Tuesday, October 26, 2021

The Hardball Case for Democrats Abolishing Congressional Districts

How can Democrats respond to Republican attempts at consolidating power and locking out even future Democratic majorities? For example, aggressive Republican gerrymandering may subject America to perpetual minority rule even in the branch of government (the House of Representatives) meant to be most majoritarian in character. But what can Democrats do to stop it?

People often talk about "hardball" options, as if the only reason Democrats aren't acting to defend themselves is a failure of steely-eyed will. Admittedly, that is a vice some Democrats have. But it's not the only issue. A particular problem with many hardball tactics is they invite tit-for-tat retaliation. If Democrats engage in court-packing, for instance, Republicans can just re-pack the courts again the next time they take control of the presidency and Senate. By contrast, one advantage of DC statehood is that it is relatively immune from direct retaliation -- there are no obvious GOP-leaning states that can be admitted in response.

So the ideal hardball tactic is one that Democrats can use (a) in states they control, without Republican (or, perhaps as importantly, Sinema/Manchin) permission, and (b) where Republicans cannot easily respond in kind. And so here's my pitch, more as a thought experiment than anything else: in solid blue states, Democrats should abolish congressional districts entirely, elect all House representatives at-large without any form of proportional representation.

Right now, for example, California has 53 House seats (soon to be 52). Some of these districts are Republican, some are competitive, most are Democratic. Currently, California's delegation comprises 42 Democrats and 11 Republicans. But since California is reliably Democratic at the statewide level, if all representatives were elected at-large (without any nod to proportional representation) we can assume all 53 would be Democrats -- a net gain for Democrats of 22 seats.

Of course, by stipulation I say that Republicans are allowed to retaliate, and so if California passes this law, so does Texas. Texas currently has 23 Republicans and 13 Democrats;* but if all are elected statewide and Texas retains its red hue then all 36 seats would go GOP -- a net gain of 26 for team red (If this makes you think California more gerrymandered than Texas is, recall that Trump won Texas in 2020 by approximately 5.5%, while Biden won California by 29%).  And then there are the states where this doesn't matter, because they're already all-blue (Massachusetts) or all-red (Oklahoma). Switching to at-large would yield the same outcome as the status quo, just without defined districts.

So doesn't it wash out? Not if you play it out, no.

Let's make two simplifying assumptions to start: first, that all House seats in a state-wide at-large race will go to one party (there will be no ticket-splitting), and second, that each state will vote for the party it voted for in the 2020 presidential election. The first of these should under conditions of strong polarization remain true enough (and idiosyncratic exceptions should cancel out). The second is obviously dicier (what if we're in the universe of 2016 instead of 2020?), and I'll address it in more detail in a moment. The result would be basically be the same as the electoral college outcome if we remove DC and the distorting impact of the Senate (recall that every state gets two extra electoral votes from their Senate seats, regardless of population).

Right now, the House of Representatives is Democratic-controlled by a 220-212 margin (with three vacancies). But if all states voted at-large under the above assumptions, the House breakdown after the 2020 election would 253-182 -- a huge Democratic swing.

Now, of course, it is hardly guaranteed that the 2020 election results will replicate themselves in future House elections. Georgia, for instance, went Democratic at the presidential level but had voted for a GOP governor just a few years prior. It would be foolish for Democrats to pin their House majority hopes on Georgia reliably being a blue state and thereby giving all of its seats to Democrats. There is a live possibility, after all, that it goes red, then under my above assumptions all of its seats would go Republican instead. Ditto states like Michigan or Wisconsin or Pennsylvania. In 2016, for example, the House under the above model would have had a 246R-189D split.

So let's complicate the model slightly. In swing states (which we'll define as states where the margin of victory in 2020 was less than 5%), we will assume that the state will not adopt the at-large system but instead will prefer the (typically gerrymandered) status quo as the risk-averse option. For example, right now Florida has a 16-10 Republican advantage in the House notwithstanding that Trump won Florida by just 3.3%. The GOP-controlled Florida legislature might be willing to roll the dice on the at-large system in the hopes of getting all 26 seats; but of course doing so runs a non-negligible risk that they might lose all 26 seats. Better to preserve the status quo where they can, by redistricting, guarantee themselves most seats rather than go for broke. The case is even clearer in Georgia, where Republicans hold an 8-6 advantage in the House delegation in a state Biden won (albeit by a sliver). They're already getting more than they should via gerrymandering, why take a risk and potentially lose everything? In Nevada, Democrats face the same prospect in the opposite direction: they already have a 3-1 lead in the House delegation -- why risk letting the GOP run the table in a good year just to get one more seat?

If only the non swing states use the at-large system (while the swing states preserve the status quo and vote the same as they did now), the 2020 House margin would be 235-200 in the Democrats favor. The forty-two non swing states would break down 186-142 for team blue. The remaining eight swing states are Arizona (4R/5D), Florida (16R/11D), Georgia (8R/6D), Michigan (7R/7D), Nevada (1R/3D), North Carolina (8R/5D), Pennsylvania (9R/9D), and Wisconsin (5R/3D) -- this totals 58 Republican seats and 49 Democratic seats.


Pictured: The 2020 presidential map, with "very close" states greyed out. Note that each state's number of electoral college votes is two more than its number of House seats (House seats plus Senate seats). The 2016 map is below.

What about 2016?


There were even more very close states in 2016 than 2020 -- 11 were decided by five points or less. Of course, states can't necessarily predict in advance that they'll be close (who saw Minnesota coming?). But again, if we assume that only the non-close states would use the at-large (functionally) winner-take-all system, that would start us off with 167 Democrats and 156 Republicans. The eleven swing states were Arizona (4D/5R), Colorado (3D/4R), Florida (11D/16R), Maine (1D/1R), Michigan (5D/9R), Minnesota (5D/3R), Nevada (3D/1R), New Hampshire (2D/0R), North Carolina (3D/10R), Pennsylvania (5D/13R), and Wisconsin (3D/5R). That yields a final result of 223R-212D (thanks to a whopping 67-45 advantage in the swing states). Still a GOP win, but much narrower than its actual 2016 margin of 241-196 (and, in fairness, the GOP -- barely -- won the House popular vote in 2016). Also note that two of those states, Pennsylvania and North Carolina, were forced to revise their lines shortly after the election -- it is likely that the GOP lost enough seats just from those rulings such that, under the reformed lines, Democrats would have been able to win a narrow majority even in 2016.

So this is not a "Democrats always win" solution, by any means. But it does offer Democrats some advantages. For one, it allows Democrats to fully leverage their advantage in larger states where they are leaving more "meat on the bone", so to speak. Many solid red states already have all or nearly all GOP delegations -- switching to the at-large system wouldn't change much, say, Oklahoma or Utah, which currently have no Democrats in Congress at all and where Democrats in their best year maybe could squeak out one winner. Big solid blue states like California, New York, and Illinois would be rich prizes. Outside Texas, there aren't that many comparable opportunities for the GOP. Ohio would be a solid possibility, but Ohio is already gerrymandered so ludicrously aggressively (11R/3D) that the at-large switch wouldn't actually do that much -- just a six seat swing. Compare that to New York, where going all blue from the current 19D/8R status quo would net Democrats 16 seats.

But the other reason it works is because it neutralizes the specific GOP advantage in gerrymandering swing states. A major reason the House is so close right now is that the GOP has a nine seat advantage in the eight 2020 states that were decided by five points are fewer, even though Biden won six of them. In 2016, the Pennsylvania GOP's "gerrymander of the decade" gave them a 13-5 House advantage in a state that Trump won by less than one percent. That is largely the product of extremely favorable (to say the least) districting lines. Abandoning those lines for an effectively all-or-nothing at-large system would be incredibly dangerous for the GOP. But without going for it in these states, Republicans would be hard-pressed to overcome Democratic advantages in populous, deep blue states like California.

Again, as much as this might seem like stacking the deck, we should note that all that this system really does is make it more likely that the party which gets the most votes controls the chamber that is intended to be most responsive to majority preferences. The above analysis is fancy footwork that boils down to "under this system, the party with the most votes is most likely to win". In 2016, under the modified model where the swing states are risk-averse, Republicans would have narrowly won a House majority after narrowly winning the (House) popular vote. In 2020 under that model, Democrats would have secured a wider House majority after earning a wider (House) popular vote win. This is a good thing.

That said, putting aside its tactical utility as a hardball play that forces recalcitrant players towards more robust democratic solutions, do I think abolishing congressional districts is a good (as in virtuous) idea? That is, would I support it on its own terms, regardless of its usefulness in counteracting GOP gerrymandering? Honestly -- not really. There are good reasons to have politicians represent smaller geographic districts to whom they feel particularly accountable towards -- someone looking out for Fresno or Tacoma or Springfield specifically. An at-large process could still account for that somewhat -- the Democratic "slate" in California could self-consciously include figures from around the state who would hold themselves out as responsive to the needs of a particular community and would take point in responding to local constituent concerns. But there's no doubt there'd be a genuine loss there.

