Tuesday, November 21, 2017

On the Necessity of Debating Discrimination

The gods of the internet displayed their sense of humor today. Just as an article titled "Is Anti-Semitism the Only Bigotry That’s Subject to Debate?" crossed my twitter feed, I received an email invite to the Cato Institute's "The First Amendment vs. Anti-Discrimination Law: A Preview of Masterpiece Cakeshop v. Colorado Civil Rights Commission on the Eve of Oral Argument" event (featuring a Cato speaker up against an NAACP appellate litigator).

When it comes to Jews' comparative status as a marginalized group, there seem to be two dueling schools of thought -- completely opposite, yet seemingly unaware of the other's existence. The first will look at a wrong done to Jews and say "they would never say that about any other group." The second will look at a wrong done to someone else and say "they would never say that about Jews." Jews either stand in for perfect protection or unique vulnerability.

Both sides are wrong of course. They would say it about Jews; they'd say it about other groups too. We could all use a dose of humility regarding the pane of glass we cannot see.

The proximate argument, about whether we should "debate anti-Semitism", comes from the fall-out from a left-wing panel at the New School (including several JVP bigwigs and Linda Sarsour) discussing antisemitism, and the university's offer to have Tablet Magazine organize its own panel to provide an alternate perspective (Tablet spurned the offer in sharp terms).

Clearly, at least some of the sturm und drang here stems from a pretty naked obfuscation about what it means to have a "debate" on anti-Semitism. Obviously, debating "is anti-Semitism bad" would be offensive. But it's absolutely necessary to debate "what is anti-Semitism -- what is its definition, what are its contours, what effects does it have, what falls in and out of its ambit?"

'The latter form of debate is obviously perfectly valid -- I do it all the time. And, it should be unnecessary to add, such debates are had about other forms of bigotry all the time. We know this precisely because sometimes we do see attempts to suppress such debates under the guise that even recognizing the existence of a debate is tantamount to justifying the bigotry itself. And I'm hardly confident about how certain issues of importance to the Jewish community will fare if we are too quick to run to "even having a debate with the likes of you legitimizes bigotry."

From my vantage, we live in a world where a great many people have the wrong idea about "what is anti-Semitism" (and, for that matter, "what is racism", "what is sexism", "what is transphobia", and so on). Consequently, I want people to change their perspective on those issues -- and a great way to do that is by having and promoting debates and discussion. It strikes me as a spectacularly misconceived appraisal of the status quo vantage to think that people's default assumptions about anti-Semitism -- formed without debate, discussion, or deliberation -- are well-formed and in-line with what we take to be necessary to facilitate Jewish equality in social and political life.

Thursday, November 16, 2017

On Trusting White People, Redux

Ekow Yankah has a column in the New York Times about whether his children will be able to be friends with White people. People are reacting with the usual levels of charity and grace, and so I thought it might be worthwhile re-up this post I wrote on the subject back in 2008. It was inspired by the following passage from W.E.B. Du Bois' Darkwater (1920), responding to the question, from a roomful of students, "Do you trust White people?"
You do not and you know that you do not, much as you want to; yet you rise and lie and say you do; you must say it for her salvation and the world’s you repeat that she must trust them, that most white folks are honest, and all the while you are lying and every level, silent eye there knows you are lying, and miserably you sit and lie on, to the greater glory of God. 

Wednesday, November 15, 2017

Calling a Moratorium on Attacking Linda Sarsour

It's back-to-back big media David. Fresh off yesterday's call in the Forward for a "Democratic Hillel", today I'm in Haaretz urging Jews to lay off the histrionic attacks on Linda Sarsour.
Linda Sarsour is not perfect. There is plenty she has said and done that is the valid subject of critique, and on anti-Semitism, in particular, she has much to learn. But she is not the monster she is made out to be, and the level of vitriol directed her way rings eerily familiar. To wit:

Linda Sarsour is a lot like Israel.

No doubt neither would appreciate the comparison. But it fits. Both have done genuinely objectionable things, ones which it is perfectly proper to call out. But in both cases, there is something about them that causes people on the internet to go absolutely wild and lose all sense of perspective and proportion.

And in both cases, there is not a lot of mystery about what that "something" is.
Incidentally, "Linda Sarsour is a lot like Israel" is my entry in the "how can I get everyone on the internet to hate me?" contest.

