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.