Friday, May 15, 2020

"Can We Survive Four More Years?"

If you'd asked me a month ago where Democrats were better positioned, Florida or North Carolina, I'd have taken the unconventional bet and said North Carolina. The Tarheel State is growing in exactly the way that Democrats are poised to exploit in the new south -- suburban, well-educated -- and Democrats did well there in 2018. By contrast, Florida still is anchored by its aging retiree population -- Trump's prime demographic -- and it was the state which most resisted the blue tide in the last midterm.

Today, a new poll dropped in each state, putting Biden up six in Florida and Trump up three in North Carolina. It's easy to cherry-pick polls, but it's also the case that the coronavirus response may be seriously eroding Trump's support among seniors. The conventional wisdom is that Democrats win by goosing youth and young professional turnout, and there's a lot to be said for that strategy. But if Democrats can crack the senior vote, especially given their high turnout figures? It might be game over for Trump. It's hard to see much of a electoral college route for him without Florida.

The frankly death-cultist response of Trump and the GOP response to the coronavirus provides a huge opening. Obviously, Democrats are already running ads on this. But I think they've got ammo they're not using. Of course there's the clip of Trump calling the virus a "hoax" -- use that, and plenty of other Trump quotes to go along with it. Place alongside the "sacrifice the weak" poster. Place it alongside Texas Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick urging seniors to "take a chance on your survival." Place it alongside Ben Shapiro saying, hey, 80 years old is pretty good life lived already, right? Build a crushing, suffocating narrative that's nothing more than the truth: Donald Trump and the Republican Party are willing to let seniors die.

The ammo is there to make that the story. And with it, the key question that should frame the 2020 election -- for all of us, but especially America's seniors must be asking -- is straightforward: "Can we survive four more years?"

Tuesday, May 12, 2020

Explicit Mizrahi Zionism and the California Ethnic Studies Curriculum

In Jewish Currents, Gabi Kirk has a long piece on the antisemitism controversy over the California Ethnic Studies curriculum (last year I wrote on the matter here). It's a wide-ranging issue and a wide-ranging essay, but (in keeping with my prior contribution) I want to focus on the specific issue of Sephardic/Mizrahi inclusion.*

Here is what Kirk says when she reaches that angle of the story:
Complaints about the [proposed Ethnic Studies Model Curriculum] aren’t coming solely from white Ashkenazi Jews; Sephardic and Mizrahi Jewish groups have also claimed the curriculum leaves out their experiences. Jews Indigenous to the Middle East and North Africa (JIMENA)—which is also an explicitly Zionist group—claimed in multiple letters to the CDE that the draft ESMC “portray[s] Arabs as a homogenous, Muslim group,” and “excludes and erases the experiences, perspectives, and voices of diverse Middle Eastern communities.” (JIMENA did not respond to requests for comment for this piece.) California is home to a large Mizrahi Jewish population; Los Angeles is home to the largest Iranian-Jewish population in the US. 
Have you fixated on one word in a passage, and just felt it inexorably press layers of meaning onto you? That's me with "explicitly" (as in JIMENA is "also an explicitly Zionist group").

Throughout Kirk's essay, the Jewish organizations criticizing the draft ethnic studies curriculum were pretty much always referred to as "Jewish Zionist". Nobody was ever referred to as "anti-Zionist" -- only the Zionists needed the perpetual modifier attached to them. It's the Zionists versus the unmarked neutrals. But of all the groups mentioned -- from the AJC to the ADL to AMCHA -- only JIMENA was "explicitly Zionist".**

And I started wondering -- why explicitly? What was that word doing? How was JIMENA explicitly Zionist in a way its peers were not? To be sure, JIMENA is Zionist in the same way that most Jewish organizations are, in the same way that most Jews are. I'm quite familiar with them, and I know what role Zionism plays in their organizational orientation. JIMENA is an organization that was formed to represent the interests and the stories of Sephardic/Mizrahi Jewish refugees whose communities in the Arab and Muslim world were decimated in the decades surrounding the establishment of Israel. It is Zionist because (a) most of the community it represents is Zionist and (b) in its estimation, its mission and values are furthered through some iteration of Zionism. But Zionism is not its raison d'etre. It does not even appear in JIMENA's "About" section.

One would be hard pressed to explain how JIMENA is notably "explicit" in its Zionism in a way that, say, the AJC is not. And what would "non-explicit" Zionism look like? If it's not "explicit", is it "covert"? "Hidden"? It starts to look pretty lose-lose, pretty quickly.

