Monday, November 29, 2021

The Sovereign's Grace, Kosher Food, and BDS at UofT

A BDS resolution passed by students at the University of Toronto's Scarborough campus is in the news, primarily because of one interesting wrinkle: it specifically addresses the matter of Kosher food sources. In particular, while the resolution sweepingly targets goods, services, and events which it deems implicated in Israeli apartheid, it offers a narrow carve-out for Kosher food products if "no alternatives are available." The specific policy language is this:
Efforts should be made to source kosher food from organizations that do not normalize Israeli apartheid. However, recognizing the limited availability of this necessity, then exceptions can be made if no alternatives are available.

The resolution was, for what it's worth, sharply criticized by the President of the University.

I do want to focus on this Kosher food issue, though, because it raises some interesting issues. The specter of the student government policing how Jewish students gain access to Jewish food -- seeking to ensure that Jews obeying the dictates of their faith do so in a way that satisfies a political litmus test set by the student union -- understandably rankles many Jews on campus (not the least because one suspects there are sharply different opinions between the student government and the median Jewish student about what it means for a food organization to "normalize Israeli apartheid"). Yet, at one level, this language was almost certainly meant as a conciliatory gesture -- an accommodation meant to alleviate burdens placed on Jewish students by the resolution by treating Kosher food options more leniently and opening the possibility of exemption. There is history here: a few years ago the UofT graduate student union made headlines for refusing to support Kosher food access on campus, on the grounds that the campaign was allegedly incompatible with BDS commitments. This was highly embarrassing for the union, which was forced to issue an apology. I strongly suspect that this provision of the new resolution was meant to avoid, or at least, ameliorate, the prospect of a repeat. I can even imagine the student union being surprised and hurt that their kind-hearted, magnanimous gesture is being thrown back in their face with such revulsion.

And yet. Often times, supporters of BDS lean so hard on the trite truism "Israel and Judaism are not synonymous" that they begin to act almost as if any connections between the two are wholly  idiosyncratic and coincidental. It can end up verging on the comical: "Israel is related to Judaism? Why, I had no idea -- in any event, that interesting factual tidbit, which never occurred to me until just now, certainly has nothing to do with anything I'm doing." But increasingly, it is becoming impossible to overlook the obvious fact that BDS commitments, interpreted expansively, necessitate significant regulation of Jewish political, social, cultural, and religious life, including aggressive and systematic policing of which Jews are okay to talk to or work with. The SunriseDC fiasco was one manifestation of this, the AMP position paper seeking to establish rules regarding when it is okay to collaborate with Jews is another. The myth that "BDS" will or perhaps even could be pursued in such a way that only incidentally and idiosyncratically affected Jews qua Jews (as opposed to "Zionists" or "settlers" or "occupiers") is collapsing.

Even if in the minds of the resolution drafters they were resolutely thinking about Zionists, Zionists, Zionists, and not Jews, Jews, Jews; there was no avoiding the reality that in practice the brunt of the impact would be felt far more in the latter capacity than in the former. Indeed, while virtually none of the entities which support BDS are in a position to impose regulatory burdens on the Israeli state, they absolutely can regulate their local Jews, and so it is the local Jewish community that in practice will predictably be the main venue through which these campaigns actually regulate conduct (I am hardly the first to note that BDS does far more to injure diaspora Jews than it does to harm Israel in any concrete way, let alone motivate Israel to alter its conduct). Who is most likely to have a speaker, or a food product, or a program, that potentially runs afoul of the guidelines (and who is most likely to have their speakers/foods/programs checked and rechecked and placed under the finest microscope to ensure they satisfy the relevant political litmus tests)? It's the local Jewish groups (and not just on matters that directly relate to Israel, either). The effect of these mandates is to place Jewish groups under constant, humiliating surveillance and interrogation to ensure they're not stepping out of line ("Wanna support the miners--what's your position on Zionism?" Or for a campus example, just ask Rachel Beyda). 

Critics sometimes argue that if the Jewish community in North America is that tied up with the Jewish community in Israel, that's an "us" problem. But it is simply not reasonable or feasible to expect the Jewish community writ large to wholly disentangle itself from a place where nearly half the world's Jewish population (and well more than half of the non-European Jewish population) lives and which is central to Jewish religious worship, history, and culture -- particularly given the depth of the "disentanglement" demanded (whereby nearly any connection whatsoever is sufficient to be deemed "complicit" or "implicated"). And again, that sort of insistence on a sweeping and dare I say revolutionary reorganization of Jewish public life is necessarily one that represents a "significant regulation of Jewish political, social, cultural, and religious" affairs. Even if one supports that revolution, and even one supports it so fervently that one is fine with it taking place via external non-Jewish compulsion, at the very least those making this demand cannot plausibly hold to the comforting myth that "we're not talking about Jews". They are, inescapably, and Jews are not doing anything unfair or unreasonable in calling it what it is (a few proponents of the revolution -- some Jewish, some not -- are open in saying "yes, we are targeting the Jews for compulsion because the Jews need and deserve to be compelled", and at the very least I appreciate the honesty).