My preference, then (to the extent we're moving this beyond "thought experiment") is for this proposal to be expressly set to sunset at the moment there are uniform federal rules governing redistricting (and forbidding partisan redistricting). Basically, it tells Kevin McCarthy "agree to national rules on voting rights or you can kiss your precious California House seat goodbye". If he agrees to cooperate, lovely. If he doesn't, well, then you make good on the threat.

[Note: It took me about an hour to write this post and then another two to check and recheck my math. I'm not a math guy, so I can't guarantee the math is perfect now -- but I think it should be close. If I made any gaping mistakes, please let me know.]

UPDATE: Turns out that federal law (2 U.S.C. 2c) appears to forbid this, insofar as it requires states establish an equal number of districts to the number of representatives they're entitled to (with each district only electing one representative). I suppose one could try to skirt this by establishing multiple "districts" which overlap the same geographic territory (or better -- detach districts from geography altogether and randomly assign voters to districts). But alas, seems like this thought experiment must stay firmly in the realm of the thought.

Monday, October 25, 2021

Anti-Vaxxers Aren't Funny Anymore

As recently as, oh, two years ago, if you asked the media to imagine its archetype of an anti-vaxxer, they would have given you some crunchy-granola type who mistrusts vaccines because something-something-natural living-something-something-big pharma. You know, like this:

 

And so long as this was our anti-vaxx image -- a hippy Hollywood Jenny McCarthy sort -- the media was quite happy to laugh and laugh at how stupid anti-vaxxers were. Which, to be clear, was richly deserved.

But now, of course, we see that the image of the anti-vaxxer has shifted. It's no longer some out-of-touch flower child. It's the Republican base. And suddenly, the media has decided that this isn't funny anymore. Now it's a policy dispute, see? Now it is a matter of principles, a dilemma between admittedly important scientific and health care necessities and deeply-rooted American values of freedom. Anti-vaxxers are not silly cranks and are not to be treated that way. We can make fun of left-wing hippies, but heaven forfend we show anything but the utmost seriousness and respect towards exurban churchgoing conservatives.

It's worth noting that there were, well in advance of the COVID pandemic, plenty of signs that the stereotype that anti-vaxx sentiment was a province of the hippy-dippy left were at best outdated. For one, even before anyone was thinking about COVID we were already seeing Republican politicians start to dip their toes into anti-vaxx conspiracy theories. For two, we should not have been so quick to assume that crunchy-healthful-living and conservatism are oil and water. Marjorie Taylor Greene owns a cross fit gym! The anti-vaxx private school academy in Miami, owned by rabid Trump backers, provides meal options that would normally read like the farr-right's parody of a soy-boy ("Our menu is consistently 100% organic, 100% non-GMO, gluten-free, light on dairy, no added sugar, never processed, always fresh and locally-sourced when possible. We incorporate Superfoods such as ginger, hemp, quinoa, spices such as cinnamon, turmeric, curcumin, and herbs such as rosemary and basil.").

But it took the pandemic to make it clear that anti-vaxx sentiment in America is primarily a conservative phenomenon. And once we did realize that, and realized alongside it that anti-vaxx paranoia wasn't just a matter of hippie punching, well, the media suddenly decided that it just wasn't that much fun to joke about it anymore.

Sunday, October 24, 2021

On Losing in History, from Bundism to Liberal Zionism

What does it mean, to be part of a political movement that ... loses?

Most political organizing, as I understand it, is not primarily about predicting the future. It's about fighting for the future that one wants to see, at a time where there are multiple plausible futures that could come to pass. Given that, it will inevitably be the case that many people will join political movements that are fighting for a plausible, defensible future and who -- fast-forward twenty years -- will have lost.

Consider the Bundists of the early 20th century. They fought for a world in which Jewish equality and self-determination would flower and be protected in the places where Jews already were -- "hereness". Certainly, this is a defensible vision of the world, one that one would be perfectly justified in fighting for in the early 20th century. And yet, as we know, the future the Bundists fought for did not come to pass. They lost their battle, and lost it in the most horrifying manner possible to the Nazis. And so in the future that did come to pass, the Bundists, like all Jews, suffered horribly.

Does this discredit the Bundists? Does the end of the story necessarily mean that they made the wrong choice in what they sought to fight for at the start of the story? Many say yes. I'm unconvinced. It seems unfair -- cruel, even -- to judge an ideology by the consequences of a future that they unsuccessfully sought to resist. The Bundists had a plausible vision of the future that they reasonably thought was worth fighting for. And they did, and they ... lost. Are all political campaigns that are lost thereby proven to have been wrong to fight for in the first place?

It is easy to say they should have known better, with the benefit of hindsight. Knowing how the story  played out, of course the Bundists look like fools. But nobody should be so confident in their ability to win political struggles. One can have the best moral judgment in the world, and a will of iron, and a keen strategic mind, and one can in politics still lose. Too much depends on what other people do. You can make all the right moves, or at least defensible moves, and still lose. It is, in many ways, a sign of our own egocentrism that we blame ourselves for "picking the wrong side", as if history's arc would have been materially different if we, personally, had chosen to be liberals or socialists or Marxists or nationalists or pragmatists in the moment of fighting. Any one of us changing sides would almost certainly not change matters one whit. Sure, maybe if everyone had switched sides that would've made a difference. But not even the most powerful and influential among us has that amount of sway. The choices other people make will always be largely uncertain to us. And so while utter naivete about the choices others will likely make is not always excusable, we should not act as if only a fool would not have known how events would play out. The Bundists could not have known that Nazism would end up carrying the day in Germany, and that all their work would be for less than naught.

Liberal Zionism in 2021 perhaps looks much like Bundism in 1931. Make no mistake: we are losing. Perhaps we have already lost, though the revitalization of neo-Bundism today makes me think that no ideology of this sort truly can be said to have lost forever. Maybe in some future world there will be a new set of conditions making Liberal Zionism a winning team again (for example, if we live out the "Czechoslovakia gambit", where a one state solution eventually leads to a two state solution on equitable terms, I can very much imagine a New Liberal Zionism flowering). 

But whether one retains faint hope or not about the present or not, there is no question that the liberal Zionist vision is losingI did not begrudge anyone for cheering Netanyahu's demise, but it is certainly emblematic of how weak the liberals are that Naftali Bennett counts as a savior. Or, for that matter, Benny Gantz, who himself has spoken of the need to preserve Israeli sovereignty over far-flung settlements "forever" and just designated an array of respected Palestinian human rights NGOs as terrorist entities. How excited can we be, when men such as these excite us?

And these are the high notes! On the other side, the far-right is ascendant and makes no bones about its desire to raze liberal rule of law values to the ground. Traditional pillars of liberalism and rule of law in Israel -- the judiciary, cultural institutions, academia -- are under assault from all sides and are slowly wilting. The liberal parties in Israel are moribund, to the point where it's now no longer a given that Labor can cross the electoral threshold unaided. The right surged to victory in the last WZC election and rapidly began consolidating power. With the exception of the Abraham Accords, it is hard to think of any aspect of Israeli life where the liberal ideal has not decayed significantly over the past twenty years (and even the Abraham Accords, as much as I celebrate them, still ultimately represent compacts with largely authoritarian nations -- not exactly a liberal seed). 

And things look slated only to get worse. The younger generation in Israel is far, far more conservative than the older one; in Israel it is not bigotry and prejudice that might eventually die out with age, but tolerance and democratic values. Among young Jewish Israelis, levels of hatred towards Arab citizens are staggeringly high; half of young religious Zionist Jews in Israel think Arabs shouldn't be allowed to vote. The larger mainstream Jewish organizations are still stuck in patterns of passivity and obeisance, and will not stick their necks out to actually organize for liberal values in Israel -- in their best moments the most they can offer is to stay out of the way. Seeing groups squabble over something as seemingly mundane and unoffensive as the Two State Solution Act is as disheartening as it is unsurprising. The idea that they will ever have the boldness to pick a stick to go along with their carrots is ludicrous

And those who are still fighting for liberal values in Israel from a place of genuine attachment to Israel are increasingly alone, and are on the defensive. All their energy is devoted to slightly slowing down the liberal decay; they cannot even imagine what going on the offensive would look like, and they wouldn't have the resources or time to do it even if they could. Elsewhere on the left, there are no reinforcements, but rather cheers for our demise. At best, we have no role in their strategizing. We're non-factors. Just as often, the liberals are seen as nothing more than an annoying set of gadflies standing between the decolonizers and the fascists; the left cannot wait to see us wiped out, and if they see an opportunity to accelerate the process -- squeeze out those beleaguered universities and cultural institutions and academics -- they'll jump all over it

Even the SunriseDC fiasco -- objectively, a crushing defeat for anti-Israel fundamentalists -- is a sign that we're losing, for SunriseDC would not have tried this gambit if it hadn't at least thought it might succeed. Five years ago, it would have been inconceivable to imagine a call to expel the NCJW from progressive spaces succeeding. Even in the wake of its failure, one could see the Overton Window shift, and people for whom perhaps this particular play was a step too far start to rationalize how other, similar moves, that also would result in kneecapping Jewish liberal organizations or imposing special litmus tests us to "earn" or "claim" our seat at the progressive table, could be justified, and how a policy of slow strangulation of liberal Jewish political activity could begin anew. The cavalry is not coming. We are losing.

