Friday, November 10, 2023

When Good Slogans Go Bad (Or, Legitimate Slogans as Taunt)

A friend forwarded me an interesting story about an incident at an Evanston, Illinois high school where two school employees (one a teacher) wore a "free Palestine" t-shirt on October 8 -- one day after Hamas' horrendous massacre of Israelis on October 7.

To me, this is obviously deeply troublesome behavior. One reason, which I want to bracket for now, is that it was overt political expression by authority figures in a school setting -- in the story, the aggrieved parents state that they think similar shirts would be equally problematic if they said "MAGA" or "re-elect Biden" or, for that matter, "I support the IDF".

But leave the issue of authority and power out of it for now. Why is "free Palestine" problematic in this context?

This sometimes gets debated as a matter of whether "free Palestine" is "inherently" antisemitic, that is, antisemitic in all contexts. To that I think the answer is clearly no. But, it seems equally clearly, there are circumstances where "free Palestine" is antisemitic -- for example, if it is graffitied on the wall of a synagogue. That's antisemitic, and antisemitic in a way that goes beyond the possibility that any graffiti on a synagogue ("Go Bears!") is antisemitic insofar as it palpably disrespects a Jewish house of worship. In context, "free Palestine" on a synagogue wall is distinctly targeted at the synagogue as a Jewish institution in a way "Go Bears" isn't.

Mostly, when I make both of the above points, I get agreement. Not always -- some argue that "free Palestine" is always antisemitic; some argue that "free Palestine" on the synagogue is not antisemitic (it's criticism of Israel -- just like a firebomb!). But mostly. So why do I view the Evanston incident as more like the graffiti than the "bare" slogan?

My intuitive answer is that wearing a shirt with that slogan on October 8, one day after the Hamas massacres, will be perceived and will reasonably be perceived by Jewish students as taunting -- if not an outright expression of support for the murder of Jews, then at the very least an intentionally defiant stance of opposition to caring about the murder of Jews. The best analogy I can think of would be wearing, the day after the George Floyd murder, a t-shirt saying "I support our Boys in Blue." Is that sentiment inherently racist? No. Is it racist in that particular context, where it is almost certainly meant to stand in defiant opposition to caring about a murder carried out at the hands of the police? Yes, it is.

In the above example, I also thought about using a "Thin Blue Line" flag as the illustration. The reason I didn't is because many people would say that this symbol is inherently racist (whether the day after George Floyd or any other day). But it's worth dwelling on why. The semantic meaning of "Thin Blue Line" may simply be another variation of "I support our police." But in context, that slogan was developed solely as a reactive response to Black Lives Matter; its adaptation is systematically meant to serve as a taunting refusal to care about minorities murdered by police. For that reason, it is different-in-kind from "I support our Boys in Blue" -- but only because it was designed in all cases to carry the context that "I support our Boys in Blue" only contingently does. I don't think "Free Palestine" is like "Thin Blue Line" in that it was designed solely to be used as taunt. Unlike "Thin Blue Line" (but like "I support our Boys in Blue"), it has legitimate uses where it's communicating "normal", in-bounds politics. But in the situations where it is being used as a taunt; as a way of defiantly saying "your pain and marginalization mean nothing to me," then it's antisemitic in the same exact way and for the same reasons that "Thin Blue Line" is racist.

The other example that came to mind was the time when a Texas Republican legislator responded to a planned day of political lobbying by Muslim constituents by conspicuously placing Israeli flags in her office. Is displaying an Israeli flag "inherently" Islamophobic? No, it isn't. But to reduce the legislator's bigotry to the question of whether there's something inherently wrong with ever displaying an Israeli flag is to badly miss the point. In context, the flag was displayed as an intentional taunt -- a way of signaling "you're not welcome here."

In the Texas situation, I wrote about the terrible semiotic spiral that can result when people use otherwise valid symbols and slogans this way -- the more they're used as means of signaling exclusion, the more that bigoted and offensive meaning overtakes and displaces the valid political signification that others may still want to use, but now are obstructed from doing. That is, the more often in a given context or space an Israeli flag is displayed, or "free Palestine" is uttered, as a way of trying to taunt outsiders and send the message they're unwanted, the harder it is for people who want to wave Israeli flags or assert "free Palestine" in a "legitimate" fashion to successfully do so (since, in many cases, the taunting and legitimate usages will be observationally equivalent).

The sheer pettiness of the action -- as if an Israeli flag scatters Muslims like Vampires and the cross -- masked a deeper evil: the politician, by using the Israeli flag in this way, was constructing a meaning of the flag where one of its uses is to signal "I don't want Muslims to be comfortable here". That's terrible.

