Friday, February 05, 2016

It's Terrible How Fugitives Have To Hide From the Law

CNN gives us another entry in my "the UN is worthless" file.
A UN rights working group has found that Wikileaks founder Julian Assange has been arbitrarily detained by being forced to hole up in the Ecuadorian Embassy in London to avoid arrest. Assange, who is wanted in Sweden for alleged sex offenses, has been in the embassy for three and a half years.
Forgive me if I don't see either the "arbitrary" or the "detention." It's not arbitrary since the principle that the UK will respect extradition requests from Sweden is hardly some weird legal anomaly. And it's not detention since Assange can leave whenever he feels like being accountable to normal judicial processes just like everyone else. Admittedly, this does not account for the age old legal norm that accused rapists should be able to walk the earth freely while completely ignoring judicial summons. So it's fortunate we have a UN group to remind us that process is for peasants.

UPDATE: Good analysis from Carl Gardner. This is just a joke.

Wednesday, February 03, 2016

I Suggest a New Strategy: Let the Goyim Win

One of the most troublesome anti-Semitic stereotypes extant in the world today is what I have referred to as the myth of Jewish hyperpower -- that Jews are all controlling, world-dominating figures capable of bending even the most powerful state, civic, or global institutions to their will. Anti-Semitic hatred, as Phoebe Maltz Bovy so aptly pointed out, is not just about people who hate Jews, it also frequently is about people who consider themselves to be oppressed by Jews.

The reason its troublesome isn't because of its direct effects -- though they are indeed significant -- but because it is so difficult to counteract. Successfully fighting the charge is to confirm it; the only way to disprove Jewish hyperpower is for Jews to lose. Which we often do. Nonetheless, the perception of overbearing Jews dominating conversations with their constant cries of anti-Semitism creates and maintains a reality of silenced Jews with genuine issues of anti-Semitism perpetuallly suppressed.

In Ha'aretz, Mordechai Levovitz has a truly abysmal column on the "Creating Change" fallout. The column's failures are all the more striking because it is exceptionally evident he's earnestly trying to write a good column that is attentive to the issues in play. I provide that caveat because bad arguments can be made without bad motives, and this is I think a shining example. So let me make myself clear from the get-go: this post is not being written because Levovitz elected "to publicly critique a united Jewish response defending Israel." It's being written because the substance of his critique is nothing short of a disaster.

Levovitz's thesis is straightforward: The Jewish community's response to the Creating Change fiasco -- first in protesting the cancellation of the A Wider Bridge/Jerusalem Open House event, then in objecting to the event speakers being driven off the conference stage -- "unintentionally promoted the much more nefarious anti-Semitic trope that Jews wield disproportionate power to get what we want."

Surely, this has to be the moment where that argument breaks past parody. Jews: So powerful, people have to physically drive them off rather than just having demands that they be forbidden from speaking in the first place accepted on face! So powerful that sometimes prominent LGBT voices will even condemn such heckler's vetoes after the fact!

It's not, to be clear, that Levovitz approves of the efforts to silence queer Jewish groups or chants of "From the River to the Sea, Palestine Will be Free." He just offers no other responsive option to the Jewish community other than to capitulate to them. If the problem is that Jews are perceived as wielding "disproportionate power to get what we want", the solution is simply to never get what we want if non-Jews object. On the initial cancellation of the event, Levovitz writes:
While I disagreed with this decision, I came to terms with it by thinking about how hard it would be to throw an LGBTQ Jewish party in an Orthodox Jewish Conference. Maybe there was still work to be done before throwing a party. 
Pat Buchanan couldn't have written that better. Perhaps, instead, one can reasonably expect that a queer conference would not conflate simply being present and speaking one's voice with rubbing everyone's face in it.

It gets worse when he talks about objections to the "From the River to the Sea" chant:
Why complain about a chant unless you are realistically asking that it be banned?
Why indeed! What choices are there between approving of a chant and censoring it? Put aside Levovitz's basic misunderstanding of free speech jurisprudence ("Censoring this chant would likely result in a first amendment suit that is an assured loss" -- well, no, because Creating Chance is not a public actor and thus is perfectly entitled to regulate speech in its private proceedings), have we really reached the point where it does not occur to anyone that one can object to speech content without trying to ban it? I have to think the answer is no; and that what's really going on here is that Jewish objections are inherently framed in the most coercive, authoritarian way possible. Levovitz is not alone here, and here's not alone among Jews either. Far from being feckless provocateurs slinging anti-Semitism charges left and right, the image of the hyperpowerful yet oversensitive Jew is a stereotype we've deeply internalized as a community, to our own peril.