I don't want to say it's hopeless. But we are losing, and losing badly enough that we have to start imagining actual defeat. If we do lose, outright and utterly, we can only hope first that the consequences of our defeat are not as staggeringly catastrophic as they were for the Bundists. Probably they won't be -- actual industrial genocide remains a rare thing. But an unrepentant authoritarian apartheid Israel would be bad enough.  Or the eradication of Jewish self-determination in Israel, a return to being a minority at others' sufferance, that would be bad enough. And we will ask ourselves, "could it have all been averted, if we had switched sides? If we had not fought a losing battle?" Knowing the end of the story, does the indict our choices at the beginning?

As with the Bundists, perhaps it will be unfair, to blame us for a future that we fought against, just because we did so unsuccessfully. A small consolation indeed.

Friday, October 22, 2021

It's a Small World After All

My SunriseDC posts have gotten me a bunch of new followers, and I've promised to start disappointing them as soon as possible.

Well, no time like the present, so here we go.

You probably heard the news that Israel designated six Palestinian human rights organizations as terrorist groups, alleging they are tied to the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP). The US has already signaled its discontent with the move, and for my part I've suggested that a good "throw an elbow" move would be to take some extremist but nonetheless politically connected Israeli organizations (think Lehava) and place them on a terror watchlist (something we should be doing anyway, but now certainly would make an especially poetic time to do it).

But saying the Israeli government's decision to label these groups as terrorist organizations was wrong is not all that hot a take. None of you will be disappointed in me for making it, I fear. So try this one instead: the decision to label these groups as terrorist organizations was wrong even if one can find links between the organizations and the PFLP (and indeed, there are reports suggesting that there are at least some connections).

Maybe that'll get your attention.

The reason, to be clear, is not because the PFLP is not properly deemed a terrorist group. It absolutely is. And while less well known these days than, say, Hamas or Islamic Jihad, the PFLP has been responsible for some of the most gruesome violent terrorist assaults in Israeli history, including a massacre at Lod Airport that killed twenty eight people. I have no fond feelings towards the PFLP.

What came to mind, rather, was someone on my twitter feed suggesting that the PFLP was being treated as a "contaminant" -- any connection to it, at any level or through any personnel, was enough to generate this sort of absolute and uncompromising crackdown by association. "Contaminant" caught my eye because it was the same word Abe Silberstein had used to characterize what SunriseDC was doing to Jewish organizations re: Zionism -- the slightest touch or whiff was enough to warrant expulsion.

(Yes, I can already hear the howls of protest at even drawing the comparison. How dare you compare the entire ideology of Zionism with a literal terrorist group? Or, how dare you compare a criminal enactment by a national government with a decision by a piddling activist group in DC? You needn't bother to message me about it.).

One can already see, if one looks, a familiar set of excuses and modes of justification. Sure, Israel seemed to target Palestinian human rights groups -- but it didn't ban all groups. It is articulating a neutral standard, and in any event are you saying it's wrong to oppose the PFLP, a known terrorist actor? Why, it is downright insulting -- I daresay the real racism -- to suggest that a Palestinian NGO couldn't not be associated with the PFLP! You're conflating "Palestinian", an identity, with the particular ideology and tactics of certain organizations (namely, violent militant leftist resistance to the Israeli state)!

All of this is a way of eliding a simpler reality. What Israel is doing is suffocating Palestinian civil society and human rights advocacy. That it doesn't do so absolutely comprehensively is not a defense. That it has superficially defensible reasons that have nothing to do with "suffocating Palestinian civil society" is also not a defense. That you can pour through the archives and see that this assistant director was on a panel with that social activist who attended on a grant by a man whose has also seeded money to the PFLP's government affairs wing is, too, not a defense.

The internet may be big, but the world of the Palestinian community, much like the Jewish community, is pretty small, in the scheme of things. For any remotely prominent or active player, there aren't going to be too many degrees of separation between the participants -- still less, if they're concentrating on the broadly defined shared goal of bringing attention to wrongs and mistreatments done to the Palestinian people by Israel, or, for that matter, the PA (if, as Anshel Pfeffer speculates, what Israel was actually doing is targeting internal Palestinian critics of the PA at Abbas' request, that only strengthens the point). I know for my part it would not take a lot of effort or steps to connect me to some people and groups I very much do not like and do not support (to say nothing of those with whom I disagree with on most issues but may provisionally align with for a narrow or discrete project where interests align), because the Jewish world is small, and the Jewish political world is smaller. We've all seen the breathless "investigations" which show that David Schraub is a member of this organization which is sponsored in part by this other foundation which has also funded this other group and would you look who is on their Board of Directors?

We're all familiar with the genre. I've seen, more times than I care to count, the amateur and professional shops eager to offer reams of evidence "showing" how all of Israeli or Palestinian society is a seamless web of conspiracy, such that any pin in the corkboard can and must be ostracized not because they are Israeli or Palestinian or Jewish or Muslim (perish the thought!), but solely because of neutral standards demonstrating their own bad acts and associations. And the peddlers of these screenshots and PDFs and databanks pat themselves on the back for their deep investigative reporting and congratulate themselves for proving that everyone is acting on basis of principle, and the cries of prejudice and bigotry are just the usual suspects caterwauling.

Such logic is suffocating. It is suffocating notwithstanding the smarmy replies asking whether it is "really so hard not to associate oneself" with so-and-so or such-and-such wrongdoer, and it is suffocating notwithstanding the probable fact that someone, somewhere, maybe genuinely is sufficiently disconnected to pass muster (or more likely, has their particular set of connections excused and overlooked on an ad hoc basis -- everyone has their good ones). I'm not a libertarian, but anyone with even a smidgeon of libertarian instinct can understand how the weight of enough regulations, any or all of which can sound sensible or salutary on their own, can crush the life out of even good, public-spirited businesses. The same holds true for public participation. Cast the net wide enough and fine enough, and Israel will never need to come out and say "Palestinian human rights organizations are banned". It can get rid of them all -- or all but a token few -- through regulations and policies that are not just neutral on face, but sound to the credulous audience perfectly sensible and defensible on face.

It strikes me as quite likely that there are, if one looks deep enough and stretches broad enough, some connections between the groups Israel targeted today and the PFLP. That's mostly because I suspect one could find such connections (to PFLP or to some other genuine bad guy) for essentially any political Palestinian actor; just as one could do it without too much trouble for essentially any political Jewish or Israeli actor. What strikes me as exceptionally unlikely is that these groups are outright fronts for the PFLP, pretending to do some human rights makework in the front office while busily building bombs and rockets in the back.

So no doubt you will see some bloggers or news outlets come out in the next few days with breaking reports of just how this human rights NGO is tied to the PFLP. And no doubt they will hold themselves out as proving that the very idea that Israel's actions were anti-Palestinian, that they were targeting human rights groups as opposed to engaged in the laudatory fight against terrorism, is a lie and a libel. They may even believe these things.

They'll be wrong. And their logic suffocates.

The Sun Will Come Out Tomorrow

After furious pushback from pretty much every quarter, Sunrise DC claims to be reflecting and pondering upon the reaction it got from its announcement demanding the expulsion of three Jewish groups (but not other groups with similar views) from progressive coalitional spaces for being "Zionist".

The probability that they will issue an actual, unequivocal apology strikes me as essentially nil. I welcome being disproven on this point, but it is a prediction I'm quite confident in. For starters, genuine moral epiphanies do not come so fast. Their initial sin was not a harsh word taken in a moment of weakness or impatience, but something pondered and considered. If they are to come to the conclusion that what they did was simply wrong, flat period, it will take more than a few days of bad PR.

But beyond that, as much heat as they're taking from bigger fish in the progressive ecosystem (including the Sunrise Movement as a whole), the local and interpersonal connectors which promoted and lauded this decision in the first place remain operative and will be no doubt furious if Sunrise DC shows contrition. When one gets far enough out into the fringes of political activism, where purity of purpose and practice is the only currency, one's situation is not dissimilar to what Churchill said of dictators -- they ride to and fro on tigers they dare not dismount, for the tigers are hungry. If the back down, they'll be eaten alive by their erstwhile allies and they will not be forgiven by those they have wronged. That's the other thing: there is no chance that any apology, right now, would suffice to heal the wound that Sunrise DC caused -- at least not right away. And to be clear, that's not anyone's moral failing for being insufficiently forgiving -- in a case like this, the wronged party is not obliged to simply accept an apology and immediately wipe the slate clean. All I'm saying is that, even if one does recognize that one has done wrong, it takes a very strong person to apologize knowing that the only tangible result is that they'll be pilloried by their "friends" and unforgiven by those they hurt. Sunrise DC has not shown much evidence of possessing that sort of strength.

