Friday, June 12, 2020

Zioness Has Another Manifesto

Zioness, the progressive Zionist group, has released a new "activist's guide" on the issue of racial justice. It consists of:

  1. One page on the need to overcome implicit bias;
  2. One page on the need to "show up" for racial justice, even when one encounters antisemitism; and
  3. Six pages on how to respond to antisemitic tropes (many, though not all, Israel- or Zionism-related) one might encounter while engaging in racial justice work.

This distribution of attention -- centering antisemitism in a pamphlet supposedly focused on racial justice -- has caused Zioness to be the target of numerous social media dunks. I think many of them are deserved, albeit with a few minor reservations. Here are my quick thoughts:
  • From its inception, my primary critique of Zioness -- and I've expressed this personally to their leadership -- is that they resolutely refuse to declare what progressive values demand with respect to Israel. Their justification for their reticence is that they are a domestic policy organization -- a response that is never going to sit well for a group called "Zioness". And documents like this only emphasize why this stance is untenable: Zioness can't forward opinions about Israel and then say "we don't take a position on that" when people ask them to register opinions on Israel. It's a circle they're never going to be able to square, and until they steel themselves and have the guts to forthrightly say "progressivism demands X, Y and Z out of Israel", people are going to going to be justified in looking at them with a skeptical eye.
  • It may be that a guidebook offering suggestions on how to respond to antisemitic tropes a progressive Jew may encounter while engaging in racial justice activism would be useful. But if you're going to make such a resource, don't title it "Racial Justice: An Activist's Guide". An activist's guide to racial justice should center questions of racial justice -- period. This is the locus of the criticisms Zioness is getting over this document, and it is absolutely correct. Creating a document on "racial justice" that has barely any direct discussion of racial justice is almost impossibly cringe-worthy.
  • Of course, the possibility that it might be useful to have a guidebook on how to respond to antisemitism while engaging in racial justice work also poses the question of whether now is the right moment to center that conversation. There is, shall we say, good reason to be skeptical on this front.
  • What little substance there is on racial justice is, to be generous, perfunctory. I'm probably more attached to implicit bias as a useful framing device for understanding contemporary racism than many of my colleagues in the progressive world (it's falling out of vogue), and even I'd say that talking about that alone is woefully incomplete. This is a case where something is worse than nothing -- if they hadn't made the limp gesture towards talking about racial justice qua racial justice, maybe it would have been clear that this document was meant to serve a different purpose (namely, "Responding to Antisemitic Tropes in Racial Justice Activism"). Of course, if that purpose had been made evident it would have more clearly posed the question of whether now was the right time to center that conversation. See the previous bullet point.
  • I've seen for awhile now the allegation that Zioness is an "astroturf" organization. There's virtually no evidence this is true. Moreover, anyone who knows anything about the constitution of American Jewish community politics should very well know it isn't true. Anyone with a modicum of knowledge about the politics of the American Jewish community -- and Zioness' critics certainly are included -- knows that there are a great many American Jews who (a) have relatively conventional "pro-Israel" politics, (b) have relatively conventional progressive domestic politics, and (c) feel aggrieved when they see these two commitments treated as antithetical to one another. Even if one hates that particular political cocktail, surely there's no dispute about its prevalence. Given that, there's no grounding to the idea that Zioness, which centers its appeal to just that political intersection, could only have sprung up via artificial seeding.* Since I'm confident that Zioness' critics are not ignorant about the political composition of the American Jewish community, I'm equally confident that their use of "astroturf" is entirely as a slur (meaning something like "activist group with more conventional and less radical politics than mine"), not an analytical category.
  • Many of the document's critics have cast it as specifically focused on "defending Israel" rather than addressing antisemitism more broadly. Much of the "antisemitic tropes" they address are Israel-related, but not several are not (ex: "Jews were behind the Atlantic Slave Trade" or "White nationalism isn’t about Jews"). There's something interesting about this, because formally speaking the elision isn't necessary: the locus of the critique -- that, especially right now, the centerpiece of a document on "racial justice" should be "racial justice" -- would I think carry equal punch if Zioness' document were accurately described as talking about antisemitism. So why fudge the description? The answer is that the criticizing "Israel talk" is more comfortable terrain for many compared to criticizing "Jewish talk", and so we see activists instinctively slide into the former even in cases where analytically they're just as much talking about the latter.
The tl;dr is that Zioness is a regular grassroots organization with a pretty obvious base of support, pairing conventional pro-Israel views with conventional mainstream Democratic domestic views. That, on its own, isn't too remarkable. But the document they've produced on "racial justice" is (a) justly being mocked for having a barely even perfunctory focus on racial justice; (b) bad on its own terms; (c) poorly timed with regard to its actual-albeit-understated purpose, and (d) inadvertently demonstrative of how Zioness' ostensible commitment to being a purely "domestic policy organization" that can't be expected to take positions on what progressive values mean for Israel is untenable.

