Friday, February 18, 2022

Who's Afraid of Jewish Priorities?

The JTA reported yesterday that the Jewish Federations of North America, the umbrella organization of local Jewish Federations, had removed several prominent issues -- such as gun control, LGBTQ rights, and voting rights -- from its list of "policy priorities". The relevant document now speaks in far vaguer generalities about "policies that ensure justice and equity" and promoting "resources to combat abuse and harassment." Many suspected the change came at the behest of conservative elements in the Jewish community annoyed that our umbrella organizations were tackling issues they view as politically controversial or contested. The document does continue to specifically list "support for Israel" as an ongoing policy priority.

For their part, JFNA officials claimed that the change was meant to permit local federations to be more "nimble" in their approach, and contended that it was "misleading" to suggest it constituted a backtracking on prior commitments to at least LGBTQ and gun control issues. It's decision to speak in terms of more "theme-based priorities" should not be seen as a denigration of the importance of specific issues like guns or gay rights (I actually have not seen, in any of the subsequent commentaries and apologies from JFNA spokespersons, an express mention of voting rights as a continued priority area).

I seem to recall a branch of Jewish public discourse that was positively furious anytime, say, "antisemitism" was left unnamed or held to be subsumed under some generic commitment to "equality". They would call that move "all lives matter-ing" the issue; perhaps we could refer to the JFNA's new approach as one of "all issues matter"? In any event, it seems quite evident that the move away from explicitly naming these issues as priorities is an attempt to decenter them, and that in turn is yet another example of mainstream Jewish organizations kowtowing to right-wing pressure even in the face of an obvious Jewish consensus.

For example, polls indicate that on the matter of guns, Jews have a perfectly robust consensus: 70% favoring a pro-gun control position versus 25% opposed. That 25% figure, incidentally, is about the same as the percentage of Jews who stake out anti-Israel positions that sharply deviate from what JFNA and like organizations would no doubt consider "support for Israel". To be clear, I don't have any objection to the JFNA representing the huge majority of Jews who do care a lot about "support for Israel" over the comparatively small minority that takes the dissident view. But the point is that the "consensus" around the two issues is identical, yet it's no accident which one the JFNA feels comfortable cutting loose. It is part of a long pattern and practice of Jewish communal organizations taking liberal Jews -- the Jewish majority! -- for granted, and thumbing us in the eye as expendable. Our issues can be thrown out, even if they carry huge majority support, based on mewling complaints from the right flank -- a privilege never accorded to liberal Jews objecting to more conservative priority areas.

The issues that JFNA decided they now want to soft-pedal for fear of upsetting delicate conservative feelings are policy arenas which are reaching a crisis point in 2022. After Colleyville and Louisville, can we really say gun violence is no longer a critical area? We're seeing a veritable torrent of state legislative action targeting queer and especially trans youth for ostracism and discrimination, a pattern that has only accelerated over the last year. And of course, on the question of voting rights, following 1/6 and the Supreme Court's laser-like determination to gut the Voting Rights Act, the basic precepts of American democracy may never have been under more direct threat in my lifetime. To deprioritize them now represents an appalling abdication of duty.

The broad point is this: when the JFNA decides to decenter and soft play issues like gun control and voting rights, they are not acting to promote "Jewish priorities". They are afraid of "Jewish priorities". They think "Jewish priorities" are too partisan, too controversial -- frankly, too liberal -- to fit within their comfort level. And so they make the decision to jettison them. That's them selling out the very people they purport to represent. It's outrageous, and they deserve every bit of blowback they've gotten over this.

I wrote a somewhat ... pointed ... email to my contacts at the Portland JFed making these points, and both urging that the local organization continue to be clear it will work in these policy arenas and communicating to the national office that it cannot keep selling out the liberal Jewish majority like this. I received a perfectly nice note back confirming that our local JCRC has and will continue to advocate in all of these areas (though demurring on calling out the national body). But it is important to keep the heat on (and I think it's notable that the JFNA clearly did feel some heat and responded somewhat defensively). These organizations have to come to understand that "Jewish consensus" is not "when the right agrees with the center".

