Saturday, December 30, 2017

New Year's Resolutions: 2018

It's time for New Year's Resolutions -- the only time of year half of you ever read this blog.

2017 edition is here. As a bonus, I've gone back to prior years' posts and added whether I met or missed (or "pick 'em'd") each resolution! This is a feature long requested -- work your way back and relive the memories (this is a work-in-progress).

  • Met: 1, 2 (borderline, but let's be glass-half-full), 3, 4 (just came out!), 5, 6 (JTA and Forward), 8, 9(!), 10, 11, 12, 14
  • Missed: 13 (kidney stone is gone, but we've got no clear idea of why it formed in the first place), 15
  • Pick 'em: 7 (I've been a decently consistent gadfly in the ear of my local ADL representative)

Solid performance! Now for this year:

(1) Get married to Jill. I'm feeling optimistic about this one.

(2) Complete my prospectus.

(3) Publish or have accepted for publication an academic article.

(4) Exercise a non-trivial amount.

(5) Attend a conference I have never attended before.

(6) Present a paper before the Berkeley Law faculty.

(7) Meet with all of my advisers at least once (prospectus defense excluded).

(8) Buy new pants.

(9) Buy new shoes.

(10) Have a successful Bachelor Party.

(11) Find a new steak guy (RIP, former steak guy's cattle ranch).

(12) Finish a draft of "Doctrinal Sunsets" (title subject to change).

(13) Contact an elected official about something.

(14) Contribute to a new cause or charity.

(15) Convert at least one undergraduate student to Political Theory as a discipline.

Thursday, December 28, 2017

2018 Holiday Interregnum Roundup

What do you call the period between Christmas and New Years, anyway?

* * *

The Huffington Post (H/T: Nancy Leong) profiles a group of Black gun owners -- getting their perspective on why they own guns, the racial history of gun rights in America, and their perspective on potential encounters with the police while carrying. Very interesting. I've blogged a bit on the intersection of race and gun ownership here and here.

Conservative intellectual Max Boot concedes that the anti-racists and the feminists were pretty much right all along about the presence of bigotry in America (and particularly the American right). Max was also the guy who wrote, in February 2016, that "I'm a lifelong Republican but Trump surge proves that every bad thing Democrats have ever said about GOP is basically true."

Rosa Doherty sees a woman she admires say something antisemitic. So she -- gently and privately -- brings it to her attention. It doesn't go well. "If messages sent in good faith, with the hope of deepening understanding, are rejected in favour of hysteria and hate, then 2018 will be as depressing as 2017 has been."

Scott Lemieux: "'Democrats Need To Run People Whose Policy Positions Are Identical To Mine In Every Jurisdiction,' A Useless Political Analysis Editors Love". Yes, yes, and more yes.

Houston imam "mortified" that sermon calling for Muslims to kill the Jews "is being seen as a call for" killing Jews.

"Cornel West Has a Jewish Problem." Even if you think headline is a touch provocative, this is a good column by Yishai Schwartz (I say this as someone who genuinely appreciated the volume West cowrote with Michael Lerner on Black/Jewish relations).

Speaking of Jews, trying to map "The Last Jedi" onto a debate about the virtues of Orthodox versus Reform Judaism strikes me as trying way too hard, but if you must indulge Jenny Singer clearly bests Liel Leibovitz.

This thread has it all:

  • Alt-right troll: "Let me list all the Jews who run the media!"
  • Jew: " You're antisemitic trash. Also, that list isn't even accurate, so you're not even good at making lists of Jews."
  • Far-left Corbynista: "Well they are all 'Zionists', so stop your nitpicking and show some solidarity with our allies in the struggle."

Tuesday, December 26, 2017

Review: The Last Jedi

*Warning: Spoilers*

We saw The Last Jedi last night at a theater in Destin, Florida. Apparently, the goyim know about the "see a movie on Christmas trick" (I suppose they all could have been Jews, but we're on the panhandle, so I doubt it).

Overall, I thought the movie was very good. But before we go any further, I should probably address the issue that's at the foremost of everyone's mind. To wit: The Last Jedi decisively proves (as if there ever was any doubt) that Poe Dameron is no Wedge Antilles. By my count, Poe's impulsiveness and "I know best" arrogance ends up ruining carefully-laid Resistance plans not once but twice. Losing the bomber squadron may have been forgivable, but Vice Admiral Holdo's escape plan would have worked were it not for the infiltration plot that Poe decided he just had to try. Poe Dameron has the deaths of literally half the Resistance on his hands thanks to that stunt.

Okay, that's out of the way. Overall, The Last Jedi is clearly better than The Force Awakens. If the latter was a shot-for-shot remake of A New Hope, the former is an amalgamation of Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi. But not only is it different enough from both of these films to not feel derivative in the way The Force Awakens clearly was, focusing on its original-trilogy predecessors distracts from the bigger influence on The Last Jedi: Rogue One. One of Rogue One's greatest strengths was how it started to turn away from the "one true hero whom everything revolves around" tenor of the series, in favor of a narrative equality between main characters and side players. Like Rogue One, this is a grim movie, and not only does not everyone get a happy ending, not everyone even gets a glorious, cinematic ending. In both major revelations and smaller, more subtle moments, The Last Jedi continues to reinforce a refreshingly egalitarian message that to my mind opens up more storytelling potential untethered to the "What are Luke/Han/Leia and/or their children/relatives/secret lovers up to" well.

