Saturday, December 09, 2023

Bad Faith Grandstanding on Campus Free Speech is Rewarded

The President of the University of Pennsylvania, Elizabeth Magill, has resigned in the wake of her testimony before Congress about university responses to campus antisemitism.

This is terrible news. To be sure, I don't think Magill is obligated to stay in a position where she feels she either can't be effective or can't function; she has no obligation to stick things out in what I can only imagine is right now an impossibly toxic atmosphere. But still, Magill deserved better; she said absolutely nothing wrong in her testimony. Yet the bad faith grandstanding of the likes of Elise Stefanik -- an antisemitic conspiracy-mongerer in her own right -- has claimed a high-profile victim.

I published my post Thursday before reading Ken White's more colorful response to those smearing Magill, but I endorse it in full. There have definitely been other prominent free speech advocates who have taken the right line here, including Eugene Volokh and David Lat

But others are not rising to the moment. I flagged in my last post Keith Whittington for wrongly and misleadingly making Magill rather than Stefanik into his standard-bearer for greater campus restrictions on speech -- even if we think Magill was wrong to begin bending to Stefanik's threats, it's evident that Magill did not originate them. To the contrary, the backlash against Magill -- which Whittington tacitly tried to latch on to -- was and is entirely about her perceived unwillingness to bend sufficiently on protecting free speech. Anyone who was joining the dunk party on Magill was, implicitly or explicitly, endorsing the very unambiguous politics of free speech censorship that Stefanik was explicitly promoting. I can't top Ken White here: "You — and I say this with love — absolute fucking dupes."

Now that Magill has resigned, here is how Whittington reacted to the news:

It's hard to imagine missing the point by a wider margin than this. Whittington's worried that Magill's resignation will be "construed" as a "mandate to shrink the space for free speech" and to "cater to the sensitivities and political preferences of donors and politicians"? Yeah, no kidding -- it will absolutely be "construed" as doing both of those things because that's exactly what prompted it. The lesson that was meant to be sent and which will be learned is "shrink the space for speech when politicians and donors demand that you do so." There's no ambiguity here; that's the entirety of what happened. Anyone who didn't want that to happen should have come out firing in defense of Magill and in opposition to the roiling censorial mob that Stefanik effectively incited.

Magill felt compelled to resign because she publicly articulated -- in the most hostile room imaginable -- the free speech values that Whittington claims are essential. That's it. And that Whittington still cannot name the actual enemy here -- cannot state clearly that Magill got it right, is being punished for getting it right, and it is rabble-rousing Republican demagogues who showed their whole face in terms of demanding censorship under the guise of protecting Jewish students -- is shameful.

I'm also not feeling especially patient towards some of the other common lines I've heard that try to rationalize why it's okay to blame Magill as having done something wrong. One common response I've seen is to say that the witnesses were poorly prepped for the particular environment of a congressional hearing; with better preparation, they could have avoided the "traps" laid out in front of them. I'm doubtful: I think it is the hubris of very smart people in particular that think they can go into a demagogue's home turf, where they're entirely in control of the proceedings, can control the flow of questioning, can reclaim time whenever they want, and outmaneuver their "traps". It's the same hubris that makes liberals think they can go on Fox News and "outdebate Hannity". No you can't, and it's not because Hannity is some secret genius. It's that he has the home field advantage -- he knows how to play this particular game better than you, precisely because it's a "game" that does not in any way reward intellectual honesty or virtuosity.

A similar argument is that, while the responses of Magill et al may have been formally, legally, correct, they were inappropriate in this context -- their role was not to be lawyers but public advocates for their university, and their sin was misapprehending what was called for from their position in this context. My former colleague at Berkeley Steven Davidoff Solomon, for example, described the university presidents as "prepared to give answers in the court — and not a public forum,” and that was their undoing: their job here is “not to give legal answers, it’s to give the vision of the university."

Once again, I'll cry foul. Yes, there are many situations where a technically correct answer nonetheless can be a bad answer because it skirts some larger truth or is inattentive to important surrounding context, which a good answer would pay heed to. But this argument only works if the problems with the "technically correct" answer are not the facts which make it correct. The people who are mad at Magill are not mad based on something like "yes, maybe it's technically true that there are some circumstances where 'calls to genocide' are protected from formal sanction, but it's more important right now to emphasize how heinous those calls are even if they always be literally punished." The thing they're mad about is the thing that Magill said which was true: there are some circumstances where even 'calls to genocide' -- and we're not even getting into Stefanik's attempt to frame the at the least more ambiguous case of 'intifada' chants as a "call to genocide" -- are protecting from formal punishment. As Howard Wasserman wrote:

Magill, Gay, and Kornbluth did not fail to denounce calls for genocide as antisemitic. No one asked whether calls for genocide or "river to sea" are antisemitic; Stefanik asked whether those statements constitute protected speech and they gave the correct answer of "it depends on context," because it does. In fact, they did at points condemn the message, just without expressing intent to sanction the speech where it remained protected.

