Thursday, April 18, 2024

"Us Too-ism" at USC

You've probably heard about a brewing free speech incident at USC, where the provost canceled a planned speech by the student valedictorian that pertained to prior pro-Palestine/anti-Israel content on her social media profiles (I've seen conflicting reports on what was "her words" versus words on sites she was linking to). The USC administration insists that it is not opposed to the student's speech per se, but rather had vague "safety" objections. 

To that end, my main comment is that (a) the "safety" concerns smack of pretext and (b) if there are actually safety concerns sufficiently extreme so as to make it impossible for a South Asian Muslim student to deliver a speech, that is a five-alarm fire crisis for the state of free speech at USC that should be addressed with exactly that level of urgency. But again, my strong suspicion is that "safety" is a red herring here, and this is really USC preemptively bowing to pressure from various pro-Israel groups (some on campus, presumably some alumni/external actors as well) demanding the cancellation. I also endorse Paul Horwitz's thoughts on this (not just because he kindly links to some of my own recent work on campus speech regulation).

To me, though, the effort by some Jewish groups to cancel this student's speech smacks of what I've termed "us too-ism". "Us too-ism" is when one group that has a colorable claim of being marginalized or oppressed sees some sort of movement, practice, or trend that is demanded by or responsive to the needs of another marginalized group and reflexively demands that they receive it as well ("us too!"). The problem with "us too-ism" is that it's almost entirely reactive. It isn't motivated by some organically-generated understanding of what a group actually desires or what it feels it is lacking; it rather stems from a more abstract "this is how society shows it is responsive to oppressed groups, we are oppressed, therefore we must get this" logic. That this imagining of how other groups are being responded to is often caricatured or stereotyped only exacerbates the problem. If the metric for our equality is solely a 1:1 matching of what other groups are thought to get, and what other groups are thought to get is grossly exaggerated or misimagined, then what will be demanded by the "us too" contingent will inherently be unreasonable or excessive precisely because it's demanding mimicry of a "response" that largely exists in the minds of the "us too-ers".

In my other post, for example, I analyzed the "us too" concept with respect to the "Jewface" allegations surrounding non-Jewish Steve Carrell playing a Jewish character in the movie "The Patient". The rise of the "Jewface" complaint, at least with respect to male actors (I acknowledged Jewish women may be differently situated), did not seem to me to stem from an organic complaint of how Jews were being represented in Hollywood, or even a more inchoate sense of offense. Rather, it seemed to primarily be a copycat of complaints surrounding racial representation in cinema: racial minorities had been complaining about White actors being cast to play non-White characters as a form of racism, and that sufficed to mean that Jews should complain about non-Jewish actors being cast to play Jewish characters as a form of antisemitism.

The USC case, I think, may stem from something similar. Some Jews perceive, rightly or not (for my part, I think the perception is overstated albeit not stemming from nowhere, but again, it's the perception that matters here), that other minority groups demand and often receive the cancellation of "offensive" speakers at campus events and that receptivity to this demand is taken as a litmus test for the degree to which the campus is responsive to the minority group. Hence, Jews who also feel vulnerable on campus decide that they are entitled to this same treatment, and the degree to which the campus is receptive to their demands is the yardstick by which they can determine if their oppression is treated with equal seriousness compared to other campus groups making analogous claims.

As should be clear by now, I think this is a very bad way of going about things. I think the "perceived" demands of other groups are often in fact misperceived, and I think the purely reactive framework of us too-ism ends up occluding very important and necessary steps of self-reflection regarding what we actually want and what would actually make us feel secure on campus. It's hard to argue that the cancellation of this speech at USC has made Jewish students -- even those who do view their safety as Jews as intricately bound up in their Zionist self-identification -- any safer, and it's hard to argue that cancellation of the speech is actually a proportionate response to what harm (if there is any) this student might have caused. But again, "us too-ism" doesn't consider any of that -- its analysis starts and ends at what it imagines other analogous groups are getting, and so it can't surprise that the resultant conclusions are shallow and misdirected.

Wednesday, April 17, 2024

The Submission is the Point

The Venice Biennale is an annual art exhibition designed to showcase the work of artists around the world. Open to exhibitors from any country with diplomatic relations with Italy, the event includes an official Israeli exhibit -- a fact which has unsurprisingly drawn the ire of those demanding a complete cultural boycott of Israel.

This year, though, there was a bit of a twist on that tale: the Israeli representative, Ruth Patir, elected to close her own exhibit "a cease-fire and hostage release agreement is reached."

Patir -- who has been a regular participant in pro-ceasefire/anti-Bibi protests in Israel -- is not characterizing her decision as endorsing a boycott of Israel, which she emphasized she opposes, and I think we should respect her framing of her own actions. Much like with Natalie Portman, there's no reason to think that Patir does not know or understand the choices she's made.

But I don't really want to focus on the what Patir did, exactly. Rather, I want to take a look at how her decision was received by those who were demanding the removal of the Israeli exhibit. Consistent with the above, it would not be right to say that Patir was joining the boycotters. But it certainly seems like her actions were aligned with what the boycotters seem to want. 

Yet their reaction is, well, I would say it is very interesting and very revealing. What it reveals, in particular, is how the goal of this campaign is very clearly not to create a space where Israelis come out in opposition to the violent practices of their government, or more broadly one that creates space for an imagined future where Israelis and Palestinians relate to one another as equals. They do not see Israelis as potential partners even in an imagined futures. They see Israelis as enemies who must be made to submit. The submission, above all else, is the point.

Here's how they characterize Patir's decision vis-a-vis their campaign:

“The artistic team of the Israeli pavilion has retreated as a direct consequence of widespread pressure and our collective campaign.”

Note the framing. Patir "retreated" in the face of "pressure". She did not, under this telling, voluntarily align with -- even partially -- the effort to end the war in Gaza. She is not an example of someone stepping out from an (under this telling) benighted framework to see the essential need to speak out. She did not even make a volitional choice on her own. She was forced, coerced, compelled to back down. That's the victory -- not "Israeli publicly demands ceasefire", but "Israeli publicly forced to yield."