Far more likely, then, is that Sunrise DC will look for some alternative pathway to get to a similar place to where they had initially wanted to go, but that avoids the nominal arguments for their particular statement aroused such ire. It has been noted that the argument I made in my post -- that Sunrise DC targeted exclusively Jewish groups for positions that are common among the great bulk of left-of-center organizations, Jewish or not -- seems to be one that has gotten considerable traction as "the" reason for why what Sunrise DC did was wrong. For some, this set off a hunt for some hypothetical set of criteria and distinctions that just happened to include only these three Jewish groups. They would then triumphantly ask whether the American Federation of Teachers' website mentions Israel-related programming on its front page, as if that was the actual demarcation between acceptable and unacceptable (Answer: "No, of course [these other groups] were not in this new reference class which you have just now constructed in such a way as to contain only [the initial three].").

More likely is the promulgation of a new criteria which does expressly include some other, non-Jewish groups they won't work with (the AFT is an obvious candidate). But again, the goal is tractability -- the new standard has to be one that can be enforced, and that means limiting its scope. "Just the Jews" was one such limit that allows for tractability, and I noted in my prior post that if SunriseDC actually meant to preclude cooperation with all groups that hold views on Israel similar to that of the RAC -- which just this summer reiterated its long opposition to "the military occupation of the West Bank, which humiliates Palestinians and causes much daily suffering... the expansion of settlements and annexation in the West Bank and the eviction/displacement of Palestinian families in Sheikh Jarrah, elsewhere in East Jerusalem and in the West Bank" -- would mean it basically could not work with any liberal person or organization of any significant size (Jewish or not) of any that had ever ventured a thought on Israel, since such a position is absolutely the normal one among liberal political sorts. 

To be fair, it was pointed out to me -- and I had come to this thought on my own -- that SunriseDC might not especially mind this outcome, as its theory of change is not particularly tied to having close collaborative relations with mainstream liberal organizations or politicians. While I still think that SunriseDC would think carefully about how many bridges it wants to burn, it still is the case that such a move would be less costly for them than for many comparable organizations. Nonetheless, my guess is that SunriseDC does not want to commit to more tangible exclusions than it must. Indeed, right now I think SunriseDC has a potential trust issue looming over any potential partnership it might want to make. Forget what it did to the Jewish groups, what it did to the DFAD coalition, or to Sunrise National -- it was a blindside hit. Anyone who might be interesting in collaborating with SunriseDC has to wonder whether two weeks from now they'll be publicly castigated for having an investment banker on their board or having the wrong vowels in their name or defending "capitalist" solutions to social problems or some other heresy that will come out of nowhere. The hidden utility of only targeting the Jews was that it implicitly signaled to all the non-Jews "don't worry -- you're going to be fine. This isn't about you." If it starts lashing out willy-nilly, everyone has to wonder if they're next; and the best way to dissipate the worry is to just partner with someone else.

So SunriseDC still has the same basic incentive coupled with the same basic moral orientation: it wants to keep excluding the Jewish groups, and a few others for "neutrality's" sake, while keeping the total number of exclusions tractable and enforceable. To this, I see two options. First, come up with a new set of criteria that is very precise and gerrymandered to mostly encompass the Jews they were already targeting (and now a few others). This might be something like "no groups that do work in Israel that isn't expressly about ending the occupation" or "no groups that have hosted Israeli politicians". Again, anyone who thinks these rules actually demarcate the difference between morally acceptable and unacceptable organizations is deceiving themselves as much as if the rule was "no organizations which mention Israel on the front page of their website." These criteria are there for tractability -- it is another way of signaling to everyone else "don't worry, we're not coming after you, we're only going after this slice" (a slice that "just happens to be" overwhelmingly Jewish). Which wouldn't necessarily be a problem if the criteria tracked a moral division -- but it doesn't. The goal, again, is to limit scope. Make an example out of a few, and the rest fall into line (or make an example out of a few, and feel happy that you destroyed a few evildoers. Even SunriseDC can appreciate some marginal gains).

Option two is to retain what they have now -- an intentionally broad and underspecified criteria of "no Zionists", and then just declare that a few more non-Jewish organizations are now qualifying miscreants. The breadth and vagueness allows people to fill in the content however they want (how many people did we see argue -- somehow with a straight face -- that all SunriseDC was doing was announcing opposition to the occupation!), and few will research to see whether the criteria is in fact being consistently applied (particularly when it now facially includes both Jews and non-Jews -- notwithstanding this is a bit like Trump's travel ban expanding to include North Korea and Venezuela).

What will remain true is that this alteration is, at root, nothing more than a gotcha play: "you said the problem was that Jewish groups are singled out? Well now our standard includes non-Jews too -- so there! We corrected the problem!" Of course, my post anticipated this move in noting that Randi Weingarten is sufficiently prominent as a Jewish leader that her, and through her the AFT, could easily be attacked as well without much adjustment. 

But more to the point: it is neither unreasonable nor goalpost moving to hold that when an actor has just a moment earlier engaged in naked discriminatory conduct, it is not entitled to the benefit of the doubt when it reorganizes to do almost exactly the same thing as its initial discrimination, but this time with a fig leaf in front of it (Muslim Ban 1.0 should have altered our assessment Muslim Ban 2.0). Being antisemitic should extract a cost like that; one should be limited in what policies one can endorse or what steps one can take in ways others are not. When you engage in rank antisemitism, you lose -- at least for a little while, certainly for more than a week -- the right to play in sandboxes that are filled with precious Jewish objects.

Can I Be Proud of You?

"I'm so proud of you!"

As a professor, I have happily had many occasions to speak and think these words. Whenever one of my students, or former students, does something momentous, or accomplishes an ambition, or makes their mark, I feel it, and I get to say it. This is one of the many wonderful features of being in a role of mentorship, guidance, and support as part of one's career.

I've often wondered, though, is this feeling of pride one that necessarily only attaches (at least without condescension) to persons who had at some point been under your supervision? Your students, or your subordinates, or your children?

On many occasions, I have thought "I'm so proud of you" regarding persons who had never been in that role -- had always been a peer. Classmates, friends, or colleagues. It is a happy thought, and so I want to share it. But I do worry about whether it implies condescension. So I ask "can I say I'm proud of you?" or "would it be weird for me to be proud of you?" And they usually reply yes and no, respectively, and so I say it. But I still wonder -- am I mistaken in the feeling? Or am I wrong to think being proud of someone implies at least a prior superior/subordinate relationship?

The Internet is Full of Bad People

The problem with the internet is that it's full of bad people.

Let me explain.

The internet is also full of good people. And average people, and weird people. The internet has a lot of people on it. And so, ipso facto, it will also have a lot of bad people.

Last year I wrote a post hypothesizing that the social media revolution doesn't mesh with our lizard brains regarding how to assess how "common" a given opinion is. Our primordial brain imagines that easily-found opinions are common opinions, and hard-to-find opinions are rare opinions. But on Twitter, every opinion is easy to find. For any major social calamity, no matter how obvious it may seem that one side or another is just clearly behaving wrongly or abusively, you can find dozens upon dozens of twitter accounts -- and not just bots -- falling over themselves to talk about how wonderful it is. Tankies, fascists, smarmy centrists -- all your "favorite" players seem to be everywhere and omnipresent. In our off-line time, we'd have trouble finding them (I'm an academic in Portland by way of Berkeley, and I doubt I know a true tankie in person). No wonder time on the internet makes us all despair. Our brains cannot help but interpret our time on the internet as confirming that monsters are everywhere, nowhere is safe, and the world is going to hell.

And maybe the world is going to hell. But the internet, at the very least, is misleading evidence for the case. When I spend too much time on Twitter, I have to remind myself that the perception that bad people are everywhere is a trick -- a matter of the lizard brain not being able to account for the sheer vastness of the "community".

Wednesday, October 20, 2021

Sunrise, Sunset

The American Federation of Teachers has several hundred thousand dollars invested in Israel bonds.

It has publicly endorsed a two-state solution promising self-determination for Israelis and Palestinians alike, and rejected BDS. It has promoted its work in Israel to facilitate peace and coexistence via collaborative initiatives that bring Jews and Palestinians together, presenting them as models for similar work aiming dissipate conflict and dismantle unjust structures domestically and internationally. It has proudly hosted an Israeli MK, Stav Shaffir, at its convention to speak on politics, justice, and inequality. Its leader, Randi Weingarten, has been vocal about her passionate connection to and care for Israel, and ran on the left-wing Hatikvah slate for a position in the World Zionist Congress.

The AFT is not, of course, blindly "pro-Israel" in all things. It condemned the nation-state law, and the denial of entry visas to Reps. Ilhan Omar and Rashida Tlaib. It grouped Bibi Netanyahu in with other democratically-elected authoritarians such as Orban, Erdogan, Putin, Bolsonaro, and Modi. Sometimes, in opposing certain Israeli policies, it has collaborated with other Israeli groups, such as joining with Israeli academic and student unions to oppose a politcally-motivated "academic code of ethics".

