Friday, October 13, 2023

Grief Over Dead Jews is not the Cause of Palestinian Suffering

At Dissent Magazine, Gabriel Winant has an essay arguing for why it is wrong to grieve murdered Israelis, in response to Joshua Leifer's call for a "humane left" that recognizes the atrocities inflicted upon the Israeli people even as it mobilizes to defend Palestinian rights (Leifer authors a searing response of his own here). 

Winant's argument against grieving dead Israelis is not exactly the one you're thinking of -- that the dead are "colonists" or "settlers" and so got what was coming to them. It's slightly more roundabout, though ultimately still rather straightforward. 

Israel, Winant says, is "a machine for the conversion of grief into power." In the context of Israel and Zionism, to grieve dead Jews is -- no matter the intentions of the bereft -- a means of providing fuel to the Israeli war machine, "an enormous grief machine, the best in the world, up and running, feeding on bodies and tears and turning them into bombs." Winant's argument is not, to be clear, the position that certain forms of grief and grieving lend themselves to the promotion and justification of future atrocities. It is that any type of grief, no matter how humanistic in spirit, is ultimately a choice to "participate in the ideological project of the Israeli state," and so all grief over dead Israelis should be interpreted as complicity in the deaths of Palestinians.

The Israeli government doesn’t care if you, a principled person, perform your equal grief for all victims: it will gobble up your grief for Jews and use it to make more victims of Palestinians, while your balancing grief for Palestinians will be washed away in the resulting din of violence and repression.

And so we are obligated to not grieve for massacred Israelis so to starve the apparatus of its fuel.

Winant is a historian, a discipline of the humanities. It is moments like this when I'm glad my own training is in the social sciences, where even as a political theorist I gained some capacity to look for causality before making causal claims. It is a curse of academia that it tempts us to make smart arguments for stupid things, or sometimes smart arguments for horrific things. Certainly, the seemingly unanswerable question Winant is trying to answer -- "Who can begrudge tears for those lost to violence?" -- is, in fact, exactly as obvious a moral (non-)dilemma as it first appears. But elegant pedigree and august publication venue aside, the mistake Winant is making is not a smart one. It is an error that anyone with even the slightest instinct towards causal inference would have spotted immediately.

The imperative to not grieve dead Jews, Winant argues, boils down to the following:

[I]n the several days that we spent arguing about whether the left was sufficiently decent about Hamas’s victims, Israel geared up its genocide machine—which it now is releasing. Presumably sometime next week, Western leaders will begin to express concerns, by which time it will be too late.

"By which time it will be too late." The argument, apparently, is that if only the world had hardened its heart towards dead Israelis last week, we could have averted the horrors set to befall Palestinians next week. As a causal claim, this is ludicrous to the point of farce -- to the point where I can't imagine Winant actually believes it. Does he truly believe that, if the collective global reaction to massacred Jews was a stoic shrug, that would have deterred an Israeli response? That it would have even ameliorated it? That it would have spouted greater humanism? It is absurd on face; even (maybe especially?) an anti-Zionist should realize the Israeli state would not be deterred so easily.

The brute fact is that the world electing to grieve, or not, over dead Israelis almost certainly made and will make no causal difference whatsoever in how Israel will respond to their deaths. And if grief over dead civilians is an impotent force with respect to the next round of deaths -- if it plays no role in making them more or less likely -- well, then one might as well be humane, be human, and grieve.

Once one identifies the absurd causal premise in Winant's argument, the entire thing falls apart. Grieving for dead Jews does not in fact sweat bombs and excrete bullets; boldly refusing to grieve would play absolutely no role in how many bombs are dropped and bullets are fired. The entire argument is a whirlwind of rhetoric and misdirection to try and obscure the obviousness of "Who can begrudge tears for those lost to violence?" And while I said the argument is not quite the obvious "Israelis are colonists and settlers and so got what's coming to them," I suspect the motive of the argument isn't all that far from that -- it is to give people who desperately don't want to accede to the overwhelming power of "Who can begrudge tears for those lost to violence?" an excuse, an apologia they can wield to begrudge, begrudge, begrudge.

If there is even the slightest truth in Winant's framework, it is not that Israel transmutes grief into power. It's that Israel transmutes grieving alone into power. The impetus behind Zionism -- I've been in enough of these conversations to speak confidently here -- is not (just) that bad, dreadful things happen to Jews. It's that bad, dreadful things happen to Jews and Jews are the only ones who will ever care. The only people who will grieve dead Jews are Jews; the only people who will rally to the defense of threatened Jews are Jews; the only people who will feel empathy (or anything at all, really) towards frightened or traumatized Jews are Jews; the only people who will erect fortresses to protect Jews are Jews; and so ultimately the only people who can be entrusted to protect and ensure the lives of Jews are Jews. It is not grief alone, but grief alone, that fuels these instincts.