And having secured the dominant position, are the boycotters magnanimous in their claimed victory? Not at all. Her will may have been bent; but it must be broken. Referring to the fact that the closed exhibit can still be seen through the windows, the boycotters make clear that Patir remains firmly in the camp of an enemy to be crushed:

The Genocide Pavilion has been forced to respond to 24,000 signatories who condemn the Israeli genocide against Palestinians in Gaza but, contrary to the artistic team’s claims, they have not withdrawn, the pavilion has not been closed. 

ANGA reiterates its demand to shut down the pavilion in its entirety.

ANGA does not applaud empty and opportunistic gestures timed for maximum press coverage, and leaving video works on view to the public....

Leave aside the almost absurd richness of complaining about "gestures timed for maximum press coverage" (how is that a bad thing in this context?). The boycotters will not be satisfied until it is clear that Patir has yielded, that her choices are not her own, that what happens to her is something imposed upon her against her will. It is not elevating the call for a ceasefire, it is not even (really) the closure of the exhibit, that was desired here. It is the submission that is the point, and that has not yet adequately been achieved.

This type of politics rings familiar. It called to mind Justice Alito's contradictory desire "to bludgeon the legal community into freely accepting his preeminence." It's not enough for him to prevail on the formal terrain of saying what the law is, the legal community must yield to his superiority. I saw a similar dynamic in some circles of the 2020 Bernie Sanders campaign -- when it looked like he was on the path to victory, some of his backers looked ecstatically at the prospect that the Democratic Party establishment would be forced to "bend the knee". They were less excited about winning the Democratic primary than they were about defeating the Democrats. The submission of the enemy was the point.

This politics, fundamentally, demands not just victory but domination over the enemy. And as a result, it cannot tolerate -- it is infuriated by -- possibilities of agreement or reconciliation from the putative enemy. Often, the substantive issues supposedly being fought over are besides the point. If you wonder why some parts of the left can't seem to take "yes" for an answer, this is why: for Democrats to simply agree to some progressive proposal, without it being seen as somehow wrested from the party over its most primal objections, deprives these persons of the visceral sensation of domination -- it cheats them of their victory. So the framing will never be "I'm happy that they've moved closer to what I want," it can only ever be "they've retreated as a direct response to our pressure and collective campaign." The submission of the enemy was the point.

That's what's happening here in Venice. Some might naively argue that the message of the boycotters to Patir's decision is "counterproductive" -- why are they responding with such hostility and negativity towards an Israeli who is publicly stepping forward to demand a ceasefire? But as I often say, what's counterproductive depends on what you're trying to produce. If what you're trying to produce is more Israelis recognizing the imperative of a ceasefire, a collective change in Israeli outlook to alter the current bloody course, then yes this response might be counterproductive. But if what you're trying to produce is a world in which Israelis are stripped of autonomous choice entirely, are no longer in a position to self-determine at all or even be one agential part of a broader collective movement, then the boycotters' choice of action is entirely productive -- Ruth Patir's choice to close her exhibit, precisely because it was her choice, is just as threatening to that vision and equally must be crushed.

And just so we're clear: there's an Israeli parallel to this horrible political approach. There's a significant channel of right-wing Israeli thought which insists that peace can only occur when Palestinians acknowledge they've been beaten, that they've lost. From that position of submission, Israel can impose a new state of affairs that is vaguely and magnanimously promised to be just. But no deal can be reached under any terms if it is a deal made amongst equals, because the very notion of Palestinian equality is incompatible with them accepting they've been thoroughly defeated. Indeed, the whole idea of a deal that's agreed to by the Palestinians itself becomes automatically suspect -- if they agree, then it was not imposed, and if it was not imposed, then there was not truly submission.

But if your politics demands submission on a national or collective level -- Israelis or Palestinians as a whole forced to yield, forced to accept dominance, it is almost by definition not going to be one that actually is centered around equal respect for all. At most, it will promise to magnanimously dole out justice (more than they deserve) onto the vanquished party once it is well and clear that they are vanquished. But the vanquished will not be seen as candidates for equal participation in the future community. Indeed, any efforts they might make to participate -- even in ways that might superficially suggest they are aligned with one's own vision of what just equality might look like -- will only confirm that they have not fully submitted, and must be crushed further. The submission is the point.

To reiterate, this sort of toxic politics is not unique nor does it fully characterize the desires of either pro-Israel or pro-Palestinian actors. But it does seem like this particular campaign in Venice is one whose politics take this form of demanding complete and total Israeli submission above and to the exclusion of all else. And the results are exactly what one would expect.

As They Do

The ongoing fallout of the Dobbs decision, and the way it's made manifest the GOP's extreme and retrogressive anti-abortion priorities, has caused no small amount of soul-searching amongst Republican politicians. We saw, for example, a slew of Arizona Republicans race to disavow their own hand-packed-picked supreme court's decision to resurrect a pre-statehood near-total ban on abortion. Donald Trump also came out and said he opposed a national abortion ban. What should voters make of this about-face?

Nothing. Absolutely nothing. Why not? Because Republicans are, to be blunt, lying. No matter what they say, no matter what press releases they write, no matter what interviews they give, when push comes to shove, they will absolutely either endorse or acquiesce to the most draconian possible limitations on female reproductive autonomy. That's the full truth.

The list of supporting evidence on this is essentially endless, but I'll just give two examples:

Exhibit A: Arizona, where the GOP-controlled legislature -- fresh off their oh-so-pained public squirming over the aforementioned state supreme court ruling -- has continued to block legislative efforts to actually, you know, repeal the offending law.

Exhibit B: Florida, where Senator Rick Scott rapidly backtracked from his own heresies calling for greater moderation on abortion after that state's supreme court reversed decades-long precedent clear the way for abortion bans by clarifying that of course he'd support even a six-week ban if given the opportunity.

These are two among many.

