Tuesday, January 27, 2015

In Your Guts You Know He's Nuts

In 1964, Barry Goldwater ran on a fervent and unapologetically conservative platform under the slogan "In your heart you know he's right." The Johnson campaign responded with the instantly classic retort: "In your guts you know he's nuts."

Election season is heating up in Israel, and Bibi Netanyahu's governing Likud party is facing its stiffest challenge to date from a unified center-left that includes both Labor as well as Tzipi Livni's Hatnuah Party. The combined list has dubbed itself "the Zionist camp" and is running an energetic (and to my mind sorely needed campaign) to cast itself as the true heirs of Israel's social democratic and egalitarian tradition.

The Israeli right's main strategy seems to be casting itself as standing up against the all-encompassing tide of Israel's adversaries -- a term which at this point includes most of Israel's friends. Naftali Bennett's extreme-right Jewish Home Party is running on the straightforward slogan "We don't apologize." And Likud has elected to go with the even more on the nose "It's us or them." Which is paired up against the Zionist camp's pitch-perfect "It's us or him."

The latest polls are showing a narrow plurality for the Zionist camp (Labor-Hatnuah), which currently is projected to pull in 26 MKs to Likud's 23. That doesn't tell the whole story, though -- as there are the usual smattering of smaller parties that are necessary for any coalition to reach a sixty-one person majority.

Most of the descriptors I've seen of the lay of the land give the right a sizeable advantage, but they do so under some contestable assumptions regarding the center of the political map (you'll note in the above link that "right" is defined as anyone who has "not ruled out a coalition" with Bibi). Certainly, they are stronger than one might think given Labor/Hatnuah's leading score. Of the unabashedly "left" parties (not counting the Arab list, which I'll get to in a moment), things drop off considerably once one gets past the dynamic duo leading the pack. Meretz is projected at 6 MKs, which is more or less normal for them, and Yesh Atid has seen its support slashed in half to just 9 MKs. That's 41 MKs, a far cry south of sixty.

The big story of these elections has been the unification of the long-feuding Arab parties into a single list. These parties are too diverse to be called part of the "left" per se (the unified list includes Communist, secular nationalist, and religious parties), but they certainly aren't going to join a right-wing government. With a projected 12 MKs, that pops the center-left bloc up to 53 MKs.

On the right, Bennett's Jewish Home is polling third with a projected 15 MKs, and he's a solid right-wing vote, so right there you have as much as the main two secondary left parties combined. But after that, things get dicier. Of the religious parties UTJ (7 projected MKs) is much more solidly right-wing than Shas (also 7 MKs). While I think it's is fair to say that UTJ will caucus right, Shas can and has joined with a left government. Avigdor Lieberman's Yisrael Beitenu is pulling in 7 MKs, and while he is certainly properly viewed as a member of the right he has demonstrated a bit of an iconoclastic streak in recent years (not always for the good). Still, I think it is reasonable to slot him in with the right bloc too -- but it isn't out of the question that it could be brought into a more left-wing government. If the wind is blowing in that direction, I think it could happen. Call it my crazy prediction of the season. But, my crazy prognostications notwithstanding, we can give the right bloc a solid 52 MKs.

This leads to something very interesting. Even if it grabs Shas, the right bloc would need another party. In fact, functionally both camps can't rely on Shas to put them over the top (Shas + left = 60 MKs). And that gets us to the final party in play, the newly-arrived Kulanu. Kulanu is one of Israel's perennial centrist parties (Yesh Atid was the last one, Kadima was the one before that, Shinui was the one before that). They appeal to people disaffected from the same-old same-old, usually enter government, usually accomplish much less than they promise, and usually fade out after one or two election cycles. Kulanu's roots lie in in center-right politics, and so many people have slotted them into the right camp, but I think that's too quick. Most of these centrist parties have had right-ish roots, and most of them have proven quite amenable to working with the left (why else are they splitting off from Likud in the first place?). I mean, look at Livni, who has crossed all the way over from her Likudnik beginnings to join a slate with Labor. Kulanu's political program is almost entirely economic in focus, and it is an economic program that is not inherently in conflict with either side. It's relative silence on security issues, likewise, leaves it open to working with either side. I don't see it as anything close to a foregone conclusion that it will elect to side with Bibi.