* The closest evidence one has for Zioness being "astroturf" comes from its early funding from the right-wing Lawfare Project and Brooke Goldstein. That would raise legitimate flags, except that Goldstein has been extremely vocal about how much she hates Zioness precisely because they refused to take the pseudo-left concern-troll line that she had expected out of them (which is to say, they've actually been independent). The fallout has gotten so intense that Zioness has outright blocked Goldstein on Twitter. Whatever Goldstein's initial intentions, she'd be the first to agree that Zioness has charted its own path.

Wednesday, June 10, 2020

Can the Conference Kick Out ZOA?

The Zionist Organization of America, helmed by far-right bombthrower Mort Klein, has been an embarrassment to American Jewry for a long time. There's been rumbling for awhile about the need to extirpate them from mainstream Jewish spaces, but it's never really broken out into the mainstream. But now things might be changing. Abe Silberstein posted a column in the Forward urging the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations to expel ZOA from the group. And several constituent members of the Conference appear to be taking up the banner -- or at least calling for an explicit censuring -- including Ameinu, the Union for Reform Judaism, Americans for Peace Now, and HIAS (ZOA, for its part, tried to derail a HIAS leader from ascending to the leadership of the Conference and has urged that it should HIAS that is expelled because it seeks to aid Muslim immigrants and is not truly a "Jewish" organization).

ZOA had previously been warned that its fratricidal tactics could lead to escalating discipline, including expulsion. But if it goes to the Conference membership, are there really the votes to kick them out? I'm dubious.

There are 51 members of the Conference, but "major" notwithstanding, not all of them are all that big. There's a fair amount of deadweight, groups that once were prominent but now are basically shells (the American Jewish Congress is a notorious example). Meanwhile, quite a few significant liberal Jewish groups are not members -- J Street was famously denied membership back in 2014, and groups like T'ruah, the New Israel Fund, and Hazon are also on the outside.

When ZOA tried to stop Dianne Lob of HIAS from becoming the next Chair of the Conference, they lost by a vote of 43-8. Those eight votes haven't been released (though one can venture some pretty solid guesses about who they are), but they represent a floor on ZOA's support, not a ceiling. Canvassing the membership, one can certainly see many of the larger players lining up against ZOA if the political winds shift in the right direction. But it is very hard for me to count 26 potential organizations voting to expel ZOA outright. Many of the smaller groups are, at best, studiously "non-confrontational", and at worst outright sympathizers with ZOA's authoritarian agenda.

Of course, this raises the question of whether the Conference itself is antiquated beyond repair, and some have suggested that liberal groups should leave outright if ZOA is allowed to stay. That possibility, unfortunately, has to be taken seriously. But another approach is that, if it's impossible to kick groups out, work harder to incorporate new groups in. True, J Street tried to do just that a few years ago and was blocked out. But J Street is (quite unfairly, but it is what it is) a particular lightning rod for criticism. By contrast, now would be an excellent time to push to include more organizations that explicitly represent Jews of Color (such as Be'chol Leshon). The "soft middle" that might hesitate to outright kick out a group like ZOA might be similarly loathe to obstruct the incorporation of such organizations -- and their inclusion would, in addition to just being the right thing to do, counterbalance the votes of some of the obsolete legacy organizations as well as almost certainly generating greater internal pressure to speak out against the sort of racism and authoritarianism that ZOA has become known for.

