Friday, September 23, 2022

A "Grand Bargain" on Israel and Antisemitism Discourse

Apropos of the controversy over Rep. Rashida Tlaib's (D-MI) declaration that those who back "Israel's apartheid government" cannot be progressives, I saw quite a few folks pointing to polling data which suggests most American Jews don't find "Israel is an apartheid state" to be an antisemitic statement. That's not to say that most Jews agree with that assessment, but only 28% disagree and find it to be antisemitic (25% agree with the statement, and 24% disagree but don't deem it antisemitic -- the remainder are unsure). The fact that many American Jewish organizations seem potentially out-of-step with median Jewish opinion was certainly a powerful rejoinder to their quick allegations that Tlaib's apartheid allegation was per se antisemitic.

The poll in question is one I've long found fascinating, and not the least because it offers a rare deep dive into what, exactly, American Jews think is and isn't antisemitic with respect to Israel. And the payoff is that Jews actually don't tend to think even most harsh critiques of Israel are antisemitic ... with one exception.


The huge outlier here is "Israel doesn't have a right to exist."  That statement simply blows all of its competitors out of the water -- a full two-thirds of American Jews find it antisemitic when no other statement (even some highly inflammatory ones about "genocide" are "apartheid") pushes much higher than 30%. It also has far fewer Jews agreeing with it, suggesting that "Israel has no right to exist" is viewed differently even by the nation's harshest critics. It's not, in other words, just a shuffling among Israel's supporters -- the other statements are disagreed with but aren't viewed as antisemitic; this one is disagreed with and is viewed as antisemitic. There appears to be a substantial portion of the American Jewish community that agrees with statements like "Israel is committing genocide" who nonetheless draw the line at "Israel doesn't have the right to exist."

A large part of me is just curious who that last group of Jews are and what their story is. But for the time being, this divergence suggests a potential "grand bargain" in how we talk about antisemitism and Israel: anti-Israel folks agree that opposing Israel's right to exist is antisemitic, and pro-Israel folks concede that all the other charges -- whether agreed to or not -- are fair play.

Now, as is the case of all "grand bargains", I fully expect this one to go nowhere because neither side has any particular need or desire to accept it. As much as this poll made for a nice "gotcha" moment in the context of the Tlaib controversy, anti-Israel commentators do not actually think the legitimacy of antisemitism allegations hinges much on what Jews think, and have been stubbornly insistent on going whole-hog on denying Israel's very validity as a state despite the fact that this seems to be a distinctive redline for the Jewish community over and beyond views that might be fairly categorized as (extreme) policy disagreement. But in fairness, pro-Israel organizations have not been especially interested in hitching their wagon to median Jewish opinion either, and -- for all the talk about "criticism is fine, but opposing Israel's existence isn't", they have been far from reliable in actually adhering to that line, viewing certain vitriolic criticisms as tantamount to "opposing Israel's right to exist" even as most Jews apparently draw a distinction between the two.

So my grand bargain proposal is not predictive: I don't think we actually will reach a détente along these lines. But in concept, it sure does present an interesting one, doesn't it?

Wednesday, September 21, 2022

The "Context" of Tlaib's PEP Talk Before American Muslims for Palestine

At a forum hosted by the group American Muslims for Palestine, Rep. Rashida Tlaib (D-MI) made waves by declaring that supporters of "Israel's apartheid government" cannot be allowed to call themselves progressive. The full quote is below:

"I want you all to know that among progressives, it’s become clear that you cannot claim to hold progressive values, yet back Israel’s apartheid government, and we will continue to push back and not accept that you are progressive except for Palestine."

Unsurprisingly, this is garnered quite a bit of pushback from many Democrats (especially Jewish Democrats), who contended that there was nothing incompatible with supporting "Israel’s right to exist as a Jewish and democratic state" (to quote Rep. Jerry Nadler (D-NY), criticizing Tlaib) and being progressive.

Now, in fairness, there is some ambiguity around the precise phrasing: backing "Israel's apartheid government" (Tlaib) could be distinguished from, e.g., a more general belief that Israel should not exist as "a Jewish and democratic state" (Nadler). Perhaps the former is about specific policies, while the latter is more conceptual and metaphysical. How far, in other words, does Tlaib's view actually extend?

