Friday, June 25, 2021

Chauvin Sentenced to 22.5 Years

Former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin has been sentenced to 22.5 years in prison for the murder of George Floyd.

No sentence can bring George Floyd back to life, and hence no sentence can in itself create justice. Moreover, no sentence of Derek Chauvin can, in itself, reform the structures of policing that enabled George Floyd's murder. A single sentence, after the fact, does not change anything.

Nonetheless, the criminal sentence is important -- it is important for providing some measure of closure to Floyd's family, it is important as a signal of the seriousness with which we take crimes of this nature, and it is important as a means of communicating to other officers that this sort of behavior will be met with significant consequences. Chauvin faced a maximum of forty years; he asked for probation. The guidelines for an offender without a previous record would have been 12-15 years, but as the sentencing judge noted there were aggravating factors in this case.

Paul Butler said that taking all of that into account, an 18 year sentence struck him as appropriate. Twenty-two and a half years is more than that, but in the same ballpark. It strikes me as appropriate, proportional, and -- as far as can be achieved in unjust circumstances -- just. But my opinion is not especially important, so my main hope is that Floyd's family and community feel the same.

Wednesday, June 23, 2021

The Coda to the Israeli-American Food Truck Fiasco

(Previous posts here and here)

Eat Up the Borders, which ignited a firestorm of criticism after uninviting an Israeli-American immigrant food truck from its festival, has issued an apology.

It is, I think, a good apology. It provides relevant context, while making absolutely clear that they own their mistake and affirming their absolute intention to keep working with Moshava Philly in the future. While the apology is primarily -- an appropriately -- directed at Moshava and the Jewish community, it also at one point extends its apology to "the Jewish and Palestinian communities." I've seen some people push on this -- why the apology to Palestinians? -- but I don't have any particular problem. Eat Up the Borders made its own mistake, and yet Palestinians are having it imputed to them. To the extent Eat Up the Borders dragged them into a mess of their own creation, it's fine to apologize for that.

More broadly: apologies are important, and we should be encouraging Eat Up the Borders for doing so here. It's hard to apologize, and harder still when you know that many won't accept the apology and many others will be furious that one deigned to apologize at all. Sometimes it's paradoxically more comfortable sitting with obvious, outright antisemitism -- there is a weird sense of relief in finding a situation where everyone knows this was not okay, and there is the temptation to continue sitting in that comfortable position of righteous anger than to transition to the far more precarious, vulnerable, and uncertain posture of trying to grow forward. 

This is a temptation that must be resisted. If we want people to apologize and work to do better, one needs to respond favorably when they earnestly try to do so. Positive reinforcement is good! And this, I'd note, has been the consistent tone taken by Moshava Philly, which has been emphatic that likes Eat Up the Borders, thinks they do good work, wants to continue working with them, and thinks this was a mistake they'll learn and grow from. If one refuses to allow for that possibility, one cannot hold oneself out as an ally to Moshava Philly.

In other thoughts: It was notable that, once this story broke into the mainstream, one spotted very few defenders of the decision to expel Moshava Philly. Obviously, they exist and one could find them if one looked, but the usual suspects remained pretty quiet and the slightly-less usual suspects tended to use this as a case of "here's an example of where a 'boycott' goes too far." So that's notable. 

Those who did come out in defense of the expulsion -- JVP's Swarthmore branch was probably the highest-profile case I saw -- really did a sterling job of demonstrating how BDS, at least for that camp of fundamentalist, is about objecting to Israelis existing in any form or capacity. Eater Philadelphia got a quote -- one of the first I've seen -- from one of the persons who initially put pressure on the festival to cut ties with Moshava Philly based on the view that its food was "appropriated Palestinian food that they’re marketing as Israeli food" and therefore "contributes to the marginalization and erasure of Palestinian culture" (as Ron Kampeas notes, when it comes to the food in question, this is both historically illiterate and erasive of Middle Eastern Jewish history).