None of this is especially noteworthy. The AFT's positions on Israel are ordinary and unremarkable -- entirely the norm in contemporary establishment liberal politics.

Today, there was a big story that the DC branch of the Sunrise Movement was withdrawing from a DC statehood rally because the sponsoring coalition, Declaration for American Democracy, includes three Jewish groups Sunrise considers to be impermissibly "Zionist": the National Coalition of Jewish Women, the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism, and the Jewish Council of Public Affairs. Sunrise DC said it would refuse to operate in any space where such groups were included, and accordingly urged DFAD to consider expelling them from the coalition.

Others can write on the pernicious effect of drawing the exclusionary border this far -- one that would have the effect of locking out the overwhelming majority of even progressive Jewish political organizations and actors from progressive organizing. Others, too, may wish to comment on Sunrise DC's de rigueur claim that in standing up against Zionism it was standing up for "Black and Brown Jewish-Israelis" -- an assertion so far removed from the actual politics and priorities of those communities that one wonders whether Sunrise DC actually believes it or is simply engaging in reflex. And others can look at the repeated invocations of "indigenous" rights and consider my hypothesis from just the other day that "As far as Israel and Palestine are concerned 'indigenous' is where political commentators go to when they don't want to compromise a single inch but still want to appeal to some sort of putatively non-partisan moral principle."

I want to focus on something a little different, though.

The three groups Sunrise DC targets -- NCJW, RAC, and JCPA -- primarily concentrate on domestic issues. JCPA considers some amount of Israel advocacy to be a priority, the other two do not. All three, to the varying extents they do "work" on Israel, take positions that are materially indistinguishable from that of AFT. That is, they are engaged in the normal promotion of two-states, co-existence, collaboration, liberal values, and so on, that is utterly ordinary and unremarkable not just among Jewish liberals, but among liberals, period.

Perhaps you see where I'm going with this. The American Federation of Teachers is also a member of the Declaration for American Democracy. And yet Sunrise DC did not say -- I suspect it did not even occur to them to say -- that AFT should be expelled, or that it would not operate where AFT was present. I wager that Sunrise DC only "checked" the Jewish groups to see whether they were "problematic". The litmus test it imposes is one it imposes on Jewish groups only. Jews are the ones for whom Sunrise checks to see if they're dangerously "Zionist" in orientation, and so Jews are the ones subject to the exclusion.

Perhaps I shouldn't be so sanguine about AFT -- Randi Weingarten is prominent enough as a Jewish leader that they very easily could be the next target. But the broader point would remain: if Sunrise tried to say it would not work with all groups who have roughly the political outlook towards Israel as does the NCJW, it could not work with essentially any mainline liberal group, because the stances NCJW takes are materially identical to those taken by essentially every major liberal group, Jewish or not.  I expect that the overwhelming majority of groups in the DFAD (at least, those of any size) who have thought about Israel have thought in terms that are roughly in line with what NCJW thinks. If such an outlook is unacceptable, then all of them should be targeted for removal or ostracization.

That wouldn't be practicable of course. What is practicable and tractable is to ask the question of the Jews, specifically, and make the demand of Jewish groups, specifically. A Jewish litmus test, not a general one.

This observation is not quite the same thing as saying that Sunrise is "okay" with the sort of mainstream liberal outlook on Israel so long as its non-Jews expressing it. Even if the end goal is to demand that every group abandon this outlook, the above points about practicability and tractability can justify -- on a bloodless, purely tactical level -- a decision to focus on the Jewish groups first: a point of vulnerability, an easy place to put one's foot in the door. How often have we heard, after all, that boycotts need not and reasonably do not target everyone at once, but pick their targets at the point of maximum leverage and impact? The logic extends here too. How much should it matter that the selection criteria is "go after the Jews", if we accept for sake of argument that the reason "the Jews" were picked is not merely some unthinking atavistic hatred but makes "political" sense? The answer depends on how much you think unthinking atavistic hatred is the sine qua non of wrongful discrimination.

So is that Sunrise's end game -- it knows that lots of groups have "sinned" identically" to NCJW et al, but it is making a strategic choice to go after the Jews first? On that point, I am unsure. Is AFT not on Sunrise's hit list just out of ignorance -- they didn't bother to check? Or would it stay off the list for the time being because of the practical problems (or strategic prioritization) identified above -- limiting their test solely to Jewish groups being manageable in a way that an actual universal principle would not be? Or perhaps it is the case that the policies AFT promotes re: Israel, whether or not they're the ones Sunrise DC would choose, are within the "zone of acceptability" -- at least when non-Jews are promoting them. I suspect that they would certainly be happier if AFT, too, switched its policies to be more in line with anti-Israel maximalism. But I also suspect they'd be happy enough if the "only" practical effect of their policy is that the Jewish groups are sabotaged, and everyone else can keep on going largely how they're going. Actually changing AFT's outlook on Israel may be a happy bonus, but the primary mission objective is to kneecap the Jewish organizations, and their acting in pursuit of the latter goal far more than the former.

To some extent, I think all of this -- imagining a set of policies Sunrise DC opposes and then imagining how they're trying to alter or punish organizations for adopting them -- is giving Sunrise DC too much credit though. Why? Because I think what they actually did was not look at a bucket of policy and practices and say "we simply cannot support an organization that does this or advocates that", but rather simply check to see which (Jewish) groups had "Zionist" somewhere on their website and called it there.  And perhaps you are tempted to think that this demarcates an actual difference between NCJW and AFT -- the former will use the word "Zionist", the latter won't. I already have in my mind's eye some Jewish Currents editor frantically looking to screen grab some obscure corner of the NCJW website where they dare characterize what they do as "Zionist", in order to Silence Liberal! those who insist that NCJW's work on Israel is not remotely characterizable as oppressive or problematic.

It is true, after all, that at least among left-of-center "pro-Israel" folk, "Zionist" is a term mostly restricted to the Jews. Take two Democrats with identical, AFT/NCJW-style views on Israel, one Jewish and one not, and the former is going to be far more likely to characterize herself as "Zionist" than the latter, even though they advocate for the exact same things and have the exact same vision of what justice and equality look like in Israel and in Palestine. But if that is the case, and the distinction is purely terminological, and the difference between who uses that word lies overwhelmingly along the dimension of "Jewish" versus "non-Jewish", then using that as the demarcation point between acceptable and unacceptable reduces into different standards for Jews and non-Jews -- right back to where we started. Be embarrassed, those of you who clung to the idea that this makes out a neutral distinction.

In any event. What Sunrise DC is doing is targeting Jewish groups for especial scrutiny and exclusion as Jewish groups. That it does so while nominally accepting other Jewish groups is immaterial -- it is the heightened scrutiny, not the conceptual possibility of clearing the bar, that is the problem. And it is not correct to say that Sunrise DC's selection criteria is neutral -- it isn't; the reasons these groups are targeted is not because their policy outlook on Israel is wrong in a way that other mainline liberal groups avoid, they are targeted because they have the "wrong" outlook and they're Jewish -- the conditions are jointly necessary, neither is sufficient on its own.

This is antisemitism. I hope it is recognized as such.

I'll end on a very small hopeful note. They are many differences between the situation of Jews in Democratic Party politics compared to Jews in UK Labour. But one major one is that there are simply more of us, who have been doing this for a very long time, and are deeply embedded in the fabric of the entire liberal political apparatus at every level. Groups like the NCJW and the RAC have been building out connections and coalitions and relationships across the liberal political space since well before the Sunrise DC activists were a twinkle in anyone's eye. We have the high ground, in more ways than one. And if a few political performance artists think we'll be dislodged that easily, they are in for an awakening.

Friday, October 15, 2021

Justifying the Holocaust is a Small Price to Pay for Abolishing CRT

You've probably seen by now the story about a Texas school administrator suggesting to teachers that, in the wake of recent supposedly "anti-Critical Race Theory" rules demanding that teachers provide "both sides" of contentious or controversial topics and not in any way proffer sweeping denunciations of anyone or anything as "systematically" racist, they must provided a "balanced" account of the Holocaust. To be clear, it seems apparent that the administrator is not happy about this, but rather viewed this as the inevitable consequence of following the rules that have been laid down (and she indicated that there may have, in fact, been parental complaints before about the Holocaust being taught in an "imbalanced" fashion).

The small but vocal Jewish contingent which has been pushing the anti-CRT hysteria, suddenly aware of the leopards hungrily eyeing their own faces, was thrust on the defensive. Do they have regrets about the obvious and inevitable consequences of their own actions? No. And incredibly, they seem willing to allow for renewed debate over the very morality of the Holocaust if that's what it takes to oppose critical race theory:

“The dispute about the interpretation of events is completely legitimate, but the dispute about the existence of events is either dangerous or stupid or both,” said Rabbi David Wolpe of Sinai Temple in Los Angeles. “You can, for example, argue endlessly about the effects and causes of slavery but to argue that slavery didn’t happen is idiotic, or pernicious, and the same thing is true with the Holocaust.”