UPDATE: The JFNA has released a new document which adds back in many of these priorities. One can still quibble with the details, and be annoyed at their initial skittishness, but it is a good thing they both felt and were responsive to community pressure on this axis.

Wednesday, February 16, 2022

The Bongani Masuku Case Comes To A Close(?)

Long (loooong) time readers of this blog may recall the case of Bongani Masuku, a former top trade union official in South Africa alleged to have engaged in hate speech against Jews in the course of condemnatory comments about Israel during the 2009 conflict with Palestine in Gaza. This has been a lengthy saga -- in 2009, the South African Human Rights Commission concluded that Masuku had engaged in hate speech; in 2017, that ruling was upheld by the Equality Court; and in 2018, that ruling was in turn reversed by an appellate court. Now, finally, in 2022, the Constitutional Court of South Africa -- the highest court -- has weighed in, unanimously concluding that one of the four challenged statements by Masuku does in fact constitute hate speech and ordering Masuku to deliver an apology (link to the opinion here).

Again, this is a complicated saga and some of the points I would make would be repetitive. But a few points are worth (re)emphasizing here:
  • Some of the most damning statements by Masuku do not seem to be in the record the courts have been reviewing -- I'm not sure why (I assume it is for some procedural reasons regarding how the challenge was brought, not that the courts are just studiously ignoring them, but I'm not sure). For example, Masuku reportedly expressly said that his comments were meant to "convey a message to the Jews of South Africa", which seems quite germane to assessing whether his comments should be seen as targeting Jews.
  • Likewise, I have no particular knowledge about South African law, and so cannot comment on whether this decision is correct or not as a faithful application of the current (or "best") reading of the relevant constitutional clauses and statutes.
  • Finally, while I oppose "hate speech" rules on principle, South Africa has elected to take a different approach on speech than does American constitutional law. Given that, there is no reason why the Jewish community of South Africa should not be able to avail itself of these protections.
The Court analyzed four (but really two) comments by Masuku to see if they qualified as hate speech. The first was a blog comment where Masuku said:
1. [A]s we struggle to liberate Palestine from the racists, fascists and Zionists who belong
to the era of their Friend Hitler! We must not apologise, every Zionist must be made
to drink the bitter medicine they are feeding our brothers and sisters in Palestine. We
must target them, expose them and do all that is needed to subject them to perpetual
suffering until they withdraw from the land of others and stop their savage attacks on
human dignity.

(In the realm of "damning comments not discussed", during this blog discussion Masuku reportedly said that he had come to conclude that "Jews are arrogant, not from being told by any Palestinian, but from what I saw myself").

The other three all came during a pro-Palestine university rally (and the court analyzes them together, hence why I think it's perhaps more sensible to view them as one statement rather than three). There Masuku said:

2. “COSATU has got members here even on this campus; we can make sure that for that side [the pro-Israel side] it will be hell.” 

3. “[T]he following things are going to apply: any South African family, I want to repeat it so that it is clear for anyone, any South African family who sends its son or daughter to be part of the Israel Defence Force must not blame us when something happens to them with immediate effect.”

4. “COSATU is with you, we will do everything to make sure that whether it’s at Wits, whether it’s at Orange Grove, anyone who does not support equality and dignity, who does not support rights of other people must face the consequences even if it means that we will do something that may necessarily cause what is regarded as harm.” 

The Court ultimately concluded that the first statement (in the blog) was hate speech, while the other three are not. The deciding factor was the Hitler reference, which, the Court concluded, would reasonably be seen as targeting the Jewish community insofar as Hitler of course is famous for targeting Jews (and not specifically "Zionist Jews"). The other statements, by contrast, however hurtful or offensive they might have been, appear to be in the context specifically of opposing "pro-Israel" persons rather than the Jewish community as such.