Put differently, it's fine to say that in some cases a "technically correct answer" isn't good enough, but only if your proposed alternative is not to demand the speaker be overtly and substantively incorrect.

The last thing I'll say is that I'm not generally interested in point-tallying of the "this is the real cancel culture" variety. Free speech, as I've often said, has mostly fair-weather friends, and no camp has covered itself in glory across the board. What I will say though is that no matter how one tallies the overall scoreboard, this absolutely is an incident where the forces of censorship won and those demanding respect for free speech principles lost. The next time we face an incident where some controversial right-winger comes to campus, it will be a lot harder to persuasively lecture our students that as hateful and heinous as this figure may be, this is the demand of free speech protections etc. etc. etc., because they will have seen in vivid detail just how easily those principles can be forced to bend. 

Maybe you think that's a good thing. I still think it isn't. And at the very least, the practical shakeout of who will in practice see their speech censored and who in practice will be able to access administrative protections remains to be seen. I have zero confidence that this will either find a stable and accepted equilibrium or ultimately redound to the benefit of young Jews enduring antisemitism on campus.

Thursday, December 07, 2023

Hebrew Letters in Portland

Earlier today, I was chatting with a friend on the subject of whether we felt "afraid" as Jews. I said that I didn't personally feel especially "afraid" as a Jew, but that I acknowledged that others in my circle (students, colleagues) were articulating different experiences from mine, and that I didn't want my own relative lack of fear to imply that their experience was inauthentic, concocted, or an overreaction.

A few hours after that exchange, Jill asked if I wanted to go out and get donuts for Chanukah. I looked down and saw I was wearing that shirt -- the one that says "Carleton College" in transliterated Hebrew letters. And before I left the house, I changed shirts. While it's not that I was sure something bad would happen if I went out in public wearing Hebrew letters, I felt in no uncertain terms that it was unwise -- a risk not worth taking -- and that if I did wear it I'd certainly feel anxious from the moment we stepped into the car until the moment I got home.

What changed? Obviously, nothing -- there was no event over the interceding two hours that precipitated fear in me that I lacked before. The sense that wearing that t-shirt outside might be an Unwise Idea was already latent inside me (there's a reason why the "Hebrew Letters in ...." post is an ongoing series) -- I just sort of ... forgot about it. The fear was simultaneously always present and yet so sublimated that even in this moment I could earnestly assert in perfect good faith that I wasn't feeling it.

I'm reminded of a phenomenon Albert Memmi wrote about where Jews who experience antisemitism often simultaneously say things like "this is the first time I've ever truly faced antisemitism" and then, if you press a half-inch on the matter, will kind of belatedly remember a dozen prior instances where they also faced antisemitism. As much as there is, in some circles, pressure on Jews to trumpet our vulnerability and insist that everyone Acknowledge Our Peril, there's also, in a different register, a ton of pressure on Jews to downplay antisemitism, to show that we're not one of Those Jews who jumps at every shadow, to not make a big deal and agree to lump it on the small stuff (this dichotomy is, too, one that I think is very much one that is experienced not just by Jews but by many minority group members).

But still, I'm not sure what to make of all of this. What does it mean that I said -- again, perfectly earnestly, not as an exercise of bravado -- that I didn't feel significant "fear" right now as a Jew in a moment where at some level I knew full well I didn't feel comfortable being visibly Jewish in public? Perhaps my understanding of what it meant to be "afraid" as a Jew was one that envisioned something more visceral and panicked -- feeling as if any second now someone would jump me, terrified that we're an instant away from a mob demanding the evil Jew be removed from campus. The more workaday experiences of not feeling comfortable wearing a Hebrew t-shirt, or idly wondering (as I sometimes do) "what would happen if someone graffiti-ed my house with a swastika" -- that I've just internalized as a baseline state of being, it surely is not serious enough to qualify as being afraid. That seems a problematic thought -- the idea that as Jews we've just so thoroughly normalized a level of anxiety over antisemitism as the default setting that it feels wrong to even identify it as "fear". But clearly there's something to it -- recall my posts on how "schoolchildren shouldn't have to live like Jews", which also relates to how Jews just accept as normal certain orientations towards threat and danger that objectively speaking should be seen as intolerable.

Nonetheless, when I say I'm not sure what to make of all of this -- I mean it. I'm not fully convinced that the "right" answer is that actually, I am afraid as a Jew and I should embrace that sensation. Just the other day I was talking about how, in contrast to the zeitgeist, I haven't felt like my personal social media feed (Facebook and the like) has been overrun with extremists or monsters either cheering dead Israelis or gushing over dead Palestinians. There've been a few, but not all that many in the scheme of things. "What am I doing wrong?", I joked. "Am I being shadowbanned from all the bad content? Or am I just that good at picking friends?" But the point is that in the main the notion that my status as a Jew right now is defined by fear and alienation just doesn't resonate with me. I respect that it does for others, but it isn't how I'd generally characterize my experience, and I don't like the thought of being conscripted into endorsing an affective state that doesn't actually resonate with me.