The almost assured truth is that the word "explicitly", here, is redundant in terms of cognitive content. It is not actually meant to distinguish JIMENA from the AJC; it does not add information. Its purpose is more affective -- meant to convey a mood of danger, or of shamelessness. It reads like an "explicit lyrics" stamp slapped on an album: these Jews need a warning label. It's similar to how one sometimes sees groups or speakers called "openly" or "avowedly" Zionist. Taken literally, one might ask "as opposed to?" But the purpose of the modifier isn't really to add new content as it is to tut at the brazenness of it all. How very dare they. These are not respectable Jews. They flaunt. If there is a reason why "explicitly" got attached to JIMENA in particular, it was as a red flag for the unwary reader who might otherwise be inclined to credit the worries of the Mizrahi community.

There is something that I think is worth saying about the manner in which the Zionism of Mizrahi Jews is often cast and denigrated in these tones -- as brazen, audacious, flamboyant, even obscene. It's late, and I'm tired, and others can pick this ball up if they want to. But it is something I've noticed before, and I was not surprised to see it here.

* There's a separate issue burbling up regarding a column on this issue written by a certain disgraced Jewish journalist in the Jewish Journal. I have no desire to give this writer any more attention, so I'll just say that the disgraced journalist is disgraced for a reason and that it's a further disgrace that they are still being published in respectable outlets.

** Though the letter was hosted on JIMENA's website, it actually had ten other co-signatories, all California-based Sephardic/Mizrahi Jewish organizations including five synagogues. They go unmentioned in Kirk's essay (are they "explicitly" Zionist too -- whatever that means?). By comparison, in the next paragraph Kirk contrasts JIMENA's letter with "others [who] trace the difficulty of imparting Mizrahi history to Zionism itself." The link goes to an essay hosted by Jewish Voice for Peace (a far more "explicitly" anti-Zionist organization than JIMENA is "explicitly" Zionist) and was signed by two people, one of whom lives in Indiana. Nonetheless, Kirk spends roughly twice as much time on (and extends much more sympathy to) the analysis of this duo. That later in the essay she quotes a proponent of the draft ethnic studies curriculum complaining about "tokenizing" is more than a little rich.

Monday, May 11, 2020

Are We Back To This Again?

Tablet Magazine has a new 2,500 word essay comparing the antisemitic dangers of Black Nationalism to that of White Supremacy.

Is it novel? No. It's the same basic set of arguments about Black antisemitism everyone in the Jewish community has heard (and heard, and heard) approximately infinity times since 2015. It contributes absolutely nothing new to the topic. Misty-eyed reminiscence on (now more than a half-century old) Jewish contributions to the Civil Rights movement? Check. Cherry-picked anecdotes of a few hateful college lectures decades in the past? Check. Earnest equivalence between these lectures and Tiki Marchers in Charlottesville? Check. The only thing surprising about it is that Liel Leibovitz wasn't the author.

Is it timely? No. There's no effort to provide any serious topical hook; there's nothing in the news cycle that appears to have prompted it. It comes effectively out of nowhere. At least when I wrote about Tony Martin (a) it was prompted by a personal experience and (b) he hadn't been dead for seven years. This feels like someone just really missed the good old days where one could publish a "Black antisemitism -- the new threat to the Jews!" column every week. Some people miss the normalcy of going to the gym; some miss the normalcy of obsessing over Black antisemitism. To-may-to to-mah-to.

Is it good? No. It is absolutely possible to write a good piece about Black antisemitism. Adam Serwer had a great one in The Atlantic. And I'd be fascinated to hear Michael Twitty more fully speak on the dynamic he encountered here, if he were so inclined. But the hallmark of a bad piece on Black antisemitism is when it acts as if Black antisemitism drives the broader antisemitic environment Jews face on a global level. The shoals to avoid are very similar to those if one writes on "Jewish Racism" (and indeed, on my desk I have a book titled Black Anti-Semitism and Jewish Racism). Are there important things to say on the subject? Yes, absolutely. But there's a huge difference between noting that there are Jews who are racist and writing as if Jewish racism drives contemporary racism (in the U.S. or globally) on a level that is at par with or exceeds White supremacy. The latter is what crosses into antisemitic territory.

And indeed, ironically this is often exactly the sin that exemplifies how some Black nationalists cross into antisemitic territory -- they present Jews as at the center of or guiding the practice of racism in America. The problem isn't that there aren't Jews who are racist, the problem is presenting that iteration of racism in a fashion wholly out of proportion to its actually tangible impact. Yet that lesson somehow is lost when running yet another "Black antisemitism is just as central as White supremacy" column.

How does an essay like this get published? It's not that it's the worst thing Tablet has ever run (my podium for that event would probably include Anna Breslaw's "Nazis were right: Some of us are Jewshit", Alexander Zubatov's defense of the "Cultural Marxism" slur, and this Leibovitz classic), but it is one of the more pointless. It's not original, it's not timely, it's not prompted by anything, it's just -- there. Gratuitously stirring up trouble for no reason other than it can.