Thursday, May 23, 2024

Gerrymandering as Constitutional Entitlement

I haven't had the chance to read the Supreme Court's decision today in Alexander v. South Carolina, where the 6-3 Republican majority radically circumscribed the ability to bring racial gerrymandering claims in circumstances where (as often will be the case) there is significant overlap between racial and partisan gerrymandering. I was struck, however, by Nicholas Stephanopolous' analysis which suggests the Court's new rule is functionally that a racial gerrymandering plaintiff must "submit an alternative map showing how the state could maintain its plan’s current partisan balance while fixing the alleged racial gerrymandering," In other words, if an alleged racial gerrymander results in a 6-1 GOP/Democratic House map, plaintiffs must show that there is an non-racially gerrymandered map that also yields that same partisan split.

Alexander is the latest case to emerge out of the gibberish that is Rucho, and the impossibility of disentangling racial gerrymandering (nominally unconstitutional) from partisan gerrymandering (effectively permissible) under conditions of extreme racial polarization. Where there is near-complete overlap between "Black voters" and "Democratic voters", how does one decide if a congressional map which packs all the Black/Democratic voters into a single misshapen district is a "racial" or a "partisan" gerrymander? 

The logic behind the majority position in Alexander is that if one can't create a map that yields the same partisan end goal as the map being challenged, that suggests that the status quo map was chosen not for racial reasons, but rather because it better effectuated the goal of partisan gerrymandering that would otherwise be impossible to achieve. "We didn't draw the districts this way because it drew all the Black voters into a single district; we drew them this way because it was the only way to get the desired political slant."

But this gets things exactly backwards. Even assuming that partisan gerrymandering is constitutional (and it's worth noting that technically, Rucho doesn't say that -- it says it is a political gerrymandering claims are non-justiciable political questions, which is not the same thing), it is not a constitutional requirement that states must be allowed to do it under any circumstance. The more natural conclusion is that if you can't successfully engage in a partisan gerrymander without engaging in racial gerrymandering, then sorry, you don't get to partisan gerrymander (or at least don't get to do so to the same extent). The rule against racial gerrymandering places a limit on the ability to partisan gerrymander.

The majority's rule, by contrast, treats partisan gerrymandering as a constitutional entitlement. Any constitutional rule or principle which disenables a state from engaging in partisan gerrymandering to the fullest extent it desires must yield. Otherwise clearly impermissible and unconstitutional conduct becomes licit if it is the only way a state can implement its God-given right to gerrymander.

This is not the first time the Court has made this mistake. I flagged a similar error in the Court's Glossip opinion relating to Eighth Amendment challenges to state execution protocols. The Court there said that a prisoner challenging an execution protocol as cruel and unusual punishment cannot prevail simply by showing that the state's procedure is barbarous or tantamount to torture. The prisoner must also identify a valid execution protocol, accessible to the state, that he would deem permissible. What happens if there is no such protocol -- if all the methodologies available to the state would be agonizingly painful? The logic of Glossip is that in that case, the state is allowed to torture prisoners to death, because the state simply has to be allowed to execute people.

In both cases, the Court is making a basic mistake, conflating constitutional permissibility with constitutional entitlement. It's obvious when you think about it. The state is permitted to try and solve crimes. The state is not allowed to violate the Fourth Amendment, even if doing so would allow it to solve more crimes than if the Fourth Amendment was not enforced. If the state said that, for every claimed Fourth Amendment violation, a defendant must provide an alternative policing protocol that would allow it to solve as many crimes as if it were permitted to violate the Fourth Amendment freely, and if he can't, then the Fourth Amendment can't be enforced, that would be absurd. The Fourth Amendment places a limit on the ability of the state to solve crimes.

So too here. It might (for sake of argument) be true that capital punishment or partisan gerrymandering are not unconstitutional in the abstract. But that does not imply that in practice there must be a constitutionally-viable pathway to do either of these things. If the state can't figure out a way to conduct an execution that doesn't torture people to death, then it can't execute people. If the state can't figure out a way to partisan gerrymander without engaging in a racial gerrymander, then it doesn't get to do the racial gerrymander. That should be simple. But the Court has elevated the already dubious position that the state is permitted to engage in partisan gerrymandering, or the (somewhat less dubious) position that the state is permitted to provide for capital punishment, and converted these practices into constitutional entitlements. That's not reflective of law; that's reflective of the Court's fanatical dedication to these sorts of policies compelling it to erase the law.

Tuesday, May 21, 2024

Antisemitism in Oregon, Minnesota, and Beyond

I'm heading to Eugene tomorrow to do two events on antisemitism and Islamophobia at the University of Oregon (one Wednesday evening, one Thursday morning). Both events will be with Hussein Ibish, someone who I've long admired and am thrilled to collaborate with on this endeavor.

So what's going on in the antisemitic America this week? Well, the Minnesota GOP is trying to nominate Royce White to take Amy Klobuchar's Senate seat, in spite (or because) of him criticizing "the Jewish elite" and claiming that Jews use the Holocaust "to provide a victimhood cover for their own corrupt practices." It will shock no one to learn he is a Kanye West defender ("They called Kanye West antisemitic because he was pushing a Black Republican or Conservative message wrapped in the gospel."). And while sometimes the story of these far-right antisemitic GOP pols is that they decide to merge hating Jews with loving Israel, White is very much a hater of both: Israel is, he says, "the lynchpin of the New World Order."

In general, while there's a lot more antisemitism in today's GOP than many give it, er, credit for, Minnesota really does seem to stand out from the pack for the regularity with which antisemites emerge as top-level Republican politicos.

That said, while I think White is DOA against Klobuchar (who has throttled far more serious opponents than he), I am very idly curious to see whether he makes inroads amongst the "uncommitted" cadre that (unlike in some states) did seem to perform disproportionately well against Biden in Minnesota. I think the lefty complaint "Biden is worse than Trump on Israel" (or even "Biden and Trump are the same on Israel") is wildly off-base, it is actually arguable that if your only criteria is "who hates Israel the most", White is "better" than Klobuchar. For people looking for a permission structure, White's status as an African-American man who led racial justice protests in the wake of the George Floyd murder certainly helps. Moreover, the Muslim community in America is not as liberal as people sometimes think, and if there is a contingent of, say, the Somali Muslim community in Minnesota that is really committed to Palestine uber alles, well, this race arguably presents a genuinely interesting choice.

Again, I think that Klobuchar will win quite handily. But it wouldn't surprise me if there were some inroads in communities where Republicans historically have struggled. As I've said before, antisemitism is a major growth opportunity for the GOP in minority communities (not because minorities are especially antisemitic, but because minorities most likely to defect to the GOP are in fact disproportionately prone to be antisemitic), and by accident or intentionally they're starting to realize it.

Oh, and Donald Trump is promising a "unified Reich" if he's elected. So there's that too.

Friday, May 17, 2024

Raises and Inflation

I'm embarrassed to admit that it was alarmingly late in life that I realized that part of the reason workers get (and expect) raises each year is to account for inflation.

In my head, for most of my life, I associated a raise solely with being rewarded for performance and/or seniority. As you advance in your career, you (hopefully) become more effective, take on more responsibilities, develop additional competencies, etc.. That makes you more valuable to your employer, and so in turn, you get more money. It'd of course possible that in bad economic times one's employer might not have the money to give you a raise. But the raise you do get is meant to be an advancement -- it improves you vis-a-vis your position in the year before. By the end of my career, assuming I stay on the same professional arc I'm on now, I should be making more money than at the start of it.

This is one function of a raise. But because of inflation, it's not the only or even initial function. At the outset, a raise is not about advancing you economically compared to the prior year, it's about maintaining parity. Not getting a raise isn't career stagnation, it's actively losing money. If throughout your career you only get a raise equivalent to that year's inflation rate, you've basically never gotten a raise at all.

I'm not realizing anything that isn't obvious. That said, it's been noted that the view that raises are earned based on merit while inflation is imposed is actually a pretty common one amongst American workers, so I wasn't entirely alone on it as an unreflective intuition. The mental uncoupling of wage growth from inflation, in turn, probably causes all manner of misshapen beliefs about the state of the economy and what constitutes reasonable wage growth -- particularly if one (rightly!) thinks that one's real, not just nominal, salary should increase as one gains experience and seniority.