I suspect that over the next few months, we will continue to see more Republican rhetoric that gestures at some sort of "moderate" or "compromise" position on abortion, occurring right alongside more extreme tangible implementations of the right's extremist anti-choice agenda (what's going to happen when the Supreme Court permanently allows states to murder pregnant women in defiance of federal law). Even as rhetoric, it's hollow -- the "exceptions" they promise are nugatory or impossible to implement, the "deals" on offer are to impose unwanted bans on blue states while letting red states be as extreme as they desire -- but more than that they're lies. No matter what they say, no matter what they earnestly promise, no matter what soul-searching they might promise, where Republicans are in charge what they will do is push for and defend the most draconian abortion bans they can possibly get away with.

There's no lever that will get Republicans to behave differently; no weird trick that can change their minds. Where they have power and hold office, this is what they will do. Our only option is to deprive them of that power. No matter what they say, no matter what they believe, anyone who is taking any steps right now to assist Republicans taking or keeping office is tacitly endorsing extreme abortion bans. There's no way around it.

Sunday, April 14, 2024

The Fruit Stand: A Mediocre Artistic Journey (And That's Okay!)

I consider myself a very creative person. But I don't have a lot of traditional creative outlets. I've always had very high expectations of myself, and as a corollary I didn't enjoy things I wasn't "good at". This would be so even if, under any reasonable adjustment for context/age/time/whatever, I was in fact "good at" the thing. I've talked a bit before about my math journey, for instance, and how I quickly self-identified as "bad at math" because it didn't come as easily to me as some other subjects, even though under any objective metric I was actually very good at math.

In the creative realm, this was if anything even worse. We'd get assignments to write a short story in English class, and my parents would always be so proud and want to read mine aloud. I hated that, not because I necessarily disliked the attention, but because I thought all my stories were terrible. I was ten years old, but I was absolutely assessing myself against both the actual books I was reading and the vivid adventure I was playing out in mind. As against either metric, my stories were sorely lacking -- which, of course they were, it'd be absurd if they didn't, but it still was something I found frustrating to point of feeling actual, physical pain.

The same would be true in art class. I liked the idea of art and creation, but there was a huge mismatch between the vivid ideas I had in my imagination and what I was physically capable of transmitting onto a page. I didn't (don't) have great fine motor skills, and every time I'd draw something or make something it would never come anywhere near the mental image I had in mind, and that constant failure was deeply unpleasant.

Of course, some people take that feeling of frustration as fuel to practice, improve, get better. Alas, I'm made of flimsier stuff, and so my takeaway was to instead concentrate on things that I had more of a natural knack for. And while I'm very lucky that I've found things that I both love and which come easy to me, I don't think the overall mentality of just hating doing things I'm not already good at is a healthy one. It's stilted my growth as a person, it has blocked off avenues I'd like to explore, and of course it is a self-fulfilling prophecy in terms of never actually improving or developing new skills I would very much like to possess.

So, in keeping with the art kick I've recently been on, I decided to try my hand at making some art. I set several mental ground rules for myself. The first was simple: it is allowed to be bad. In fact, it almost certainly will be. What I create will not match the image in front of me or in my head. And that's okay. What I'm doing is diagnostic -- a test. What would happen if I tried to make something? What can I do and not do? Is there potential here? Is this enjoyable?

That last point led to the other ground rule: I didn't have to enjoy it. That doesn't mean I was committed to slogging through while hating myself. But I was going to make a good faith effort to complete the projects I started, even if I wasn't getting the immediate "I'm great at this, hurray for me" dopamine hit. It was okay to struggle and not especially enjoy that feeling of struggling, but -- within reason -- I was going to persevere.

I started with this: 

The original model

Just so we're clear: I did not make this. This is a tchotchke my parents got years ago when traveling -- a small model of a fruit stand. Rather, I decided that I would just put this in front of me and try to draw it with a colored pencil set as best I could. I liked the bright colors, it was three-dimensional without being too complex, and it had some "flat" details that I thought I'd be better capable of replicating. The result was this:

"The Fruit Stand"

I will be honest: this is far, far better than I expected, given that I hadn't tried to draw anything more complex than a doodle in twenty years. My approach was very much in the "start with a slab of rock and then remove everything that isn't an elephant" vein: just draw what you see, and nothing you don't. It worked okay: I liked the overall color choice, the yellow and red lettering looks nice, the roof is fine, and I think the ombre effect on the bottom left of the building is decent enough. On the other hand, the small details of the three-dimensional fruit were completely beyond me -- in fact, pretty much all the three-dimensional components other than perhaps the building itself are pretty weak-sauce. I also didn't really like how obvious the pencil strokes were -- they felt so clearly drawn, even in the areas that were not especially detailed at the top of the building (again, my mental metric was basically a photorealistic depiction. Did I expect to come anywhere close to that? No. Did I view anything that fell short of that goal as something to be improved upon? Yes. I told you -- high standards).

There is one part of this drawing, though, that I genuinely like liked: the chalkboard. Ironically, that was the place where I was most intentional in departing from "try to draw exactly what you see", since I didn't have a tool that could "draw" in white over the black chalkboard. Instead, I got the desired effect by under-shading small splotches of the "board" with my black colored pencil, and then vigorously erasing those portions. I had discovered that erasers don't really erase colored pencil marks, but they did create a nice smearing that I think actually evokes a chalk board pretty well.

With one creation in the bag, I took stock as to where to go next. Well, I still have bad fine motor skills and I can't do anything with three-dimensions or tiny details. How about try a version as an abstract? Every detail that was too difficult for me to render, I could just turn into a block! Instead of using colored pencils, this time I'd use magic markers, which I thought would allow for more saturated color that wouldn't look as obviously "drawn" -- an even rectangle of blue, rather than a rectangle with blue strokes scribbled in. That got me this:

"The Fruit Stand" (abstract, in marker)

Despite committing to the concept of an abstract, I had a lot of trouble sticking to it -- I kept on being like "well how do I add this detail", and having to remind myself that the point of the abstract was that I wasn't going to incorporate every detail.

