Saturday, January 29, 2022

Safety Through Solidarity (Or Else)

In the wake of the Colleyville synagogue hostage crisis, two things became clear about the congregation's approach to its safety and standing in the broader community. One was that the Rabbi had deep pre-existing relations with the local police and groups like the ADL, whose support and training he credited for ensuring that all the hostages emerged alive. The second was that the Rabbi had been intricately connected to interfaith and community-building initiatives, and was widely praised for his work in that domain. The former might be thought of as the "traditional" approach to Jewish security; the latter related to what is sometimes called "safety through solidarity."

In the case of Colleyville, these two approaches worked in tandem with one another, and to that extent they represent a success story (insofar as we can call anything about Colleyville a "success"). A Jewish life that is self-consciously isolated from our neighbors and their concerns, that solely concentrates on building walls and fortresses and maintaining access to state power and SWAT teams, will be something stilted and shallow. At the same time, "safety through solidarity" simply does not have anything to offer to provide "safety" as against a Colleyville style incident, at least in the short- to mid-term. Both approaches can do certain things but cannot do others. So they compliment one another. There can of course be squabbles about what issue belongs on what turf -- we can, for example, disagree on whether particular antisemitic incidents are best addressed through criminal law enforcement (even if the Colleyville case is an obvious call). But in the main, the Colleyville congregation did not choose one or the other, and its two-track approach served it well. And anyone who takes from Colleyville that the synagogue should abandon the solidaristic part of its mission, that it now should only rely on the police and the guns and the walls and the fortifications, is I think badly missing the point.

However. There is a version of "safety through solidarity" that does not accept the validity of this two-track approach. Insofar as a synagogue choices to have relationships with the local police, and groups like the ADL, it is, the argument goes, consciously choosing to forgo the solidaristic route and should be condemned for it. Few were so crass as to make that argument directly about the Colleyville synagogue while the crisis was ongoing. But as memories fade (and they seem to fade quickly), people become more brazen in acting as if the only reason a synagogue would have these connections with law enforcement is due to a self-conscious decision to imbricate themselves into a system of White supremacy. A synagogue or Jewish community that elects to do that is a synagogue that is electing out of "safety through solidarity". It is instead one that is choosing unabashed and unapologetic harm to the communities that might offer "solidarity", and so can be spurned in turn.

In this register, the mantra "safety through solidarity" is not outreach. It is a threat. It is a threat because, again, "safety through solidarity" has no reply to Colleyville-style incidents. There was no real, realistic alternative in Colleyville other than the use of police. Colleyville illustrates decisively how these sorts of partnerships and initiatives and relationships are essential to Jewish safety; they cannot simply be "dropped". Outside cases like Colleyville, the security network that has been developed by groups like the ADL in partnership, yes, with law enforcement is not easily replaced even if we can imagine myriad ways in which it could modified or supplemented. And yet the demand is not to see reform or alteration, it is to see them dropped, dropped immediately, dropped without real replacement, and if they're not dropped then the synagogue has marked itself as an enemy -- if they're left to survive on their own, well, the blood is on them and their children.

Mantra notwithstanding, this is not actual "solidarity", this is ultimatum -- and it's an ultimatum that everyone knows cannot and will not be generally accepted. Ironically enough, when presented in this form, "safety through solidarity" becomes a vehicle for fraying bonds of solidarity that might otherwise take root (imagine if all the churches and mosques with which the Colleyville synagogue had been doing laudatory interfaith work decided to pull out because the congregation was tainted by its association with the ADL). And that is a nasty threat indeed -- the impossible dilemma between staying alive and staying in community.

A genuine solidaristic approach would understand the promises and limits of the solidaristic approach, at least over the foreseeable future. Even to the extent we disagree about the extent to which police are necessary, there has to be recognition that the choice by Jewish communal institutions to have these relationships with law enforcement is not reducible to simply "endorsing White supremacy"; the basic respect that undergirds any genuine solidaristic relationship demands at least that much. After all, there is no major racial, religious, or ethnic community in the United States right now that is primarily comprised of police abolitionists; it would be folly to make ACAB a litmus test before solidarity can be extended, and for the most part it is not a litmus test demanded before solidarity is extended. It is entirely possible -- and the Colleyville congregation is by all accounts a sterling example -- to build out bonds of solidarity and community under circumstances where there is tension and disagreement, to hash those disagreements out, to find areas where the ball can be pushed forward, and to think creatively towards new solutions to seemingly intractable dilemmas. But that process cannot be circumvented by ultimatum, and those who try are not I think actually all that interested in developing genuine solidaristic relationships.