Taken from that vantage point, the scenes of collective global grief over dead Jews represent what might be the closest thing Israelis can get to a non-violent catharsis for their trauma -- the knowledge that Jews aren't actually alone, that others do care when we are pricked and bleed. If you want something that might actually sap the machine of violence and vengeance of some of its forward momentum, that's by far your best bet -- not enforced loneliness, but unconditional embrace and empathy in the moments where it is needed most.

The last week or so hasn't had a lot of laughing moments with respect to the situation surrounding Israel and Palestine, but perhaps the only time I genuinely snickered was when Italy decided to express its solidarity by lighting up the Arch of Titus, of all places, with an Israeli flag. As far as historical ironies go, that one was hard to beat. But it also, in its ridiculous fashion, did illustrate the wheel of history turning in an important way. From celebrating dead Jews, to standing in public grief with dead Jews -- as symbolism goes, that's massive. And if that symbolic shift occurred everywhere, well, maybe Jewish history would be in a very different place than where it is today.

And so I wish I could take the final step of the argument, and say that maybe Winant has everything backwards -- that if the world had grieved hard enough and uniformly enough and passionately enough, it would have sapped the fuel of loneliness and isolation that makes Israel believe that nobody but itself can ever be entrusted to protect Jewish life, and could have knocked us off the seemingly inexorable course to the hell that is about to descend. 

But I'm enough of a social scientist that if I'm going to make a causal claim, I have to actually believe it, and I don't really believe this one. The wounds and fears that nurture Jews' feelings of abandonment run too deep to be dislodged in such a short period, even if it were possible to get everyone on board with the program (which it isn't). What I actually believe is what I said above, that how the world grieved, or didn't, over dead Israelis almost certainly made and will make no causal difference whatsoever in how Israel will respond to their deaths.

And given that absolute impotent immateriality, I also think it's clear that the basic, innocent, human impulse -- that one should grieve dead civilians -- is exactly as obvious and unanswerable as it appears at first blush. There is nothing impressive at coming up with smart (or not-so-smart) arguments to circumvent such an obvious truth.

Wednesday, October 11, 2023

The Epistemic Turn of the Week's Antisemitism

When I published my article on epistemic antisemitism last year, the very first paragraph carried an important disclaimer: epistemic antisemitism "is by no means the only form of antisemitism, nor (necessarily) the most important or foundational type." It is a type, one amongst many, and I wrote about it mostly because I didn't really see others writing about it.

Certainly this week, it is beyond evident that epistemic antisemitism is not the most important type. It pales in comparison to the violence, death, and dismemberment that has afflicted southern Israel, and the apologias for the same. Yet it still remains the case that epistemic antisemitism is a type, and one sees it, too, rearing its ugly head in the discourse that's surrounded the preceding week's events.

Epistemic injustice, as Miranda Fricker describes it, is the wronging of persons in the capacity as knowers. In its antisemitic dimension, it is the persistent presentation of Jewish claims and claimants as untrustworthy, deceptive, or plots -- never to be taken at face value, always in service of some higher game. Inevitable features of contested discourse -- disagreements, differing interpretations, misunderstandings, ambiguities in meaning, or even flat honest mistakes -- are all collapsed into a more sinister narrative of intentional manipulation. The result is that, even where Jews are speaking on matters central to our own experience, the default is to not take us seriously -- indeed, to assume anyone who does take us seriously, who treats us as making an earnest contribution, is a sucker or in on the agenda.

I'll give two examples from the past few days, one short, the other longer. 

First, one theme one has heard from many Jewish commentators -- some well to my left -- has been despair over witnessing others in their camp who've been at best indifferent, if not celebratory, towards murdered Jews. All of us have seen iterations of this (Eric Levitz collects some receipts, including from Students for Justice in Palestine). But the replies to such cries of despair are increasingly overrun by persons who insist that nothing of the sort is happening. "I've seen nobody praising the attacks". "Show me examples [no, the examples you just shared don't count]". And on and on.

The point is to present a wide-ranging Jewish testimonial experience as incredible and a sort of collective defamation of the left. What appears to be a repeated experience Jews have had in the past few days is actually a calculated initiative to spread falsehoods, gin up undeserved sympathy, and discredit ideological opponents (the last part is true even if the speakers are themselves part of the same broad ideological camp). Remember what Bruce Robbins said so many years ago: "The real issue here is anti-Semitism; that is, accusing people of it." When Jews say they see antisemitism, epistemic antisemites immediately see real issue as those victimized by an undoubtedly false allegation. There are clear analogue to how Jewish members of Labour who testified about antisemitism in the Corbyn era were maligned, and I feel like I've definitely seen some persons who I know were offenders in the Corbyn affair making similar moves today.