Obviously, the big iteration of this is the strong implication that Rey is, in fact, nobody. Not a child of destiny, not secretly related to the Skywalker clan, just ... a nobody, who happens to be force-attuned. But for me, some of the most powerful moments in the film were where it made clear that every member of the Resistance has a rich inner life and story that (for them at least) is on par to that of any of the main characters. The knowing nod between two starfighter pilots as they prepare to take off -- only for both of them to be vaporized when a proton torpedo enters the hanger bay. The bombardier clutching her necklace charm as she desperately tries to complete what she now knows is a suicide mission (this was an effective scene even without the later revelation that she's another major character's sister).

None of these characters "matter" in the grand scheme of the narrative. But people who don't matter, still matter. They have their own lives, motivations, relationships, and personalities, and The Last Jedi does a very good job communicating that throughout the film.

What makes these sequences so effective is that they are not emphasized or given any special significance. Most directors don't bother to pay attention to such side players at all, and those that do often revel in accentuating the head fake ("Oh you thought so-and-so was going to be a main character? Surprise! Laser to the face!" Looking at you, Joss Whedon). By playing it straight, The Last Jedi reinforced one of the most powerful narrative themes there can be in a war movie: everybody has a story, everybody has a narrative, and so having a story and a narrative doesn't make you special and doesn't offer any protection.

From a fan-boy perspective, I appreciated some of the new tactical permutations that were shown in space combat. Getting to see B-wing bombers was pretty cool, and the "slice open the Star Destroyer by hyping through it" was a neat trick (though if that works, its unclear why the Resistance wouldn't have used it more often as a Kamikaze tactic -- it is a brutally effective way of neutralizing the First Order's capital ship advantage). We can quibble with some details (has nobody invented autopilot yet?), but for the most part I was able to suspend disbelief.

Obviously, the newer iterations of Star Wars are light-years ahead of their predecessors in terms of gender equality. A slew of excellent female characters are well presented and fully fleshed out -- and again, what's most important aren't their presence among the leads (Rey and Leia, though they both are fantastic) but as integrated up and down the supporting cast. Plenty of action movies have one or (maybe) two Strong Female Characters surrounded by a sea of indistinguishable dudes. Rarer is the film wherein women are just a normal part of the universe -- occupying mid-level command posts, serving as infantry grunts, working as unremarkable technicians, and so on. The Last Jedi is exceptional along this front, and deserves much credit for it.

Overall, The Last Jedi was to my mind the best Star Wars film since the original trilogy. I don't really understand the backlash against it, and I do think it works very well as a strong second act setting up a potentially epic Episode IX. So well done Disney, and well done Rian Johnson. The Force is strong in this one.

Assorted bullet thoughts:

  • Where are all the aliens? If the Resistance and the First Order are finally gender-integrated, the conflict still seems strikingly human-on-human. Aside from Chewbacca, I counted one indeterminate alien starfighter pilot and one Sullustan (apparently Nien Nunb -- his fan club can rest easy). There actually could be something darkly amusing if this huge galactic conflict really was basically an intra-human spat and the other species of the galaxy just didn't care ("Humans ... there they go again"), but that doesn't seem to be the message of the film.
  • Captain Phasma continues to hold the "Boba Fett character who seems like a total badass even though she actually doesn't really do anything award. The Praetorian Guard certainly made a good run at it, though.
  • I love the humor in The Last Jedi. All the major laugh moments do it for me, but the one that really killed me was when Rey "reaches out" to grasp the Force. Mark Hamill's eye roll game is on point.
  • Speaking of, I have mixed feelings towards how Luke is portrayed in the film. I neither love it nor hate it, but I do think that Mark Hamill gives it everything he has. His "brush your shoulder off" move is also on point.
  • Kylo Ren is turning into a pretty solid villain. It might have been interesting had he succeeded in turning Rey, though. Now that would have been a plot twist nobody would have seen coming.
  • I appreciate Vice Admiral Holdo is shown to be competent along all dimensions. Again, her escape plan would have worked had Poe not ruined it. And she also seized an opportunity to escape her captivity when it was presented.
  • Man, Jedi have gotten a lot more powerful in the past few decades. Remember when Yoda could impress us by lifting one starfighter out of a swamp?

Saturday, December 23, 2017

North African Jewry and the Holocaust

Haaretz has an interesting piece up on the general failure to include North African Jews in our narratives about the Holocaust (despite the fact that Jews in lands occupied by Germany were interned in forced labor camps and later deported to death camps). The article runs through a variety of reasons why these stories aren't told (ranging from straight-forward Ashkenormativity, to cultural misunderstandings by largely European Jewish chroniclers of the Holocaust, to attempts by leftist Mizrahi activists to minimize the salience of the Holocaust to their own cultural narratives out of fears that it might shine light on pre-Independence Zionist ideologies within their community).

One thing I can recommend, at least on the cultural side, is the movie The Wedding Song, which is set in Tunis during World War II and traces the relationship of a Jewish girl and her Muslim friend as the Nazis began more aggressively targeting the local Jewish population. I saw the film at a screening sponsored by JIMENA -- Jews Indigenous to the Middle East and North Africa -- and it was quite illuminating.

Wednesday, December 20, 2017

On Hating the Players While Loving the Game: The Progressive Dilemma in Israel and America

Donald Trump is effectuating a sea change in progressive Zionism.

That's not a novel hypothesis. But I mean to make the argument differently than it's usually presented.

If you asked me five, ten, fifteen years ago to associate "anger" at a country with a political orientation towards that country, I'd have said "revolutionary." If I am outright angry at a country, then I'm saying it needs to be (metaphorically, at least) burned to the ground, flipped over and radically restarted. Those who are angry at America do not also love America -- they think America is a poisoned chalice, a false promise. To be clear, I've never thought (and I don't think now) that dissent is incompatible with loving a nation. But this sort of quaking rage is a different beast -- if this is what one feels, it's because one thinks the entire endeavor is not worth saving.

