Saturday, December 18, 2021

Being a Black Man Sure Sounds "Reasonably Suspicious" To Me, Says Eighth Circuit

It's another 8th Circuit special!

This week's entry is Irvin v. Richardson, involving a so-called "Terry stop" in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. Police were called to the scene by a woman who reported three Black men having an argument, one of whom displayed a weapon. Two of the men (including the alleged gun owner) were described further, the third was not. Officers show up and see two Black men who match the description of ... neither of two described gentlemen. So naturally, they draw their guns, force the men to the ground, handcuff them, and pat them for weapons as both men protest their innocence. No weapons are found, and eventually, the original caller comes by and says "no, these aren't the guys I was talking about". Oopsy-daisy.

The men sue and say "there was no reasonable suspicion to stop us -- we didn't look like the descriptions the officers had, and in particular not like the man who supposedly displayed a firearm." Eighth Circuit  (in a 2-1 decision, with Judge Kelly writing her usual exasperated dissent) replies "but there was a third, undescribed individual who was allegedly involved in the argument, and since the police didn't know what he looked like, that means there's 'reasonable suspicion' that any Black man in the vicinity could be that guy. Qualified immunity."

Every day I'm proud anew to be a clerkship alum of this august circuit.

Friday, December 17, 2021

AIPAC Starts PACking

The big money story in politics this week, literally, is that the famed pro-Israel lobby group AIPAC is starting a PAC. If that doesn't seem like much of a story, AIPAC has, for its entire existence, not actually been formally involved in donating to political candidates. It's one of the reasons why the notion that it "bought" Congress is so offensive. While AIPAC certainly was valuable in introducing members of Congress to prospective donors, the new AIPAC PAC (yes, that's the name) will be the first time the organization itself donates directly.

Yet this is a fraught time for AIPAC to join the donation game. AIPAC's political engagement strategy for as long as I've remembered has been characterized by one major rule: talk to everyone. It wants a pleasant relationship with as many members of Congress as possible. To that end, it has not -- contra some assumptions -- been all that aggressive in enforcing a hard party line on Israel. This has frustrated Republicans who think AIPAC should serve as a right-wing attack dog. But it also has provided cover for AIPAC in not speaking out on plenty of right-wing heresies too.

All of this works primarily because, what the exception of its big conference bash, most of what AIPAC does is quiet and private -- the slow, boring, but fruitful work of building relationships whenever and wherever it can. And I can't help but think that right now is a very difficult model to adjust to making donations, where AIPAC will be quite publicly making some tough choices and will unavoidably have to get loud on them.

The JTA article on the AIPAC PAC suggests that it is actually meant to be a vehicle for AIPAC to show more support for Democrats it likes, to counter allegations that it has gotten too snuggly with the GOP. I support the ambition, but I think this is a terrible way to get there. The more obvious way for AIPAC to restore diminished luster amongst Democrats would be to actually, you know, show its teeth in supporting the elements of Israel policy that Democrats actually like, such as a two-state solution. If money is their strategy for regaining Democratic warm-feeling, that suggests they're looking for a route that doesn't involve them actually shifting policy in any way, and that's a strategy with a very limited shelf life.

And even if we take the money front in isolation, I think it's a tactic doomed to fail. Let's assume that AIPAC will be less heavy-handed and self-defeating in its political interventions than DMFI, because, well, who couldn't be? (Answer: possibly AIPAC) Even still, AIPAC was already doing a perfectly serviceable job of introducing new Democratic politicians to potential donors; it was fine in the role of intermediary. Going in directly and, well, one needn't overstate the toxicity of the AIPAC brand amongst Democrats to say that it certainly is a ripe target for attack in some wings of the Democratic coalition. We already see plenty of calls for Democrats to skip AIPAC's conference due to its right-wing priorities. A world in which AIPAC donates directly is a world where we're going to hear a lot more calls to "reject AIPAC money" (just like rejecting "fossil fuel money" or "gun lobby money"), and that's a fight that AIPAC loses just by having. Notice how it again largely traverses this debate in the status quo by serving as a connection point: saying "reject AIPAC money" is a lot easier and pithier and tractable than "reject Sue Lowenstein's money" where Sue is the local Jewish donor that nobody has ever heard of but whom AIPAC set up with the fresh-faced state senator running for a new House seat.