It just goes on and on like this. On the immediate aftermath of the reinvitation of A Wider Bridge/Jerusalem Open House:
The abrupt policy reversal was cynically viewed by people at the conference as powerful Jews wielding their influence to get what they want. When I arrived at the Conference, this was the assumption of almost everyone I spoke with. It’s not surprising. For thousands of years, the trope that has been used to justify the murder of millions of Jews was not Israel, but the idea that we control the media, the banks, the government and the major institutions. So, yes, there was an ugly anti-Semitic feeling in the air, but no, it had less to do with Israel, the occupation, or “intersectionality”, and more to do with the feeling that external Jewish power was dictating conference policies. Ironically, if we were to be honest about collective responsibility, we should look inward and ask ourselves if our communal knee jerk alarmist reaction to a situation that most Jews did not fully understand, actually made the situation worse and put Jewish lives in danger.
Note how the initial decision to cancel -- at the behest of a variety of anti-Israel activists -- isn't mentioned, much less problematized at all. That flexing of "political musculature" is taken by both Levovitz and the conference attendees as natural and unremarkable. It's only when Jews start fighting back and -- worse yet -- dare to win the political game that people start snarling about outsiders and their pernicious influence. But it's the former that's emblematic of true power, because true power doesn't need to publicly whip entire communities into line to secure basic representation:
If one only has protections because one devotes every spare vote, dollar, resource and minute to secure them, one can hardly be said to be an equal. Equality comes when equality is normal — so normal, that you don’ t have to be perpetually on your guard to defend it. So normal that it wouldn’t occur to anyone to try and take it away.
What Levovitz is witnessing is not power. It is a response to weakness, albeit sometimes an effective response. The powerful do not need to constantly leverage their entire rolodex of political influence just to have their voices represented on stage. They get that as an entitlement. We don't. "Far from signaling our full inclusion in American society, the political power Jews have amassed is currently serving as brute hedge against the default norm of Jewish exclusion which continues to be expressed."

What's most disheartening about this column is that perhaps the only redeeming factor of the Creating Change fallout was watching other groups, Jewish and non-Jewish, publicly declaring their solidarity and standing with the Jewish organizations whose vulnerability had been acutely demonstrated (as I wrote in the above post, while this is not the same thing as being equal, having access to it is certainly far better than the alternative). Yet Levovitz constructs even these basic solidaristic impulses as Jewish power rearing its overbearing head:
We need to look into how we wield power inside our own community. Let’s be brutally honest. It’s hard for a queer Jewish professional to refuse an LGBTQ national hero and the rabbi of the largest LGBTQ synagogue when they ask you to sign on to a letter. We should only be put in that position in rare emergencies." The demands of solidarity are terrible indeed.  
It's bad enough to feel like nobody has our backs, now we're told that it's affirmatively bad if they do -- that it's a way of "wielding power" that itself victimizes those who so wrongfully feel compelled to stand with Jews who feel hurt, or scared, or marginal or vulnerable.

And so we get back to where we started, with the problem of perceived Jewish hyperpower and what can be done about it. And the answer, it seems, is nothing. Hold a Israeli-Jewish event? Who wouldn't see that as a flamboyant Zionist pool party?  Urge that a cancelled speech be reinstated? What outrageous Jewish interference with internal conference self-governance! Object to a slogan? Who would do such a thing but for censorious motives? Ask others to sign a letter on your behalf? We need to be careful about "how we wield power", for who can resist the unbridled political capital of LGBTQ Rabbis?

This is the way Jewish political, social, and civic participation ends: With the Jews themselves  recognizing the rightness of the rule non-Jews have long sought to impose. "Jews Lose."

Tuesday, February 02, 2016

Requiem for O'Malley

Former Maryland Governor Martin O'Malley has dropped his campaign to become the Democratic presidential nominee.

