Saturday, April 30, 2022

Antisemitism and Social Malaise

Michelle Goldberg has a very insightful column in the New York Times about antisemitism. It begins by talking about the rapid acceleration of antisemitism that paralleled the rise of Trumpism. Certainly, we are seeing a resurgence of far-right antisemitism (and increasingly, the "far-" is redundant). But even after Trump left office, antisemitic activity has continued to surge. And the most striking thing about this pattern is not its political character, but rather how apolitical it is.

[F]or a huge number of antisemitic episodes, the political motive, if there is one, is illegible. According to Greenblatt, more than 80 percent of the incidents documented in the A.D.L. report “cannot be attributed to any specific extremist group or movement.” Much of the threat to Jews in America seems to come less from a distinct, particular ideology than from the broader cultural breakdown that’s leading to an increase in all manner of antisocial behavior, including shootings, airplane altercations, reckless driving and fights in school.

It is weirdly tempting to think antisemitism is "about" Jews in some meaningful, if mutated, fashion, such that changing something about Jews -- how Jews talk are or talked about, how Jews behave or are perceived to behave, how Jews are viewed or where Jews are positioned in society -- will alter patterns of antisemitism. The vast majority of counterantisemitism initiatives focus on some version of this approach, thinking -- reasonably -- that antisemitism is about Jews.

But as Goldberg points out -- and this resonates with my own observation -- antisemitism often is associated with more inchoate frustration and social malaise. Antisemitism follows things like erosion of trust in social institutions, growth in conspiratorial thinking, widespread financial insecurity, and so on. Such developments are not "about" Jews; no amount of Holocaust education or anti-BDS campaigning or interfaith Seders will change them. And yet they probably play a more direct role in the rise of antisemitism than any Jewish-specific factor one could name.

Even apolitical antisemitism has a political connection, albeit an indirect one. "Post-truth" politics, the decay in an epistemically healthy environment, the rise of viral social media practices which create all sorts of terrible bad coherences, gravely accelerate the rise of "apolitical" antisemitism; in this, it is not an accident that the current surge began with and tracks closely the rise of Trumpism (nor is it coincidental that it's leftward manifestations follow closely similar post-truth post-trust ideologies like tankie-ism). But it suggests that wrestling back down antisemitism paradoxically will have little to do with a distinctively Jewish politics. Antisemitism is a symptom of a larger disease, a disease that ultimately is not really about Jews in any specific sense. One will not ameliorate the symptom without addressing that disease.

Monday, April 25, 2022

Seeing Double Standards

A new article co-authored by Albert Cheng, Jay P. Greene, and Ian Kingsbury was just published in Antisemitism Studies purporting to show that highly-educated people are more prone to adopting antisemitic double-standards

The authors had previously publicized their findings in a Tablet Magazine article, and at that time I actually shared critical feedback with one of the co-authors explaining some serious methodological flaws that severely undermined their conclusions. I had hoped that these concerns would rectified or at least addressed once the article was submitted for peer-reviewed publication. Unfortunately, the final published piece continues to ignore the issues outright -- not even acknowledging their existence, much less meaningfully responding to them. So I'll raise them publicly here, so unwary readers are not led astray.

The basic thrust of the article relies on the notion of the double-standard -- treating Jews differently (worse) than similarly-situated non-Jews should be viewed as a form of antisemitism. Unlike some, I am not instinctively averse to the idea that a double-standard is evidence of antisemitism or other discrimination -- indeed, it seems to me that the core of what discrimination is treating likes unalike. However, the devil in such analysis always is figuring out what counts as a "similarly-situated" case (in anti-discrimination law, we call this a valid "comparator"). If there is a different characteristic than the one being measured that distinguishes the comparators from the base (Jewish) case, then it's entirely possible that that characteristic is what drives any differences in resulting treatment.

For example, suppose one wanted to measure if baseball teams performed better against opponents based in the eastern United States. One thing you might do is look at 2020 MLB records and compare how teams fared against Pittsburgh Pirates compared to the Los Angeles Dodgers, where you would find that teams typically did much better against the Pirates. Hypothesis confirmed? Obviously not -- the Dodgers won the World Series that year, and the Pirates were awful. If we had instead compared the Atlanta Braves (top of the NL East) against the Arizona Diamondbacks (bottom of the NL West), we'd have reached the opposite conclusion -- but the real conclusion is that "it's not geography, it's the quality of the team". The choice of comparators ends up driving the conclusion.

The article constructs four pairs of "cases" which it claims are similar enough such that, if the Jewish-coded option is treated worse, we should infer a double-standard is at work. The pairings are:

  1. Whether "the government should set minimum requirements for what is taught in private schools," with either Orthodox Jewish or Montessori schools given as the illustrating example. 
  2. Whether "a person's attachment to another country creates a conflict of interest when advocating in support of certain U.S. foreign policy positions," with either Israel or Mexico offered as illustrating examples. 
  3. Whether "the U.S. military should be allowed to forbid" the wearing of religious headgear as part of the uniform, with either a Jewish yarmulke (kepah) or Sikh turban offered as illustrating examples.
  4. Whether public gatherings during the pandemic "posed a threat to public health and should have been prevented," with either Orthodox Jewish funerals or Black Lives Matter protests offered as illustrating examples.
Highly-educated respondents tended to be less favorably disposed towards the "Jewish" examples in these pairings, which the authors claims is proof of an antisemitic double-standard in that cohort.