The markers didn't quite yield the even tone I was hoping for. I forgot how much markers bleed (that I was drawing on regular printer paper didn't help). I ended up using the unevenness of the marker to decent effect on the "roof", though I still can't decide whether that was in keeping with or pulling against the "abstract" theme. The red marks on the yellow (to evoke the lettering) was not as successful as I had hoped, and I wasn't able to replicate the chalkboard effect at all. That said, I think the "fruit" was much better, if only because it was at least a choice to render it as geometric shapes rather than (failed) literal depictions.

Ultimately, though, I thought the markers didn't work out as well as I hoped. So I tried the abstract again, but this time switched back to colored pencils:

"The Fruit Stand" (abstract, colored pencils)

I think this was a net improvement, though it still had the same benefits and drawbacks of the colored pencil medium vis-a-vis the markers. Once again, I loved the effect I was able to get on the chalkboard. Once again, I didn't find the red hash marks on the yellow to work as well as they did in my head. And once again, I didn't really love the lack of saturation in the colors. It worked okay in the dirt and wood chalkboard stand, because those felt like they should be more textured anyway, but even there that felt like I was again straying away from the idea of the abstract. For the most part, the colored pencils made it too obvious that this was a drawing.

I returned once more to the core question: how I could improve on the problem areas constrained by limited resources and skillset? At this point, I felt like I had tapped out the potential for the colored pencils. Instead, for my final iteration, I skipped out of drawing entirely. Instead, I decided to do a collage.

"The Fruit Stand" (abstract, collage)

This version, I think, was the most successful. It is the only one where I think the red marks on the yellow come close to what I hoped to see. The colors are even and fully saturated. The "fruits" all look nice, especially the grapes (on top of the pink bag). I don't like the chalkboard as much as I did with the colored pencils, but it still probably is objectively my favorite part.

Is any of this reaching the full depths of my imagination? No. Is any of it even good? I'll be generous and say that is in the eye of the beholder. Am I proud of what I did? Kind of -- I do like them (all of them), and I'm proud that I saw the project through. I also think the progression from the original model through the "literal" drawing and into different iterations of abstract is pretty neat. But the broader point of this exercise is that not everything has to meet sky-high expectations. Not everything has to be a home run off the first pitch. I'm okay with what I made, and that's okay. And being okay with okay is step for me that I am absolutely very proud of.

What To Make of Trumpist "Genocide Joe" Chants

Yesterday, political observers witnessed the seemingly-odd phenomenon of a bunch of Trump supporters at one of his rallies chanting "genocide Joe" as the former President spoke on current goings-on with Israel, Palestine, and Iran. "Genocide Joe" is a term used generally by pro-Palestinian leftists who think President Biden is complicit in what they deem a genocide of Palestinians in Gaza. So why were Trumpists echoing the chant, given the widespread view that Trump would be an even more full-throated and brutal backer of Israeli policies towards Palestinians?

First, I'll give the obvious answer and the one that I think is right: Trump and Trumpists relate to "genocide Joe" on no deeper of a level than "this is an anti-Biden chant by people who hate Biden, and which seems to tweak off Biden supporters." There's no substance here, no evidence of some important policy shift. The instinctual "let's go Brandon"-ness of it all, and that alone, is enough to make it appealing to Trumpists whose politics run no deeper than Cleek's Law.

That being said, there is something to be said here about the possible injection points of pro-Palestinian politics into the modern conservative movement in general and Trumpism in particular.  There's a superficial consilience, of course, between the claims by more normie libs that the "genocide Joe" leftists are functionally pro-Trump, and the imagery of actual Trump rally-goers adopting the chant. And I also think that the growth of anti-Israel, pro-Palestinian sentiments coming out of the hard right (which comprises, of course, an influential segment of Trump's base) is still being underestimated -- it is a burbling movement that will stay largely under the surface right up until the moment it isn't. 

But it's also worth highlighting something more basic: Trump is really impressionable. Like, almost comically so. He is so devoid of substance that his politics are basically that of a Skinner box rat: he just gravitates towards whatever he feels garners him adulation and/or that which feels painful to his enemies. To that end, it's often occurred to me that one could probably exert an unreasonable amount of influence over Trump's political trajectory just by priming him with the right leading interview questions: "The people sure do love you when you do X!" "Isn't it terrible how Biden and the Democrats are doing Y?" Fill in any X and Y, and I'm pretty confident you could elicit public responses from Trump talking about the greatness of X and the horrors of Y. 

It's no wonder that Trump heard his adoring fans chant "genocide Joe" and immediately agreed with them: "They’re not wrong, they’re not wrong. He’s done everything wrong." Everything can found in that simple passage: the people who love him are right, Biden's done everything wrong. "Genocide Joe" is being chanted by the people who love him; it is a chant that communicates that Biden is doing wrong; and that's all it takes to earn an endorsement.

It's one reason why I think even relatively conservative Jews are idiots if they think Trump is a reliable friend. He's not a reliable friend to anyone, he's far too mercurial for that. And likewise, it does make me think that if the right people manage to whisper the right things into his ear at the right time -- give him the relevant positive feedback loops, make that lizard-brain develop the right set of associations -- one really could see Trump adopt a very different tone on Israel and Palestine than what we've seen so far.

Friday, April 12, 2024

West Bank Settler Terrorism Continues Unabated

At least one Palestinian has been killed and 10 have been injured in an attack by Israeli settlers in the West Bank village of al-Mughayyir, the official Palestinian news site Wafa reports.

Footage shows cars and homes torched, allegedly by the settlers, as the IDF fails to gain control over the situation.

The settler raid of the Palestinian village comes amid a manhunt for a 14-year-old Israeli boy who has gone missing from a nearby illegal outpost.

Palestinians say the settlers have used live fire against them, in addition to hurling stones, damaging dozens of homes and cars.

There's a lot of discussion about when and in what contexts we can use terms from Jewish oppression (e.g., "pogrom") to describe contemporaneous acts of oppression by Israel against Palestinians. I won't wade into that debate directly; all I'll say is "child goes missing and locals respond with a wave of violent attacks on local religious outgroup" is a chapter of history I am familiar with.

