Sunday, April 18, 2021

Margin Call Review

A few days ago, my wife and I watched Margin Call. It's a movie I had oddly never heard of until last week -- oddly, because it got very strong reviews and had a pretty glittering cast including Kevin Spacey, Jeremy Irons, Demi Moore, Stanley Tucci, and Zachary Quinto.

Margin Call is set over roughly 24 hours at a nameless Wall Street firm that understands the economy is slowing down and is in the middle of massive layoffs. After the head-chopping is complete, a young analyst (Quinto) realizes that his now-former boss (he was among those laid off) was on the cusp of discovering a massive flaw in the firm's risk exposure model. Basically, one bad day (and plenty of bad days appear to be coming) and the firm could go entirely bankrupt. The rest of the movie takes place over roughly the next 24 hours, as the powers-that-be in the firm race to figure out how to liquidate their toxic position before the music stops and save the company.

Notice I didn't add "without crashing the economy." The economy is going to crash -- that's a given. The only question is who will tip the first domino, and the logic is that if the firm is the one to set off the panic, it will incur the least in the way of losses. There isn't much in the way of remonstrating that the firm, insofar as it is significantly responsible for the coming economic crisis, should be the one to face the consequences.

I've been reading over the past few days about the problem of "bad coherence" -- where a system hangs together and makes internal sense, and all the players' decisions are justifiable and sensible within the broader architecture of the surrounding structure, but because the structure itself is toxic justifiable, sensible, and reasonable decisions are morally terrible. Margin Call does a wonderful job illustrating that problem. One reviewer said, and I agree, that the film is significantly stronger because of how it doesn't moralize -- there are little in the way of "greed is good!" speeches or mustache-twirling about how they're the kings of Wall Street and the peasants can get wrecked.

To the contrary, the firm's internal functioning is in some ways admirable if one forgets what it's in service of. The relatively junior analyst who discovers the problem isn't met with a lot of chest-thumping about how he's just a kid and who-does-he-think-he-is -- his bosses (all the way up to the CEO) take him seriously and pretty rapidly react to the problem as a problem. There's no shooting of messengers. The firm certainly views all of its cogs as expendable, but it can get away with it because if the cogs agree to be expended they know they'll be handsomely rewarded and if they try to maintain their dignity in any way they'll be crushed. The closest thing the film has to a comedic through-line is the company's desperate attempts to find Quinto's old boss, who they just laid off (and whose phone they unceremoniously shut off) -- not to apologize, but so that they can pay him an obscene sum of money to sit quietly in a room for the next day and not spill the beans about the "problem" and thus ruin the firm's liquidation strategy. He initially doesn't want to cooperate -- not because he actively wants to screw the firm, but he certainly isn't in the mood to do them any favors either. But eventually he yields, because the choice is between getting a ton of money for doing nothing (when he's just lost his job) or having the firm blow up his entire severance and healthcare package. Some choice.

Hell, even when it came to how they handled the layoffs, my wife basically whistled and called it "textbook".

But the result, again, is mostly "rich people stay rich and avoid consequences". Plenty of people at the firm will lose their jobs, but they're mostly lower-level grunts who -- again -- are receiving giant cash payouts if they agree to pay ball. The surrounding economy is going to enter a crisis, but that's accepted as part of business -- economies sometimes crash, the feeling goes, and there's no profit in going down with the ship. The film relentlessly constructs a vise where any opportunity for anyone to display a little personal dignity, or pro-social tendency, is shown to be ultimately futile and counterproductive -- and it does it without marking any of the characters as sociopaths. An impressive feat indeed.

Anyway, I highly recommend this movie. It's a tight, quiet thriller that deserved more attention than it got (or maybe it got plenty of attention and I'm just oblivious. Either way).

Tuesday, April 13, 2021

Building Treehouses with Cuomo

The big story today is that New York Governor Andrew Cuomo allegedly complained about campaigning on Sukkot by saying, referring to Orthodox Jews, "These people and their f***ing tree houses." The quote is anonymous and as yet uncorroborated; Cuomo denies having said it.

In response, Josh Blackman wants to revisit the question of whether Gov. Cuomo's pandemic restrictions, while facially neutral, should be seen as motivated by animus against (Orthodox) Jews. He clearly means this as a gotcha -- "Under TrumpLaw (which may have expired on January 20), this statement would be fair game to understand Cuomo's animus." Of course, under the view Blackman successfully pushed in Trump v. Hawaii -- the actual TrumpLaw -- this statement could not be used to infer animus even for legislative enactments that were explicitly characterized as targeting a given religious group. Hypocrisy cuts both ways. That said, the way the Court has been treating religious animus in the pandemic cases compared to Trump v. Hawaii suggests that TrumpLaw really was just TrumpLaw -- albeit not quite in the way Blackman means. 

But for my part, there is no gotcha: I am perfectly willing to say that, if the statement is accurate, it is absolutely valid evidence that can be used to demonstrate Cuomo has acted with discriminatory animus towards Jews. And I suspect one would be hard pressed to find liberal commentators who'd disagree on this. Certainly, deep and abiding loyalty to Cuomo isn't going to be giving anyone much pause on the principle of the matter.

