Tuesday, February 19, 2019

Not My President's Day Roundup

Our apartment's water heater is being replaced tomorrow. That means my one true joy in life -- long, languid, hot showers -- will also have to go for the day. It will be terrible.

* * *

China's crackdown on religious liberty threatens the tiny but ancient Kaifeng Jewish community.

One of the few Black mathematicians in American academia recounts the microaggressions and subtle racism which alienated him from his own discipline.

I think the tone of this column is a little off, but the broad point -- that leftist anti-Zionists have no friend more highly placed in Israel than Netanyahu himself -- is on the mark, and it's important that someone like Eric Yoffie is saying it.

Alabama newspaper editor urges the return of the KKK in order lynch Democrats (and insufficiently conservative Republicans). Yes, really.

Apparently, Louisiana has a bad habit of not releasing prisoners after they've finished serving their sentences.

"As a Jew, I’m either furious or eating. Sometimes both."

For all the talk of "creeping Sharia", the fact is that the American Muslim community is actually experiencing something very different: creeping liberalism. For a community that, for much of recent electoral history, at least leaned Republican (especially on social issues), the rapid embrace of feminism, gay equality, and sexual liberation among the younger generation is coming as a bit of a shock to the more conservative old-guard.

Monday, February 18, 2019

Unthinkable Thoughts, Part II: What if the Democratic Party Corbynifies?

Today, seven British MPs -- including Luciana Berger and Chuka Umunna -- announced they were leaving the UK Labour Party and would sit in Parliament as independents. It is, as I understand it, the biggest breakaway of sitting MPs from Labour in recent history (the last comparable action was in 1981, when four senior Labour officials -- two of whom were MPs -- left to form their own party).

There were quite a few issues that prompted these MPs to decamp, including perhaps most prominently the almost complete failure of Labour to commit to fighting against Theresa May's Brexit catastrophe. But of course, looming large on the horizon was the ongoing problem of antisemitism -- a disease ripping through Labour at both the grassroots and at the most senior levels.

The Democratic Party in the United States is not like UK Labour. People who try to argue otherwise are acting in transparent bad faith -- and not just because three-quarters of Jews voted Democratic in the last election, while Corbyn's Labour party polls below 20% in the Jewish community. It is insulting to the American Jewish community to suggest that we can't see antisemitism before our eyes; if the Democratic Party was a toxic place to be a Jew, we -- by which I mean Jewish Democrats, the Jewish majority, not whatever ZOA hack is tweeting their 304th comment of the week at Ilhan Omar -- would be saying so. In reality, Jews remain well entrenched in the Democratic community. Antisemitic incidents remain quite rare, and when they do occur they're handled with considerably more grace and decisiveness than comparable acts across the aisle.

However, as I stressed in my last post, this is not a series about what is, or even what is likely. Unthinkable Thoughts is about what could be, what is now within the realm of possibility. The question, then, is what happens if the Democratic Party becomes "Corbynified"?

Last week, referring to the great Ilhan Omar "AIPAC!" controversy, Anshel Pfeffer declared that Jewish Democrats had just experienced their first "Corbyn moment". The main feature of that moment was not what Omar said, exactly, or in how it was responded to by the Democratic Party as an institution. Indeed, along those metrics, this scandal was a rather minor affair: she did trade upon antisemitic tropes, but she quickly apologized and the party as a whole disavowed them. Can't ask for a better result.

Rather, the scary portion of the incident was in the metadebate -- the discourse about the incident that coursed through sectors of the internet in the hours and days following. It was here where things went well beyond (fair) critiques that Omar's words are the subject of a multi-day media frenzy whilst GOP antisemitism of comparable gravity are given a pass. Instead, we saw the development of a narrative where Omar did nothing wrong, and the contention otherwise is yet another case of Jews smearing good patriots with illegitimate "antisemitism" charges, acting as Israeli stooges, being the face of American racism, and just in general sabotaging the left. Along side this condemnatory narrative was a celebratory one -- that Omar was speaking forbidden truths, that she was telling it like it is, and -- most importantly -- the fact that it made Jews uncomfortable is a point in her favor. In this corner of the internet, Omar scored points because of, not in spite of, how she upset the Jewish community.