And yet, right now, the attitude I feel towards America and its leaders is anger. I am angry at Donald Trump, and I'm angry at the congressional Republicans who enable him. More than that, I'm angry at the direction America has taken. Democracies are as they do, and as Richard Rorty once observed, "There is nothing deep down inside us except what we have put there ourselves." So, in a real sense, I'm deeply angry at America.

Many progressives share that sentiment. And some of them, certainly, channel that anger into a revolutionary critique. The election of Trump, and the careening of the Republican Party into a far-right political movement, demonstrates that America as we know it really is corrupted root-to-branch.

Yet most of us, I think, aren't going down that road (whether we should or not is a debate for another time). Our anger is not leading us to the conclusion that America cannot be saved, or that it is in its entirety a failed experiment. We continue to care about America; we continue to love America, we do not think that the current political environment -- rage-inducing as it may be -- indicates that "America" as an idea should be abandoned, tossed aside for something else.

And this, I think, is offering a new model for progressive engagement with Israel. If you asked me five, ten, fifteen years ago, "what is the political orientation towards Israel of someone who is angry at Israel," I'd have said "revolutionary." They want to destroy the Zionist state root-to-branch, and replace it with something else.

For Jews, an unbreakable syllogism created an unstable binary. The syllogism was that "If you're angry at Israel (not just "opposed to X policy", but angry) -- its practices, its leaders, its direction -- then you must want to see it destroyed." And so persons who started to feel anger were forced to choose. If they loved Israel, believed in it as a state, then they couldn't be angry towards it -- they had to sublimate and suppress those feelings, because accepting them meant (by syllogism) that they must want Israel to be destroyed. And by contrast, if that anger was irresistible, if they couldn't not be angry at this policy or that leader or those practices, then they had no choice (again, by syllogism) but to endorse the idea that Israel was a false promise, an indelible corruption, which must be torn out from the ground.

Now, to be sure, there are many people for whom anger at Israel really does come hand-in-hand with seeking its destruction. I'm not saying they don't exist, or that they represent the majority of those who have historically held attitudes like "anger" towards the Israeli state. But I don't think that connection holds syllogistically, and it is (amazingly enough) Donald Trump who has allowed me to see that.

The antipathy I hold towards Bibi Netanyahu is not different in kind to my attitude towards Donald Trump, and to be honest it's not that far off in degree either. And Netanyahu isn't even the worst actor -- proceed to the next circle out (not even to the fringes, but still people well within the Israeli political mainstream), look at your Miri Regevs and your Bezalel Smotrichs and your Naftali Bennetts and your Oren Hazans and your Ayalet Shakeds, and things get far worse. And for progressive Zionists, it is hard not to react to this with despair. I detest these people and all that they stand for, but they represent the dominant political coalition in Israel today. So if I loathe them and their policies ... where does that leave me? What's the point of caring about Israel, if this is the Israel of today?

Well, it leaves me in the same place I'm left vis-a-vis America today. The dominant political coalition in America is repulsive to me, it is horrifying, it is sickening. And yet my reaction to it has not been to throw up my hands and give up on America (nor has it been to softplay just how horrible Trump and his cohorts are). I care about America and believe in the idea of "America" -- maybe I shouldn't, but I do -- and so the implied association between anger and revolutionary rupture has not, yet at least, come to pass.

Donald Trump has illuminated the space for genuinely caring about, and investing in, a political community even as one is repelled by its leaders and its current political orientation. I live in that space every day right now, as an American. And learning how to do that is something that progressive Zionists have desperately needed, because the old binary -- abandon anger, or abandon ship -- wasn't going to work for much longer.

This is a lesson that Jews have learned at least once before. The post-Holocaust theology advocated by scholars like Yitz Greenberg and David Blumenthal have suggested that what Jews need to preserve a relationship with God is the legitimized ability to express anger towards God; in my scholarship I've extended this argument into the political context as well. It's a dangerous lesson because anger is a dangerous emotion, and because (at least in my formulation of it) this sort of anger does not imply any ethical obligation to continue to preserve the relationship going forward.

Nonetheless, one virtue of legitimizing a qualified role for anger in our political relationships is that it need not occupy the field. After the Holocaust, Jews may be angry at God -- but we are not just that. We'd be far more likely to become "just that" if our anger was delegitimized -- a sort of irrational hysteria, or proof that we are no longer Jews -- but it wasn't, and so we haven't.

Maybe I'm too sanguine. In part, this is because I dislike anger as a political emotion. I don't like myself when I'm angry; anger doesn't make me feel validated, it makes me feel sad. More to the point: I don't trust my political instincts when they're inflected by anger. I was not surprised to find that I've specifically critiqued anger as a political emotion in the context of Israel and Palestine. Yet I've also recognized that anger can have productive uses here, if it is appropriately cabined and doesn't metastasize into the dominant mode of relating to the conflict (on this more generally, see also). Because I don't like being angry, I'm less worried about the risk I'll want to stay angry for its own sake -- for me, allowing anger is a means of working through it to someplace more productive. But maybe that's not really the case, or at least not the case for everyone.