We can't, of course, know for sure. But perhaps the venue offers a clue. Rep. Tlaib said these words at an event hosted by American Muslims for Palestine. Last year, AMP produced a comprehensive document "intended to provide the American-Muslim community with a set of criteria by which to determine whether or not to work with various Jewish organizations" (emphasis added; they were clear that the subject of the memo was specifically the Jewish community). And AMP's conclusion was that Muslims who support Palestine should refuse to work with virtually every Jewish organization, on any subject, for any purpose. Not the ADL, not the AJC, not local JCRC or JFeds, and not even most synagogues (a list totaling about two dozen synagogues nationwide were whitelisted as permissible). A nearly absolute, totalizing attempt to extirpate the entirety of the Jewish community from fellowship or coalition.

That is context. Does it decisively establish that Tlaib, herself, thinks things should go that far? No. But under circumstances where it has already become clear that the train has no brakes, it is legitimate context for discerning where this line of reasoning will take us. Context isn't always exculpating, after all.

Wednesday, September 14, 2022

Is the Jewish World Ready for Itamar Ben-Gvir?

In 2009, Marty Peretz called Avigdor Lieberman a fascist.

My how the world turns.

Today, of course, Lieberman is effectively a centrist figure in Israeli politics, who seems more inclined to form coalitions with the left-of-center bloc than the right-wing. 

Some of that reflects changes in Lieberman -- he has moderated somewhat from where he started and moved towards the center since bursting onto the Israeli political scene. But a lot of it is attributable to changes in Israel's political center of gravity, which has been lurching to the right for decades. Opinions and beliefs which were outlandish and outrageous in 2009 don't even qualify as right-wing in 2022. In 2018, Batya Ungar-Sargon could hold Naftali Bennett's feet to the fire over his open opposition to democratic rights for Palestinians. Fast forward just a few years, and Bennett is the savior figure who managed to oust the even more odiously anti-Palestinian Bibi Netanyahu out of office. What was once the extreme right in Israel now is the "moderate" bulwark against an ascendant and even further-extreme right. The world keeps turning.

And so we get to the present day, and the rise of a new extremist powerbroker in Israel: Itamar Ben-Gvir. Ben-Gvir is more than a terrorist-sympathizer, he actually was convicted of providing support to a terrorist organization. He wants to expel Arabs, he had a shrine to Baruch Goldstein, he's a disciple of Kahanism. His political character has been described as a "pyromaniac", given his lust to take combustible situations and pour gasoline on them. He's been described as a "David Duke"-like figure in Israeli politics, except unlike Duke he's actually winning office. He makes even the original flavor of Bennett or Lieberman look positively moderate. And in the very plausible event that the right-wing bloc wins the next Israeli election, Itamar Ben-Gvir is likely to receive a very prominent ministry position in the Israeli government.

The establishment of the Jewish diaspora isn't ready for this. In 2019, when Netanyahu first entered into a deal with Ben-Gvir, it received widespread condemnation from American Jewish groups (even AIPAC!). They characterized his party "racist and reprehensible". Three years later, Ben-Gvir's influence has only grown. If he does enter into government at a high level, does anyone believe groups like AIPAC are going to hold the line? That they'll follow their own logic and concede that Israel's governing coalition is seeded with the racist and the reprehensible? Or will the world turn once more, and Ben-Gvir become accommodated?

By and large, the American Jewish community has been covering its eyes regarding the surging ascendency of far-right extremism amongst the Israeli Jewish community. The tendency has been to dismiss this sort of extremism as marginal, as outliers, as the province of fringe cranks that one might find in any pluralistic political community. There is a terrified refusal to acknowledge the larger pattern, which is that folks like Ben-Gvir are not outliers, and things are getting worse, not better. "A little patience," they say "and we shall see the reign of witches pass." But it isn't passing. The cavalry isn't coming. It can happen (t)here.