But the flailing effort to find something -- anything -- that supposedly rendeered their targeting of Moshava Philly something more than just naked national origin discrimination made them look more ridiculous than righteous. A popular move was to claim that "moshava" means "settlement" (it means something like "small village", which, yes, most thesauruses would say is a synonym for "settlement", but not in the sense referred to here). Others poured over social media to find basic statements of pride in being Israeli or love of their country to present as mortal sins (Manny's in San Francisco endured a similar strategy). One "collective", for example, made the shocking discovery that a product that Moshava Philly sold had its origin in a farm which the proprietor began working on "illegally" in 1993 (the intended implication being that it was from an illegal West Bank settlement). Even that six-degrees-of-Kevin-Bacon tag fell apart when it was discovered that the farm in question was in pre-48 Israel (who knew that BDSers had so much respect for Israeli property law!), at which point they showed their whole self by declaring flatly that "It’s all a settlement: Tel Aviv is a settlement just like Havot Ma’on, or Kiryat Arba." So yeah, that's who we're dealing with.

Ultimately, this story ends on an optimistic note. The festival apologized. The promise to keep working with Moshava Philly was secured, and it appears neither grudging nor coerced. Moshava Philly has been very vocal about how humbled they've been from the outpouring of support they've received. Few, if any, mainstream actors did anything but say "this was wrong". Those are all good things. We can be happy about those good things, and work to build on them -- and it looks like both Moshava Philly and Eat Up the Borders are committed to doing so.

A Buffalo Socialist in the Heart of America

In a significant upset, self-described socialist candidate India Walton has dethroned incumbent Buffalo mayor Byron Brown in the Democratic primary, which makes her almost a shoo-in for the mayor's seat next election. The victory would make Walton the first socialist mayor of a major American city in sixty years.

Occurring on the same election day where Eric Adams looks likely to win the Democratic primary for mayor of New York City, this will certainly spark some chatter about where the future of left-wing politics lies in America. Upstate New York -- the old rust belt -- is a Democratic Socialist's fantasy of where they most want to be competitive, but historically haven't made much inroads compared to their success in upscale, wealthy areas like suburban Maryland. The dissonance between where they were winning and where their ideology says they should be winning was taking a toll, so this probably feels really good for them. It does mean the rest of us probably need to brace for another flurry of "socialist policies can win in the heartland" takes -- but listen, as skeptical as I remain, the one thing which can give that old tune new life is actually winning elections. So they've earned the right to drop another nickel into the jukebox.

In more immediate terms, I know virtually nothing about Walton, or Brown, or Buffalo. But in my uninformed opinion -- and what is the internet for if not uninformed opinions? -- Buffalo is the perfect place to try out a socialist as a mayor. It's a big enough city that one actually has to govern it and engage with diverse stakeholders rather than just grandstand, and it's far enough from the glare of national attention that Walton should be able to do her job more or less as a normal mayor without constant spotlight. That isn't to say she won't face opposition or pushback from various constituencies and power-brokers -- that's part of local politics, and navigating those shoals is part of what it means to be a success at local politics. But it's a good test case. Laboratories of democracy and all that.

So congratulations to Ms. Walton -- I look forward to seeing what you accomplish in your tenure!

Monday, June 21, 2021

What the Israeli-American Food Truck Fiasco Tells Us About (Some) BDSers

Briefly following up on the saga of the Israel-American food truck, and in particular JVP Swarthmore's position that expelling the truck from an immigrant food festival is a righteous example of BDS in action, I want to return to something I wrote a few years back about none other than Natalie Portman. In 2018, Portman refuses to travel to accept her award of the Genesis Prize in Israel because doing so would involve sharing a platform with Bibi Netanyahu. At the same time, she emphatically rejected that she was endorsing BDS, and affirmed her commitment to continue engaging with other Israeli voices and institutions.

Many pro-BDS persons nonetheless insisted that Portman -- her own avowals notwithstanding -- was in fact engaging in BDS. So (part of) my column was trying to explain why it mattered that Portman was so insistent that she was not doing so. Here's what I wrote:
It is one thing to say that a particular politician or a specific company stands beyond the pale, such that they cannot be productively engaged with until they alter their behavior. But when it is every politician, every company, every university, every artist, every film - at that point the message communicated becomes something different. 
The (well, a) problem with BDS, as a movement, is not that there is something intrinsically objectionable to not wanting to share a stage with Bibi or not purchasing a Sodastream. 
The problem is that BDS does not just cover Bibi or Sodastream. It covers the Anti-Defamation League and Jerusalem Open House and A Wider Bridge. It covers Moshe Halbertal and David Grossman and Ami Ayalon. It covers Tel Aviv University and it covers random middle schoolers who have questions about horses
It covers every Israeli company and every company that does business in Israel; it covers every Israeli movie, every Israeli actor, and every Israeli theater production.

