalties are in doubt;
  • And, I think, we're angry that the Israeli government has been racing off to the right, busily making some -- some -- arguments that once were outlandish now plausible, and putting us in increasingly difficult positions. We're angry that we've been basically powerless to stop this decay of liberal democracy in Israel, we're angry that a community and a place that we care deeply about seems not to care about us in return and is mutating into something unrecognizable to us, and we're displacing that anger a bit.
That's a lot to be angry about. It's not unreasonable to be angry, about any or all of that. And I think it's the case that to some degree, anger has fueled some genuine counterattacks against all of these things. Jewish anger has, certainly, prompted some people to issue apologies who otherwise would've continued about their business, engendered some discussions that otherwise wouldn't have have begun, prompted some solidaristic bonding that might not have otherwise occurred. One could, I think, fairly say that Jewish anger has greased the path towards some accomplishments for the American Jewish community.

But anger, as powerful as it is, is also difficult to control. I don't like the political-me when I'm angry -- and more than that, I don't trust the political-me when I'm angry. My tactical choices are often unwise. And when I look out and say how angry we're getting, I worry. I worry that we're not going to be able to bottle it back up. I worry that it is going to burst its bounds and rage beyond control.

People have been making a lot of (premature, in my view) comparisons between the Democratic Party and UK Labour. But there is one parallel that concerns me right now. British Jews are angry at Labour, and they're by no means unreasonable to feel that way -- I've been quite vocal in calling out the disgusting cesspool of antisemitism that has taken over the Labour Party under Jeremy Corbyn's watch. That's legitimately anger-inducing. And one could even argue that Jewish anger about this has played a significant role in forcing Labour to come to the table and take what (meager) steps it has taken to tackle antisemitism in its ranks.

But I also worry that this anger and bitterness has gotten so deep that it's almost impossible to imagine any set of steps by which Jews and Labour might reconcile. Even when Labour officials do issue statements or take steps that seem genuinely positive as expressions of the importance of tackling antisemitism, the mistrust runs so thick that they're often immediately rejected -- "what good is this statement or that commitment coming from so-and-so, who's been so terrible to us in the past?"

I'm not saying that these statements or commitments will always be followed through on or even that they're always offered in good faith. I'm saying it almost doesn't seem to matter any more, the efforts that are offered in good faith and would be followed through on are swept away just as decisively by the omnipresent feeling of woundedness and mistrust. At a certain level, what Jewish anger wants out of Labour is for it to have never done such awful things in the first place. But there's nothing Labour can promise to satisfy that demand -- and so the anger can never be placated. And that, ultimately, can only lead us to a destructive place, where Jews and the left must be enemies, because there is no longer anything that can be said or done that is interpreted to be a gesture of friendship (even the most perfectly worded statement can be dismissed as a front or a guise, or insufficient given past sins).

American Jewish anger, I worry, is pushing us towards a similar precipice -- one where we can't stop being angry, where there's no plausible pathway through which our anger can sated. 

Consider reactions to the Democratic leadership delaying a proposed antisemitism resolution, with the suggestion that it be redrafted to more explicitly tie the fight against antisemitism to other forms of bigotry. 

One interpretation of this move is that it helps dissipate the notion that Ilhan Omar is being unfairly singled out, and sends a decisive message that the fights against antisemitism, racism, and Islamophobia are united struggles -- they are not in competition with one another. Another interpretation is that it "All Lives Matters" antisemitism, implies that antisemitism cannot be opposed for its own sake but must be laundered through other oppressions in order to matter, and overall represents a capitulation to those who are upset that Democrats are acknowledging the existence of left-wing antisemitism at all.

Which interpretation is right? Well, one would have to see the newly-drafted language, first of all. But I suspect that the answer will be that there is no one right answer. Either interpretation will be plausible. 

So it's up to us to choose which hermeneutic world we want to live in. We could declare, decisively, that we view such a resolution as not excusing left-wing antisemitism but also not singling it out; not suggesting that antisemitism only matters insofar as it can be tied to racism and other bigotry but rather rejecting the claim that vigorous opposition to antisemitism in any way, shape, or form is hostile to opposing these other hatreds. 

