Wednesday, March 17, 2021

The Nexus in the Shadow of IHRA

For over a year now, I've been part of a task force (known as "Nexus") seeking to provide greater guidance on the intersection of antisemitism and discourse about Israel. Our first major document went public this week, offering a definition of antisemitism and principles guiding when discourse about Israel is, and is not, antisemitic. It's already getting some coverage.

I'm very proud of what we in the task force put together. It was very much a long labor, but the document we produced is one that I think could be of great service in providing badly-needed guidance and support to those concerned about antisemitism and invested in the fight against it. One thing the work especially underscored for me was the challenge of a document "written by committee", which always will entail compromises and elisions that differ from what I would have written as a solo author; this means there will inevitably be particular word choices or phrasings that can be subjected to potshots as unideally put. But I've realized that's baked into the cake of writing a document that's designed to represent a group consensus; it's not going to be avoidable. It certainly gave me considerable more empathy for other contentious documents written by collectivities (such as, say, the California Ethnic Studies model curriculum).

Perhaps unsurprisingly, but to my mind unfortunately, much of the early commentary on the Nexus document places it in competition with the venerable IHRA antisemitism definition. Those who dislike IHRA were quick to cheer the Nexus document as a challenger, those who like IHRA were immediately suspicious that our goal was to kneecap IHRA. Yet I can honestly say that IHRA was not at the forefront of our minds when we began this project. To the extent the Nexus document has a relation to IHRA, I agree with Jonathan Jacoby (chair of the task force) when he described IHRA as the mishnah and Nexus as the gemara. We're providing commentary and clarity; a complement, not a replacement.

IHRA, of course, began as a working tool to aid data collectors in documenting instances of antisemitic activity in European countries. It has since been pressed into far more contentious service, not because it was designed to shoulder that burden, but because it was the only tool available. In doing so, IHRA began to take on significant symbolic weight, as support and opposition began to reflect a broader orientation towards antisemitism and its relationship with Israel. To support IHRA was to affirm that antisemitism was a serious problem and that criticism of Israel often veered into antisemitic territory. To oppose IHRA was to hold that legitimate criticism of Israel was often falsely squelched by being labeled antisemitic and that much of the discourse about antisemitism was overblown. Support for and opposition to IHRA rapidly coalesced around the symbolic dimension, with little investigation into whether IHRA-qua-IHRA actually was contributing to resolving and/or exacerbating the underlying problems.

One upshot of this symbolization of IHRA is that, despite our best efforts, it's really hard to make a contribution to the space of "defining antisemitism" without it being assessed in the shadow of IHRA. I think this is very unfortunate, because IHRA was never intended to be the last word on the subject and very much should not be viewed as the last word on the subject -- an assessment which in no way requires one to think that IHRA is some monstrous force or even is a net negative. Compare the "core" antisemitism definition in IHRA with the opening of the Nexus document. Here's IHRA:

Antisemitism is a certain perception of Jews, which may be expressed as hatred toward Jews. Rhetorical and physical manifestations of antisemitism are directed toward Jewish or non-Jewish individuals and/or their property, toward Jewish community institutions and religious facilities.

I am not the first person to observe that this tells us virtually nothing. "A certain perception of Jews" -- well, which perception? This is almost useless as a means of declaring what is and is not antisemitism. Contrast the Nexus definition:

Antisemitism consists of anti-Jewish beliefs, attitudes, actions or systemic conditions. It includes negative beliefs and feelings about Jews, hostile behavior directed against Jews (because they are Jews), and conditions that discriminate against Jews and significantly impede their ability to participate as equals in political, religious, cultural, economic, or social life.

This is far more detailed and precise than the IHRA definition. It's not that there's no room for argument about whether a given activity, e.g., constitutes an "anti-Jewish belief". But it certainly provides more guidance than IHRA's "a certain perception". And one might notice that in important respects the Nexus definition is more expansive than IHRA's, in that we do not look only to "perceptions" of Jews but also tangible conditions that might be implemented regardless of whether the instigating actor holds any particular "perception" of the Jewish people.