(I didn't include perhaps the most incredible example I've seen in this ilk: complaints that a newspaper quiz that had a question about Israel's national bird was in breach of the BDS: "This includes any reference to their wildlife." But I digress.) 

Time and again BDS has shown itself to be a train that has no brakes. Vagaries about targeting "institutions, not individuals" - often only honored in the breach regardless - serve as no limit when any every institution is found guilty and any affiliation is implicating. 
Crossed with cousins like "anti-normalization" and "pinkwashing," BDS becomes a systemic and inescapable net ensnaring and excluding Israelis indiscriminately. Too often, it stretches even further and simply serves to exclude Jews-qua-Jews - anywhere, everywhere, in toto.

What's striking about the Moshava Philly fiasco is how it gives lie to so many of the purported limiting constructions of BDS that are meant to explain how it isn't simple antisemitism, xenophobia, or national origin discrimination.

  • Some argue that BDS doesn't target Israelis-qua-Israelis, only organizations which have specific ties to problematic Israeli policies and are personally implicated in wrongdoing. But nobody is arguing that Moshava Philly has such ties -- its sin is simply that it serves the food of its own proprietors.
  • Some argue that BDS is justified against all Israeli firms insofar as, by being in Israel, they are inherently acting as occupiers of Palestinian land. But Moshava Philly is, as the name suggests, in Philadelphia -- in turns out that even when Israeli Jews come to the, ahem, "real promised land" the taint still follows. It is its Israeli origin, not where it sits or does business in, that generates the contagion.
  • Some argue that BDS doesn't object to Jewish presence in modern-day Israel per se, only that which is attributable to the "Zionist invasion" (see PLO charter Art. 6). Yet the term "Moshava" refers to villages the earliest of which were established prior to the First Aliyah by a mix of immigrants and persons who were already living in the Old Yishuv. This makes it all the more striking to witness the word "Moshava", literally "village",  being re-translated to mean "settlement" or "colony" in order to present Moshava Philly as some avatar of colonization -- an ordinary word made sinister by judicious leveraging of its exotic foreignness (we've seen this before). It turns out that when push comes to shove, the projects of pre-Zionist Jews in Eretz Yisrael are going to be portrayed as foreign, colonial impositions too -- because it's Jewish existence, not policy or practice, that ultimately is sufficient to earn the label of invasion.
  • Some argue that "Israel" doesn't have a right to exist because only people, not states, have a right to exist. But here we see the view that the entire existence of an Israeli peoplehood -- even purely as culture -- is viewed as corrupt, tainted thievery, hence why the mere existence of "Israeli" food is presented as an affront. The problem, it turns out, is Israelis existing -- anywhere, anyhow, in any context. (I think even JDA would consider this antisemitic, though as always the question is whether any of its backers will actually stand up and apply the document to the case).

One thing I've said before about BDS is that, like other social movements, it will moderate as it mainstreams. People who endorse some forms of boycotts, divestments, or sanctions are a diverse group, and not all of them have any interest in these fundamentalist applications. It is wrong to say that anyone who says they won't buy wine from a West Bank settlement also necessarily endorses barring Israeli immigrant food trucks.

But we should be clear that there is a contingent -- and not a trivial one either -- that does intend to ride the train all the way to the end. For them, the train really has no brakes. And for them, their vision of BDS really is one that is incompatible with Jewish equality -- whether in Israel or abroad. We should be clear-eyed about who they are, and what they represent.

Sunday, June 20, 2021

"Safety in Solidarity" and the Israeli-American Food Truck

Yesterday, Jewish social media was roiled by the story of a Israeli-American food truck, Moshava Philly, was expelled from the "Eat Up the Borders" immigrant food truck event after reported community pressure and threats. It was a depressing story, obviously, and a story about antisemitism, also obviously. But I have a few slightly-less (I think) obvious thoughts as well.

It is, right now, unclear whether the event organizers made their decision to remove Moshava Philly because they agreed with and/or where sympathetic to those objecting to Moshava Philly's presence, or whether they regretted the decision but felt their hands were tied due to credible threats that could endanger the entire event. The evidence is mixed, but for purposes of this post I'm going to assume the latter -- partially because that seems to be Moshava Philly's interpretation, and partially because if it's the former then there isn't really much interesting-non-obvious commentary to add.