This, for me, is the heart of what I mean by "Corbynifying" (at least along the axis of antisemitism). It denotes a state of affairs where Jewish terror and misery is part of the point -- it's an active desideratum, it signals that one's orientation towards the Jewish community is on track. With a few exceptions (exceptions who are both quick to be trotted out but whose loyalty to the cause is always kept under close watch), in a Corbynified party Jews are viewed as part of the enemy camp, and so complaints from Jews about antisemitism are viewed much the same way as complaints of racism are heard by the GOP -- presumptively in bad faith, and if anything a signal that the party is getting things right.

This is, as I've written before, the antisemitism that keeps me up at night. And we're at the point where this future is, if not yet "likely", than certainly "thinkable".

It's worth noting that a "Corbynified" Democratic Party does not necessarily mean a friendly Republican Party. More likely, it'd mean a Democratic Party and Republican Party that are deeply hostile to Jewish values. I've remarked before that trying to imagine what I'd do as a Jewish voter in the UK is the one thought-experiment that generated sympathy for the predicament of "Never Trump" Republicans, and that sentiment carries over.

And it must be stressed: right now the Democratic Party as an institution is not "Corbynified", or anything close to it. It's just not, and the people insisting otherwise are almost exclusively those for whom Corbynification is clearly their desired political future.

Yes, there is a loud cadre of self-described leftists on the internet that is ecstatic about any seeming break-up between Jews and Democrats. Then again, there's also a loud cadre on the internet that is screaming "Barbara Lee is a sellout!" because she endorsed Kamala Harris instead of Bernie Sanders. I feel pretty confident the latter will be very disappointed by the outcome of the 2020 primary. Loudness on the internet is not a reliable proxy for actual popular support.

But still. It's easy to forget that when Corbyn first entered the race to head up Labour, he was considered a fringe joke (a mistake that was also made about our current President). It turned out there was a very large swell of latent progressive energy waiting to be activated, and -- worse yet -- one of the things that activated and mobilized them was the antisemitism. Again -- this is central to Corbyn's appeal in the same way that Trump's racism was central to his appeal. Part of what Corbyn's voters like about him is that they view him as putting the Jews in their place. And so the question is whether there is a similar latent energy in a sector of the American people that burns with a similar desire.

It is a feature of Jewish history that these things can seemingly turn on a dime (I just read an account of how Jews reacted to emergent antisemitism in late 19th century Germany that felt alarmingly topical -- one of the main themes was how the community went from "we're basically fine, outside a few cranks anti-Jewish sentiment is a thing of the past" to having a 5-alarm fire raging around them). Yes, right now Jews are well entrenched in the Democratic Party. But can I imagine a world where Jewish Democrats are systematically targeted for primary challenges -- always somehow being viewed as "too conservative", "too accommodationist", "too establishment", "too Clinton-esque"? I can. I don't think it's likely, and I don't think they'd necessarily succeed. But yes, I can imagine it.

More importantly, we need to reflect seriously on how antisemitism can generate votes and energize coalitions. Too often it is taken as an article of faith that "antisemitism hurts our movement" -- that an antisemitic party is weaker than the one which is successfully fighting antisemitism. I don't think this can be taken for granted. Antisemitism is one of the most powerful mobilizing forces the world has ever seen. It seems wholly within the realm of possibility that a political movement which successfully harnesses antisemitism will be more successful than one that does not. The effectiveness of the "Soros" line of attack is demonstrative of this -- antisemitism, right now, is aiding conservative political movements in America. The Republican Party at least seems to believe that deploying these antisemitic tropes makes it stronger than it would otherwise be.

Indeed, the ties that bind antisemites together often cross normative partisan lines, and that creates significant opportunities for political growth. Antisemitism links together a range of vaguely "anti-establishment" and "anti-elitist" perspectives that, paradoxically enough, mean antisemitism is likely a great entry point for a host of new Democratic voters (consider the left-right convergence around the French "yellow vest" movement).