That's a nettlesome problem, and I'm not sure how to resolve it. I can't imagine a way of being a progressive Zionist that doesn't allow for one to be positively repelled by the current Israeli political climate, any more than I can imagine being a progressive American today who isn't horrified by our own nation's descent into an alt-right fever dream. Nonetheless, I do think that Trump has crystallized a mode of relating to Israel for progressive Jews that allows us to genuinely, in our bones, be upset at the direction Israel has taken -- not simply a bad headline here or there, but core features of its current politics -- without feeling the need to let go of it entirely. If I can do that for America, I can do it for Israel too.

Israel's First Arab Rhodes Scholar is a Disabled Muslim Woman

"Israel’s first Arab Rhodes scholar has the chutzpah to love her country, and to try to change it."
That's the headline of the JTA on Lian Najami, a disabled Muslim Arab Israeli who soon, presumably, will be studying at Oxford.  

She speaks five languages, has worked for Democratic (and Jewish) U.S. Senator Brian Schatz of Hawaii (on counter-terrorism policy), opposes academic boycotts, and thinks Israel should be a democracy for all of its citizens, irrespective of background. It's a good piece, and she sounds like an interesting (and of course incredibly accomplished) woman. I wish her all the best.

Tuesday, December 19, 2017

Every Vote Counts: Virginia Edition

A recount in Virginia's 94th state house district now has Democrat Shelly Simonds winning by ... 1 vote. And if that result holds, it will be enough to push the state house of delegates into a 50-50 tie.

Yes, yes, this is an incredibly vivid demonstration of the "every vote counts" principle. But have you taken a moment to spare a thought for the Green Party voter who is really, really angry that he didn't successfully spoil the race and teach a lesson to those neoliberal sellouts who are exactly the same as Trump?

I'm sure he's devastated. Pour one out for the guy tonight, will you?

Monday, December 18, 2017

What Should You Do When Linda Sarsour is Accused of Covering Up Sexual Harassment? Investigate It!

Some of you might have seen a Daily Caller article reporting on a former employee at the Arab American Association who accused Linda Sarsour, then the AAA's Executive Director, of enabling sexual harassment against her in the workplace.

Some of you might not have seen it, because thus far it has basically only been picked up by other sites within the conservative bubble (the only non-right-wing site I've seen running the story is Newsweek).

And that's a shame. Not in the cheap shot, "where are you on this, lib-tards!" sort of way, but because the story deserves to be investigated by a real media source in order to figure out what's going on.

The Daily Caller, after all, is not the most credible of sources. And the author of the piece is Benny Johnson, whom you might recall got fired from Buzzfeed due to repeated acts of plagiarism. So it's not per se unreasonable to cock an eyebrow at the veracity of the story.

That said, aside from the website and the byline, there are quite a few factors about the story which are significant indicia of credibility. There is a named accuser on the record, Asmi Fathelbab, who likewise names a specific harasser, Majed Seif. Fathelbab gives details on her employment at the AAA and when and how it ended, these can all be easily verified. Likewise, other reporters could presumably find the same sources that the Caller did who corroborate Fathelbab's story.

Fathelbab also appears to have a twitter account. Up until the last few days, when she posted about this story, it had lain dormant since 2016 -- her last tweet was a retweet: "Sarah Palin endorses Donald Trump. The bible says these two names in the same sentence signifies the end times." She wasn't the most active contributor to social media, but it doesn't seem like she was in the tank for the right.

To give you a flavor of what the accusations are, here are some details from the Caller's story:
The problems began in early 2009 when a man named Majed Seif, who lived in the same building where the Arab American Association offices are located, allegedly began stalking Fathelbab.
“He would sneak up on me during times when no one was around, he would touch me, you could hear me scream at the top of my lungs,” Asmi Fathelbab tells TheDC. “He would pin me against the wall and rub his crotch on me.”
Asmi claims one of Majed’s alleged favorite past times was sneaking up on her with a full erection.
“It was disgusting,” she tells The Caller. “I ran the youth program in the building and with that comes bending down and talking to small children. You have no idea what it was like to stand up and feel that behind you. I couldn’t scream because I didn’t want to scare the child in front of me. It left me shaking.” 
The Daily Caller was provided with a link to Seif’s Facebook page and confirmed his identity, location and employment. 
Fathelbab says she went to leadership at the organization to report the sexual assault. She alleges she was dismissed by Sarsour outright. “She called me a liar because ‘Something like this didn’t happen to women who looked like me,'” Asmi says. “How dare I interrupt her TV news interview in the other room with my ‘lies.'”
According to Fathelbab, Sarsour threatened legal and professional damage if she went public with the sexual assault claims.
“She told me he had the right to sue me for false claims,” Asmi recalls, adding that the assaulter allegedly “had the right to be anywhere in the building he wanted.”
Desperate after multiple dismissals by Sarsour, the distraught employee says she went to the president of the board of directors, Ahmed Jaber.
“Jaber told me my stalker was a ‘God-fearing man’ who was ‘always at the Mosque,’ so he wouldn’t do something like that,” Fathelbab claims. “He wanted to make it loud and clear this guy was a good Muslim and I was a bad Muslim for “complaining.”
A furious Sarsour allegedly raged against Fathelbab for continuing to report her sexual assault in the building. According to Fathelbab, her allegations would result in her getting written up for disciplinary action. She told TheDC she was once forced to talk to a detective from the community liaison division about the consequences of making false claims to the authorities.
After Fathelbab’s contract was up, Sarsour allegedly threatened to keep her from working again in the city.
“She told me I’d never work in NYC ever again for as long as she lived,” Asmi says. “She’s kept her word. She had me fired from other jobs when she found out where I worked. She has kept me from obtaining any sort of steady employment for almost a decade.”
Two people who knew Fathelbab during her time at the Arab American Association spoke with TheDC on condition of anonymity. Both corroborate her story, recalling that Asmi would return “emotionally distressed and in a panic” from work, often describing it as an “unsafe” work environment.
Another New York political operative, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, claims that Sarsour was “militant against other women” at the Association. This operative, who has worked for over 12 years with the Arab American Association, says they remember Asmi and witnessed her getting harassed in the building.
“They made it about her weight, saying she was not attractive enough to be harassed and then swept it under the rug,” the source said. “It was Linda Sarsour, Ahmad Jaber and Habib Joudeh who took care of it.” Habib Joudeh is the vice president of the Arab American Association of New York.
The source even identified Fathelbab’s alleged assaulter without prompting, “Majed Seif, the man who lived in the building.”
The operative, who is a practicing Muslim in the community, says a toxic culture at the Arab American Association led to the environment of harassment.
There's plenty of information here which would unravel quite quickly if it's all a concoction by an admitted plagiarist writing for a hack right-wing website. Which, of course, is all the more reason for someone not an admitted plagiarist writing for a hack right-wing website to investigate it. To my knowledge, nobody has tried to re-report the story (as far as I can tell, the sites that have picked it up are simply writing about the Caller's investigation, they haven't done any independent reporting).