But then again, I still took the shirt off. So am I just self-deluding? Or is there some middle ground? I don't have a good answer.

Bad Faith Grandstanding on Campus Free Speech Shouldn't Be Rewarded

Many of you have seen the fallout over recent congressional testimony about antisemitism on college campuses, featuring the presidents of MIT, Penn, and Harvard. A particularly high-profile exchange came from Rep. Elise Stefanik (R-NY), demanding to know if calling for "genocide" of Jews violated these university's conduct policies. 

The context of this questioning was the use of "intifada" in campus protests, which Stefanik suggested should be viewed as "genocidal". Right from the start, that should give us pause -- the ambiguity of "intifada" being conflated into "genocide" on its own gives ample reason for the university presidents to demur over committing to formal penalties. And certainly, in a world where its increasingly common to claim that Israel is pursuing a policy of genocide towards Palestinians, Jewish leaders should think long and hard about whether they really want to institute a rule that speech "advocating genocide" can be banned from campus. As Justice Black put it in his Beauharnais dissent, warning minority groups about the "victory" of securing a ban on hate speech: "Another such victory and I am undone."

Nonetheless, I've seen many people praising Stefanik for her "hard questioning", and dismissing the university presidents' responses as "dodges" or missteps. As grandstanding, I might concede that Stefanik was effective. But on substance, she was dead wrong, and the university presidents got it right. What we had here was a textbook example of an effective demagogue putting her targets in an impossible situation, and resolutely refusing to allow them to give a "good" answer, and I'm annoyed that this is being viewed as anything other than the bad faith rabble-rousing that it is.

Jon Chait has an excellent piece on this that strikes exactly the right notes. Here's his reprint of the relevant exchange between Stefanik and UPenn President Elizabeth Magill.

STEFANIK: Ms. Magill, at Penn, does calling for the genocide of Jews violate Penn’s rules or code of conduct? Yes or no?

MAGILL: If the speech turns into conduct, it can be harassment. Yes.

STEFANIK: I am asking, specifically calling for the genocide of Jews, does that constitute bullying or harassment?

MAGILL: If it is directed and severe, pervasive, it is harassment.

STEFANIK: So the answer is yes.

MAGILL: It is a context-dependent decision, congresswoman.

STEFANIK: So calling for the genocide of Jews is, depending upon the context, that is not bullying or harassment. This is the easiest question to answer. Yes, Ms. Magill. So is your testimony that you will not answer yes? Yes or no?

MAGILL: If the speech becomes conduct. It can be harassment, yes.

STEFANIK: Conduct meaning committing the act of genocide. The speech is not harassment. This is unacceptable. Ms. Magill, I’m gonna give you one more opportunity for the world to see your answer. Does calling for the genocide of Jews violate Penn’s code of conduct when it comes to bullying and harassment? Yes or no?

MAGILL: It can be harassment.

This has been treated as Magill being evasive and Stefanik trying to nail her down. But in reality, everything Magill is saying is exactly correct. What she said is pretty similar to how I would've responded to my own students if they asked what the rules were surrounding such speech in a campus environment, and I resent the notion that giving an accurate answer to that question should be characterized as a faux pas. 

The truth is that even hateful speech -- and a call to genocide certainly qualifies as one -- is not the subject of proscription on university campuses. This is not some rule that was just made up when Jews got antsy; it was the same principle that demanded UC-Berkeley permit an unabashed racist like Milo speak on campus and insisted that avowed White supremacist Richard Spencer be allowed to give talks at campuses nationwide. Antisemitic speech is antisemitic, but when it is just speech and not conduct, it is still protected by principles of free speech. In her testimony Magill held the line admirably, and now she's being pilloried for it.

This is why I'm actually a bit annoyed at this Chronicle article by Keith Whittington, speaking as founding chair of the Academic Committee of the Academic Freedom Alliance. Whittington presents a choice looming for college campuses on speech, between holding fast to free speech principles versus seeking to restrict speech on basis of content in the name of "safety". The former position (which is also Whittington's) he associates with Stanford Law Dean Jenny Martinez, and how she handled the aftermath of the anti-Kyle Duncan protests on her campus. The latter position he ties to Magill:

A quite different path is suggested by the University of Pennsylvania’s president, M. Elizabeth Magill. Magill has come under particularly intense pressure to address perceived antisemitism on her campus. In her testimony to the congressional committee, she emphasized that “Penn’s approach to protest is guided by the U.S. Constitution” and gives “broad protection to free expression — even expression that is offensive.” But when confronted with questions about whether calls for genocide violated university policy, Magill and her fellow presidents stumbled in their replies. As a result, Magill released a short video. There she repeated that “Penn’s policies have been guided by the Constitution,” but she added that “in today’s world … these policies need to be clarified and evaluated.” She promised a “serious and careful look at our policies” with an eye to ensuring a “safe, secure, and supportive environment.” She will, she promised, “get this right.”

