Friday, September 23, 2022

A "Grand Bargain" on Israel and Antisemitism Discourse

Apropos of the controversy over Rep. Rashida Tlaib's (D-MI) declaration that those who back "Israel's apartheid government" cannot be progressives, I saw quite a few folks pointing to polling data which suggests most American Jews don't find "Israel is an apartheid state" to be an antisemitic statement. That's not to say that most Jews agree with that assessment, but only 28% disagree and find it to be antisemitic (25% agree with the statement, and 24% disagree but don't deem it antisemitic -- the remainder are unsure). The fact that many American Jewish organizations seem potentially out-of-step with median Jewish opinion was certainly a powerful rejoinder to their quick allegations that Tlaib's apartheid allegation was per se antisemitic.

The poll in question is one I've long found fascinating, and not the least because it offers a rare deep dive into what, exactly, American Jews think is and isn't antisemitic with respect to Israel. And the payoff is that Jews actually don't tend to think even most harsh critiques of Israel are antisemitic ... with one exception.

The huge outlier here is "Israel doesn't have a right to exist."  That statement simply blows all of its competitors out of the water -- a full two-thirds of American Jews find it antisemitic when no other statement (even some highly inflammatory ones about "genocide" are "apartheid") pushes much higher than 30%. It also has far fewer Jews agreeing with it, suggesting that "Israel has no right to exist" is viewed differently even by the nation's harshest critics. It's not, in other words, just a shuffling among Israel's supporters -- the other statements are disagreed with but aren't viewed as antisemitic; this one is disagreed with and is viewed as antisemitic. There appears to be a substantial portion of the American Jewish community that agrees with statements like "Israel is committing genocide" who nonetheless draw the line at "Israel doesn't have the right to exist."

A large part of me is just curious who that last group of Jews are and what their story is. But for the time being, this divergence suggests a potential "grand bargain" in how we talk about antisemitism and Israel: anti-Israel folks agree that opposing Israel's right to exist is antisemitic, and pro-Israel folks concede that all the other charges -- whether agreed to or not -- are fair play.

Now, as is the case of all "grand bargains", I fully expect this one to go nowhere because neither side has any particular need or desire to accept it. As much as this poll made for a nice "gotcha" moment in the context of the Tlaib controversy, anti-Israel commentators do not actually think the legitimacy of antisemitism allegations hinges much on what Jews think, and have been stubbornly insistent on going whole-hog on denying Israel's very validity as a state despite the fact that this seems to be a distinctive redline for the Jewish community over and beyond views that might be fairly categorized as (extreme) policy disagreement. But in fairness, pro-Israel organizations have not been especially interested in hitching their wagon to median Jewish opinion either, and -- for all the talk about "criticism is fine, but opposing Israel's existence isn't", they have been far from reliable in actually adhering to that line, viewing certain vitriolic criticisms as tantamount to "opposing Israel's right to exist" even as most Jews apparently draw a distinction between the two.

So my grand bargain proposal is not predictive: I don't think we actually will reach a détente along these lines. But in concept, it sure does present an interesting one, doesn't it?

Wednesday, September 21, 2022

The "Context" of Tlaib's PEP Talk Before American Muslims for Palestine

At a forum hosted by the group American Muslims for Palestine, Rep. Rashida Tlaib (D-MI) made waves by declaring that supporters of "Israel's apartheid government" cannot be allowed to call themselves progressive. The full quote is below:

"I want you all to know that among progressives, it’s become clear that you cannot claim to hold progressive values, yet back Israel’s apartheid government, and we will continue to push back and not accept that you are progressive except for Palestine."

Unsurprisingly, this is garnered quite a bit of pushback from many Democrats (especially Jewish Democrats), who contended that there was nothing incompatible with supporting "Israel’s right to exist as a Jewish and democratic state" (to quote Rep. Jerry Nadler (D-NY), criticizing Tlaib) and being progressive.

Now, in fairness, there is some ambiguity around the precise phrasing: backing "Israel's apartheid government" (Tlaib) could be distinguished from, e.g., a more general belief that Israel should not exist as "a Jewish and democratic state" (Nadler). Perhaps the former is about specific policies, while the latter is more conceptual and metaphysical. How far, in other words, does Tlaib's view actually extend?

We can't, of course, know for sure. But perhaps the venue offers a clue. Rep. Tlaib said these words at an event hosted by American Muslims for Palestine. Last year, AMP produced a comprehensive document "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" (emphasis added; they were clear that the subject of the memo was specifically the Jewish community). And AMP's conclusion was that Muslims who support Palestine should refuse to work with virtually every Jewish organization, on any subject, for any purpose. Not the ADL, not the AJC, not local JCRC or JFeds, and not even most synagogues (a list totaling about two dozen synagogues nationwide were whitelisted as permissible). A nearly absolute, totalizing attempt to extirpate the entirety of the Jewish community from fellowship or coalition.

That is context. Does it decisively establish that Tlaib, herself, thinks things should go that far? No. But under circumstances where it has already become clear that the train has no brakes, it is legitimate context for discerning where this line of reasoning will take us. Context isn't always exculpating, after all.

Wednesday, September 14, 2022

Is the Jewish World Ready for Itamar Ben-Gvir?

In 2009, Marty Peretz called Avigdor Lieberman a fascist.

My how the world turns.

Today, of course, Lieberman is effectively a centrist figure in Israeli politics, who seems more inclined to form coalitions with the left-of-center bloc than the right-wing. 

Some of that reflects changes in Lieberman -- he has moderated somewhat from where he started and moved towards the center since bursting onto the Israeli political scene. But a lot of it is attributable to changes in Israel's political center of gravity, which has been lurching to the right for decades. Opinions and beliefs which were outlandish and outrageous in 2009 don't even qualify as right-wing in 2022. In 2018, Batya Ungar-Sargon could hold Naftali Bennett's feet to the fire over his open opposition to democratic rights for Palestinians. Fast forward just a few years, and Bennett is the savior figure who managed to oust the even more odiously anti-Palestinian Bibi Netanyahu out of office. What was once the extreme right in Israel now is the "moderate" bulwark against an ascendant and even further-extreme right. The world keeps turning.

And so we get to the present day, and the rise of a new extremist powerbroker in Israel: Itamar Ben-Gvir. Ben-Gvir is more than a terrorist-sympathizer, he actually was convicted of providing support to a terrorist organization. He wants to expel Arabs, he had a shrine to Baruch Goldstein, he's a disciple of Kahanism. His political character has been described as a "pyromaniac", given his lust to take combustible situations and pour gasoline on them. He's been described as a "David Duke"-like figure in Israeli politics, except unlike Duke he's actually winning office. He makes even the original flavor of Bennett or Lieberman look positively moderate. And in the very plausible event that the right-wing bloc wins the next Israeli election, Itamar Ben-Gvir is likely to receive a very prominent ministry position in the Israeli government.

The establishment of the Jewish diaspora isn't ready for this. In 2019, when Netanyahu first entered into a deal with Ben-Gvir, it received widespread condemnation from American Jewish groups (even AIPAC!). They characterized his party "racist and reprehensible". Three years later, Ben-Gvir's influence has only grown. If he does enter into government at a high level, does anyone believe groups like AIPAC are going to hold the line? That they'll follow their own logic and concede that Israel's governing coalition is seeded with the racist and the reprehensible? Or will the world turn once more, and Ben-Gvir become accommodated?

By and large, the American Jewish community has been covering its eyes regarding the surging ascendency of far-right extremism amongst the Israeli Jewish community. The tendency has been to dismiss this sort of extremism as marginal, as outliers, as the province of fringe cranks that one might find in any pluralistic political community. There is a terrified refusal to acknowledge the larger pattern, which is that folks like Ben-Gvir are not outliers, and things are getting worse, not better. "A little patience," they say "and we shall see the reign of witches pass." But it isn't passing. The cavalry isn't coming. It can happen (t)here.

The American Jewish community does not want to see Israel descend into far-right fascism. It wants, desperately, that folks like Ben-Gvir are outliers and are repudiated and can be rendered into fringe irrelevancies. But that's not happening. So what next? Unfortunately, the problem with not wanting to see something is that there's always the option to cover your eyes. Squeeze them shut and pretend the problem isn't there. Start whatabouting on Hamas or Iran or this or that. Figure out a way to accommodate and appease the new normal, in the hopes that after this, we won't go any further. Soon the reign of the witches has to pass. That is, more or less, what the global Jewish community has done for the past few decades -- it has just pretended not to see the rise of Israel's extreme right in the hopes that if it is ignored long enough, it will go away.

It's not going away. It is getting worse. And sooner or later, we have to starting thinking about what steps we need to take to arrest and reverse its momentum, rather than vainly hoping it will correct itself. I am not convinced that the American Jewish community is ready to have that conversation. But if we don't have it, folks will start having it without us.

Tuesday, September 13, 2022

Republicans Propose Nationwide Compulsory Women-Maiming Law

It's abortion/privacy week right now in my Constitutional Law class (Griswold and Roe today, Casey and Dobbs on Thursday). After class this morning, a student came up to me and showed a headline regarding the new Republican proposal to ban abortion nationwide after 15 weeks. He was surprised, since all the judicial rhetoric he had read thus far had been emphatic about "returning the issue to the states" -- how was that consistent with a federal ban? I answered, as politely as I could, that anyone who actually believed anti-abortion activists would settle for "leaving it to the states" once Roe was overturned is someone I'd like to sell bridges to. And, in fairness, that makes sense from their vantage -- if you think abortion is murder, you're hardly going to be content with allowing some states to murder to their heart's content.