Likewise, when people expressly respond to, say, Jewish presence or trauma or marginalization by becoming more likely to say "free Palestine" or wave a Palestinian flag, it similarly accelerates this semiotic decay. 

What we saw in Evanston, in other words, while most obviously a terrible injury inflicted on Jewish students, was also in a more roundabout way an act of disrespect to all those who say "Free Palestine" and do not at all mean it to be a taunt, or a way of degrading or diminishing Jews, or a way of signaling to Jews that they're lesser. Both of these are tragedies. And pointing out that tragedy does not depend on, and is not obviated by falsifying, the contention that "free Palestine" is inherently antisemitic.

UPDATE: As Benjamin Lewis pointed out in the comments, October 8 was Sunday, so it is likely the shirts were worn October 9 (Monday). Given the time differences and all, that still is functionally one day after the massacres, and I don't think it makes a substantive difference in the analysis, but I do want to be accurate.

Wednesday, November 08, 2023

The New Single-Issue Israel Voters

One of the more enduring fictions about the American Jewish community is that it is largely comprised of "single-issue" voters, with that one issue being Israel. This is a myth that's been debunked more times than I can count; while certainly American Jews care about Israel, polls consistently show that Israel is not among most Jews' top voting priorities. This is one reason why GOP efforts to win over the Jewish vote by focusing entirely on Israel always founder: on every issue aside from Israel, Jews support Democrats more than Republicans (the other reason is that, on the issue of Israel ... Jews also support Democrats more than Republicans).

But over the past few years, I have started to notice the emergence of some folks who do present themselves as single-issue Israel voters. But it's not the imagined pro-Israel zealot -- it's sharp anti-Zionist leftists.

I first noticed this phenomenon in relation to Rep. Ritchie Torres (D-NY), who pairs a domestic policy agenda that's almost Squad-like in its leftism with strong and vocal traditional pro-Israel commitments. Now, to be clear, I don't expect progressives to approve of these positions by Torres. But there's a common enough progressive line on Torres that's not "he's really strong on a lot of issues except for Israel"; or not even "he's really strong on a lot of issues, which makes the Israel thing really aggravating." This cadre of progressives hate Ritchie Torres with a passion; they basically view him as the devil. He's detested far more than most Democrats who are well to his right on most issues but who haven't been as vocal or front-facing in their pro-Israel politics as he is. And that pro-Israel orientation, in turn, is the sole reason why these progressives hate him and seethe at the fact that they haven't been able to primary him out -- they barely make any pretensions that anything else is motivating them.

More recently, we've started to see a flurry of commentators saying, more or less, that Biden's Israel policy -- specifically, his continued support for Israel in the midst of its campaign against Hamas in Gaza notwithstanding the devastating toll it's exacted on the Palestinian civilian population -- means they will not vote for him in 2024. Now, admittedly, for some of these people it's hard to say they're single-issue Israel voters because one suspects they're single-issue every issue -- they're just looking for some heresy they can cry blasphemy over and justify the nine trillionth self-indulgent "both parties are the same" essay (I have my doubts about the twice-over Jill Stein voter, for instance). 

But there are others who really do seem to be pretty explicit that the only thing that's motivating their vote is Israel -- everything else is washed away. This piece making that argument is especially illustrative because it states flat out that Israel single-handedly renders meaningless a mountain of accomplishments and priorities that the author concedes should under normal circumstances represent essential progressive priorities:

Is sending weapons to Israel that it can use to decimate and kill a civilian population more important than Biden’s industrial policy? Is it more important than the Supreme Court, and abortion rights? Is it more important that all of the hundreds of billions of dollars of infrastructure investment? Is it more important than having a government that takes on corporate power concentration? Is it more important than the revival of organized labor? The person who is answering “yes” to all of those questions right now is Joe Biden himself.

Effort to pin the blame on Biden notwithstanding, the entire point of this litany is to say that for a significant cadre of voters all of these issues and accomplishments will count for squat in the face of Biden's current stance regarding Israel. While I'm dubious that the author actually has his finger on the pulse of a sufficiently large contingent of voters that it will actually make the political difference he thinks it will, he certainly is speaking for a vocal set that is not hiding their stance that Biden's Israel policy is the alpha and omega of their voting habits, and every other issue is irrelevant.