It would not remotely surprise me if there is a decent-sized clutch of independent-to-right-leaning voters who are suspicious of big financial institutions and angry about what they see as corruption in Washington, who tend to associate Democrats with coastal elitism and "New York money", and for whom Jews represent at least a plausible avatar of what connects what they think is wrong with America and what they think is wrong with Democrats. If this is right, then the path to resolving the  "What's the Matter with Kansas" question is making a grand gesture that says "I reject coastal financial domination." We joke about how antisemitism is the "socialism of fools", but the reason it's earned that label is because the easiest way to signal "I'm standing up to the banks", "I'm standing up to the elites", and "I'm standing up to the unaccountably powerful" -- all in one go -- is to signal "I'm standing up to the Jews". Such a message, it's plausible to imagine, be very well received among that set. It offers a pathway to turning reddish-purple voters blue.

Finally, it has to be emphasized that this is not solely a home-grown problem of the left. The right -- and particular Bibi Netanyahu -- shares a sizable chunk of the blame. Indeed, it is actively and I think intentionally trying to accelerate these dynamics. Much of contemporary politics is organized around negative partisanship, and the brazen of alignment of Netanyahu with Trump and other forces of far-right reactionary politics has very predictable effects. We can have a thousand conversations about nuance and Israeli society not being a monolith, but the fact is low-information voters aren't going to know much more about Israel than what it's government is doing, and if the government of Israel is blasting "WE, THE JEWISH STATE, ARE JUST LIKE TRUMP, ORBAN AND BOLSONARO" at 160 decibels, it's going to leave a sour impression on those people for whom Trump, Orban, and Bolsonaro are not friendly faces.

But the fact that blame would be overdetermined is not much of a consolation for ensuing political homelessness. If the Democratic Party ceases to be a home for the Jews, it would signal more than just a realignment. It would almost certainly mean that the liberal politics that much of the Jewish community has rallied behind for the past half-century will have finally failed. And it's hard to imagine that any of the candidates that might emerge in its place -- from Corbynista socialism to Trumpian authoritarian populism -- will be particularly favorably disposed to the Jews.

Saturday, February 16, 2019

The Strongest Point

A UK court has upheld the incitement conviction of Alison Chabloz, a singer-songwriter with a propensity for Holocaust denial. I don't want to get into the free speech concerns here -- the UK has different free speech rules than we have in the states, their merits or demerits are a matter for another time. Certainly, there's no question that Chabloz is a raging antisemite. Highlights of her lyrics include:

  • "Did the Holocaust ever happen? Was it just a bunch of lies? Seems that some intend to pull the wool over our eyes. Eternal wandering liars haven’t got a clue, and when it comes to usury, victim’s always me and you."
  • "Now Auschwitz, holy temple, is a theme park just for fools, the gassing zone a proven hoax, indoctrination rules."
  • "Tell us another, come on, my brother, reap it, the cover, for tribal gain. Safe in our tower, now is the hour, money and power, we have no shame."
  • "History repeats itself, no limit to our wealth, thanks to your debts we’re bleeding you dry. We control your media, control all your books and TV, with the daily lies we’re feeding, suffering victimisation. Sheeple have no realisation, you shall pay, all the way, until the break of day."
For added effect, she set the songs to the music of traditional Jewish folk music like Hava Negila (a tune she claimed she had made up herself).

But for whatever reason, I cannot stop cracking up at this highlight from the trial:
At one point, [Chabloz's attorney] suggested that the Nazis did not deliberately murder Anne Frank, declaring “She died of typhus, there is no dispute. They didn’t deliberately murder her. They might be responsible for her death by mistreatment.” Judge Hehir stopped the debate, telling Mr Davies: “I’m not sure that’s your strongest point Mr Davies.”
Indeed, I imagine not. Or maybe so, if you're hanging out in the right parts of the British internet. But -- just lawyer to lawyer -- if you're defending a Holocaust denier against the charge that they've engaged in hateful antisemitic speech, maybe just pivot away from the "did the Nazis really murder Anne Frank" debate.

Thursday, February 14, 2019

America's Israel Policy is Primarily Dictated by Non-Jews. Therefore ... What?

Periodically, you see people on the internet take great pains to stress that America's Israel policy is primarily dictated by non-Jews -- usually (particularly if we're talking about conservative Israel policy) Evangelical Christians.

When this point is made, as it usually is, by Israel-critical sorts, it is often a means of stressing that opposing these conservative policies is not a case of being anti-Jewish, since it isn't Jews who are driving the policies to begin with.