At the same time, wading directly into the domestic political fray poses problems for AIPAC on the GOP side of things too. Shortly after AIPAC's announcement, J Street issued a call to all Jewish and pro-Israel organizations to commit to not donating to any politician who refused to endorse the validity of the 2020 election results. Seems like a no-brainer and the obvious right decision -- and it is -- but that also covers nearly 150 Republican members of Congress, because, and I can't emphasize this enough, rejecting the basic operation of American democracy is the mainstream Republican position. Yet it'd be pretty tough for AIPAC to maintain its vaunted "bipartisan" credibility while disavowing the bulk of the GOP. Whereas before it could easily traverse this issue because it doesn't donate to candidates, now its ducking has to be far more out in the open. AIPAC thus far hasn't commented (no kidding), but we'll all see the list of candidates it selects to donate to sooner rather than later. The ducking can only last so long (and while I'm at it, kudos to J Street for a pretty savvy political squeeze play).

Obviously, we'll see how all this shakes out soon enough. But I'm skeptical this is going to turn out well for AIPAC. I'm on the record as saying AIPAC desperately needed to mend fences with the Democratic Party if it wants to stay relevant as a bipartisan actor. If this is their gambit for doing so, it leaves a lot to be desired. More direct money is no substitute for a robust, realistic policy vision that Democrats who care about both Israeli and Palestinian security, safety, and equality can get behind without embarrassment.

Tuesday, December 14, 2021

What Would Happen If Trump '24 Turned Against Israel

It was the "f*ck him" heard 'round the (Jewish) world. Donald Trump, in an interview, raged against former Israeli Prime Minister Bibi Netanyahu, whom he blamed for congratulating Joe Biden on his 2020 election victory. The profanity was shocking enough -- Bibi and Trump had seemingly been joined at the hip over Trump's term in office -- but the substantive appraisal was perhaps even more striking: Trump said that he came to believe that it was Abbas and the Palestinian Authority who actually desired a peace deal, and Bibi who was the recalcitrant obstructionist. From any source that'd be a noteworthy claim, given the ferocity with which the American Jewish establishment clings to the narrative of Palestinian rejectionism, but coming from Trump? It was earth-shattering.

This makes me wonder: what would happen, in terms of internal GOP political attitudes, if Trump really did in his next campaign and (God forbid) administration demonstrate hostility to Israel?

I'm not saying this is guaranteed or even especially likely. But it's hardly impossible. Trump is notorious for keeping grudges, and this one is a doozy. Moreover, the dark reactionary currents that represent Trump's deepest well of support is viciously antisemitic and growing more so. Many in that cadre unsurprisingly harbor no love for the Jewish state. Even for those who sometimes gesture at a perceived shared ethnonationalist values, the "love" for Israel is thin and easily cracked. Israel's standing in a new illiberal world order would be precarious indeed.

For those reasons (among others), I've long believed that it is more-or-less an accident of consanguinity that Trump was not even more antisemitic than he was. I have no idea the degree to which Kushner (or Greenblatt or Friedman) remain in or out of the Trumpist inner circle these days. But in terms of his own instincts, there is plenty of gravitational pull where "America First" means no longer standing at attention to the Zionist globalist puppet-masters who've been pulling our strings for too long. Couple that with a feral desire to get back at those who wronged him, and one can easily imagine a new Trumpist approach towards Israel that is exceptionally hostile.

Of course, this would all run against the decided weight of recent Republican Party orthodoxy, which is deeply wedded to its identity as "pro-Israel". So the big question is whether the strength of Trump's cult of personality -- and what is the GOP these days if not a cult? -- can crack these attachments. And I think the chances would be decent. Republican voters have evinced a marked ability to turn on a dime when it comes to perceptions of foreign policy ....