How Endangered is Yvette Clarke?

Last week, we asked how endangered long-time NYC Rep. Eliot Engel (D) was in his Democratic primary later this month (incidentally, Engel's primary challenger, Jamaal Bowman, just picked up an endorsement from Bernie Sanders). Today, we ask the same question of Engel's neighboring incumbent, Rep. Yvette Clarke, who represents parts of Brooklyn. Like Engel, Clarke has a relatively progressive voting record, while (also like Engel) still generally associated with the establishment wing of the party. And like Engel, she faces a vigorous challenge later this month.

In the 2018 primary, the nation's eyes were riveted by Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez's upset victory over incumbent Rep. Joe Crowley in the Democratic primary. This overshadowed Yvette Clarke's own narrow escape -- she turned back a challenge from community activist Adem Bunkeddeko with just 52% of the vote. Bunkeddeko is back for a rematch this cycle, but this time he's got company: Isiah James, a Democratic Socialist, and city councilor Chaim Deutsch, who is a conservative Democrat closely tied to the Orthodox Jewish community.  James and Bunkeddeko are running to her left, while Deutsch is tackling her from the right.

So how much trouble is Clarke in?

On the one hand, it is very often the case that a primary challenger who narrowly loses to the incumbent on their first try is able to close the deal on the second, as they become a more familiar figure and gain the attention of lower-information voters. Such was the case for Marie Newman against Dan Lipinski earlier this year, as well as Donna Edwards ousting Albert Wynn back in the youthful days of this blog. There was some indication that Clarke was caught napping last time around, and has kicked her campaign into gear this cycle. But coronavirus and lockdowns are throwing all normal campaigns for a loop, and to the extent Clarke needs to run from behind, she might not be able to do it.

On the other hand, unlike in Engel's race, here the field of challengers hasn't consolidated down. James and Bunkeddeko still may split the anti-establishment vote. And while James' candidacy appears to be sputtering out a bit, Bunkeddeko thus far hasn't received the high-profile endorsements that Jamaal Bowman has managed to pull down -- indicating that his challenge is potentially seen as less viable than Bowman's.

Yet while the conventional wisdom is that fractured fields help incumbents, that may not be the case here given how Deutsch is running his campaign. While Clarke is not a conservative Democrat, she has historically polled well in the Orthodox Jewish portions of her district where Deutsch's base resides -- this area almost certainly gave her the margin of victory in 2018. The way Deutsch is running his campaign -- actively touting endorsements from the NYPD and decrying "looters in the streets" -- seems ill-suited to actually winning a 2020 Democratic primary, but his laser-like focus on the portions of the district where Clarke has historically over-performed could suppress her numbers enough to allow Bunkeddeko to pull through.

This race has flown further under the radar than Engel's, but I think there's a solid chance the incumbent gets unseated. New York is shaping to have another eventful primary.

Tuesday, June 09, 2020

Virtues of a Time

Do you ever feel as if your particular virtues aren't suited for the historical moment you're living in?

All of us, I suspect, have certain things we're good at. Athleticism, courage, cleverness, prudence, etc. And different moments in history demand different virtues. In a time of war, physical prowess and courage will be highly prized. But in other moments in time, they'll be far less important. Some periods call for consideration and thoughtfulness; others call for aggressive action. The bold in one period might be the hot-headed and reckless in another. The prudent in one time could be the quiescent in the next.

Right now, I feel as if my particular virtues aren't well adapted to the times I live in. The things that are most in need right now are traits that I don't feel I especially possess. The things that I'm very good at feel passe and irrelevant.

That's not an indictment of the times. History is not obligated to bend itself to my skill set. But it's an interesting and discomforting feeling nonetheless. Had you asked me a few years ago, and I would have felt quite comfortable about the match between my virtues and what I felt the world demanded of me. Now? Much less so.