Wednesday, May 15, 2024

Did You Hear? CUNY Branches Cancel Hillel Yom Ha'atzmaut Events

Two branches of the City University of New York system -- Kingsborough and Baruch -- have apparently canceled Israeli Independence Day events sponsored by local Hillel chapters, citing security risks. In the case of Baruch, administrators reportedly offered alternative venues to the Hillel chapter (which were declined), at Kingsborough, by contrast, the administration reportedly refused to make any arrangements to enable the event to go forward.

CUNY is a public university, so this raises the usual First Amendment problems. While every case is different, there are some clear overlaps between this case (in particular, the citation to "security" concerns) and the cancellation of pro-Palestinian speakers and events justified on similar logic (for example, at USC). This, of course, represents a golden opportunity for people to lob dueling hypocrisy charges at one another ("You were aghast when this happened at USC, but I don't hear you complaining now!" "Yeah, well you were apologizing for this when it happened at USC, but you're aghast now!"). I'm sure that will be a grand old time for everyone.

I do want to make one note on the relative coverage and penetration of this story compared to other free speech debacles related to Israel and Palestine on campus. I haven't seen this story covered outside of the Jewish press. That doesn't mean it won't be later, and I'm not generally a fan of the "...but you'll never see this reported in the mainstream media!" genre of commentary. In part, that's because I think there's massive selection bias in what we claim is over- or under-covered; in part, it's because I think virtually everyone massively overestimates how many stories break through to mass public consciousness at all. In reality, I think different stories gain traction in different media domains, such that a story which might tear through one sort of social or ideological circle might make barely a ripple in another.

That said, in many of the circles I reside in, there is essentially no knowledge that there are any cases of academic censorship of "pro-Israel" voices on campus at all. To be clear, I'm not saying that there are not numerous cases of academic freedom violations targeting pro-Palestinian speakers -- there are a slew of them. But the notion that this is a Palestine exception to academic freedom, rather than something which unfortunately happens in a host of other cases and contexts (including, in the right-slash-wrong environments, to pro-Israel speakers), speaks less to the reality of academic freedom and more to an epistemology of which cases get attention and which don't. There are many academics for whom the Steven Salaitas are known, while the Melissa Landas are not. In other domains and registers, there are different gaps.

Ultimately, it's a variant on "they would say it about Jews, they'd say it about other groups too." The claims of injustice are not wrong, but the claims of uniqueness very often are. How many times have we heard variations on "can you imagine if there was a mob of people harassing and making racist remarks towards any other minority group -- how would universities respond to that?" (As we saw at UCLA, the answer apparently is "they'd sit back and let said mob kick the crap out of their targets"). And at the same time, we've also heard plenty of iterations of "if a university dared cancel a pro-Israel event, it'd be on the front-page of every newspaper for the next month" (so far, no headlines).

So I'll all say is that, if you're of the bent that there's no meaningful suppression of pro-Israel speech in campus environments, and your informational ecosystem (other than me, I guess) didn't alert you to this cancellation at CUNY, you should consider how the former belief might be correlated with the latter lacuna. Other people might have different gaps, and they should contemplate what generates them as well.

Monday, May 06, 2024

On Loving "Campus Jews" While Hating Campus Jews, Part II

A few years ago, I wrote about how many external efforts to express "solidarity" with campus Jews facing antisemitism were defined by their obvious and overt disdain for, if not antagonism towards, campus Jews. What passes for "solidarity," too often, is intentionally and deliberately indifferent to the actual positions and desires of the students they're supposedly coming in to support. As I wrote then:

It is no revelation to say that Jews on campus experience their share of antisemitism, and deserve our support. But one of the more frustrating aspects of that reality is how that "support" often manifests in a fashion that is almost tauntingly unconcerned with what the Jews on campus actually want. "Support", too often, is not support at all -- it is a way for outsiders to exploit a headline or to ride their own hobbyhorses, and the campus Jews themselves are an afterthought....

[T]hose who drive the Hitler truck "in solidarity" do not at all care whether the Jews they "support" find their intervention all that supportive. By golly, Berkeley Jews are going to get this allyship whether they like it or not! And this is hardly an isolated event. Jewish students at the University of Michigan were livid at the Canary Mission putting their campus under the spotlight, complaining that it was making the environment for Jewish students on campus worse rather than better. No matter. Canary Mission's support for campus Jews is cheerfully indifferent to whether campus Jews feel supported.

Outside actors want to come in hyper-aggressive, but when campus Jews express frustration and try to say "you are not helping", they're met with dismissal verging on outrage. The outsiders love and support "campus Jews" as an abstraction, but they find the actual, flesh-and-blood campus Jews to be soft, weak-willed, squishy, and just overall contemptible.

Consider what happened recently at UCLA, where a group of pro-Israel counterdemonstrators (and if ever the phrase "outside agitators" was appropriate, here it is) assaulted a pro-Palestine encampment, leading to some of the most brutal and wide-scale incidents of violence we've seen over the past few weeks. While obviously chains of connection are at this stage blurry, it does seem that the counterprotesters were among the groups being supported by various external "pro-Israel" organizations. Unsurprisingly, the actual Jewish students at UCLA did not feel thankful or more secure by their "supporters" taking this action; to the contrary, it has decimated whatever social standing and moral credibility mainline Jewish students might have possessed with the broader UCLA community. And in the vein, UCLA students issued a statement that was a crystal-clear admonition to their putative "supporters":

We can not have a clearer ask for the off-campus Jewish community: stay off our campus. Do not fund any actions on campus. Do not protest on campus. Your actions are harming Jewish students.

The bold is original. And to be clear: the students who issued these statements are not aligned with the protesters. They identify as Zionists. They don't deny that there has been antisemitism amongst the protesters or on campus in general. That sort of very normie campus Jew is who is trying to communicate the message "you're not helping". And that, sadly, is exactly the sort of campus Jew who historically has been completely and utterly ignored by the rush of outsiders scrambling to demonstrate how much they care about "campus Jews".

In that vein, consider a recently announced academic boycott of Columbia University graduates by about a dozen federal judges, including Fifth Circuit Judge James Ho, on the grounds that Columbia has become an "incubator" of antisemitism. Is there any indication that Columbia's Jewish community wants "support" in this fashion? Is there any doubt that they view these judges' announcement as only making their position worse? No and no. But it doesn't matter, because this line of criticism assumes that Judge Ho and company want to help Columbia's Jewish community, when the truth is absolutely the opposite.  The abstract choice to "defend" campus Jews is paired with a palpable disdain for the campus' Jewish community.

This is at least the second time that Judge Ho has led an academic boycott campaign targeting universities on speech grounds (he sure does love BDS!), and much of what I said the last time applies here as well. It's serendipitous, but also no coincidence, that my introduction to my post about Ho's boycott "on behalf of" (but also targeting) Yale conservatives was a story about my own experience enduring harassment that began as misbegotten "solidarity" with me as a Berkeley Jewish student. The troll in question came to hate me because I was a Jew who didn't hate my time at Berkeley, and the only possible explanation for that sentiment in their eyes was that I was a self-hating Jew. 

Here too, one might find it strange that the very students these judges purport to be protecting -- beleaguered Jewish students attending Columbia -- are also covered by the boycott pledge. But this is intentional -- Ho et al fundamentally view any Jew who decides to attend Columbia for any reason as a traitor who deserves what's coming to them. What was then a parallel now is a traced-over line: the "solidarity" with campus Jews actually a thinly veiled form of contempt for any Jew who even slightly deviates from the orthodoxy James Ho wishes to impose upon the Jewish community.

There are, as always, many reasons why a Jewish (or non-Jewish) student might choose to attend to Columbia. Maybe there is a particular program they want to study in, or professor they wish to work with. Maybe they're curious to learn from people whose views are radically different than their own. Maybe they're inspired by the recent election of an Israeli as student body president of one of Columbia's colleges. Maybe they simply don't find the atmosphere as toxic as a bunch of Texas federal judges infer from afar. 

Ot maybe some of them just agree with what one Jewish student said in response to others who urged her to leave Columbia in the face of antisemitism: "It’s very important to stand our ground and show them they can’t force Zionist Jewish students out of their campus."

To any Jewish student who has thought along that line, who has said that they're not going let the risk of bullying or bad actors stop them from getting the best education possible, Judge Ho has a loud and clear message: "Get fucked." He doesn't care about you. He thinks you're absolute scum. In this, he shares a commonality with many of the outsiders who say they're supporting "campus Jews" while raining contempt upon campus Jews. Every Jewish student in America can and should internalize that message loud and clear.