The American Jewish community does not want to see Israel descend into far-right fascism. It wants, desperately, that folks like Ben-Gvir are outliers and are repudiated and can be rendered into fringe irrelevancies. But that's not happening. So what next? Unfortunately, the problem with not wanting to see something is that there's always the option to cover your eyes. Squeeze them shut and pretend the problem isn't there. Start whatabouting on Hamas or Iran or this or that. Figure out a way to accommodate and appease the new normal, in the hopes that after this, we won't go any further. Soon the reign of the witches has to pass. That is, more or less, what the global Jewish community has done for the past few decades -- it has just pretended not to see the rise of Israel's extreme right in the hopes that if it is ignored long enough, it will go away.

It's not going away. It is getting worse. And sooner or later, we have to starting thinking about what steps we need to take to arrest and reverse its momentum, rather than vainly hoping it will correct itself. I am not convinced that the American Jewish community is ready to have that conversation. But if we don't have it, folks will start having it without us.

Tuesday, September 13, 2022

Republicans Propose Nationwide Compulsory Women-Maiming Law

It's abortion/privacy week right now in my Constitutional Law class (Griswold and Roe today, Casey and Dobbs on Thursday). After class this morning, a student came up to me and showed a headline regarding the new Republican proposal to ban abortion nationwide after 15 weeks. He was surprised, since all the judicial rhetoric he had read thus far had been emphatic about "returning the issue to the states" -- how was that consistent with a federal ban? I answered, as politely as I could, that anyone who actually believed anti-abortion activists would settle for "leaving it to the states" once Roe was overturned is someone I'd like to sell bridges to. And, in fairness, that makes sense from their vantage -- if you think abortion is murder, you're hardly going to be content with allowing some states to murder to their heart's content.

That being said, as philosophically unsurprising as a federal abortion ban may be for anti-abortion activists, it seems like political suicide under circumstances where abortion is already supercharging Democratic intensity. Yet say what you will about the GOP bill, it dares venture boldly into new domains of terrorizing women and girls.

Authored by South Carolina Senator Lindsey Graham, the Republican bill not only bans abortions after 15 weeks, it does so without any exemption for the health of the mother. While "life-endangering" pregnancies are exempt, those which only risk severe bodily injury to the pregnant vessel person remain subject to the ban. The bill also goes out of its way to clarify that "emotional" or "psychological" harms cannot be the basis of labeling the pregnancy "life-endangering". In circumstances where there is an extreme suicide risk, the Republican law's mandate is apparently "let her die". A nationwide abortion ban with no health exemption is, stunningly (or not), being cast as an attempt at "unifying Republicans" who have been placed on the back foot after finally catching the car that is overturning Roe. After all, views may differ on whether government is permitted to murder pregnant women, but Republicans are united behind the principle that they can be maimed without consequence.

Other exemptions in the bill, most notably for rape and incest are highly circumscribed. Rape victims, for instance, must have obtained government-approved counseling at least 48 hours prior to the abortion proceeding. Child victims of rape or incest must have reported the incident to government authorities in advance. On that point, the statute helpfully gives the parents of said minor rape/incest victims the right to sue if such reporting does not happen -- a fantastic provision that I have no doubt will not at all be used to help chill and retaliate against child victims of sexual violence.

Those who do not consent to compulsory federal maiming of women face up to five years of jail time. This is the new, nationwide GOP policy on abortion. And it is on the ballot in November.

Sunday, September 11, 2022

A Synagogue in New Mexico

You may have seen the story bandying about the internet: "A tiny New Mexico Jewish community is trying to buy back its historic synagogue building". The community in question is Las Vegas, New Mexico -- what I affectionately dub "the other Las Vegas". I have an affectionate dubbing because, as it happens, there was a possibility that I'd be moving to that town of that 13,000 souls 88 miles away from Albuquerque.

My last year on the job market, before I ended up accepting a position at Lewis & Clark, the position I was "furthest" along in was a political science/legal studies job at New Mexico Highlands University, which is located in Las Vegas. I was far enough into the process there that I started to research facts about the city in question (such as its distance from the nearest large city and -- of utmost importance to my wife -- the distance to the nearest Target). I also looked into the city's Jewish community in history, where I learned many of the facts the rest of the internet picked up over the past few days -- the historic synagogue (the oldest in New Mexico), and the fact that the synagogue is no longer in Jewish hands following the gradual diminution of the town's Jewish population.

