Friday, February 02, 2024

They're Talking About Us

In the latest effort to keep the reward loop for bad faith grandstanding on campus speech and antisemitism churning, right-wing actors are targeting prominent Jewish History professor Derek Penslar, who was tapped to co-chair* Harvard's recently announced taskforce on antisemitism.

I joined many of my colleagues who work in the arena of antisemitism and/or Israel or Jewish Studies in defending Penslar from these attacks. It's not because I necessarily agree with everything Penslar ever wrote (a statement I could make about anyone). Rather, it's because of the obvious true target here, for which Penslar was only a symbol: the broad swath of liberal Jews who are not wild-eyed anti-Zionists, who are not committed to the view that Israel's only role in the world is as demonspawn, but are clear-eyed about its flaws, insistent that the occupation is intolerable, and vocal that the trajectory Israel is on needs to change. For people like us, I think we can borrow from Frantz Fanon's philosophy teacher: "When you hear someone insulting Derek Penslar pay attention; he is talking about you." 

Consider this piece by David Mikics in Tablet, which, while graciously conceding that Penslar is not himself antisemitic, pushes the thesis that Penslar is motivated by making the world safe for people who are.

As a member of the Nexus Task Force, [Penslar] is in fact one of the key academic activists leading the effort to sanction a wide range of anti-Zionist speech and teachings. (The Jewish studies petition defending Penslar’s appointment was organized by Nexus.) Officially, Jonathan Jacoby, the incoming director of Nexus, says that he doesn’t want to erase the IHRA, just supplement it. But evidence suggests that Nexus is already lobbying lawmakers to absolve anti-Zionists from any taint of antisemitism. Nexus recently hired Kevin Rachlin, formerly of J Street, to lead its D.C. office—a hire that suggests Nexus’ origins in the world of the Democratic Party’s top-down campaigns to reconcile its “big donors” with some of the party’s more hateful constituencies.

Again, I appreciate the acknowledgment that Nexus is not "officially" pushing to erase IHRA. But of course we're lying. And how do you know we're lying? Not because of a critical analysis of Nexus' actual offering on antisemitism -- no no no. It's because we're tied to J Street, of course -- and J Street, in turn, is naught but an effort to launder radical anti-Zionist hate into the Democratic mainstream (that this piece came out right at the same time as J Street took its most overt step yet towards reconsolidating towards the Democratic Party center is *chef's kiss*).

But this is the point: trying to nitpick around this or that passage from Penslar's work is missing the broader game. If you're a Jew who's sympathetic to Nexus, if you're a Jew who aligns with J Street, if you're a Jew who thinks that there's sadly purchase to calling the situation in the West Bank "apartheid" -- if you fall into any of these categories, all the insults being lobbed toward Derek Penslar are talking about you. That's the reality of the situation, and we need to pay attention to what's actually happening here.

* The other co-chair is Raffaella Sadun, a professor at Harvard's Business School. It's interesting we've heard essentially nothing about her even as Penslar's every jot and tittle is being scrutinized to death. As best I can tell Sadun's research has nothing to do with Jews or antisemitism; there's little doubt that Penslar is, along traditional dimensions, a much more natural choice to lead this committee. 

To be clear, I don't think that makes Sadun an inappropriate choice to co-chair the committee. Leaving aside the possibility that she's deeply involved in these issues in her non-professional time, I actually think it's probably a good thing to have "lay" representation on these panels -- understanding how antisemitism effects persons who are not stewing in the hot house of Jewish or Israel Studies 24/7. For my part, the Jewish students who've expressed to me the most anxiety over the past few months are the ones who do not self-identify as particularly "involved" Jews -- they're buffeted by cross-winds of being confused and scared and uncertain if they have standing to be confused and/or scared. That isn't to say Sadun falls into that category either; only that a picture of Jewish life at Harvard which only considers the view of the Jews who are most tied into traditionally "Jewish" practices, organizations, or issues would be an incomplete picture.

Thursday, February 01, 2024

Birthday Month Roundup

It's February, which is Black History Month, or as it's better known around some parts, "Why Isn't There a White History Month" Month. It's also my birthday month! To celebrate the august occasion, here's a roundup!

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The Biden administration announces sanctions against named Israelis implicated in radical settler violence. And while it starts with four people, it lays the foundation for much more sweeping action. People say Tom Friedman is the Biden administration's external "whisper", but maybe he's listening to me?

Speaking of Friedman, I'd love it if his proposed "Biden doctrine" became a reality. It might be wishcasting, but then, it might not (see, e.g., the above entry).

A very interesting conversation between Joshua Leifer and some Israeli leftists, including Standing Together's Sally Abed (and credit where it's due on the hat tip). I particularly appreciate Abed completing a circle that often is left unconnected: "Palestinian liberation necessitates Jewish safety, and vice versa. And I say it to both sides. You’re pro-Israel? You need to liberate Palestinians. You’re pro-Palestinian? You need to talk about Jewish safety." As another conversant observed, it's very obvious "that Hamas went for everyone—that they weren’t just trying to kill Jews," and that acknowledgment is part of -- not a distraction from -- their calls for a ceasefire.

