Saturday, October 07, 2023

Ghouls, Failures, Fatalism and Responsibility

I doubt I need to inform you of the horrific news coming out of Israel, where a large-scale Hamas attack -- perhaps the single largest military incursion Israel has experienced in my lifetime -- has resulted in hundreds of Israeli deaths, thousands wounded, and an untold number of abductions. Terrifying reports of house-to-house executions and kidnappings are emerging on the ground, and even as we speak, Israeli forces still have reportedly not retaken all of towns and outposts that were overrun by Hamas militants.

I don't have much that's novel to say, in part because so much of what I could say seems so obvious. 

First, this is a brutal, criminal act. Full stop. The fact that people on the internet are celebrating it is unsurprising to anyone who has been on the internet -- the murdered Israelis are dying politically, with all the normal consequences that follow -- but that doesn't make it any less ghastly. The same goes for those people on the internet calling for genocidal violence in Gaza in "retaliation". Those people are in the exact same moral category as the murderers who slaughtered civilians today, they only fly a different flag. It's not a material distinction.

And on that note: you are under no obligation to not think of the people celebrating murders as anything other than ghouls. You don't have to twist yourself into knots to tell yourself why they may have a point or they're not adopting the right tone but... or any other apologia of the sort. You can, and should, just recognize that there are ghouls out there, and figure out how to assimilate that reality without sacrificing one's own broader commitment to humanism and justice for Israelis and Palestinians.

Second, this is a complete and abject failure of the Israeli government at every level.

Zoom in, and it's a massive intelligence and operational failure the likes of which Israel's security services have never seen in my lifetime. An operation of this size should not have been able to be launched without something being tipped; and once it was launched the IDF should not have been caught so flat-footed. 

At the middle, the above failings, in turn, can be directly attributed to Bibi and the current Israeli government's single-minded obsession about ripping the country's national fabric to pieces. In service of this mania they (among other things) placed incapable lickspittles in key security posts whose only "qualification" was that they were even more aggressively fascistic than Bibi is. Said fascists, in turn, spent all their time gleefully egging on settler violence in the West Bank, forcing the IDF to expend disproportionate resources putting out forest fires price taggers set on behalf of settler expansionism, and diverting their attention from goings-on in Gaza. It is no exaggeration to say, as one of my Facebook friends commented, that the reason nobody in the IDF was there to respond to cries for help in Israel's south was that they were too busy doing settlers' bidding in the north.

And if you zoom out, Hamas' operation represents an explosive repudiation of the notion that Gaza and Hamas could be besieged into obedience. The right-wing fantasy-nightmare that Israelis could (only) be kept safe through ever-greater oppression of Palestinians has been finally and completely falsified. From an Israel security standpoint, the rightwing playbook has only accomplished an unprecedented endangerment of Israeli lives in service of the furthest right-wing fringe. At what point do we say these policies are leading to nowhere but universal damnation? 

Finally, there is almost no chance that the fallout from this assault has any consequence other than catastrophe for innocent Israelis and Palestinians alike. And yet, we must resist the sort of fatalism about that seeming inevitability that leads to an abdication of responsibility. Too many voices I've seen today have, in one way or another, expressed sentiments to the effect that the events of today and/or those to come are the inevitable consequence of history's weave. How could you expect Hamas wouldn't seize an opportunity to massacre Israeli civilians en masse? How could you expect Israel won't respond with zero regard for Palestinian life?

No. There is agency here. The word of the day I'm already growing to hate is "(un)provoked", as in an emergent discourse which wants to be absolutely sure we all know that whatever hideous crime Hamas just committed or whatever overwhelming military incursion Israel may be about to launch, there is a reason behind it -- it didn't just happen out of air. Which -- no kidding. In the context of a conflict that's resulted in a half dozen international wars in the space of less than century, nothing is ever "unprovoked". But that doesn't absolve anyone of agency. Hamas made a choice to launch this attack -- a brutal, violent, targeted assault on a civilian population whose only tactical objective was the sowing of terror. They are not the passive receptacles of historical forces beyond their ken. And Israel's choices too (both those that preceded today's events and those that will follow) are choices -- they are not the inevitable consequence of some immutable historical arc.