Assorted Thoughts on the Chemerinsky Incident

If you're in my neck of the internet woods, you've no doubt heard about the incident in Berkeley where a small group of students conducted a pro-Palestinian protest in the backyard of the Dean Erwin Chemerinsky's house

To make a long story short, Dean Chemerinsky had invited the 3L class over to his home to celebrate their impending graduation (he normally invites the 1L class at the start of their law school journey, but since this crop of graduating students spent their 1L year mid-pandemic and so wasn't able to come, he invited them before graduation instead). The local SJP chapter issued a demand that Chemerinsky cancel the dinner, distributing a poster showing a caricatured image of the Dean with a bloody knife and fork over the message "No dinner with Zionist Chem while Gaza starves." Chemerinsky refused to cancel the dinner; so some of the students RSVP'd and, once they arrived at his home and were welcomed into his backyard, stood up with a microphone and began delivering a speech about Gaza. Chemerinsky and his wife (Prof. Catherine Fisk) asked that they stop and leave, as guests in their home; the student with the microphone initially declined, asserting she had a "First Amendment right" to engage in her conduct. At one point, Prof. Fisk placed her hand over the shoulder of the student to try and take her microphone away (the student has characterized this as an assault -- even going so far to imply it was a sexual assault -- and has indicated she wants to file legal action against the law school). Eventually the students left, the Dean released a statement, and the internet was set ablaze.

From my vantage point, the students' behavior was abhorrent and very possibly a violation of the university's code of conduct (and the notion that they are the victims here is farcical). Beyond that bottom line, my emotional reaction to this story has been stronger than I might have anticipated, and it's worth talking through why. I do have a Berkeley connection, and though I've never met Chemerinsky personally, his reputation for both kindness and brilliance is unrivaled in the academy. I also have former students currently at Berkeley Law, and while I cannot imagine they participated in this fiasco, I would be disappointed and crushed if I found out otherwise.

On a more personal level, I suspect my views on Israel are quite similar to Chemerinsky (two-stater, sharply anti-Bibi but pro-Israel existing), and I also have been known to host students at my house for dinner (typically my small-group seminar students at the end of the semester). I view the dinners as a nice way to cultivate an environment of care and welcoming in the often-impersonal environs of the law school, and as a way of pay forward the sort of collegiate community I was lucky enough to enjoy as an undergraduate to another generation of students. If that gesture of welcoming students into my home were to be exploited in a manner akin to what the students did here, I'd be devastated. Protests like this are exploitations of trust, they rely on and take advantage of the host's unguarded openness and welcoming. We're not screening people based on ideology, we're not making people fill out political questionnaires, we just -- welcome students into our homes, without reservation. To take advantage of that, to extract costs on that openness, invariably leads to more closedness, more guardedness, and more cloisteredness -- a loss for everyone, and one that can and should be mourned (I saw someone argue on social media that if the Dean didn't want to be protested in his own backyard, he shouldn't have invited these students in the first place and instead tried to screen out whichever students he thought might be likely to protest him. That to me bespeaks an almost impossibly short-sighted and narrow attitude that is utterly toxic to the sort of university community anybody should want to cultivate).

Meanwhile, there's the question of "why was Chemerinsky picked for this protest?" That question has two related dimensions: why Chemerinsky, and why this protest (since virtually everyone seems to think that something as extreme as protesting in your host's own household should be reserved only for the most malign and irredeemable actors). Chemerinsky very much views himself as being targeted as a Jew, citing the bloody fork caricature and its resonance with the classically antisemitic blood libel. The immediate demand of the protesters is for Berkeley to divest from Israel; but the law school dean doesn't make investment/divestment decisions, so they're limply left arguing that Chemerinsky doesn't personally support divestment -- true, but a feature he shares with thousands of other members of the Berkeley community who also don't make investment decisions on behalf of the university. He also has beliefs on Israel that, while anathemas to the SJP crowd insofar as he rejects Israel being wiped off the map, are by no means some sort of Israeli maximalist/anti-Palestinian eliminationism and are entirely mainstream amongst both liberals and Jews (and are again widely present in the Berkeley community and beyond). Again, even if one opposes that stance, there is (or should be) a gap between "what we oppose" and "what we deem protest-worthy", and even among those who are protest-worthy, there is (or should be) differentiation as to when and where a protest is justified.

The most specific thing I've seen people point to in justification of "why Chemerinsky" is an editorial he wrote this past October -- just a few weeks after 10/7 -- recounting the antisemitism he's experienced as a Jew at Berkeley in the wake of the Hamas attack. The usual suspects make the usual claims in response: that Chemerinsky's claims about antisemitism are wrong, unfair, smears, conflations of anti-Zionism and antisemitism, and those sins justify what might otherwise seem an obviously abusive overreach of a protest. On that point, one thing I haven't seen commented on much is the deep and dangerous chilling effect this sort of position has (and is intended to have) on Jewish faculty speaking on the subject of antisemitism. I've written on this in the context of academic freedom, but there is a very significant contingent in American and global society who deeply believe that if you are a Jew and you speak on antisemitism in a way that they don't approve of, it is open season -- you have removed yourself from any and all protections (certainly norm-based, possibly law-based) one might enjoy in a liberal, tolerant society. Needless to say, as a Jew whose academic work centers in large part on antisemitism, this is a tremendously dangerous trend for me personally, and so of course I notice when it rears its head in such an explicit fashion.

Those are the more personal reflections I have. But there are a few more scattered issues I've seen that I might as well address here as well.