... and it's hard to see why Israel should prove immune here. Indeed, there's a pretty common pattern that's emerged when Trump takes actions that clash with putative commitments of GOP party elites:

  1. The elites, thinking Trump has finally "gone too far" and is "betraying core conservative principles", say words to the effect of "well, of course we don't endorse this";
  2. The GOP base makes it abundantly clear they do not remotely care about these principles but absolutely do care about GOP "leaders" who dare betray the dear leader;
  3. The elites come crawling back and accommodate the new Trumpist orthodoxy.
We saw this with the Muslim ban, with the sexual assault allegations, with the attempts to overturn the election, and with the January 6 insurrection. Every time Trump appears to cross a conservative red line, it turns out that there are no red lines. Maybe the attachment of GOP voters to Israel is so intense it resists these tides where nothing else has proven able to do so. But would you really bet on it? Again, current conservative identification with Israel notwithstanding, there are plenty of resources within MAGA ideology that easily could support a new, anti-Israel slant (one that would, invariably, stand side-by-side with an accelerated anti-Jewish slant). 

One can easily imagine how it will go. A few weeks or months of "very concerned" faces from the usual GOP subjects, the slow, shocked processing of the fact that none of their voters actually care about the things they thought they did, and eventually, the familiar sycophantic mewling that has become the signature tune of the contemporary Republican "leader". The only major question is how many Nikki Haley Units it will take for the median GOP politician to fall back into line.

Monday, December 13, 2021

The Race To Narrate Mizrahi Jews

We are witnessing the start of a race: the race, between various political factions generally but not exclusively tracking "Zionist" vs. "anti-Zionist", to determine where Mizrahi Jews will be placed in contemporary political narratives. If the starting gun has not been fired, it will be soon. And while I think most readers of this blog are relatively familiar with the competing narratives being put forward, to summarize briefly:

  • The Anti-Zionist narrative seeks to present Mizrahi Jews as "Zionism's other victims". While not necessarily denying the fact of some oppression, this narrative presents Zionism as having destroyed a vibrant and robust Middle Eastern Jewish (sometimes rendered "Arab Jewish") culture and having replaced it with a concocted framework where Jew and Arab were irreconcilable opposites. It highlights past and ongoing discrimination of Mizrahi Jews by Israel's Ashkenazi elite to suggest that Israel's multicultural claims are deceptive and opportunistic, and suggests that a potential alliance exists between Israel's two "brown" underclasses vis-a-vis their foreign European oppressors. More broadly, it presents a rejection of Zionism as a step towards  (and a prerequisite of) restoring a fractured relationship between Mizrahi Jews and their former neighbors, seeing past tales of eternal enmity and envisioning mutual recognition and support.
  • Under the Zionist telling, by contrast, Mizrahi Jewish presence in Israel, and general commitment to Zionist beliefs, destabilizing the notion that Zionism is a European import. It, too, contests the sharp divide pitting "Jew" versus "Middle Eastern", but does so by suggesting that the "Middle Eastern" perspective has until now implicitly Jew-free in orientation by not accepting Mizrahi Jewish political behavior as legitimately "Middle Eastern" to the extent it aligned with Jewish (read: Zionist) perspectives. The oppression and eventual expulsion of Middle Eastern Jewry may not "cancel out" Palestinian oppression, but suggests that anti-Zionists have their own reckoning to do and that there is more interfering with paradisiacal co-existence than evil Zionist perfidy. Emphasizing Mizrahi Jewish life also means that certain more extreme anti-Zionist arguments -- e.g., that Israeli cultural is purely "appropriative" or invented -- can easily be turned as forms of antisemitic erasure that denies basic elements of (Mizrahi) Jewish history. To the extent Mizrahi Jews identify Zionism as part of their liberation (and anti-Zionism as part of their oppression), this links up with elements of contemporary discourse which respect minoritized communities' right to define their own experience, even as against persons who do not accept that (White European) Jews generally count as a minoritized community.

As presented above, these narratives are both over-simplified. This is intentional -- not necessarily because those working this field are committed to oversimplification (though some may be), but because the manner in which these narratives will penetrate popular consciousness almost inevitably will be oversimplified. As a matter of popular political discourse, there likely will never be a deep, layered, and complex understanding of Mizrahi Jewish history (matters of popular political discourse do not tend towards deep, layered, and complex understandings of anything). What there will be a sort of gestalt understanding of a "side" that the Mizrahi Jewish frame supports. And so the casual way of putting the question is: for which side will "Mizrahi Jews" become an argument? Will "aligning with Mizrahi Jews", in its most general public understanding, be taken to mean acting in accordance with the first narrative (broadly conceived), or the second?