That being said, as philosophically unsurprising as a federal abortion ban may be for anti-abortion activists, it seems like political suicide under circumstances where abortion is already supercharging Democratic intensity. Yet say what you will about the GOP bill, it dares venture boldly into new domains of terrorizing women and girls.

Authored by South Carolina Senator Lindsey Graham, the Republican bill not only bans abortions after 15 weeks, it does so without any exemption for the health of the mother. While "life-endangering" pregnancies are exempt, those which only risk severe bodily injury to the pregnant vessel person remain subject to the ban. The bill also goes out of its way to clarify that "emotional" or "psychological" harms cannot be the basis of labeling the pregnancy "life-endangering". In circumstances where there is an extreme suicide risk, the Republican law's mandate is apparently "let her die". A nationwide abortion ban with no health exemption is, stunningly (or not), being cast as an attempt at "unifying Republicans" who have been placed on the back foot after finally catching the car that is overturning Roe. After all, views may differ on whether government is permitted to murder pregnant women, but Republicans are united behind the principle that they can be maimed without consequence.

Other exemptions in the bill, most notably for rape and incest are highly circumscribed. Rape victims, for instance, must have obtained government-approved counseling at least 48 hours prior to the abortion proceeding. Child victims of rape or incest must have reported the incident to government authorities in advance. On that point, the statute helpfully gives the parents of said minor rape/incest victims the right to sue if such reporting does not happen -- a fantastic provision that I have no doubt will not at all be used to help chill and retaliate against child victims of sexual violence.

Those who do not consent to compulsory federal maiming of women face up to five years of jail time. This is the new, nationwide GOP policy on abortion. And it is on the ballot in November.

Sunday, September 11, 2022

A Synagogue in New Mexico

You may have seen the story bandying about the internet: "A tiny New Mexico Jewish community is trying to buy back its historic synagogue building". The community in question is Las Vegas, New Mexico -- what I affectionately dub "the other Las Vegas". I have an affectionate dubbing because, as it happens, there was a possibility that I'd be moving to that town of that 13,000 souls 88 miles away from Albuquerque.

My last year on the job market, before I ended up accepting a position at Lewis & Clark, the position I was "furthest" along in was a political science/legal studies job at New Mexico Highlands University, which is located in Las Vegas. I was far enough into the process there that I started to research facts about the city in question (such as its distance from the nearest large city and -- of utmost importance to my wife -- the distance to the nearest Target). I also looked into the city's Jewish community in history, where I learned many of the facts the rest of the internet picked up over the past few days -- the historic synagogue (the oldest in New Mexico), and the fact that the synagogue is no longer in Jewish hands following the gradual diminution of the town's Jewish population.

I don't have any substantive commentary to add. It was just an interesting bit of overlap between the current news and a near-miss in my life, and the unique challenges and history of being Jewish in a town that may have Jewish history, but does not have many in the way of Jews.

Wednesday, September 07, 2022

It's Not Cheating for Republicans To Lose: Ranked-Choice Voting Edition

I know it's not worth it to engage in Republican histrionics about how ranked choice voting is anti-majoritarian after Democrats won an Alaska House seat last week. The actual objection, as Republicans have made manifestly clear in their behavior over the past few years, is to "Democrats winning elections", and there's nothing deeper than that going on under the surface.

But the arguments they're making about how ranked choice systems are anti-democratic because "60% of the voters in Alaska voted for the Republican agenda" are so transparently ridiculous, and are being repeated with such vigor, that they need to be addressed.

Of course, it is a misnomer off the bat to say that a majority of Alaskans voted for "the Republican agenda". Voters don't vote for "agendas", they vote for candidates. And leave aside the notion that Republicans suddenly care about majoritarianism in a electoral system riddled with anti-democratic elements ranging from gerrymandering to the Senate to the Electoral College.

Nonetheless, it is the case that something feels off when more voters choose candidates from party X but, because they're divided, a single candidate from party Y prevails with a plurality. This can afflict Democrats as well as Republicans (witness worries about Democratic "lock outs" in California's top-two primary system). And it's worth noting that this circumstance is actually very common in a multi-candidate field with first-past-the-post rules. Indeed, Mary Peltola won a plurality of first-choice votes -- she would have won the election without a ranked-choice run-off! (Peltola had 41% of the initial vote, with Palin receiving 31% and Begich 28%).

But here's the thing: when we see voting patterns where 40% of the electorate backs a Democrat, 35% back Republican A, and 25% back Republican B, the reason we think it's unfair that the Democrat wins is that we assume if we asked the supporters of Republican B "if you had to choose, would you back Democrat or Republican A", they'd pick the latter. It's a reasonable enough assumption in a party system, to be sure, and in many occasions I suspect it's an assumption that'd be borne out. But all ranked choice voting does is actually ask the question rather than assume its answer. And it turns out that in Alaska, enough supporters of "Republican B" (Begich) did not prefer Republican A (Palin) over Democrat (Peltola). So the Democrat won, for the simple democratic reason that most Alaska voters preferred her over the most popular Republican competitor. That's not cheating, that's an election!

Put simply, if a majority of Alaska voters' preference was to elect a Republican -- any Republican -- over a Democrat, the voting system in Alaska gave them ample opportunity to make that choice. They chose otherwise, because it turns out that their preferences weren't that simple. And ultimately, that's what's driving Republican rage here: they think the voters' preferences were wrong, and so it is cheating for their will to have prevailed. Hard to think of a pithier summary of contemporary GOP attitudes towards democracy.

Sunday, September 04, 2022

MESA Objects to the Most Milquetoast Possible Manner of Addressing Member's Conspiracy-Mongering

Shortly after the attempted assassination of Salmon Rushdie, a Denver University professor went on a podcast to opine on the assailant's possible motivations. The professor, Nader Hashemi, suggested that it was "more likely" that the attacker was duped into his conduct by the Mossad as a backdoor means of scuttling nascent talks to reenter the Iran deal. This unfounded conspiratorial assertion was, in turn, roundly blasted by the Jewish community.

Of course, it is the case that members of an academic community have the right to forward unfounded conspiratorial assertions. Perhaps cognizant of that right, Denver University issued an extremely mild and tepid response to the controversy. Here's what they wrote:

Professor Hashemi spoke as an individual faculty member and does not speak for the university. While we wholeheartedly respect academic freedom and freedom of speech, his comments do not reflect the point of view of the university, nor are we aware of any facts that support his view. The safety of every speaker and every student on our campus, and all campuses, is critical to our society. We condemn the stabbing of Salman Rushdie. And it goes without saying that we remain committed to assuring that the experience of our Jewish students, faculty and staff is safe, supportive, respectful and welcoming.

One cannot get more milquetoast than that. That's not necessarily a criticism -- there are, again, academic freedom concerns in play here that militate against a more robust response. In any event, all this statement does is (a) affirm Hashemi didn't speak for the university (true), (b) he has academic freedom (true), (c) there is no factual foundation to his unsupported musing about Mossad involvement (true), (d) the stabbing of Rushdie is bad (true), and they are committed to maintaining a respectful, supportive, welcoming, and safe experience for Jewish students on campus (hopefully true). That is utterly unremarkable.

It was also far too much for the Middle Eastern Studies Association, which wrote a seven paragraph letter to the President of the University demanding the statement be retracted and an apology rendered to Prof. Hashemi.

What's especially stunning about the MESA letter is it seems to admit that Hashemi's "speculations" are entirely foundationless and lacking in evidence, yet takes that fact as an argument for why Hashemi should be immune from even the most tepid of critical response. The scenarios Prof. Hashemi spun out, the letter concedes, "were all obviously entirely speculative, as to our knowledge no evidence has thus far emerged about the attacker’s motivation or connections." But precisely because Hashemi's arguments were pure unfounded speculation, the university should not have "publicly distanced itself from one of its own faculty members for having engaged in legitimate speculation about the politics surrounding the attempted assassination of Salman Rushdie."

It's not actually the case that no evidence has emerged about the attacker's motivations -- putting aside the fact that Iran had put a hit out on Rushdie, the attacker had made social media posts sympathetic to Iran's Revolutionary Guard and reportedly had a fake driver's license featuring the name of an Iran-backed Hezbollah commander -- but the argument is staggering on its own terms: "Hashemi knew absolutely nothing, so any wild speculations he might have engaged in are therefore legitimate." Mossad did it -- legitimate. George Soros did it -- legitimate. Antifa did it -- legitimate. Lizard people did it -- legitimate. A secret underground network of American Mosques plotted simultaneously to help do it -- legitimate. It's speculation! Who can say what's true or not?

To state this is to refute it. And of course, it is fanciful to think that these other "speculations" would be treated so sanguinely by MESA. The reason why utterly unfounded speculations about the Mossad is considered fair game, while utterly unfounded speculations about, say, antifa is not, is because for some Israel is at least on the suspect list for any evil that occurs in the world until proven otherwise. This is why lack of evidence makes it legitimate to "speculate" about Israel's involvement. No matter how seemingly distant or fanciful, Israel is always guilty till proven innocent. In a world where we know nothing, Israel is responsible for everything.