  • One area where I think the internet breaks our brains is how it interferes with our sense of proportion -- literally, in terms of "how many people are doing/believe in this thing we're upset out, compared to how many don't." The protesters appeared to number about ten students. That's not negligible, but it's also a very small percentage of Berkeley Law's total enrollment. Online, the consensus view from what I'm seeing is pretty strongly that the protesters were out of line here -- and while my internet circles are of course not perfectly representative, my read has been that one has to go pretty far out towards the fringes and randos before one starts seeing folks defending what the students did. But the thing is, even if the breakdown is, say, 80/20 against the protesters, if I'm reading one hundred posts about this event, that means I'm reading twenty people announce they support it. That feels like a lot, even though objectively an 80/20 split is actually extremely lop-sided!
  • The students' claim that her conduct was First Amendment protected is ludicrous save for the sheer moxie of lecturing Erwin Chemerinsky on First Amendment doctrine in his own house. One issue some people have flagged is this dinner being an "official" Berkeley Law event, and asking whether that changes thing insofar as Berkeley Law is of course bound by the First Amendment. But there's less here than meets the eye, because even if we view this as a "government" event, not all government events or property are public forums. Even on the Berkeley campus, areas like the administrative back offices or the classroom when classes are in session are not public forums (hence why a professor could remove a heckler from her classroom without it being a First Amendment violation even where that same speech would be protected from sanction on the campus quad). A professor's personal domicile is, if anything, a clearer case -- if public forum analysis applies at all, it is clearly a non-public forum and so the student's protest is not First Amendment protected once she is asked to leave.
  • Many people have criticized the protest against Chemerinsky in terms of it being "counterproductive". Who is this supposed to persuade? Don't they realize the protesters are the ones who look bad here? Antisemitism discredits the cause! I understand where this sentiment comes from, but I think it is at least partially misguided. First of all, whether it's "counterproductive" depends on what it's trying to produce. If the immediate goal is sympathy from either Chemerinsky himself or even the public at large, maybe it's ineffective. But if the goal is just "make an enemy miserable", then it may be perfectly effective. Second, there are many theories of protest whose model of change does not depend on the protest immediately swaying popular opinion in their favor. Without overstating comparisons to disanalogous contemporary events, we should all at this point understand how a shocking breach of basic social rules and norms can, even where it's immediately the subject of revulsion, generate a series of events that may ultimately redound to the violator's benefit. Ultimately, while it may be that this protest is counterproductive (though again, that depends on what one is trying to produce), I think the immediate declaration of counterproductivity, insofar as it is paired with a more moralistic condemnation of this sort of protest, is a means of eliding a more worrisome possibility: what if morally-contemptible norms violations are in fact quite productive means for certain social groups to achieve their goals? I've said it before and I'll say it again: antisemitism is a productive ideology. It builds things, engenders alliances, and motivates action. And so opposition to antisemitism, or other norm-violative behaviors, must be willing to oppose such actions even when they're productive -- because they often are.
  • Joe Patrice at Above the Law makes clear that he thinks this sort of protest is unjustified, but mentions in passing the "authoritarian" free speech position coming out of the right whereby it is a "free speech violation" if, say, a social media platform blocks or bans you. In many ways, the incident at Chemerinsky's house is the meatspace version of this: Chemerinsky is literally hosting, and a speaker is claiming a First Amendment entitlement to retain access to Chemerinsky's space in defiance of the wishes of the host. It's a bad First Amendment argument as applied to Twitter, and it's a worse First Amendment argument as applied to someone's backyard.
  • I'm certainly not the first person to say this, but part of civil disobedience is accepting consequences. While it's true that a good protest will often be disruptive and a breach of the normal rules of operation, it's also the case that the reason a protest is disruptive and a breach is that it violates normal, enforceable rules. To engage in that sort of breach, but then to act scandalized that the relevant authorities treat it as a breach, is to have one's cake and eat it too. And so I get someone feeling strong enough about a particular issue to say "it's worth it to me to violate this rule and face these consequences." I do not get -- or at least don't respect -- someone simultaneously expecting plaudits for being so bold as to defy the rules and demanding exemption from having those rules enforced.
  • Finally, I'm increasingly tired of the way these sorts of student protesters weaponize their status to act as if it's unreasonable to hold them to basic norms of conduct, or some sort of authoritarian imposition to subject them to consequences that can be wholly anticipated. It's true that, as we age, it's easy for professors to forget that young students are young and are still learning, and are going to make some foolish choices and say some foolish things because they haven't learned better yet. But it's also the case that as we age and our students seem ever-younger relative to us, we can also forget that the students are in fact adults and are perfectly capable of understanding how to behave as well as eminently-predictable consequences of their actions. I am not someone who thinks student discipline has to be overly punitive, and I respect that student conduct officials often find themselves in difficult spots. But unlike other recent Berkeley events, here we know who the perpetrators are; there does not seem to be much reason for why a conduct investigation shouldn't be opened here other than the administration either not wanting to or being scared to. Formal disciplinary responses are not always the first resort or the best resort, but they are a valid resort, particularly in cases where student behavior seems to be at least partially encouraged by a culture where the very idea of facing consequences for breaking rules is viewed as a form of oppression. There are people who basically immediately say student conduct violation related to speech warrants expulsion and anything short of expulsion tacitly assents to the violation. I don't agree with that, but I also don't agree with the view that every student conduct violation should be assessed solely as a "learning experience". Law and graduate students, in particular, are not smol, they are adults, and adults on the precipice of exercising significant political and social authority -- and part of entering into that latter role is accepting their status as responsible actors who can be held responsible.

Wednesday, April 10, 2024

Who Has What Leverage Over Hamas?

Ceasefire negotiations between Israel and Gaza continue to grind along, and Hamas has responded negatively to the latest offer on the table. Which makes me wonder -- what are the leverage points that exist on Hamas that might help pressure it towards accepting a ceasefire deal?

Since I was recently pancakes/waffled on this, I want to clarify that I'm not saying that Hamas is the only obstacle that has or does exist in front of a ceasefire. My position continues to be that neither Hamas nor Israel seems especially interested in a ceasefire deal, and since both parties need to agree, that relative lack of interest represents a significant problem.

That problem, in turn, suggests that making progress on a ceasefire deal may -- at different times and contexts -- require exerting pressure or leverage on Israel and Hamas. If what you actually care about is ceasefire now -- that is, it's not a stalking horse for "keep the war going unless and until my side gets what it wants" -- then one needs a model for how one can, where necessary, pressure Israel to move off certain lines as well as a model for how one can, when necessary, pressure Hamas to move off some of theirs.