Friday, May 03, 2024

The Visible Elbow of the Protests

Recently, I had occasion to reread Charles Tilly's article "Invisible Elbow." Tilly's basic (oversimplified) thesis is that the "invisible hand" metaphor presumes far too much precision and fine-motor coordination for how social change happens, and misses the degree to which much of human action is a series of halting, try-your-best efforts that have a ton of unanticipated consequences and plenty of errors, followed by error and course corrections as we try to feel our way through to a satisfactory result. As far as the metaphor goes, instead of a delicate hand guiding change, things proceed more like trying to open a screen door with your elbow while holding a full bag of groceries. It's directional, it often works, but it's very imprecise and awkward and sometimes you miss the door and lose the groceries and everything splatters onto the floor.

I was thinking about this idea in relation to the campus protests wracking universities across the country. We've gone in the usual circles of "are they counterproductive", and my standard line on that whether a protest is "productive" depends on what it's trying to produce. But to give a bit more color, it seems clear to me that the protests are producing some things -- not always exactly what the protesters want, but also not necessarily orthogonal to their demands or desires either. It's not a hand, and it's certainly not invisible, but there is a visible elbow that's part of a blunt, awkward, jostling process that is creating change. That change is sometimes good, sometimes bad, sometimes in favor of the protesters, sometimes against, but one can't say the protests are not exhibiting an impact.

For example, one complaint I've heard from the protesting camp is that they're frustrated the media is focused on them rather than on what's happening now in Gaza. I'm not especially sympathetic to that complaint, but I also think they're underselling themselves -- I think the protests are actually doing a bang-up job of keeping the Israel/Gaza war forefront in American's minds at a time when it was starting to ebb a little bit. My template here was Russia's invasion of Ukraine, which riveted the nation's eyes and sparked intense activism ... for a few months. Eventually, though, it became background news as nothing really changed -- not that Russia started behaving better, but it stopped being new and fresh and started being part of the foreign policy normal. The Israel/Gaza war seemed like it was inching toward a similar status, but the campus protests (and the hyper-aggressive Columbia-style response to them) has warded that off for now. I think that has to be seen as a success for the protesters in the aggregate.

At the micro level, the "productivity" of the protests is going to depend a lot on local facts and practices. In some places, it's yielding deals to at least talk about divestment, and these deals in turn are being met with anger by Jewish stakeholder groups who are now asking "do we have to occupy a building to be heard?" My prediction on these meetings is that they will not result in termination of academic exchange programs with Israeli universities (perhaps excepting some symbolic carveouts where entire slates of programs were set to be phased out anyway -- I have to think that's what's happening here). There might be new rules on divesting from weapons manufacturers more broadly that are not structured as Israel-only one-offs but reflect some generally-enforceable decision not to invest in the sector.

It's also likely that in other quadrants the protests might generate broader-based backlash. Protesters appeared to have trashed the library at Portland State University following their occupation, it's hard to imagine that will redound to their benefit. One of Columbia's constituent schools elected an Israeli student body president propelled, it seems, in significant part by backlash to the protesters. And of course, if the protests end up giving a leg up to Donald Trump in the 2024 election -- based on a mix of "fracturing the Democratic coalition" and "independent voters just have an instinctive aversion to the sense of disorder" -- that, too, is a consequence.

On the whole, the protests are a "they" and not an "it" -- they are diverse in methods, tactics, goals, and productivity. They'll accomplish some things and fail to accomplish others, some of what they do is intended and some is unanticipated. Even if there is a "master plan", it's not going to come to fruition -- but that doesn't mean they're moot.

And the final thing I'll say is this: as someone who is generally averse to protest (and always has been -- say what you will, but for me there's no "well back in my day...." aspect to this), if you're unhappy at the conclusion that protesters are even in part driving the forces of social change either on campus or in the world as a whole, then it's incumbent on you to reflect on what other social forces might have filled the void and why they didn't. There's plenty that the protesters say or demand that I strongly disagree with. But I do think it's a positive that the institutions of American government and society are starting to treat Palestinian lives and rights as an integral part of the calculus we use to assess our policy in the Middle East, and to be blunt it's hard for me to say with a straight face that would have happened absent these sort of protest initiatives. If one doesn't like the protesters claiming credit for that shift, then one should have insisted on incorporating those interests into the calculus without the protests having been necessary. There has been a complacency (at best) in Congress for many, many years surrounding Palestinians rights and interests, and it was inevitable that void was going to be filled. If you don't like who is filling it now, ask yourself why the domain had been left empty for so long.

Wednesday, May 01, 2024

Steinbach's Revenge

My next law review article is on academic speech issues and the regulation of campus protest. You know, taking a break from the fraught topic of antisemitism and shifting over to something placid and uncontroversial. The article was accepted for publication in March, but I did ask my editors if I could make some revisions before we started the editing process due to, er, recent developments (they've been very supportive).

The framing device for my article was the student protests of a talk by Fifth Circuit Judge Kyle Duncan at Stanford Law last year (remember that?). Much of the attention surrounding that incident focused on the behavior of the Stanford administrator on-site, Tirien Steinbach. Steinbach was widely pilloried for her performance, which critics said was insufficiently protective of Judge Duncan's free speech rights and too accommodating towards the protesters. My view was that Dean Steinbach was being unfairly maligned -- she actually did a decent (not perfect, but who is?) job and that people were underestimating the difficult position she was in and the tough cross-cutting pressures that make superficially "easy" free speech issues hard.

I wonder if Steinbach is laughing, just a bit, right now.

A particular claim one saw coming out of the Stanford incident was that the disruptive behavior of the students was attributable to past and present failures by the Stanford administration to respond to illicit protest with a stern hand. Administrative indulgence was akin to tacit support, which emboldened the students to behave even more brazenly later on, and so the cycle went. If the university stopped mollycoddling and just crushed policy-violating protests with an iron fist, the argument went, then they'd send a message to the students that such activities were not okay, successfully deter future disruptions, and restore calm and campus order. Dean Steinbach's relatively conciliatory approach towards the Duncan protest was easily slotted into a villainous role under this narrative: it was a symbol of the limp and weak-willed administrative cowering that was ultimately responsible for "bad" protests.

When one looks at what is happening on campuses today, it's hard not to feel like that argument has been pretty decisively falsified. The current wave of protests and encampments really can be traced back to Columbia, and in particular Columbia President Minouche Shafik's decision to essentially immediately respond to largely peaceful encampments on her campus with a hyper-aggressive police intervention. The result, it turns out, was not that the students were duly chastened and slunk back to their dorms; the result was a cascading series of escalations and counter-escalations at Columbia and the emergence of copycat solidarity protest encampments at universities across the country. Even if one did believe that Shafik had the formal "right" to enact her decisions, it's hard for me to imagine that anyone can call these policies success stories, regardless of whether your metric is protecting free speech, preserving campus order, defending Jewish students, or anything else.

So with the benefit of now getting to see the road-not-taken, maybe Steinbach's choice to take a more conciliatory, non-confrontational approach toward the disruption at Stanford and not immediately resort to "am I formally allowed to call in the police to drag people away" didn't emanate from some personal disdain for freedom of speech. Maybe she was actually a professional who knew what she was doing.  Maybe there are lessons we can learn from her. Maybe the prevailing administrative value in responding to protests should not be reflexive insistence on asserting yourself as the boss.

There's very little for anyone to feel good about regarding what's happening on campus right now (I share Robert Farley's worry that we're rapidly constructing a social framing where "no one can be serious about protesting the war (or countering protests of the war) unless windows are broken and billy clubs bared"), but if anyone deserves to feel the slightest bit of schadenfreudean satisfaction, its Tirien Steinbach.

Sunday, April 28, 2024

Campus Antisemitism Monitors Will Fail in Extraordinarily Predictable Fashion

Trying to capitalize on the latest headlines, a bipartisan group of legislators is seeking to create government "antisemitism monitors" that will be dispatched to colleges and universities across the country. Fail to meet their scrutiny, and colleges could lose gobs of federal funding.

If enacted, this policy will fail in spectacular fashion. How do I know? Because we have a template in state anti-BDS laws, which backfire in similarly predictable ways. The problem is that while it's conceptually possible to craft valid and legitimat anti-BDS legislation, in practice the laws will be enforced by some mixture of apathetic mid-level bureaucrats, terrified associate deans, and hotshot headline-chasing politicians. Put that cocktail together, and the result is such lovely headlines like "homeless hurricane victims can't get disaster relief until they sign anti-BDS pledge."