On that note, MESA is clearly most upset that the university statement even gestured sideways at the prospect of antisemitism by committing to provide a supportive environment for Jewish students, since antisemitism allegations "as we know all too well have not infrequently been weaponized by organizations and media outlets seeking to suppress the expression of opinions with which they disagree" (paging JILV!). Even the indirect promise of supporting Jews served to "validate the attacks to which Professor Hashemi has been subjected while also compromising his academic freedom."

On the latter part: the attacks do not compromise Prof. Hashemi's academic freedom, because Prof. Hashemi has no academic freedom entitlement to be free of criticism -- including criticism that contains the dreaded "antisemitism" allegation -- for engaging in completely unfounded conspiratorial allegations about the Mossad. On the former, MESA's statement fails because there is nothing wrong with "validating" the notion that completely unfounded "speculation" about the Mossad being behind unrelated acts of evil in the world is potentially antisemitic. It's antisemitic for the same reason "the Mossad was behind 9/11" is antisemitic, and I defy MESA to offer a principle that distinguishes the former from the latter. Even the JDA suggests that "grossly exaggerating [Israel's] actual influence can be a coded way of racializing and stigmatizing Jews" -- surely, a clause which encompasses screeching "it's a Mossad plot!" any time something bad happens in the world.

Ultimately, one can criticize the Denver University statement for being too mild, or you can think it struck the right tone in recognizing Prof. Hashemi's academic freedom while appropriately distancing the university from his ramblings and promising to support those hurt by them. MESA's argument that the statement goes too far is absurd on its face, and speaks to the profound lack of seriousness with which that organization takes matters of antisemitism and Jewish equity.

Friday, September 02, 2022

On the Vice of the Right of Exclusion

Inspired no doubt by recent news out of UC-Berkeley Law, Ken Stern published a column arguing that student groups have the right -- as destructive as it may be -- to exclude "Zionists" (and vice versa -- student groups also have the right to exclude anti-Zionists). It is not a good decision, it is not a noble decision, it is certainly a hurtful decision, but it is a decision that is within the right of a student groups to make.

Still, this was unsurprisingly a controversial take. I think it is right -- but with some very significant qualifiers.

On Twitter, Blake Flayton drew the analogy to arguing that "campus groups have a right to exclude Chinese students who want China to continue existing." It's not quite right -- the exclusion would be of any students who want China to continue existing, regardless of whether they are Chinese or not -- but it's close enough for our purposes to help clarify quite a bit.

Ideological groups have to have the right to set boundaries of inclusion -- the Student Dems can say "no Trumpists" and the Student MAGA club can say "no Democrats". How could it be otherwise? And once we accept that case, it's very, very hard to explain why other declarations of ideological necessity can be forbidden.

Moreover, these ideological exclusions are distinguishable from a status-based ban, even where the status is very closely tied to the belief. Yet noting that distinction, which may be the entire ballgame from a legalistic or rights-based perspective, in no way obviates or renders incorrect the feeling by the group that they're enduring discrimination. Chinese students are not unreasonable in viewing a rule that says "all members of a group must support the dissolution of China" as discriminatory; all the more so in the case of a group that seems to have little to do with China. Jews are entitled to view the same thing regarding compulsory anti-Zionism. The more such exclusions proliferate, the more they practically act to squeeze out Chinese or Jewish students from campus life. And these remain true notwithstanding the existence of dissident minority views within the group.

Perhaps the most common example we see regularly is a student group that does not say "no gays", but does demand all members affirm the ideology that homosexual conduct is an abomination or that marriage is solely between a man and a woman (one sees things like this regularly in campus Christian groups; Stern's analogy to the Hurley case where an Irish-American gay rights group was excluded from an "Irish Pride" parade is also well taken). These are conceptually distinct, even though gay individuals could and would clearly be justified in feeling targeted by the rule (and if all or nearly all campus groups imposed such a rule, it would represent a structural impediment to gay inclusion in campus life even as it operated in the space protected by the groups' free association rights). 

Put differently: "No Zionists" and "no gay rights apologists" are both conceptually distinct from "no Jews" and "no gays"; perhaps dispositively so, but to go further and say that the former rules are not even related to discrimination against Jews or gays, it's just a idiosyncratic coincidence that Jews and gays happen to be disproportionately excluded, is patronizing nonsense. The discrimination here is perhaps protected, but it isn't a "conflation" or a hypersensitivity for Jews or gays to view it as discrimination. And the more commonplace such exclusions are, the more they can be said to represent a structural inequity afflicting the relevant groups.

It is no revelation that individuals and groups can exercise their rights in harmful and destructive ways. The Berkeley student group which invited Milo to campus had the right to do so, and Milo himself has the right to express his deeply racist and misogynist views, we can and should view both as behaving badly for doing so.

So to say that student groups have the right to exclude Zionists does not mean they are right to do so. Indeed, they are behaving quite wrongly, and we should have no qualms in saying so. Something can be in the realm of rights and yet nonetheless be nasty, discriminatory, counterproductive, and antipathic to community building, and a "no Zionists" rule is all of these things even where it is an exercise of a student group's "rights". Rather than speaking in terms of rights, we should be speaking in terms of certain virtues that we wish to inculcate in our student communities -- virtues of open-mindedness, pluralism, and free inquiry. We have a right to narrow the boundaries of who we are willing to stand in community with, just as we have a right to only read newspapers and articles and twitter accounts of people who already agree with us. But neither choice is a virtuous choice, even if it cannot be articulated in the language of rights. That we cannot be compelled by principle to live out these values makes it more important, not less, that they be impressed as matters of moral virtue and vice.

For example, even Blake I imagine does not think that Students for Justice in Palestine has to admit Zionists, any more than Students Supporting Israel has to admit anti-Zionists. The trouble comes when we're not talking about SJP or SSI, but "Women of Cal" or "the Ice Cream Lovers of America Club" that decides excluding Zionists or anti-Zionists is core to the group's ideological mission. Conceptually speaking, there might not be a way of distinguishing these cases so as to be able to craft a rule that says "SJP and SSI can exclude while Woman of Cal and the ICLAC cannot". As a matter of practical moral logic, these cases are obviously distinctive, and the more the exclusions migrate into the latter type of case, the more toxic they are to the aforementioned virtues of open-mindedness and pluralism.

Does this mean that rules such as this can never be legally discriminatory? No. The example Blake used, where the rule is specifically applied only to Jewish (or Chinese) students, would be an obvious example. More subtle would be circumstances where the rule is nominally applicable to all, but is enforced with greater care or scrutiny against Jews than others. Everyone supposedly has to be anti-Zionist, but Jews have to prove they're anti-Zionist. That heightened scrutinization should be seen as a form of discrimination as well, and one that is very much associated with "rules" such as this.

Yet on the whole, I think the focus on "rights" is misleading here. We would be better off concentrating on the virtues and vices of how student groups should behave, rather than on what they have the right to do. And in the exercise of their rights, these student groups are behaving poorly. They are not embodying the virtues we hope to inculcate in young minds regarding how they handle issues of pluralism and disagreement. In practice, their actions function to discriminate against Jews, even if it is in a manner that must be legally protected. There is the same right to exclude Zionists as there is the right to exclude proponents of gay rights; and we should view the decision to exercise one's right in that way as vicious in the same way.

Saturday, August 27, 2022

Are States Allowed to Murder Pregnant Women? Views Differ!

One of the Biden Administration's responses to the Dobbs decision was to issue an interpretation of the Emergency Medical Treatment and Labor Act (EMTALA) that basically says doctors have to provide necessary medical care to pregnant persons in emergency situations -- including abortion care, if that is necessary to protect the mother's life or health. Since EMTALA is a federal law, it would preempt state laws which purport to prohibit abortion care in those circumstances.

Consequently, various red states have sued to vindicate their sovereign entitlement to require by law that hospitalized pregnant patients be left to die even when their life could easily be saved by surgical intervention. Two courts, one in Texas and the other in Idaho, have now opined on the Biden executive order. They've split in their decision -- the former striking down the new guidance, the latter upholding it and preempting Idaho law to the extent it conflicts with the guidance.

The belief that Dobbs would remove the judiciary from the thicket of deciding abortion cases was always a mirage (if it was believed at all). It just changes what courts will have to decide. Right now, they're deciding whether states are allowed to require, under pain of criminal penalty, that pregnant women and girls be maimed or killed when their bodies and lives could be easily saved. And as we're seeing, on that novel legal question, "views differ". Such is the burden of having a uterus in the post-Dobbs world.

Friday, August 26, 2022

Republicans Now Standing Up To the Jewish "Thought Police"

It's so nice to see Republicans finally showing the courage of their convictions, by not just making spurious Holocaust comparisons, but refusing to back down when the Jewish "thought police" cry foul:

“I want to speak to a little bit of a hubbub that’s been in the media lately about whether or not I was insensitive in regards to the Holocaust. I don’t believe I was,” [Scott] Jensen said in a Facebook video. “When I make a comparison that says that I saw government policies intruding on American freedoms incrementally, one piece at a time, and compare that to what happened in the 1930s, I think it’s a legitimate comparison.”