Speaking of hypocrisy, although the quote is anonymous (and denied) Blackman says flatly at the start of his post that he's making an exception to his general belief that anonymous press accounts sharing negative stories about politicos should be viewed with skepticism. Instead, he comes right out and says that this skepticism extends to quotes about Republican politicians only. "I take far more seriously negative coverage of Democrats in an institution like the Times. The editors would not slip up on a quote like this." This is impressively brazen. For my part, I think major newspapers like the Times are generally professional and so generally can be given a fair amount of credence when they run anonymous quotes like this, no matter who the subject is (though of course that doesn't mean they'll always get everything right). But if one takes a dimmer view of the professionalism of the mainstream media, then I'll just say that if one thinks that folks of the Times' social milieu could not be suckered into running an undersourced quote that reflects badly on Andrew Cuomo because of their latent political sympathies, then one really doesn't understand where New York politics are right now. I'm not saying the Times would run a hit job on Cuomo. I am saying that, if they were the sort of institution prone to running hit jobs, Cuomo very much would be towards to the top of their list.

How to treat a very offensive but also anonymous-and-denied quote also relates to the final note in Blackman's post -- a swipe at the ADL. The ADL "awarded Cuomo the highest honor in June 2020. Yet, as of the close of business, neither ADL nor its President has said a word about Cuomo's remarks." To the extent that the ADL didn't race out with a comment right away, I suspect that is almost assuredly because, unlike Blackman, they are not going to take an unsourced anonymous quote that Cuomo denies as gospel sight unseen, at least not without talking with Cuomo and his office first.

From my vantage, the quote seems plausible -- Jewish "friends" notwithstanding, Cuomo seems like exactly the sort of asshole who'd say something like this and think it's okay because he has many Jewish friends. And as I said, I trust the Times' general professionalism more than Blackman does. But given the close relationship the ADL has with the governor's office in New York, I neither find it weird nor offensive that the ADL is deciding to its own due diligence before commenting. 

Finally, it's hard to read the ADL comment outside of the shadow of Jonathan Greenblatt very publicly calling for Tucker Carlson's firing from Fox for promoting the White Supremacist "Replacement Theory". I've seen some conservatives appallingly cite this as proof of the ADL's liberal bias as opposed to the ADL rightfully calling out an extreme case of White Nationalist thinking embedding itself in mainstream conservative institutions. Blackman concludes by saying that he "will have much more to say about ADL and anti-semitism in due course"; perhaps he will address this then. But I hope in doing so he recognizes that there's simply no comparison between the ADL waiting to verify an anonymous quote compared to calling out Tucker Carlson for openly promoting White Supremacy where everyone can see it on national television.

Monday, April 12, 2021

The National Review's Conservative Case for White Disenfranchisement

"I need to find a New Yorker so I can justify this whole pro-slavery stance I've backed myself into."

I pity The National Review sometimes. Most right-wingers these days don't feel the need to justify their positions; owning the libs is reason enough. But it is the National Review's job is to put a respectable face on contemporary conservative priorities which are in no way respectable. They try their best, but in their brave efforts they end up painting themselves into some pretty cramped ideological corners.

Take, for example, Georgia's new experiments in blatant voter suppression. This initially yielded Kevin Williamson coming flat out and asking "why not fewer voters" -- might it not be good for there to be fewer but "better" voters? Of course, few, if any, if Georgia's proposals to suppress the vote have anything to do with making the rump remaining electorate "better" -- unless, I suppose, the best voters are the ones who can stand in line for three hours without food or water without collapsing or, better still, had the wisdom not to reside in a neighborhood with such long lines to begin with. Of course, Williamson's definition of "better" has nothing to do with being informed and everything to do with "demographically more likely to vote Republican" -- raise the voting age to thirty, not, say, tests of accurate political knowledge.* Remember when William Buckley said "I would rather be governed by the first 2,000 people in the telephone directory,” he said, “than by the Harvard University faculty." Ah, the memories.

Anyway, despite widespread mockery, the conservative intelligentsia wasn't ready to let this one go without a fight. Their next gambit was to attack the entire idea of majoritarian democracy because, and I kid you not, they claim that under "pure" democracy we had Jim Crow and slavery -- two institutions  that were, shall we say, rather famously not committed to pure democratic enfranchisement. But again, even if we take the argument on its own terms, none of the proposals states like Georgia are putting forward would have done anything to check against the abuses of Jim Crow -- if anything, they'd have helped more firmly entrench it. That's obvious once one remembers that the laws Georgia is pushing today are the spiritual successor to Jim Crow, which also used tightly crafted nets of facially "neutral" laws whose mixture of known and desired disparate impacts and biased "discretionary" enforcement in order to maintain a dominant White majority electorate. If one's argument is that it's justified to limit the franchise in order to prevent a democratic (or "democratic") majority from entrenching White Supremacy, you're not making an argument for voter ID laws or for raising the voting age to 30 or for indirect elections of Senators or anything on the GOP's wishlist. The voters you'd have to stop from voting, in this hypothetical justification, are run-of-the-mill White people.

