Saturday, September 03, 2016

The Swarthmore Anti-Semitism Experiment

After swastikas and anti-Semitic graffiti appeared at Swarthmore College, William Meyer penned an excellent column that lucidly lays out the difficulties many Jews have in getting anti-Semitism taken seriously. I don't have much commentary (beyond my now-cliched pointer to my "Playing with Cards" article), but I did want to promote it. And the following line, in particular, deserves excerpting:
The greatest barrier to confronting anti-Semitism in 2016 seems to be proving that it exists.

Wednesday, August 31, 2016

Alabama's Pro-Muslim Bias

Eugene Volokh has the scoop on a fascinating lawsuit filed by the ACLU in Alabama, alleging state religious discrimination ... against Christians and in favor of Muslims. Here are the alleged facts:
Plaintiff Yvonne Allen is a devout Christian woman who covers her hair with a headscarf as part of her religious practice. In December 2015, Ms. Allen sought to renew her driver license at the Lee County driver license office, where officials demanded that she remove her head covering to be photographed. When Ms. Allen explained her religious beliefs, the County officials responded with a remarkable claim: They admitted that there was a religious accommodation available for head coverings, but contended that it applied only to Muslims.
Assuming these claims are accurate, there is no question in my mind that the practice constitutes religious discrimination.

Yet it seems implausible, to say the least, that local governmental officials in Alabama are systematically biased in favor of Muslims and against Christians. So what gives?

One possibility is that we're seeing a weird confluence of dutiful bureaucratic obedience with a genuine belief in Fox-inspired "Muslims get special rights!" nonsense. That is, the relevant civil servants assume that in our decaying politically correct world Muslims get special rights that everyone else doesn't, and being faithful public officials they are simply following (what they take to be) the law.

But another way of thinking about this reflects something I've long wondered about religious and cultural accommodations (I could have sworn I've written a post on this, but I can't find it) -- what if the accommodation itself is motivated by some sort of degrading or stigmatizing belief about the accommodated party? Let's say one thought of a particular religious outgroup as being especially backwards and primitive. So one offers an "accommodation" to that faith that makes it easier for them to pass their GEDs. That accommodation could itself be a form of discrimination against the religious group -- a public message that they, as a collective, are the sort of people too dumb to pass high school on their own. And so here, an accommodation for Muslims-only could make sense to the extent that it marks them as other/deviant, whereas a Christian seeking the same accommodation threatens the communal sense of Christians as normal, Western, and integrated.

This type of wrong is by no means especially "conservative" in nature. It is more or less the same instinct motivating the left-wing Jewish college professor who fell over herself to be friendly to the her head-scarf wearing bus-mate when she assumed she was Muslim, but went ice-cold upon finding out that she was in fact an observant Jew. There are slight differences in valence, but in either case the "accommodation" is really a way of demarcating otherness or strangeness.

In any event, to think of Alabama as favoring its Muslim residents over its Christians is amusing enough on its own to be worth flagging. Again, the case itself seems pretty straightforward, at least on the facts alleged.

Monday, August 29, 2016

Not a Conversion, But a Unification

The Hebrew Israelite community -- an umbrella term encompassing a variety of Black Jewish organizations and movements -- has just selected Chicago Rabbi Capers C. Funnye as its official Chief Rabbi. The Forward has a good overview of this historic event and the current status of Hebrew Israelites in the United States.

Rabbi Funnye is a well-known figure in both the Hebrew Israelite and American (Ashkenazi-dominated) Jewish establishment (I was well aware of his congregation when I lived in Chicago during law school). He is also relatively unique in the Hebrew Israelite community for having undergone a "formal" (Conservative-overseen) conversion to Judaism. Many members of the Hebrew Israelite community do not do this, primarily because they already see themselves as Jews and they bristle at the suggestion that their Jewish pedigree needs validation or ratification from other (predominantly White) Jewish institutions. A similar controversy often exists in African Jewish communities, who frequently see conversion requirements as disrespecting their own historical identification as Jews.

Yet there is no doubt that Rabbi Funnye's conversion has assisted him greatly in building bridges between his Jewish community and the "mainstream" one populated by people like me. Which got me thinking. There are not that many Jews, and there are not that many people seeking to identify as Jewish. Our default stance should be to embrace diverse populations which want to join our community, and at one level a "conversion" is a great formal ritual to make clear on all sides that regardless of what you look like or where you come from, we are all equal as Jews. Yet I am sympathetic to the notion that there is something askance about forcing a predominantly Black Jewish community, that has been practicing Judaism for multiple generations and fully identifies as Jewish, to submit itself to Jewish approval by predominantly non-Black institutions. What gives us the right to form that hierarchy? And what does "conversion" say about their prior status as Jews?

So it seems to me that it should be a Jewish priority to come up with an alternative. Not a conversion, but a unification -- a ritual or practice whereby persons from Jewish communities that have historically been on the margins of normative Judaism, who perhaps have not always been recognized as Jewish by normative Judaism, can have the opportunity to declare themselves and be declared part of the broader Jewish family. Of course, this is not an open-door proposal -- unification requires, if not agreement by all parties on all aspects of what Jewishness means, then at least consent by both parties that they mutually understand the other to be Jewish in a sufficiently robust way so as to be part of a single community.

Were I a Rabbi -- and lord knows I'm not -- this is what I would be spending my time developing. I think along the same lines regarding the children of interfaith couples where the mother is not Halakhically Jewish but the child has been raised Jewish and fully identifies as a Jew. For that child, it seems to me that the Bar or Bat Mitzvah could just as easily serve the role of a "conversion" as well: it is, after all, the moment where a young person assumes the responsibilities as a Jewish adult, and so a young person who was not born a Halakhic Jew but who is willing to assume those same responsibilities can, in my view, reasonably be said to have been accepted into the community as a Jewish adult.

Judaism is strengthened by our multiculturalism -- the vast montage of human diversity and experience which is enveloped under the Jewish umbrella. We should be proud that we are a faith which for thousands of years (and through no small adversity) continues to exercise a pull on persons of widely divergent histories. I have no desire for Judaism to become a proselytizing faith. But in a world where different faiths and ethnicities interact and intersect like never before in human history, it is time for Judaism to adjust in how it embraces persons who -- diverse though their heritages may be -- are united in their identification as Jews.