I am the living embodiment of O'Malley's problem: I am a native Marylander, who thought he was a good Governor and before that a good mayor of Baltimore, and never once seriously considered voting for him. Nothing about my opinion has changed; his presidential campaign never grabbed me is all.

That being said, I don't think anybody in the Democratic electorate has come to harbor any bad feelings towards O'Malley. A lot might have thought "what's the point of O'Malley?", but no ill will. And so if he uses this campaign to become a higher-profile figure in Democratic politics -- maybe a cabinet position (he says he's not interested, but, well, they always say that) -- good for him. He's young. He's got time.

Monday, February 01, 2016

And We're Off!

Iowans are now caucusing! Just a friendly reminder to my fellow Democrats that are lucky to have two front-runners who would each make a excellent nominee and, I think, a strong President. There are perfectly good reasons to support one over the other. But there is no reason to threaten the apocalypse if your preferred candidate ends up losing.

As for the Republicans, well, your options range from "fine" to "catastrophic", and so far the latter seems to be running away with it. So, um, best of luck with that.

Saturday, January 30, 2016

Special Favorite

In 1883, the United States Supreme Court held (in a cluster of cases known collectively as The Civil Rights Cases, 109 U.S. 3 (1883)) that the Civil Rights Act of 1875 was unconstitutional. In doing so, Justice Bradley, writing for the majority, made the following observation regarding the current status of Blacks in America and the legal rights they could justly claim:
When a man has emerged from slavery, and by the aid of beneficent legislation has shaken off the inseparable concomitants of that state, there must be some stage in the progress of his elevation when he takes the rank of a mere citizen, and ceases to be the special favorite of the laws, and when his rights as a citizen, or a man, are to be protected in the ordinary modes by which other men's rights are protected. 
I love this passage, because it so neatly illustrates just how detached the "special rights" complaint is from actual extant conditions faced by minority groups. "Come on -- slavery was abolished, like twenty years ago already! It's time to stop being the law's special favorite and just be equal."

I thought of this upon stumbling across an old Garry Wills review of a book titled "The Popes Against the Jews," which (as the name suggests) documents a variety of Vatican pronouncements targeting the Jewish people.  It leads with the following quote, from a prominent Catholic journal known as an informal organ of the Vatican itself.
The Jews — eternal insolent children, obstinate, dirty, thieves, liars, ignoramuses, pests and the scourge of those near and far . . . managed to lay their hands on . . . all public wealth . . . and virtually alone they took control not only of all the money . . . but of the law itself in those countries where they have been allowed to hold public offices . . . [yet they complain] at the first shout by anyone who dares raise his voice against this barbarian invasion by an enemy race, hostile to Christianity and to society in general.
That quote came in 1880. Italy had only emancipated its Jews in 1861, and in Rome it was not fully actualized until 1870. Yet here we are, complaining about the powerful Jews, controlling all the laws and all the money, yet nonetheless having the temerity to complain "at the first shout by anyone who dares raise his voice" against their "barbarian invasion by an enemy race." Aren't Jews so ridiculously oversensitive?

One hears similar refrains about both Blacks and Jews today -- that they are the law's "special favorite", that the time has long since past where racism or anti-Semitism was a real thing worth complaining about, and indeed the real victims are those chafing under accusations of either prejudice. In doing so, they insist that they do take these forms of oppression seriously, they are just engaged in a sober analysis of the contemporary moment. And yet, isn't it funny how the same argument in the same language appears no matter the historical moment is?

Fancy that.

Thursday, January 28, 2016

I Would Have Liked To Tell Her....