I don't have any substantive commentary to add. It was just an interesting bit of overlap between the current news and a near-miss in my life, and the unique challenges and history of being Jewish in a town that may have Jewish history, but does not have many in the way of Jews.

Wednesday, September 07, 2022

It's Not Cheating for Republicans To Lose: Ranked-Choice Voting Edition

I know it's not worth it to engage in Republican histrionics about how ranked choice voting is anti-majoritarian after Democrats won an Alaska House seat last week. The actual objection, as Republicans have made manifestly clear in their behavior over the past few years, is to "Democrats winning elections", and there's nothing deeper than that going on under the surface.

But the arguments they're making about how ranked choice systems are anti-democratic because "60% of the voters in Alaska voted for the Republican agenda" are so transparently ridiculous, and are being repeated with such vigor, that they need to be addressed.

Of course, it is a misnomer off the bat to say that a majority of Alaskans voted for "the Republican agenda". Voters don't vote for "agendas", they vote for candidates. And leave aside the notion that Republicans suddenly care about majoritarianism in a electoral system riddled with anti-democratic elements ranging from gerrymandering to the Senate to the Electoral College.

Nonetheless, it is the case that something feels off when more voters choose candidates from party X but, because they're divided, a single candidate from party Y prevails with a plurality. This can afflict Democrats as well as Republicans (witness worries about Democratic "lock outs" in California's top-two primary system). And it's worth noting that this circumstance is actually very common in a multi-candidate field with first-past-the-post rules. Indeed, Mary Peltola won a plurality of first-choice votes -- she would have won the election without a ranked-choice run-off! (Peltola had 41% of the initial vote, with Palin receiving 31% and Begich 28%).

But here's the thing: when we see voting patterns where 40% of the electorate backs a Democrat, 35% back Republican A, and 25% back Republican B, the reason we think it's unfair that the Democrat wins is that we assume if we asked the supporters of Republican B "if you had to choose, would you back Democrat or Republican A", they'd pick the latter. It's a reasonable enough assumption in a party system, to be sure, and in many occasions I suspect it's an assumption that'd be borne out. But all ranked choice voting does is actually ask the question rather than assume its answer. And it turns out that in Alaska, enough supporters of "Republican B" (Begich) did not prefer Republican A (Palin) over Democrat (Peltola). So the Democrat won, for the simple democratic reason that most Alaska voters preferred her over the most popular Republican competitor. That's not cheating, that's an election!

Put simply, if a majority of Alaska voters' preference was to elect a Republican -- any Republican -- over a Democrat, the voting system in Alaska gave them ample opportunity to make that choice. They chose otherwise, because it turns out that their preferences weren't that simple. And ultimately, that's what's driving Republican rage here: they think the voters' preferences were wrong, and so it is cheating for their will to have prevailed. Hard to think of a pithier summary of contemporary GOP attitudes towards democracy.

Sunday, September 04, 2022

MESA Objects to the Most Milquetoast Possible Manner of Addressing Member's Conspiracy-Mongering

Shortly after the attempted assassination of Salmon Rushdie, a Denver University professor went on a podcast to opine on the assailant's possible motivations. The professor, Nader Hashemi, suggested that it was "more likely" that the attacker was duped into his conduct by the Mossad as a backdoor means of scuttling nascent talks to reenter the Iran deal. This unfounded conspiratorial assertion was, in turn, roundly blasted by the Jewish community.

Of course, it is the case that members of an academic community have the right to forward unfounded conspiratorial assertions. Perhaps cognizant of that right, Denver University issued an extremely mild and tepid response to the controversy. Here's what they wrote:

Professor Hashemi spoke as an individual faculty member and does not speak for the university. While we wholeheartedly respect academic freedom and freedom of speech, his comments do not reflect the point of view of the university, nor are we aware of any facts that support his view. The safety of every speaker and every student on our campus, and all campuses, is critical to our society. We condemn the stabbing of Salman Rushdie. And it goes without saying that we remain committed to assuring that the experience of our Jewish students, faculty and staff is safe, supportive, respectful and welcoming.