It is a point often made in ragged fashion, without following through to its logical end-point. For example, people might use it to say "AIPAC drives the agenda in Washington on behalf of Christian donors" rather than "maybe AIPAC doesn't drive the agenda in Washington, it's now largely been surpassed by explicitly Christian 'pro-Israel' organizations whose agenda AIPAC is forced to react to, and our assumption that its AIPAC that runs the show is a legacy of an antisemitic assumption of Jewish control."

Still, the broad point is correct. American policy towards Israel is mostly a function of what non-Jews want it to be. That doesn't mean that there aren't Jews who, fortuitously, happen to overlap with this or that Israel-policy agenda. But they're fundamentally epiphenomenal.

One might think that the next step in the analysis would be "so let's start asking: what do Jews want us to be thinking about regarding Israel?"

But more often, the next step instead is "so therefore, we don't have to listen to anyone but ourselves on this issue!"

Put differently, these actors might recognize -- correctly -- that American Jewish voices are actually relatively marginal to the state of American discourse about Israel (it's worth noting that Israel itself plays a part in this marginalization). But they don't actually mind that marginalization or seek to rectify it -- if anything, they exploit it so that they can engage in their own discourse about Israel in American without feeling guilty about stepping on the Jews. They're happy to keep on going as they always have, impervious to critical Jewish perspectives (though happily relying on the epiphenomenal Jews who happen to already agree with them).

Recognizing that Jews aren't running the show in Washington (on Israel or anything else) is step one. Step two is empowering Jewish voices -- not to the exclusion of other salient perspectives (most notably, Arab or Palestinian voices), but as part of a larger recalibration of the debate so that those with the most at stake have the most influence.

If you think step two is redundant because we already hear -- overhear, if anything -- Jewish perspectives, then you haven't actually absorbed the lesson of step one. And if you think step two is problematic because you're afraid that elevating actual Jewish perspectives might conflict with your pre-established political agenda, then you just approve of the political marginalization described by step one. Either way, no one should be fooled by the play.

Wednesday, February 13, 2019

Unthinkable Thoughts, Part 1: What if Israel Doesn't Agree to a Fair Peace Deal?

The working title of my dissertation is "Hard Thoughts" -- thoughts that we don't want to think, that challenge some deep-seated ideological or cultural prior that we have, but the consideration of which is tremendously important if a full and fair deliberative system is to flourish.

In that spirit, I'm thinking of starting a new series on "Unthinkable Thoughts". These are questions that I hate to ask, and whose answers are deeply uncomfortable for me, but which I've generally been able to get away with not asking because I've viewed their premises as sufficiently remote as to not require consideration. Now, by contrast, I think they're plausible questions that someone like me does have to think through.

That "plausible" is important to stress. For example, today's unthinkable thought is "What if Israel doesn't agree to a fair peace deal?" What if it's the case that Israel would reject even a fair deal put on the table?

In raising this question, I'm not asserting that I now believe "Israel will not agree to a fair peace deal." I'm saying that it is no longer unthinkable that Israel would so not agree, at least not without some degree of external pressure. It's a sufficiently realistic possibility that someone with my commitments has to reflect on it.

Of course, different people have different thoughts which are "unthinkable" for them. For me, some other questions I'm thinking of working through in this series include:

  • What if the Democratic Party "Corbynifies"?
  • What if a one-state solution becomes the only plausible solution?
  • What if leveraging antisemitism is the most effective way to advocate for Palestinian rights?

Some of you have thought the above thought for years -- congratulations. This is not an invitation for you to pass judgment on what should and shouldn't be a hard thought to think. If these thoughts come easily to you, then feel free to come up with your own unthinkable thoughts and contemplate them.

That said, I think I occupy a sufficiently well-populated ideological space within the Jewish community that I imagine some of these thoughts that have been unthinkable for me, are also starting to nibble at a good few of my peers as well. And so I hope that, if nothing else, this series provokes some renewed thought among that set.

* * *

So -- today's unthinkable thought is the prospect that Israel might not -- of its own volition, anyway, agree to a fair peace deal with the Palestinians. The proximate cause of thinking about this came upon reading a variety of people -- some earnest, some not -- asking what tactics the Palestinian people could use in order to pressure Israel for their own liberation if BDS (and, obviously, violence) were taken off the table?