I don't mean to downplay the real difficulties here. There is purchase in the armchair activist complaint "well, what is the right way for Palestinians to resist the occupation", even as it reaches a parodic pinnacle when it takes the form of "if Palestinian terror cells can't go house-to-house kidnapping and executing Israeli families, why, you might as well say Palestinians can't do anything at all!" And likewise, Israel's security needs absolutely require a robust military response to Hamas' attack for reasons that are by no means reducible to mere vengeance or bloodlust, even as too many commentators use the reality of the former as a preemptive apologia for the latter. But all of that emphasizes the need to acknowledge agency, it doesn't obviate it. Decisions taken in tough times are still decisions.

That's a lot of words, but I continue to think that the principles here are quite simple. Hamas is responsible for this murderous assault, and we should view it as nothing other than a murderous assault. Israel's policy choices in the orbit of these events have been demonstrated to be catastrophic failures at every level -- the sort of disaster that should permanently wreck the political careers of every functionary in power who let authoritarian thuggery and anti-democratic hate blind them to emergent danger. And ultimately, the most essential line to be drawn is not between "Israel" and "Palestine". It is between all those horrified by the kidnapping and butchering of civilians and all those, of any political stripe, who are excited at the prospect of dead civilians. No matter what flag they fly, all those in the latter camp are fundamentally on the same side. And in the final analysis, they are together -- not as opponents but as fundamental allies -- the truest enemy of all those who dream of justice, peace, democracy, and self-determination for Jews and Arabs, Israelis and Palestinians, alike.

Who Are The ADL's Donors?

The big news flying about the Jewish blogosphere this week was the announcement by the ADL that they were going to resume buying ads on the-website-formerly-known-as-Twitter. This came in the wake of a cavalcade of antisemitic attacks and conspiracy theories, egged on by Elon Musk, that had the ADL as its target.

A lot of people are calling this a "betrayal", which I get, though it's hard for me to associate that word with such a limp and pathetic decision. It'd be like if Liz Cheney announced tomorrow that she was joining the DeSantis campaign -- sure, it'd repudiate what she had staked her reputation on for the past few years, but ultimately she'd be attaching herself to an abject failure for no discernible gain, so it'd be hard to get into too much of a lather about it.

But don't let my glibness detract from the obvious point that the ADL's decision is both stupid and terrible, and yet another instance of Jonathan Greenblatt's infirm leadership scoring completely unforced own-goals at the expense of the ADL's reputation. The, shall we say, inconsistent principles whereby the ADL refuses to take money from an antisemite like Kyrie Irving, but goes out of its way to give money to an antisemite like Elon Musk, is evidence of a ship gone rudderless. And that at this point my reactions are less that of "anger" and more of the "eyeroll" sort is not a sterling argument in favor of the ADL's current direction.

The constant missteps do raise the question of "why"? What is causing the ADL to blunder so regularly? One prospect, raised by Marisa Kabas in MSNBC, is that Greenblatt is trying to appease its "fervently Zionist donors who support Benjamin Netanyahu’s government" at the expense of the broader Jewish community it is tasked with defending. And that explanation got me to thinking -- in all earnestness -- "who are the ADL's donors"?

I'm asking genuinely, because I'm not sure. Certainly, the "rich donors are perverting our leaders' mission to suit their particular interests" is a popular sort of explanation that could explain why the ADL under Greenblatt's watch keeps on doing boneheaded things. But the explanation depends on the actual identity of the ADL's donors (are they "fervent Zionists who support Netanyahu's government"), and that made me realize that I don't have a strong sense about who the ADL's donor base is. Different possibilities render Kabas' explanation more or less plausible. So let's run through some candidates:

(1) No base. It's possible the ADL doesn't have a donor base. Now, to be clear, obviously the ADL gets a lot of money from donors. But it could be that the money is sufficiently distributed across a wide enough range of (relatively) small dollar contributors that there is no single cluster that looms large enough to constitute a "base". Alternatively, even if there are a relatively small number of mega-givers, if that group is itself ideologically diverse enough, then they would seemingly not form a sufficiently cohesive faction to induce the ADL to make political moves in one direction or another. Either way, such a financial set up would make it unlikely that the ADL's policies are largely being driven by the desire to appease a particular donor contingent.

