Sunday, February 18, 2024

Learning the Right Wrong Lessons

The Biden administration's decision to withdraw from Afghanistan should be viewed as a milestone moment in political courage. Instead, as both Scott Lemieux and Kevin Drum observe, it's probably one of his biggest political millstones. How did this happen?

We need to be clear: Afghanistan had become a hopeless quagmire. As Lemieux puts it, we could stay "for six more months" in perpetuity and just slowly bleed more and more, or we could make a decision to leave. Eventually, someone would have to make the decision to leave, and the only question was who would rip off the band-aid. Three different presidents kicked that can down the road for someone else to deal with.

It was Biden who finally had the guts to step forward, and he did so knowing he'd take a hit. There was no way withdrawing from Afghanistan was going to be pretty. Losing rarely is. But in the scheme of things, the withdrawal went about as smoothly as reasonably possible. Again, "reasonably possible" -- losing isn't going to be pretty. But all the armchair generals in the world still haven't offered much alternatives aside from "stay for another six months, and another six months after that." See point one.

Biden should have earned praise for this call. Instead, he get hit with a brutal one-two punch -- one from the media, which positively excoriated him over the "chaotic" withdrawal; and then from the putatively anti-war left which gave him essentially no credit for the move and certainly showed zero interest in providing substantial political cover for it. Indeed, it is fair to say that the Afghanistan withdrawal was the negative turning point in Biden's poll numbers with the American people. Doing the right thing got him nothing with the left and got him scorn with the right.

It can be hard to predict political fallout -- my students are now young enough that I have to emphasize to them that the moral taken from Nader 2000 was absolutely not "Democrats learned that they can't take the left for granted!" -- but even the most dimwitted politician surely will understand what obvious lesson to draw from this story, and it's not a good one. Nice work, team.

Wednesday, February 14, 2024

Clown Cars Aren't For Driving, They're For Clowning

At the start of the congressional session, I predicted that "endless stunt investigations is all the House GOP will do, because it's all they can agree upon". I'll give myself a pat on the back for that one, as the House -- on its second try -- decided to impeach Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas for absolutely no discernible reason.

It's dead-on-arrival in the Senate, and rightfully so, but we need to reiterate just how pathetic and embarrassing this was. It was embarrassing when it failed the first time, and it's embarrassing that it succeeded the second time. The nominal complaint -- that Mayorkas isn't enforcing border policy to Republicans liking -- is not only not an impeachable offense (except insofar as Republicans believe it's unconstitutional for them to lose elections, which appears to be increasingly their consensus view), but it's doubly-embarrassing to blame Mayorkas for inaction on the border given that congressional Republicans can't even pass their own bill on the border because they think doing so will help Biden in the next election (and because actual policymaking, unlike endless stunt investigations, requires actual position-taking). Republicans dealing with the fact that they are too chaotic and incompetent to even have, let alone enact, an agenda on the issue they say is a Crisis Invasion Destroying America!!1!!1! by impeaching a Democrat is the latest example of the crippling infantilization that has completely overtaken the party.

The fiasco did give me a chance to call my Republican congressional representative, Lori Chavez-Deremer (R-OR), and Be Mad At Her, but to by honest my heart wasn't fully in it this time. I genuinely don't understand why Chavez-Deremer even wants to be in Congress at this point. She's not doing anything there -- she's certainly not legislating -- she just mindlessly nods along with whatever ridiculous circus show her more creative MAGA colleagues decide to put forward in any given week. One would think she could do the same thing much more remuneratively as a talk radio host, and with any luck after the next election she'll get that opportunity. 

[Image: NYT]

Monday, February 12, 2024

Blamed for Surviving

A new book tells the gripping story about a Polish Jew and brilliant mathematician who, during the Holocaust, pretended to be a member of the Polish nobility to survive the Nazi occupation. Janina Spinner Mehlberg's deception actually ran two layers deep: she worked for a Polish welfare organization during the war, while secretly being a member of the Polish Underground -- but in the Polish Underground, she maintained her cover as a Catholic "Countess" in order to hide her Jewish identity from her fellow resistors.

There's much that could be said about this story, not the least the lengthy period where publishers ignored it out of a general disinterest in hearing survivor narratives. But I want to focus on something slightly different. 

In her "public" role during the war, Mehlberg regularly worked with the Nazi occupiers, negotiating for more food or resources to enter the work camps by arguing that it would serve the interests of the German war machine (non-starving workers could replace German men sent to the front, for instance). Even this at best indirectly benefited Jewish inmates, who were typically slated for direct extermination -- the hope was that some of these provisions would end up reaching the entirety of the camps and so improve the survivability for Jews as well as ethnic Poles.

Mehlberg, in short, may not have saved any Jews at all. And her "arguments" were ones expressly framed around aiding the Nazi's military ambitions. Yet I cannot imagine anyone reading her story and not thinking she acting bravely and heroically.