Indeed, if the antisemitism monitors do come into play, I can predict exactly the scenario that will go down shortly thereafter at Any College, USA.

  1. A student group invites some Palestinian poet to give a talk;
  2. Canary Mission or similar digs through the poet's instagram and finds a post where they say something that many people might find troublesome: "from the river to the sea" or "the Zionist state will be dismantled" or something of that ilk.
  3. They shriek that this is a violation of IHRA and federal law and the university risks losing all its federal funding unless it acts.
  4. Some associate dean for student affairs panics and cancels the talk.
  5. There's a massive backlash from the students (possibly including protests) as well as various academic freedom/civil liberties watchdogs who call the cancellation out as censorial bullshit.
  6. Pro-Israel/Jewish groups make surprised-Pikachu face at how they once again somehow became the poster child for heavy-handed campus censorship. Who could have predicted? (Answer: Everyone. Everyone could have predicted).
And for all the grousing about "only the Jews don't get ..." X Y or Z protections on campus, it's worth noting that no other campus minority currently has a monitoring program like this. A good rule of thumb for whether one is advisable here is if one also would support a similarly empowered and emboldened "anti-racism" or "anti-Islamophobia" monitoring program. If your answer is something along the lines of "while racism and Islamophobia are serious problems, I don't trust the implementation adn I'm worried about the possibility of abuse and/or chilling free speech" -- congratulations! You've identified the exact reasons why such a program is inadvisable for antisemitism as well.

Thursday, April 25, 2024

The Other Reason American Jews Are Distancing Themselves from Israel

The topic of American Jews and Israel growing apart is an omnipresent one in Jewish circles -- a fear I've seen raised for as long as I can remember. Obviously, we're hearing more about it now, particularly as younger Jewish voices become increasingly prominent in protests against Israel and Israel's war in Gaza. But the fear is not new, and there is a familiar rhythm to it.

But while the discussion about the growing gap between American and Israeli Jewry almost inevitably is framed against the backdrop of Gaza and the occupation and settlements, I want to make an entry to this discussion that has nothing to do with Palestine, but whose impact is I think very important and very underrated. Admittedly, given all that's happening in Palestine, that feels almost absurdly self-centered. All I can say to that is that the fraying connection between American Jews and Israel is an important topic, and this is an underdiscussed element of that topic. I offer it not to the exclusion of explanations that are premised on genuine moral or political sentiments about Palestine, but as a complement to them.

So, without further throat-clearing, here is my claim as to one reason American Jews are increasingly distancing themselves from Israel: 

The Israeli establishment is increasingly deeply, openly contemptuous of American Jews.

Again, we can bracket everything having to do with Palestine and Palestinians. There's plenty to talk about there, but I won't talk about here. Whenever one talks about diaspora Jewish grievances against Israel, one is immediately met with the claim that the diaspora has no claim to speak on matters of "security" in a country they don't live in. There's plenty one could say to that, but fine, we'll leave "security" aside.

Instead, we'll start with a fact that has nothing to do with security: most American Jews are not Orthodox. We're Reform or Conservative (if affiliated at all). But these denominations of Judaism -- the denomination most American Jews identify with -- are not treated equally in Israel. Indeed, they are subject to heaps of contempt, scarcely recognized as Jews at all.

This has tangible consequences. We talk a lot about interfaith families, but there are many Jewish families whose status as Jews in Israel is in doubt. What happens when their matrilineal lineage might be traced back to a woman who had the temerity to convert under the oversight of the Jewish community most American Jews live in? Non-Orthodox conversions are barely recognized even for purposes of the law of return, and that begrudging acceptance doesn't extend to other aspects of Jewish personhood. How insulting, for American Jews to be told that the way we're Jewish isn't good enough to be fully recognized as Jewish in the eyes of Israel.

Insulting -- that's too mild. I can speak for myself here: my wife is Jewish. Her conversion was done under the auspices of the Jewish tradition through which I've lived my entire life. She lives a Jewish life. She celebrates Jewish holidays. She volunteers for Jewish non-profits. As far as I'm concerned, she's as Jewish as I am. To question her Judaism necessarily -- can only -- be based off a denigration of my Judaism. To hear that my Jewish wife, and through her our Jewish children, would not be treated as fully Jewish in a Jewish state is fury-inducing. Every time I think about it, I am filled with rage. How many of us are in similar circumstances? How many of us see our or our loved one's disrespected as Jews by the state that claims our fidelity on the basis of shared peoplehood?

There's more: half of all Jews are forbidden from praying as equals at one of our religion's holiest sites. Try to hold an important religious rite -- your child's Bar Mitzvah, say -- at the Western Wall, and you risk being attacked by an angry mob. It is very much in the realm of argument that the median American Jewish family would face more official, state-sponsored discrimination as Jews in Israel than they would in America.

And that doesn't get into the constant thumbs in the eye the Israeli government seemingly loves to give to the American Jewish people. Netanyahu's speech before Congress. Bragging that they prefer the support of Evangelical Christians over diaspora Jews. The constant ooze of contempt and disdain is impossible to ignore.

A few days ago, a college friend of mine wrote a post about the increasing gap between American Jewish sentiment and pro-Israel politics leaving Zionism with "nowhere to go". He has always been anti-Zionist, and so was of course delighted at the development. But one observation he made for why the trend seemed to be accelerating was that American Jews were increasingly discovering they simply had nothing in common with Israeli Jews. We're fundamentally two different peoples. There's no special bond between us, no particular reason to care more about them (or them us) beyond whatever general humanistic feeling we might have to any other group of people half the world away.

He said this with triumph. Many others will view it mournfully. And to some extent I think he necessarily overstates the case, if only because familial ties unite many (though not all) of us. Even for the rest of us, the severing of a sense of peoplehood is grave and painful, and won't be done easily. As much as some pretend otherwise, diaspora Jews disassociating themselves from Israel is not a free action. It hurts. The whole point of bonds like this is that they persist and endure through difficult and challenging times; they are not meant to be transitory expressions of instrumental alignment. But when a member of your family (literal or figurative) doesn't treat as if you are special, as if you are a member of a special circle of care and concern, that exerts a continual and powerful centrifugal force. Eventually, it will pull (some of? all of?) us apart.

And this problem is not one that can be resolved by the normal proposed solutions. It isn't a matter of young Jews lacking "education" on what's happening in the Middle East. It isn't caused by Jews lacking connection to their Jewish heritage (unless we buy into the notion that Reform and Conservative Jews Don't Count). It isn't attributable to a desire to "fit in" with the cool crowd or following the latest social media trend. It can't be laid at the feet of "Critical Race Theory" or "intersectionality" or whatever buzzword will be screamed across Algemeiner headlines next week. The brute truth is that American Jews are being hammered, again and again and again, with just how little the Israeli establishment thinks of us.

I'm not saying anything especially new here. Six years ago I wrote in the Forward that "Israel doesn't care what American Jews think." (the median social media response I got from Israelis to that column was "you're damn right we don't, and also, fuck you for saying so."). And again, I'm not trying to discount the degree to which Israel's unjust treatment of Palestinians under occupation genuinely, legitimately, and viscerally offends many Jews. 

But what I speak of here is a powerful negative force, and it is not getting better. And at any time, but perhaps especially under times of strain and stress, such a force will have its predictable effects.

Thursday, April 18, 2024

"Us Too-ism" at USC

You've probably heard about a brewing free speech incident at USC, where the provost canceled a planned speech by the student valedictorian that pertained to prior pro-Palestine/anti-Israel content on her social media profiles (I've seen conflicting reports on what was "her words" versus words on sites she was linking to). The USC administration insists that it is not opposed to the student's speech per se, but rather had vague "safety" objections. 

To that end, my main comment is that (a) the "safety" concerns smack of pretext and (b) if there are actually safety concerns sufficiently extreme so as to make it impossible for a South Asian Muslim student to deliver a speech, that is a five-alarm fire crisis for the state of free speech at USC that should be addressed with exactly that level of urgency. But again, my strong suspicion is that "safety" is a red herring here, and this is really USC preemptively bowing to pressure from various pro-Israel groups (some on campus, presumably some alumni/external actors as well) demanding the cancellation. I also endorse Paul Horwitz's thoughts on this (not just because he kindly links to some of my own recent work on campus speech regulation).