(2) "Fervently right-wing Zionists". Perhaps the ADL's big donors come from the aggressive Zionist right. Obviously, that's a popular explanation for those who've long thought that the ADL is in the tank for right-wing Israeli policies. And certainly, the right-wing Zionist cadre are very much comprised of folks that tend to adore Elon Musk and are indifferent to if not elated by his attacks on the (wrong sort of) Jews. But the problem is that these sorts of donors tend to hate the ADL; they're the sorts who think the ADL has gone off the rails into the realm of "woke" leftism. Even if we imagine the sort of donor who only cares about bolstering support for right-wing Israel policy uber alles, there are other organizations (like ZOA) that are more natural fits.

(3) The corporate world. It's possible that most of the ADL's funding these days comes from various corporate actors -- some perhaps atoning for this or that discrimination disaster, others who see the ADL as a safe place to make a charitable gesture towards justice. Certainly, it seems that the ADL is a sizeable fish in that ecosystem. But if corporate donors are the driving force behind ADL decisionmaking, I don't see the throughline that gets us to "Greenblatt sticks his neck out to help Elon Musk." Corporate America is currently running away from Musk, not towards him, and I'm not seeing much evidence that they have any especial interest in forestalling Twitter withering on the vine.

(4) Middle America. As the quintessential "mainstream" civil rights organization, perhaps the ADL's donor base sits roughly at the midpoint of American political opinion. Two problems here: (1) given ideological polarization (which leads to a bimodal distribution of ideological views), it's not clear there is a large donor base of politically engaged actors sitting right in the middle of American political opinion; and (2) even if there is, it's again far from clear to me that "bailing out Elon Musk" is high on their priority list.

(5) The median Jew. Maybe the bulk of the ADL's donors sit, not at the center of American political opinion, but at the center of Jewish political opinion (a "center" which, of course, rests well to the left of American political opinion writ large, albeit falling more in the territory of "mainstream Democrat" than "raging socialist"). It certainly seems as if some of the anti-ADL antipathy reflects the fact that the ADL adopts views that are broadly popular with the median American Jew as opposed to, say, Mondoweiss. But I also don't see much in the way of evidence that the ADL is responsive to middle-ground American Jewish opinion. And this explanation, even more than "middle America", seems to point away from intervening to save Elon Musk.

(6) PEPpy sorts. "PEP" stands for "progressive except on Palestine", and while I'm not the biggest fan of the term, I'm thinking of groups like DMFI that are generally favorable towards the sort of mainline liberalism the ADL espouses on the domestic front while also being disposed towards defending hawkish Israeli policies towards Palestinians (or at least, ensuring that Israel faces no tangible blowback for implementing them). This seems like the strongest candidate for roughly tracking Kabas' explanation, since unlike the actual "fervent right-wing Zionists" this group is probably positively disposed towards the ADL. That said, leaving aside the evidentiary question of whether this group actually does comprise the ADL's donor base, I'm not convinced that this cadre (particularly right now, in the midst of the democracy protests) actually is all that enamored with the Netanyahu government specifically; nor am I convinced that they harbor any especial love for Elon Musk. So once again, it seems like they make for a poor explainer for why the ADL is behaving as it is.

Ultimately, I don't know who the ADL's main donor base is. But my confusion, and the fact that none of the above possibilities really seems to fit the ADL's recent behavior and place in the political ecosystem, actually makes me feel more confident that the entire premise we're discussing is wrong. The ADL's repeated, colossal errors of judgment -- most recently in crawling back into Elon Musk's bank account -- are not, I think, primarily donor-driven. I don't think these are externally-imposed failures. I think they represent an internal failure of leadership, and one that falls squarely on Jonathan Greenblatt's head. I can't speak to the precise internal dynamics or culture practices that might have gotten the ADL to this point, or whether a change in leadership will suffice to resolve them. But it seems clear right now that the ADL will not right ship unless Jonathan Greenblatt steps down from the helm.