Tuesday, November 14, 2017

Time for a Democratic Hillel

I have a new column for the Forward on why Hillel International needs to become a democratic organization. In other countries, most notably the UK, Jewish student organizations are run by the students themselves, with national elections yielding national leaders who set (when necessary) national policies (in the US, the recently revived American Union of Jewish Students is seeking to promote a similar model).

Hillel stands out for just how undemocratic it is -- its national leadership structure is almost wholly unaccountable to the students it purports to serve, leading to a sizeable democracy deficit and reasonable questions about whether its more controversial decisions (e.g., in applying the Partnership Guidelines) are actually legitimately representative of the will of young Jewish students. If these decisions were made by elected student leaders, they'd both be more likely to reflect the actual views and concerns of young Jews, and have political credibility and legitimacy as the authentic expression of Jewish democratic preferences.

Monday, November 13, 2017

#NeverIsNow is the ADL at its Best

I just got back from the ADL's "Never is Now" summit against antisemitism and all other forms of bigotry and hate. My relationship with the ADL is somewhat complicated, though on the whole I'd characterize myself as a friendly gadfly. I've said nice things about them when they're doing their job right, and I've been sharply critical of them when they're screwing that important job up.

That said, it was the ADL staffer who is probably the most common recipient of my ... let's call it "constituent concerns" (to be clear -- it's never her who is the problem, she's just my primary point of contact) ... who invited me to the conference as her guest. So while I've had my differences with the ADL along with my points of agreement, I've never found them unreceptive to critique and conversation.

And I have to say, this conference was exactly what the ADL should be.

The ADL is in a bit of a tough spot right now. If you talk to people on the left, they'll say the ADL is basically a tool of the establishment, acting as if the "alt-left" is equivalent to the alt-right, embedded in a pattern of policing left-wing Jewish activism while dancing around the fact that vicious hate and bigotry have penetrated the mainstream, elected-office level right.

Meanwhile, on the right, they're trying to push the narrative that the ADL is basically a liberal advocacy group (Jonathan Greenblatt was part of the Obama administration, didn't you know?), a partisan political organization that's barely distinct from the NJDC, committing the cardinal sin of attacking the hatred and bigotry of figures even when they call themselves pro-Israel.

As far as I'm concerned, the liberal critics are closer to the mark than the conservative ones, though the ADL isn't quite the hopeless establishment toady they're sometimes made them out to be. Still, it has been my observation that the fear of these right-wing attacks causes the ADL to get a bit gunshy in clearly and unequivocally (a) calling out right-wing bias when it isn't simply the province of neo-Nazis and (b) making clear that it will stand up for and protect the right of liberal Zionists (particularly young liberal Zionists) to express their Zionism in ways that include often sharp criticism of Israeli state policies.

But say what you will about the ADL generally: based on what I saw at this conference, they were hitting the right notes.

The first breakout session I attended in the afternoon was about "What young Jews are saying about Israel and why we have to listen." The tenor of the panel was generally one of quieting alarm rather than raising it: young people are not abandoning Israel in droves. They are not crazed radicals (they are a bit resentful that a small sliver of students on the extremes dominates news coverage and the public perception of young college students). They do often have serious concerns and criticisms about Israeli policies -- as is their right -- and any engagement efforts which don't give those criticisms room to breathe will and should fail. And while BDS certainly was raised as an issue (as it should), it didn't dominate the discussion and there was no effort by the moderator or by anyone else to turn the conversation in that direction.

Perhaps the most powerful moment in that panel was when one of the panelists spoke of how J Street U students were treated at a UN anti-BDS conference (a non-Jewish speaker at the conference called them all antisemites -- to roaring applause -- and then they were told they should go to Gaza and be beheaded by Hamas). That story got audible gasps from the room. I don't think many of the people in attendance had heard about that happening, and it very vividly illustrated the degree to which certain conservative elements in our community have been abusing young liberal Zionists in the name of "pro-Israel" advocacy.

At other times, conference speakers were quite explicit in linking the rise in antisemitism and other forms of hatred to the Trump candidacy and administration. Threats were illustrated not just with sound bites from Charlottesville (this was the first time I'd actually heard the chant "Jews will not  replace us", and it was genuinely chilling) but with excerpts from Donald Trump speeches. It never devolved into a bash-the-GOP-fest -- nor should it have -- but there were no kid gloves around the fact that the Republican Party coalition, as currently constituted, is part of the problem.