Second, there were reports that among the atrocities committed by Hamas terrorists during their assault there were instances of beheaded infants. These stories were shared and spread over social media, but initially they were not easy to confirm. Sheera Frankel of the New York Times has a great account regarding how the claim emerged and how responsible journalists tried to confirm it or otherwise figure out its provenance. The summary of the timeline goes, more or less, something like this:

  • There was an initial report of beheadings of babies from an Israeli news source; this appears to be what kicked off the story.
  • Further investigation suggested that these reports might have been based off a misinterpretation of a soldier's first-hand testimony. Other sources who were contacted were unable to provide first-hand confirmation of the "beheading" claim.
  • Some of the reporters who had initially repeated the allegation accordingly began to pull back, leading still other commentators to claim that the initial story had been "debunked".
  • As time passed, more reports did begin to flow in with additional first-hand testimony claiming to have seen beheaded infants, leading to the story reappearing on reputable media websites.
We may never know exactly all of the details. The Israeli government has reportedly said that it will not investigate the matter further -- the eyewitness testimony it has received is evidence enough, and whatever evidentiary gains might emerge from meticulously documenting the exact state of dismemberment of each infant corpse were negligible when weighed against the additional pain and agony such an investigation would impose on the victims' families. This forbearance, unsurprisingly, has been viewed with extreme suspicion by those who found the initial claim to lack credibility and who continue to believe that the reports are untrue. For my part, I think that right now the balance of evidence suggests -- sickeningly -- that it likely is true that there were some children with beheaded corpses found amongst the bodies in Israel.

But my point is actually not about how one assesses the current state of the evidence. Rather, it is to emphasize that -- specific depraved details aside -- a sequence like this should not feel especially abnormal. We had a fast-moving, chaotic, uncontrolled event that was chock full of incidents and abuses that 24 hours earlier would have been impossible to imagine. Even if social media sites like X/Twitter hadn't completely imploded into engines of greater misinformation, moments like these are the furthest thing from a healthy informational ecosystem. There will be rumors, and uncertainties, and panic, and hearsay. Some of it will be fully borne out, some of it will carry a grain of truth but be misshapen in some way, some of it will be entirely bogus. In the immediate chaotic froth of the event, that's to be expected.

Yet -- and this is the epistemic antisemitism link -- that was not how things were portrayed. Some social media commentators, recognizing that the situation was in flux and early reports could not be confirmed, urged caution in the face of sensational allegations. That is entirely in the right. But some social media commentators raced as fast as possible to the position that any reports of "beheadings" were pure propaganda, an intentional trick to discredit Hamas (as if they needed the help!), and those who shared them were either unwitting pawns or willing participants in a Zionist conspiracy. The most plausible explanation consistent with the claim being untrue -- that this was the sort of rumor and hearsay that one would fully expect to see bouncing about in the chaotic first moments following a surprise attack -- was blown past in favor of an explanation predicated on the most malicious possible inferences. That move -- not, to reiterate, any professional insistence on needing more confirmation before resharing the allegations -- seems to me directly linked to holding a default position of skepticism if not antipathy towards Jewish claim-makers (which is why, even though now we are seeing multiple different direct eyewitness accounts confirming the story, plenty still are holding fast to the notion that they can't be trusted).

In either case, the thrust of this branch of discourse -- and lest I be clear, it is only a branch, the vast majority of people have not indulged in this depravity -- is laser-focused on ensuring that nobody be too ready to take Jews seriously. The goal is to present Jewish testimony as presumptively suspect -- not just the baseline "skepticism" that might greet any claim before proof is supplied, but a specific insistence that Jewish testimony in particular is probably part of a plot. As I wrote in my article, the epistemic antisemite -- in addition to whatever other negative beliefs they have about Jews, tends to carry

 a concurrent belief that Jews can’t be trusted, that they’re always plotting something or working the angles, that all of their public action is in service of a deeper game. A person who believes such things about Jews may be considerably less likely to take Jewish claims made to the public seriously. Even if she does not reject them out of hand, she may be extra-alert for a hidden agenda or secret meaning, and may be unwilling to credit Jewish testimony (even—or especially—on matters where Jews might be thought to possess first-hand knowledge) to the same degree she does other actors.

