Friday, October 21, 2022

An Apology

I'll be brief. In some old posts on this blog, I wrote words to the effect that Dennis Prager, a right-wing Jewish commentator, was "really" Christian or secretly "wished to be Christian", due to the overlap of his beliefs with right-wing Christian precepts.

This was wrong. I disagree with Prager on nearly every issue, including on what it means to be Jewish and the best articulations of Jewish value. Nonetheless, it is wrong to tell a Jew -- any Jew -- that they are any less of a Jew because of political or social disagreement. Jews are Jews are Jews -- including the Jews I or Prager really, really dislike. As these sorts of attacks on Jews for not "really" being Jewish become more common (and, in particular, seep into the mainstream where even non-Jews feel comfortable challenging the Jewish identities of Jews they dislike), it is especially important to practice what one preaches.

I've endeavored to delete these comments from my archives; it's possible I've missed some. Again, the practice of denying the authentic Jewishness of Jews one dislikes is wrong, full stop, and I was wrong to do it to Prager.

Thursday, October 20, 2022

The (Hopefully More Symmetrical) Future of Congress' Black-Jewish Caucus

Rep. Brenda Lawrence (D-MI) was one of the key forces behind the founding of Congress' Black-Jewish caucus. The caucus is nominally bipartisan, though with regard to both "Black" and "Jewish" Congress offers slim pickings amongst Republicans. The only Black GOP member, Rep. Will Hurd (R-TX), has already left Congress, and the only GOP Jewish member, Rep. Lee Zeldin (R-NY) will depart at the end of this term. All other members are Democrats.

But now Rep. Lawrence is retiring (redistricting scrambled her district -- Lawrence endorsed Rep. Haley Stevens in the district that's the closest to being its successor), and the JTA has an interesting article about the vitality of the caucus in the future.

One unfortunate fact about the caucus, Lawrence suggested, is that it has been almost entirely silent on matters of racism. Despite the fact that its existence is nominally about providing a vector where both Black and Jewish members can learn about and be responsive to the sensitivities of the other, in practice the caucus has almost exclusively tackled matters of antisemitism and made little progress in addressing issues of racism.

In addition to the antisemitism she has confronted throughout her tenure, another disappointment, she said, has been the reluctance of her Republican colleagues to call out anti-Black racism. 

“They just put their head down because they’re so committed to a Republican agenda,” she said. “They are not willing to stand up and call a colleague out if their rhetoric is one that promotes racism or antisemitic behavior.”

A review of statements from the caucus suggests that it has only substantially addressed antisemitism, and its most egregious expressions — the hostage-taking at a synagogue in Colleyville, Texas this year; the stabbing attack at a Hanukkah celebration in Monsey, New York, in 2019; and the anniversary of the 2018 massacre of Jewish worshippers in Pittsburgh. 

When the group has made references to anti-Black racism, the caucus talks about it as if it were a thing of the past — in commemoration of the 1960s civil rights cooperation between Jews and Blacks at an opening session in 2019, or in a celebration of Juneteenth, the holiday marking the end of slavery.

Lawrence described with frustration her attempts to get Republicans to talk more about anti-Black racism. She recalled that one Black Republican she would not name said “Look at me, I’m a Black and I made it,” and how conversations with other Republicans devolved into calls on Democrats to condemn Antifa, the loose-knit network of far-left protesters, or the Black Lives Matter movement.

This was always going to be a point of concern.  And it is tremendously disappointing, and a discredit to the hard work persons like Rep. Lawrence have put into this initiative, that the caucus thus far has been so overtly asymmetrical in its focus.