I have some answers to that direct question, but what I want to focus on here is why that question I think has typically not been contemplated by many in the pro-Israel camp. Simply put, it is an article of faith among pro-Israel sorts -- and this is one of the rare things that still unifies left, right, and center pro-Israel sorts -- that Israel "wants to make a deal". They may be skeptical of the Palestinian Authority's ability to deliver, they may be pessimistic that Palestinian leadership will come to a table, but they are absolutely sure that if a deal was put forward, Israel would accept.

The reason why that article of faith matters is it suggests that the only thing standing in the way of a Israeli/Palestinian peace accord is Palestinian rejectionism. It's a step beyond the (fair) point that the failure to make a deal isn't solely Israel's responsibility -- of course it isn't, it takes two to tango. But this view posits that Israel bears no responsibility. Palestinians need to be pressured or induced into cutting a fair deal; Israelis are simply waiting for that pressure to bear fruit. If and when it does, Israel will sign on.

There's a historical narrative that supports this view -- starting from Israel's acceptance of the UN partition plan alongside Palestinian/Arab rejection, and moving through Camp David at the turn of the millennium. We know Israelis would make a deal because they have put forward such deals, and its been Palestinians who have said no.

Of course, Pro-Palestinian historians have a different take on this, but for my purposes I can accept it simply by observing that Israeli politics today are very different than they were in 2000, let alone 1948. So can we say, with absolute confidence, that if Abbas came forward today and said "okay -- we're ready to sign on the dotted line: compensation for refugees but no right of return, Israel keeps big settlement blocs near the Green Line in exchange for corresponding land swaps, Palestinian capital in East Jerusalem but Israel maintains control over Jewish neighborhoods," that this Israeli coalition would say yes? Really?

Absolute faith blinds us to troublesome reality. I mentioned this when Jonathan Tobin spoke of Benny Gantz saying settlement blocs (including some which could not remain under Israeli control under any reasonable peace deal) will remain Israeli "forever". Tobin said this proved that even the Israeli center doesn't see much hope in a peace deal "right now" or "for the foreseeable future". I pointed out that "forever" is quite a bit longer than "right now" or "the foreseeable future."

Maybe if the right opportunity presents itself, someone like Gantz will change his mind. Maybe he'll be able to bring 61 votes in the Knesset with him. I think it's plausible. But it's hardly guaranteed.

The fact is, there is no circumstance where a peace deal between Israel and Palestine will not require a leap of faith. And so there will always be a temptation -- even among people who say that they want a deal, even among people who in some sense genuinely do want a deal -- to step back from the precipice, and find a reason to say "no". Can we trust them? Will they follow through? Is this border a kilometer too deep or too narrow? Is that detail a dealbreaker?

Given all this, it may well be that Israel will not, of its own accord, accept even a fair deal if it were put out on the table. Which means it might need a little push. That doesn't mean they're the only party that might need pushing; but nonetheless, it is plausible that Israel will have to be induced into accepting a deal.

And that raises the question: what are the viable candidates for that "push"? What can justly be done, and what is a bridge too far?

These are uncomfortable questions -- and I don't think the right answer is "by any means, no matter the cost." But surely the answer also cannot be "nothing -- if a fair deal is on the table and Israel rejects it, then that's that." And given Israel's increasingly rightward tilt, I think we in the pro-Israel community need to start thinking through these questions sooner rather than later -- because if we don't, others will do the thinking for us.

Tuesday, February 12, 2019

Max Rose is My Hero

Rep. Max Rose, a freshman Democrat from New York (and one of the real "out of nowhere" wins in the 2018 cycle), was one of the first members of the Democratic caucus to criticize Ilhan Omar's "Benjamisn" remark.

Then, when Omar apologized, Rose accepted the apology, observing that the best way to work with Omar is to work with Omar (Omar, in turn, thanked Rose for calling on her to do better).