To me, though, the effort by some Jewish groups to cancel this student's speech smacks of what I've termed "us too-ism". "Us too-ism" is when one group that has a colorable claim of being marginalized or oppressed sees some sort of movement, practice, or trend that is demanded by or responsive to the needs of another marginalized group and reflexively demands that they receive it as well ("us too!"). The problem with "us too-ism" is that it's almost entirely reactive. It isn't motivated by some organically-generated understanding of what a group actually desires or what it feels it is lacking; it rather stems from a more abstract "this is how society shows it is responsive to oppressed groups, we are oppressed, therefore we must get this" logic. That this imagining of how other groups are being responded to is often caricatured or stereotyped only exacerbates the problem. If the metric for our equality is solely a 1:1 matching of what other groups are thought to get, and what other groups are thought to get is grossly exaggerated or misimagined, then what will be demanded by the "us too" contingent will inherently be unreasonable or excessive precisely because it's demanding mimicry of a "response" that largely exists in the minds of the "us too-ers".

In my other post, for example, I analyzed the "us too" concept with respect to the "Jewface" allegations surrounding non-Jewish Steve Carrell playing a Jewish character in the movie "The Patient". The rise of the "Jewface" complaint, at least with respect to male actors (I acknowledged Jewish women may be differently situated), did not seem to me to stem from an organic complaint of how Jews were being represented in Hollywood, or even a more inchoate sense of offense. Rather, it seemed to primarily be a copycat of complaints surrounding racial representation in cinema: racial minorities had been complaining about White actors being cast to play non-White characters as a form of racism, and that sufficed to mean that Jews should complain about non-Jewish actors being cast to play Jewish characters as a form of antisemitism.

The USC case, I think, may stem from something similar. Some Jews perceive, rightly or not (for my part, I think the perception is overstated albeit not stemming from nowhere, but again, it's the perception that matters here), that other minority groups demand and often receive the cancellation of "offensive" speakers at campus events and that receptivity to this demand is taken as a litmus test for the degree to which the campus is responsive to the minority group. Hence, Jews who also feel vulnerable on campus decide that they are entitled to this same treatment, and the degree to which the campus is receptive to their demands is the yardstick by which they can determine if their oppression is treated with equal seriousness compared to other campus groups making analogous claims.

As should be clear by now, I think this is a very bad way of going about things. I think the "perceived" demands of other groups are often in fact misperceived, and I think the purely reactive framework of us too-ism ends up occluding very important and necessary steps of self-reflection regarding what we actually want and what would actually make us feel secure on campus. It's hard to argue that the cancellation of this speech at USC has made Jewish students -- even those who do view their safety as Jews as intricately bound up in their Zionist self-identification -- any safer, and it's hard to argue that cancellation of the speech is actually a proportionate response to what harm (if there is any) this student might have caused. But again, "us too-ism" doesn't consider any of that -- its analysis starts and ends at what it imagines other analogous groups are getting, and so it can't surprise that the resultant conclusions are shallow and misdirected.

Wednesday, April 17, 2024

The Submission is the Point

The Venice Biennale is an annual art exhibition designed to showcase the work of artists around the world. Open to exhibitors from any country with diplomatic relations with Italy, the event includes an official Israeli exhibit -- a fact which has unsurprisingly drawn the ire of those demanding a complete cultural boycott of Israel.

This year, though, there was a bit of a twist on that tale: the Israeli representative, Ruth Patir, elected to close her own exhibit "a cease-fire and hostage release agreement is reached."

Patir -- who has been a regular participant in pro-ceasefire/anti-Bibi protests in Israel -- is not characterizing her decision as endorsing a boycott of Israel, which she emphasized she opposes, and I think we should respect her framing of her own actions. Much like with Natalie Portman, there's no reason to think that Patir does not know or understand the choices she's made.

But I don't really want to focus on the what Patir did, exactly. Rather, I want to take a look at how her decision was received by those who were demanding the removal of the Israeli exhibit. Consistent with the above, it would not be right to say that Patir was joining the boycotters. But it certainly seems like her actions were aligned with what the boycotters seem to want. 

Yet their reaction is, well, I would say it is very interesting and very revealing. What it reveals, in particular, is how the goal of this campaign is very clearly not to create a space where Israelis come out in opposition to the violent practices of their government, or more broadly one that creates space for an imagined future where Israelis and Palestinians relate to one another as equals. They do not see Israelis as potential partners even in an imagined futures. They see Israelis as enemies who must be made to submit. The submission, above all else, is the point.

Here's how they characterize Patir's decision vis-a-vis their campaign:

“The artistic team of the Israeli pavilion has retreated as a direct consequence of widespread pressure and our collective campaign.”

Note the framing. Patir "retreated" in the face of "pressure". She did not, under this telling, voluntarily align with -- even partially -- the effort to end the war in Gaza. She is not an example of someone stepping out from an (under this telling) benighted framework to see the essential need to speak out. She did not even make a volitional choice on her own. She was forced, coerced, compelled to back down. That's the victory -- not "Israeli publicly demands ceasefire", but "Israeli publicly forced to yield."

And having secured the dominant position, are the boycotters magnanimous in their claimed victory? Not at all. Her will may have been bent; but it must be broken. Referring to the fact that the closed exhibit can still be seen through the windows, the boycotters make clear that Patir remains firmly in the camp of an enemy to be crushed:

The Genocide Pavilion has been forced to respond to 24,000 signatories who condemn the Israeli genocide against Palestinians in Gaza but, contrary to the artistic team’s claims, they have not withdrawn, the pavilion has not been closed. 

ANGA reiterates its demand to shut down the pavilion in its entirety.

ANGA does not applaud empty and opportunistic gestures timed for maximum press coverage, and leaving video works on view to the public....

Leave aside the almost absurd richness of complaining about "gestures timed for maximum press coverage" (how is that a bad thing in this context?). The boycotters will not be satisfied until it is clear that Patir has yielded, that her choices are not her own, that what happens to her is something imposed upon her against her will. It is not elevating the call for a ceasefire, it is not even (really) the closure of the exhibit, that was desired here. It is the submission that is the point, and that has not yet adequately been achieved.

This type of politics rings familiar. It called to mind Justice Alito's contradictory desire "to bludgeon the legal community into freely accepting his preeminence." It's not enough for him to prevail on the formal terrain of saying what the law is, the legal community must yield to his superiority. I saw a similar dynamic in some circles of the 2020 Bernie Sanders campaign -- when it looked like he was on the path to victory, some of his backers looked ecstatically at the prospect that the Democratic Party establishment would be forced to "bend the knee". They were less excited about winning the Democratic primary than they were about defeating the Democrats. The submission of the enemy was the point.

This politics, fundamentally, demands not just victory but domination over the enemy. And as a result, it cannot tolerate -- it is infuriated by -- possibilities of agreement or reconciliation from the putative enemy. Often, the substantive issues supposedly being fought over are besides the point. If you wonder why some parts of the left can't seem to take "yes" for an answer, this is why: for Democrats to simply agree to some progressive proposal, without it being seen as somehow wrested from the party over its most primal objections, deprives these persons of the visceral sensation of domination -- it cheats them of their victory. So the framing will never be "I'm happy that they've moved closer to what I want," it can only ever be "they've retreated as a direct response to our pressure and collective campaign." The submission of the enemy was the point.

That's what's happening here in Venice. Some might naively argue that the message of the boycotters to Patir's decision is "counterproductive" -- why are they responding with such hostility and negativity towards an Israeli who is publicly stepping forward to demand a ceasefire? But as I often say, what's counterproductive depends on what you're trying to produce. If what you're trying to produce is more Israelis recognizing the imperative of a ceasefire, a collective change in Israeli outlook to alter the current bloody course, then yes this response might be counterproductive. But if what you're trying to produce is a world in which Israelis are stripped of autonomous choice entirely, are no longer in a position to self-determine at all or even be one agential part of a broader collective movement, then the boycotters' choice of action is entirely productive -- Ruth Patir's choice to close her exhibit, precisely because it was her choice, is just as threatening to that vision and equally must be crushed.

And just so we're clear: there's an Israeli parallel to this horrible political approach. There's a significant channel of right-wing Israeli thought which insists that peace can only occur when Palestinians acknowledge they've been beaten, that they've lost. From that position of submission, Israel can impose a new state of affairs that is vaguely and magnanimously promised to be just. But no deal can be reached under any terms if it is a deal made amongst equals, because the very notion of Palestinian equality is incompatible with them accepting they've been thoroughly defeated. Indeed, the whole idea of a deal that's agreed to by the Palestinians itself becomes automatically suspect -- if they agree, then it was not imposed, and if it was not imposed, then there was not truly submission.