This -- on top of everything else -- is something Jews are facing right now. The rapid assumption that any reporting of atrocities out of Israel is Zionist propaganda until ironclad-proven otherwise is one form of it. The dismissive derision towards Jewish testimony regarding apologism for Hamas atrocities is another. It's not on par with violence, or even verbal justifications for violence. But it is still something, and something terrible, and it is a regular feature of Jewish life in the world.

Monday, October 09, 2023

What Will You Say "No" To?

We are still processing the fallout of the past week's brutal assault by Hamas on southern Israel, a vicious attack whose only tactical objection was the infliction of terror and death on a civilian population. At the moment, it appears that Israel has reestablished control over most if not all of its territory, but the situation remains fluid and the military and government response remains shockingly disorganized. We also don't know yet exactly how Israel plans to respond to Hamas' attack, but few seem to harbor hopes for anything that could be remotely characterized as positive.

Right now, it seems, we sit in the relative calm before -- or more accurately, between -- the storm. And so right now, those of us who rightfully are aghast at Hamas' wanton murder of Israeli civilians, and who've pledged to stand with Israel as a result, must force ourselves to think through a very difficult thought:

What will we say "no" to?

What form of Israeli retaliation or response to Hamas' sadistic campaign of slaughter we will commit to saying we won't support? This is not a roundabout way of saying Israel is not entitled to respond at all; a military response here is warranted and justified. But warranted and justified military responses still carry limits, and it's important to be clear about what those limits are even in the wake of an unimaginable atrocity.

Indeed, I say to those standing with Israel that we need to think about this right now because we just witnessed in real-time a catastrophic failure to grapple seriously with this question on the part of those who've pledge to stand with Palestinians and Palestine. Suddenly forced to decide whether, in the wake of occupation and besiegement, a Palestinian response of "a systemic campaign of house-to-house kidnappings, rapes, and executions" is a valid one, we saw far, far too many individuals unable to say "no" (or at least, say it with any level of decisiveness). This failure stems directly from the tempting broth that assures us that, if the provocation is severe enough and the injury severe enough, no amount of "response" could ever be disproportionate. And so we see that, if you refuse to let yourself think that anything could be "too far", there's no end to the depths of hell you may find yourself apologizing for.

For example, today the Israeli defense minister announced that one response Israel was committing to vis-a-vis Hamas was a "complete siege" upon the Gaza Strip, including a blockade on the delivery of food. Starvation of civilian populations is expressly forbidden as a violation of the laws of war. We can  consequently expect to hear, very shortly, calls from a variety of sources -- perhaps even the U.S. government -- that contravene Israel's announced policy of "complete siege", and insist that Israel cannot be permitted to block the entry of food, water, and medical supplies into the Gaza Strip. And we already know exactly one form of response that will be leveled at such calls: 

"How dare you tell Israel how it can respond to the unspeakable atrocity Hamas just committed? Hamas should have thought about food security in Gaza before it decided to slaughter Israeli civilians en masse! It's up to Hamas to free the hostages and submit to justice for their crimes; until they do that, any civilian deaths brought upon by Israel's blockade are on their heads, not ours."

There will, in short, be immeasurable pressure brought to bear to silence anyone who says "this is too much"; the waving of the bloody shirt of countless dead, dismembered, and abducted Israeli children and daring anyone to stare that bloodshed in the face and say "this is too much" in response.

Which is why it is so important to commit in advance to what we'll say in the thick of that inevitable discourse. If the Biden administration does step out and try to say "this choice -- not every choice, but this choice -- is too far", what will we say in the face of the inevitable backlash? How will navigate the hue and cry of those who are furious -- furious -- that anyone could have the temerity of telling Israel it is going too far? But the truth is that if your answer is to say "I'm sorry, but in this moment, at this time, in this situation, I cannot bring myself to tell Israel what it can and cannot do" -- then you've committed yourself to the same catastrophic failure we saw just days ago of those who could not, in the midst of sickening massacres, bring themselves to tell Palestinians what they could and could not do. It is the same failure of those who could not bring themselves to oppose Japanese internment after Pearl Harbor; the same as those who could not stand up for the rights of Muslims to build Mosques in New York after 9/11. No matter what flag you fly or how you think of yourself, you are cut from identical cloth.

The picture above is of Jacob Argamani. His daughter, Noa, was among those abducted by Hamas militants. Her kidnapping was broadcast, and even the description of it is sickening beyond words. These are the words Jacob spoke the other day, as her daughter's whereabouts remain unknown:

Let us make peace with our neighbors, in any way possible. I want there to be peace; I want my daughter to come back. Enough with the wars. They too have casualties, they too have captives, and they have mothers who weep. We are two peoples to one Father. Let’s make real peace.

If he can say it, then we can say it. But we have to commit to it now.