Magill’s implication is clear: The university’s policies need to be revised so that they do not so closely follow the Constitution; they should instead prioritize students’ sense of safety. Protections for free expression and perhaps even academic freedom might well be pared back in the process.

Here's why I'm mad about this. It's true that Magill has backtracked on the commitment to absolutist free speech protections in the wake of the fallout over her testimony, and that's unfortunate. But Whittington's framing implies that Magill from the outset was hesitant to forthrightly defend the free speech rights of "offensive" speakers on campus, and now has gotten even worse. That's the opposite of what happened: Magill in her testimony said exactly what Whittington thinks she should have said -- and she's getting hammered for it. Contra Whittington, she did not "stumble" during the testimony itself -- or if she did, it's only from the vantage of those who take Stefanik's view that it is a misstep not to endorse paring back academic freedom and free expression in deference to students' sense of safety. 

For those who adopt Whittington's view on free speech, Magill's congressional testimony was not a "stumble" but a clear articulation of the proper position of the university. Whittington accordingly should have had her back; he should have said explicitly that the university presidents got it right in their congressional testimony and the backlash they're enduring for it is the real threat to free speech. Instead, he hung her out to dry as she takes the brunt of public heat for the position Whittington purportedly wants to see more university presidents defend. What do we expect will be the result of this? Unfairness to Magill aside, what does Whittington expect will happen -- what incentives are university administrators given -- when they see that putative "free speech" allies won't give them credit for saying the right thing on campus free speech rules. It's hardly a shocker that Magill is yielding in the face of overwhelming public backlash if even her "allies" refuse to back her up. As De Tallyrand put it, "it's worse than a crime, it's a blunder."

At the very least, Magill does not deserve to be the namesake of the censorial impulse. That dubious honor should have been attached to Stefanik (who isn't even named in Whittington's piece). As Chait writes:

What Stefanik was demanding was the wholesale ban on rhetoric and ideas that Jews find threatening, regardless of context. A university should protect students from being mobbed or having their classes occupied and disrupted. But should it protect them from an op-ed in the student newspaper calling to globalize the intifada? Or a demonstration in an open space demanding “From the river to the sea”? That would entail wholesale violations of free speech, which, in addition to the moral problem it would create, would likely backfire by making pro-Palestinian activism a kind of forbidden rebellion rather than (as many students currently find it) an irritant.

The presidents’ efforts to deflect every question about genocide of the Jews into a legalistic distinction between speech and conduct may have sounded grating, and Stefanik’s indignant replies may have sounded like moral clarity. But on the whole, they were right to focus on the distinction between speech and conduct, and Stefanik was wrong to sneer at it.

It may be unfortunate that, after the fact, Magill is bending on this important point. But as disappointing as that failing is, she isn't the originator of the threat. The actual villains of the story are the likes of Stefanik -- they're the ones proactively, not reactively, demanding that university's sacrifice free speech protections in service of student safety. If we can't name that wrongdoing; if we can't push past misbegotten awe at Stefanik's accomplishments in demagoguery, then the situation is going to get worse far before it gets better.

Wednesday, December 06, 2023

The Fantasy of Fighting Antisemitism Without Jews

A few years ago, I lamented the way in which popular discourse about antisemitism seems utterly impervious to what most Jews actually want to talk about. That sense has only grown in recent years, and it's certainly come to a fore over the past few weeks. Rep. Max Miller (R-OH) and David Kustoff (R-TN)'s recent House resolution against antisemitism that, among other things, "clearly and firmly states that anti-Zionism is antisemitism," is part of this trend -- it got the support of a majority of the House's Jews, but barely, and with palpable discomfort. At the very least, it seems evident that this resolution is not the one that would have been written if the resolution was driven by a consensus effort of the House's Jewish caucus. Were the Jewish House caucus as a whole taking the lead in articulating what antisemitism is right now, the resulting resolution almost certainly would have looked quite different.

But of course, Jewish discomfort doesn't matter when the goal isn't actually to help Jews. Certainly, this has been the campus trend. From UC-Berkeley to Michigan, interventions meant to "support" collegiate Jews from antisemitism display a brazen, almost taunting, disdain for the actually Jews going to school there. Do Michigan Jews think the "Canary Mission" is helping improve the campus climate? Who cares! Is a massive Hitler-displaying billboard truck across from the law school desired by Berkeley's Jewish students? Doesn't matter!