It is not an accident that Rabbi Wolpe, and the other anti-CRT voices quoted in the article, frame their disclaimers as opposing Holocaust denial -- a purely factual stance. Because let's be precise about what Rabbi Wolpe is suggesting here at applied to Holocaust education. He's saying that its stupid to debate the "existence" of events, whether its the Holocaust or slavery, but we must be "balanced" as to the dispute over their "interpretation". And perhaps "balance" isn't meant to apply to the raw existence of historical fact. But that means "balance" is applied to matters of normative assessment. The real potential "balance" in the Holocaust context is not denying that it happened, but suggesting that it was justified, or at the very least wasn't as bad or unjustified as "critics" suggest. Making sure we provide "diverse and contending perspectives without giving deference to any one perspective" means we have to dispassionately present the Holocaust from the point of view of the Germans just as much as the Jews.

As with slavery, where the "dissenting" narrative is that slavery's evils were overstated, many masters were kind, most White people were innocent, and in any event none of it has anything to do with the present day, the Holocaust too has alternative perspectives, where unflinching presentation of the Holocaust's horrors now must be "balanced" with narratives emphasizing "good Germans", the "innocent Wehrmacht", legitimate German grievances, and Jewish aggression and exploitation (both before and after the event). We would hate for any White people to feel "demonized", after all.

This was entirely predictable. As much as folks like Wolpe and David Bernstein loudly proclaim to be shocked -- shocked -- by the reach of the formal anti-CRT legislation they purport to "oppose", such legislation is the tangible manifestation of the anti-CRT campaign, which never had anything to do with CRT to begin with. It was always a backlash against teaching unflinching and unblinking history in the context of systemic oppression, dressed up in a sloppy "liberal" appeal to "both-sidesing". Once you do that, of course it's going to apply to the Holocaust too.

The thing is, whether we're talking about the Holocaust or about Jim Crow, I concede it may not always be fun to learn their your "group" or your ancestors were the villains of a particular chapter of history. Nonetheless, the purpose of the educational practice is not to "demonize" any student on basis of their identity, and the ancillary effect of generating feelings of "discomfort" is not something that likely can be avoided without utterly neutering the value of the lesson. The Holocaust is uncomfortable. It's uncomfortable in terms of what it did to Jews, in what it says about the moral fiber and moral foundations of a modern European state, and in what it implies about contemporary politics (about Jews and otherwise). Same with America's history of racial apartheid. It simply is discomforting, in terms of what it has done to people of color, in what it says about our collective national conscience and our foundational creeds, and what it implies about present day injustices and inequities.

Nonetheless, Holocaust education is not and should not be agnostic as between whether the attempted extermination of Jews was good or bad, and is not and should not be studiously indifferent over drawing lessons on how to head off similar atrocities in the future. When Texas demands that agnosticism and that indifference under the patina of both-sidesing, then it is impossible for contemporary Holocaust education to function as it should. But these are indeed the wages of the anti-CRT campaign it has embarked on.

To some extent, then, we can perversely admire the principled decision Wolpe, Bernstein, et al are sticking to here. In their view, raw facts may be sacrosanct, but "interpretations" must always be open. And so, in practice, their view is that while Texas schools should not teach outright Holocaust denial, they can and must be more open to debating the Holocaust's merits -- the German side and the Jewish side, presenting is neutrally and dispassionately as possible. White Supremacists should count themselves lucky to have such tenacious advocates. The rest of the Jewish community will unsurprisingly remain appalled.

Wednesday, October 13, 2021

What are the Stakes of "Indigenous"?

95% of discourse applying the "indigenous" frame to Israel/Palestine, whether "pro-Israel" or "pro-Palestine" in orientaiton, is political rather than analytical.

This is something I've believed for a long time, and it was further entrenched seeing this narrative cartoon by J.B. Brager in Jewish Currents titled "When Settler Becomes Native" (Brager borrows their title, consciously or not, from prior works by Mahmood Mamdani and Raef Zreik). 

The cartoon purports to trace and attack claims by Jews that they are "indigenous" to Israel. If one reads it carefully, though, one notices that it actually never succeeds in this objective on an analytical level. 

The case for Jewish indigenous status in Israel is relatively straightfoward: Israel is where Jews are from, not just in a vague historical sense but in a concrete sense that has continually demarcated their status as a "people", they were over the course of history forced out and forced into a subordinated structure of domination by foreign powers, and now they've come back. 

Against this, Brager doesn't actually do much to show that Jewish claims of indigenous status are not valid. They somewhat limply acknowledge that the Jewish claim actually fits decently well with the common benchmarks of indigenousness proposed by UN Special Rapporteur  Jose Martinez Cobo, but contends that their adoption to this case is exploitative -- if anything, Cobo's framework must fail because it seems to allow for the Jewish claim. 

Waving at Patrick Wolfe's well-known aphorism that settler-colonialism is a "structure, not an event" doesn't alter this. The claim that Zionism is a decolonial movement is precisely the claim that it disrupted a prior structure of dispossession and disenfranchisement that Jews had been laboring under  properly characterized as "colonial" (that it is difficult to point to a specific moment in 1549 when Jews "lost" territory that was previously theirs makes the "structure, not event" paradigm more, not less, attractive as a means of encompassing the Jewish case. It is not a specific historical moment but an ongoing structural condition where external powers arrogated to themselves the exclusive power to declare what Jews were and what their relationship to politics, land, culture, and so on could be). Ironically, the strongest claim for why Jews aren't "indigenous" to Israel is that "indigenous", as a category only applies in cases where the dispossession is ongoing -- if one succeeds in reversing it, one isn't indigenous anymore (hence why it makes more sense to refer to Algerians as "indigenous" during the French colonial period that it does today, post-independence). But this would be a pyrrhic victory for Brager, since it would defeat Jewish claims of indigenousness only by accepting that Zionism was successfully decolonial.

For these reasons, Brager's argument is not primarily focused on actually falsifying the notion that Jews are indigenous. For the most part, Brager instead works backwards from the conclusion; their argument is primarily that recognition of Jews as "indigenous" would have bad political consequences -- described variously (and the oscillation between the two is so rapid that they effectively blur together -- an effect that is certainly intentional) as either endorsing Israeli territorial maximalism and the view that Palestinians are foreign colonial invaders, or endorsing that Israel has any claim to exist at all. Since JC readers think both of these positions are bad things to endorse, it must conclude that the Jewish claims of being indigenous are bad as well.

Of course, working backwards from the conclusion, in addition to being bad analytical practice, comes with "political" dangers of its own -- as when Brager comes within a hairsbreadth of asserting that the entire idea of Jewish "peoplehood" must be rejected because any understanding of Jews as more than "just" a religion might bolster the claim that this "people" could legitimately claim indigenousness. Ironically, given the time Brager spends accusing their adversaries of engaging in biological essentialism, here they suggest that the only possible foundation for Jews being a "people" is a biological one (the other day I interacted with someone who used the fact of converts to mock the idea that Jews, as a whole, could be "indigenous" to Israel -- now who's running the biological essentialism play?).

Likewise, addressing the case of Mizrahi Jews (and groups such as JIMENA, which have long made the association of continued indigenousness), Brager doesn't refute the indigenous status, they just denounce them endorsing the "mythologization" of leveraging their own status as (potentially?) indigenous with those of all Jews. But -- leaving aside the actual demographics of Israel -- why can't they view the relevant frame of analysis as "the Jewish people", viewed as a collective? Why must they be forced to endorse compulsory separation such that their history is not our history? Put simply: why aren't Mizrahi Jews, to the extent they are indigenous, entitled to state that all Jews are part of their community and are thereby indigenous as well (Ironically, the implied answer is -- once again -- biological essentialism). 

I don't have time to fully go into it here, but there is a sort of enforced normative quiescence being demanded of Mizrahi Jews where they maybe can be accepted as indigenous so long as they accede to non-Jewish Middle Easterners' declarations over who counts as a community member and what constitutes valid political and social action. They can be indigenous so long as they do not in any way challenge other actors' decisions over why they're indigenous or how they count as indigenous. If they deign to operate independently and make their own choices over who is part of "their" community -- for example, viewing all Jews as being part of their collective and thereby sharing in whatever patrimony they can claim as indigenous to the region -- then they need to be slapped down. We see a version of this in Yuval Evri and Hagar Kotef's provocatively titled "When Does a Native Become a Settler?", which regardless of its other faults, does not dismiss out of hand the prospect of Jewish nativeness. However, it does persistently locate "native" Jewish choices that linked up with the Ashkenazi Jewish Zionist project (such as adopting Hebrew as the daily language) as decisions to "settlerize", rather than decisions expressing indigenous agency and intentional choices regarding how they conceptualized who was part of their community. Put differently, if we accept Mizrahi Jews as valid indigenous "cases", that has to include their authority to declare that, under their conception of who they are, all Jews are part of their community in the relevant respects -- they are not bound to endorse others who wish, for their own purposes, to make and enforce sharp lines where "these Jews" are of qualitatively a different people than "those Jews".

