Tuesday, November 23, 2021

AMP Presents: Chicken Soup for the Zionist Infiltrator Soul

Some of you are familiar with the name David Miller, a British academic widely denounced for antisemitic conspiracy mongering from his erstwhile perch at the University of Bristol. Perhaps the most notorious, if also darkly hilarious, entry into his antisemitism portfolio was when he denounced Jews and Muslims making chicken soup together as a "Trojan horse for normalizing Zionism."

Of course Israel have sent people in to target that, to deal with that. Particularly through interfaith work … pretending Jews and Muslims working together will be an apolitical way of countering racism. No, it’s a Trojan horse for normalising Zionism in the Muslim community. We saw it in East London Mosque for example, where East London Mosque unknowingly held this project of making chicken soup with Jewish and Muslim communities coming together. This is an Israel-backed project for normalising Zionism in the Muslim communities.

More than perhaps anything else, this subjected Miller to well-deserved mockery and scorn -- the poster child for "anti-Zionist" antisemitism taken to its fanatical extreme.

Now, the organization American Muslims for Palestine put out a position paper on when it is appropriate for Muslims to collaborate with Jews that pretty much crystallizes the Miller view into a policy document.

The title of the paper is "AMP's Report on Working with Zionist Organizations", but they are otherwise quite clear that this is actually a series of litmus tests for Jewish groups, specifically -- the opening line of the document is "This memo is intended to provide the American-Muslim community with a set of criteria by which to determine whether or not to work with various Jewish organizations." 

On that question, of whether Muslims should or should not work with Jewish organizations, the answer AMP gives can be summarized as "virtually never, with virtually none of them". It concludes with a literal good Jew/bad Jew list where the former includes JVP, IfNotNow, and a couple of organizations whose memberships effectively overlap entirely with JVP/IfNotNow, and the latter includes ... well, basically everyone else -- including the ADL, AJC, Hillel, local JCRCs, and local Jewish Federations. Also sitting in the "bad" category are most local synagogues, which the report characterizes as sitting in a "gray area" -- the vast majority should probably be avoided or at most handled with a Hazmat suit, but AMP does do the favor of linking to a helpful list of JVP-approved acceptable synagogues which are "safe" to collaborate with. The list numbers about two dozen. In total. In the entire United States. Thanks, guys.

Much could be written about this document, along many dimensions. I did have to smile when I saw that they intentionally were modeling their call for exclusion on Hillel's "standards of partnership" -- well-played (and yes, this position paper does serve if nothing else as an indictment of the more fundamentalist interpretations of those guidelines). Less amusing was the insinuation -- echoing Miller -- that the "American Jewish establishment" is actually comprised of "front groups" run out of the Israeli foreign affairs ministry, an especially egregious form of antisemitism that even the JDA denounces (B.7). Finally, it was noteworthy to see AMP expressly characterize these "standards of partnership" as emanating out of and required by the BDS movement -- no longer limited to Israel itself, or members of Israeli society, now BDS guidelines surrounding "complicity" in Israeli wrongdoing serve to demand extirpation of Jewish groups in America too. Again, it was always obvious that the train has no brakes -- this was always the final destination of that particular ride.

But perhaps the most interesting part was when AMP tries to answer the question of "if these organizations are so sinister, why is it that they reach out to the Muslim community in the first place?" Here AMP really channels its internal David Miller:

There are a few reasons for [Jewish organizations'] continued attempt at collaboration--all of which involve using the Muslim community to further their own political agendas. [emphasis added]

One of the core reasons that Zionist organizations continue to engage the Muslim community is that it provides these organizations with cover for their bigotry. When accused of Islamophobia for example, they can point to previous work with the Muslim community as evidence against those claims....

In addition to providing themselves with cover, Zionist organizations use these opportunities to infiltrate the Muslim community. Doing so serves several purposes. Firstly, it allows them to pursue a policy of “containment through other means.” By having to engage with these organizations, the Muslim community’s time and resources are deployed away from more serious efforts and from the real issues, in turn preventing the community from achieving its real priorities. Additionally, by generating a conversation around topics such as Israel’s right to exist or terrorism, they’re generating a conversation that was otherwise not present and infusing the community with an agenda item that was not there in the first place--further dividing and redistributing precious resources and muddling the narrative.

[Finally], infiltration of the Muslim community gives bad actors the opportunity to work towards defusing American Muslim commitment to Palestine....

It is notable that AMP explicitly commits to the notion that these efforts at engagement are always taken to be in bad faith, done for sinister agendas and ulterior motives masked by an insincere desire for dialogue or community-building. There are no good faith initiatives that falter in the face of an allegedly incommensurable value conflict; rather, it's you know the Jews -- they're only after that one thing. It is one thing, after all, to accurately observe that persons or groups accused of bigotry will often point to prior good acts they've done vis-à-vis the harmed group as apologia or mitigation. It is quite another to suggest that Jews cynically try to stockpile a resume of good deeds as a preemptive strike to justify future wrongdoing, and that warding function is the actual motivation.

