Wednesday, November 16, 2022

It's Not (Always) About IHRA

The Cal student government just passed a resolution denouncing antisemitism. However, a handful of student Senators (I've seen different reports -- between five and nine) abstained from the vote, contending that the resolution "penalizes" senators by "forcing them" to approve a resolution that "equates supporting Palestine with being antisemitic."

When I hear language like that, I immediately assume that the problem is over utilization of the IHRA antisemitism definition -- a widely accepted tool for identifying antisemitism that has come under significant scrutiny and controversy for allegedly improperly targeting pro-Palestinian speech or action.

But here, the resolution doesn't mention IHRA. In fact, the resolution doesn't talk about Israel at all. None of the "whereas" clauses speak to antisemitic incidents related to Israel. None of the resolution parameters in any way speak about Israel or Zionism in any way whatsoever.

So given all of that, how is it that a cluster of students -- a minority, but not an insignificant one -- thinks that the resolution "equates supporting Palestine with being antisemitic"?

The apparent answer is that the resolution identifies a webpage created by Berkeley's Center for Jewish Studies as a resource students can use to find more about antisemitism. And that webpage, in turn, among its many links and resources, contains a video about antisemitism which, contains a small segment trying to articulate when criticism of Israel becomes antisemitic. 

The video draws the line in relatively normal places (criticism of Israeli policies is fine, supporting a Palestinian state is fine, supporting Arab rights in Israel is fine; relying on classic antisemitic imagery is not fine; Nazi comparisons are not fine; opposing Israel's existence where one supports analogous forms of national autonomy groupings for other marginalized groups is not fine). But one needn't find the video sacrosanct to think that it represents a tremendously thin reed through which to say that this particular resolution "equates supporting Palestine with being antisemitic."

I think this reaction, though, illustrates something important. Much of the criticism of, for example, IHRA, styles itself as lawyerly or technical objections to IHRA's vagueness, or over- or under-inclusivity. I share many of those criticisms; I think IHRA has many problems. Yet I've been very hesitant to join in on the various "drop IHRA" campaigns. And the reason why is that the underlying social movement that drives these campaigns is not one predicated on technical or lawyerly objections. It is based on belief in a more fundamental claimed entitlement: the absolute right that no type of "anti-Israel" or "pro-Palestine" speech or conduct ever be deemed antisemitic, in any case or context. Any condemnation of antisemitism that doesn't promise plenary indulgence for anti-Israel activity will be deemed tantamount to "equating supporting Palestine with being antisemitic."

For this reason, I think that many of the more thoughtful anti-IHRA critics are deluding themselves if they think their compatriots' problem with IHRA really boils down to things like "there's no need for a more specific codified standard of antisemitism" or "it's too vague" or "it's applied overexpansively". All of those things may be true -- but one can take them all away and the core opposition would still remain in any case where claims of antisemitism are treated as conceptually plausible in a non-trivial number of cases relating to speech or conduct about Israel or Zionism.

The Berkeley resolution studiously -- perhaps too studiously -- avoided the issue of Israel. It passed, which was good. But the minority opposition's claims that even a resolution that anodyne was objectionable -- that it was tantamount equating any support for Palestine with antisemitism -- I think is revelatory about a sort of political positioning on antisemitism that cannot be dismissed as a bit player. For some people, it isn't about IHRA, nor about technical objections or more precise language. A lot of the push here is by people who will settle for nothing less than a blanket, preemptive exoneration of anything and everything that might be said or done to or about Jews, so long as it styles itself as "supporting Palestine." And it's going to be up to the good faith critics of IHRA et al to recognize the existence of that cadre and its non-triviality, and decide how to sever them from the ranks, because right now they're unfortunately driving a lot of the conversation forward in a fashion that -- if they have their way -- would essentially make any non-nugatory move against antisemitism impossible.

Sunday, November 13, 2022

On The Ease of Having Friends With Political Differences

One of the feature creatures of the alt-center scare machine these days has been the alleged unwillingness of "certain" people (read: progressive Gen Z-ers and millennials) to make or keep friendships with persons they disagree with politically. 