Right now, this is an open question. For many years, Mizrahi Jewish history and experience was ignored in contemporary discourse about Jews, Israel, Zionism, and the Middle East. This overlooking was in many way overdetermined. Here are just a few of the factors that likely played a role:

  1. Eurocentrism. For many years, history in general, as a subject, ignored most things and happenstances that occurred outside of Europe and America.
  2. The demographics of American Jewry being disproportionately Ashkenazi, making Mizrahi Jewish heritage relatively unfamiliar to American Jews writing about "our own" history.
  3. The concentration of Mizrahi Jews as being mostly in Israel, meaning that most people not-in-Israel, when they encountered Jews, encountered Ashkenazi Jews and assumed that they were all who needed to be thought about when thinking of Jews.
  4. Israel's desire to be seen as as a "western" nation, which involved minimizing or diminishing the salience of non-European elements (such as its Mizrahi Jewish inhabitants).
  5. Anti-Zionists' desire to present Israel as a purely foreign, colonial imposition to the Middle East, which is disturbed by recognition of significant Middle Eastern Jewish presence; as well as a desire to minimize their own decidedly ignoble behavior towards their Jewish communities in the 20th century (which is why Mizrahi Jews are now concentrated mostly in Israel -- see #3).
There are no doubt other factors as well. Put them all together and you had a recipe which simmered for decades, one in which Mizrahi Jews were mostly a sideshow to broader patterns of political discourse about Jews (and Jewish states).

Even a few years ago, this was still true -- I still remember how rare it was to write on this subject when Analucia Lopezrevoredo and I published our "Intersectional Failure" article in 2016. But things are different now. Like it or not, the turn towards identity politics continues apace, and in the extremely well-trodden terrain that demarcates debates of Israel, Mizrahi Jews represent rare fresh land to till. Most people along most dimensions of Israel have views that are, if not always informed, then are relatively entrenched. Narratives about Israel being colonial or liberatory, a democracy or an apartheid state, struggling against terrorism or crushing necks under its boot, are by now familiar to anyone paying a speck's worth of attention, and people largely know where they stand on them.

But the issue of Mizrahi Jews is not a subject most people have given much thought to, and as a matter of social discourse it has not yet concretely been narrated into a particular side. It also seems to sit adjacent to several important conceptual "nodes" relevant to current debates about Israel -- e.g., indigeneity, Jewish (non-)Whiteness, colonialism, cultural appropriation, and even ethnic cleansing. This makes it very valuable discursive real estate, and one can already see just how hot this commodity is when considering the sharp, dare I say histrionic, reaction found in some quarters to the announcement that several professors have received a grant to write a book about contemporary (post-1800) Mizrahi Jewish history. As ridiculous as it is to witness such fulminations for a book project that is a good three years out (and I say that without prejudice to any judgment as to whether the final product will be good or bad), the underlying cause  of the reaction is recognition that this is a rare arena where opinions remain unsettled, and so nobody knows which will be the book (or set of books, or articles) which successfully implants the new conventional wisdom.

Which raises the question: who do I think will win the race? I can't answer that, but it does seem that both sides have some noticeable advantages and disadvantages that can be flagged from afar (I will skip making any contentious judgments about who has the "advantage" of being right). 

The Zionist-favoring narrative has one very obvious advantage: realistically speaking, more Mizrahi Jews agree them. This is an advantage that can manifest both in terms of raw numbers but also in terms of perceived legitimacy -- if part of this project is to present a "Mizrahi Jewish" perspective, it should matter what position resonates with the bulk of Mizrahi Jews. The fact that many of the anti-Zionist claims simply do not gibe with how most Mizrahi Jews conceptualize and articulate their own history is a decided disadvantage, notwithstanding earnest efforts to present those conceptualizations as matters of false consciousness or foreign implantation.

The anti-Zionist narrative, however, may see its adherents disproportionately present in academic forums dedicated to researching the question, and that may allow them to punch above their weight in terms of driving intellectual conversation on the subject. Moreover, they may be more adept at speaking in the "tongue" of identity politics -- an arena which many more conservative Jewish figures remain suspicious of and whose endeavors to work in this argot sometimes fail to be much more sophisticated than "I know you are but what am I?" The anti-Zionist narrative may be able to more easily produce a resonant narrative that fits within how we are conditioned to think of "identity politics" stories. So both sides have attributes working for and against them.

