Tuesday, January 07, 2020

Why Do White Jews Analogize to the Black Experience (and Vice Versa)?

The latest drama on Jewish Twitter comes from a column from the AJC's Seffi Kogen, speaking on how Orthodox Jews cannot practically avoid antisemitism that targets them as visible Jews. Seeking to illustrate this point, Kogen wrote (in a section that was intentionally highlighted as the pull quote by the AJC):
Without betraying who they are, none of these Jews can hide the fact that they are Jewish any more than people of color could step out of their skin to avoid racism.
A great many Black Jews did not appreciate this comparison. Kogen, for his part, was not exactly defiant, but wasn't particularly contrite either. He did not apologize, nor did he withdraw the comparison. He's sticking by it, and demanding that everyone respect his good intentions.

The easiest move for Kogen would have been to just let the analogy go. His argument doesn't depend on the analogy, it would not collapse if it were removed. It seems to be a cost-free concession to a groundswell of hurt from fellow Jews -- in some cases (as in Black Orthodox Jews) the Jews best positioned to assess the validity of the comparison! -- who are telling him that phenomenologically the comparison does not carry.

Yet he didn't do that. He clearly wants to defend the legitimacy of the analogy, and putting aside his specific case these analogies keep on being made by Jews even in full knowledge of their reception. And I think a lot of us are kind of at a loss as to why.  What makes this analogy so important, that it must be stuck to no matter the reaction from the African-American community (including African-American Jews)? Why do Jews -- and Kogen is by no means alone here -- insist on couching their anti-antisemitism appeals via analogy to the Black experience? What makes that move so popular? What drives it?

I think I can answer these related questions. The reason this analogy is so popular comes at the confluence of two beliefs that are deeply-held in many portions of the Jewish community -- one which is reasonable and understandable, the other which is fictive and toxic.

The reasonable belief is the fear that articulating the rights of Jews-qua-Jews will not suffice to persuade non-Jewish listeners that those rights ought to be defended. That is, even if it were effectively communicated to the listener how important these religious symbols and practices are to observant Orthodox Jews, many would still be at best indifferent to the argument because they do not take protecting Jews to be a sufficiently important motivation in of itself. The fear is that, upon hearing "(Orthodox) Jews are marginalized in X way", the response will be a shrug (or worse): "So what? What do I care about what happens to Jews?"

In response to this vulnerability, the natural response is to look for a broader principle to appeal to by analogy. "You care about X in Y case, so you should care about it in the Jewish case too." And in selecting the "Y" analogous case, the more accepted it is the better. It does no good to pick a "Y" that would also be met with a shrug. The "Y" needs to stand as an impregnable, knockdown case that everyone would accept -- a sure-fire bet to prop up the otherwise precarious Jewish example.

And so we get to the fictive and toxic belief: the belief that anti-Black racism is that "Y". It is the case everyone agrees on, we are absolutely convinced that while people might shrug off hurting the Jews, they would never countenance anything that marginalizes African-Americans. I cannot count the instances where I've seen Jews make arguments premised on this logic: "We would never tolerate this were it said about Black people...." The analogy is made as a means of accessing this imagined power held in the hands of the Black community. Black people are assumed to possess a bounty Jews only wish we could have.

But again: it's a fiction, and it's fictiveness is part of the reason why it is received so poorly. For the reality is that people do countenance marginalizing African-Americans, and do so regularly, and so there is something quite insulting about seeking to conscript -- dare I say "appropriate" -- Black experience to bolster our own position on the premise that they have such an overabundance of social capital that who could object to the less fortunate seizing a piece? The premise is that racism is, in essence, a universally agreed-upon "bad", and so we are justified in diverting some of its surplus power to those cases where such agreement does not existence. That diversion is far less innocent when the premise isn't accepted.

One sees, incidentally, this same dynamic apply in the reverse, for I think similar reasons and I think yielding the same negative reaction from the appropriated party. One sometimes sees various social tragedies referred to as "holocausts" -- for example, the slave trade called the "African holocaust" or other genocides referred to as "holocausts" (a generic term). But why are they taking that term? Well, one reason is presumably the belief that describing the atrocity in its own, organic terms won't sufficiently motivate people to care about it (often a reasonable fear). And another reason is the sense that if it's acknowledged as a holocaust, if it's treated the way we treat a holocaust, why then nobody would think to question the full extent of its horrors. It is assumed that the Holocaust -- that is, antisemitic oppression -- represents the apex of what nobody today would ever countenance or question or shrug off. And at that point, it becomes viewed almost as a hoarded resource -- how dare the Jews keep such a bounty to ourselves? Why not share it with the less fortunate? Whereas we Jews know that "Holocaust" does not actually accord us this impregnability or universal deference, and so reasonably react poorly to efforts to divert it away from a Jewish case that is by no means a won argument.

One reason we know the premise is false is because of the ferocity with which the analogy is clung to. Were it the case that people immediately and unquestionably shrink away from anything that marginalizes the Black community, then the fact that the Black community so clearly disdains this analogy would cause us to immediately drop it. We don't because the fantastical image of a universally-rejected "anti-Blackness" is in fact far stronger than the actual reality of popular commitment to avoiding anti-Blackness.

And so I hope my efforts to explain this phenomenon are not taken to justify it. The analogy generates needless antagonism, and that should suffice to abandon it. And I think the case of Orthodox Jews can be argued fully effectively without it. I've regularly used the case of religion as an example of why "choice", taken literally, doesn't matter -- one can "choose" one's religion or religious practice but do we really want to say that therefore any amount of religious discrimination is justified (because one could always opt out)? The question isn't whether Orthodox Jews are literally, existentially capable of not wearing identifiable Jewish garb, the question is whether it is justifiable to ask them to make such a choice or to impose consequences upon them for choosing wrongly.

This is, indeed, a different question from that faced Black persons who have no way of peeling off their skin -- a true lack of choice. But so what? We should be able to make the argument on its own terms. We should have the confidence to defend Jewish rights in our own language, without the need to appropriate from others.