Basically, as it stands Kulanu will hold the balance of power. And if the Zionist Camp is given the chance to form a government, I think it very well could put together a package that brings Kulanu into the fold. In that case, we could have something fascinating indeed -- a liberal Israeli government for the first time in a half-decade, anchored by a new and unknown centrist party and a unified and newly influential Arab bloc.

It could be a very interesting trip we're all in for.

Sunday, January 25, 2015

Sunday Roundup: Jan. 25, 2015

Just because I'm a big Jewish media star doesn't mean that I don't have time for the little people my loyal readers. Here are some stories I've found interesting that have crossed my browser.

* * *

A powerful story about a lesbian couple in Oklahoma planning their (suddenly legalized) wedding.

I honestly have no idea how someone who presumably identifies as a progressive can write this without it being immediately, blaring, obvious that it is identical to conservative mockery/dismissal of racism claims. Someone get the author a copy of Darren Lenard Hutchinson's Racial Exhaustion, stat.

Interesting piece (to me, at least!) by David Roberts on the proposed Exelon/Pepco merger.

An Israeli Druze student was beaten by a Jewish mob who overheard him speaking Arabic. The student, who recently finished his service in the IDF, had been posted at the Presidential Residence and received a call of support from Israeli President Reuven Rivlin.

As much as "WhatAboutTheMenz" annoys me, no Ruby Tuesday's, you can't just restrict posted bartender positions to women.

Friday, January 23, 2015

Reveal Yourselves To Me!

I've been getting a flurry of hits recently from this Metafilter thread, where folks are offering up my blog as an exemplar of how to think about and respond to the issue of anti-Semitism. This is gratifying to hear (pro-tip -- most of my posts on the subjects can be found under the anti-Semitism label!). But a few folks in the course of this conversation have been talking about how they've been reading the blog for years, and I'm like, "who are you people? You don't sound familiar at all!" Either they are using different handles when they comment on my blog, or (more likely) they don't leave comments period.

So consider this a thread for lurkers ancient and new to introduce themselves (with as much or as little anonymity as they like). I'm always genuinely interested in who actually takes the time to read my little corner of the internet.

Incidentally, this blog now is automatically cross-posted onto Tumblr (under the title "A Multitude of Commitments"). If you are a tumblr reader of mine, please feel free to participate as well! Either send me a message, or hope on over to the blogspot site and leave a comment with everyone else.

Thursday, January 22, 2015

"Jews Lose": Big Media David Edition

Tablet Magazine invited me to write an essay on the "Jews Lose" doctrine I wrote about previously on this blog. It's obviously exciting to see my name in the big lights, and as an academic I am quite intrigued by this whole "being paid for my articles" concept.

There was one chunk of the article which was cut for space reasons that I wanted to share with you on this space (consider it the "director's cut"). One prominent theme I tried to explore in my essay was this prevailing sense that Jews are the quintessential anti-discrimination "winners". Unfortunately, this label (not accurate to begin with, as my essay demonstrates) isn't always viewed magnanimously, but rather often is presented as an example of unfairness -- why are Jews given so much when other groups have so little? As a result, we get this weird phenomenon where alleged injustices perpetrated against Muslims by non-Jewish institutions (e.g., satirical cartoons mocking Islam) are met with attacks against Jews. A few years ago, we saw this in Holland, where Muslims angry that authorities dropped a hate crimes prosecution against (non-Jewish) Geert Wilders (whose filmed allegedly mocked Mohammed) responded by putting up cartoons mocking the Holocaust.

The broader issue is that presenting Jews as anti-discrimination "haves" often comes in the form of resentment and almost invariably washes away the actual particularities of the Jewish experience. Consider Falguni Sheth’s Salon article exploring the history of Muslim vilification in the context of the recent Paris massacres. She notes that “terrorism” is a “loaded term” that often seems to arbitrarily include only Muslim acts of mass murder. Clearly she has a point, one strikingly illustrated when a former CIA Deputy Director seemingly forgot about Anders Breivik’s massacre in Norway as an example of terrorism in Europe. She also makes the accurate observations that Muslims face considerable pressure to “assimilate” into French society rather than maintain a conspicuous identity as a separate minority group, and that while Charlie Hebdo did satirize Christianity, those cartoons are hardly analogous to those which mock Muslims. Why? Because unlike Muslims, “Christians are neither religious nor ethnic minorities. Christians are not politically vulnerable in the Republic of France; they are the opposite — secure and fully capable.”

