Saturday, January 27, 2024

How Should the Single-Issue Palestine Voter Vote?

One of the bigger political stories to cross my path the past week was the report that a planned meeting between Biden campaign surrogates and Arab and Muslim community leaders in Michigan was canceled due to local furor at Joe Biden's support for Israel during the current war in Gaza. It was a punctuation mark on evidence that Muslim and Arab voters are seriously considering, if not outright committed to, withholding their votes from Joe Biden come November -- a decision that could have serious electoral ramifications in a swing state like Michigan.

Some Democratic commentators have clearly been surprised at the scope and severity of this reaction. But their surprise, I think, stems a fundamental misunderstanding of how closely -- or not -- the Arab and Muslim community was tied to the Democratic Party in the first place. These ties were much, much shallower than it appeared; a shallowness that was masked by the seeming impossibility of Muslims voting Republican in the post-9/11 and especially Trumpist era of extreme GOP Islamophobia. But much like with Latinos, Democratic strategists confused a negative polarization story for deeper partisan loyalty. 

Before 9/11, Arabs and Muslims were considered a swingy, even potentially right-leaning, voting bloc. Those sentiments still have plenty of purchase, and for persons who hold them it's hardly unfathomable to not pull the lever for a Democrat. And while for White people, "I'm so mad at Biden about Palestine that I won't vote for him" is almost certainly a phenomenon overwhelmingly associated with the leftier edge of the progressive coalition, that almost certainly is not the case amongst Muslim and Arab voters, for whom strong support for Palestine is -- if not quite wall-to-wall -- something that very much crosses ideological borders. If you envision that centrist or even conservative Muslim who nonetheless voted Democrat in the last few elections for no other reason than the relatively straightforward rationale of "Republicans hate us", it wouldn't necessarily take that much for them to decide to drop Biden or even vote GOP if their furor at Biden's Israel policy grows intense enough.

On that note, Matthew Petti has a fascinating and thoughtful piece on how we might expect Muslim-American conservatism to affect partisan politics in the coming years. He runs through several possibilities, from "Muslim conservatives will perform right-wing pro-Israel bona fides" (something we've definitely seen in recent years) to "the GOP will grow significantly more open to pro-Palestinian politics". The latter possibility has been largely masked because of the degree to which the GOP has defined itself by extreme chest-thumping pro-Israel politics. But while it may not be the most likely outcome, at least in the near-term, there are burblings that might give hope or fear (depending on your point of view). The true nationalist-conservative MAGA base absolutely contains significant elements that (for the usual unsavory reasons) are absolutely prepared if not eager to jettison support for Israel and instead cast Israel and Zionism as enemies of the American volk. While these views aren't common amongst elected Republicans, they aren't utterly unheard of either -- as in Rep. Thomas Massie (R-KY)'s social media post pitting "American patriotism" against "Zionism". And while much has been written about young liberals turning against Israel, there's also evidence of similar ebbing of support amongst young conservatives -- both amongst the nationalist right and amongst evangelicals -- a trend which offers rare opportunities for the GOP to fight in a demographic they sorely want to make inroads with. Back in 2021 I floated the possibility -- unlikely, but not absolutely impossible to imagine -- of Trump turning against Israel in 2024 (remember the "fuck him!" heard 'round the world?); if that happened, it could really crack some coalitions wide open. At the very least, Trump's mercurial enough to do it, and the GOP base is slavish enough to follow along with it.

Given all that, I've been wondering: what should the pure single-issue pro-Palestine voter do in 2024? By single-issue voter, I mean someone for whom the sole and decisive basis upon which they'll cast their vote is the issue of Palestine. While for most people that's an oversimplification of their decisionmaking process, it might not be for everyone, and it in practice might also roughly capture a classic "centrist" or "independent" voter for whom all the other issues that might push one towards Biden or Trump (abortion rights, democracy, health care, whatever) basically wash out, such that Palestine becomes the decisive issue.

To that person, the Biden 2024 pitch has been pretty straightforward: If the only thing you care about is Palestine, Trump would be worse on Palestine. No matter how angry you are at Biden, he's still the lesser of two evils on this issue.