“It may not strike your fancy — that’s fine. But this is how I think, and you don’t get to be my thought police person.” 

For those unaware, Jensen is the GOP candidate for Governor in Minnesota this cycle.

Holocaust trivialization -- what antisemitism monitor Deborah Lipstadt calls "softcore Holocaust denial" --- is becoming epidemic in the Republican Party. That's not especially new, but what is at least newer (and reflective of the GOP's Corbynization problem) is that increasingly GOP politicos aren't even pretending to apologize when Jews call them out. Instead, they're rallying around the notion that their grotesque and inaccurate Holocaust comparisons are only being attacked by censorial PC thought police who can't stand free dialogue. Such a heartening development.

Thursday, August 25, 2022

Is Anyone "Criticizing George Soros"?

It has been darkly amusing to witness how the mainstreaming of anti-George Soros conspiracy mongering has prompted the American right to go full Corbynista in dismissing the antisemitism of it all. "Criticizing George Soros is not antisemitism!", they holler, heedless of the irony. The internets are replete with sneering dismissals of Jewish complaints regarding how Soros discourse can and has served as an antisemitic accelerant -- a perfect echo of how Corbynistas attacked antisemitism allegations as fictious, politically-motivated, and made in bad faith. It is antisemitic when it comes from the left, and it is antisemitic when it comes from the right. It perhaps shouldn't surprise that it would be the American right that would Corbynize first -- a cult of personality around a Dear Leader who is perpetually victimized by the biased media and whose rise to power was supercharged by an online contingent of hyper-vicious trolls targeting (among others) Jews for harassment is not exactly unfamiliar terrain here -- but I suppose there's no harm in basking in the irony a little bit.

Yet I've been thinking that this whole line of argument about how the right is being suppressed because are you saying we can't criticize George Soros is a misfire. It doesn't make sense even on its own terms. Why not? Because virtually none of the right's Soros discourse is "criticism of George Soros" is any meaningful sense.

Let's take it back to Israel for a second. Consider the following two statements:

  1. Israel's occupation of the West Bank is intolerable, and must end.
  2. BigCorp's investment in Israel is intolerable, and must end.
Colloquially speaking, both of these statements are likely to be considered "criticism of Israel". But really, only the first is. The second is not a criticism of Israel directly, it's a criticism of BigCorp for being associated with Israel. BigCorp is the actor who is being castigated, and they are the actor who is most directly being asked to change their behavior. It's not always wrong to criticize X for associating with Y, though I've noted that it can easily become a form of antisemitism via a contagion theory where merely being in Israel's presence is assumed to generate any and all manner of social ills that otherwise would not exist. But again: criticizing X for associating with Y is primarily a criticism of X, not Y. Y's badness is more-or-less taken for granted; X is the entity whom one is trying to discredit, undermine, or alter the behavior of.

Virtually none of the conservative attacks on Soros are actually on George Soros. They're attacks on some other social actor or phenomenon for allegedly being associated with George Soros. Sometimes Soros really is associated with them (as in his funding of J Street), sometimes it's a complete myth (as in the "immigrant caravans"). Regardless, the target of the fusillade is not Soros, it's J Street or the immigrants. They are meant to be discredited because of their association with Soros. By their association with George Soros, we now know that they are contaminated, and should be a subject of hatred and scorn.

The right, after all, doesn't really care where George Soros spends his money. They're not trying to get George Soros to change (at least, in all but the most tertiary sense). Much as the most inveterate Israel-haters have moved beyond demanding Israel change and instead view Israel's evil as an immutable fact of its existence, Soros-haters are not hoping for a different George Soros, they view George Soros as a stand-in for inherent evil. If George Soros tomorrow announced a donation to the local homeless shelter, the right would not say "hey -- our criticism worked! Instead of donating to these terrible left-wing charities, he's donating to a nice, acceptable one. Mission accomplished!" No -- if George Soros donated to the local homeless shelter, the result would be that the shelter would suddenly become a "Soros-funded shelter" and be subject to all the suspicion and vitriol that accompanies anything associated with George Soros.

What Soros does doesn't matter. It's Soros' existence that matters -- he is a stand-in for inherent evil, whose presence corrupts anything it touches. The evocation of Soros (whether based in reality or not) is not about "criticizing Soros", it is meant to leverage this imagery of Soros the puppetmaster, the paragon of evil, the ultimate conspirator. That's why it's so frequently antisemitic. The only reason Republicans care about George Soros is because invoking his name enables access to this association of pure malice as a means of criticizing something else. But Soros fills that role less because of his own choices, and more because of surrounding currents of antisemitism, which (this is from my "contagion" post) "give[] a smoother cognitive ride down -- it makes little connections look huge, and implausible leaps seem manageable."

Of course, once we recognize that the true target is not Soros at all, but immigrants or J Street or "defund the police", then the "are you saying I can't criticize ...?" whine becomes farcical. Obviously there are all sorts of ways conservatives can and do criticize any of these things. The centrality of George Soros to their "criticisms", though, is not about seeking to alter George Soros' behavior (not least because often Soros isn't actually involved). It's about leveraging what George Soros represents in the public imagination to "make the implausible plausible".

Wednesday, August 24, 2022

AIPAC's Gutlessness

A few weeks ago, following the victory of Rep. Haley Stevens in her D-on-D matchup against Andy Levin, I wrote a sum-up post regarding what we can derive from AIPAC's relatively successful set of Democratic primary interventions. One point I made there is that, because AIPAC's interventions (in the forms of ads, mailers, and the like) have not typically concentrated on Israel-related issues, its hard for AIPAC to claim vindication that the victories for its candidates represent endorsement of its particular vision of pro-Israel. AIPAC, it seems, lacks confidence that its actual message will resonate with voters. It's pouring money into races, but it's doing so in a way that betrays its own skittishness.

Consider now AIPAC's belated brag that it was behind late money spent to tank the candidacy of Yuh-Line Niou, who narrowly trails Dan Goldman in the wide open NY-10 race. AIPAC hid its involvement in the race altogether until after Goldman prevailed, at which point it loudly sought to claim credit for the victory. My guess is that AIPAC was not confident Goldman would win (he only ended up claiming victory by a 2 point margin) and didn't want the embarrassment of a potential high profile loss. Once victory was assured, though, well, victory has a thousand fathers. As I said: gutless.

Meanwhile, AIPAC's increasingly bitter set of attacks on J Street (which had a decent night itself what with Jerry Nadler and Jamaal Bowman prevailing) have now taken to including hitting the latter for accepting money from George Soros -- a rather alarming development given the degree to which anti-Soros rabble rousing has come to occupy a central place in contemporary antisemitic conspiracy theorizing.

It's hard not to see this as AIPAC full-heartedly embracing a new, right-wing identity. There is no constituency even amongst moderate Dems for anti-Soros attacks. The only people who "enjoy" this sort of line are right-wingers who've already imbibed a deep draught of conspiracy about Soros as the evil puppet master pulling the strings. And, of course, right-wingers will most certainly use AIPAC's indulgence in this line to justify their own, even more grotesque, Soros smears.

Leveraging the far-right's favorite antisemitic conspiracy for transient political gain? Again: gutless.

Tuesday, August 23, 2022

How Do Diversity Statements Threaten Academic Freedom?

The Academic Freedom Alliance has come out in opposition to the use of "diversity" or "DEI" statements as part of the academic hiring or promotion process, labeling them threats to academic freedom.

Academics seeking employment or promotion will almost inescapably feel pressured to say things that accommodate the perceived ideological preferences of an institution demanding a diversity statement, notwithstanding the actual beliefs or commitments of those forced to speak. This scenario is inimical to fundamental values that should govern academic life. The demand for diversity statements enlists academics into a political movement, erasing the distinction between academic expertise and ideological conformity. It encourages cynicism and dishonesty. An industry of diversity statement “counselling” has already emerged--and could easily have been predicted. There are prevalent and reasonable suspicions that beneath the stated rationales for diversity statements lurk unstated motives that include providing a way to screen out candidates who express ambivalence about DEI programming.

I'm honestly not sure I see the academic freedom issue here, even taken on AFA's own terms.

For starters, it's somewhat difficult to situate academic freedom concerns into either the promotion or (especially) hiring context. Academic freedom, as I've written, is a constraint on remedies. It takes certain consequences -- most notably, termination -- off the table as responses to even admittedly terrible speech (as well as, of course, perfectly legitimate but nonetheless controversial speech). But while a tenured professor is entitled as a default to continue his employment, a job applicant has no baseline entitlement to be hired, nor does a faculty member seeking promotion have a default entitlement to move from associate to full professor. It is hard for me to imagine a case where a job applicant has their academic freedom violated because they weren't hired -- at least, outside of cases where the hiring was already approved by the appropriate stakeholders and was only reversed via abnormal intervention from upper administration. 