All valid points. But then we get to Professor Sheth’s concluding question: “What if the Charlie Hebdo massacre had been committed by Catholic or Jewish extremists?” Wait, what? How did we get roped into this? Are Jews not a distinctive religious group who have faced considerable pressure to assimilate into an unmarked “French” identity? Are they not a religious and ethnic minority experiencing considerable vulnerability, not the least of which is their propensity to be targeted in precisely these sorts of massacres?

The belated appearance of Jews at the end of Professor Sheth’s article does little to advance her argument—it would have just as much force if it solely compared Muslims against a social class that actually was “secure” in its French status. Rather, Professor Sheth seems to include Jews as a means of emphasizing the unjustness of Jews supposedly possessing something other minorities don’t—they apparently do not experience and are not at risk of experiencing the mass vilification and bigotry that Muslims must endure when individual Muslims commit acts of violence. This assertion seems difficult to back up. While thankfully we have not seen a Jewish-initiated mass murder in the West in quite some time, it is notable that we need not wait that long to refute Professor Sheth’s prediction.

Jews don’t have to perpetrate a murderous strike against a vulnerable minority in order for the spotlight to shine on alleged Jewish bad behavior—such rhetoric is a standard part of the conversation any time Jews are the victims of mass political violence. Sometimes it is a BBC reporter lecturing a French Jew at a rally commemorating her murdered peers that “many critics of Israel’s policy would suggest that the Palestinians suffer hugely at Jewish hands as well,” sometimes it is a British parliamentarian whose idea of solidarity with those slaughtered at a Kosher market was to tweet “Je suis Palestinian”, And that does not even get into those who are convinced that Jews are actually responsible for the terror in France—a group that includes the mayor of Ankara, leaders of the Free Gaza movement, the International Business Times (since taken down), and the Ron Paul Institute. My twitter feed may be right that a murder commented by a white guy will be attributed to a “disturbed loner” while a Muslim killer is invariably a “terrorist.” But it is also true that regardless of whether the finger on the trigger is white, black, Asian, Arab, or Polynesian, someone will always be there to insist that the Mossad really did it.

I don't think Professor Sheth wishes that people would attack Jews as a group for individual Jewish sins. But the fact that she doesn't recognize that we do experience this, regularly, for sins real and imagined is worrisome. It demonstrates the power of the assumption that Jews win; even coming in the face of a very high-profile loss of Jewish life that was nonetheless met with the usual discussions about bad behavior by other Jews elsewhere.

Wednesday, January 21, 2015

Meanwhile, Back in Northfield...

I had a lovely conversation with some of my students yesterday during office hours. It was quite wide-ranging, but one thing we talked about was the Jewish cultural-shock of moving from (very Jewish) Bethesda, Maryland, to (very not-Jewish) Northfield, Minnesota for college. Northfield was, by and large, a perfectly fine place to be a Jew. Still, it was markedly different from Bethesda if only because there were so much fewer than us. And going from a place where everyone was intimately familiar with Jews (even if not Jewish themselves, they had a year-long crash course in synagogue practices from riding the Bar and Bat Mitzvah circuit), to a place where many people had never met any Jews at all, does change things. For example, I noted that unlike in Bethesda, at Carleton I did have to contend with people who believed that "the Jews killed Christ". Now technically, I heard that once in Bethesda too. Someone said it in 9th grade social studies, and the entire class burst out laughing. But that, to me, emphasizes the difference all the more -- it's not that there is nobody with anti-Semitic beliefs in Bethesda, it's just that the community culture is such that any such views are going to be marginalized and ridiculed. The difference in Northfield is not that I thought any large proportion of Carls thought I was a Christ-killer, but I didn't think that such views would be immediately understood as transparently ludicrous the way that they were back home.