What I'm trying to say is this: If your thought upon seeing this article was that a Daily Caller article by Benny Johnson attacking a prominent progressive activist maybe should be taken with a grain of salt -- you're right! But that's not a reason for more credible media sources to ignore the piece, that's a reason for them to try and replicate it. There's a myth that suggests feminists demand, at the first whiff of anyone accusing anyone of sexual harassment, that the accused be strung up on a lamppost. But that's not true. The demand is that we take these claims seriously enough to actually investigate and look into them.

And that's what the next step here should be. If it turns out that the Daily Caller piece is a drive-by on Sarsour, that will be valuable to know. And if turns out that it's a credible accusation of Sarsour contributing to a toxic, harassing environment in her workplace and retaliating against a woman who sought to speak up -- well, that's important to know too.

UPDATE: Buzzfeed's article is the first (I've seen) to try to do additional reporting. It certainly doesn't seem to be in dispute that Fathelbab had made complaints at the time, and that Sarsour ultimately concluded they lacked merit (though the precise nature of the complaints is under dispute, and Sarsour denies engaging in any of the "body shaming" behavior alleged).

Sunday, December 17, 2017

Marvel at our Global Community

Well this sure is a lede:
A Nigerien man stabbed two Danish journalists in Gabon, saying it was a revenge attack against the United States for recognizing Jerusalem as Israel’s capital.
It appears that the victims will recover.

Friday, December 15, 2017

Search for Roy Moore's Jewish Lawyer Hones In On Montgomery Christian

When Roy Moore's wife, Kayla, bragged to the press that their "attorney is a Jew," I had my doubts. Specifically, given that she went on to say that they "fellowship" with him, I suspected that the man was actually a Christian. My money was on Messianic Jew and conservative Christian legal heavyweight Jay Sekulow.

No evidence of that, yet. But the Forward did some digging and it seems like I was one the right track. They couldn't find any Jewish lawyers who went within twenty feet of Moore. But they did find one promising candidate:
One Montgomery attorney could be our match. His name — first, middle, and last names included — was certainly very Jewish. The Old Testament names of his children were spelled in ways more typically Jewish than Christian. His specialty is business law. 
And yet. 
He’s also an active church member and a Sunday school teacher. I’m a Sunday school teacher, in a synagogue. He’s a Sunday school teacher in his church. 
This could be our — their — Jewish Attorney.
I can't think of a better way to cap this week than to find out that Roy Moore's Jewish lawyer was actually Christian.

Thursday, December 14, 2017

I Think They Believe It

Here's what Mike Huckabee said about Mika Brzezinski's criticisms of his daughter and White House press secretary, Sarah Huckabee Sanders:
"She [Huckabee Sanders] deserves better from other women and it just amazes me that even the women who say they are feminists are doing everything they can to discredit my daughter," Mike Huckabee said Wednesday evening on Fox News. "My daughter stands strong and tough and walks into that lions den of a press room every day and represents women and represents the president and represents strength in an incredible way."

Brzezinski was critiquing Sanders for providing cover to President Trump after yet another demeaning tweet towards a powerful woman (this time New York Senator Kirsten Gillibrand).

I'm pretty sure I've said this before, but I'll say it again: every instinct in my body says that conservatives know that their caricature of feminism (that it means you can never criticize a woman) or their caricature of anti-racism (that it means you never criticize a person of color) is an obvious, ludicrous strawman. Of course that's not what it means. Who could think that's what it means?

And yet then we get moments like this, where Huckabee basically says "these women 'say they are feminists', and yet they're attacking another woman!" And it's like -- my goodness: I think he really believes it. I think he genuinely feels like this is hypocrisy. I think he's drunk his own kool-aid.

None of this is an excuse, of course -- a modicum of basic curiosity would establish that what feminists desire is not that nobody ever criticize women for anything. But still -- unreasonable as it is, I think it's pretty close to genuine. Mike Huckabee, and those like him, really believe that the feminist argument is that woman ought to be immune from any critique whatsoever.

Monday, December 11, 2017

Cross-Racial Representation in the House

Daily Kos Elections has an interesting post listing those House members who represent a district whose population is either majority- or plurality of a different race (e.g., a White member representing a plurality Latino district).

I was a bit surprised at the partisan diversity here. There are, for example, 30 majority- or plurality-white districts represented by a non-White member. Of those, eight are Republican (five Latinos, two Native Americans, and one African-American). There are 21 majority- or plurality-Latino districts represented by non-Latinos, of which five are Republican-represented (four Whites, one African-American).