So, I wonder, is that the National Review's new position (quite a ways distant from the position they took at the time)? That the proper response to White Supremacy in the America in the 1960s (and onwards) is to systematically deprive White people of the franchise?

I'm dubious. But alas, such is the position they've backed themselves into.

* Which, to be clear, would also be a terrible and undemocratic idea. However, the reason that Williamson doesn't back it isn't because it's terrible and undemocratic, but because it's terrible and undemocratic in a way that might hurt the electoral prospects of contemporary Republicans, which is the only actual motivator here.

Friday, April 09, 2021

The Pleasant Surprise of the Biden Administration

Joe Biden has set out a muscular, progressive agenda.

This has come as a surprise to some people, particularly those on the leftier edge of the party, who thought Biden would simply be an extension of Third Way Clintonism and were despondent over what they assumed was a guarantee of four years of anemic faux-progress.

But what's most surprising to me* is that we're actually seeing some of these leftier folks acknowledge the pleasant surprise. More and more, they're not dismissing what Biden's doing, they're not pooh-poohing it with "both parties are the same." They're admitting that Biden has been far better than they anticipated.

We saw this shift first, I think, when it came to the COVID stimulus bill. A couple of people certainly lapsed into reflexive Eeyore-ing, complaining that the $1.9 trillion bill wasn't bold enough or expansive enough or was worthless without the minimum wage increase. But most people, including those on the left, recognized that it was in fact a B.F.D.. It probably helped that Biden did not let the GOP tie him knots with endless delay disguised as "negotiating". Biden made it clear that he learned the lesson of the Obama years on that front: if the GOP wants to get onboard with a popular bill, lovely, but he's not going to get himself mired in a political bog for months in a futile effort to make Susan Collins vote for an inferior bill.

The early days of the Biden administration are a vindication for the persons who saw him, not as a "moderate" or a "progressive" figure, but as a party figure. Joe Biden has historically aligned himself with the middle of the Democratic Party. As the Democratic Party has shifted left, Biden has shifted left too. And that, we should say, is to the credit of folks like Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren, who have done great work in pushing the conversation left in the context of being Democrats (as opposed to in the context of smirking about how Democrats are worthless).

The team is coming together. It doesn't mean everything will be perfect -- it never is -- but it is coming together, and it's getting stuff done.

* My version of being surprised by Biden adopting a progressive agenda was definitely Terry McAuliffe's tenure as governor of Virginia, where he was just way better than I think anyone could have anticipated ex ante.

Wednesday, April 07, 2021


Last we encountered the "Alliance for Constructive Ethnic Studies" (ACES), they were pushing fabricated evidence and wild screeds against "critical race theory" in a failed attempt to derail the California Ethnic Studies Model Curriculum after it was reformed in accord with tremendous efforts by a range of California Jewish (and non-Jewish) organizations.

Now they're back in action, and this time their target is California's new draft Mathematical Framework. What horrors are contained inside? Let's look!

The first draft of the California Mathematics Framework is out for review, and it includes as a resource "A Pathway to Equitable Math Instruction," a guide that labels teaching practices like "addressing mistakes" and  "focus on the right answer" as "white supremacy culture."

This is critical race theory.

This is discrimination. 

(Is this "critical race theory"? Nope, not going to get sucked into that).

Unfortunately, as was the case in the ESMC debacle, we are given only the thinnest possible citations to the primary sources for the alleged offending content. The link to the CMF draft goes to a website offering a thirteen chapter document, all in separate documents, comprised of hundreds of page, with no indication of where in the morass the "Pathway" document is included. The link to the Pathway itself, for its part, goes to a site that contains five separate documents, again totaling hundreds of pages, with nary a clue as to where this language about "addressing mistakes" might be found. All of this, I suppose, is left as an exercise for the reader.

Well, I may not be a math expert, but I have gotten familiar enough with the strategies of ACES and its friends to know better than to accept what they say on faith. So I went in search of this resource and this language, to see if it is as scary and offensive as they say.

I want to begin with some good news: unlike the Ethnic Studies case, ACES and its allies do not appear to have completely fabricated the inclusion of the putatively offensive material. Congratulations, ACES! This is a big step forward for you as an organization, and you should give yourself a hearty pat on the back.

Alas, if we ask for more than "not fabricated" and stretch all the way out to "not abjectly misleading", things get dimmer.

Start with the CMF draft. From what I can tell, the section they refer to (where the Pathway document is "included as a resource") is on page 44 of chapter two (lines 1010-13). Here, in its totality, is what's included:

Other resources for teaching mathematics with a social justice perspective include... The five strides of Equitable

That's it (The website "" is titled "A Pathway to Equitable Math Instruction"). It is mentioned, unadorned, in the "other resources" conclusion -- and as far as I can tell, nowhere else. Wowzers. I can feel the racial divisiveness cracking up from here.