All of this is a segue to my collegiate town reentering the news in the worst way possible. The local watering hole, The Contented Cow, is hosting a series of talks by a prominent conspiracy theorist of the "Holocaust-denial, Israel is responsible for 9/11" sort. Because nothing goes with a pint like a side of HoloHoax1!!11!.

In any event, I am pleased to see that the community has, apparently, risen up in protest (the conspirator in question, James Fetzer, is complaining that Northfield has not accorded him the "powerful, positive response" he is used to). And in a sense there is nothing more that should be said on this. The pub proprietor's response is to change the format from a "lecture" to a "debate", but I agree with my former Professor Louis Newman that there are some ideas that are better off ignored.

Yet, I can't resist one more comment. The pub, you see, wants to make one thing very clear about its Holocaust-denying, 9/11-was-a-Mossad-operation guest. Can you guess what it is?
“Fetzer is critical of the Israeli government. Does that make him an anti-Semite? No."
Like clockwork.

Tuesday, January 20, 2015

Downton Dreaming

Three episodes into Downton Abbey this season, and I have come to the conclusion that I have greatly wronged Cora in my heart. I had always thought of her as dopey, simpering, and obviously not the brightest bulb in the ceiling. In my defense, there was no point where I didn't recognize her as the smarter of her couple -- Lord Grantham has always been dumb as a post -- but I just thought the two were made for each other. Now I see that I've misestimated Cora greatly. The trick to Cora is that, as an American, she doesn't play the game. It's not that, as I thought, she's oblivious to all the political machinations that surround her. It's that she just doesn't care. In contrast to Ms. Bunting or (sometimes) Tom, Cora isn't actively antagonistic to the trappings of Edwardian nobility. But neither is she defined by her role in it. Cora cares about what Cora cares about, and for the most part she seems happy and content because she happily and contentedly pursues her own interests (and is quite successful in doing so). You'll note that on the rare occasions where she seems to be stymied in her goals, she is quite good at marshaling her power to get what she wants. You'll also note that true power and influence does not lie in constantly overcoming adversity; true power exists where it just wouldn't occur to anyone to be adverse to you.

Cora's influence on the house is subtle but obviously salutary. She's liberal, pragmatic, and modern -- in fact, I think she's very quintessentially "America" her in manner. She generally intervenes on the side of "outsiders" like Tom and Ms. Bunting, and does not seem particularly invested in her daughters following a hidebound and traditional life path. This isn't to say she's opposed to that either; indeed, that remains the default option. It's only that when the girls seem to be taking a different path, Cora rarely seems perturbed by it.

This past episode Cora mentioned that she was half-Jewish (on her father's side). I had my suspicions -- her last name was "Levinson" and she was from Cincinnati, which had a significant Jewish population -- but now it's confirmed and I really want the show to explore this aspect of Cora's identity. I'm not asking that she start fasting on Yom Kippur or hang a Mezuzzah outsider her door (though A Downton Seder would immediately supplant Rugrats as the iconic television Passover of my generation). But there was (and is) a lot of anti-Semitism in England at the time, including a very particular and virulent ("genteel") variety in the upper-crust; it would astound me if Cora never encountered that. Jewishness was highly racialized in England at the time, so it is not as if this quantum of "Jewish blood" would have gone unremarked upon. There's another angle to this too -- when Gregson announced he was going to Germany there was a suspicion that Edith might eventually turn into a Nazi-sympathizer. I don't know if that would have made sense from a character arc perspective, and in any event Gregson has since fallen off the radar. Nonetheless, the coming events in Germany (and Edith's tenuous German connection) makes the family's Jewish background quite salient.

That being said, I honestly wonder if the girls are even aware of their (partial) Jewish heritage. When mentioning it to Bricker Cora didn't act as if it is was something hidden or secret. Still, it is notable that it has never come up before. Cora obviously doesn't seem to be particularly invested in it, though just based on her general character I can't imagine she isn't sympathetic to the Jewish people and their struggles at the time.

In any event, there is a lot to be done here, and I want the show to do it. Cater to my desires, damn it! Where's my hotline to the Jewish-controlled media when I need it?