Ideally speaking, of course, the history would be the history, and we'd talk and engage and write on it because it's important to know and explore regardless of which or what political narrative it endorses -- accepting, as will inevitably be the case, that history rarely supports any one political narrative with its full throat anyway. And I do not mean to suggest that the bulk of authors or academics working in this area are consciously intending to serve as political leafleteers, or that their academic interest is merely a smokescreen for a political agenda. I am sure many of the people working in this area are diligent and are attempting as best they can to be dispassionate, fair-minded, and sensitive to all the various complexities of the area. But I am fairly convinced that the political headwinds here are too strong to be ignored. And the result is going to be a pitched and nasty fight over where to situate Mizrahi Jews -- and I fear that Mizrahi Jews themselves will not necessarily get the last word.

Sunday, December 12, 2021

What if Critical Race Theory Doesn't Cause Antisemitism?

Note: This was originally going to be a column published in a Jewish media outlet -- it got caught in publishing purgatory for months before eventually being killed. Though it is now slightly dated, I republish it here. One significant modification is that JILV has revised its "white paper" since its initial publication -- you'll have to take my word on what the original version said, though I contemporaneously addressed some of the biggest howlers in this post shortly after the original was released (it actually is not entirely implausible that my post inspired several of the unnoted "corrections" in the revised document!).

* * *

It is time for the Jewish community to take seriously the question: Is critical race theory causing a surge of antisemitism in America?

And by “take seriously,” I mean take seriously the possibility the answer is “no.”

This is, after all, what it actually means to take a question seriously. One does not take a question seriously by presupposing a given answer, then clinging to that conclusion come hell or high water. That’s not rigorous inquiry, that’s dogma.

Yet the cottage industry of Jewish pundits, speakers, and institutes that purport to ask questions about the role of critical race theory in the growth of antisemitism aren’t really asking questions at all. For them, it is an article of faith that “critical race theory”, or “intersectionality”, or “critical social justice” (the terms are frequently used interchangeably, and with little precision), is a primary driver of contemporary antisemitism in America. Though they style themselves as bold truth-sayers, their conclusions come pre-loaded, held with a zealous fervor that brooks no naysaying.

But what happens when we try to actually put the hypothesis to the test? It is not hard, of course, to find examples of antisemitism emanating from progressives (or conservatives or centrists for that matter). Yet frequently, the case for “critical race theory” being a prime cause of antisemitism is nothing more than collecting a series of anecdotes of bad behavior by presumed progressive or non-white actors, then asserting that they’re all attributable to the theory. This slipshod practice is troubling for a host of reasons. 

First, critics of “critical race theory” or its cousins often are maddeningly vague in defining what the term(s) mean. A recent “white paper” by the Jewish Institute for Liberal Values attacking what it calls “critical social justice” is emblematic. “Critical social justice” is an invented term—it is not to my knowledge commonly used as a self-identification by anyone—but incredibly the white paper does not bother to give a definition of what the term means either. Hence, a rigorous reader has no way of assessing whether any of the forms of antisemitism identified in the paper—things like “the canard of Jewish privilege” or “the erasure of Jewish identity”—are elements of, or attributable to, “critical social justice.” Many readers might suspect that these practices are best criticized through a Jewish iteration of critical race theory methodologies (amusingly, one of the few academic sources cited, incorrectly, in the white paper as a supposed critic of “critical social justice” actually is a prominent advocate for developing what he calls “HebCrit”—Jewish critical race theory). But a writer or reader already steeped in the dogma doesn’t need “critical social justice” to be defined to be convinced it is to blame. For them, of course these antisemitic incidents are elements of “critical social justice” (whatever it is). 

Second, there’s little effort to show the scope or significance of the problematic activities as representative of the supposed theories that generate them. The JILV white paper, for instance, contends that “there is evidence that the more extreme versions [of critical social justice] are gaining ground and influencing public discourse.” In the white paper's initial formulation, the sole citation for this claim directed to a list of state rules and regulations seeking to ban critical race theory by force of law. Of course, such a list provides absolutely no evidence that theories of critical social justice, “extreme” or otherwise, are “gaining ground”—if anything it shows the opposite. What the list did show quite starkly is that the most overt threat to traditional liberal values in American politics today comes from the anti-CRT movement groups like JILV proudly attach themselves to.* 