One thing I'll observe on this is that often times one hears critics of "critical race theory" (or whatever random buzzword they're using today to connote "scary left-wing idea with a vaguely identity-politics kick") say that their problem isn't that the idea is included, but only that its indoctrinated -- it's not one perspective of many, it's the only perspective on offer. This protestation was always rather thin -- the many many bills banning "critical race theory" are decidedly not about ensuring viewpoint diversity -- and one sees just how hollow it is here. The raw, unadorned inclusion of the Equitable Math resource -- as part of a broader whole, not even quoted from directly -- is too much for these people to tolerate. This is not about ideological heterodoxy. This is about censoring ideas, full stop.

But maybe Equitable Math is such an awful or inane document that it would be wrong to include it, even as one resource among many. The way it's described, after all, makes it sound like Equitable Math is a group of hippies saying "2+2 = 4 is the white man's answer, man! Fight the power!" Is that what's happening? Is this a fever dream of post-modernism where nothing is true and everything is permitted?

Once again, I had to dig for myself to figure out where this content was so I could see it in context. The answer appears to be the first document on the site, titled "Dismantling Racism in Mathematics", on pages 65-68. Do they deny that there are such things as "right" answers in math? No: "Of course, most math problems have correct answers," but there are math problems (particularly word problems, but also data analysis) that can be interpreted in different ways that yield different "right" conclusions, and students and teachers should be attentive to that possibility. Do they say one should never "address mistakes"? No again, but mistakes should not simply be called out flatly but rather used as "opportunities for learning" with an emphasis on building on what the student does understand to lead them to recognize what they misapprehend.

I don't teach math, obviously, but there are many occasions where I'll say "such-and-such is the doctrinally correct answer -- but if we look at the problem from this other vantage, doesn't this other position become more plausible?" So when the Equitable Math site suggests, as an alternative to obsessive focus on the one correct answer, classroom activities like " Using a set of data, analyze it in multiple ways to draw different conclusions" -- well, that doesn't seem weird to me. Certainly, as someone who is also trained as a social scientist, I can say confidently that it's quite valuable to anyone who has seen how the same dataset can be deployed by different people with different priors to support different agendas.

Even more than that, the suggestions around "addressing mistakes" resonate with how I try to teach in my classrooms. Sometimes my students say something wrong. When they do so, for the most part I don't say "bzzzt" and move on, instead I try to guide them to the correct answer by having them unpack their own thinking. There's a lot of "I see what you mean by [X], but suppose ..." and ask questions which hone in on the problems or misunderstandings latent in what they're saying. And eventually they get there, hopefully without feeling like they've just been put inside an Iron Maiden for daring speak up. 

Admittedly, I've never thought of what I'm doing as "dismantling White supremacy" -- I just viewed it as good pedagogy. But then again, that's kind of what I've always thought when asked about such subjects -- we act as if there's this deep magic to fostering equity and inclusion in the classroom, when really it's employing the basic strategies of being a good teacher, one of which is declining to engage in a measuring contest where you prove you know more than the student does. Obviously I know more than the student does. I don't need to prove anything. So if they say something wrong, I do not gleefully pounce on them for it, I do my best to build on what they do know to get them to a position of right. Is that so outrageous?

Finally, ACES in its tweet identifies one other area of crazy-lefty-craziness in this resource: "the incorporation of 'Ethnomathematics'". What does that mean? They don't say, correctly surmising that fevered imaginations will produce something far worse than anything they might quote. So I'll do the quoting for them (this comes from page 8):

Center Ethnomathematics: 

• Recognize the ways that communities of color engage in mathematics and problem solving in their everyday lives. 

• Teach that mathematics can help solve problems affecting students’ communities. Model the use of math as a solution to their immediate problems, needs, or desires. 

• Identify and challenge the ways that math is used to uphold capitalist, imperialist, and racist views. 

• Teach the value of math as both an abstract concept and as a useful everyday tool. 

• Expose students to examples of people who have used math as resistance. Provide learning opportunities that use math as resistance.

I know, I know -- we're all going to pitch a fit about challenging "capitalist views". But apart from that, this seems ... very normal? We all know, to the point of cliche, that a barrier to getting kids interested in math is that they fail to see how it's useful to them or "in the real world". So they advise that math be taught in a way that resonates with real world experience. And likewise, sometimes, for some people "in the real world", math can feel like an enemy (think "am I just a statistic to you?"). So figure out ways to name that and challenge that. For the most part, "ethnomathematics" just reads as a particular social justice gloss on "being a good teacher", as applied to teaching in diverse communities.

Now perhaps one disagrees with these concepts as pedagogical best practice. I'm not a math teacher, I'm not going to claim direct experience here. But that goes back to the intensity of the backlash -- that these ideas need to be banned, that they are outright dangerous and unacceptable and neo-racism. Can that be right? Surely, these ideas are not so outlandish that we should pitch a fit about their being (deep breath) single elements of an 80 page document which is itself part of a five part series being incorporated as a single "see also" bullet point in the second chapter of a thirteen chapter model state framework. Seriously? That's where we're landing? That's what's going to drive us into a valley of racial division and despair?