History provides many examples of edicts placed upon the public whose effects would be to make Jewish public life difficult or potentially impossible. And sometimes, the sovereign in his grace would agree to the possibility of dispensation or exemption for Jews, or at least worthy Jews or sufficiently well-connected Jews, or for the Jews who impressed him and garnered his favor. Much of Jewish political history has been the project of begging for the establishment of these exemptions, begging for them to actually be effectuated, and then begging for them not to be removed or retired when the sovereign's mood changed. And on the one hand, the prospect of these exemptions existing is better than them not being available at all. On the other hand, their presence really hammered home the degree to which the Jews were at the mercy of the sovereign's whim; it illustrated in stark tones who was the law-maker and who was the supplicant subject.

The UofT clause on Kosher food is heir to this tradition. The broad sweep of the resolution risks making Jewish qua Jewish life on campus intolerable (there is a reason why the Nexus definition of antisemitism specifically includes as a species of antisemitism "conditions that discriminate against Jews and impede their ability to participate as equals in political, religious, cultural, economic, or social life."). The law-makers in their beneficence thus offer the possibility of an exemption, if those seeking it come with the right amount of supplication and prove their worthiness by demonstrating to the student union's satisfaction that there is absolutely no "alternative". How gracious! But in its grace, it actually lays bare something previously obscured. In so many words, what the student union is doing is developing an official bureaucratic apparatus whose job specifically is to regulate and oversee Jewish religious life -- with no question regarding who ultimately holds the power and who comes in as a mere petitioner.

Ironically, when there was no exemption at all it would be perhaps easier to cling longer to the myth that the impact on Jews qua Jews is mere idiosyncratic coincidence. The drafters surely would concede that there might be some people who might happen to be inconvenienced by the resolution and it just so may happen that some number of them (who can really say how many) might be Jewish -- but such is life! These things happen! Here, by contrast, the prior history of the Kosher food issue meant that the student union here finally had to admit to itself "yes, thinking about Israel and Zionism means also thinking about Jews" (lack of definitional identity notwithstanding). And in doing so, and in actually being somewhat responsive to that thought, it made visible the actual power dynamics in play that perhaps previously could be denied.


Unknown said...

HI David! amazing article!

Do you have a piece on gutted anti-discrimination motion from the same event?

John DoePe said...

This is the best take I've seen on this issue.

Abbott Katz said...

Very well said. Do the BDS sectarians next plan a dorm-to-dorm search, vetting, and impounding of Israeli-produced Kosher food purchased by UT students?

matt said...

This could be the dumbest article I have ever read. First, you worry that about antisemitism with Israel, which is equating jews with Israel but then tell bds that you cannot separate Judaism and Israel because a large percentage of the Jewish community is connected towards Israel. Your focus is Kosher food, not wanting to be sold in occupied territories? saying it should not be sourced from occupied is different than saying we don't want kosher foods because we don't like Jewish culture. It is clearly not antiemetic. Then your other claim is David Miller, which is idiotic because there is multiple investigations showing he is cleared from antisemitism but let's not get those facts to get in the way. Second "the AMP's Report on Working with Zionist Organizations", it talks about Jewish organizations that are either good to work based on their lack of support for a racist aparthied regime, that is bad thing now?

Akiva said...

Do you tell other minorities what they can and can't find offensive, or only Jews?

Ben said...

Mutt did impressive work here, somehow taking over 100 words and not making a single valid point, but at least his prose was turgid. When a troll combines lying, stupidity, irrelevant examples, and crap grammar, we've got something special. But I will leave Mutt with one helpful hint: if you want to kiss David Miller's ass, try to find a better source of his "innocence" than Asa Wistanley and a better lodestone than the DOA Jerusalem Declaration. Now please leave and never come back here.

matt said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
matt said...

I actually have Ben, you cant even spell my name right. You haven't disputed my argument about that all they want is to source from non apartheid sources. Secondly you have not disputed the fact that he is using antisemitic logic with claiming that the Jewish community is deeply connected to an apartheid regime which is quiet problematic. Because if they have deep connection towards Israel, that means that they are connected to a regime that is committing ethnic cleansing. Guess you didn't have an argument Ben

Mismos said...

Amazing article shining a light

Ben said...

Stand by everything I wrote earlier, including a more accurate description of the POS troll who came here to rub Ass-a's picture all of his over his face. Also, you're right Mismos. David gets it right, that's why I read everything he writes.