Third, there is often the assumption that any antisemitic activity that occurs in an urban or coastal area must come from progressive people of color. Yet, as Laura Adkins has repeatedly emphasized, even when talking about, for example, antisemitic attacks on Orthodox Jews in New York, the data does not support the commonly-held assumption that the perpetrators are primarily Black or other persons of color. Moreover, it is grotesquely reductive to assume that any antisemitic action by a person of color is an instantiation of critical race theory, or even progressivism. Indeed, the latest data we have suggests that the highest levels of antisemitism among young people are found among non-White conservatives. This makes sense: there is nothing progressive about the extremist fringes of the Black Hebrew Israelite movement, so there is no reason to think antisemitic attacks committed by BHI adherents emanate out of any progressive philosophy. Yet how often have we seen writers lazily conflate “Black” with “left”?

Finally, even among the archetypical young, progressive, college-educated set, if “critical race theory” was responsible for generating antisemitism, then we’d expect to see spikes in antisemitism amongst persons (over)exposed to it. It is commonly claimed that certain academic disciplines, or even the collegiate system as a whole, are indoctrinating students with critical race theory and this suffusion is responsible for heightened antisemitism on campus. If this were true, we’d expect antisemitic attitudes to grow in intensity among students majoring in the problematic disciplines (the humanities compared to STEM), and/or students in their final year of college compared to their first. Yet the data does not support this either—it turns out that there is no measurable increase in antisemitism among students over the course of their college career nor among those majoring in the fields supposedly dominated by critical race theory.

That the crusade against critical race theory appears largely impervious to contradictory data or testing is worrisome. For one, it speaks to a troubling decay in our collective commitment to subjecting important hypotheses surrounding antisemitism, equity, and equality, to critical scrutiny and review. Helen Pluckrose, a hero of those rallying against critical race theory (she is the one who coined the term “critical social justice”), identifies laudatory “critical thinking” as “the examination of an argument or claim in the light of reason and evidence rather than accepting it uncritically …  looking for flaws of reasoning or unevidenced claims or unwarranted assumptions being made due to an ideologically biased interpretation of a situation.” If this is the value, it is largely absent amongst self-styled critics of “critical race theory,” whose assertions on the subject frequently assume conclusions not in evidence and who abjure critical engagement with actual CRT thinkers in favor of circular citation to members of their own ideological bubble.

The larger problem, though, is how we risk misallocating resources in the essential fight against antisemitism. Put simply, if we devote our resources toward fighting critical race theory as a means of fighting antisemitism, and it turns out that critical race theory has no significant relation to causing antisemitism, then we’ve just wasted a ton of time and energy! Polls of American Jews have been consistent in showing that most Jews see the primary instigator of antisemitism in America as being the political right, including the Republican Party. Increasingly, Soros conspiracies, tropes of shady “globalist” string-pullers, and what Deborah Lipstadt calls “softcore Holocaust denial” are normal not just on the right fringe, but the totality of the conservative movement. The insistence on clinging to a theory of antisemitism that is not backed by the evidence is blinding many of our communal institutions addressing a veritable tsunami of antisemitic sentiment surging through American politics.

The Jewish community has for years now labored under a torrent of tweets, YouTube screeds, public orations, and institutional white papers, all committed with a single-minded focus to the assertion that critical race theory is an enemy of the Jewish people. They have had much time to make their case. They have not done so—indeed, they’ve scarcely attempted to do so. That’s because their case is long since ceased to be a proposition that can be falsified by argument or evidence. It is a dogma. And it’s time we start seriously asking what happens if that dogma is not true.

* In the revised version, this list was removed and replaced by a hodgepodge of citations to companies or institutions allegedly practicing "CRT" -- though with no effort to draw the requisite comparisons between allegedly more or less "extreme" versions of the concept, let alone establish trends towards the former; and in some cases no effort to tie certain alleged practices to "CRT" at all.

It is notable that, with the deletion of the (perhaps inadvertent) citation to the long list of official governmental efforts to ban CRT, the white paper no longer addresses even indirectly the prominent, de jure efforts at censoring wrongthink being promulgated by its ideological compatriots. The closest it comes to doing so is in its discussion of filing lawsuits to chill the adaptation of diversity or equity initiatives -- a practice JILV endorses.