Overall, I think this should be viewed as a pretty sizeable victory for the Jewish community. I might suggest that the fourth statement, too, could be seen as targeting the Jewish community insofar as Orange Grove is apparently well-known as a heavily Jewish neighborhood and its inclusion therefore seems to be specifically about referencing the Jewish community as Jews (that is, just as a Hitler reference is evocative of Jews, not Zionist Jews, Orange Grove is also associated with Jews, not specifically Zionist Jews). I think the Court's assessment of the second and third statements is fair enough; there is no doubt those words represent sharp blows thrown, but they expressly relate to persons who are by some form of action taking a side and are commentary on that side. One need not like or approve of them to think they fall within the bounds of protective speech.

But on the whole, the Court seemed quite thoughtful here. It recognized that words which on face might appear neutral or nonsectarian may, given social context, historical usage, or other considerations, nonetheless evoke hateful tropes; this was very important in avoiding what I thought was some too-quick moves by the appellate court to simply intone the truism that Zionism and Judaism are not synonymous and call it day. On this point, the Court said something that may well be worth framing:

Due regard to this context and history must be observed when dealing with expressions that are allegedly anti-Semitic, because many socially acceptable words may become a proxy for anti-Semitic sentiments. Focusing on the plain text and ignoring the objectively ascertainable subtext would be ignorant, inappropriate and antithetical to what our Constitution demands.

Couldn't say it better. 

In any event -- Masuku and COSATU have been very aggressive in fighting this case (and, I'll be honest, I expected them to prevail). It will be interesting to see how the court-ordered apology plays out. But it appears that, as a legal matter, the Masuku saga has finally come to a close.

What To Draw from the San Francisco Recall

A recall election targeting three progressive members of the San Francisco school board has succeeding by a thumping margin, with the pro-recall side taking around 70% of the vote. I was following this saga semi-closely (I never lived in San Francisco, but being just across the Bay I still paid some amount of attention). And while everyone is going to have their hot takes on this, and I'll provide the hottest take of all by serving mine at room temperature.

I will say that I'm going to try to avoid a normative assessment about whether the decision by the voters here was good or bad. You're going to get a lot of either (a) "Even in liberal San Francisco...." or (b) "San Francisco views itself as so liberal, but when push comes to shove...."; you don't need me to adjudicate that for you.

Anyway, when you read stories about the recall, the narrative seems to focus primarily on three things: (1) the failure of the Board to prioritize reopening schools; (2) the Board's insistence on renaming a huge swath of schools whose namesakes were deemed historically problematic; and (3) the Board instituting a "lottery" for admission to an elite public high school which had previously used a competitive, test-based admissions regime (this reportedly aroused the anger of the city's Asian-American community, which had a large presence at the school that it thought would be reduced under the lottery system).

Of course, everyone wants to tell the story in such a way that it fits their political priors. If you are fulminating about the excesses of "wokeness", then the renaming controversy is going to loom large. If you are excited about the new flexing of Asian-American political muscle, the controversy over Lowell HS admissions will be a major factor. And so on.

My lukewarm take is that one should not read too much into this because it's really the confluence of factors, taken together, which was a bit of a perfect storm. For example, there are plenty of school renamings that go off without a hitch, but here the board's buzzsaw like approach targeting dozens of schools (often on thin-to-nonexistent research) really smacked of performance over substance (and we could ask -- performance for who? Who, exactly, wanted this -- or more accurately, this much of this?). The Board just clearly got too far in front of its shoes here; it wildly overestimated the demand and the appetite for this sort of endeavor (noting that "overestimated" is not the same thing as saying there is no appetite at all).