For Israel, it's pretty clear what the potential pressure points are -- in fact, there's a superabundance of them. Military aid, international legal rulings, even western protest movements all in various ways are mechanisms through which outside actors can exert pressure to get Israel to change its behavior and agree to things that it might otherwise be disinclined to accede to. There are all sorts of debates we can have about which levers it is proper to pull and what the un/anticipated effects of our decisions might be -- Dan Nexon had what I felt was a very thoughtful post on this -- but it's not especially opaque where the leverage points are.

For Hamas, though, things are a lot blurrier. There is an interesting Foucauldian dynamic at work here where Israel's greater power paradoxically also makes it more vulnerable -- being far more tied into American and global centers of power means there are a lot more touch points between Israel and the international community that can converted into areas for exerting pressure. Power and resistance are two sides of the same coin. But when we're talking about Hamas, it's not clear where those touch points are.

This is not, to be clear, the normative argument one sometimes hears whereby because Israel is more powerful it deserves to bear the brunt of pressure or it has the responsibility to take the leading role in changing course. My point is that even if we wanted to "pressure Hamas", how would we do it?

In a military conflict, military force is of course one answer. Problem one with that answer is that the point of this exercise is to try to end the military conflict, not intensify it. But the bigger problem two is that Hamas doesn't actually seem that influenced by military damage. On any conventional metric, after all, Hamas is enduring catastrophic losses on the battlefield -- the sorts that would under normal circumstances constitute significantly losing a war and seeking to sue for peace. But Hamas doesn't seem especially bothered by its battlefield losses, and doesn't seem to view its military defeats as demanding a change in the status quo.

In any event, our whole goal here is to figure out points of leverage that aren't More War (with Israel, for instance, the American pressure points are more diversified and do not take the form of "do it or we start flattening IDF bases"). So what are they? Who has the leverage points over Hamas, and what are they? We can't withhold military aid we don't have. Withholding humanitarian aid is morally abhorrent (and frankly also has not seemed to significantly affect Hamas' behavior). Do people think protests would work? By whom, and where? Are their nations who have more "touch points" with the Hamas leadership that can be brought to bear? If so, how can they been induced to wield their leverage. And if all of this seems far-fetched or fanciful, don't we have a serious problem?

Of course, some people will accuse me of being naive in thinking that the "ceasefire now" crew actually is interested in a ceasefire; others will no doubt think that even suggesting Hamas is not fully committed to stopping the war is a Zionist apologetic. 

(I need to digress a bit to talk about this story on a proposed ceasefire resolution that got tabled by the Yonkers City Council, because it has strong "In a Nutshell" vibes related to this whole problem. Basically, pro-Palestine groups loudly demanded a ceasefire resolution; pro-Israel groups equally vocally opposed it. After a bunch of negotiations and rewrites, the city council came out with a compromise resolution that called for a ceasefire, release of Israeli hostages, and recognition of both Israel and Gaza's right to exist and exercise self-determination. And the result was that the pro-Palestinian groups switched to opposing the ceasefire resolution because it acknowledged Israel's right to exist, and the pro-Israel groups remained opposed it because it called for a ceasefire. By the end, the only groups that seemed to actually support the ceasefire resolution were mainline liberal Jewish groups, who needless to say were catching fire from both sides of the spectrum.)

All of which was to say that while there are plenty of people for whom "ceasefire" is a talking point rather than an actual goal, I also do think there are plenty of people who really are genuinely motivated to see an end to the bloodshed and an immediate-term resolution that is, if not ideal, then at least tolerable as a holding pattern for building a more durable just peace going forward. For that cadre, we need to have theories and ideas regarding how to dislodge Israeli intransigence and Hamas intransigence. The former we basically have, at least at the ideas level. The latter we don't seem to have even in concept, and that's a problem.

And one more thing just to be clear -- one dimension of why this serious problem is serious is that the inability to influence Hamas' behavior does not justify just indefinitely blitzing Gaza into dust. The only thing worse than dropping bombs on Gaza until Hamas changes its behavior is dropping bombs on Gaza without it having any impact on Hamas' behavior, but just doing it anyway because it's something. The lack of meaningful points of leverage over Hamas represents I think a genuine puzzle for folks working in this arena that I'm not sure how to effectively resolve, but it's something that has to be dealt with by anyone who thinks Hamas has even a share of responsibility for ending the current state of affairs.

Tuesday, April 09, 2024

You Can't Accept Me If I Reject You Second!

There are many instances where I think BDS protests are misguided, problematic, or even morally abhorrent. But I'm not sure I've ever seen a case that more exemplifies BDS in its most petty, penny-ante self-aggrandizing form than this story coming out of San Francisco's Contemporary Jewish Museum, where seven anti-Zionist Jewish artists withdrew accepted pieces from a scheduled exhibition:

In a statement posted Friday on Instagram, the artists said they responded to the museum’s open call for works “to make visible the existence of anti-zionist Jewish artists in California.” They anticipated that curators would reject their pieces, which included explicitly pro-Palestinian messages such as “Free Palestine.” Several of the artists openly identified as anti-Zionists in their statements. They were surprised when guest curator Elissa Strauss accepted pieces by seven of the artists in the collective.

Following this "surprise" acceptance, the anti-Zionist artists fired off a list of demands in an obvious attempt to concoct an excuse to withdraw from an exhibition they never intended to join in the first place: 

In addition to demanding that CJM divest from pro-Israel funders, the artists sought extraordinary control over their artwork. They requested that the museum amend the terms they agreed to by giving them the ability to modify or withdraw their works from the exhibit at any time, and to have autonomy over wall texts, artists statements and other framing. (In their Instagram statement, the artists wrote that they were concerned about “potential curatorial both ‘sides-ism’” and about the possibility that their pieces would appear next to ones that “grieve Jewish deaths without acknowledging the genocide of Palestinians.”)