Of course, some people aren't willing to vote for the lesser of two evils. But let's leave even that cadre aside. One can absolutely imagine arguments contesting the premise -- is Biden actually a lesser evil? Obviously, if Trump makes the pivot against Israel discussed above, that would sharply contest the premise. If that possibility seems unlikely, there's also the argument that Trump and Biden are equivalently evil -- their positions are materially identical. Even if, by stipulation, Trump's rhetoric might be worse and more cheerleader-y of Israel's worst excesses, it might be that such additional "support" makes no marginal difference at the level of policy. If one thinks that Israel already is maxing out the brutality it can impose upon the Palestinian population, then Trump being "more" pro-Israel is superfluous -- it doesn't make a difference. In such a world, how one votes in 2024 will make no difference on the level of policy except to the extent that it signals that the pro-Palestine voting bloc is a force that needs to be reckoned with going forward. So what vote -- Biden, Trump, or neither -- would send that signal most strongly? That's not self-evident -- there's cases to be made for all three. But while, contrary to many loud internet folks, I don't think the case for "vote neither" is self-evident (leftists "voting neither" in 2000, far from generating the lesson "we are indispensable", instead led to widespread hatred for the left from normcore liberals that took almost two decades to work past), it's absolutely not implausible either.

And this argument extends even if one does agree that Trump would be materially worse for Palestinians if elected to office in 2024, because then the question is whether the marginal difference in Trump's badness -- which we can ruthlessly measure in "number of additional Palestinian lives taken or ruined" -- is worth the possible advantage of cracking historic bipartisan pro-Israel consensus and opening the door for a more robust, genuine pro-Palestinian position to take root in at least one of the two parties going forward. If it seems horribly cruel to sacrifice Palestinian lives in the short-term for sake of a political long game, you might be right; but calculations like that are sadly omnipresent in this space. In a much more brutal sense, this was after all Hamas' calculation behind the 10/7 attack -- the goal was to provoke a bruising Israeli military response that would lead to the loss of innumerable Palestinian lives and, in doing so, fixate the world's gaze in a way that would lead to long-term, durable shift in global attitudes towards Israel on the one hand and the Palestinian cause on the other -- a calculation which has proven to be successful beyond their wildest estimations (this is one reason why Hamas has -- contrary to the assumptions of some of its more gullible western supporters -- not demonstrated itself to be especially interested in a ceasefire; to some extent, it's happy for the war to continue because it's proven itself eager to sacrifice Palestinian lives in exchange for global sympathy, and doesn't want that trade route to be closed).

Note, once again, that this chain of logic only holds if one truly is a single-issue voter. The logic falls apart once one starts adding in all the additional bads of not voting for Biden (abortion rights, health care, death of democracy, and so on). At that point, to adopt the above chain of logic is to say "the possibility of cracking the historic bipartisan consensus over Israel come 2028 is worth seeing (among other things) women thrown in jail for miscarriages, trans status being criminalized, LGBTQ books banned in schools, and potentially permanent damage to the basic status of the country as a democracy." To be a single-issue voter (on Palestine or anything else) sells all those other issues out, and that choice does and should in my view be judged exceptionally harshly. Put differently, the decision to not vote for Biden in 2024, no matter why one does it, is a decision to abandon the people and values that would be devastated by a Trump victory -- anyone who does this absolutely should be said to not care about reproductive freedom or democratic robustness or reining in the extreme right judicial branch or any of the other issues of pressing importance whose futures are on the ballot in 2024. 

But the moral jeremiad aside, it's undeniable that caring about absolutely nothing but a single issue -- any issue -- gives one a sort of tactical flexibility that others don't have. And for a person who is genuinely in that state of mind, it's not actually that clear what the choice in 2024 should be.

Friday, January 26, 2024

Penn in Paper

Penn Gillette, the vocal half of the magical duo Penn & Teller, has a very interesting and thoughtful interview in Cracked that I enjoyed reading. It initially crossed my path when folks noted his apparent repudiation of his long-standing identity as a libertarian, which included this banger of a line:

I completely have not used the word Libertarian in describing myself since I got an email during lockdown where a person from a Libertarian organization wrote to me and said, “We’re doing an anti-mask demonstration in Vegas, and obviously we’d like you to head it.” I looked at that email and I went, “The fact they sent me this email is something I need to be very ashamed of, and I need to change.” Now, you can make the argument that maybe you don’t need to mandate masks — you can make the argument that maybe that shouldn’t be the government's job — but you cannot make the argument that you shouldn’t wear masks. It is the exact reciprocal of seatbelts because if I don’t wear a seatbelt, my chances of fucking myself up increase — if I don’t wear a mask, the chance of fucking someone else up increase. 