It is a depressing reality that one has to assume that an organization like Eat Up the Borders, dedicated to promoting immigrant businesses in America, has experienced or at least contemplated what would happen if there was a racist backlash to its practices. This is not an unforeseeable development, at least in broad strokes. One has to think they had an idea of what they'd do in a case like this. So the question is whether this -- removing the targeted truck -- is in accord with that idea. People are saying that Eat Up the Borders would not have reacted in the same way had the racist backlash targeted a Mexican-American truck or an Iraqi-American truck or a Chinese-American truck.

Normally, I hate that "imagine if it were X group" argument, in part because is it often acts as if it is inconceivable that there would be a backlash against any other group. To the contrary, I can absolutely imagine a scenario where a racist backlash targeted the food truck of another community; I can even imagine a situation where the backlash got so dangerous and threatening that the event organizers felt no choice but to remove them from the event. It's not implausible.

But. I do think there is something different happening here. If Eat Up the Borders was facing a racist backlash, I think under normal circumstances they would not hesitate to vocally name it as a racist backlash. It might be a backlash that temporarily defeated them, it might be one that forced them to make a decision they'd rather not make. Racists can be powerful that way. But by naming it, they would lay the foundation for a counterattack: leverage the community to rally against the racists and provide the necessary support, resources, and security to ensure that all are welcome at the event and that the racists would not win in the end.

"Safety in solidarity". That's the motto we hear -- that threats like this don't need more police, they need a community response that unifies in support to keep everyone safe and included.

Something about this case, though, apparently made turning to that idea feel untenable to Eat Up the Borders. For whatever reason, they did not have the confidence that naming this as a racist backlash would generate the sort of outpouring of solidarity that might yield safety. The core "idea" wouldn't work here. People, Jews and non-Jews alike, sense that the foundations for such solidarity have not yet entrenched themselves, at least for Jews. For Jews, there still are hang-ups and excuses and rationalizations for why solidarity can be withheld -- they're powerful, they're appropriating, they're colonizers ... the list goes on. And they know, too, that to some extent the calls for racist exclusion against Jews are coming from inside the house -- opposing this form of racist backlash isn't about standing tall against big bad bigots "out there", but involves standing up and saying no to people on the inside.

At the end of the day, Jews know that "safety in solidarity" is not, at least right now, a check we're entitled to cash. It might be different if the people who loudly promoted "safety in solidarity" as the proper Jewish response to antisemitism got loud about instances like this. If they put out the call for solidarity and got a response, that could prove otherwise -- a powerful rallying and mobilizing on behalf of Moshava Philly that would blow away the assumption that solidarity would not be forthcoming. 

But they don't. Maybe because they themselves have mixed feelings about the presence of Israeli-American immigrants -- even as those "mixed feelings", at root, cannot be disaggregated from simple antisemitism and xenophobia. If one has a problem with immigrants because of the policies of the nation they immigrated from, or because they do not express outright hatred and contempt for their home, or because one views the entire culture of that nation as irrevocably tainted and grotesque -- that's xenophobia, full stop. If nothing else, Moshava Philly represents a very clean case where all of the supposed guardrails that distinguish "anti-Israel" from "antisemitism" -- from "it's about the government, not the people" to "it's about institutions, not individuals" -- have fallen away.

But mixed feelings is not the only problem here. Even if there is no such ambivalence, even if the "safety in solidarity" crew knows without a doubt that this is hate, I suspect they're quiet because, deep down, they harbor the same doubts as everyone else about what the response to their call would be.  Even if they know this is hate, they don't know that everyone else knows it too. They know the foundation isn't there yet.

It is worth noting that the entity in this sad affair that seems most invested in actually building this foundation is ... Moshava Philly. They've committed to staying invested in this community, of reaching out to Eat Up the Borders and doing the work. I wish I could say with confidence they'll succeed. It's not guaranteed. But it's worth trying, and they deserve our support as they try to use this terrible moment to build up rather than tear down.

UPDATE: NBC Philadelphia reports two new developments I hadn't heard before. The first is that now event organizers are claiming it had a policy of only allowing an Israeli food truck if a Palestinian one was present as well (and vice versa); this time the Palestinian food truck couldn't make it so they removed the Israeli one. That's a profoundly stupid reason, and also very different from what folks on both sides had been saying yesterday.

Second, it appears now the entire festival has been canceled.

UPDATE 2x: That JVP Swarthmore -- which has "safety through solidarity" in its bio -- is enthusiastically backing the expulsion of the Israeli-American immigrant vendor as a righteous example of BDS is almost too on-brand and makes for the perfect coda to this post.