And to some extent, our declaration of interpretation will generate its reality. If we choose to believe that this is what the resolution means, that it is an expression of solidarity and of unity, then that is what it will come to mean. If we choose to believe that it means something else, that it is an insult and a capitulation, then it will mean that instead. It is both weird and, when you think about it, not so weird that it is fundamentally up to us whether any such resolution is an act of solidarity or not.

Viewed that way, the right answer is clear. But I think anger is pushing us toward the wrong choice. Yet know this: there is no resolution the Democratic leadership could write that would make it so that we weren't in this anger-inducing reality where such a resolution felt necessary to begin with. If that is our standard, we will never be placated. So the question is how do we move forward in a damaged world? Does anger get us there?

I think not. Anger doesn't look for common ground. It doesn't look for the positive or the best in people, it doesn't offer much foothold for rebuilding. It hurts those we don't actually want to hurt. Like a fire, it rages past borders and over barriers. Even when anger does do its "job" of mobilizing or organizing or signaling the degree of woundedness a given practice is generating, it doesn't easily return to its cage. Often, anger slaps at hands that really are just trying to reach out, really are trying to figure out how to do better. Which, of course, generates anger of its own. And so a cycle emerges, that is very hard to escape from.

As I mentioned above, one of the most difficult aspects of anger as a political emotion is that telling people to be less angry only makes them more angry. Even still, and even recognizing that we have grounds to be angry, I still find myself imploring my community that we need to let go of our anger here. It's rapidly losing whatever productive attributes it has, and I fear that if we don't bottle it back up now, we will completely lose control over it. 

And that thought terrifies me, because I cannot imagine that a Jewish community that is uncontrollably angry at the political community we've long called home will be a healthy, or happy, or productive place to live.

Monday, March 04, 2019

How To Avoid the Trap of the House Antisemitism Resolution

Here's a truncated timeline of certain events today:

  1. I read story about the House considering introducing a resolution on antisemitism, "in response" to certain comments by Rep. Ilhan Omar (D). The story indicated that the resolution came about in part due to a letter from Jonathan Greenblatt of the ADL.
  2. I called my contact at a major American Jewish organization and left a somewhat frank voicemail suggesting that, unless the House Resolution made crystal-clear that it was not solely addressing Omar but equally targeted antisemitic remarks emanating from Republican representatives -- most notably, the Soros-style "wealthy Jewish financiers 'own' us and are pulling the strings behind the scenes" conspiracy theories -- there would a massive backlash and it would be entirely deserved.
  3. Draft text of the resolution was released (it does not mention Omar, or any other elected official, by name).
  4. The official at the aforementioned Jewish org called me back and I had the opportunity to provide a bit more color to my suggestions regarding how they should handle this situation.
  5. I read a statement from Bend the Arc arguing that the House Resolution is a "trap", in that it functions to single out Omar without any sort of concurrent condemnation of antisemitism from elected Republicans like Jim Hagedorn, Kevin McCarthy, and Jim Jordan.
So, as the day closes, here's my question: How do we avoid the trap? How do we tackle antisemitism in a way that does not give succor to the false narrative that the problem of antisemitism in America is solely represented by Ilhan Omar, and not the vicious antisemitic conspiracy mongering flying through the political right?

The thing is, believe or not -- lots of us fully see the trap. That includes the mainline Jewish organizations. They're frustrated by what seems like the endless foot-in-mouth/apology/foot-back-in-mouth cycle Omar is going through, but they're also frustrated at the expectation that the primary subject of their counter-antisemitism energy should be Ilhan Omar. There are many, many other antisemitic things in the world, and they understand how bad a look it is that Omar seems to be catching the brunt of all the attention. 

We should be casting scrutiny on the Soros-style antisemitic conspiracy theories that run riot through the GOP at its highest levels. When we condemn antisemitism, that should be front and center in our attentions. The fact that it isn't represents a real problem, and Omar and her backers have a legitimate grievance here. There's a reason why I opened my column on Omar by talking about Jim Hagedorn, and there's a reason why nonetheless nobody seems interested in having me write a column or giving a quote on Jim Hagedorn. The "bad look" is, at least in part, a product of a bad reality.

But how do you change that reality?