Many times when I identified as Libertarian, people said to me, “It’s just rich white guys that don’t want to be told what to do,” and I had a zillion answers to that — and now that seems 100 percent accurate.

But Penn also had some interesting comments when asked about Jews, Israel, and Palestine. At first, what he started to say made me a bit squirmy -- he indicated he didn't really understand the notion of being "culturally Jewish", and clearly thought it was a bit absurd. But he righted ship in the next question, when the interviewer asked "Because of the Israel-Hamas war, even talking about this can bring up accusations that, by being critical of Judaism[!!!] or Israel, it’s almost automatically anti-Semitism. Are you nervous talking about this?" Now, as you probably know, whenever I hear this "almost automatically antisemitic" claim, my blood pressure almost automatically spikes. But here I thought Penn said something very thoughtful in reply:

Yes, I’m very nervous. But I want to be a little more high-minded. I’m not as nervous about being attacked for it as I am nervous about being wrong. As a good friend of mine said, “I don’t mind being called an asshole — I don’t want to be an asshole.” (Laughs)

I've promised myself over and over again that I won’t say, publicly, even to friends, anything about what’s happening in Israel because it is far beyond me. I have no understanding of what it feels like for an organized group to come into where I’m living and kill people that I know — I’ve never experienced that, so, “Shut up.” And, yet, to live in the world, we have to contemplate that a little bit.

At the outset, I'm thrilled that Penn takes exactly the right line -- there's no entitlement not to be called an asshole ((or an antisemite)or an antisemite) when there's a colorable case that you're being one, and it's the latter prospect that one should worry about. Kudos to Penn for resisting this incredibly popular "anti-anti-racist" framing.

More broadly, someone -- I forget who -- said that one of the more pernicious features of current discursive climates on campuses is the immense pressure to declare an opinion, regardless of whether one feels confident enough in one's own knowledge to commit to one. "Silence is complicity" and all that; but it means that there is very little space for people to just step back and say "I don't know, I'm still learning about this, and I'm not going to be dragooned into a position before I'm ready to take one." The person who said this was talking about students in college, but I think the trend is more general than that, and again, I think Penn is quite right to resist it even as he notes (also correctly) that this forbearance is not stopping (and should not stop) him from thinking on the subject. As someone who thinks that one of the keystones of epistemic antisemitism is a perceived entitlement to talk about Jews without really knowing about Jews, I again view Penn's behavior here as a welcome form of epistemic humility.

So yes -- a good, thoughtful interview. I encourage folks to read it. It's a good example of someone who I think is committing himself to some important epistemic virtues even as he is clearly still, in my view, working through some thoughts.

Monday, January 22, 2024

The Point of Hamas' "Narrative"

Hamas has released a slickly produced document providing a belated "narrative" of what happened on October 7. I link to it for reference, even though it's sickening reading for anyone with the slightest sense of justice or empathy for Israelis. 

It's quite obvious that this is written for a particular western audience and that Hamas knows how to write for that audience; it echoes many of the apologias one hears from its foreign sympathizers seeking to excuse its atrocities. Some of these are inserted in almost on reflex -- for example, in a section asserting that only military sites were targeted, the authors write that "the Palestinian fighters were keen to avoid harming civilians despite the fact that the resistance does not possess precise weapons." The lack of "precise weapons" is a line typically used in reference to Hamas' use of indiscriminate rocket fire, but it obviously has no bearing on the sort of close-quarters, ground operation that occurred on October 7 (Hamas' machine guns and grenades are more or less as "precise" as anyone else's machine guns and grenades; "imprecision" was not the problem here). But that follows from the overall tenor of the piece, which is to align Hamas' narrative with the way its most credulous apologists speak about Hamas -- to further bind these groups together as "all on the same side."

That said, for the most part this document should be read as an official extension of the 10/7 denialism that the Washington Post reported on the other day: that 10/7 essentially "didn't happen" (the targets were military, any civilians killed were either targeted accidentally or were actually murdered by Israelis, reports of atrocities like rape are propagandist fabrications, and so on).

What's the point of a document like this? There are several:

First, it is piggybacking on the aforementioned denialist movement that was from the get-go primed to accept any possible narrative of Israeli perfidy. This tendency exists on a continuum, but even "soft-core denialists" who are primarily invested in viewing some of the more heart-wrenching charges (mass rapes, slaughtered infants) as exaggerated or fictious will treat Hamas' document as moving the Overton Window further. Certainly, the useful idiots who promote this sort of view didn't need Hamas to give them this document, but they will be encouraged by it and will hungrily consume it and use it to fuel further excretions.