Scout Bratt, who was apparently among the protesters who shut down the "Creating Change" conference event hosted by A Wider Bridge and featuring Jerusalem Open House, defends the "disruption" in the Forward. As an argument, it isn't worth much. It does provide a good example of what I termed the "conspiratorial edge" in rhetoric about Pinkwashing. Bratt asserts that Israel has a "branding" campaign seeking to designate itself as LGBT friendly, which may well be true. But she does not provide any evidence that A Wider Bridge (much less Jerusalem Open House, which is not mentioned in her article at all) has any connection to that effort. Here's the extent of Bratt's case for linking the two up:
It’s because of this interconnected struggle that we can’t sit quietly and watch pinkwashing organizations like A Wider Bridge paper over Israel’s harmful policies toward Palestinians — policies that harm gay Palestinians in Haifa as well as in Ramallah. This pinkwashing is an integral part of Israel’s “Brand Israel” public relations strategy, which appeals to racist ideas of Palestinians, Arabs and Muslims as backward and intolerant in contrast to the supposedly enlightened Western liberalism of Israel.
Well those certainly are two sentences next to one another. How is A Wider Bridge part of the governmental "Brand Israel" strategy? Does the fact that Israel seeks to promote its LGBT policies necessarily make all queer Israelis mouthpieces for the government? What, exactly, does A Wider Bridge do that constructs Palestinians and Arabs as backwards? If A Wider Bridge seeks only to "paper over" Israeli governmental policies, why is it hosting avowedly left-wing organizations like Jerusalem Open House who regularly and openly criticize the Israeli government? Apropos my recent Tablet article, how does A Wider Bridge emphasize Israel's "Western liberal[]" character when it is among the few North American organizations to devote significant attention to Mizrahi and Sephardic Jewish narratives?

One searches in vain for answers which are not forthcoming. And they need not be forthcoming, because the meta-answer is that "whenever queer Israelis are present, they're in on the Zionist plot." What more needs to be said? Two Jews are an argument, three are a conspiracy.

It is perhaps unsurprising, then, that the heart of Bratt's column does not focus on seriously arguing for why the sort of exclusion she promotes is justified. The heart of it, rather, is an ode to how good it feels to be part of this protesting community. I'll quote her at length:
So often, calls for dialogue or critiques of protest rhetoric are invoked to mask the deep need for self-reflection and critique. Rather than listening to and grappling with the urgent cry for justice expressed at Creating Change, many commentators have reverted to the usual accusations. 
Yes, banning an organization from a conference or protesting the reception it hosted may have been disruptive. But why are we so afraid of disruption? 
At our alternative Shabbat service, hosted by Jewish Voice for Peace-Chicago and Coalition for a Just Peace in Israel-Palestine, I saw a community united by a shared sense of what it will take to bring about the world we want to see. Sometimes, that will include disruption. As we read from the weekly Torah portion about the splitting of the Red Sea, we asked one another, “What does it mean to divide and conquer? How can my true liberation be bound up in your drowning, your oppression, your suffering?” What we were welcoming that Shabbat was not rest, but action. Not comfort, but empowerment. The sea parting for all of us, or none. The world that is on its way, not the world as it is. 
As the space filled with yearning and energy, we drank up the feeling of being surrounded by those who shared our commitment to building community in the name of justice for all.
The ecstatic, almost messianic zeal one reads in these words is meant to be uplifting. It is actually terrifying. When I read this passage, I immediately turned to Milan Kundera's thoughts on the matter:
She would have liked to tell them that behind Communism, Fascism, behind all occupations and invasions lurks a more basic, pervasive evil and that the image of that evil was a parade of people marching by with raised fists and shouting identical syllables in unison.
And so we get the earnest question about why anyone should be concerned about "banning an organization from a conference or protesting the reception it hosted." What could possibly go wrong, when it feels so right to be "surrounding by those who shared our commitments," and off they went with fists raised and march slogans (of "from the river to the sea, Palestine will be free") chanted in unison?

Bratt concludes with what has to be a sick joke: lamenting the "increasingly personal attacks on activists [in Israel], legislating against human rights organizations, and escalating state and vigilante violence that goes unchecked." To write that even as her cohort precipitated just such an attack, even as it drove off such an Israeli human rights organization, even as it used its coercive power and implied threat of violence against progressive Israelis secure in the knowledge that they would go unpunished, is an outright mockery.

But it did crystallize one further thought in my mind. A few days earlier, Maya Haber put out a call urging progressive Jews to invest in liberal and progressive infrastructure in Israel. Through the 1990s, conservative Jews dedicated vast sums of money funding think tanks and NGOs and programming and institutes, which paid dividends in prompting the nation's right-wing drift post Oslo. The left should respond in kind; building its own civic society network to revive Israel's dormant progressive base. And I agree with her. whole-heartedly! That is one of the most important things that progressive Jews and non-Jews can do to help precipitate a just peace wherein both Jewish and Palestinian self-determination rights are actualized on equal terms.