Most job applicants aren't hired, and they aren't hired for all sorts of reasons. Importantly, those reasons include normative appraisals of the quality of their "materials" -- both in terms of scholarship and in terms of teaching. Academic freedom says you can't fire John Doe because you think his scholarship is bad. But academic freedom obviously does not mean you must hire John Doe even though you think his scholarship is bad. The two circumstances are not comparable, and academic freedom concerns map poorly onto the latter. If a hiring committee can say "we don't want to proceed with John's candidacy because we think his scholarship is poor", why can't they say "we don't want to proceed with John's candidacy because we think he'll do a bad job at teaching students of diverse backgrounds"?

The AFA cannot and I think does not take the position that it is conceptually inappropriate for a hiring committee to value a prospective applicant's ability to teach, mentor, and support students of diverse backgrounds. And if that is a valid criteria for a committee to consider, there must be some way for the committee to elicit a candidate's perspective on how they'd approach the issue. At root, a DEI statement is a means to provide that information. The AFA statement concentrates instead on the instinct -- which I share -- that dismissal of a given job candidate based on pure ideological disagreement is inappropriate. It's fine to say "this scholarship is bad, therefore, it's a no", but one shouldn't say "this scholarship is bad for no other reason than that I disagree with it, therefore, it's a no." And the same would be true for a DEI statement. The AFA's worry is that DEI statements in practice are not subject to the normal normative appraisals that, say, a scholarly research portfolio are. Rather, they are subject to rigid ideological litmus tests where anyone who fails to mouth the preferred shibboleths is instantly dismissed from consideration.

Granting the conceptual validity of those concerns, though, the AFA's position still goes too far. Because the statement is at best unclear on what, if anything, could replace the DEI statement, it runs the risk of interfering with the academic freedom of existing faculty, who are deprived of information they think would be valuable in determining what constitutes a meritorious candidate and who will be a productive and sociable colleague. Again, it cannot be the case that hiring committees are simply not permitted to elicit information on this subject. And while there are no doubt diverse views on how best to actualize the value of being a good teacher and mentor to students of all backgrounds, we should not confuse that diversity for a job candidate's entitlement to simply not care about the question. It is one thing to take a minority view on the best way to support DEI values. It's another thing to take one's own indifference to facilitating an inclusive academic environment and elevate that apathy to a political principle. In my experience, dissidents who show they've thought about the question seriously and have a gameplan for addressing DEI issues will be given due consideration even if their proposals aren't in line with the de rigueur set of proposals. But very often, what one encounters instead are people who feel aggrieved at being asked to think about the question at all, or who project onto their peers a claimed reflexive dismissal in order to rationalize their own unwillingness to actually robustly defend their positions.

Given this, the problem cannot be with DEI statements themselves, but rather the potential for abusing such statements to enforce a narrow orthodoxy. Yet the AFA statement does not actually provide any evidence that such abuse is occurring at such high rates that DEI statements must be killed off entirely -- a showing that I believe would be necessary given the more obvious and immediate academic threat that exists from banning such statements. Such evidence would be hard to muster in any case, because it is quite difficult to distinguish between simple reflexive ideological dismissal, versus a considered professional judgment that a given articulation of how to best serve a diverse community and student body is poorly conceived.

In reality, the abuse-risk of evaluating a faculty candidate's DEI statement is little different than the abuse-risk of evaluating a faculty candidate's scholarship. There, too, there is the risk of ideologically-motivated dismissal. There, too, that admittedly abusive practice can be hard to distinguish from legitimate evaluative appraisals. There, too, it probably is the case that persons proffering dissident, provocative, or counter-cultural perspectives probably are at a comparative disadvantage. There, too, many candidates have long since learned to disguise their true scholarly agenda until they gain tenure; and there, too, there is a cottage industry of advice and mentoring centered around how to present one's portfolio in a manner most likely to be deemed attractive. Nothing is new under the sun.

But we do not throw the baby out with the bathwater on the scholarship side, and say that just because there's the potential for ideological abuse, it is fundamentally illegitimate for faculty candidates to provide a research agenda. Nor do we claim that the disappointed job candidate had an academic freedom entitlement to be hired to a given position, notwithstanding the presumably negative assessment his materials garnered from the hiring committee. If this is true on the research side, I don't see why it's any less true on the teaching side.

It is legitimate -- and dare I say, a prerogative of academic freedom -- for faculty members to want future colleagues and leaders to have thought hard about how they'll teach, mentor, and support a diverse student body. There's nothing shady about asking prospective applicants to share their views on that subject. It's probably the case that those with dissident views may have to overcome more skepticism, but that's an evergreen fact of applying to any job in any field at any time. The risk to academic freedom, if it exists at all, is no more extensive for diversity statements than it is for any other element of an academic applicant's portfolio.

New York Primary Predictions

It's primary day in New York (and Florida), and there are quite a few interesting races on tap. I'm not going to predict all of them, but I figure I'd lay a marker down on a few Democratic races.

NY-10: This is a complete free-for-all with at least six candidates still in at least plausible contention, none of whom have broken beyond the high teens or low twenties in polling. That said, Dan Goldman, a relative moderate, does seem to be very slightly pulling ahead, and he might be benefiting from the inability of the field to unite behind a single alternative. Carlina Rivera might have been the mild front-runner at one point, but seems to be fading down the stretch. Yuh-Line Niou is the progressive darling in the race who strikes me as having a very Bernie-like high floor/low ceiling profile, but that could actually work to her advantage in a highly fragmented field. Rep. Mondaire Jones is probably my favorite candidate, but he doesn't seem to quite be able to get out of traffic.

Ultimately, I think Goldman probably will win a very, very divided vote (I'm guessing Niou will poll second). I'm not super confident in that prediction. But I'm far more confident that if Goldman does win, he will not lose to Niou in a hypothetical general election rematch where the latter runs on the Working Families Party ticket -- some extremely wishful thinking from lefty commentators notwithstanding.

NY-12: A slugfest between two thirty-year veterans in Reps. Jerry Nadler and Carolyn Maloney, with newcomer Suraj Patel trying to sneak in between the two. Though Maloney represents more turf, she's been notably vulnerable in recent primaries (Patel held her to a tight race last cycle), and Nadler seems to be pulling away. I don't see Patel able to pull the upset, and I do think Nadler is going to end up prevailing.

NY-16: Rep. Jamaal Bowman has shown a bit of vulnerability in late polling, but he may benefit from a split in the anti-incumbent vote as both Vedat Gashi and Catherine Parker are waging credible campaigns. Gashi has gotten far more attention, but the only poll I've seen has Parker in the lead. For my part, I think Bowman will end up surviving, albeit with less than 50%.

NY-17: Rep. Sean Patrick Maloney pushed Rep. Mondaire Jones out of his seat, but then encountered an energetic primary challenge from State Sen. Alessandra Biaggi. Biaggi took down one of the IDC schmucks a few years back, so I have residual goodwill for that. But I also don't think she has the firepower or local base to take out the well-resourced Maloney. She also made what I consider to be a truly boneheaded decision to embrace the view that women past "childbearing age" won't care about reproductive rights, which seems outright suicidal in a contested primary.

As to the Florida race, I won't venture predictions on any of them, but I do want to keep an eye on the Republican contest in the FL-11, where incumbent Rep. Daniel Webster is facing a challenge from certified crank and absolute shonda Laura Loomer. It would be a tremendous embarrassment if Loomer wins (and if she wins, she's absolutely entering Congress in this strongly GOP district). But what is the GOP today, if not embarrassment persevering?

Monday, August 22, 2022

The Infantilization of the American Right Continues

Scott Lemieux has a good post overviewing and refuting claims that Democrats are responsible for Republicans nominating neo-fascist extremists like Doug Mastriano in Pennsylvania. The argument in favor is that some Democrats have spent money on ads which supposedly "boosted" Mastriano over his primary foes. This, critics continue, is recklessly irresponsible insofar as Mastriano is, again, a far-right lunatic whose presence within a country mile of levers of power would be an existential threat to democracy. 

The problem with this argument is that the ads in question are attack ads against Mastriano. They are clear and forthright that Mastriano is a neo-fascist extremist who represents an existential threat to democracy. They nonetheless "boost" him because Republicans like all of these things. But that's a problem with Republicans, not Democrats. As one commentator pointed out, it's one thing to run an ad that lies about the health benefits of poison -- if people ingest the poison, that's on you. It's another thing to run an ad that says "poison is dangerous!" only to witness scores of people say "actually, I love poison, I'm going to take a double dose!" That's on them.

The fact of the matter is that anti-democratic fascist flirtations are an overwhelmingly popular position amongst the GOP primary electorate. Mastriano's closest contender in the GOP primary was Lou Barletta, who is himself a far-right figure with a history of White supremacy. There was no constituency amongst Republicans for a non-poisonous figure, so Democrats hardly committed some foul by trying to inform the general electorate of who Doug Mastriano is.

Lemieux's post covers pretty much all I want to say. All I'll add is that we're just seeing the extension of the infantilization of the American right; perhaps the defining feature of American conservatism over the past six years. Republicans make terrible choices and then whine that Democrats aren't better babysitters. But that's not the job of Democrats. Republicans are adults, they can make their own choices, and they are consciously choosing to promote candidates with Nazi ties and fascist sympathies. That's bad. That's also their own decision, and trying to fob responsibility off onto Democrats is pathetic.

Monday, August 15, 2022

Is Liz Cheney Naive Enough To Run for President?

Settle a bet for me.