There are very, very good reasons why the Jewish community tries to build up relationships with law enforcement agencies. There are very, very good reasons why the Jewish community has organizations like the ADL. Part of building up solidaristic relationships means understanding these necessities and these relationships. Once that happens, we can think about how their contours might be modified or altered -- they are not sacrosanct. The Colleyville congregation, by all accounts, is an example of a Jewish institution that seems genuinely committed to doing this work and doing it right, proof positive that one can build out solidarity while still maintaining the requisite relationships necessary in the event of calamity. They deserve immense praise for that, a model that can be emulated. But skipping that work and beginning with the ultimatum is not solidarity. It is a threat. And Jews are not wrong to hear it as one.

Sola IHRA Scriptura

A bit player in a certain Jewish drama which I otherwise will not name was the allegation that a given person had betrayed the Jewish people by suggesting that the IHRA definition of antisemitism could be improved upon. As a Nexus guy, I of course have a vested interest in not viewing IHRA as infallible (even as I also don't endorse the view that it is some sort of censorial disaster). But as a person who can read, it is very difficult for me to see how anyone could look at IHRA and think "yup, that's it. Nothing more on antisemitism needs to be said."

Yet I have noticed on more than one occasion the adoption of a decidedly un-Jewish sola scriptura attitude towards IHRA. IHRA's text is viewed as sacred and unchallengeable. This goes beyond a negative attitude towards efforts to supplant IHRA (e.g., by the JDA); any endeavor to try to interpret or improve upon it represents a threat to the Jewish community. IHRA alone can tell us all we need to know about antisemitism.

It is an interesting thing about sola scriptura that it frequently is paradoxically unconcerned with close  and careful readings of the text. The belief that the text contains all necessarily requires a fair amount of self-deception, since no text actually can contain all; hence, those who assert IHRA uber alles inevitably have to read a fair amount into, and out of, what IHRA actually says. At that point one might wonder why they bother professing that sort of commitment to IHRA -- why not admit the project of thinking about antisemitism remains live and open to further exegesis and interpretation? And the answer is that sola scriptura isn't really about the text-qua-text, it's about the text-qua-symbol. Sola scriptura texts are those which are held out as authoritative and unchallengeable, and that is the character that interpretive freedom threatens.

IHRA is, as I've said many times before, best characterized as having received a battlefield promotion to reach its current perch as the definition of antisemitism. Basically, the Jewish community, most prominently during the Labour antisemitism crisis, needed something we could point to that could be plausibly held out as authoritative; a criteria for saying "this is antisemitism" that wasn't reliant on a case-by-case "because we say so". To be clear, the reason this was a necessity was because in the relevant combat non-Jews were extremely reluctant, to say the least, to credit Jewish assertions about what was antisemitism (hence battlefield promotion). The need in question was, in essence, to say "don't believe me, believe this authoritative definition which existed independent of the current controversy." 

Obviously, pointing to a specific definition of antisemitism wouldn't eliminate contentious debates on the subject -- IHRA obviously didn't -- but it would channel them. Instead of a free-for-all battle over each and every antisemitism claim, we could reduce the debate down to two far more manageable questions: (1) do you accept the authoritative definition, and if so (2) does the controversy in question violate that definition? In this world, those who answer "no" to question one are straightforwardly marking themselves off as adversaries to Jewish communal consensus, not on an idiosyncratic case level, but on a core framing question. So the authoritative definition has a secondary virtue -- it can demarcate between those who are reasonably positioning themselves as friends to and allies of the Jewish community, and those who are adopting a confrontational or adversarial posture to it.

In terms of why it was IHRA, specifically, that became the definition, the reason really is no more complicated than the simple fact that it existed and it was available. And, under the circumstances, I don't begrudge its service. IHRA got thrown into a fire and did the best it could. But a main virtue being "it existed" does not lend itself to ideal theoretical or practical efficacy. One simply cannot read IHRA and think it comprehensively tells us that which we need to know about antisemitism. Its "core definition" is vague to the point of meaninglessness, its definitions are fine as far as they go but omit many crucial domains of antisemitism, and its essential caveat that we must "consider the context" before rendering a judgment is important but is not adorned with much in the way of telling readers what context ought point us toward one conclusion or another. All of these beg for more thoroughness and more fleshing out.