Anyway, it's an interesting list to poke around in. Have a look.

Sunday, December 10, 2017

Jones/Moore in a Nutshell

Talking Points Memo chats with churchgoers in Alabama:
In a state considered part of the Bible Belt, the allegations transformed a race into an unexpected referendum on which is better: a man accused of child molestation claims he vehemently denies or a Democrat?
For many conservative Republicans, there’s really no choice.
Sigh.

Things People Blame the Jews For, Volume XXXIX: Not Believing Dylan Farrow (Special Forward Edition)

In the Jewish Daily Forward, I have a reply to Eli Bromberg's "partial" explanation for why "Me Too" hasn't taken down Woody Allen. In brief, Bromberg attributes Allen's continued high status to antisemitism -- or rather, the fear of people being accused of antisemitism if they go after a Jewish actor being accused by a non-Jew.

My explanation, by contrast, is much more straightforward: it's misogyny, the same factor that explains the vast majority of other cases where men sexually abuse women and then don't face consequences. Woody Allen isn't the exception, he's the rule. And so we don't need a more complicated explanation for why people don't believe Dylan Farrow other than the standard one: most men don't believe most women when they make claims of sexual assault against powerful men. Any worries about "antisemitism" are entirely epiphenomenal.

This essay was originally going to be published on this blog, and in the move over to the Forward a bunch of stuff got cut. I did mention in the essay that while, contrary to popular belief, non-Jews don't really work that hard to not be antisemitic, they do
care quite a bit about portraying themselves as laboring under an oppressive cloud of Jewish scrutiny, whereby a single false move leads to banishment or worse, and where consequently attacking Jews or Jewish institutions is a brave act of rebellion rather than what it actually is — the historical norm.
In the full version, I offered a few examples to provide color: The Vatican newspaper complaining of how Jews complain "at the first shout by anyone who dares raise his voice against this barbarian invasion by an enemy race," a mere ten years after Jews were even emancipated in Rome; or the Presbyterian official who at a 2014 extolled her fellows that "Jesus wasn’t afraid to tell the Jews when they were wrong" -- as if Christianity's main historical problem vis-a-vis the Jews was the former being too reticent and taciturn towards the latter.

I also had an extended discussion of what I take to be the best analogy to the argument Bromberg wants to make: Clarence Thomas's response, in his confirmation hearings, to Anita Hill's allegations of sexual harassment. It is true that Black men have long been targeted by claims of sexual misconduct as a means of enforcing racist oppression. It is also true that Hill's specific allegations against Thomas were perfectly credible and deserved to believed. Finally, Thomas's declaration that he was being targeted by a "high-tech lynching" was precisely the explicit sort of appeal to racism that Allen is alleged to have made.

What was the result? Thomas' argument did seem to have an impact on some Black organizations who had vivid memories of the link between Jim Crow and claims of Black male sexual predation. But most continued to oppose his nomination. And even to the extent there was some hesitation amongst some Black people to full-throatedly support Anita Hill, it would be absurd to argue that such reticence translated into any meaningful advantage for Thomas inside the White male dominated Senate. White men have not historically needed Black people to give permission before they pass judgment on Black bodies.

Thomas's confirmation vote was 52-48, the closest margin for a Supreme Court nominee of the era. It is almost certainly the case that this margin would have been wider, not narrower, had Thomas not been Black. Put another way, there's little evidence that the Senators who voted for Thomas did so because they were afraid of being called racist. There's a lot of evidence that the Senators who voted for Thomas did so because they, like most men, trust men over the women who accuse them of sexual abuse.

And so too with Allen. Neither being Black nor being Jewish makes it harder for society to condemn you for sexual abuse. If we see Black or Jewish men who appear to be getting away with it, the primary explanation is not that we're too sensitive to the "race card" or we're fearful of being tarred with "antisemitism". The best explanation remains the normal explanation: that men, most of the time, don't believe women who make accusations of sexual assault.

Saturday, December 09, 2017

Abuse in the Clerkship Chambers

I've never met Heidi Bond.

But I knew who she was.

Her blog ("Letters of Marque", now long defunct) was one of several law school blogs I read regularly when this site was first starting out. I found her a fun and engaging writer, and she seemed to be succeeding first as a law student and then a legal professional. I knew she had gotten prestigious clerkships, for example, first with Ninth Circuit Judge Alex Kozinski and then on the United States Supreme Court. For awhile it looked as if she was headed toward legal academia.

Then she seemed to drop off the map. Much later, I learned she was writing romance novels as "Courtney Milan." A bit weird, but hey, good on her. Sometimes the best law graduates are those who manage to escape law altogether. I still consider the most successful graduate of my law school class to be Natalie Shapero, who's now a professional poet.

Heidi has now written an account of her time clerking for Judge Kozinski. It is a harrowing read, but I encourage you to do it. It is an account of gender harassment that chills precisely because it didn't ever escalate to physical abuse or violent behavior, and because it involves a young woman who seemed to exemplify "elite" credentials, but nonetheless clearly and unambiguously bears the marks of exploitation.

I've never met Judge Kozinski. But like pretty much all law students, I knew who he was.

It's difficult to overstate Judge Kozinski's reputation amongst intermediate appellate judges -- in terms of renown within the legal community, he probably ranks second only to Richard Posner. He was famous for his independence, his sharp legal mind, and his witty, almost casual, style of writing (e.g., his notorious "The parties are advised to chill").