Tuesday, January 13, 2015

Good Lawyers Make Good Results

This morning, the Supreme Court issued its decision in Jesinoski v. Countrywide Home Loans, involving the exercise of a borrower's "right of rescission" under the Truth in Lending Act (TILA). TILA requires that a bank provide its borrowers r with certain disclosures; if it fails to do so the borrower may elect to rescind the loan for three years after the date of closing. The question in Jesinoski was what the borrower needs to do to effectuate the rescission -- did they need only to notify the bank that they were electing to rescind, or did they need to actually file a lawsuit within the three year period. In a 9-0 decision, the Court held that only notification was necessary.

This is a case near and dear to my heart, because I worked on it as a clerk for Judge Murphy (I normally wouldn't reveal my involvement, but Judge Murphy emailed me this morning to "advertise your role in this widely," and far be it from me to ignore an order from a federal judge). Technically, the case I worked on was Keiran v. Home Capital, Inc., 720 F.3d 721 (2013), but they're the same case -- Jesinoski was a per curium opinion by the 8th Circuit bound by Keiran; the only reason that the former was the SCOTUS case was because for a variety of technical reasons it presented a cleaner case to review. The majority in Keiran had held that a lawsuit must be filed within the three year timeline; Judge Murphy dissented and took the (now-vindicated) position that only notification was required.

Not to put to fine a point on it, but we were clearly in the right, and the five page Scalia opinion (shortest of the year, according to SCOTUSblog) explaining why is all the time this question really deserved. The statutory text (15 U.S.C. 1635(a)) is crystal clear: "[T]he obligor shall have the right to rescind the transaction . . . by notifying the creditor, in accordance with regulations of the [Consumer Financial Protection Bureau], of his intention to do so." The implementing regulations say the same thing ("To exercise the right to rescind, the consumer shall notify the creditor of the rescission by mail, telegram or other means of written communication."), and pretty much any other tool of statutory interpretation (the view of the implementing agency, the canon of construction for a remedial statute like TILA) points in favor of that outcome.

But if it was so obvious, why did it come out the other way in the 8th Circuit? And not just there -- the Supreme Court was resolving a deep circuit split that pitted (off the top of my head) the 8th, 9th, and 10th Circuits against the 3rd and 4th Circuits. I don't think it's a left/right divide -- unanimity of the Supreme Court aside, following the decision in Keiran two Republican appointees on the 8th Circuit (Judges Colloton and Melloy) went out of their way to express their view that the majority had gotten it wrong and Judge Murphy's dissent was correct. Rather, it seems clear to me that it was simply a case of an attorney mismatch.

I watched the oral arguments in Keiran, and the disparity in talent was quite evident. The lenders were represented by a former Scalia clerk who was simply superb -- one of the best advocates we saw all year. The homeowners were represented by a random mortgage foreclosure defense attorney, who was decidedly mediocre (the CFPB also had an attorney who argued briefly on behalf of the homeowner -- my coclerks and I divided in our appraisal of her -- I found her average at best, my colleagues thought she was pretty solid). One side had eloquent and polished presentation with well-crafted, sophisticated arguments; the other was bumbling and disjointed and did little to give the court guidance as to the right outcome (which could start and end with the clear statutory language). The mismatch in talent canceled out the mismatch in legal justification, and so the result was a deep divide in the lower courts. Once the case went to the Supreme Court, by contrast, the homeowners got much better representation -- plenty of firms are willing to take a prestigious SCOTUS case for little or no fee, simply for prestige -- and when that imbalance was rectified the outcome of the case was assured.

Clerking is an interesting experience. It gives you an inside look at how the sausage is made, which, like most sausage-production, can be equal parts fascinating and horrifying. It also does wonders to alleviate the sense of imposter syndrome -- because a lot of lawyers are bad. Nothing did more to make me feel qualified to be a lawyer -- a good lawyer, even -- than reading the submitted briefs during my clerkship. But while this did wonders for my self confidence, and emphasized that yes I could make a difference, it was also quite sobering. Good representation matters. A lot. And it is no mystery and no coincidence that for the most part it is the big banks that get the former Supreme Court clerks and the poor homeowners who get the remains (or worse, the grifters). Judges, no more than any one else, are not superhuman, and they can be swayed by good advocacy even where the law unadorned seems to obviously suggest another result. Here, the right outcome was reached in the end. It isn't always.