If AMP really had the courage of its convictions here, they could accommodate the prospect that many if not most of these Jewish organizations have perfectly sincere desires to develop relationships; to listen, teach, and learn from one another. The argument would be that, while these motives are themselves noble and salutary, the importance of this issue is such that redlines have to be drawn even if the result is ostracizing people who really do seem nice enough -- an unfortunate consequence of an essential political program. But AMP cannot resist the temptation to speak in terms of monsters and ogres -- a crusade against evil that establishes by definition that anyone skewered must be an evildoer, and now we do return fully to Miller's "Zionist chicken soup" outlook on life -- shrieking to anyone who will listen that the most innocent of things masks terrible, nefarious purposes. One has to think here they might have self-sabotaged: the sort of person who is inclined to believe this histrionic accounting of what the Jews are after probably wasn't racing to collaborate with Jewish organizations to begin with; the presumed target audience (of Muslims who have been working with, or are considering working with, Jewish organizations) may be less likely to find this ghoulish description resonant. 

Of course, one ambition of a paper like this is to head off the sorts of intercommunal engagements that would conclusively demonstrate the presuppositions of this paper are absurd. It is easier to justify "don't talk to the Jews" if one believes the Jews only talk to infiltrate and manipulate, and it's easier to believe Jews only talk to infiltrate and manipulate if one doesn't talk to the Jews. Conveniently self-insulating, that. In fairness, it may be that certain sorts of positions (on Israel or Palestine or Jews or whomever) may become more difficult to hold after engagement. But my view has always been that, while there is no obligation to simply agree with members of outgroups on any given issue, a position that is so fragile that it cannot even survive an encounter with Palestinians or Israelis, or Jews or Muslims, is probably not a position worth defending to begin with.

It seems clear that one thing AMP is trying to do here is mirror (what it takes to be) the Jewish model on policing Israel discourse inside the community -- closing ranks around a unified voice that is tightly bordered around anti-Zionist norms, with dissidents tarred as threats to communal unity at best, sellouts at worst. Again, the reference to Hillel's standards of partnership is not just a rhetorical gotcha. That said, the paper stands out for its extreme, uncompromising approach to relations with the Jewish community -- one shot through with antisemitic stereotyping and ultimately, if it were successfully enforced, incompatible with just and equitable relationships between our communities. If AMP is replicating anyone here, it is not even Hillel, it's ZOA.

But we should ask: is AMP's attempt to freeze out coordination and cooperation between Muslims and (nearly all) Jews is a reflection of newfound power, or is a reflection of newfound weakness? That is, is the AMP paper the result of an emboldened pro-Palestine movement that now sees the realistic opportunity to go for broke and establish new rules and norms entrenching its influence and locking out opposition? Or is it reflective of anxiety over a corroding position, a rear-guard initiative to try and hold the line on norms of belief and conduct that they see collapsing?

I can see the case for either story. The "emboldened" story would hold that the positions on Israel and Palestine AMP wants to hold are, if not predominant, then are at least now mainstream enough such that one can present and defend them in unadulterated, uncompromising form. Elements of pro-Palestinian activism which for years were simply complete non-starters -- things like BDS, advocating dissolution of Israel outright, presenting all Israelis are illegitimate colonizers -- now are slowly transitioning out of the activist hardcore and into "regular" journals, political debates, and campaigns. Whereas in years past the groups like AMP were not strong enough to be able to credibly threaten dissidents and defectors with punishment (What would the threat be? Ostracism from a fringe organization with no significant political sway?), now there is both sufficient internal unity and sufficient external influence to be able to extract actual costs, and the AMP position paper is a formal attempt at declaring that these penalties will be paid. AMP's paper is, under this view, a sign of a movement coming into its own and transitioning from fringe to at least semi-mainstream, with a new ability and desire to flex its muscles (and, perhaps, a desire to turnabout what it sees as its own unjust exclusion and marginalization for many years at the hands of the American Jewish community).

The "anxiety" story, by contrast, suggests that AMP is responding to a perceived decay in norms of unity and uniformity around revanchist anti-Zionism that they are trying to shore up. Developments like the Abraham Accords are fostering increased curiosity amongst Muslims to engage and interact with Israel on a basis that, while certainly not uncritical, is perhaps less overtly antagonistic than AMP would like. A Muslim woman was the national head of J Street U; the Muslim Leadership Initiative continues apace. Even the Lara Alqasem case, while mostly presented (correctly) as an example of attempted Israeli state repression, was also a case where the former head of a campus SJP chapter decided to enroll in a graduate program at an Israeli university (BDS supporters, while not passing up the opportunity the denounce Israeli malfeasance, also were clear in their dismay at Alqasam's flouting of BDS mandates). Much of the rhetoric in the AMP paper -- appeals to unity, concerns about losing a united front, fretting of being distracted or taken into infighting -- is the language of a group which feels like it is losing rather than gaining ground. Under these circumstances, AMP's position can be seen as a response to threat -- an attempt to retrench weakening norms which no longer were deterring "bad behavior" (much in the same way Hillel's partnership guidelines were themselves responsive to a perceived deterioration in what was previously seen as uniform Jewish student support for Zionism). 