The text of the House Resolution doesn't single out Omar. It doesn't single out anyone; it names no names. Yet nonetheless, there is no question that it is perceived as a swipe (albeit a sub silentio swipe) at Omar, specifically. Nobody is reading this resolution and saying "wow, the House Democratic leadership is really turning the screws on Jim Jordan!"

Is that reading unfair? The text of the resolution is a bit meandering, but on the whole it focuses on the type of antisemitism -- allegations of "dual loyalty" -- that Omar is alleged to have engaged in. There is no significant mention of Soros-style conspiracy theories; these are at best very briefly alluded to and then dropped. In context, I can't say that readers are unfair in viewing the resolution as targeting Omar. And then we're right back to where we started: a very legitimate grievance Omar and her backers have that alleged antisemitism doesn't seem to matter unless it's being done by people who look like her, in a political climate where there is very real and very dangerous antisemitism that is an exceptionally live part of mainstream conservative discourse.

So the first step -- an obvious step, a step I can't believe I have to suggest because it's should have been blindingly self-evident step -- to avoiding the trap is that the resolution should dedicate equal time to the type of antisemitism that we see on the mainstream political right: conspiracy theories about wealthy Jewish financiers pulling the strings on political and social campaigns, "owning" certain politicians or slyly controlling American society from the shadows. Such antisemitism has a deep historical pedigree in America -- dating at least to Henry Ford, and almost certainly beyond that -- and there is a straight-line between it and such atrocities at the Tree of Life massacre. 

Or put differently, and with apologies to Max Rose, the House shouldn't write a chickenshit antisemitism resolution. The first step to changing the bad optics of the resolution is to change its bad reality, and that makes holding the active forms of conservative antisemitism accountable too.

Would that be enough? It's hard to say. We've gotten very keyed into a narrative whereby if we're talking about antisemitism in American politics, we're talking about Ilhan Omar, and the media hates giving up a perfectly good narrative without a fight. If a few paragraphs about that sort of antisemitism were inserted into the resolution, it still likely wouldn't be seen as an equivalent swipe at GOP antisemitism, even if that was the intent, and even if that was the fairest reading of the resolution. Something has to be done to break the narrative. Somebody has to stop playing the part the narrative insists that they play.

And so my suggestion to the Jewish organization went. I suggested that, if they really wanted to avoid the trap -- if they really were as tired as they said they were about being perceived as one side of a "the Jews vs. Omar" controversy -- they needed to take a bold step:

They needed to insist -- explicitly, and publicly -- that they will not back the House Resolution unless it clearly condemned the Soros-style antisemitic conspiracy-mongering which is the other prominent antisemitic trope currently raging through our polity. They needed to come out and say that an resolution purporting to fight antisemitism is not acceptable unless it speaks out clearly and decisively against that form of antisemitism too.

That'd be a man-bites-dog story. That'd be a case of someone not playing their role. That might actually break the narrative of "the Jews vs. Omar." Might. I'm not confident, because fundamentally I don't believe that the behavior of Jewish groups exerts much influence on how the non-Jewish pres talks about Jews.

Still, as an added bonus, one thing it almost certainly would do is get a change in the resolution text. One has to think that the Democratic leadership thinks that it is satisfying the mainstream Jewish community with this resolution; its concern is how it will be received on its left flank. If it doesn't even have the backing of mainline Jewish groups, and the reason it doesn't have such backing is because the resolution needs to be adjusted to satisfy the concern that it is too soft on the right, then all the vectors of political pressure are in accord, and the resolution will change in a positive direction.

The fact is, it is a trap to agree to premise that the fight against antisemitism in America boils down to a fight against Ilhan Omar. It is a trap stemming from the right -- which wishes to pretend as if their own antisemitism isn't real and doesn't matter; and it is equally a trap emanating from the left -- which wishes to frame the fight against antisemitism as nothing more than the fight to silence politicians like Ilhan Omar. The right wants us to believe that if the House condemns antisemitism in America, they are condemning nobody but Ilhan Omar. And the left wants us to believe the exact same thing.

We need to avoid that trap. I can't make it happen. But if the big Jewish organizations have the guts to do what is necessary and step out from their default roles -- we may just manage to avoid it.