For example, consider the recent decision in the EU judiciary permitting bans on Kosher slaughter. This was roundly condemned by Jewish organizations worldwide, but one would struggle mightily to label it "antisemitic" under the IHRA definition -- it doesn't fall under any of the illustrative examples, and it doesn't seem to stem from any particular "perception" of Jews. By contrast, even though the Nexus document is intentionally focused primarily on the Israel case, our definition explains why such bans could be validly labeled antisemitic -- they would "significantly impede [our] ability to participate as equals in political, religious, cultural, economic, or social life." I don't think we're betraying IHRA's spirit to make this extension, but it is a good thing for Jews that this additional gloss now exists.

The other major frame we've seen applied to the Nexus document is that it is more permissive of "anti-Israel" criticism than IHRA is. I don't know if that's necessarily the case -- I think again one could view the Nexus document as providing commentary and exposition upon IHRA's own declarations that "criticism of Israel similar to that leveled against any other country cannot be regarded as antisemitic" and that even its illustrative examples are merely cases which "could, taking into account the overall context" be antisemitic. But it certainly is the case that we are more explicit than IHRA is in labeling certain forms of anti-Israel activity (including some activity that might be objectionable on other bases) not antisemitic.

One of our guiding principles here, albeit not expressly stated, is that we didn't want Israel-only "one offs" in the understanding of antisemitism.  A given activity, practice, trope, etc., neither becomes nor ceases to be antisemitic just because it is applied against Israel. Instead, "Whether speech or conduct about Zionism and Israel is antisemitic should be based on the standards for speech or conduct that apply to antisemitic behavior in general." IHRA, for instance, has as one of its examples comparing Israel or Israeli policy to Nazism. If this is antisemitic, under the Nexus framework it should only be because comparing Jews or Jewish entities to Nazism generally is antisemitic -- including, for example, calling liberal Jews "kapos" or "Nazi collaborators". For my part, I'm okay with that extension; I think it generally (and not just in the Israel case) raises a pretty glaring antisemitic red flag to call a Jewish actor a Nazi. But ensuring that the rule is even-handed prevents opportunistic usage, and that's a good thing -- people who want to continue calling liberal Jews kapos should as a consequence be forced to sacrifice their ability to condemn Israel-Nazi comparisons as antisemitic.

A similar motivation explains our gloss on the issue of "double-standards". We agree that treating Israel differently than other nations, "using standards different than those applied to other countries," is a form of antisemitism. But we also say that the mere fact that a given group focuses more on Israel than on other countries does not suffice to prove a "double-standard." Again, this is because the latter requirement would be impossible to apply even-handedly. AIPAC, ZOA, NGO Monitor, APN, Adalah, the American Task Force on Palestine -- all of these focus on Israel more than other countries, and that's their prerogative. It is neither weird nor sinister for a Jewish or Palestinian organization to devote more attention to human rights issues in Israel compared to China or the Crimea or Zimbabwe, and nobody actually thinks otherwise. One can, I think, fairly contrast the case of AIPAC or Adalah with, say, the UNHRC -- a body which would struggle to articulate a neutral reason for focusing overwhelmingly on Israel but does so anyway. There the antisemitism objection carries significantly more force. Again, the Nexus document provides additional gloss and detail that can help fairly instantiate the IHRA rule, avoiding opportunistic deployments where the mere fact that a Palestinian organization is talking predominantly about Palestinian issues is held out as an antisemitic "double-standard".