Through all of this, one gets the distinct sense that many self-anointed warriors against antisemitism view the actual Jewish community as a sort of inconvenient speedbump they'd rather avoid. For conservatives, it is equal parts infuriating and annoying how Jews regularly expressing criticism of the Netayanhu government and its illiberal militarism keep on ruining their well-crafted talking points about how if you don't think Israel should "bounce the rubble" in Gaza, you're a Hamas apologist; or how Jews insisting on including the rampant Soros-conspiracy mongering that gets synagogues shot up in Pittsburgh disturbs the notion that antisemitism in America starts and ends at the Squad. How nice it would be, for the right, if they could fight antisemitism without those pesky Jews getting in the way!

But, as always, there's also a left-wing version of this. Dave Zirin in the Nation, responding to the Miller/Kustoff resolution, states that the fight against antisemitism -- far from declaring that anti-Zionism is antisemitism -- must instead unequivocally state that Zionism is a form of racism and colonialism. "What Jews need," Zirin argues, "is a mass left resistance to antisemitism, and that resistance also needs to be against Zionism."

Once again, the pleasant ideological concordance envisioned by this passage is ruined by the harsh reality of the Jewish community's actual constitution. Almost half the world's Jewish population lives in Israel, and most of the diaspora retains significant measures of connection and affinity towards it -- by no means unwavering or uncritical support, but not blithe dismissal of Israel as a "150-year-old colonial project" either. Most Jews, to some extent or another, still see the project of Jewish self-determination in Israel as a conceptually valid one, regardless of their opposition to the increasingly right-wing and authoritarian practices of the Israeli government. I can't imagine that Zirin is unaware of this view or its prevalence, and one would think its too obvious to need saying to point out that a "mass left resistance to antisemitism" which is centered around the notion that most Jews are either racist colonizers or apologists for it is not going to be effective. But again, here we are. Here too, actual Jews annoyingly get in the way of protecting the Jews. How obnoxious of us.

Now clearly, when I say that there is a fantasy of "fighting antisemitism without Jews", it overstates the case. Miller and Kustoff, who authored the House antisemitism resolution, are both Jewish; Zirin, who wrote the Nation article, is as well. It's not the case that Jews aren't present at all. But it is the case that, in either case, the discourse around antisemitism that is being promoted is one that seems studiously indifferent to where the Jewish community as a whole places itself or what it actually seems to desire. The reality is that both the left and the right are going to have to make adjustments if they're interested in their fight against antisemitism actually bringing along the Jewish community as it is currently constituted. 

The right is going to have to accept that the American Jewish community is, by and large, a liberal one, that it is not desirous of or enamored by all-in rah-rah Israeli maximalism, that it shares deep concerns with the current conduct of the Israeli government's treatment of Palestinians (among other issues), and of course that our worries about antisemitism are not exhausted by Israel-related agenda items but very much include right-wing initiatives, rantings, and policies -- from abortion bans to Christian takeover of public institutions to "great replacement" conspiracy theories -- that threaten Jewish equality in a real and tangible way.

But the left is also going to have to come to terms with the fact that Jewish ties to Israel are real, authentic, and not simply some sort of warped indulgence in white privilege, that acknowledging the reality of these ties cannot be dismissed as a fallacious "conflation" of Judaism and Zionism, that we're entitled to be protected from antisemitism even if we do hold these ties and cherish those connections, and that Jews -- even those who have extremely sharp criticisms of Israeli policies -- overwhelmingly think that Israel's existence as a Jewish state is important and needs preserving.

In concept, I don't think any of these "adjustments" are unreasonable or should be difficult to manage. In practice, well, in practice people -- Jewish and not -- have long since learned that there is little cost to leaving the bulk of Jews out of the discourse against antisemitism. So people still can live in their fantasy world, organizing a struggle against antisemitism without paying much mind to what the broader Jewish community wants, needs, or thinks. If the goal is to actually fight antisemitism, this indifference probably will be fatal. If that isn't the goal -- well, that's a different conversation.

Sunday, December 03, 2023

The Baggage of Whiteness

There's a new essay being passed around by Megan Wachspress on "The 'New Antisemitism and the Logic of Whiteness." As one might imagine,* I have thoughts. The essay raises some interesting and useful points; it isn't bad by any means. But I do think its core hypothesis is not just wrong, but actually backwards. 

Wachspress argues that the panic amongst young Jews on campus stems from "the unconscious recognition that American Jews’ contingent whiteness may be threatened if 'the Jewish state' becomes a means by which other white people can disavow their own complicity in European colonialism," and that the Jewish response seeking safety from these emergent campus phenomena represents an effort to "double down" on their White status.

The notion that Israel is "a means by which other white people can disavow complicity" is, I think, an important one. But I don't think the Jewish response is aptly characterized as an effort to cleave to besieged Whiteness. Jews right now aren't worried about losing their White status, and they're certainly not trying to "double down" on it. To the contrary, they're worried that they're going to be left holding the bag for Whiteness.