Second, it is attempting to rewrite history. Everyone and their mother has congratulated themselves for the "realization" that Hamas' goal on 10/7 was to commit an attack of sufficient brutality so as to compel a bruising Israeli response that would wreck Israel's reputation and bolster the profile of the Palestinian cause. Having succeeded in generating such a response, it only makes sense to try and erase the initial provocation. If October 7 essentially "didn't happen", then everything that happened after October 7 is simply random unmitigated acts of Israeli aggression -- no longer "backlash", now just "lash".

Third, it is a form of "I know you are but what am I" trolling. At various points, the document characterizes Hamas' operation as an "arrest" mission ("Operation Al-Aqsa Flood on Oct. 7 ... sought to arrest the enemy’s soldiers"). Here I actually don't think the goal is directly to rewrite history, because (though lord knows where this optimism comes from) I don't think even Hamas' most credulous dupes could possibly believe October 7 was actually an arrest operation. Rather, here the very absurdism is the point -- the goal is not to make anyone believe something as absurd as October 7 being an attempt at effectuating arrests, it's to make people associate claims about effectuating arrests with absurdist propaganda.

We're all familiar with the Sartre line about how antisemites "like to play with discourse" while aware of the "absurdity" of their arguments. and that's what we're seeing here. Israel does engage in genuine arrest operations on a regular basis. By "genuine", I don't mean that these operations are not or cannot be abusive, legally dubious, violent, unethical, etc.. But that doesn't mean the label of "arrest" operation is an absurd one; it's an accurate characterization of the operation (even if it is an abusive arrest, a legally dubious arrest, a violent arrest, and so on). Hamas' goal, though, is to render that word something absurd; the sort of thing we all know is just a euphemism for lawless authoritarian abuse. Think of a term like "re-education" -- when we hear a government say that a given political dissident was "re-educated", we go beyond viewing it with a skeptical eye ("was this an abusive form of education?"). We don't view it literally at all -- we understand that "re-education" is just a term authoritarians use to bowdlerize taking dissidents into a warehouse and beating them until they recant. "Re-education" isn't (sometimes, often, even always) "done abusively", "re-education" isn't done at all. The goal here is to make "arrest" be treated similarly -- an absurd term that Israel and Hamas use in obviously non-literal fashion to describe periodically raiding the territory of the other and killing people in it.

And finally, we should not overlook that this document is a means for Hamas to retraumatize its victims. There is power and sadistic pleasure in not just inflicting hurt, but also then being able to stand impassively (or -- perhaps even better -- with the most subtle of smirks) and declare that nothing actually happened, that the victim is making it all up. That, alone, would suffice as a motivator -- a psychological insult on top of injury. The forced photographs of captives "smiling" -- cited in the document as proof of Hamas' gentle hands -- are of course part of this play; a means through which victims are coerced into serving as testifiers against themselves.

A Palestinian friend of mine, responding to the article about increased 10/7 denialism, reposted comments by former Palestinian Israeli MK who observed that Palestinians are "not good people that only do good things." "Victims of the occupation aren't good people, they're victims. They are not righteous, they have a just cause." The cause of ending the occupation is just, but this does not mean that all persons under occupation -- or even all those who purport to act under the banner of "ending occupation" -- behave righteously (any more than the justness of the cause of Jewish self-determination means that all those who act under that banner behavior righteously). It is no adjunct to opposing the occupation that one must believe Hamas incapable of the horrific acts of violence and sadism that the evidence overwhelmingly documents occurred exactly as alleged, and to spread Hamas' lies on this front is not "solidarity" but sadism. The fellow travelers here -- for example, Mondoweiss, which was highlighted for the particularly vicious denial of sexual violence perpetrated by Hamas fighters -- should be called exactly what they are.

Can a Bibi-Led Israel Get to "Yes" on a Ceasefire?

A recurrent theme I've been hitting regarding calls for a "ceasefire" is that the term is meaningless without explication of the ceasefire's conditions. Everybody is fine with a ceasefire under certain conditions; the disagreement is regarding what those conditions should be. This, after all, is the basis for the obviously smarmy "Hamas could just surrender" take as a mechanism for ending hostilities -- it would cease the fire if "agreed" to, it just isn't a proposal that actually will be agreed to.  