Among law students seeking high-level clerkships, Judge Kozinski had a more specific reputation -- two of them, actually. The first was that he was known as a direct pipeline to a Supreme Court clerkship (the holy grail for ambitious, elite law students). The second was that he was known to be a complete and utter nightmare to work for.

To be fair, the latter part of the reputation didn't (to my knowledge, at least) have a gendered component. It was more of a Devil Wears Prada sort of deal. Kozinski was a brilliant monster, he'd abuse the hell out of his clerks, but if you survived the year he would open every professional door you could possibly imagine.

And while I was interested in a Supreme Court clerkship, I wasn't interested in that sort of experience. I had a friend who clerked for Judge Kozinski while I was still in law school, and every update on his year made him sound like a shell of a human being. So Judge Kozinski wasn't high on my list of clerkship targets (I don't remember if I applied, I certainly didn't get an interview, and I ended up clerking instead for the fabulous Judge Diana E. Murphy of the United States Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit).

We can talk about whether "simple" abuse, sans the gender component, should be tolerated in the workforce. That's a separate debate. But as Heidi's testimony makes clear, in Judge Kozinski's case it was not in fact sans gender (the Washington Post collects the accounts of several other female clerks recounting harassment or inappropriate behavior by Judge Kozinski).

This is all a lot of run-up, and you might expect me to have some additional insight on offer at this point. But I really don't. It seems obvious that the clerkship environment is one ripe for abuse -- the exceptionally strong norms of confidentiality, the intense professional pressure, the fact that the person with such power over your life and future career is a judge for crying out loud (and you're probably going to be a lawyer, so you have especially strong reasons not to get on a judge's bad side). It is a sterling example of how vulnerability can still exist among people with degrees from the top schools and access to the most prestigious jobs.

So I'm not really surprised by Heidi's account. But I am sad. In her recommendations, Heidi writes
Law students are often told in glowing terms that a clerkship will be the best year in their career. They are never told that it might, in fact, be their worst—and that if it is their worst, they may be compelled to lie to others in the name of loyalty to their judge.
As someone who did have a glowing clerkship experience, this is what gets me. I know how wonderful it can be to be a clerk. I know how rewarding, and how exhilarating, and how enriching, and how inspiring it can be. So when other people have clerkships and don't have that experience, I feel cheated on their behalf. They were stripped of something that should have been wonderful.

Anyway, that's all I have to say. But again, I encourage you to read Heidi's post. It is a powerful and compelling, if sometimes quite difficult read. And while I doubt she knows me, I'll add my voice to the chorus thanking her for posting it.

Friday, December 08, 2017

A Modest Speech Before the Zionist Organization of America

Of course, I'd never be invited to give a speech to a ZOA. This, rather, is an advance copy of a speech to be delivered before that august organization of Israel-defenders by my possibly-imaginary-alter-ego, Judah ben Samaria.

Fellow Zionists.

I come before you more optimistic about the survival and success of our beloved Jewish state than I’ve felt at any time since … well, since at least 2008.

I need not remind you of the great victory President Donald Trump—a true friend of Israel—has given us at the end of his first year in office. But perhaps I can take a moment to emphasize its scope.

It is not just his recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s undivided capital, though we have since time immemorial yearned for recognition of this historical truth.

And it is not just that he has abandoned the foolish insistence on blindly pursuing the “two-state delusion,” though it has long since been demonstrated that no peace will come from dividing the holy land.

No, there is a greater accomplishment here still. Through the President’s bold leadership, he has accomplished something that all the talking heads and State Department Arabists had assumed to be impossible: He has gotten the Palestinians to finally accept that they will never have their own state carved out from the territory of the historic Jewish homeland.

The Palestinian’s own chief negotiator, Saeb Erekat, has forthrightly acknowledged it:  “President Trump has delivered a message to the Palestinian people: the two-state solution is over.”

This is what we’ve fought for, is it not? From this point forward, the question is no longer how much land Israel will have to cede to create some mythic, concocted “Palestinian” state. If you are in Eretz Yisrael, you are in Israel. There are no more “settlers”, and there are no more “refugees”. The era of arbitrary divisions across the entirety of the Holy Land can now enter history’s dustbin, right alongside the arbitrary division of Israel’s capital.

This is an opportunity we cannot miss. By ignoring the naysayers and the doubters, President Trump has actually forged a consensus between the Palestinian leadership and the committed friends of Israel who populate this room. Having abandoned the delusion of an independent Palestinian state, and the obstinate refusal to accept Israel’s existence, “Palestinian” leaders are finally taking a different tack. Now, instead of fighting a genocidal war against Israel, they are willing to pursue a path of true peace: working with us to ensure that each and every person currently living under Israeli sovereignty is given all the rights and prerogatives of citizenship inside of a single, unified state. Erekat accepted that this was the only possible route forward following President Trump’s diplomatic powerplay: “Now is the time to transform the struggle for one-state with equal rights for everyone living in historic Palestine, from the river to the sea.”

There’s no need to wait. Now that it is clear that Jerusalem is and will remain an undivided city, the 350,000 Arabs living in “East” Jerusalem who have stubbornly refused the opportunity for Israeli citizenship should welcome the opportunity to integrate into Israel as equal voters, residents, and co-nationals.