A Black-Jewish caucus is unabashedly a good thing. But it has to be a relationship of equals, not one of Jewish tutors and Black pupils. Ilhan Omar should learn from her Jewish colleagues some things about antisemitism she perhaps hadn't thought of before. But also and equally, Lee Zeldin should learn some things about racism from his Black colleagues that he perhaps was insufficiently attuned to (like why it's offensive for the Capitol Building to honor men who committed treason in defense of slavery). It's absolutely good to come together to denounce contemporary instances of antisemitism such the attacks at Colleyville and Monsey. But it is troublesome that this is not paired with denunciations of contemporary instances of anti-Black racism. In a Black-Jewish caucus neither component should be the junior partner. If the caucus is going to carry forward and do justice to Rep. Lawrence's vision, things need to change.

Wednesday, October 19, 2022

On Loving "Campus Jews" While Hating Campus Jews

It is no revelation to say that Jews on campus experience their share of antisemitism, and deserve our support. But one of the more frustrating aspects of that reality is how that "support" often manifests in a fashion that is almost tauntingly unconcerned with what the Jews on campus actually want. "Support", too often, is not support at all -- it is a way for outsiders to exploit a headline or to ride their own hobbyhorses, and the campus Jews themselves are an afterthought. I do not know if Berkeley Jews wanted Noa Tishby to pay a visit to Sproul Plaza. I am very sure they did not want a Hitler billboard truck parked outside their door.

But those who drive the Hitler truck "in solidarity" do not at all care whether the Jews they "support" find their intervention all that supportive. By golly, Berkeley Jews are going to get this allyship whether they like it or not! And this is hardly an isolated event. Jewish students at the University of Michigan were livid at the Canary Mission putting their campus under the spotlight, complaining that it was making the environment for Jewish students on campus worse rather than better. No matter. Canary Mission's support for campus Jews is cheerfully indifferent to whether campus Jews feel supported.

So we should ask: Why are the actual Jewish students so often an afterthought in campaigns nominally about protecting Jewish students?

Part of the answer goes back to the story I told a few weeks ago, about the man who became furious with me when he found out my experience at Berkeley wasn't the hellscape he insisted it must be. What kind of self-hating Jew doesn't hate it at Berkeley?

Jews on campus are a diverse bunch, and even as individuals often have complicated feelings. They are typically not, contra some very vocal activist groups, a collective of screaming anti-Zionists. They also typically are not eager to spend their collegiate days engaged in ideological trench warfare on Israel's behalf. They do not appreciate "allyship" that forces them into a combative posture they may not wish to take and may not think is warranted or effective under the circumstances.

And the tragedy is that too many of their would-be supporters won't defer to that judgment. No, it's worse than that -- they actively reject it. They are aghast at the university Jews who do not support their form of support. They view those Jews as craven, cowards, or perhaps even (as my troll thought of me) antisemitic sympathizers. Incredulity becomes resentment becomes rage, at these terrible campus Jews who are refusing to cooperate with the best-laid plans for keeping them safe.

At the extreme, the loudest voices outside of campus waging war against campus antisemitism sometimes seem as if they're almost as angry at the Jewish students themselves as they are at the antisemitism the students endure. Those who have invested so much into their identity as protectors of the Jews cannot easily accept the idea that they are, in fact, making Jewish lives worse. Far easier to decide that if one is fighting antisemitism, than the only persons who could have a problem are the antisemites, and if the Jewish students have a problem, then ergo.... 

In this way, the Jewish students become just another enemy -- and an enemy far more vulnerable and easily targeted than the antisemites are. It is another iteration of the theme I wrote about in "On Loving 'Jews' and Hating Jews": the defense of "campus Jews" is a defense of an imagined "campus Jew". If actual campus Jews turn out to be more complicated than the imaginary picture; if they don't want to play the role they've been assigned -- well, love for "campus Jews" very easily can breed hatred for actual campus Jews.

None of this is to say that campus antisemitism isn't real, terrible, and destructive. It creates a toxic environment for Jews at our nation's colleges and universities. But how much more toxic that environment is, when those afflicted by it know that too often the banner of solidarity will actual just generate a new vector of dismissiveness, disdain, or even hatred. Such is the terrible, tragic circumstance of being a Jew on campus.