One cannot get more milquetoast than that. That's not necessarily a criticism -- there are, again, academic freedom concerns in play here that militate against a more robust response. In any event, all this statement does is (a) affirm Hashemi didn't speak for the university (true), (b) he has academic freedom (true), (c) there is no factual foundation to his unsupported musing about Mossad involvement (true), (d) the stabbing of Rushdie is bad (true), and they are committed to maintaining a respectful, supportive, welcoming, and safe experience for Jewish students on campus (hopefully true). That is utterly unremarkable.

It was also far too much for the Middle Eastern Studies Association, which wrote a seven paragraph letter to the President of the University demanding the statement be retracted and an apology rendered to Prof. Hashemi.

What's especially stunning about the MESA letter is it seems to admit that Hashemi's "speculations" are entirely foundationless and lacking in evidence, yet takes that fact as an argument for why Hashemi should be immune from even the most tepid of critical response. The scenarios Prof. Hashemi spun out, the letter concedes, "were all obviously entirely speculative, as to our knowledge no evidence has thus far emerged about the attacker’s motivation or connections." But precisely because Hashemi's arguments were pure unfounded speculation, the university should not have "publicly distanced itself from one of its own faculty members for having engaged in legitimate speculation about the politics surrounding the attempted assassination of Salman Rushdie."

It's not actually the case that no evidence has emerged about the attacker's motivations -- putting aside the fact that Iran had put a hit out on Rushdie, the attacker had made social media posts sympathetic to Iran's Revolutionary Guard and reportedly had a fake driver's license featuring the name of an Iran-backed Hezbollah commander -- but the argument is staggering on its own terms: "Hashemi knew absolutely nothing, so any wild speculations he might have engaged in are therefore legitimate." Mossad did it -- legitimate. George Soros did it -- legitimate. Antifa did it -- legitimate. Lizard people did it -- legitimate. A secret underground network of American Mosques plotted simultaneously to help do it -- legitimate. It's speculation! Who can say what's true or not?

To state this is to refute it. And of course, it is fanciful to think that these other "speculations" would be treated so sanguinely by MESA. The reason why utterly unfounded speculations about the Mossad is considered fair game, while utterly unfounded speculations about, say, antifa is not, is because for some Israel is at least on the suspect list for any evil that occurs in the world until proven otherwise. This is why lack of evidence makes it legitimate to "speculate" about Israel's involvement. No matter how seemingly distant or fanciful, Israel is always guilty till proven innocent. In a world where we know nothing, Israel is responsible for everything.

On that note, MESA is clearly most upset that the university statement even gestured sideways at the prospect of antisemitism by committing to provide a supportive environment for Jewish students, since antisemitism allegations "as we know all too well have not infrequently been weaponized by organizations and media outlets seeking to suppress the expression of opinions with which they disagree" (paging JILV!). Even the indirect promise of supporting Jews served to "validate the attacks to which Professor Hashemi has been subjected while also compromising his academic freedom."

On the latter part: the attacks do not compromise Prof. Hashemi's academic freedom, because Prof. Hashemi has no academic freedom entitlement to be free of criticism -- including criticism that contains the dreaded "antisemitism" allegation -- for engaging in completely unfounded conspiratorial allegations about the Mossad. On the former, MESA's statement fails because there is nothing wrong with "validating" the notion that completely unfounded "speculation" about the Mossad being behind unrelated acts of evil in the world is potentially antisemitic. It's antisemitic for the same reason "the Mossad was behind 9/11" is antisemitic, and I defy MESA to offer a principle that distinguishes the former from the latter. Even the JDA suggests that "grossly exaggerating [Israel's] actual influence can be a coded way of racializing and stigmatizing Jews" -- surely, a clause which encompasses screeching "it's a Mossad plot!" any time something bad happens in the world.

Ultimately, one can criticize the Denver University statement for being too mild, or you can think it struck the right tone in recognizing Prof. Hashemi's academic freedom while appropriately distancing the university from his ramblings and promising to support those hurt by them. MESA's argument that the statement goes too far is absurd on its face, and speaks to the profound lack of seriousness with which that organization takes matters of antisemitism and Jewish equity.