And speaking of Standing Together, the BDS movement is currently targeting them for a boycott as a "normalizing" op. For the most part, this smacks of jealousy -- Standing Together has been getting a bunch of good press as the first significant Israeli organization actively calling for a ceasefire in Gaza (while also stressing the importance of returning Israeli hostages), and if there's one thing BDS activists cannot abide, it's the notion that Israelis are valid contributors to the creation of a just future for Israelis and Palestinians. In my endless search for silver linings, however, I will say that probably the fastest way for Standing Together to gain credibility with more centrist-y Israeli and diaspora Jews is to be publicly hated by BDS. Great heroes need great villains, after all.

I'm on the record as supporting the right and utility of judges offering their extra-legal "moral" opinion on issues that come before them, so long as this opinion does not displace the formal legal analysis. Opinions like, say, Justice Stewart's in Griswold, which both characterized Connecticut's anti-contraception law as "uncommonly silly" (a moral judgment) while nonetheless concluding it was constitutionally permitted (a legal judgment) are valuable contributors to public conversation. On that note, Judge Jeffrey White's just-released opinion dismissing on political question grounds a claim that the Biden administration's support for Israel is violating its duties under the Genocide Convention (a ruling which is I think indisputably correct on the law), while also making evident his personal sympathy with the plaintiff's substantive arguments, is -- regardless of whether one agrees with said moral judgment -- exactly how opinions like this should go. Some judges on the Northern District of Texas would do well to take notes. (For what it's worth, Judge White is a George W. Bush appointee and now a senior judge in the Northern District of California).

Oregon Republicans in the state legislature have a tendency of just refusing to show up to work to sabotage our state's legislative agenda. Oregon voters got tired of it and passed a constitutional amendment barring legislators from running for reelection if they miss too many session. Oregon Republicans kept doing it. And now those Oregon Republicans are barred from running for reelection.

Monday, January 29, 2024

J Street's Post-Bowman Reconsolidation

The Forward reports that J Street has dropped its endorsement of Jamaal Bowman after concluding that his recent rhetorical framings and practices around Israel (regular "genocide" charges; meeting with Norman Finkelstein) "crossed the line" and simply diverged too far from what the liberal lobby group was willing to accept. Bowman faces a challenging primary fight against Westchester County Executive George Latimer.

It seems like just yesterday that I was gaming out the fallout from Bowman's contretemps with the DSA over him being perceived as too close to Israel ("too close", here, meant "visiting it with J Street" and "voting for Iron Dome funding"). How the world turns.

But I don't actually have much to say on this development. The one observation I will make is that this is, I think the symbolic starting gun for a new political reality for J Street where it's going to face elected adversaries to its left.

Obviously, given where it positioned itself on the Israel spectrum, J Street has from its inception faced a pinch on either side -- AIPAC-y sorts attacking it from the right, JVPers from the left. But for most of its existence it has been somewhat insulated from the left flank attacks insofar as J Street is primarily a political lobby and left-ward critics of its positioned had little in the way of presence amongst elected officials. Because of that, J Street's strategy was basically to try to consolidate the progressive electorate starting at the most liberal Democrat (whom it basically took for granted as a J Street sympathizer) and then moving progressively towards the center of the party, where the actual battles would be fought. The abortive endorsement of Rashida Tlaib was part of this -- it couldn't really fathom that amongst elected Democrats there might be anyone who'd be a poor fit by virtue of being too left-wing or pro-Palestinian, even as it quickly became clear that Tlaib had genuine and material differences in policy orientation over Israel than what J Street was pushing.

Tlaib may have for a while been viewed as an anomaly, but as any good Kuhnian can tell you enough anomalies eventually compels a paradigm shift, and so too here. I observed back in 2022 that AIPAC's victories in Democratic primaries against more J Street aligned candidates perhaps counterintuitively would increase the appeal of more radical left positions on Israel amongst progressive Democrats (read that post for the logic), and while I think the shift we're seeing here is determined by a lot more than that, it goes to the point that J Street is acknowledging here a new era where there will be elected Democrats who are not mission-aligned with J Street from the left as well as the right, and it's doing so from a position of at least some vulnerability. This is a new world for J Street, and it has to figure out how to reconsolidate a base of support in the midst of a move from, functionally, being one pole of a (within the Democratic Party) bipolar struggle with AIPAC to sitting in the mushy middle taking flak from either side.

This doesn't mean that J Street lacks a constituency amongst Democrats -- there are I think still plenty of Democrats in the liberal two-state bucket -- but consolidating them is maybe a little less straightforward than it was when they had the left edge of the elected-branch of the party basically locked down. It will be an adjustment, and it'll be interesting to see how J Street adapts to it. There are ways to do this -- even ways to do this that can yield greater successes (e.g., by a "good cop/bad cop" play where they suddenly look a lot more attractive compared to the wolves lurking just over the horizon) -- but at the very least, J Street is going to need to develop some set of tactics for dealing with more left-wing rivals who it has to this point largely been able to ignore in the political realm.