It's wild. The people engaged in this obsessive crusade to make Everest size mountains over backyard anthills are nothing short of wild.

Big Media David: On the JDA and Not Calling Things Antisemitic

I have a new column in Haaretz on the Jerusalem Declaration on Antisemitism and, in particular, on the need for its backers to actually use it call things antisemitic (not just use it to call things not antisemitic). It is in many ways an expansion on my last post, but for a more popular audience.

I want to be clear though that I don't view the JDA as an enemy. My fondest hope for this column is that it convinces a large cluster of JDA signatories to band together and send a statement to Bristol University of the form: "FYI? David Miller is exactly who we mean when we talk about antisemitism operating under the guise of 'criticism of Israel'." I think that would be a very helpful intervention, and perfectly aligned with the JDA's text. But the thing is, they have to do it -- they can't just say it could be done consistent with the JDA.

Wednesday, March 31, 2021

Focusing on What Is versus What Isn't Antisemitism

A good definition needs to do two things. It needs to tell you what a concept is, and it needs to tell you what a concept is not. But these two requirements are not equally weighted. Most definitions focus primarily on the former. A dog is a four-legged mammal of the species C. lupus etc. etc. Such a definition is primary concerned with avoiding false negatives -- ensuring that all the entities which are dogs are identified as dogs. A definition that focuses inordinately on what a dog is not -- a dog is not a cat, a dog is not a building, a dog is not a rock, and so on -- would normally be quite weird. If we saw a definition of taking that form, our most likely inference would be that there had been a significant problem with false positives -- people calling things "dogs" that were not.

As with dogs, so too with antisemitism. A definition of antisemitism needs to tell us what is antisemitic, as well as what isn't. But if the discourse is weighted too heavily towards the latter, it is fair to draw the inference that the primary problem the definition is seeking to grapple with is one of false positives -- things being called antisemitic that are not, in fact, antisemitic.

In terms of text, the new Jerusalem Declaration on Antisemitism is 2:1 weighted in terms of what antisemitism is. It would be manifestly unfair to say the text doesn't speak on that subject. But in terms of its public reception -- how it is being presented to the public, and how it is being pitched by its defenders -- it is being seen as an intervention predominantly concerned not with telling us what is antisemitism but with telling us what isn't. This Slate article in praise of the JDA by Dov Waxman and Joshua Shanes -- both of whom are friends of mine -- focuses almost exclusively on this angle. The JDA is superior to IHRA because of what it doesn't call antisemitism, because it allegedly avoids false positives that might result from the IHRA definition. Omer Bartov's defense of the JDA in Haaretz sounds in similar notes: the JDA is "vital" because IHRA "has been used, perhaps contrary to the intention of some of its authors, to stifle any biting criticism of Israel and its policies." The JDA, we're told, wouldn't do that -- it would result in fewer things being called antisemitic, (hopefully by) stopping fraudulent or abusive claims.

Importantly, alleged overinclusion is not the only basis on which one could criticize IHRA. It is entirely possible to find fault in IHRA for being underinclusive as well -- false negatives rather than false positives. For example, I've regularly promoted the Nexus antisemitism document as holding the advantage over IHRA in that it captures cases where social conditions are antisemitic -- it is the only document that can explain why a Kosher slaughter ban is antisemitic, for example. If I'm right, this is a claim that the Nexus is preferable to IHRA because it can do more rather than do less.

But the JDA isn't being pitched that way. Its advantages are not presented in terms of being able to accurately call things antisemitic in cases where previously we could not. Its advantage is framed almost exclusively in terms of stopping people from calling things antisemitic when they previously could. In this, David Hirsh sadly is on to something when he says:

The new efforts are not about fighting antisemitism; they're about fighting efforts to fight antisemitism. 

They're not about standing with Jews against antisemitism, they're about standing with antisemites against accusations of antisemitism.

That's overstated. But again, it's on to something. The JDA's main impact, thus far, has not been to assist in fighting against antisemitism. It has not been used, for example, to help rally people who'd otherwise be ambivalent to forthrightly call out David Miller as an antisemite (Yair Wallach, a JDA signatory, accurately notes that IHRA hasn't been effective at this task either. Still, it would do wonders for the JDA's rep if its signatories came together to forthrightly say "this guy is an antisemite"). There have been almost no cases I've seen where someone has said "before the JDA, we could not reliably identify A B and C as antisemitic, but now we can." Almost entirely, the discourse has been the opposite: "before the JDA, people were incorrectly identifying X Y and Z as antisemitic, and now we can stop them." So it isn't wrong for people to infer from this discourse that the JDA is motivated primarily because of fears of false positives -- that the major problem in antisemitism discourse is that we're calling too many things antisemitic when we shouldn't be.