To some extent, the wrongness of characterizing the Jewish call for safety as a plea to have their Whiteness respected is obvious -- it's hard to imagine a slogan less likely to be effective on contemporary college campuses than that one. But more to the point, what Jews are seeking to emphasize right now isn't "we're just like you" assimilation into dominant modes of discourse; they're emphasizing points of differentiation and separation, and asking for those to be respected and acknowledged -- to understand Israel and Zionism as Jewish categories, not "White" ones. To "double down" on Whiteness would not assist the campaign of campus Jews, it thwarts it.

To be clear, there absolutely are important ways in which American Jews are implicated into Whiteness -- in my essay, I reject both the simplistic notion that Jews are naught but White as well as the view that Jews are inherently and eternally non-White. I'm not here to endorse the slipshod view one sometimes sees asserting that it's wrong or antisemitic to ever identify a Jew with Whiteness. But with respect to the particular dynamics that Wachspress is analyzing, I do think more of the pressure she identifies is emanating from "over-Whiteneing" Jews compared to "under-Whitening" us.

Far from seeking inclusion under the umbrella of Whiteness and finding ourselves unceremoniously tossed out, what's happening on campuses today is that Jews are seeking to distinguish ourselves from Whiteness but are being involuntarily conscripted in. The very mechanism Wachspress talks about -- the utility of "'the Jewish state' [as] a means by which other white people can disavow their own complicity in European colonialism", an opportunity for young people to "work[] through their own discomfort with whiteness" -- only works if "the Jewish state" is categorized as a White one. Far from doubling down on Whiteness, Jews are being locked into it; ironically by other very-much-unconditionally White folk who are seeking to displace their Whiteness onto Jews. Jews aren't at risk of losing our Whiteness right now, because non-Jewish Whites need us to be White more than ever. They need us to be White so they can transcend their own Whiteness.

But even this, I think, is only part of the story. I've never met a progressive White person who holds any affinity for their identity as White. To be clear, they may hold quite a bit of affinity for their White privilege. But to be identified as White holds no positive valence for them -- there's no "White" traditions that they wish to pass down to the next generation, no "White" holidays they fondly reminiscence about celebrating. "Whiteness" holds no meaning for them other than as a repository of privilege. At most, there is a sort of a contingent pride in "acknowledging their Whiteness" as an awareness of their social positionality, the pride in not indulging in denialism surrounding their implication in White supremacist systems. But this is quite obviously a very different sort of "pride" than one might have in being, say, "Irish", or "Norwegian", or "Black", or -- at least in theory -- "Jewish". It's not pride in the substantive identity of Whiteness as something worth cheering and preserving; it's pride in recognizing a sometimes-obscured wrong and being committed to rectifying it.

This logic undergirds those who've argued for "abolishing Whiteness" -- as an identity, Whiteness lacks substantive content aside from its status as an organization point for unjust privilege. So the only thing that those raced-as-White would miss if "Whiteness" went away would be those privileges, and since those privileges have no right to exist, there's no legitimate loss in eliminating Whiteness altogether. Norwegian, Irish, French -- these at least conceptually have some genuine cultural content that isn't solely about domination and hierarchy, so why not revert to those registers and let Whiteness wither? And in a different register, the lack of affinity towards "Whiteness" as an identity is what buttresses many White people's support for radical colorblindness: they don't care any which way about being identified as "White" (the identity); they just want to keep the privileges. So if they can jettison the identity ("I'm just a person") while preserving all the privileges that Whiteness historically offered, that's a cost-free deal.

For Jews, though, things may be different. Notice, first of all, that the conscription of Jewish into White is not operating in the same way as it does for, say "Irish", where the ethnic identity demarcates the proper place to retreat to after the racial identity is abandoned. Irish may be associated with Whiteness, but Irish isn't conflated into whiteness; one might or might not characterize Ireland as a "white supremacist state" because of this or that policy, but I don't think it's common to say that the very concept of an Irish state is "white supremacist" by definition. By contrast, for Jews the "retreat" into the particular Jewish identity is taken to be the problem; paradoxically, it is taken to represent an embrace of Whiteness rather than a means of distinguishing oneself from it. In this way, while there are many ethnic groups which have in various ways been incorporated under Whiteness' umbrella, few if any have been so entirely conflated into Whiteness as has Jewishness, such that essentially any collective Jewish expression (no matter who does it, and in particular no matter the phenotype or social positionality of the expressor) can be immediately recategorized as "White" with no perceived loss of data (this also fits with what I'll talk about below, about Jews being seen as the paradigm or extreme case of Whiteness).