This is why, whenever I see some soulless cretin on the internet running the "Zionists collaborated with Nazis" narrative, with a smirk and a sanctimonious "see how evil they are and always have been!", I positively radiate with fury. In the most horrifying circumstances imaginable, yes, Jews were forced to negotiate with Nazis -- and negotiate from positions of weakness and supplication. The "deals" we got obviously were not good ones, but that didn't make them any less necessary. To treat this as cowardice or betrayal is not just to miss the point, it is to act with an almost impossible cruelty towards the survivors and the Jewish community writ large placed in truly impossible circumstances. It blames survivors for surviving, and trying to help others survive as well. Even if I thought, with the benefit of hindsight and comfortable distance, that the deals were objectively "bad" (and I make no such claim), I would still never dare indict those who made them. I cannot imagine having the hubris or the heartlessness to do otherwise.

I do not judge Mehlberg for doing what it took to survive. I do not judge her for trying her best, in the best way she could, to save innocent lives. It was not her who placed her in those circumstances. Anyone who tries to make her, or those in analogous circumstances, into a villain, is beneath contempt.

Sunday, February 11, 2024

Super Birthday

It's a big day today -- it's my birthday! We're having a bunch of friends over to our house to celebrate my birthday and for no other reason (there may some light entertainment on in the background).

I saw a comic describe herself as in her "early-mid-to-late-thirties", and boy is that a mood.

Hope you all have a wonderful day, however you spend it. And may 2024 be a peaceful, productive, just, and thriving year for all.

Saturday, February 10, 2024

Australian Police: They Were Saying "Boo-Urns"

One of the more shocking incidents witnessed in anti-Israel protests that occurred immediately following Hamas' October 7 attack was the allegation that marchers in Sydney chanted "gas the Jews". But while several witnesses testified to hearing the chant, local police have now determined that they do not believe those were the words that were spoken.

Now, before I tell you what the police concluded was the chant actually deployed that day, I want to share a couple of reactions to this finding:

The Australian Federation of Islamic Councils called for prosecutions of those who disseminated "false claims" that had unfairly vilified Palestinians and Muslims and harmed the "delicate fabric" of social cohesion.


Protest organiser Palestine Action Group, which long maintained the "gas" chant was never uttered, called for widespread media retractions. 

Spokesman Josh Lees suggested the wrongly captioned video was designed to damage the movement, pointing to "a long history of false claims of anti-Semitism used to silence critics of the state of Israel".

Strong stuff! Now here's what the police concluded was being chanted:

They "concluded with overwhelming certainty that the words used were, 'Where's the Jews?'" Deputy Commissioner Mal Lanyon said on Friday.

Ohhhh. It was only "where's the Jews?"! I can see why the organizers are demanding an apology -- it's getting to the point where an angry mob can't demand to know where the Jews are without someone saying that's antisemitic (rolls eyes). The only offensive thing I see here is the poor grammar!

For what it's worth, the umbrella Australian Jewish Association stands by its initial conclusion that the chant was indeed "gas the Jews."

Tuesday, February 06, 2024

"I Dressed Like a Crazy Pharoah for You, Man!" (Azerbaijan Edition)

Azerbaijan is holding a Potemkin presidential election tomorrow. But what makes this one especially outstanding is that not only did the authoritarian incumbent put a bunch of fake "opposition" parties on the ballot, he's also having them release deliberately idiotic policy proposals so he looks better by comparison (h/t).
The "opposition" candidates have brought some color to the election campaign by mooting a number of unlikely policy proposals: renaming the country the North Azerbaijan Republic, a nod to nationalist discourse that dreams of a greater Azerbaijan, including the ethnic Azerbaijani minority regions of Iran; formally claiming Armenia's Syunik Province as Azerbaijani; or sending Azerbaijani troops to support Russian forces in Syria.
"They want to talk about all these stupid ideas in order to show that Aliyev is better [and] that these are the only alternatives," Open Azerbaijan's [Zohrab] Ismayil said.

 Wasn't this a plotline on Community?

The presidential "debate" was equally farcical:

At a debate held before Azerbaijan's February 7 presidential election, the viewer could be forgiven for not being sure who was supporting the incumbent and who represented the opposition.

"President Ilham Aliyev has kept his word and fulfilled every promise he has made," said one candidate, Fuad Aliyev (no relation to the president), at the January 15 public television debate. Another candidate, Zahid Oruc, argued that great Azerbaijani statesmen throughout history would all have voted for Aliyev.

The president himself did not appear at the debate but sent an emissary, Tahir Budagov, to absorb some of the flattery.

"Dear Mr. Tahir, do you know the strengths of the candidate you represent?" Razi Nurullayev, the head of the National Front Party, asked Budagov. "For years, our party has stated that we will liberate Karabakh and restore the integrity and sovereignty of Azerbaijan, but your candidate has done it," Nurullayev said, referring to Azerbaijan's recapture of the ethnic Armenian-dominated region of Nagorno-Karabakh in September 2023.

One almost has to respect the commitment to bootlicking. Almost. 

You will not be surprised to learn that genuine opposition parties are boycotting the election entirely.

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.