All of that said, it is the case that "indigenous" and "settler-colonial", in their political valence, tend to be associated with maximalist claims. On the pro-Israel side, they are often mustered to defend not just Israel's existence but the occupation and the wholesale rejection of any valid Palestinian claims, presented as foreign interlopers; all the land simply is Jewish land by right, settlement is simply taking the land back, and any non-Jewish presence is at most tolerated at the sufferance of the rightful owners. On the pro-Palestine side, these terms are again frequently deployed not just to object to the occupation but to contest the validity of there being an Israel at all; Israel is naught but a foreign invasion, the Jewish population anywhere in Israel is a settler population, the morally correct remedy to the crime of Israel existing is for it to be dissolved, and we should cheer if Jews (to quote a figure quoted in Brager's cartoon) go "back to where the fuck they came from."

Whatever their uses as analytical paradigms -- and I agree they can be quite useful (for example, I found the Zreik article, linked above, very thought-provoking) -- as terms of political mobilization "indigenous" and "settler-colonial" are the terms of first resort for those seeking to drape extremist solutions in a moral garb. That's true, again, on both sides of the ledger (it is not an accident that the Jewish claims over Sheikh Jarrah are framed as "land back" claims -- the Jewish claimants are successors to Jews who were dispossessed and expelled from their land by Arab armies in 1948!). As far as Israel and Palestine are concerned "indigenous" is where political commentators go to when they don't want to compromise a single inch but still want to appeal to some sort of putatively non-partisan moral principle. It is seductive in that it doesn't just promise everything, but promises everything with the gloss of moral justification to take a free rein.

No wonder, then, that Brager views it as unacceptable that Jews could claim "indigenous" for ourselves. Of course, their problem isn't the maximalism, it's who gets to be maximalist; they don't want to give up the maximalist utility of the indigenous frame, they just want to keep it for their preferred side. To some extent, the impetus behind this whole cartoon is oh no -- if it isn't the consequences of my actions paradigm! 

But if anything, the potential validity of Jewish claims of indigenousness should trigger a reassessment over the stakes of that label, and it probably would be worth reflecting on why this framework is so easily associated with and utilized by those proposing "solutions" to the conflict that are more-or-less open in their disdain for any sort of rights or claims by their disfavored side. If Jews are indigenous to Israel, then ... what? Does that mean Palestinians cannot also be indigenous to it? Does that justify violent expropriation of Palestinian-owned land, or the depravation of Palestinian civil rights and liberties? It would indeed be bad if Jews being indigenousness to Israel meant that therefore permanent occupation and dispossession of Palestinians is thereby justified! Brager's implicit response to this is to say "yes, it would be justified if Jews were indigenous, which is why Jews can't be indigenous" (I have sometimes wondered if Revanchist Zionism is what happens if Fanon wins the decolonization battle in a rout). My preferred response is to say "no, it wouldn't be justified, which means that can't be a consequence of Jews being indigenous." 

Brager is not fully wrong that the discursive impact of the "indigenous" debate, as it is used in contemporary political discourse, often serves to distract from if not justify obvious ongoing and continuing injustices. But ideally, it is precisely the strong potential legitimacy of Jewish claims of indigenousness that should prompt us to resist the deployment of "indigenous" to justify maximalist irredentism whose manifest immorality would otherwise smack us in the face. It is a bad thing -- this shouldn't have to be said, but apparently it does -- that we have people flirting with overt ethnic cleansing or mass expulsions and presenting them as moral imperatives (still worse when it is being done by people who have the power to carry out their flirtations, but certainly not good when it remains -- for the time being -- "merely" a fantasy)! And once we do that, we can start to think about what useful work "indigenous" (or "decolonial") can do in terms of both explaining the present and imagining the future, that is not simply a tool for maximalist fantasizing (this article in Tikkun is, I think, a worthwhile example of the project).

Monday, October 11, 2021

Antisemitism Symposium Video Online

The full recording of the antisemitism symposium I was a part of (hosted by Yael Aronoff of Michigan State University) is now online. The morning panel, which includes my contribution (as well as Eric Ward and David Nirenberg), is here, while the afternoon panel (featuring Saba Soomekh, Cary Nelson, and Ethan Katz) is here. My section begins at roughly the 1:11:30 mark of the first video.

It was a superb event and a true honor to be on stage with such eminent figures. Indeed, the absolute highlight for me actually came off camera, where someone referred to David Nirenberg as "the other David" (it was not remotely meant as a hierarchical statement -- just someone who had been talking about me the moment prior -- but as I put it then, "just let me have this").


David Miller is the JDA's Test Case

IHRA's big open question is "Is there any specific, controversial (left-wing) case, that some people contend is antisemitic, that IHRA would decisively conclude is not antisemitic?"

JDA's big open question is the opposite: "Is there any specific, controversial (left-wing) case, that some people deny is antisemitic, that JDA would decisively conclude is antisemitic?"

I say "specific" because both definitions say generally that there are things that are not/are antisemitic, respectively. For instance, IHRA says criticism of Israel similar to that leveled at other countries is not antisemitic, JDA says treating Jews-qua-Jews as agents of Israel is antisemitic. But these are generalities; the question is whether they'll ever cash out in a live controversy. 

For IHRA, think about settlement boycotts or labeling requirements, or calls to condition aid to Israel. These are sometimes called antisemitic, but perhaps under the best reading of IHRA they should not be. But will people who promote the IHRA definition ever use it to exonerate? Will they ever say in a specific, live controversy, "no, contrary to what's being claimed, under IHRA that's not antisemitic, and the people claiming that it is are simply wrong?" And JDA raises the same question, albeit from the opposite angle. We wonder: will JDA proponents ever wield JDA to say, in a specific, live controversy, "yes, this is antisemitic, and the people denying that its antisemitic are simply wrong?" The cynics suspect the answers are no. In any remotely contestable case, nobody will ever be found innocent under IHRA, and nobody will ever be found guilty under JDA.

Are the cynics right? The JDA maybe has a good test case in front of it right now, with the controversy over David Miller, until recently a professor at the University of Bristol. Miller's defenders are, of course, contending that the campaign against him is the fruit of IHRA, demonstrative of IHRA's propensity to "ban all criticism" of Israel. But to my eyes, the Miller case is less a test case for IHRA than it is for JDA. Leave aside the academic freedom implications of him being sacked, which raise a separate problem (it is perfectly cogent to say that Miller is an antisemite and academic freedom nonetheless protects antisemitism). Is Miller -- who called interfaith programming between Jews and Muslims in London a Zionist trojan horse, who said all campus JSocs (Jewish Societies) are "pawns" and agents of the Israeli government who have been "directed by the State of Israel" to engage in campaigns of harassment and intimidation -- an antisemite? 

For my part, I've often suspected that, among JDA drafters, David Miller was their imagined template example of someone "left" that is properly called antisemitic. That's pure speculation on my part. But it does make for a decent-ish test of a circumstance where JDA can and should, in a specific case, say "yes, this is antisemitic, and the people contending he was engaged in mere 'criticism of Israel' are wrong."

I hope JDAers pass the test. But make no mistake: a large portion of the JDA's constituency comprises those for whom its utility is solely in its capacity to deny antisemitism, not identify it. The temptation will be to hem and haw and hedge, or just stay silent -- a strategic ambiguity that lets JDA continue to serve as the avatar of antisemitism denial. If JDA folks do what they should do, and are clear and unambiguous that Miller is an antisemite, they will almost certainly lose a lot of their base of support.

Sunday, October 10, 2021

What LinkedIn Thinks I Do

I was fiddling with my LinkedIn profile today, and I came across a "suggested" summary of my professional career path. So, here's what LinkedIn's AI thinks I do and have done:

I'm an Senior Research Fellow & Lecturer in Law at the UC Berkeley's Office of Immigration and Nationality, working on compliance, tax, immigration and human rights issues for clients in various industries. I focus on federal immigrant policy and have worked with a variety of international businesses, including multinational corporations and universities. Previously, I was a civil litigator for eight years. In that time, I worked as an associate trial lawyer and appellate counsel.

I feel like its on trend to be anxious about how on-the-nose tools like this have gotten, so it's nice to see one that is just obviously, manifestly, inaccurate in essentially all of its components.

To be clear: I do not and never did work at Berkeley's "Office of Immigration and Nationality" (assuming such an office exists, which I'm not sure it does). My "focus" is absolutely not on immigration law or policy (though the half minute I've spent on immigration law issues dwarfs the zero minutes I've spent on tax issues). And I was never really a civil litigator at all (I was primarily a regulatory attorney) -- certainly not for eight years, which is far longer than the time I spent as a practicing lawyer. I do suppose it is technically true that I have worked with "a variety of international businesses" at some point in my career.

UPDATE: Basically, here's what we're working with ("So much of that was wrong!").


Thursday, October 07, 2021

Three Feet Shorter

When the Supreme Court upheld an affirmative action program at the University of Michigan Law School as pursuing the compelling state interest of "racial diversity", Justice Scalia was scornful. The values of diversity -- inclusivity, tolerance, learning to work with people across differences -- were best taught to students "three feet shorter and twenty years younger" than the typical law student.