That truly awful JILV poll generated stories breathlessly claiming that "wo-thirds of progressives and 54 percent of 'very liberal' respondents said they have effectively 'cancelled' a friend or family member because of their political views" (the poll actually asked whether one had "lost a friend, stopped talking to a relative, or grown distant from a colleague because of political opinions or differences?", which is a rather far cry from "effective cancellation", but no matter) is one good example. This column from Samuel Abrams and Pamela Paresky, bemoaning the oversensitivity of college students who don't want to date peers who voted for the opposing 2020 election candidate, is another.

I have to say, I find this line of concern a bit perplexing. As a general matter, it seems incredibly easy for people to make and keep friendships across political difference. For example: this past election those of us who lived in Portland had quite a few ballot issues to vote on, including things like local bond issues, switching from run-off elections to ranked-choice voting, and altering the structure of our city government from a "commissioner" model to multi-member geographically zoned districts. As in all elections, I did my best to research these issues and come to a conclusion on them. But -- while I haven't asked any of my Portland friends or colleagues how they voted on any of these questions -- I can't imagine the possibility of losing relationships if they voted differently than I did. These political differences, it seems, are rather easily overcome by the bonds of friendship.

Now, the trumpeters of the "cancellation" epidemic narrative will surely cry foul here. The political differences they have in mind are not local Portland ballot initiatives; it's pedantic to use them as a falsifying example of the larger "problem". And I agree that these examples are obviously not the cases that someone like Abrams or Paresky or David Bernstein has in mind.

Which means it'd probably be useful to be specific about the actual cases one has in mind.

Consider, for instance, a trans college student. A live political controversy, right now, is whether or not they should have been legally prohibited from getting necessary health care in their teenage years and whether they should have been forcibly ripped away from their parents (who, in turn, should be imprisoned as child abusers) if they tried to provide such treatment. If such a student finds out that one of their "friends" believes that all of that should have happened; and will vote in order to make it more likely that this would happen, can we really say with a straight face that the student is wrong if they sever the friendship? If the friendship is indeed distanced -- and it won't always be, people are complex -- it would be both factually incorrect and uncharitable to the extreme to say that the student has shown an inability to tolerate "political differences", generally. The student surely would not make a similar judgment regarding political differences about the proper top marginal income tax rate. It is a specific "difference" that is beyond the pale for them, and with respect to that specific difference it's hard to say that their judgment isn't reasonable.

There are many classes of vulnerable individuals who face such questions as pertain to live political controversies. Gay and lesbian individuals, who learn a peer "differs" on the subject of whether their marriage should be forcibly dissolved and their very identity re-criminalized and subjected to prison time (both live subjects of political dispute, given emergent threats to Obergefell and Lawrence). If they distance from that relationship, is that really evidence of a broader failure to respect political difference? Undocumented "Dreamer" immigrants, who must reckon with the reality that "I may be torn from the only home I’ve ever known at any moment and a sizeable portion of what I thought was my community will cheer as they drag me off." If they react poorly to that difference, are they really engaging in cancellation?

We are not talking about "political differences" generally. We're talking about a subset of specific differences that pose deep, arguably existential, threats to individuals lives and well-being. And to the extent there's asymmetry in how often progressives find a live political difference that fall into that category, that might reflect nothing more than an asymmetry in which political camp is overwhelming responsible for that particular type of existentially-threatening "difference." There is not any sustained progressive campaign to make it illegal for, say, Southern Baptists, to get married (and if you are a progressive who does support such a policy, any resulting loss of Southern Baptist friends would be entirely on your head!).

"Not every point of political disagreement can be treated as an existential threat to one's very existence." I could not agree more. Moreover, it seems blatantly obvious that nobody -- even the dreaded progressive Gen-Zers -- thinks otherwise. People have absolutely no problem making and keeping friendships and relationships across political difference, generally. They have a serious problem with certain specific political differences. Those who think that problem, is a problem, should do the courtesy of naming the issues. Then we can assess whether the young woman who was impregnated by rape is wrong to cut ties with the "friend" who says she should be forced to give birth on pain of a prison sentence.