My dad and I had a bit of disagreement about Liz Cheney's future. Now, Liz Cheney is going to get throttled in her primary tomorrow. That is not the bet. And we both agree that Liz Cheney is fully aware she's going to get throttled tomorrow.

Where we disagree is on Cheney's next steps. My dad thinks she is gearing up for an independent presidential run. And I think she knows fully well that such a run will be utterly futile and useless, and is instead preparing for the life of "respected senior stateswoman". All the people breathlessly promising that She's Running in 2024 are the same people who come up with fantastical center-right independent candidacies for presidency every year (Bloomberg! Yang! Oprah!). It's a terminal illness amongst a certain type of pundit who has a just completely wrong idea of what is popular in American politics.

But maybe I'm wrong, and Cheney will throw her hat in the ring. What do you think?

Saturday, August 13, 2022

Who's Afraid of "Jewish" Steve Carrell? (Or, "Us Too-ism")

The JTA headline reads: "Creators of Hulu’s ‘The Patient’ defend casting Steve Carell as Jewish therapist in latest ‘Jewface’ flare-up". I hadn't heard of the story, let alone the "flare-up," so I was curious to see who was making what argument. Unfortunately, the article doesn't actually cite any live human being objecting to Carrell's casting, just a response to an apparently ambient "controversy" (the linked Variety article also doesn't name any specific critics). That said, I know that the "Jewface" controversy isn't completely made up out of thin air. I have seen real people level such concerns before.

Now I'll lay my cards on the table -- I'm not inherently bothered when non-Jewish actors are cast to play Jewish characters. Indeed, to some extent, I feel that some -- not all -- of the "Jewface" controversy is a sort of vulgar "us too-ism" that one sees substitute for genuine Jewish political engagement these days. 

What is "us too-ism"? Some Jews see a given political demand by another minority group (e.g., that Black actors should play Black characters), and then decide that if the powers-that-be don't give similar consideration to a Jewish parallel (Jewish actors playing Jewish characters), then it's proof that "Jews Don't Count" -- full stop. To be clear, it's not that there aren't valid parallels that can be drawn between the political demands of one group and another. But these parallels aren't automatic, and what defines "us too-ism" is that it doesn't pause to ask whether the Jewish community was actually organically bothered by the "exclusion" in the first place. The fact that another group has a demand suffices to make it into a Jewish entitlement as well -- if they're getting this accommodation, then by golly, "us too!" -- even if it never occurred to us to want it until we heard their demand. It's reactive rather than proactive, and often ends up confusing itself (e.g., simultaneously wanting "CRT for Jews" but also blaming "CRT" for why Jews don't count). 

In practice, "us too-ism" often occludes the rich specific history and context which generate organic demands for particular forms of cultural respect (e.g., that actors of X background should portray characters of that background), instead imagining them to stem from some inherent entitlement of "marginalized people" (and Jews are marginalized, so therefore, it fits "us too"). It flattens important points of distinction and differentiation across various social groups that are essential to understanding what actually is oppressing, hurting, or dominating any given group. That two groups are marginalized doesn't mean they're marginalized in the same way, and so it makes sense that a practice which deeply rankles members of marginalized group A doesn't significantly disturb group B. Normatively, it strikes me as self-defeating and self-victimizing to act as if that's a flaw in B's outlook. But at the extreme, "us too-ism" attacks Jews for not being offended by something, as if it is our obligation to feel marginalized by a phenomenon even if it doesn't actually bother us. This strikes me as a tremendously toxic obligation, and one I just refuse to abide by.

All that said, that something doesn't genuinely rankle me doesn't mean it might not do so for others, and I always want to be respectful of persons who do have thought-out arguments for why it is problematic for non-Jews to portray Jewish characters. I've heard these arguments aired more frequently in the context of Jewish actresses being passed over for Jewish parts (even as elsewhere in their careers they're typecast in particular roles because of their Jewishness), and since I'm situated differently vis-à-vis that debate I try to maintain a posture of open receptivity towards those arguments. Certainly, it strikes me as reasonable to care if Jewish actors and (perhaps especially?) actresses are not getting opportunities based on a too-Jewy/non-Jewy enough double bind where stereotypically Jewish features both exclude Jews from certain roles but then are accentuated or exaggerated in non-Jewish actors to Judaize them for the screen (see, e.g., the Bradley Cooper prosthetic nose controversy).

But beyond that, my primary concern is to care about the respectfulness of the representation far more than the personal identity of who is doing the representation. "Respectfulness", itself, is a site for contestation, and people can disagree. I like Rachel Brosnahan's Mrs. Maisel, and find her and Marvelous Mrs. Maisel an endearing portrayal of the sort of New York Jewish life that my parents were raised in. Others disagree, which, fine, but I defy anyone to say Midge Maisel is more offensive than Howard Wolowitz on The Big Bang Theory notwithstanding the fact that Simon Helberg is Jewish and Brosnahan isn't.

Basically, there are dimensions of this problem that are internal and external to the work. Externally, the question is whether Jewish actors and actresses face certain exclusions in the industry on account of their Jewishness -- exclusions which no doubt would make it extra-infuriating if they are later passed over for roles where their Jewish character would seem to be an asset. That was certainly the case for Jewish actors historically, the degree to which it continues to be so is an empirical question I don't know enough to register an opinion on. Internally, the question is whether there is something about being Jewish that is necessary to accurately or effectively portraying a given role in a respectful manner. To that, I say "no". Andre Braugher isn't gay, but his portrayal of Raymond Holt was rightly seen as a watershed performance. Stephanie Beatriz is bisexual, and the same was said for her performance as Rosa Diaz. Let a thousand flowers bloom.

But again, this is a subject where I'm happy to hear other opinions. That JTA and Variety couldn't actually name any critics of Carrell's casting can easily make one think that this "flare up" is a media invention. Is it? If anyone wants to come down to register their opposition to Carroll's casting on "Jewface" grounds, I'm glad to lend you my comment section.

Thursday, August 11, 2022

COVIDing in Summer 2022

So after two and a half years, COVID finally caught me (and my wife). We tested positive on Tuesday morning.

First thing is first: We're both doing okay, with only mild symptoms (mine slightly more severe than Jill's, though part of that might be attributable to me being much more of a baby about being sick). Over the past 36 hours or so, I've gone through essentially every symptom even remotely related to a flu or cold, including:

  • Sore throat
  • Sore chest
  • Cough
  • Vomiting (from the coughing)
  • Congestion
  • Runny nose
  • Lost voice
  • Loss of appetite
  • Upset stomach
  • Fatigue
  • Muscle aches
  • Fever
  • Chills
Individually, none of these symptoms were that bad -- I've had worse iterations of all of them (and the one symptom I haven't had is low blood-oxygen levels). But having every single one of them in rapid succession wasn't exactly fun.

Right now, I'm feeling okay -- mostly the congestion and lost voice linger. My biggest worry is the timeline for recovery, which seems markedly inconsistent across cases. Some people shake it off after a few days, others linger more or less indefinitely. I already had to cancel a surgical procedure I had scheduled for next week (great timing!), and my parents who were visiting this week have checked into a hotel (really great timing!). I really hope this won't endure into the school year. I doubt it will, but again, the uncertainty is weighing on me.

Most of all, though, I'm grateful that I'm fully vaccinated and boosted. Even under the best of circumstances, I have breathing issues (initially, I thought the COVID symptoms were either allergies or GERD), and I can easily imagine that if I were unprotected my experience with COVID could've been a lot worse. It is a sobering thing to realize that, if this had happened two years ago, I could have died. The development of these vaccines, in such a compressed timeline, is a true miracle, and I'm incredibly grateful to everyone who worked so hard to make it happen. It's not implausible to say I owe my life to it.

Here's to feeling better very shortly!

Tuesday, August 09, 2022

Imagine What They Can Do To You

 The GOP response to the FBI's raid on Mar-a-Lago has been very straightforward:

The immediate response to this was that I never doubted that the FBI was capable of getting a warrant to search my house if they established probable cause that I had committed a crime. Not only was that well within the realm of imagination, it'd be very bad if I couldn't imagine it!

But it when it comes down to "imagine what they can do to you", this isn't the story that is haunting. It was this Atlantic deep dive into how Trump's "family separation" policy was implemented.

Obviously, the basic fact patterns found in that story are terrifying. Imagining your small children ripped away from you, shipped to God knows where, with no guarantee you'll ever see them again -- it beggars belief. But there's a more fundamental horror at work here -- the impunity of power. In contrast to the formal legal process that resulted in the Mar-a-Lago raid, processes which will be challengeable in a courtroom and held to significant judicial scrutiny, the parents and children victimized by Trump's family separation policy were thrust into a chaotic state of legal limbo defined by the fact that nobody would, or could, help them. Can you imagine that? Can you imagine your child gone missing, and your frantic pleas for help just ... ignored? Not even that people try to help and fail -- they won't help at all. You're in the most dire crisis imaginable, and the men and women in uniform who seem like they should be tasked with helping you, who seem like they have the power to end the nightmare, just leave you to twist?