But if your politics demands submission on a national or collective level -- Israelis or Palestinians as a whole forced to yield, forced to accept dominance, it is almost by definition not going to be one that actually is centered around equal respect for all. At most, it will promise to magnanimously dole out justice (more than they deserve) onto the vanquished party once it is well and clear that they are vanquished. But the vanquished will not be seen as candidates for equal participation in the future community. Indeed, any efforts they might make to participate -- even in ways that might superficially suggest they are aligned with one's own vision of what just equality might look like -- will only confirm that they have not fully submitted, and must be crushed further. The submission is the point.

To reiterate, this sort of toxic politics is not unique nor does it fully characterize the desires of either pro-Israel or pro-Palestinian actors. But it does seem like this particular campaign in Venice is one whose politics take this form of demanding complete and total Israeli submission above and to the exclusion of all else. And the results are exactly what one would expect.

As They Do

The ongoing fallout of the Dobbs decision, and the way it's made manifest the GOP's extreme and retrogressive anti-abortion priorities, has caused no small amount of soul-searching amongst Republican politicians. We saw, for example, a slew of Arizona Republicans race to disavow their own hand-packed-picked supreme court's decision to resurrect a pre-statehood near-total ban on abortion. Donald Trump also came out and said he opposed a national abortion ban. What should voters make of this about-face?

Nothing. Absolutely nothing. Why not? Because Republicans are, to be blunt, lying. No matter what they say, no matter what press releases they write, no matter what interviews they give, when push comes to shove, they will absolutely either endorse or acquiesce to the most draconian possible limitations on female reproductive autonomy. That's the full truth.

The list of supporting evidence on this is essentially endless, but I'll just give two examples:

Exhibit A: Arizona, where the GOP-controlled legislature -- fresh off their oh-so-pained public squirming over the aforementioned state supreme court ruling -- has continued to block legislative efforts to actually, you know, repeal the offending law.

Exhibit B: Florida, where Senator Rick Scott rapidly backtracked from his own heresies calling for greater moderation on abortion after that state's supreme court reversed decades-long precedent clear the way for abortion bans by clarifying that of course he'd support even a six-week ban if given the opportunity.

These are two among many.

I suspect that over the next few months, we will continue to see more Republican rhetoric that gestures at some sort of "moderate" or "compromise" position on abortion, occurring right alongside more extreme tangible implementations of the right's extremist anti-choice agenda (what's going to happen when the Supreme Court permanently allows states to murder pregnant women in defiance of federal law). Even as rhetoric, it's hollow -- the "exceptions" they promise are nugatory or impossible to implement, the "deals" on offer are to impose unwanted bans on blue states while letting red states be as extreme as they desire -- but more than that they're lies. No matter what they say, no matter what they earnestly promise, no matter what soul-searching they might promise, where Republicans are in charge what they will do is push for and defend the most draconian abortion bans they can possibly get away with.

There's no lever that will get Republicans to behave differently; no weird trick that can change their minds. Where they have power and hold office, this is what they will do. Our only option is to deprive them of that power. No matter what they say, no matter what they believe, anyone who is taking any steps right now to assist Republicans taking or keeping office is tacitly endorsing extreme abortion bans. There's no way around it.

Sunday, April 14, 2024

The Fruit Stand: A Mediocre Artistic Journey (And That's Okay!)

I consider myself a very creative person. But I don't have a lot of traditional creative outlets. I've always had very high expectations of myself, and as a corollary I didn't enjoy things I wasn't "good at". This would be so even if, under any reasonable adjustment for context/age/time/whatever, I was in fact "good at" the thing. I've talked a bit before about my math journey, for instance, and how I quickly self-identified as "bad at math" because it didn't come as easily to me as some other subjects, even though under any objective metric I was actually very good at math.

In the creative realm, this was if anything even worse. We'd get assignments to write a short story in English class, and my parents would always be so proud and want to read mine aloud. I hated that, not because I necessarily disliked the attention, but because I thought all my stories were terrible. I was ten years old, but I was absolutely assessing myself against both the actual books I was reading and the vivid adventure I was playing out in mind. As against either metric, my stories were sorely lacking -- which, of course they were, it'd be absurd if they didn't, but it still was something I found frustrating to point of feeling actual, physical pain.

The same would be true in art class. I liked the idea of art and creation, but there was a huge mismatch between the vivid ideas I had in my imagination and what I was physically capable of transmitting onto a page. I didn't (don't) have great fine motor skills, and every time I'd draw something or make something it would never come anywhere near the mental image I had in mind, and that constant failure was deeply unpleasant.

Of course, some people take that feeling of frustration as fuel to practice, improve, get better. Alas, I'm made of flimsier stuff, and so my takeaway was to instead concentrate on things that I had more of a natural knack for. And while I'm very lucky that I've found things that I both love and which come easy to me, I don't think the overall mentality of just hating doing things I'm not already good at is a healthy one. It's stilted my growth as a person, it has blocked off avenues I'd like to explore, and of course it is a self-fulfilling prophecy in terms of never actually improving or developing new skills I would very much like to possess.

So, in keeping with the art kick I've recently been on, I decided to try my hand at making some art. I set several mental ground rules for myself. The first was simple: it is allowed to be bad. In fact, it almost certainly will be. What I create will not match the image in front of me or in my head. And that's okay. What I'm doing is diagnostic -- a test. What would happen if I tried to make something? What can I do and not do? Is there potential here? Is this enjoyable?

That last point led to the other ground rule: I didn't have to enjoy it. That doesn't mean I was committed to slogging through while hating myself. But I was going to make a good faith effort to complete the projects I started, even if I wasn't getting the immediate "I'm great at this, hurray for me" dopamine hit. It was okay to struggle and not especially enjoy that feeling of struggling, but -- within reason -- I was going to persevere.

I started with this: 

The original model

Just so we're clear: I did not make this. This is a tchotchke my parents got years ago when traveling -- a small model of a fruit stand. Rather, I decided that I would just put this in front of me and try to draw it with a colored pencil set as best I could. I liked the bright colors, it was three-dimensional without being too complex, and it had some "flat" details that I thought I'd be better capable of replicating. The result was this:

"The Fruit Stand"

I will be honest: this is far, far better than I expected, given that I hadn't tried to draw anything more complex than a doodle in twenty years. My approach was very much in the "start with a slab of rock and then remove everything that isn't an elephant" vein: just draw what you see, and nothing you don't. It worked okay: I liked the overall color choice, the yellow and red lettering looks nice, the roof is fine, and I think the ombre effect on the bottom left of the building is decent enough. On the other hand, the small details of the three-dimensional fruit were completely beyond me -- in fact, pretty much all the three-dimensional components other than perhaps the building itself are pretty weak-sauce. I also didn't really like how obvious the pencil strokes were -- they felt so clearly drawn, even in the areas that were not especially detailed at the top of the building (again, my mental metric was basically a photorealistic depiction. Did I expect to come anywhere close to that? No. Did I view anything that fell short of that goal as something to be improved upon? Yes. I told you -- high standards).

There is one part of this drawing, though, that I genuinely like liked: the chalkboard. Ironically, that was the place where I was most intentional in departing from "try to draw exactly what you see", since I didn't have a tool that could "draw" in white over the black chalkboard. Instead, I got the desired effect by under-shading small splotches of the "board" with my black colored pencil, and then vigorously erasing those portions. I had discovered that erasers don't really erase colored pencil marks, but they did create a nice smearing that I think actually evokes a chalk board pretty well.

With one creation in the bag, I took stock as to where to go next. Well, I still have bad fine motor skills and I can't do anything with three-dimensions or tiny details. How about try a version as an abstract? Every detail that was too difficult for me to render, I could just turn into a block! Instead of using colored pencils, this time I'd use magic markers, which I thought would allow for more saturated color that wouldn't look as obviously "drawn" -- an even rectangle of blue, rather than a rectangle with blue strokes scribbled in. That got me this:

"The Fruit Stand" (abstract, in marker)

Despite committing to the concept of an abstract, I had a lot of trouble sticking to it -- I kept on being like "well how do I add this detail", and having to remind myself that the point of the abstract was that I wasn't going to incorporate every detail.