But even that would have been probably overlooked for the most part except that it was occupying much of the Board's attention instead of the seemingly more pressing matter of figuring out how to reopen schools. I have some amount of sympathy here because "reopening the schools" is a genuinely difficult problem and it's not something the Board could have just fiated into existence with a finger snap. That said, if you seem to ignore the most pressing public education issue of the year for the sake of a comparatively lower priority and you appear manifestly incompetent at addressing the thing which you've (wrongly) decided to make agenda item #1, yeah, that's going to piss people off. That reopening the schools is hard is a compelling argument that one needs to very clearly and publicly exert all your effort on figuring out how to make it happen; the worst thing you can do is appear to shrug your shoulders at the whole endeavor and say "you know what seems like a lot more fun than trying to get kids back into the classroom? Figuring out whether Dianne Feinstein should have her name on a building!"

So for me, the lesson to be learned is not "San Francisco voters reject wokeness", but it is very much that competence matters and San Francisco voters are not going to just blindly accept anything its elected pols do just because they drape themselves in the cloak of "wokeness". It has to be about substance, not symbolism. That goes for the school renamings too -- if one thinks it's all about symbolism and "sending a message", then maybe the execution doesn't matter so much. By contrast, if one actually views this issue as one of substantive import, then one should be willing to do the hard work of doing research and consensus-building and line-drawing. Arguably, one could say than San Franciscans want actual, good, thought out "wokeness", which they do not define (contra the semi-strawman version) as just pulling out a flamethrower and torching everything in sight.

But more fundamentally, the takeaway is that the basic, often dull, but bread-and-butter policy work of making sure the schools function has to come first. That's my big conclusion (and if one wants to say this is me just promoting my political priors, I don't judge you). A lot of good politics is the dry endeavor of just competently insuring that things work. The best political leaders do that and can innovate and inspire and push the ball forward. But the fundamentals have to be in place before one can build flair on top.

Get the foundation down, and you can do great work building on top of it. But if you elect people who aren't interested in the foundational work because they're mostly excited about some high-level ideological vision -- well, that can work if the underlying structure is strong enough that the system can manage itself on autopilot. But if you enter a time of stress or strain, like we are now in COVID, you need people at the helm who are both capable and committed to doing the slow boring work of making government work.

Monday, February 14, 2022

The DSA Seizes The Tankie Moment

The original "tankie" incident, the one that gave the term its name, came when the Soviets invaded Hungary in 1956 to crush a workers' uprising. "Tankies" were those leftists who followed Moscow's line in supporting the invasion, dutifully repeating Soviet propaganda about how this was "anti-fascist" or how it was responding to "American aggression", despite the fact that under any objective metric it seemed a straightforward form of imperialist aggression by a powerful state against the very democratic and labor forces that these same leftists claimed to stand in stalwart defense of. 

Most of us, of course, were not around in 1956 and so missed the opportunity to be original tankies. But all that's old is new again, and we now literally are faced with a seemingly imminent decision by Russia to once again send in tanks to invade southeastern Europe! And the Democratic Socialists of America have responded by showing just how excited they are at the chance to fly their tankie flag high. Their statement that regurgitates every predictable horseshoe-theory trope about why Russia is really the victim here, everything bad is America's fault, and "solidarity" means telling Ukraine it deserves what it has coming to it. Way to seize the moment, DSA! Who even cares that Russia is now itself a right-wing kleptocracy? It's adverse to American interests, and that's (apparently literally) all that matters.

It's a side issue, but I think there were some Jewish progressives who had some sympathies with the DSA, at least on matters of domestic policy, and were accordingly a bit rattled by the DSA's decision to go all-in on backing BDS in its most extreme and uncompromising possible form -- not because of the "trend" it did or didn't portend, but because it caused them (the Jewish progressives) to second guess their own instincts that were averse to BDS. If the DSA is a reliable guidestone to good progressive policymaking generally, what does it say that I'm bucking them here? It is, I imagine, a relief to remember that the DSA's foreign policy approach is consistently terrible, anti-democratic, and pro-authoritarian (see also: Venezuela), and that there is absolutely no reason to feel even remotely anxious or skittish if you end up on the opposite side of the argument from them.