Although these two stories seem competitive with one another, there is a sense in which they both carry some truth. Attempts to impose ideological uniformity and crackdown on dissident voices are most common in periods of transition, as old orders and understandings fizzle but new ones have not yet been fully developed. While it is true that some mechanisms for squelching dissent requires some amount of power, it also is the case that groups on the fringe can often afford to maintain ideological conformity precisely because there are no opportunity costs to doing so. One cannot give up opportunities for power or influence that weren't available to begin with, and one cannot fracture a movement that is too small to develop significant cleavages. Any small group that starts to rise in influence experiences these growing pains; there is a freedom in being tiny and insignificant which contracts rapidly once true pluralism emerges (and you can play for true stakes on the table).

Social movements, I've long argued, "moderate as they mainstream". This is a tendency that immensely frustrates the original hard core of the movement which views this moderation as a form of selling out. It is simultaneously the case that the success of the pro-Palestine movement is why we'll see more folks like Jamaal Bowman in Congress sharply criticizing Israeli policy and floating conditioning foreign aid to Israel, and the case that, when people with Jamaal Bowman's views enter in Congress, they're more likely to do things like visit Israel or vote for Iron Dome right alongside sharply criticizing policy and floating conditioning aid. As we're seeing right now with Rep. Bowman, trying to resist the pairing of the former with the latter is why one sees such aggressive efforts to slam the door and draw the redline. But again, this dynamic trades on both increased power and increased weakness: power in that one's views matter (politically speaking) to mainstream actors in a way that they didn't in years past; weakness in that playing in the mainstream pool means that one is subjected to influences and pressures and relationships that previously were purely hypothetical.

I do not know enough about AMP to venture whether it is even capable of successfully promulgating norms of engagement within the American Muslim community that are akin to the (real or imagined) norms that have long existed within the American Jewish community. But the broad strokes of the move here are familiar. This sort of uncompromising call for ideological conformity is neither wholly coming from a position of strength nor of weakness. It is in a very real sense more extreme than what one would publicly see articulated in years past, but partially that stems from a panic that this sort of extremism is unsustainable -- it is a myth, a "happy" fantasy, to think that the relationship of American Jews to American Muslims can be redirected so it flows only through JVP. Ultimately, just as Hillel was never going to be able to successfully clamp down on Jews thinking more critically on Israel and on Palestine (no matter what its high-level machers might want), I suspect that AMP also will not actually be able to stem the tide of Jews and Muslims working together, learning together, dialoguing together, and, perhaps, coming to a new and jointly resonant vision of justice about Israel and Palestine together.

Monday, November 22, 2021

Dying, and Mourning, Politically

One of my greatest nightmares is that a loved one of mine will die "politically". What I mean by that is that their death will occur as part of something political or politicized. A terrorist attack would be a prime example; dying during a protest would be another. When a loved one dies, all one wants to do is grieve; and be surrounded by those who join and support you in your grief. But unlike dying in, say, a car accident, a political death doesn't allow that.  One cannot, truly, be left alone to grieve. One is forcibly kept in the center of an ongoing political maelstrom at the precise moment when one most deserves respite.

The most obvious horror is that some people might minimize or even justify your loved one's death, and they might do it to your face. Even if they don't directly target you, in a political death there will inevitably be people on the "other side", and they aren't going to just pack it in and call it quits because your loved one died (the thing about dying politically is that typically yours is not the first death attached to that politics). And then there are the people who are on your side, or who present themselves as such; they might try to recruit you as a symbol for a particular cause or banner. Suddenly, your tragedy is their debating point. If one does "want" to enlist in a given political project, the effort one must expend to make sure one does it right is mental energy one simply doesn't have -- which won't stop others from judging you; which wouldn't stop me from judging myself.  Or maybe one actually rejects the politics of those claiming to speak on your behalf; the act of repudiating those who are supposedly standing in solidarity with you would be delicate under the best of circumstances -- try to imagine balancing it in the absolute worst of circumstances.

It's a horrifying thought. And the worst part is that these terrible things the mourner is subjected to aren't, for the most part, even wrong. Political deaths are political, and the politics of political deaths don't pause because your loved one dies. While there are certain cruelties -- taunting, mocking, crowing -- that could be justly labeled beyond the pale (not that this labeling does much to deter anyone), it is not realistic for the world to stop thinking about the political issue your circle has just unwillingly punctuated. The world continues when a loved one dies a normal death too, but at least it typically has the decency to ignore you for awhile. In a political death, the world continues its path straight through you. I don't know how people handle it. It strikes me as one of the worst things I can possibly imagine.