The markers didn't quite yield the even tone I was hoping for. I forgot how much markers bleed (that I was drawing on regular printer paper didn't help). I ended up using the unevenness of the marker to decent effect on the "roof", though I still can't decide whether that was in keeping with or pulling against the "abstract" theme. The red marks on the yellow (to evoke the lettering) was not as successful as I had hoped, and I wasn't able to replicate the chalkboard effect at all. That said, I think the "fruit" was much better, if only because it was at least a choice to render it as geometric shapes rather than (failed) literal depictions.

Ultimately, though, I thought the markers didn't work out as well as I hoped. So I tried the abstract again, but this time switched back to colored pencils:

"The Fruit Stand" (abstract, colored pencils)

I think this was a net improvement, though it still had the same benefits and drawbacks of the colored pencil medium vis-a-vis the markers. Once again, I loved the effect I was able to get on the chalkboard. Once again, I didn't find the red hash marks on the yellow to work as well as they did in my head. And once again, I didn't really love the lack of saturation in the colors. It worked okay in the dirt and wood chalkboard stand, because those felt like they should be more textured anyway, but even there that felt like I was again straying away from the idea of the abstract. For the most part, the colored pencils made it too obvious that this was a drawing.

I returned once more to the core question: how I could improve on the problem areas constrained by limited resources and skillset? At this point, I felt like I had tapped out the potential for the colored pencils. Instead, for my final iteration, I skipped out of drawing entirely. Instead, I decided to do a collage.

"The Fruit Stand" (abstract, collage)

This version, I think, was the most successful. It is the only one where I think the red marks on the yellow come close to what I hoped to see. The colors are even and fully saturated. The "fruits" all look nice, especially the grapes (on top of the pink bag). I don't like the chalkboard as much as I did with the colored pencils, but it still probably is objectively my favorite part.

Is any of this reaching the full depths of my imagination? No. Is any of it even good? I'll be generous and say that is in the eye of the beholder. Am I proud of what I did? Kind of -- I do like them (all of them), and I'm proud that I saw the project through. I also think the progression from the original model through the "literal" drawing and into different iterations of abstract is pretty neat. But the broader point of this exercise is that not everything has to meet sky-high expectations. Not everything has to be a home run off the first pitch. I'm okay with what I made, and that's okay. And being okay with okay is step for me that I am absolutely very proud of.

What To Make of Trumpist "Genocide Joe" Chants

Yesterday, political observers witnessed the seemingly-odd phenomenon of a bunch of Trump supporters at one of his rallies chanting "genocide Joe" as the former President spoke on current goings-on with Israel, Palestine, and Iran. "Genocide Joe" is a term used generally by pro-Palestinian leftists who think President Biden is complicit in what they deem a genocide of Palestinians in Gaza. So why were Trumpists echoing the chant, given the widespread view that Trump would be an even more full-throated and brutal backer of Israeli policies towards Palestinians?

First, I'll give the obvious answer and the one that I think is right: Trump and Trumpists relate to "genocide Joe" on no deeper of a level than "this is an anti-Biden chant by people who hate Biden, and which seems to tweak off Biden supporters." There's no substance here, no evidence of some important policy shift. The instinctual "let's go Brandon"-ness of it all, and that alone, is enough to make it appealing to Trumpists whose politics run no deeper than Cleek's Law.

That being said, there is something to be said here about the possible injection points of pro-Palestinian politics into the modern conservative movement in general and Trumpism in particular.  There's a superficial consilience, of course, between the claims by more normie libs that the "genocide Joe" leftists are functionally pro-Trump, and the imagery of actual Trump rally-goers adopting the chant. And I also think that the growth of anti-Israel, pro-Palestinian sentiments coming out of the hard right (which comprises, of course, an influential segment of Trump's base) is still being underestimated -- it is a burbling movement that will stay largely under the surface right up until the moment it isn't. 

But it's also worth highlighting something more basic: Trump is really impressionable. Like, almost comically so. He is so devoid of substance that his politics are basically that of a Skinner box rat: he just gravitates towards whatever he feels garners him adulation and/or that which feels painful to his enemies. To that end, it's often occurred to me that one could probably exert an unreasonable amount of influence over Trump's political trajectory just by priming him with the right leading interview questions: "The people sure do love you when you do X!" "Isn't it terrible how Biden and the Democrats are doing Y?" Fill in any X and Y, and I'm pretty confident you could elicit public responses from Trump talking about the greatness of X and the horrors of Y. 

It's no wonder that Trump heard his adoring fans chant "genocide Joe" and immediately agreed with them: "They’re not wrong, they’re not wrong. He’s done everything wrong." Everything can found in that simple passage: the people who love him are right, Biden's done everything wrong. "Genocide Joe" is being chanted by the people who love him; it is a chant that communicates that Biden is doing wrong; and that's all it takes to earn an endorsement.

It's one reason why I think even relatively conservative Jews are idiots if they think Trump is a reliable friend. He's not a reliable friend to anyone, he's far too mercurial for that. And likewise, it does make me think that if the right people manage to whisper the right things into his ear at the right time -- give him the relevant positive feedback loops, make that lizard-brain develop the right set of associations -- one really could see Trump adopt a very different tone on Israel and Palestine than what we've seen so far.

Friday, April 12, 2024

West Bank Settler Terrorism Continues Unabated

At least one Palestinian has been killed and 10 have been injured in an attack by Israeli settlers in the West Bank village of al-Mughayyir, the official Palestinian news site Wafa reports.

Footage shows cars and homes torched, allegedly by the settlers, as the IDF fails to gain control over the situation.

The settler raid of the Palestinian village comes amid a manhunt for a 14-year-old Israeli boy who has gone missing from a nearby illegal outpost.

Palestinians say the settlers have used live fire against them, in addition to hurling stones, damaging dozens of homes and cars.

There's a lot of discussion about when and in what contexts we can use terms from Jewish oppression (e.g., "pogrom") to describe contemporaneous acts of oppression by Israel against Palestinians. I won't wade into that debate directly; all I'll say is "child goes missing and locals respond with a wave of violent attacks on local religious outgroup" is a chapter of history I am familiar with.

Assorted Thoughts on the Chemerinsky Incident

If you're in my neck of the internet woods, you've no doubt heard about the incident in Berkeley where a small group of students conducted a pro-Palestinian protest in the backyard of the Dean Erwin Chemerinsky's house

To make a long story short, Dean Chemerinsky had invited the 3L class over to his home to celebrate their impending graduation (he normally invites the 1L class at the start of their law school journey, but since this crop of graduating students spent their 1L year mid-pandemic and so wasn't able to come, he invited them before graduation instead). The local SJP chapter issued a demand that Chemerinsky cancel the dinner, distributing a poster showing a caricatured image of the Dean with a bloody knife and fork over the message "No dinner with Zionist Chem while Gaza starves." Chemerinsky refused to cancel the dinner; so some of the students RSVP'd and, once they arrived at his home and were welcomed into his backyard, stood up with a microphone and began delivering a speech about Gaza. Chemerinsky and his wife (Prof. Catherine Fisk) asked that they stop and leave, as guests in their home; the student with the microphone initially declined, asserting she had a "First Amendment right" to engage in her conduct. At one point, Prof. Fisk placed her hand over the shoulder of the student to try and take her microphone away (the student has characterized this as an assault -- even going so far to imply it was a sexual assault -- and has indicated she wants to file legal action against the law school). Eventually the students left, the Dean released a statement, and the internet was set ablaze.

From my vantage point, the students' behavior was abhorrent and very possibly a violation of the university's code of conduct (and the notion that they are the victims here is farcical). Beyond that bottom line, my emotional reaction to this story has been stronger than I might have anticipated, and it's worth talking through why. I do have a Berkeley connection, and though I've never met Chemerinsky personally, his reputation for both kindness and brilliance is unrivaled in the academy. I also have former students currently at Berkeley Law, and while I cannot imagine they participated in this fiasco, I would be disappointed and crushed if I found out otherwise.

On a more personal level, I suspect my views on Israel are quite similar to Chemerinsky (two-stater, sharply anti-Bibi but pro-Israel existing), and I also have been known to host students at my house for dinner (typically my small-group seminar students at the end of the semester). I view the dinners as a nice way to cultivate an environment of care and welcoming in the often-impersonal environs of the law school, and as a way of pay forward the sort of collegiate community I was lucky enough to enjoy as an undergraduate to another generation of students. If that gesture of welcoming students into my home were to be exploited in a manner akin to what the students did here, I'd be devastated. Protests like this are exploitations of trust, they rely on and take advantage of the host's unguarded openness and welcoming. We're not screening people based on ideology, we're not making people fill out political questionnaires, we just -- welcome students into our homes, without reservation. To take advantage of that, to extract costs on that openness, invariably leads to more closedness, more guardedness, and more cloisteredness -- a loss for everyone, and one that can and should be mourned (I saw someone argue on social media that if the Dean didn't want to be protested in his own backyard, he shouldn't have invited these students in the first place and instead tried to screen out whichever students he thought might be likely to protest him. That to me bespeaks an almost impossibly short-sighted and narrow attitude that is utterly toxic to the sort of university community anybody should want to cultivate).