And to the extent that Jewishness gets conflated and forcibly assimilated into Whiteness, then Jews who are asked to slough off their "White" identity are being asked to dispense with something important. Even if we think that the existence of Israel means that Jewishness grants "privilege" (in Israel, perhaps; in America, hardly so -- as Wachspress observes, Israel doesn't seem to actually be making diaspora Jews all that much safer), Jewishness does have substantive content as an identity that, unlike Whiteness, is not reducible merely to privilege. And part -- not all, but part -- of that identity relates to a connection to Israel. Indeed, one can see how the efforts to present Israeli culture as entirely invented and concocted -- purely a product of theft or appropriation -- is an attempt to forcibly locate it into "Whiteness" by depriving of it any genuine substance that might carry value aside from structuring a form of domination. It's no accident how often the more extreme anti-Israel activists return to this well of fictiousness -- "Israel" in quotes, "the Zionist entity", any way of denying that Israel has any authenticity or truth to it, a tangibility that might engender real and thick bonds. It's an effort to slot Israel into the Whiteness framework; other identities may have bitter parts of their history or practice along with the sweet, but Israel, like Whiteness, only has existence as a tool of violently unjust hierarchy. But the lie of this move illuminates the truth of the problem: unlike Whiteness, Israel is a part of many Jews' substantive identity, it is not simply a manifestation of colonial privilege made real. And therefore, it is not cost-free -- not remotely -- to be asked to jettison it.

For non-Jewish Whites, disassociating Israel is the best of all worlds: it removes oneself from an identity they do not care about, in service of abandoning "privileges" that they do not actually possess.  Wachspress understands this: as she says, "for these non-Jewish white students, Israel presents a way to condemn whiteness without implicating oneself, to support anti-racist ideology in a way that doesn’t lead to shame and self-abnegation." Or as I wrote back in 2010, "all the joy of liberal guilt-induced self-flagellation, except the wounds show up on someone else's body."

But for Jews, things land differently. Disassociating from Israel may or may not, depending on the circumstance, abandon privileges some Jews possess; but it almost always does represent cutting oneself off from a live, vibrant, and meaningful aspect of Jewish identity -- again, not the whole identity, and not one shared by all to the same degree, but also not a concocted or invented identity either. So at one level, we can see how for the White non-Jews, it is essential that the Jew = White conflation be retained -- that's how Israel can serve as this ideal, cost-free mode of disassociating from Whiteness. But even to the extent White non-Jews do offer a pathway for diaspora Jews to follow them, it's demanding a very different form of sacrifice. "Join us," they say, "all you need to do is cut yourself off from Israel, just as we cut ourselves off from Whiteness." But these choices are not the same. Non-Jews are asked to remove themselves from an identity they do not care about in order to dislodge privileges they have not earned. Jews are asked to remove themselves from an identity they are absolutely within their rights to care about in order to dislodge privileges that are, to say the least, far more ambivalently held.

At the end of the day, there's almost no chance that Jews will be able to do this. For one, non-Jews actually don't want Jews to do it since, to reiterate, Jews successfully disassociating ourselves from Whiteness threatens the coherency through which being not-like-the-Jews lets other White people work through and past their own Whiteness. The pressure from progressive non-Jewish Whites is not for Jews to cease "doubling down" on Whiteness, it is for Jews to obediently accept their new anointment as the paradigmatic Whites. For two, the forcible conflation of Jews and Whiteness makes the implied demand that we slough off not just our Whiteness but a large part of our Jewishness (almost half the world's Jewish population! A land that is and always has been the centerpiece of Jewish liturgy, theology, and cultural reference!) an impossible one to realize -- to quote Du Bois, we would not leave it if we could, and we could not leave it if we would. And of course, the functional impossibility of the "choice" on offer is in service of the implied desire that the choice not be made; it is better for non-Jewish Whites that Jews remain White, so they can serve as an exemplar of the demon they've successfully wrestled within themselves.

So what we're left with, perhaps, is a world where everybody but the Jews is able to successfully work through and past their Whiteness. Whether this would actually entail diminution of those privileges hitherto associated with "Whites", or if it would be closer to the aforementioned radical colorblindness, is an exercise I'll leave to the reader. The point is, when the music stops and the reshuffling is complete, the only people who the left can agree are still unambiguously White will be the Jews. Just as historical antisemites viewed modern Jewry as a fossilized relic that contrasts to Christianity's superior evolution, Jews-as-White will stand as the paradigm case of that which the more civilized, enlightened (former) White people have left behind.

At the end of this road, Jewishness exists as Whiteness' crystallized, undislodgeable core -- Whiteness at its absolute apex. This, too, is a well-established trope: in my "White Jews" essay, I wrote about those who see Jews as the "iciest of the ice people"; and how this hyper-Whiteness allows "'Jewish [to] simply displace[] white.' Jews ... stand in for those Whites who are irredeemably supremacist in orientation; we end White supremacy at the point where Whites stop acting like Jews." This displacement can awkwardly be described as Jews losing conditional White privilege; but it much more straightforwardly is characterized as White people trying to pin "Whiteness" on the Jews whilst escaping out the back door.