Several other panels I witnessed were likewise simply outstanding. A conversation on diversity within the Jewish community (including African-American Jews, a Canadian-American member of the Bene Israel community, and the head of the Ugandan Jewish community) was superb and nuanced on an issue near and dear to my heart (a side note -- while I think there could have been more diversity across the different panels, it did not seem like all the ethnic minorities were shunted into this one "diversity" panel).

During the afternoon plenary, a conversation featuring American University student body President Taylor Dumpson, former White Supremacist-turned-counterextremism activist Christian Picciolini, and Whitefish, Montana Rabbi Francine Roston stole the show. Dumpson (the first African-American woman to hold her position) spoke powerfully about the vicious harassment she received upon her election, and how the response of her community and the ADL offered a model for activism and effective anti-hate response. Piccilioni gave a deeply personal account of his path into and eventually away from White Supremacy, and gave hope to those who believe that any remotely cohesive effort against racism and bigotry needs to think about how to get racists and bigots to ... do something else (he also had the funniest line of the conference when he said he'd been "working with the ADL for twenty-five years ... if you count the period where they included me on lists of top White supremacist leaders").

Overall, it was a conference that had its eye firmly on the ball. It wasn't a left-wing hatchet factory, but it wasn't shy about its progressive orientation. It wasn't going to give BDS a free pass, but it wasn't going to act as if that was the be-all-end-all of young Jewish communal experience. It was proud of Jewish diversity, but it was also well aware that we have a lot of work to do inside our own synagogues and centers to make sure our spaces are welcoming and equitable to Jews of all hues.

It was, in short, the ADL at its very best. Kudos to them, for putting on a great conference.

Friday, November 10, 2017

Great Moments in Juxtaposition

Mila Kunis described a visit to her childhood home, without sparing mention of the antisemitism she had experience. And so we get this fantastic bit of editorial juxtaposition:
Some residents of Chernivtsi, including people who knew the Kunis family, took offense at her unemotional description of the trip and at the 2012 interview, Komsomolskaya Pravda reported.
“We still have a large Jewish community, so talks of ‘anti-Semitism’ are nonsense and insulting,” one resident, Lyudmila Skidova, was quoted as saying. 
Last year, the words “death to the Jews” were spray-painted on the city’s main synagogue.
The absence of Jews may not stop antisemitism, but it's not a prerequisite for it either.

Monday, November 06, 2017

Chaos is a Ladder

Following a new WSJ report indicating that Russian twitter bots backed Donald Trump from the very beginning (when his campaign was a joke, rather than today where it is a far, far crueler joke), Kevin Drum asks what motivated them to step in so early. Here are his guesses:
  • It was just a test. Social media manipulation was new to the Russians too, and they figured Trump might make an interesting test of how effective it could be.
  • In the early days, you had to be very, very cynical about the United States to think that a race-baiting blowhard like Trump had a chance to win. Maybe Putin knew us better than we knew ourselves.
  • The Russians never really thought Trump had a chance of winning. He just seemed like a good vehicle to sow a bit of random chaos.
  • This whole thing started at a fairly low level by some guy who’d been pushing to “really try out this social media stuff.” His superiors finally got tired of him and told him to knock himself out. This low-level guy, it turns out, was a big Trump fan for personal reasons we’ll never know.
I vote "chaos". It's hard to remember now, but back when it seemed impossible for Trump to win the prevailing wisdom was "but even if Trump doesn't win, his candidacy could do lasting damage to our democratic fabric." That was the goal -- that Trump actually won the damn election was an improbable bonus. It's the same story behind Russia trying to horn in on BLM protests in Minnesota, or setting up both anti-Muslim protests and counterprotests in Texas. The goal is to destabilize, to make people trust each other less, to blur who is actually taking what position and instead confirm that everyone is the worst version of what their enemies imagine them to be.

And they've been extremely good at it. We were far more vulnerable to this form of manipulation than we ever dared imagine -- not the least because of rapid epistemic silo-ing and a profound mistrust of "mainstream media" sources (not to violate Broder's Sacred Principle, but the problem isn't symmetrical -- it was massively accelerated by the complete cloistering of the mainstream right into the Fox/Breitbart/Tea Party ideological echo chamber. There's just no parallel to this amongst mainstream progressives).

But yeah. Russia no doubt has preferences with respect to outcomes -- it's not an accident that they clearly wanted Trump to win and Hillary to lose -- but they also benefit simply from unleashing chaos and watching what develops. Trump made for an excellent agent of chaos; we've already seen the damage he has caused to previously-bedrock principles along issues like rule of law or (formal) racial egalitarianism.

Score a big point for Putin then. Well-played.