The argument against allowing the Mar-a-Lago raid is little more complex than the belief that if you become powerful enough, the law should no longer apply to you. That form of entitled impunity is not at all unrelated to the administrative lawlessness and abandonment that characterized how the family separation victims were traumatized. In either case, the message is that one's ability to claim the protections of the law is wholly a function of whether you possess the requisite amount of social power. If you're part of the favored in-class -- the Trumps of the world -- then law will bend over backwards to ensure you have your hearing. If you're on the outside looking in, then law will ignore you no matter how loud you scream.

Imagine what that could mean for you.

Wednesday, August 03, 2022

Assessing AIPAC's Victories

Last night, Rep. Haley Stevens soundly defeated fellow incumbent Rep. Andy Levin in a D-on-D Michigan primary matchup. The race drew significant attention in the Jewish community because of the gobs of money AIPAC spent seeking to oust Levin and support Stevens. Levin earned AIPAC's ire because he is a vigorous proponent of America taking more robust steps to protect a two-state solution for Israel and Palestine -- including steps which entail places checks on Israeli government policies which place that solution in jeopardy. While I endorsed Levin, I want to be clear that I harbor no ill-will towards Haley Stevens, whom I also like and have zero qualms supporting in the 2022 general.

In any event, as the primary season nears its conclusion, it is fair to say that AIPAC's initial foray into direct candidate advocacy has been relatively successful. So far, it has notched ten victories against two defeats in the Democratic primaries it has substantially invested in. To be fair, that figure is a bit misleading, as in many of the races AIPAC either was backing a candidate who already came in as a favorite, or were in relatively low-salience open-seat races where AIPAC's firehose of cash swamped the field. For example, Stevens entered the race against Levin as the substantial favorite -- more of her old turf than Levin's was placed in the new district they both ran in, and she is generally regarded as a better and more natural campaigner than Levin. Indeed, my hot take was that Stevens probably would've bested Levin even without AIPAC's giant cash infusion. But certainly, AIPAC probably is relatively happy with its performance thus far.

What AIPAC bought with its investment into the Stevens campaign was the ability to write a narrative. It's hoping the political message taken from Stevens' victory includes lessons like "pro-Israel is good politics" or "supporting conditioning aid on Israel is a sucker's bet in Democratic politics." Needless to say, AIPAC's critics are hard at work resisting these narratives and trying to spin out others of their own ("AIPAC is a vector for letting GOP billionaires take over Democratic politics"). Meanwhile, as in nearly all races of this sort, the national attention on the race (centered on Israel/Palestine) almost certainly had relatively little impact on the local considerations that drive votes one way or another. At the end of the day, Stevens won her old turf, Levin won his old turf, but the new portions of the districts, formerly represented by Rep. Brenda Lawrence, went to Stevens -- who had Lawrence's endorsement. The actual lessons may not be much more complicated than that.

I want to do my best to separate wheat from chaff here. There are lessons to be drawn from AIPAC's victories this primary season. Though not every ecstatic claim of AIPAC supporters can be borne out, they have proven some lessons true.

At the most basic level, AIPAC's argument is that its primary victories show that Democratic voters support its version of "pro-Israel" politics. Yet this, I will suggest, remains unproven. As much as it has spent on these races, AIPAC has been notorious for virtually never speaking about Israel or Israel-policy in its advertisements or promotions of its preferred candidates. This suggests that it doesn't think that issue is necessarily a winner for them.

However, it does seem true that running against AIPAC's policies is not a winning strategy in most Democratic primaries. This is, perhaps, another "Twitter is not real-life" lesson -- the excitement and enthusiasm one sees online for a candidate who "stands up to the Israel Lobby" is not reflected in on-the-ground political performance. While it's unclear that voters affirmatively value AIPAC-style "pro-Israel" politics, it's quite evident that they don't find even Levin-style two-stateism to be a major political motivator. Similarly, it seems pretty clear that -- as of right now at least -- AIPAC has not faced any substantial backlash from Democratic voters for backing insurrectionist Republicans. A Democratic candidate who is viewed as "the pro-life candidate" is toxic in a 2022 Democratic primary. A Democratic candidate who is viewed as "the AIPAC candidate" isn't. This might change over time -- I suspect there is quite a bit of festering ill-will towards AIPAC amongst many Democratic Party actors that is waiting for an opportunity to burst forth -- but right now, AIPAC's position is secure.

It's also worth noting, in the context of right-wing Jews crowing about Levin's defeat to Stevens, that AIPAC's success does seem to decisively falsify the alarmist and opportunist narrative that the Democratic Party is being "taken over" by anti-Israel forces, that such positions are the new normal or mainstream in Democratic political life, and so on. To be clear, I find it repulsive to argue that Andy Levin in any way represents an "anti-Israel" position. But the point is one cannot simultaneously promote all of AIPAC's successes in Democratic primaries while also saying that the true soul of the Democratic Party is irreducibly hostile to Israel.

I also do think it's fair to say that AIPAC has reestablished some of its perhaps decayed deterrent effect. Democrats know that if they get on AIPAC's bad side, it can and will dump vast sums of money into ousting them from office. And by the same token, if they play ball with AIPAC they can access those same sums for themselves. That's a powerful inducement.

That said, the question of how AIPAC's interventions will affect political decision-making by prospective Democratic politicians on Israel is more complicated than might appear at first blush. I do think that, on average, a lesson that will be learned by many mainstream Democrats is "don't get on AIPAC's bad side", and to that end will result in more Democrats taking up AIPAC-friendly positions. Those positions include nominal support for a two-state solution -- AIPAC does that too -- so long as that support doesn't take the form of ever asking for any pressure on Israel or demands that America use its leverage to pushback against Israeli decisions that are destructive to the possibility of eventually establishing a Palestinian state. However, I also think that AIPAC has also paradoxically opened space for at least some Democrats to be more radical on the issue -- for example, in endorsing one-statism* -- because they'll internalize the lesson that more "moderate" approaches like Levin's robust two-stateism don't offer any political advantage.

Let's simplify potential Democratic Israel positions into three categories: (1) AIPAC-style status quo (represented by someone like Stevens), (2) The Andy Levin or J Street style two-stateism , or (3) Rashida Tlaib style one-stateism. Of course, some politicians have very strong feelings on this question and will choose based on those deeply-felt sentiments. However, my core model assumes that most politicians don't have hard-and-fast policy preferences on most issues. Rather, on most issues beyond the rarefied few they care deeply about, they will choose the political path-of-least-resistance amongst the set of choices which meet their basic criteria of moral tolerability, even if a different choice might be closer to their ideal ideological preference. So if we imagine a politician who really doesn't care one way or another about Israel/Palestine -- they are at least not repelled by any of the three forms of Israel positions above -- they won't adopt the position they "believe in" the most, they'll pick the position that is politically easiest and least likely to generate controversy or backlash. AIPAC's victories have strongly suggested that, in many contexts, that would be position #1 -- even in Democratic primaries. And to that extent, AIPAC probably will succeed in moving the Democratic needle towards its preferences.

However, we can also imagine a different sort of potential progressive candidate, one who does not find AIPAC-style status quo advocacy to be morally tolerable. For this candidate, the two viable choices for their Israel/Palestine positions are categories #2 and #3. Historically, many would have picked door #2, again, because it's the path of political least resistance. Indeed, if such a candidate a few years ago had asked me for advice -- had said that they had serious concerns about Israel's behavior and they simply couldn't endorse a position of total and unconditional support -- I'd have told them that, so long as they supported two states and opposed BDS, they'd probably be okay. They wouldn't necessarily be endeared to AIPAC or other like actors, but they wouldn't be seen as beyond the pale either. But endorse BDS, or oppose Israel's existence outright, and the full sound and fury would fall onto them.

But now AIPAC may have changed the calculus. By going scorched earth on Levin, it sends the message that it views categories #2 and #3 as equally destructive. Suddenly, door #2 is not a political "path of least resistance" compared to door #3. And if they're both going to bring AIPAC's full fury down upon the candidate, well, at that point you might as well choose based on your ideological preference. Some of these candidates, will sincerely prefer robust two-stateism over one-stateism (that characterizes me, for instance), so their behavior shouldn't change. But some will no doubt prefer one-stateism, and lacking any political rationale for tacking towards the center, they won't do it anymore.

I worry that this might be the lesson people draw from the Donna Edwards/Glenn Ivey race -- another where AIPAC dumped massive sums of money into the contest. Again, all politics is local and Ivey's victory likely reflects factors that overwhelmingly have nothing to do with AIPAC or Israel. But if one looks at Edwards' trajectory entering this race, and in particular how she tried to heal old suspicions held by Maryland's Jewish voters, it seems hard to argue that she is now (if she ever was) some sort of anti-Israel firebreather. She was never going to be AIPAC's poster girl, but she made a concerted effort to pinch towards the center and assuage Jewish concerns about her record. The result was less than nothing -- AIPAC spends eight figures on sinking her career. To be clear: I have no reason to think that Edwards' moves were anything other than sincere, or that she secretly harbors one-state sympathies. Nonetheless, there absolutely will be other politicians in Edwards' position who may decide "why bother?" There's no sense going through all this effort to listen and grow and build bridges and try and find common ground if they're going to go scorched earth regardless.