When I saw these pairings, though, what jumped out at me is that each of the "comparator" examples was culturally-coded as to the "left" of its Jewish partner. Montessori schools are associated with wooly progressivism, attachment to Mexico most associated with immigrant communities under siege by Trumpists, Sikhism being a predominantly non-White and non-European religious community, and BLM ... well, that one's obvious.

Hence, it struck me as plausible -- if not likely -- that what we really were seeing in these results is favorability towards perceived cultural-ideological compatriots, given that highly-educated Americans tend to have left-of-center cultural-ideological attachments. If we used comparators which were culturally-coded as to the "right" of the Jewish example, I suspect the double-standard would disappear (or even reverse). Another commenter similarly observed that the "Jewish" examples are consciously stacked towards Orthodox Judaism in at least two and arguably three of the four examples, which also means we might be picking up on views about Orthodox Judaism rather than Judaism writ large.  That's definitely still meaningful, but it is also a more specific finding and one that arguably fits well within my own theory about of cultural-ideological attachment.

Indeed, it was striking and dare I say suspicious how one-sided the choice of comparators was -- even in circumstances where there was a far more obvious comparator that would have coded as more conservative. The clearest example is in Orthodox Jewish funerals versus BLM protests -- Evangelical megachurch services is right there, is far more obviously parallel (as a religious rite) to an Orthodox Jewish funeral than a political protest, and was very much in the news as a substantial area where COVID restrictions were being deliberately flouted under claims of religious practice. Choosing to "compare" the Orthodox Jewish funerals to BLM in those circumstances is, well, it's a choice, and one that feels very clearly motivated by a desire to come to the "correct" result.

Imagine, instead, that the study used the following as its comparator pairs:

  1. Whether "the government should set minimum requirements for what is taught in private education," with either Jewish day schools or Christian home-schooling given as the illustrating example. 
  2. Whether "a person's attachment to another country creates a conflict of interest when advocating in support of certain U.S. foreign policy positions," with either Israel or Russia offered as illustrating examples. 
  3. Whether "the U.S. military should be allowed to forbid" the wearing of religious apparel as part of the uniform, with either a Jewish yarmulke (kepah) or a large crucifix offered as illustrating examples.
  4. Whether public gatherings during the pandemic "posed a threat to public health and should have been prevented," with either Orthodox Jewish funerals or Evangelical megachurch services offered as illustrating examples.
  5. Whether medical professionals should be able to receive exemptions from laws which conflict with their religious commitments, with either "Reform Jewish doctor asking for a religious exemption from laws preventing him from prescribing contraceptives" or "Catholic doctor asking for an exemption from laws requiring him to prescribe contraceptives" as illustrating examples.
In those pairings, the non-Jewish comparator is coded to the "right" of the Jewish example, and my hypothesis is that highly-educated respondents would be more favorably disposed to the Jewish examples compared to the non-Jewish alternative.

To be clear, this would not demonstrate that actually highly-educated Americans harbor a philosemitic bias, for the same reason why the published study does not show highly-educated Americans harbor an antisemitic bias. Rather, we'd have a situation where highly-educated persons treat Jews worse than some cases and better than others, and we'd need an explanation why -- and my proposed explanation is "perceived ideological-cultural compatibility".

It is unfortunate that the study did not do a better job picking its comparators (to be charitable -- the uncharitable take is that the authors did exactly the job they were intending to when picking their comparators), and it's still more unfortunate that the authors did not even address this criticism. The closest they come is in the following passage in the conclusion:
Of course, critics of this research might object that our four paired items are not truly comparable. They might claim that the public health dangers of BLM protests and public funeral gatherings are not the same, or that a yarmulke and turban are not the same, or that dual loyalty concerns with respect to Mexico and Israel are not the same. However, we are all limited by the lack of a clear objective standard for defining bigotry and for making defensible distinctions based on different circumstances. In fact, every bigot claims that the groups they treat more harshly are deserving of that treatment. All we can do is appeal to the critic to consider whether public health is jeopardized more when Jews gather than when protestors gather, whether yarmulkes interfere with military necessity more than turbans, or whether dual loyalty is more problematic if it involves one country over another. Like the average individual in the general public, we do not see differential treatment in any of these scenarios as defensible. That said, we do encourage the creation of new item pairs that closely correspond to each other and cover a variety of other scenarios so that any observed differences in response patterns can be attributable to whether the item concerns Jews or non-Jews as opposed to any other potential differences across the items.

The first part does not actually confront the criticism I offered. Certainly, one could argue that the paired items are not actually "the same" in relevant respects. But the criticism I'm leveling relates not to how the proposed non-Jewish comparators differ from theirs Jewish counterparts, but between how the proposed non-Jewish comparators differ from potential alternatives that have a more conservative as opposed to liberal cultural-ideological valence. Perhaps it's still the case that, for example, the public health dangers of BLM protests and Orthodox funerals and Evangelical megachurch services are the same, such that the truly virtuous (and public health minded) deliberator should treat them all identically. But if they don't, the reason why most likely relates to a different sort of in-group affinity than antisemitism -- particularly if they are relatively less favorable towards the Jewish case compared to the BLM example but more favorable compared to the Evangelical example. So while I'm heartened to see the authors encourage the "creation of new item pairs" that can drill down on these questions, that doesn't excuse the authors' own failure to construct their study with appropriate care and rigor.