Going off that insight, I've sometimes wondered why various Jewish groups -- or the U.S., for that matter -- haven't gone on offense a little bit in terms of proposing their own "ceasefire" plans whose conditions are agreeable. In general, any ceasefire proposal competes against whatever the belligerent parties think they can obtain from continuing military action, minus the costs of continuing military action. "Hamas could just surrender" may be a bit too brazen, but there are absolutely possible ceasefire conditions that wouldn't be quite so obvious non-starters that nonetheless could and should be viewed as substantial victories for Israel.

A ceasefire proposal based on immediate return of all hostages would be an obvious place to start. It could be paired with some other goodies -- Hamas' leadership agrees to go into exile into another country; proceedings against Israel at the ICJ are dropped. Submit that to the UN Security Council and make other countries vote against it. Make the other side be the one to say "yes, we might have said 'ceasefire now!', but not like this ...." The fact is, after all, that both Israel and Hamas have found themselves in the position of rejecting certain ceasefire proposals, but in the war of public opinion it would seem advisable for Israel and its allies to be seen as authoring proposals for peace rather than nixing them.

There are undoubtedly a multitude of reasons why this is too clever by half. But I think there is one specific, uncomfortable reason why we haven't seen Jewish groups pushing a line like this -- putting forward "ceasefire" conditions or urging the Biden administration to do the same. Simply put: they're worried that Israel would reject even a good, "reasonable" ceasefire proposal. And if that happens, after the Jewish groups endorsed the parameters, they'd have boxed themselves into the awkward position of positioning Israel as the obstacle to a just peace.

Several years ago, I broached the generic version of this worry in discussing the possibility -- unthinkable, in the Jewish world -- that contemporary, Bibi-era Israel might not be willing to agree to a "fair" peace agreement with the Palestinians. And at the moment, this worry is more than generic. Consider how Tom Friedman described the situation the other day in a conversation with Ezra Klein:

Netanyahu, I would argue, Ezra, doesn’t want to win. He wants to be winning, OK, that is, he wants to be able to say, we’re winning. We’re winning. We’re winning. It’s just around the corner. But he doesn’t want to actually win because, if the war actually ends, two things are going to happen. Then he can no longer avoid what is the new political end state. And I believe there will be an eruption, a massive eruption, of Israeli anger at him that I hope and pray will drive him from power because I believe he is not only the worst leader in Israel’s history. I believe he’s the worst leader in Jewish history.

And that’s a long history. And what is Netanyahu’s calculation? It’s very simple. If he is not in power and has to face the conclusion of his trial and three corruption charges without the protection and influence that comes over the judiciary from being in power, he has a very good chance of going to jail. People forget. Israel jailed a president and a former prime minister. They’re not afraid to do that. And he does not want to go to jail. And he does not want to give up power.

And so this is a terrible situation where Israel is in a existential war, and its prime minister has basically dual loyalties, one to the state and one to himself. And at every turn, he is prioritizing himself.

Put differently, where one takes Israel's goals to be things like "bringing the hostages home" or "destroying Hamas", one can at least understand opposing a ceasefire proposal to the extent that such a proposal will not lead to those outcomes (whilst continuing hostilities might). But the corollary to that is that if one believes those are Israel's goals, then a ceasefire proposal that does effectively accomplish them would be agreed to be Israel. And the corollary to that is that if Israel does not agree to such a proposal, it pretty decisively falsifies that these are the real goals. In short: making the proposal really puts that belief to the test, and no matter what they aver publicly I don't think most Jewish organizations are confident that this bet would pay out.

In a recent social media thread, Sen. Chris Van Hollen (D-MD), alluded to this point. The cause of bringing home the hostages and incapacitating Hamas is indubitably just. But Bibi has not been comporting himself as if these are his primary goals. He's been acting in a fashion that suggests that his main goals are dragging this war on indefinitely to prolong his moment of political reckoning and appeasing his ultra-right coalition mates. And those objectives are absolutely not worth opposing a ceasefire for.

It is possible -- and proper -- for the United States to put this to the proof: if Israel wants to continue to receive American military backing, it has to show its objectives are what they say they are, rather than a self-centered way for Bibi to save his own skin while permanently kneecapping the political and social viability of Palestinian nationhood. If Bibi decides that the latter is more important than maintaining American support, well, that's his call to make (until the next election anyway), and the rest of the world in turn can make any number of justified inferences from those revealed preferences.