In short: there is likely a set of candidates who (a) find both one-stateism and robust two-stateism tolerable, (b) marginally prefer one-stateism over robust two-stateism, (c) would nonetheless back robust two-stateism if that was the path of political least resistance. If robust two-stateism no longer offers any political advantage, they're likely to begin promoting one-stateism. To be clear, these candidates are still likely to lose. AIPAC's hammer puts them at a decided disadvantage. But their logic will be "I'm likely to lose either way, so I might as well swing for the fences." Indeed, there's not just a moral but an instrumental logic here. Consider two strategies: One will have you lose by 10 points in 10/10 races. The second will have you lose by 30 points in 9/10 races, and win by 2 points in the tenth. The rational political actor should choose the second strategy, even if it is objectively less popular (a point I've made regarding the future of BDS in Democratic Party politics)!

Paradoxically, AIPAC may encourage some number of Democratic candidates in the more liberal tranche of the party to start supporting a one-state solution who otherwise would not have done so. And the odds are some of them will end up prevailing in their races (if only because of idiosyncratic local factors). There's a real chance that an upshot of AIPAC's intervention will be to strengthen the political power of the one-state caucus -- not because of some political backlash, but based on how it has altered the political calculus amongst more progressive-minded actors. In many ways, it is J Street that is more of a loser than AIPAC is a winner, and I expect J Street's influence to bleed out not just towards AIPAC, but also towards more radical and uncompromising anti-Israel actors and the far-left. For someone with my politics, that is perhaps the most depressing lesson of all.

So to sum up, here are the lessons I think can be validly drawn from AIPAC's performance this election cycle:

(1) While it isn't demonstrated that Democratic voters support AIPAC's brand of "pro-Israel" policies, it does seem clear that they aren't especially moved or motivated by major alternatives. The political energy behind any alternative to what AIPAC pushes -- whether it's Levin's robust two-state Zionism or explicit non- or anti-Zionist positions -- is vastly exaggerated and isn't translating to on-the-ground political power.

(2) AIPAC, and its affiliates, are not toxic brands in Democratic primaries.

(3) The Democratic Party, including its base, are not "anti-Israel" or sympathetic to "anti-Israel" positions in any meaningful respect.

(4) AIPAC has restored some "deterrent effect" against Democrats who might consider crossing them, at least in circumstances where the Democrat has other political vulnerabilities that can be leveraged (such as after redistricting). Likewise, AIPAC has credibly indicated it can and will substantially invest to support Democrats whom it feels favorable towards.

(5) The average Democratic politician who is not substantially invested in Israel/Palestine as an issue will likely move their position marginally closer to AIPAC's as "political path of least resistance".

(6) Left-wing Democrats who are sympathetic to one-stateism or other more radical anti-Israel positions, but who had been hewing to more J Street style stances because they thought they'd be more politically palatable, may reassess the utility of relative moderation and become more open in their anti-Israel declarations.

* Not the apartheid one-statism where Israel controls the entire territory and Palestinians are perpetual second-class citizens -- AIPAC is clearly fine with that.

Sunday, July 31, 2022

The Epistemic Dimension of Antisemitism: The Case of Navi Pillay

The Journal of Jewish Identities just published my most recent article, "The Epistemic Dimension of Antisemitism." Basically, the article looks at antisemitism through the prism of "epistemic injustice" -- wronging Jews in our capacity as knowers. This is distinct from more "traditional" forms of antisemitism like overt hatred or disdain (though obviously they can be related and support one another). 

To give an example: One can (and many antisemites do) view Jews as a world-dominating cabal that controls critical social enterprises like the media, Hollywood, and the financial industry. Unsurprisingly, those who hold that view often also are affectively antagonistic towards Jews (few think Jews run the world and are thankful for what a bang-up job they think we're doing). But it's also likely that someone who holds this view will take certain stances about Jewish credibility. They're liable to think that Jews cannot be trusted, that we're always working the angles, that our testimonial offerings are likely in service of a deeper game. Even if, for whatever reason, they do not have an explicitly hateful attitude towards Jews, they might be distinctively mistrustful or dismissive towards Jews when we venture opinions in the public square -- even, or perhaps especially, if those opinions are on matters that are central to Jews' own experience.

The essay, of course, goes into more detail. But as it happens, an incident that occurred almost simultaneously with the publication of the essay provides a solid real-world illustration. In an interview with the pro-Palestinian website Mondoweiss, Miloon Kothari, a member of the United Nations Human Rights Council's special commission into Israel and the Palestinian territories, made several remarks which generated a swift backlash from American and Jewish diplomatic officials

In particular, Kothari alleged that the "Jewish lobby" controls social media to the detriment of his work:

“We are very disheartened by the social media that is controlled largely by – whether it is the Jewish lobby or specific NGOs, a lot of money is being thrown into trying to discredit us.”

(Elsewhere, he appeared to question the validity of Israel's membership in the UN -- we'll leave that part aside).

Unsurprisingly, these comments were, to say the least, not well received in the Jewish community. But Kothari's colleague Navi Pillay, former United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, rose to Kothari's defense and claimed that he was the victim of a "deliberate" campaign to misquote and falsify what Kothari actually said. Kothari's comments, Pillay argued, were "deliberately been taken out of context" and Kothari was "deliberately misquoted to imply that 'social media' was controlled by the Jewish lobby."

Kothari's comment about "the Jewish lobby", expressing frustration by and antagonism towards what he takes to be the "Jewish lobby's" ability to "control" social media, seems an easy case of antisemitism under traditional articulations. Pillay's defense of Kothari, by contrast, sounds in a epistemic dimension. She dismisses the testimonial offerings of Kothari's critics who claim antisemitism by claiming they are engaging in a "deliberate" campaign of falsification. The purpose is to sabotage the basic testimonial validity of those claiming antisemitism by declaring the allegations to violate basic norms that undergird legitimate discourse (e.g., honesty and sincerity).

For starters, Pillay does not actually identify, or even attempt to identify, any misquote or missing context that has undergirded those criticizing Kothari. To the contrary,  most of the media sources I've seen reporting on the story have quoted Kothari verbatim. They haven't, for instance, just said something like "Kothari attacked the 'Jewish lobby'" and left readers to wonder what the relevant sentence actually said. They have by and large included most if not all of the above block quote. Meanwhile, the quotations themselves were taken from Mondoweiss, an outlet which is supremely unlikely to have misquoted Kothari or taken him out of context in a manner that would assist pro-Israel commentators. Pillay's claim of false testimony is not just unsupported, it does not even gesture at anything that might support it. So how could she possibly think her contentions will carry any credence? The most likely answer is that she thinks -- and she's probably correct -- she can draw on a reservoir of epistemic antisemitism where people are predisposed to believe that Jews and those advocating on our behalf are liars, manipulators, cheats, and bad-faith actors. Only in a world where such epistemic beliefs about Jews are taken for granted could such naked and obviously unsupported complaints about misquotes be thought to stand a chance of success.

All of that would be bad enough. But there's also on top of this Pillay's choice to say that these alleged-but-not-demonstrated falsifications were "deliberate". This is a charge Pillay repeats, so it is no stray bit of rhetoric. Supposing, for sake of very strained argument, we did think there was something to the notion that Kothari was being taken out of context. That still hardly would establish that Kothari's critics were acting deliberately. Even if, for some reason, one thought there was a perfectly innocent explanation for what Kothari said, surely it is not unreasonable to think that Jews could in good faith perceive that passage about "the Jewish lobby" as being problematic. The most likely explanation for the divergence between how Jews interpreted what Kothari said and how Pillay does so would be such good faith disagreement. 

But Pillay refuses to allow for anything other than conscious malice. It is not just that Kothari's critics are wrong, they are intentionally wrong, they are lying, they are smearing. In my article, I make the following observation:

[A]ntisemitism allegations are divided into a sharp binary: those which are incontestable and those which are in bad faith. In this binary, there can be no such thing as an antisemitism claim which one, personally, doesn’t agree with but which is accepted to lie within the legitimate boundaries of argument. Every instance of supposed antisemitism that is disputable must be invalid altogether. The “zone of contestation,” where we agree to investigate claims under a posture of open receptivity, because we concede we’re not immediately sure of the right answer, implodes because there’s never actually any controversy: either a claim is so obviously true that it smacks us in the face or it is so obviously false that it can dismissed out of hand.

Pillay defaults to making unsupported, and unsupportable, claims of deliberate lies because the architecture of epistemic antisemitism assumes that the only reason Jews would ever level a claim of antisemitism that one might disagree with is because they're lying about it. Pillay thinks Kothari is not antisemitic, therefore, anyone arguing otherwise simply must be lying. The false allegations of misquotation or missing context flow naturally from this.

Certainly, I don't mean to set up a sharp dichotomy between "traditional" and "epistemic" varieties of antisemitism. One sees elements of each in the conduct of both Pillay and Kothari -- one could easily view Pillay as expressing not just mistrust but antagonism towards the (Jewish or Jewish-coded critics) whom she cavalierly smears as liars, and Kothari's claims about the "Jewish lobby's" outsized influence on social media obviously has epistemic implications about the validity of their discursive contributions to debates over Israel and Palestine. Nonetheless, this incident I think does a decent job of highlighting the distinctive nature of the epistemic strain. It is unfortunate, but not surprising, to see UN officials at the center of such a story. But nobody should be under any illusions that Turtle Bay or Geneva is the only location where it occurs.