This feature of the JDA almost certainly explains why several unabashed antisemitic figures -- Richard Falk, Jackie Walker, Yvonne Ridley -- have been eager in its praise. They understand the JDA's practical function as part of the "fight against the fight against antisemitism," even if (to quote Bartov) this is "contrary to the intention of some of its drafters." It does little good to cite specific language in the JDA that would indicate their pleasure is misplaced, anymore than the language in IHRA that insists upon context-specific inquiry is doing much to stop folks citing IHRA for sweeping, context-free declarations that everything and its mother is antisemitic. The issue isn't the text, the issue is the symbol. And the JDA, as a symbol, is being seen as a banner for those who think the problem with antisemitism is that we're labeling too many things antisemitic -- the fight against calling things antisemitism, rather than the fight against antisemitism itself.

Friday, March 26, 2021

A New Challenger Approaches!: Evaluating the Jerusalem Declaration on Antisemitism

Yet another antisemitism framework has emerged, with the release of the Jerusalem Declaration on Antisemitism (JDA) signed by around two hundred Jewish Studies scholars. This, of course, comes rapidly on the heels of the Nexus document on antisemitism (of which I was one of the drafters), meaning we now have two new antisemitism frameworks standing as potential complements (or alternatives) to the venerable IHRA definition.

The other day I made a handy table summarizing the similarities and differences between the three definitions. That was designed to be a pretty straightforward, "just the facts" presentation. But I also want to give my evaluative judgment on the Jerusalem Declaration in comparison to IHRA and Nexus (I wrote more on the Nexus document, specifically, in this post). Obviously, the fact that I was a Nexus author means I have a dog in this hunt, though I don't view these definitions as in competition with one another. And likewise, I don't have direct knowledge of the background and genesis of the Jerusalem Declaration in the same way I do for the Nexus document -- some of my comments will be based on inference and speculation. So take them with however much salt you think is appropriate.

This is a somewhat long post, divided roughly into three parts. First, I address differences in the orientation of the JDA compared to the other frameworks -- who wrote it and who their audience is. Second, I examine the JDA's relationship to IHRA -- particularly IHRA as a symbol of (depending on who you ask) rallying against antisemitism or creating toxic policing of discourse on Israel -- and how that is mediating the reception (both positive and negative) of the JDA. Finally, I address where the JDA is substantively different from the other frameworks and where it isn't. Likewise, I identify a few important areas that neither the JDA nor IHRA address that are included in the Nexus document: the inclusion of conditions (alongside attitudes and behaviors) as a potential form of antisemitism, recognizing and objecting to the practice of routine and reflexive dismissal of antisemitism claims, and addressing how Jews who take the "wrong" (however defined) position on Israel see their Jewish identity denigrated or denied -- a form of harassment that especially targets Jews of Color.

I. The JDA's Orientation

At the outset, there are a few core differences in the orientation of the JDA in comparison to the Nexus document -- who wrote it and what it is targeting. The JDA has more of a European center of gravity, whereas the Nexus is more American; the JDA is primarily endorsed by academics, whereas the Nexus document was geared more towards "community leader" sorts. Obviously, these are generalizations -- the JDA has American signatories, the Nexus document had academics involved (such as myself). But I think these broad-stroke differences exert a noticeable impact in terms of what is and isn't prioritized, and who was and wasn't sought to be "included" in the definition.

In particular, the JDA seems to have been very invested in coming up with a definition that could get non- or anti-Zionists onboard alongside at least liberal Zionists (getting a document signed by Susannah Heschel and Richard Falk is no mean feat!). In doing so, the JDA gives the non-Zionist contingent a few very big wins: it expressly declares BDS not antisemitic, and it more or less declares calls for the dissolution of Israel to be not antisemitic (the constraint is that any alternative polity that is envisioned must be one that protects "the right of Jews in the State of Israel [or, I imagine, its hypothetical successor] to exist and flourish, collectively and individually, as Jews"). The Nexus document, by contrast, had as its target audience (more or less) the median American Jew -- envisioned as a Biden-style Democrat who identifies as broadly Zionist and pro-Israel but has his or her fair share of criticism. Accordingly, the Nexus doesn't speak directly on BDS, implicitly judging it by the other standards in the document, and contains a more robust defense of the right of Jewish self-determination than is present in the JDA (it is notable that challenging Israel's "right to exist" is viewed as antisemitic by an extremely wide consensus of American Jews -- more so than almost any other issue). 

The JDA's audience is thus simultaneously broader and narrower than the Nexus': it reaches non-Zionist activists for whom it is exceedingly important that challenging Israel's existence as a Jewish state not be labeled antisemitic, but in doing so it may have language that's a veritable poison pill for rank-and-file Jews (at least in the US). The Nexus document was meant to be a viable set of guidelines for a Democratic administration that would let them handle antisemitism controversies while avoiding obvious shoals and pitfalls. The JDA (and I think this is true even if one agrees with it on its merits) would be more likely to provoke controversy simply because of its explicit language on BDS and its position that denying Jewish self-determination in Israel is not necessarily antisemitic. The JDA is I think more valuable as a tool of public discourse than something that could be "adopted" by a particular organization, especially (say) the Democratic Party (and the JDA is quite explicit that it is not meant to be adopted or codified as any explicit legal tool).