[Image above from Deadline]

Thursday, October 05, 2023

You Do Not "Stand Up For Jews" By Involuntarily Roping Us Into Your Islamophobia

A true all-time classic moment in "allyship" this week from London's mayoral race, pitting Conservative Susan Hall against the Labour incumbent Sadiq Khan:

The British Conservative Party’s candidate for London mayor said that Sadiq Khan, who currently holds the post, is “divisive” and has therefore “frightened” some of Britain’s Jewish community.

“I will ask for as much help as I can get in London because we need to defeat him,” Susan Hall said Monday night at a Conservative Friends of Israel event in Manchester that was part of the Tory party’s annual conference. “Particularly for our Jewish community.”

Those of you who only follow British politics in passing may not know this, but the British Jewish community has historically had an outstanding relationship with Khan. Even in the depths of Corbyn era, Khan was seen as a Labour party member who genuinely had the backs of the Jewish community, including calling out his own party for failing to treat antisemitism with requisite seriousness. The allegation that Jews are "frightened" by Khan has no basis in fact and is clearly just a sideswipe at the fact that he is Muslim.

Hence, the response from British Jewish leaders was not at all surprising: 

British Jewish groups quickly issued statements condemning Hall and defending Khan, who is London’s first Muslim mayor and has Pakistani ancestry. The Board of Deputies of British Jews said that Khan has always treated the Jewish community “with friendship and respect.” Longtime Jewish Labour parliament member Margaret Hodge called Hall’s comments “dog-whistle politics” and said “Khan has always called out antisemitism, wherever it has reared.”

But it's Hall's response to Jews saying her comments were out of order that is truly transcendent:

When asked by Sky News if she would apologize for her comments in the wake of the criticism she has received, Hall said: “I will never apologize for standing up for our Jewish community.”

You tell 'em, Hall! You're not going to let some dirty Jews tell you how to stand up for the Jewish community! It's called allyship -- look it up! 

Wednesday, October 04, 2023

A Speech on Love


I spent this past weekend in rural Vermont, attending the wedding of one of my best friends from college. While I don't fully approve of the location (almost two hours from the nearest major airport and with no cell reception), I absolutely approve of the coupledom.

One of the "events" at the wedding was, interestingly enough, a speech competition (the groom is a speech and debate coach at the high school he teaches at). The assigned topic was on "love". Here is the speech I gave which -- brag alert -- won the competition. You can feel free to steal it in your own wedding toast:

* * *

When [the groom] told me that we would have a speech competition on the topic of "love", I was confused. Why love? It's the most boring part of a tennis match! It literally means "nothing"!

But then I realized that obviously, a speech and debate coach wouldn't create a competition around an easy topic. He wanted us to work in rougher grass and harder clay. The true challenge would be to take something as mundane and meaningless as "love" -- the part of a tennis match when nothing has happened yet -- and see if we could nonetheless create a speech that was moving and meaningful and impactful.

So this is my attempt to craft a meaningful, moving speech about love, the part of a tennis match where nobody has scored and nothing has happened yet.  

Love is expectation. 

Love is anticipation.

It is the tingle on the edge of your seat as you await what is to come.

Love can be disappointing, when only one player still has it and the other has moved far beyond. And love can be sad, when the match is over and there is no more love to be had.

But love can also be thrilling. Some of history's greatest rallies have occurred over love -- service and return, athletic lunges and beautiful shots -- the moments that make us feel alive and remind us why we play the game.

And ultimately, love is a constant. No matter what happens, after every game, set, match, we return back to love. Love is the beginning. It is the part where nothing has happened, yet. And so it means that you have everything still in front of you.

Marriage is a great beginning, and so it is only fitting that it starts at love-love. So here's to love-love, and the great match that's been made, and the great match that will continue to be played forward, grounded and returning to that basic and elemental feature -- of a tennis match -- of love.