The museum, which communicated to all the artists in the exhibit that their work might be "presented in proximity to artwork(s) by other Jewish artists which may convey views and beliefs that conflict with [their] own", refused to accede to these demands, and the anti-Zionist artists subsequently announced their withdrawal from the exhibition.

So just to recap what went down:

  1. A bunch of anti-Zionist artists submitted works to a Jewish museum convinced that they would be summarily rejected, because of course the Zionist Entity would never permit their bold dissenting vision to see light of day.
  2. The museum accepted their proposals because it wanted to present a range of contemporary Jewish voices, which included anti-Zionist perspectives.
  3. The artists, clearly stunned to see their bluff called, followed up by demanding the museum kick out pro-Israel stakeholders and that their work not be displayed in the proximity of the Zionist artists.
  4. The museum refuses the demands, and the artists storm off in a manufactured "huff" -- in quotes because they very clearly did not want to be part of this exhibition to begin with and were hoping to make some sort of statement about Zionist censorship, only to have the tables turned and have it made quite evident that they were the ones trying to thwart representation of the diverse range of Jewish perspectives.
The museum, incidentally, will display prominent blank spaces where the artists' works would have hung, to symbolize their non-presence and draw attention to their decision to withdraw from the relevant community, which I think is fabulous. It also more concretely demonstrates the value of responding to the stilted, cloistered demands of BDS with a genuine commitment of openness and receptive engagement. Had the museum simply summarily rejected the artists, they would have no doubt issued one of those classic disappointed-ecstatic statements about how they were being censored and the hegemony of Zionist in the Jewish world leaving no room for alternatives. Instead, they were caught bluffing, it being obvious that they were the ones seeking censorship and narrowness, and that their non-presence in this community event was entirely a function of their own choices. There's a lesson to be learned here; though I'm unconvinced that many of the Jewish entities who may be faced with similar choices will internalize it.

And for what it's worth, I don't think the Contemporary Jewish Museum was (counter-)bluffing here -- "accepting" the anti-Zionist art pieces only in the expectation that the artists would do exactly what they did and withdraw -- and I hope they weren't. There are a range of Jewish voices on matters of Israel and Zionism right now, and works which are otherwise meritorious but express dissident views should be permitted their place in our communal conversations. Had the works been put on display, I would hope that everyone crowing about how the CJM sure showed those BDSers what's what would have been equally emphatic in defending the CJM's right to include those voices as part of a larger exhibit. Speaking as someone who recently helped organize a collective Jewish event whose contributors adopted a range of views, not all of which I personally agree with, I very much object to the notion that the right standard for inclusion in collective affairs is bounded by my personal ideological preferences. The CJM adopted the right approach, and should be lauded for its commitment to Jewish representation irrespective of a lack of similar commitment from other members of our community.

Wednesday, April 03, 2024

Glass House Cleaning

Anecdotally, the Israeli attack on WCK humanitarian aid workers delivering food in Gaza appears to be a tipping point for some people. On some of the (ostensibly) liberal Zionist forums I frequent, I saw people who just last week were arguing that the entire concept of "proportionality" shouldn't constrain Israel's military response now are shocked and appalled, and they aren't buying Israeli excuses about "maybe we thought a Hamas operative was in the area." Query why this event triggered the shift, but change is change.

The JTA has a story on the reaction of various Jewish institutions to the strike. It breaks down pretty much exactly as you'd expect: the liberals being clear-eyed in condemning the killing, the leftists condemning the killing and situating as part of the broader allegation of Israeli genocide, the centrists expressing sadness for the deaths while obscuring responsibility. And then there's ZOA:

Morton Klein, the president of the right-wing Zionist Organization of America, said that he did not know about the incident before being informed of it by JTA on Tuesday in the early afternoon. He said, “Now that you’ve made me aware of it, obviously I’m devastated that totally innocent people trying to do humanitarian work have lost their lives, I’m sure unintentionally.”

He also said the ultimate responsibility for the aid workers’ death belongs to Hamas.

“I blame Hamas. Every single fatality is blamed on Hamas for launching this war,” Klein said. “In any war you’ll have deaths of civilians that are unintentional. In a war, mistakes are made, targets are missed. if one takes the position that one doesn’t go to war if any innocents will be killed, you won’t go to war and Hamas tyrants will win.”

I happened to read this right at the same time as I read Bret Stephens' latest column on "the appalling tactics of the 'free Palestine' movement." The thesis of his article is that "the mark of a morally serious movement lies in its determination to weed out its worst members and stamp out its worst ideas"; among his examples of the worst members/worst ideas was the infamous statement by a coalition of Harvard student groups, immediately after October 7, which held "the Israeli regime entirely responsible for all unfolding violence."

One notices, of course, that this is exactly -- exactly -- the formulation that Mort Klein adopted vis-a-vis Israel killing the WCK workers: "I blame Hamas. Every single fatality is blamed on Hamas for launching this war." So one might ask if this "member" of the pro-Israel will be weeded out, and if his ideas will be stamped out. As someone who has watched repeated endeavors try and fail to hold ZOA accountable, I can tell you the answer: they're not. Stephens isn't wrong, exactly, when highlighting some of the repellant extremism that sits largely unchallenged in the pro-Palestine movement. But if the mark of a morally serious movement is its determination to weed out one's worst members and worst ideas, the pro-Israel movement is sitting in a terribly fragile glass house.

The Israeli attack on humanitarian aid workers is about more than just the seven innocents Israel killed. It is another boulder on the scale of evidence which overwhelmingly suggests that -- "most moral army in the world" protests notwithstanding -- Israel's orientation towards innocent life in this conflict has been one of cavalier indifference at best, malicious destruction at worst. Protestations that "war is hell" and "don't second-guess the generals" are ringing increasingly hollow as against the near-uniform conclusion of media, eyewitness accounts, NGOs, international observers -- you name it. Some may be biased (but then, so are Israeli government figures and their apologists). But people are entitled to draw conclusions from the reality before their eyes.

(Oh, and you should read the op-ed Jose Andres published simultaneously in the New York Times and Yedioth Ahronoth).