II. The Symbolism of IHRA

Speaking of provoking controversy, another defining feature of the JDA is its explicitly antagonistic posture towards IHRA. The Nexus document sought to position itself as primarily an interpretive resource -- a complement where IHRA was vague or incomplete (as Jonathan Jacoby put it, IHRA is the Mishnah and Nexus is the Gemara). The JDA, by contrast, is very much taking aim at the king. As I mentioned in my post on the Nexus document, IHRA has taken on such symbolic weight that one can generate almost reflexive support and opposition for a given initiative simply by presenting as a challenge to IHRA, and that's definitely occurring here. People who hate IHRA are cheering the JDA simply because it's the "anti-IHRA", even when their own conduct would seemingly be obviously indicted under the JDA's definition. As noted above, Richard Falk is a signatory even though he's endorsed materials which seem to cleanly fall under categories the JDA deems antisemitic. Jackie Walker praised the JDA too even though her antisemitism likewise would be covered by the JDA. It's doubtful that such persons are backing the JDA as a mea culpa for their past misconduct; rather, they see the JDA as a counter to IHRA's putative "weaponization" of antisemitism and endorse it on that basis. If or when the JDA does get cited to label them as antisemitic, I suspect they will be just as dismissive as they've been in the past. 

Arguably, then, just like IHRA there is a risk that the JDA will be "applied" in a purely symbolic manner divorced from its actual textual mandates. Just as IHRA's language insisting that context matters has been roundly ignored, one can easily imagine persons accused of antisemitism "citing" the JDA for the blithe retort that "criticism of Israel is not antisemitic" while disregarding language in the JDA which arguably encompasses their particular "critique". As always, one suspects the most important interpretive canon in accept or applying any definition of antisemitism will be the overriding principle "me and my friends are not antisemitic."

The hegemony of IHRA's symbolism doesn't just afflict the JDA's defenders. IHRA's advocates also have gotten so invested in the importance of IHRA as a marker for "taking antisemitism seriously" that they are often unwilling to recognize IHRA has quite a few serious gaps and ambiguities. The core definition itself is nearly useless ("A certain perception of Jews, which may be expressed as hatred toward Jews" -- what does that mean?), and the illustrative examples, while helpful as far as they go (and IHRA itself says they only go so far as to be cases which "could, taking into account the overall context," be antisemitic), are significantly underinclusive even leaving aside IHRA's relative lack of guidance on what "context" can be used to assess whether any given speech or behavior that abuts one of the examples actually is antisemitic. As a symbolic gesture where a given organization says "we care about antisemitism", IHRA can stand alone (in large part because for that function it doesn't matter what IHRA says). As an actual substantive tool for identifying antisemitism, IHRA needs to be expounded upon, and that is a task that (in different ways) both the Nexus document and the JDA attempt to tackle.

Unsurprisingly, I prefer the Nexus' approach of not directly trying to overthrow IHRA but rather fine-tune, calibrate, and direct it. I have no desire to undermine the symbolic importance of IHRA, but I very much have an interest in alleviating the very real gaps and shortfalls present under any honest reckoning with IHRA's text. Even still, if I'm being honest I suspect that the JDA will prove more influential than Nexus simply as a function of polarization. The people who blame IHRA for creating a toxic atmosphere around antisemitism want something that directly challenges it. The people who are basically content with the way antisemitism discourse has proceeded around IHRA will stick with it, without seeing the need for modification. Even if substantively the Nexus does the best job of filling the pitfalls and potholes in IHRA while representing a vision of fighting antisemitism that aligns with the median American Jew, the seemingly inexorable pull of polarization will drive people into the arms of either IHRA or anti-IHRA (which is to say, JDA).

III. Substantive Similarities and Differences Across the Frameworks

You might have noticed that the above analysis actually doesn't concentrate that much on the actual substantive differences between the three antisemitism frameworks. One reason for that is that, as my table illustrates, there are fewer differences between them than one might guess from the heated nature of the JDA and IHRA's reception. Certainly, it is fair to focus on the areas where the definitions depart -- that's what should determine whether one prefers one over another -- but that focus can overshadow the significant agreement in a large set of cases regarding what is antisemitic amongst all three frameworks. All agree that criticism of Israel can be antisemitic insofar as Israel is a Jewish institution (and thus none indulge in the tritely true but banal point that "Judaism and Israel are not the same thing"), all agree that criticism of Israel is not always antisemitic, all agree that "tropes" (variously worded) are an important feature of antisemitism, and all agree that notions of Jewish collective responsibility for alleged Israeli misdeeds are antisemitic.