Finally, while the nexus between Israel and antisemitism often focuses predominantly on "left" critiques, it was important for us to articulate practices on the right with relation to Israel which have subjected many Jews to antisemitic abuse or harassment. It is antisemitic, we said, to "Denigrat[e] or deny[] the Jewish identity of certain Jews because they are perceived as holding the 'wrong' position (whether too critical or too favorable) on Israel." This is something that many liberal Jews (and in particular many Jews of color) have experienced, sometimes from other Jews, often from non-Jews, and it absolutely should be viewed as a form of antisemitism. Again, this is a principle that can and should be applied even-handedly and not as an Israel-only one-off. There certainly are cases where Jews have seen their identities challenged or deemed "fake" because they're allegedly too pro-Israel, and that should be viewed as antisemitism (and/or racist) as well; likewise, there are instances where Jews are alleged to be "fake" Jews because of their "wrong" political opinions on issues that have nothing to do with Israel -- I'm fine with the extension to that context too. Non-Jews, in particular, have no business policing the identities of Jews based on their (usually wrong and inevitably blinkered) opinion about what ideology Jews "should" have. Being clear on this point helps remedy a recurrent problem in too much antisemitism discourse -- rules which have only a left-wing application. If it's wrong to subject Jews to purity tests to demonstrate their "left" enough, it's wrong to subject Jews to such tests to ensure they're not too far left.

All of this, hopefully, shows how the Nexus document can be useful in the fight against antisemitism. We did not intercede in order to kneecap IHRA, but neither do we think IHRA is so comprehensive to be the last word. We set out to provide greater detail and context in assisting persons of good faith in navigating the intersection of Israel discourse and antisemitism, and I think we've made a valuable contribution. Of course, our document shouldn't be the last word either -- but it does, I think, move the conversational ball forward.

Sunday, March 14, 2021

The Knife's Edge of Radicalization

Something I've noticed recently in the Jewish social media space particularly -- though I suspect it's present elsewhere too -- is the arbitrariness of a form of radicalization-by-rejection. Here's what I mean (and I'll use the Jewish case as my example):

Often times, one sees people who start off with relatively reasonable, mainline positions, who become increasingly strident and radicalized as a result of writing something that sets off the terrible, toxic, troll-ish wing of our community. It's a feedback loop: they are attacked relentlessly, which makes them view the side that's attacking them with greater hostility, which encourages them to relate to that side even more pugnaciously, which encourages still more attacks, until we end up in a state of full-on hostility.

One place you often see this is persons who criticize racism in the Jewish community. If their post gets any attention at all, they will invariably experience a vicious, terrible pile-on by the nastiest elements of the Jewish right, who will attack them as fake Jews, as Farrakhan-esque, as anti-Zionists (this will occur even if their critique doesn't mention Israel at all). Another place one sees it is with collegiate Jewish students who attack Jewish exclusion in progressive spaces; these persons will often find themselves savagely assailed by the trolly elements of the Jewish left, accusing them of being fascists, colonizers, and Israeli stooges (again, this will be true regardless of whether the criticism says anything significant about supporting any particular Israeli policy).

In either case, once the controversy becomes recognized as the latest front in the forever-war between the terribles on the Jewish right and the terribles on the Jewish left, everyone will quickly assume their assigned places -- attacking the new "enemy" or defending the new "comrade". And since people naturally dislike being attacked and like being supported, the result is that a person who started in a perfectly normal and mainline position will often quickly find themselves radicalized in whichever direction has not been loudly comparing them to pond scum for weeks on end. This is why one ends up seeing folks go very quickly from, say, somewhat ambivalent liberal Zionist to "FROM THE RIVER TO THE SEA" in the space of maybe just a few weeks; or on the other side go from "still with her"-style Democrat to "Critical Race Theory is an existential threat to Western Civilization!" in a similar time frame. It's a function of recoiling from who hates you, and liking the people who like you. Nothing especially complicated about it.

The thing is, though, that for persons who start in relatively reasonable, mainline positions, there's a sort of arbitrariness as to which direction they go. Many of the people I have in mind here, at the proverbial T1, probably could have written a post or essay or tweet that tweaked off either side. They would be critical of racism in the Jewish community and they'd be sensitive of Jewish exclusion in campus spaces; they'd call Netanyahu a bigot and they'd say SJP had made their campus a hostile environment. Which comment sets off the landslide is, more or less, a coin flip. Any one of them could have easily gone either way, just depending on for whom they become the symbol of 20 minutes hours days of hate. But perched on the knife's edge, it takes a lot of discipline to avoid falling in one direction or the other.