Four years later, though, when the Court in the Parents Involved case considered programs securing racial diversity in primary and secondary schools, this logic disappeared. It turned out that Scalia and the conservatives didn't want to inculcate these values at a younger age; they just didn't want them inculcated at all.

I was thinking about this upon reading Ayaan Hirsi Ali's fusillade against "critical race theory" in primary schools. The scare quotes are appropriate, since as Ali concedes, the racial justice initiatives she objects to in primary education do not go by the name "critical race theory" even as the right labors feverishly to place them under the label. In a truly spectacular leap of logic, that the right calls things "critical race theory" that are not "critical race theory" is not evidence that they're simply making things up, but rather is demonstrative of the theory's proponents showing a "remarkable ability to shape-shift".

But I digress. Ali's main argument is that affirmative action programs have been "clear failure", listing off a bevy of racial inequalities that still exist in the fifty years following the civil rights revolution. Of course, the crit would suggest that this shows the problems of racism in America run deeper than a few diversity initiatives can fix; and even the non-crit might find it out to see evidence of ongoing racial inequality mustered as proof that we need to think less about matters of racial inequality. But Ali, ever the iconoclast, puts the entirety of the blame on affirmative action itself -- specifically, Richard Sander's "mismatch" theory. Leave aside the various criticisms one might have of that theory. Its core logic is that, by the time we reach the point of a collegiate affirmative action program, it's too late to undo the failures of the primary educational system to provide the foundations and skills necessary for students of color to thrive in elite university settings. The intervention occurs too late in the day.

So the obvious implication is that we should be investing our energies earlier in the process -- concentrating on students when they are twenty years younger and three feet smaller. And yet, it turns out, Ali -- like her fellow conservatives -- doesn't support this either. In fact, they're even more enraged when the persons concerned about racial inequity begin focusing on the primary rather than the collegiate level (even though the "mismatch" arguments that nominally undergirded their objection to the latter have no relevance to the former). The objection, it turns out, has nothing to do with the when, but is entirely about the what: an ideological opposition to trying to dismantle racial inequalities in education -- no matter how tall or short the students may be.

Wednesday, October 06, 2021

The Constrained Constitution and the SALT Deduction

Yesterday, the 2nd Circuit rejected several states' challenge to the elimination of the "SALT" (State and Local Tax) deduction from federal income taxes (basically, allowing you to deduct state tax payments from your federal income). The elimination occurred under the Trump administration, and it was a savvy play -- it mostly affects "blue" states (which tend to have higher state taxes), and it mostly affects wealthy residents of those states (who pay the most in state and local taxes). One would not be wrong to suspect that the former concern predominated over the latter in terms of the Trump administration's logic.

Nonetheless, the Trump administration's potentially venal motives do not themselves make out a constitutional violation, and the Second Circuit here found none. That was so even though, as Jonathan Adler observed, from a purely partisan perspective the states drew a very favorable panel. It didn't matter -- there's no basis in the constitution for why any particular state is entitled to a particular tax regime, so the blue states lose.

I actually am, however, a bit curious as to how conservative legal observers explain this outcome by liberal justices. We often here that only conservative-style originalism serves to "constrain" judges and prevent them from simply voting their partisan preferences. Yet these judges are not conservatives and, it seems fair to assume, were likely not fans of the Trump administration's gambit here. So what caused them to nonetheless reject the suit? The answer has to be something that constrains liberal judges from merely voting their policy preferences (at least some of the time) -- but the originalist/textualist apologia typically denies that said "something" can exist.

Monday, October 04, 2021

Billions Thoughts

But not quite billions of thoughts. Anyway, some spoilers for Billions, which just wrapped its (split) season five today.

  • The terms "pro-" and "antagonist" don't mean much on Billions, but whatever Mike Prince was this season -- foil? -- he never quite sold me. Rebecca Cantu was better. I do think, however, that Prince was well set up to be a good antagonist (fine, I'll use it) next season. Him trying to operate the remainder of (the former) Axe Capital from inside the belly of the beast is at least a new plot beat.
  • Didn't fully catch how it was the Wags beat his criminal rap (yes, they said he never signed the paperwork -- but was that just made up? Did they forge something? It seems everyone just gave up kind of quickly on that).
  • Not quite sure I get what they're going with re: Taylor's character arc. Is the idea that they're struggling to hold onto their humanity? Their idealism? Why did they suddenly seem so torn up about (seemingly) successfully taking down Axe? I don't know. The belated advice to Rian ("run") didn't really land for me, and Rian herself isn't a well-developed-enough character for it to matter that she seemingly decided not to "run".
  • Billions sometimes has a habit of seemingly forcing characters off the show suddenly and without much logic. See, e.g., Sara and Lauren -- both of whom I consider to be regrettable departures. (And yet, somehow, Spyros survives).
  • On that note: if Dollar Bill and Mafee "teaming up" and leaving Axe Capital means next season will involve the exciting side adventures of Bill and Mafee (and hopefully Bonnie too), I'm all for it. If it means they're being written off the show, I'm absolutely furious. Mafee is my favorite! I just want him to be happy.
  • I know we checked in on Axe's kids at boarding school earlier in the season (when Axe got so caught up in his own head about "winning" that he unknowingly but brutally snuffed out the faint speck of conscience in his own son), but man are they ever an after thought. At least Chuck's daughter got a nice moment in the omelette scene. I actually think this show is worse without Lara.
  • As a law professor, I hated -- hated -- everything involving the law teaching and law students at Yale. Let us speak of it no more.
  • I'm torn on the Axe/Wendy romance, and it's the opposite of what typically happens in shows like this. Normally, a show with this much interaction between a male and female lead eventually tries to force a will they/won't they, even if there isn't real chemistry between them. Here, even though I objectively prefer and find genuinely interesting their deep platonic/professional bond, there's undeniable chemistry between Axe and Wendy -- the show wasn't just pulling it out of air.
  • Still waiting on a truly pure, juicy, Sacker storyline.
All in all, Billions remains one of my favorite shows on television right now, and I can't wait for the quick turnaround to season six (January 2022)!

Thursday, September 30, 2021

Softcore Holocaust Denial is the Best Form of Allyship, Say Republicans

The eminent Holocaust historian Deborah Lipstadt introduced a very useful term into our lexicon when she spoke about "softcore Holocaust denial". Regular, or hardcore, Holocaust denial, is exactly what it sounds like: it claims the Holocaust didn't happen, period. Softcore Holocaust denial, by contrast, concedes that something bad happened, but seeks to minimize it. The most typical form of softcore denial is by spurious analogies -- whenever some minor public inconvenience (or even significant injustice that nonetheless falls far short of systematic genocide) is asserted to be "just like the Gestapo" or "the new Nazism", that's softcore Holocaust denial. 

Softcore Holocaust denial a form of denial because it contests and undermines the actual gravity of what happened. It has to, because once actually engages unflinchingly with the Holocaust was it is impossible to compare it to being insulted on Twitter or having your speech canceled at a public university. These things may be wrong,* but they are not the Holocaust, and the only way to allege they are the Holocaust is to willfully deny what the Holocaust actually was. Of course, the whole purpose behind softcore denialism typically is to preserve and appropriate the emotive gravity of the Holocaust and transport it to a different political context which cannot, on its own two feet, generate such weighty affect. The end result is to sap the Holocaust of its moral force, since it is now reduced to, at "worst", the sort of ordinary trials and tribulations that are a regular part of many people's political experience. But since softcore denialists are usually non-Jews, this is a "cost" they are more than willing to accept.

All of this is a run up to events in Anchorage, Alaska, where we had another iteration of 2021's most popular form of softcore denialism: comparing mask mandates and vaccination policies to the Nuremberg laws. As always, Jewish groups are unhappy to see this utterly spurious and outrageous comparison. And also as always, Republican politicians are defending themselves by lecturing Jews that actually they're doing us a solid:
“We’ve referenced the Star of David quite a bit here tonight, but there was a formal message that came out within Jewish culture about that and the message was ‘Never again,’” [Anchorage Mayor Dave Bronson\ said. “That’s an ethos. And that’s what that star really means is, ‘We will not forget, this will never happen again, and I think us borrowing that from them is actually a credit to them.”

This is the face of modern antisemitism: gratuitously insulting Jews, then when called on it explaining that the insult actually is the product of the fondest of friendship. It's even worse than "I have Jewish friends" -- the antisemitic act is what supposedly establishes the friendship.

The only analogue I can think of on the left is folks who categorically deny that any form of anti-Israel discourse can be antisemitic and then respond to criticism by declaring that "what's really antisemitic is falsely conflating Israel with the Jewish people," like their denialism is doing us a great favor. The antisemitism is the allyship. It's grotesque. But one sees it more and more often, and it is positively epidemic among conservatives who simply refuse to listen to Jewish voices telling them just how offensive it is to compare COVID restrictions to Nazism.

* Of course, a huge swath of what is regularly compared to the Holocaust are not even wrongs of lesser gravity, but not wrongs at all -- COVID restrictions being a prime example.