Again, Wachspress is aware of this mentality, speaking of those who see "Jews in Palestine" as "whiteness concentrated." She clearly understands how the way non-Jewish progressive Whites speak of Jews is often takes the form of accentuating rather than problematizing their Whiteness. But again, this entire framing seems to run exactly opposite of her ultimate thesis: here, too, the problem is not that Jews are choosing Whiteness, the problem is that non-Jews are imposing Whiteness on the Jews, are in fact gaining significant benefits from impressing Whiteness upon the Jews, and Jews are not being permitted to escape from it.

My "White Jews" essay doesn't actually talk that much about Israel (by design), but it does have a short portion addressing it. In the conclusion of that section, I write:

I am not suggesting that non-Jews should not critique Israel, whether moderately or sharply. I am suggesting that such critiques are neither critiques of the self nor of an undifferentiated “(Judeo-)Christianity,” “Western-ness,” or “Whiteness,” and ought not be conceptualized that way. When non-Jewish Whites assimilate Jewish entities or practices into Whiteness for purposes of criticizing them, they circumvent the need to put in the hard work of understanding Jewish experience as a distinct entity that they do not simply “know” by virtue of an assumed shared Whiteness. They also substitute out the genuinely necessary work of self-examination in favor of a literal Jewish scapegoat. It is a product of Jewish Whiteness that allows it to occupy this ambivalent role—included so that it can be virtuously excluded.

So too now. There is much in the way of critique -- moderate and sharp -- that might be made about Israel in 2023. But that does not mean it is appropriately used as a vector for young people to "work[] through their own discomfort with whiteness", and predictable problems emerge when it is used as such. It is the conflation of these two roles -- one very legitimate, the other all-too-convenient -- that is responsible for the anxiety that Wachspress identifies and the bad behavior that she acknowledges. But this problem is simply not one of Jews being too attached to Whiteness. It's one of non-Jews refusing to see Jews as anything other than White. And I think it is very fair to say to non-Jewish White people that the terrible circumstances in Israel and Gaza are not, and should not be, your gymnasium for working out your own relationship to Whiteness. Deal with that on your own time.

* I wrote a somewhat influential (if I do say so myself) essay in 2019 titled "White Jews: An Intersectional Approach," that worked through many of the themes I'll be exploring here.

Opposing Antisemitism is Hard When You Just Assume It's a Political Stunt

The Republican Party of Texas just voted down a resolution that would have barred the state GOP from associating with persons "known to espouse or tolerate antisemitism, pro-Nazi sympathies or Holocaust denial."

The internet is having a field day over this, and understandably so. Meanwhile, one of the resolution's proponents is baffled:

“I just don’t understand how people who routinely refer to others as leftists, liberals, communists, socialists and RINOs (‘Republicans in Name Only’) don’t have the discernment to define what a Nazi is,” committee member Morgan Cisneros Graham told the Tribune after the vote.

Far from raising a question, Graham has in fact answered it. The litany listed here -- "leftists, liberals, communists, socialists, RINOs" -- none of these are, in their "routine" use by Republican officials, terms that are actually meant to carry some sort of principled semantic meaning. They're slurs -- bits of rhetorical seasoning, nothing more. And it's no surprise that Republicans treat antisemitism and Nazism, like all other "-isms", in the same fashion -- as a contentless slur one opportunistically hurls at political opponents. They have genuinely drunk their own kool-aid on this. They really don't think that, when people talk about antisemitism or neo-Nazis, they might be referring to something real and objective in the world. Of course it's meaningless theater. 

And if one believes that, then it absolutely makes sense why one would be worried about vagueness and unclear boundaries. The article observes that some committee members "questioned how their colleagues could find words like 'antisemitism' too vague, despite frequently lobbing it and other terms at their political opponents." Again, this bafflement disappears once one realizes that for these Republicans, the vagueness and lack of definition is a service, not a barrier, to the frequent lobbing -- it is because they studiously avoid thinking that antisemitism means anything that they can toss it out to attack everything.

This is why one can never trust Republicans to tackle antisemitism. I mean yes, for the obvious reason that they can't even reliably disavow Nazis. But also for the slightly less obvious but still important reason that their entire orientation towards "antisemitism" is that it is nothing more than a gambit in a political game.* They don't take it seriously as an actual, extant phenomenon, and so they'll never be able to respond to it as one.

* Somewhere -- I can't find it -- I remarked on how Republicans, shortly after Ilhan Omar's "Benjamins" controversy, tried to gin up another controversy over Omar aggressively questioning conservative foreign policy maven Elliott Abrams. There was transparently nothing there on the Abrams thing, but many conservatives seemed baffled that their antisemitism claims weren't getting traction after so much attention was paid to the "Benjamins" tweet. What was the difference? The possibility that the difference could be explained by actual substance -- the "Benjamins" tweet was plausibly antisemitic, the Abrams questioning was not -- truly, genuinely didn't seem to occur to them.