One can, of course, defend that position -- viewing America's policy on Israel (or Israel in this moment, anyway) as so essential that it outweighs every domestic policy item (and every other foreign policy item). People make their own choices on where their priorities lie. But if you thought it was a bit dodgy when it was (imagined that) Jewish voters were putting Israel above all other considerations, well, this isn't any different from that.

Sunday, November 05, 2023

Being Jewish Faculty in Portland and at Lewis & Clark

On Friday, a colleague of mine who teaches at Reed invited a group of Jewish faculty (and our families) from various Portland campuses to her house for dinner. It was meant to be a place of mutual support and fellowship in what has undeniably been a tough couple of weeks. There were some young (elementary school age) kids there, and just watching them run around and have way too much sugar and scream nonsense games -- the unbridled, uncomplicated, chaotic joy of youth -- was cleansing in a way I didn't know I needed. 

I was the only Lewis & Clark attendee, but there were folks from Reed, Portland State, and the University of Portland in attendance. Inevitably, stories were swapped about various events and goings-on, and the degree to which people felt supported (or not) by their home institutions. A lot of the stories were harrowing; this part of the evening was not pleasant (though I think it was ultimately for the best that we had a space -- a "safe space"? -- in which those stories could be told in a supportive and welcoming environment). And it made me once again reflect on how lucky I am to be at Lewis & Clark, where (at least at the law school) it seems we've dodged much of the bad behavior that has afflicted some other campuses.

In fact, I want to share some of my recent "Jewish faculty" experiences at Lewis & Clark, precisely because they've mostly been good, and good in a way that stands against certain narratives that pervade about academia. To be clear, I don't offer these stories to falsify others' accounts -- as the conversations at Friday's dinner made clear, many people at many campuses are having a genuinely bad time of it. But I do think it's important to stress that academia is not a monolith and that there are places doing it right just as there are places doing poorly; and beyond that, the bright spots in academic life do not always come from the places you'd expect (at least, if you're a regular imbiber of the prevailing discourse). To wit:

  • I've felt fully supported by my colleagues over the past few weeks (I'm also not the sort of person who needs much in the way of "check ins" to verify my emotional well-being). That said, the two non-Jewish colleagues who most distinctively went out of their way to "check in" on me and see how I was doing after October 7 were (1) the chair of our DEI committee and (2) the Pakistani Muslim teaching fellow in our Animal Law program.
  • Speaking of DEI, I went to speak to our (staff) director of DEI issues to ask her what her sense was about how things were playing out on the law school campus. She responded thoughtfully and compassionately, in a way that clearly demonstrated she was paying attention and providing care and support where needed. Her overall report was that (a) there were more campus community members directly affected by the events than I think many would have thought; (b) there were the usual instances of 20-somethings who are professionally-argumentative but whose politics aren't fully thought out speaking in ways that perhaps was not fully respectful of the reality that many of their colleagues were directly affected by the events; but (c) there had been no major flare-ups or crises; the "problems" were within the normal bounds of what one would expect to see when emotionally-charged events occurred on the global stage.
  • As many of you know, I hosted at Lewis & Clark this past year a conference on Law vs. Antisemitism, and selected contributions are being published in a symposium issue of the Lewis & Clark Law Review (which I am writing the introduction for). The law school was nothing but supportive of the conference itself, even though I was only in my second year teaching when I threw a major international conference at them. More to the immediate point, after October 7 the Editor-in-Chief of the law review reached out to me on her own initiative to ask if I wanted to revise my introduction to account for the Hamas attack or the aftermath, and assured me that if I did want to make revisions they would make sure they'd adjust their production schedule to accommodate. I'm still considering her offer, but regardless of whether I take her up or not I was extremely impressed with her thoughtfulness and gesture of inclusion.
I don't claim things are perfect -- for me, for other Jewish community members at Lewis & Clark, for Muslim or Palestinian community members at Lewis & Clark, whomever. On the upper campus, for instance, there was an instance of just a few days after October 7 of "free Palestine" graffiti on the upper campus undergraduate buildings (though -- without downplaying the significance of it -- it seems that Lewis & Clark has a bit of a "tradition" around Indigenous Peoples Day of a certain segment of the student body tagging buildings with various "anti-establishment", "anti-colonialist", and "counter-cultural" messages, and this was part of that rather than a truly spontaneous "Jews in Israel just got murdered so let's celebrate with a hearty 'free Palestine'!"). 

But on the whole, as terrible as "the world" has been this past month, I've been extremely grateful for the little local slice of the world I have at Lewis & Clark. And just as we harp on the bitter, I do think it's important to give due credit and attention to the sweet.