Meanwhile, there's the question of "why was Chemerinsky picked for this protest?" That question has two related dimensions: why Chemerinsky, and why this protest (since virtually everyone seems to think that something as extreme as protesting in your host's own household should be reserved only for the most malign and irredeemable actors). Chemerinsky very much views himself as being targeted as a Jew, citing the bloody fork caricature and its resonance with the classically antisemitic blood libel. The immediate demand of the protesters is for Berkeley to divest from Israel; but the law school dean doesn't make investment/divestment decisions, so they're limply left arguing that Chemerinsky doesn't personally support divestment -- true, but a feature he shares with thousands of other members of the Berkeley community who also don't make investment decisions on behalf of the university. He also has beliefs on Israel that, while anathemas to the SJP crowd insofar as he rejects Israel being wiped off the map, are by no means some sort of Israeli maximalist/anti-Palestinian eliminationism and are entirely mainstream amongst both liberals and Jews (and are again widely present in the Berkeley community and beyond). Again, even if one opposes that stance, there is (or should be) a gap between "what we oppose" and "what we deem protest-worthy", and even among those who are protest-worthy, there is (or should be) differentiation as to when and where a protest is justified.

The most specific thing I've seen people point to in justification of "why Chemerinsky" is an editorial he wrote this past October -- just a few weeks after 10/7 -- recounting the antisemitism he's experienced as a Jew at Berkeley in the wake of the Hamas attack. The usual suspects make the usual claims in response: that Chemerinsky's claims about antisemitism are wrong, unfair, smears, conflations of anti-Zionism and antisemitism, and those sins justify what might otherwise seem an obviously abusive overreach of a protest. On that point, one thing I haven't seen commented on much is the deep and dangerous chilling effect this sort of position has (and is intended to have) on Jewish faculty speaking on the subject of antisemitism. I've written on this in the context of academic freedom, but there is a very significant contingent in American and global society who deeply believe that if you are a Jew and you speak on antisemitism in a way that they don't approve of, it is open season -- you have removed yourself from any and all protections (certainly norm-based, possibly law-based) one might enjoy in a liberal, tolerant society. Needless to say, as a Jew whose academic work centers in large part on antisemitism, this is a tremendously dangerous trend for me personally, and so of course I notice when it rears its head in such an explicit fashion.

Those are the more personal reflections I have. But there are a few more scattered issues I've seen that I might as well address here as well.

  • One area where I think the internet breaks our brains is how it interferes with our sense of proportion -- literally, in terms of "how many people are doing/believe in this thing we're upset out, compared to how many don't." The protesters appeared to number about ten students. That's not negligible, but it's also a very small percentage of Berkeley Law's total enrollment. Online, the consensus view from what I'm seeing is pretty strongly that the protesters were out of line here -- and while my internet circles are of course not perfectly representative, my read has been that one has to go pretty far out towards the fringes and randos before one starts seeing folks defending what the students did. But the thing is, even if the breakdown is, say, 80/20 against the protesters, if I'm reading one hundred posts about this event, that means I'm reading twenty people announce they support it. That feels like a lot, even though objectively an 80/20 split is actually extremely lop-sided!
  • The students' claim that her conduct was First Amendment protected is ludicrous save for the sheer moxie of lecturing Erwin Chemerinsky on First Amendment doctrine in his own house. One issue some people have flagged is this dinner being an "official" Berkeley Law event, and asking whether that changes thing insofar as Berkeley Law is of course bound by the First Amendment. But there's less here than meets the eye, because even if we view this as a "government" event, not all government events or property are public forums. Even on the Berkeley campus, areas like the administrative back offices or the classroom when classes are in session are not public forums (hence why a professor could remove a heckler from her classroom without it being a First Amendment violation even where that same speech would be protected from sanction on the campus quad). A professor's personal domicile is, if anything, a clearer case -- if public forum analysis applies at all, it is clearly a non-public forum and so the student's protest is not First Amendment protected once she is asked to leave.
  • Many people have criticized the protest against Chemerinsky in terms of it being "counterproductive". Who is this supposed to persuade? Don't they realize the protesters are the ones who look bad here? Antisemitism discredits the cause! I understand where this sentiment comes from, but I think it is at least partially misguided. First of all, whether it's "counterproductive" depends on what it's trying to produce. If the immediate goal is sympathy from either Chemerinsky himself or even the public at large, maybe it's ineffective. But if the goal is just "make an enemy miserable", then it may be perfectly effective. Second, there are many theories of protest whose model of change does not depend on the protest immediately swaying popular opinion in their favor. Without overstating comparisons to disanalogous contemporary events, we should all at this point understand how a shocking breach of basic social rules and norms can, even where it's immediately the subject of revulsion, generate a series of events that may ultimately redound to the violator's benefit. Ultimately, while it may be that this protest is counterproductive (though again, that depends on what one is trying to produce), I think the immediate declaration of counterproductivity, insofar as it is paired with a more moralistic condemnation of this sort of protest, is a means of eliding a more worrisome possibility: what if morally-contemptible norms violations are in fact quite productive means for certain social groups to achieve their goals? I've said it before and I'll say it again: antisemitism is a productive ideology. It builds things, engenders alliances, and motivates action. And so opposition to antisemitism, or other norm-violative behaviors, must be willing to oppose such actions even when they're productive -- because they often are.
  • Joe Patrice at Above the Law makes clear that he thinks this sort of protest is unjustified, but mentions in passing the "authoritarian" free speech position coming out of the right whereby it is a "free speech violation" if, say, a social media platform blocks or bans you. In many ways, the incident at Chemerinsky's house is the meatspace version of this: Chemerinsky is literally hosting, and a speaker is claiming a First Amendment entitlement to retain access to Chemerinsky's space in defiance of the wishes of the host. It's a bad First Amendment argument as applied to Twitter, and it's a worse First Amendment argument as applied to someone's backyard.
  • I'm certainly not the first person to say this, but part of civil disobedience is accepting consequences. While it's true that a good protest will often be disruptive and a breach of the normal rules of operation, it's also the case that the reason a protest is disruptive and a breach is that it violates normal, enforceable rules. To engage in that sort of breach, but then to act scandalized that the relevant authorities treat it as a breach, is to have one's cake and eat it too. And so I get someone feeling strong enough about a particular issue to say "it's worth it to me to violate this rule and face these consequences." I do not get -- or at least don't respect -- someone simultaneously expecting plaudits for being so bold as to defy the rules and demanding exemption from having those rules enforced.
  • Finally, I'm increasingly tired of the way these sorts of student protesters weaponize their status to act as if it's unreasonable to hold them to basic norms of conduct, or some sort of authoritarian imposition to subject them to consequences that can be wholly anticipated. It's true that, as we age, it's easy for professors to forget that young students are young and are still learning, and are going to make some foolish choices and say some foolish things because they haven't learned better yet. But it's also the case that as we age and our students seem ever-younger relative to us, we can also forget that the students are in fact adults and are perfectly capable of understanding how to behave as well as eminently-predictable consequences of their actions. I am not someone who thinks student discipline has to be overly punitive, and I respect that student conduct officials often find themselves in difficult spots. But unlike other recent Berkeley events, here we know who the perpetrators are; there does not seem to be much reason for why a conduct investigation shouldn't be opened here other than the administration either not wanting to or being scared to. Formal disciplinary responses are not always the first resort or the best resort, but they are a valid resort, particularly in cases where student behavior seems to be at least partially encouraged by a culture where the very idea of facing consequences for breaking rules is viewed as a form of oppression. There are people who basically immediately say student conduct violation related to speech warrants expulsion and anything short of expulsion tacitly assents to the violation. I don't agree with that, but I also don't agree with the view that every student conduct violation should be assessed solely as a "learning experience". Law and graduate students, in particular, are not smol, they are adults, and adults on the precipice of exercising significant political and social authority -- and part of entering into that latter role is accepting their status as responsible actors who can be held responsible.