And then he had a little thing to say to the gathered media hordes.
I do want to point out to all of you that when Kevin McCarthy said that it was Bloomberg and that it was Soros and it was Steyer pulling the strings behind the scenes, none of you camped out. And their caucus stayed united and had his back, and none of you called him out on that. So I just want you all to acknowledge that there is some hypocrisy going on there too, okay? That caucus can't be chickenshit in the face of antisemitism either. In the face of antisemitism we don't acknowledge party, in the face of any hate, any vitriol, we don't acknowledge party. So seriously -- you're not agents of the Republican Party.
You can feel free to inject that paragraph directly into my veins, because it's a point I've harped on for years. Rose's broadside, if only a little bit, has seemed to have moved the needle. He may well have finally prompted a little reflection on the double-standard that meets Republican versus Democratic antisemitism.

And if we're being honest, we in the Jewish community share a bit of the blame here. I stress "a bit", because one of the great fictions about American Jewish life is that discourse about American Jews is primarily a function of what American Jews want it to be. The patterns that characterize how people talk about Jews are not established by Jews, and they're strikingly resistant to disruption from Jews. In many ways, I'm dubious that the Jewish community could generate equal outrage about mainstream right-wing antisemitism even if were committed to it (a fact evidenced by the reality that many of us have been committed to it, with little success to show for it).

But still, there's no question that our communal institutions have played their part in propagating this double-standard. We do not hold mainstream conservatives to the same standards we hold mainstream liberals to. Too often, it seems like mainstream Jewish groups are good at three things:

  1. Paying very close attention to explicit far-right and neo-Nazi hate organizations;
  2. Paying very close attention to adjunct professors of media studies at Northwest Idaho State University who've endorsed BDS; and
  3. Paying very close attention to every word that comes out of the mouths of Linda Sarsour, Tamika Mallory, Ilhan Omar, and Rashida Tlaib.

That's not tenable. It's chickenshit. It illustrates the
sharp disjuncture in how the Jewish community reacts to problematic left versus right behavior. The left is met “with the full sound and fury for every toe out of line,” while the right “must engage in the most flamboyant provocation to elicit even a murmur of discontent.” The left is “policed to the letter,” while the right is “treated with kid gloves.” 
Remember what happened when the ADL did try to hold Mike Huckabee accountable for cavalier Holocaust comparisons? Did Huckabee apologize and try to make amends? Oh no -- he demanded the ADL apologize to him for their chutzpah, while darkly warning that "Israel and Jewish people need to make friends, not insult the ones they have."

Can you imagine if Ilhan Omar had taken that approach? If she had replied to her Jewish critics by demanding they apologize to her and then suggesting "Jewish people need to make friends, not insult the ones they have"? We'd have a collective rage aneurysm. But Huckabee, of course, gets away with it. Because we don't treat antisemitism on the mainstream right the same way as we do antisemitism on the mainstream left.

So let's be clear: there is antisemitism in America -- far more than many of us would like to admit. But the key difference between Democrats and Republicans isn't that one has an antisemitism problem and the other doesn't.

They key difference between Democrats and Republicans is that Democrats are actually apologize when Jews express concerns about antisemitism in their ranks. Republicans almost never do.

Monday, February 11, 2019

It's My Birthday and I'll Roundup If I Want To!

Happy birthday (actual birthday, not blog birthday) to me!

I'm actually not doing anything in particular today, though Jill and I will be going to a hockey game this weekend. In a few weeks, we're planning to invite friends over for board games. If you're wondering "why in a few weeks, David?", the answer is I just had a Super Bowl party, and in typical neurotic millennial fashion I fear it's way too soon to ask my friends to voluntarily hang out with me in a party-like setting again.

* * *

David Roberts summarizes the Green New Deal proposal. He's pretty favorable towards it. So am I.

Weird headline aside, this is an interesting article on Israel's current state of play in Africa. In particular, Islamic extremists on the continent are starting to link their attacks to the Palestinian cause, which is in turn pulling African governments closer to Israel.

Much work needs to be done, but Israeli universities are at the forefront of supporting and integrating Israel's Arab minority, and deserve a ton of praise for it.

Partners for Progressive Israel, on the message that needs to be sent to both the right and left on Israeli and Palestinian rights

Antisemitic flyers at the University of Montana claim "Jews" are attacking the First Amendment.

On the antisemitic roots of the "Jews controlled the slave trade" canard.