What are the key differences? I've mentioned two already: IHRA and Nexus both consider denial of Jewish self-determination rights to be antisemitic, while the JDA seemingly does not; and IHRA and Nexus don't speak specifically on BDS, while the JDA expressly says it is not antisemitic. These are both significant. BDS is a well-known third rail in Jewish politics, and Nexus' "strategic ambiguity" (to put it uncharitably) on the question is an attempt to traverse a cliff the JDA eagerly dives off. Likewise, as noted above the "Israel has no right to exist" position is one on which there is almost unrivaled Jewish consensus regarding its antisemitic character, so the JDA's dissident position here is risky indeed.

Beyond those two issues (and putting aside any nitpicking one can do about phrasing or word choices), the other big departure I see in the JDA is that it explicitly says that "double standards" are not antisemitic, whereas IHRA says they are. The Nexus tries to take a middle position here, agreeing that double standards are antisemitic but refusing the simplistic argument that any time Israel is concentrated on or even "singled out" in a discrete case that is evidence of a double-standard (as I've argued, AIPAC "singles out" Israel -- is that antisemitic? Of course not). The JDA's rejection of including "double standards" likely stems from the view that this language has been particularly abused by right-wing zealots who argue that essentially any Israel-critical activity that does not simultaneously tackle the entire world is per se antisemitic. That notwithstanding, the JDA's dismissal of double standards as even a potential form of antisemitism seems clearly incorrect. Disparate treatment -- treating likes unalike -- is perhaps the closest thing there is to the paradigm case of discrimination and it'd be simply weird for antisemitism to stand alone in not including this very intuitive case. If one can subject Jews or Jewish institutions to different standards than other comparable actors in global affairs without it being labeled "antisemitic", you've created a loophole you can drive a truck through.

It is also important to flag a group of important components of antisemitism that are found only in the Nexus definition and are not present or discussed in either IHRA or the JDA. The first is that the Nexus definition is the only one which considers certain social conditions (on top of behaviors or attitudes) to be cases of antisemitism: specifically, those conditions "that discriminate against Jews and significantly impede their ability to participate as equals in political, religious, cultural, economic, or social life." I lobbied very hard to include this language, and in some ways I think it is the single most important point in Nexus' favor compared to other frameworks. Ironically enough (given that the Nexus document is nominally limited to the Israel case), the inclusion of this language is why the Nexus document is probably the only framework of the three which could explain why a proposed ban on Kosher slaughter would be antisemitic -- it does not fall within any of either IHRA or JDA's examples, but it would represent a social condition which "significantly impede[s] [Jews'] ability to participate as equals" in European society. Understanding antisemitism as not just a set of attitudes or behaviors but as a state of social affairs better aligns antisemitism with emerging understandings of racism and other forms of oppression, all of which have dedicated considerable attention to understanding inequality at least partially in those terms.

The second inclusion in Nexus not seen in the other frameworks is an acknowledgment of the epistemic antisemitism that occurs when Jewish claims regarding antisemitism are reflexively or cavalierly dismissed. The so-called Livingstone Formulation, where claims of antisemitism can be immediately brushed off by claiming they're actually attempts to "silence criticism of Israel," is one of the primary mechanisms through which Jews are impeded in their ability to be treated as valid and viable claim-makers in public discourse. Here, too, recognition of this practice as a form of antisemitism aligns antisemitism with other forms of oppression where it has been well-acknowledged that these sorts of reflexive dismissals are themselves manifestations of racism, sexism, or what have you (as in the infamous and ubiquitous "race card" retort). The opening entry of the Nexus definition is decisive on this point: "All claims of antisemitism made by Jews, like all claims of discrimination and oppression in general, should be given serious attention" -- which is not to say automatic acceptance, but not immediate eye-rolling dismissal either. Neither IHRA nor the JDA address this issue -- IHRA probably wasn't thinking about it at all, and the JDA it's fair to assume includes a good number of stakeholders who are at least sympathetic to the notion that antisemitism claims are regularly abused and so need tighter policing.

The final major feature of Nexus not found in its compatriots is an acknowledgment of a particular type of antisemitism that targets Jews for having the "wrong" view on Israel, at which point their status as Jews is called into question. Rudy Giuliani claiming that he's "more of a Jew" than George Soros is a high-profile case here. But the importance of including this as a form of antisemitism stemmed from the way in which this sort of marginalizing rhetoric is especially likely to be deployed against Jews of Color, who regularly are assailed as being "fake" or "lesser" Jews (even by non-Jews!) if they deviate from an imagined proper or correct Jewish standpoint on Israel. The Nexus document accordingly recognizes that "denigrating or denying the Jewish identity of certain Jews because they are perceived as holding the 'wrong' position (whether too critical or too favorable) on Israel" is a form of antisemitism, and I can say that language was included in specific recognition of dynamics one increasingly sees on social media where JOCs have been subject to brutal and persistent harassment along this exact dimension. It is a recurrent failing of Jewish efforts on antisemitism that we often are not thinking intersectionally -- and so the discrete experiences or problems faced by, e.g., Jewish women, or Mizrahi Jews, or Jews of Color, as Jews are overlooked or not incorporated. I'm sure the Nexus document can still improve on this front, but I am proud that it made at least a step in the right direction.