Yet one can understand, given its origin story, why many are reluctant to concede that IHRA can be improved upon. If IHRA is open to question, then IHRA's claim to be authoritative falters, and we risk falling back into the world where antisemitism claims are judged on a free-for-all basis -- and the ensuing fear that these judgments, infected as they are by general disregard for Jewish opinions, will be systematically slanted against the Jews (the proverbial "ally" who promises he will fight the "real antisemitism", but strangely seems to have never actually encountered that rara avis).

So IHRA becomes untouchable -- not as a text, but as a symbol. This has been a prevailing theme of what I've written about IHRA (and, in a somewhat different but related fashion, the JDA): they matter far less for what they say than what they mean, and that meaning has relatively little to do with a lawyerly reading of their texts. IHRA represents the ability to cleanly and confidently divide the world into allies and adversaries of the Jews; to know who one's friends and enemies are. And IHRA likewise represents an at least imagined respite from the constant bickering over antisemitism, over having to re and re-re-litigate every single issue and small point over and over again until death take us. These are not things the text can promise, but they are things the symbolism can promise -- if, again, IHRA is taken to be unchallengeable, unimprovable, and unalterable. It is, in this sense, a very jealous God indeed.

Tuesday, January 25, 2022

An Axe-less Billions?

* Some spoilers of prior Billions seasons*

Showtime did a special early release of the Billions Season 6 premier, thus giving us our first taste of a truly Axe-less series (Damien Lewis gave a never-say-never answer regarding a possible return, but didn't sound enthused). Can the show survive without one of its two leading men?

To be honest, it's really hard to say. On the one hand: Axe was an incredibly magnetic presence. Given how much I disliked Lewis in Homeland, it was astounding how well he played this character, and absolutely sold him as a true force of nature of the sort I can't easily think of paralleled on television. Paul Giamatti is great and Maggie Siff is an absolute legend, but Axe drives the story in a way nobody else does because Axe bends the world in a way nobody else did. Several characters -- most notably Wags, but even Wendy to an extent -- are almost impossible to imagine outside of Axe's orbit.

Meanwhile, Mike Prince is no Bobby Axelrod -- hell, he's no Rebecca Cantu -- and it's one hell of a void he's tasked to fill. Certainly, no other character has come close to equaling Axe as a foil for Chuck -- not Jock, not Connerty, not Dake (Taylor may be the closest, but they weren't really a foil for Chuck -- they always made for a more interesting partner-adversary to Axe). Moreover, I didn't find the end of Axe's arc to be particularly satisfying. On a character level, I can buy him retreating to Switzerland for awhile -- even a full season -- to lick his wounds. But would he actually permanently slink away in defeat? Not a chance. Of course, Damien Lewis isn't bound to perpetual service, so the show has to do what it can with what it has -- but in-universe the play of events doesn't fully work.

On the other hand: It is fair to say that Billions was starting to spin its wheels regarding the Axe/Chuck battle (my wife and I both affectionately characterized it as "will-they-won't-they", only with a decisive resolution rather than sex). There are only so many times one can set and reset the chess pieces between them, and as evenly matched as they are, they're both too smart for one to not eventually learn how to gain a decisive edge over the other. At some point, relying on their well-established personal defects stops being a character note and starts being a failure to grow. Taking Axe off the board allows for a new and fresh direction for Chuck as much as anyone. That Prince is not Axe means that everyone's relationship with Prince -- Chuck's including -- is going to be something somewhat different than what we've seen before.

On a similar note, as much as Axe's insane personal magnetism was a delight to watch, his departure may allow for some of the ensemble cast, particularly those on the finance side of the battle line, to shine whereas previously they were inevitably overshadowed. Taylor -- perhaps the only character who even attempted to assert themselves as an equal to Axe -- is an obvious candidate to emerge, but one hopes that some smaller but beloved players like Dollar Bill and Mafee (they are coming back, right?) and Bonnie and Victor might get some more love and care. (On Chuck's side, we've been long overdue for a major Sacker arc, but that's not immediately affected one way or another by Axe's departure).

In any event, I suppose we'll soon see. Billions has been one of my absolute favorite series' on television, and my hope is it will remain in that lofty tier. But Showtime series do sometimes have a tendency to overstay their welcome, and it's easy to imagine an Axe-less Billions being too-pale an imitation of its former glory.