Tuesday, February 09, 2021

How To Meet With the Jewish Community

Contrast two JTA stories of Republican congresspersons who had recently antagonized, or at least raised the eyebrows of, the Jewish community.

The first is Rep. Madison Cawthorn (R-NC), whose lowlights include a slightly-too-excited trip to see Hitler's bunker, appropriation of a poem about the Holocaust, a stated desire to convert Jews to Christianity, and, of course, inciting an insurrection against American democracy. The story is titled "Following a string of controversies, Madison Cawthorn meets with his Jewish constituents", and details the variety of Jewish community members whom he met with, including a local synagogue director,  an area pulpit rabbi, a Jewish educator, the executive director of a Jewish community center and a Jewish conservative activist. A diverse and seemingly plausibly representative bunch. I'm not saying that I think the meeting was or wasn't productive, or that it makes Cawthorn an ally of the Jews. But if you're going to reach out to the Jewish community after a controversy or scandal, this seems roughly like the way to do it.

Compare that with our second contestant, Rep. Mary Miller (R-IL), who gained notoriety for saying "Hitler was right on one thing" just before the Capitol insurrection. The title of this story is "Congresswoman who said ‘Hitler was right on one thing’ meets with rabbis", and my assumption on reading that headline was that she was meeting with local rabbis from synagogues in her district. But I was mistaken: the meeting was actually with representatives from the "Coalition for Jewish Values", a fringe right-wing group that has long carried water for the GOP. They had no particular connection to her district or the Jews who lived within it; the pull quote they offered as an apologetic for Rep. Miller came from a Rabbi residing in Florida.

This is most certainly not how one "meets with the Jewish community." It is the right-wing equivalent of a Democratic politico addressing concerns of antisemitism via a meeting with JVP. In either case, the clear ambition is not to actually hear the perspective of the Jews one represents, but rather to find some Jews who already agree with you and will offer themselves as shields against the communal majority. I have written at length as to why this sort of tokenizing move is an ethical no-no -- for both the tokenizer and the tokenized -- and I reiterate it here. Nobody should be fooled by what Rep. Miller is trying to pull here (and I wish the JTA would update their headline so that it doesn't have the potential to mislead).

(And, by the same token, kudos to Rep. Cawthorn for doing it right. The tokenization move is too easy and one sees it too often, and so while I don't want to give too much praise for doing the bare minimum, I do feel compelled to give at least a tip of the cap to him for avoiding the easiest dodge available).

Monday, February 08, 2021

What are the GOP's COVID Relief Ideas?

We keep on hearing complaints from Republicans about how the COVID relief bill needs to be "bipartisan". For my part, I'm all in favor of bipartisanship. I welcome any and all Republicans to vote for the COVID relief bill that Democrats bring to the floor.

But in all seriousness, I have no intrinsic objection to incorporating Republican ideas into the COVID relief bill. The problem is I don't know what ideas Republicans have. So far, their main ask has been to request that the bill do less to help fewer people. That's not an idea, that's a contraction of the Democrats' idea. Does the GOP have any positive suggestions for things that could improve the bill?

The one actual policy idea I recall Republicans proposing in the past is tort immunity for businesses that reopen during the pandemic. That's an idea. It's a profoundly terrible idea, and Democrats absolutely should not take them up on it, but it is at least an idea -- it is not just the negation of a Democratic idea.

Do they have any others? Preferably, ones better than "businesses should be allowed to murder their employees with impunity"? Or is the "party of ideas" stuck at preferring more misery over less?

Watching the Mainstream Jewish Community Stand Up to Lies About Ethnic Studies

When I saw Tablet Magazine had published a rapidly-going-viral article on the California Ethnic Studies curriculum, I felt a despairing sense of deja vu. I had already seen some other hit jobs on the curriculum floating around the Jewish media, and I knew that many of the claims undergirding the attacks were misleading if not false. Yet I assumed we were in for another scenario where the bad faith right-wing outrage machine, capitalizing on legitimate Jewish fears but also stretching way beyond them, would entirely drive the conversation about the curriculum and lead to unnecessary and damaging friction that would entirely blow up the hard work so many in the Jewish community had put in to ensure that Ethnic Studies fairly represented Jews.

You see, in the past when I'd found myself in predicting one of these trainwrecks from afar, I'd contact someone in the establishment Jewish community and plead with them to fire back. Don't let the bad faith actors occupy the field, don't let them control the narrative, don't let them poison the discourse without challenge. And over and over again, the response I got from the folks I talked to was "we don't want to give them any oxygen." The standard tactic in the face of these conservative narratives was to adopt an above-it-all posture of silence. It purported to be a stance of dignity -- not deigning to respond to such obvious falsehoods. In reality, it was an ostrich defense -- hoping that if they buried their heads in the sand, the problem would go away on its own.

And so when I sent out my now ritual missives on this issue; pleading with a leader of one of the organizations to push back against the Tablet narrative racing around the internet, I didn't expect much. And I wasn't surprised when the first response I got back was an instinct to just let it lie. The person I spoke with was worried that more attention might spark still greater backlash, threatening the incredible advances they had already made. 

I argued that silence was more likely to see those advances disappear -- to the extent they were added in deference to the Jewish community, if the perception is that the Jewish community is still unhappy, that doesn't exactly assist the credibility of those Jewish organizations who had been their advocates. More broadly, the folks in the California education system who had made these changes needed to know that the reward for working with concerned Jewish organizations wouldn't be to be left high and dry as soon as there was pushback. The last lesson we want someone to draw is that it's useless to try and assuage Jewish communal concerns because even if you do work with prominent community members you'll still come in for attacks and your erstwhile partners won't have your back.

And wouldn't you know it -- she listened. And others in the Jewish community seemed to have listened to.

It has been striking to see over the past week just how decisively the mainstream Jewish community has rallied against attacks from the communal right on the Ethnic Studies curriculum. Tye Gregory of the San Francisco JCRC had an early editorial out defending the latest draft. It was swiftly followed by columns by Sarah Levin of JIMENA, Hen Mazzig, and JPAC, all blasting the "misinformation" and "misrepresentations" being promulgated about the curriculum. A huge coalition of Jewish establishment heavyweights -- the ADL, AJC, Holocaust Museum, even StandWithUs -- released a united statement urging support for the Ethnic Studies curriculum and condemning bad faith attacks.

I haven't seen anything like it. And it's made a huge difference. The Tablet article's author has been thrown on the defensive, with a weak authors' note appended to the piece that does less to address the substantive criticisms than it does make evident just how effective the pushback has been. In the space of a few days, the article has gone from "the story" in the Jewish press (per Bari Weiss) to almost uniformly discredited. It seems obvious to me that the folks who had been pressing the histrionics about the Ethnic Studies have been taken a bit aback. And why shouldn't they? They're use to peddling this sort of nonsense without any resistance. This was new for them.

I hope it is the start of a trend. I hope it is the start of a more muscular Jewish center, one that knows that it cannot make the problem of right-wing zealots go away just by wishing it so. We'll see if the lesson takes. But boy, has it been nice to see our side throw some elbows of our own for a change.