But the problem Haber overlooked is that a considerable element of the left doesn't want to see a reinvgorated Israeli left. Certainly, they claim to be appalled by efforts to marginalize Israeli peace organizations; groups like Breaking the Silence or B'tselem. Yet it turns out that when such groups try to present their message to the world, they're targeted with the same exclusionary zeal as all other Israelis. Ami Ayalon is among the highest-ranking Israeli security officials to support "Breaking the Silence". But when he came to speak at Kings College London, it was at the invitation of the Israel Society, and it was anti-Israel protesters throwing chairs and smashing windows in a bid to drown him out. Likewise with Moshe Halbertal at Minnesota, preparing to explain why military forces (Israelis included) are obligated to put their own troops at risk in order to protect civilian populations.  And likewise with Jerusalem Open House. JOH has to be counted among the human rights organizations Bratt claims to care so much about. Yet when the chips were down, she was among those demanding they be silenced, and A Wider Bridge was the organization that had their backs.

The reason for this incongruity is that, once you're deep enough down the rabbit hole, the prospect of a "Zionist left" is more threatening to them than a Zionist right. The latter only confirms their prejudgments about what Zionism is and inevitably must be. The former, by contrast, challenges these preconceptions, it would force them to reckon with alternate possibilities and consider richer narratives. Jerusalem Open House, A Wider Bridge, Ami Ayalon -- they aren't protested because they're going to say something outrageous to progressive ears. They're protested because they'll say something that, if truly considered as part of an egalitarian commitment to deliberation, would probably have resonance.

It wouldn't, to be sure, be the sort of resonance that leads to raised fists and chanted slogans. It would not be the sort of feeling Bratt would want to "drink up". But it would provide the foundations for a genuine progressive step forward. And with regard to that ambition, Bratt is not an ally. She's a saboteur.

Tuesday, January 26, 2016

B.o.B.'s Pro-Flat Earth, Pro-Holocaust Denier Diss Track

So this happened. The rapper B.o.B. put out a diss track targeting Neil DeGrasse Tyson for the mortal sin of noting that the earth is, indeed, round. The track, titled "Flatline" (get it?), also contains quite a few other conspiracy theories, including a shoutout to Holocaust Denier David Irving and the lyric "Stalin was way worse than Hitler/That’s why the POTUS gotta wear a Kipper."

For the most part, I find this more amusing than anything, though I am worried that I may not be able to listen to my two different versions of "Haterz Everywhere" guilt-free anymore. I do want to briefly point out two things, though:

(1) It's amazing how conspiracy theories hang together, and how the Jews always get roped into them. Flat earthism is nuts in its own right, but there's no inherent reason to think its adherents should have any particular views on Jews. Yet of course it is entirely unsurprising to hear Jews pop up here.

(2) The Gawker post actually doesn't mention the Holocaust denier thing at all (they do allude to there being more conspiracy theories in the lyrics other beyond belief in a flat earth). To be sure, pointing that out might kill the buzz of "haha, B.o.B is so stupid and ridiculous, beefing with Neil DeGrasse Tyson." Flat earthism is just dumb, but it doesn't really hurt anyone; anti-Semitism is more of a killjoy. Still, it strikes me as unlikely that other overt forms of racism or intolerance would pass by similarly unremarked-upon. The distinction, I feel, is that pointing out anti-Semitism -- even in such clear terms -- is considered to be gauche. It isn't something that we should keep a critical eye on and interrogate when we see it, it is something that we're all too sensitive towards and should be more willing to let slide.

Now to be sure, I'm not particularly threatened by this musical track (frankly, associating Holocaust denial with "Earth is round" denial is doing me a favor). So in a functioning deliberative space regarding anti-Semitism, I wouldn't really mind simply laughing this incident off. Indeed, (as much as a performative contradiction as this is) I don't think there's much more to say about B.o.B.'s Holocaust denial other than to snicker at how idiotic he's being. But it still stands out to me that it wasn't mentioned at all, and I think that failure is reflective of something worth pondering about.