But why stop there? There’s no need to wait for “negotiations”—negotiations with who? Getting bogged down in a chimerical “peace process” has only led Israel astray; and in any event, Israel is the sole legitimate governing body between the River and the Sea—it’s time it acted like it. Israel should immediately annex Judea and Samaria—and Gaza, while we're at it—in their entirety, and say once and for all: If you live in any part of our territory, you are an Israeli citizen—with all the rights and freedoms that entails. Whether you are among the 400,000 so-called “settlers” or the nearly three million so-called “Palestinians” will no longer matter. President Trump has paved the way for all to be equal citizens of one, undivided nation. By the next general election, I hope that all those living in Judea and Samaria—regardless of religion or ethnicity—come in hordes to the polls and cast a ballot in a single, unified election. Then we will finally know that our Zionist dream has come to full fruition.

Our enemies have long slandered committed Zionists by accusing us of desiring an “apartheid” state, where Jews and Arabs have unequal rights and the former oppress the latter. But it was the libel of “occupation” that allowed so-called liberals to justify keeping West Bank Arabs stateless—awaiting the conjuration of a non-existent “Palestinian” country. Once the Arabs and the world accepts that there is and will ever be only one state in the Holy Land, then all residents inside of it can enjoy complete and total equality as citizens within.

Now is the time for us here at ZOA to stand up for what a one-state solution truly means. After all, if there is no such thing as “Palestine”, then the only other possible label for so-called “Palestinians” living in Judea and Sameria is “Israeli.” Erekat’s pivot to “one-state with equal rights for everyone” shows that he gets it. Many of us have long observed that, in all practicality, there is only one state already. But it will not be a truly unified state until Israel gives full enfranchisement to the totality of the population of Judea and Sameria. That final coup de grace is all that stands between us and a true, globally acknowledged, “one-state solution.”

We often like to joke that the Palestinians “never miss an opportunity to miss an opportunity.” But—in the spirit of the new era of peace and unity that Donald Trump has ushered in—perhaps we can congratulate them for, finally, seeing the writing on the wall. The two-state delusion is dead; Donald Trump has killed it. And in doing so, he has given us an opportunity to seize as well. We must adopt a new slogan, one which can separate the allies of Israel from her enemies, and clearly articulates our vision for a unified state across the entire territory in Mandatory Palestine within which all who reside are equal.

“From the River to the Sea, Palestine Will Be Free.”


This is the future Donald Trump holds out for us. And whenever we hear anyone sing chant, we here at ZOA will know we've found a friend.

Thursday, December 07, 2017

What Do You Do With Terrible Precedents Shielding Lying Prosecutors?

Bacall v. Stoddard is about a prosecutor who lied.

Bacall was accused of first-degree murder. He claimed self-defense. The prosecutor told the jury that Bacall never once raised the issue of self-defense before trial -- that it was an opportunistic argument he only now was trying to swing. This was the lie. Bacall had been emphatic in claiming self-defense since being booked for the crime, and the prosecutor was well aware of this. But following that lie, the jury (which made it clear it was agonizing over the case in deliberations), voted to convict.

The Sixth Circuit rejected Bacall's Habeas petition. They were clearly disturbed by the conduct. There was no question in their mind that the prosecutor lied, and did so intentionally (quoth the court regarding the prosecutor's statements to the jury: "This was false, and the prosecutor knew it."). The case was not one where the evidence against the defendant was overwhelming; the prosecutor's lie very well could have tipped the margin. The issue was preserved at trial (via an objection made -- on instructions of the trial court -- out of earshot of the jury).

The problem was that Supreme Court precedents and the AEDPA have made prevailing on a Habeas petition almost ludicrously difficult to manage. Even in a case like this, where there was a manifest abuse by the prosecution, the question was whether the Michigan state court's decision not to overturn the jury verdict was "was so lacking in justification that [it committed] an error well understood and comprehended in existing law beyond any possibility for fairminded disagreement." Yeah, that's a tough standard to meet.

The panel clearly believed this case well-illustrated how the current law and precedents have gone badly off the rails. It seemed to me that they weren't saying that the only reasonable way of reading the law was to require that outcome, however. Rather, their analysis suggests that they believed this outcome was the most reasonable interpretation of the governing law.

For me, this raises an interesting hypothetical. Suppose you're the appellate judge hearing this case, and you think the following things are true:
(a) the prosecutor here committed a gross miscarriage of justice, such that, in a just and functioning legal system, Bacall's conviction should clearly be reversed; 
(b) the most accurate read of the governing statute and precedents -- entirely bloodless and indifferent to the consequences or questions of justice -- would suggest that his Habeas petition must fail; 
(c) notwithstanding the above, there is a plausible and reasonable (though not the best) interpretation of the statute and precedents which would justify granting the Habeas petition; and
(d) you suspect that, if your panel does successfully grant the petition, that ruling will not be disturbed by any further appeals (the case won't go en banc or to the Supreme Court).
What do you do?

Tuesday, December 05, 2017

No, The Police Can't Force Children To Masturbate For Them -- Even With a Warrant

One of the wilder cases I've ever seen appears to be coming to a close, as the Fourth Circuit -- in a 2-1 decision -- denied qualified immunity to a police officer who sought to compel a minor to masturbate in front of him until he achieved an erection. Yes, you read that right.

The background to the case is here. The plaintiff was a seventeen year old boy who had sent a sext of his erect penis to his fifteen year old girlfriend. Not wise, perhaps, but I continue to believe such consenting acts between two minors shouldn't be criminalized.

The Prince William's County (Virginia) DA disagreed, however, and went after the teenager for manufacturing and distributing "child pornography" (to be clear, he was the "child" in question). To my mind that's already an abuse of prosecutorial discretion, but where the case really went off the rails is what happened next:

The officer went to court and got a search warrant for "[p]hotographs of the genitals, and other parts of the body of [Sims] that will be used as comparisons in recovered forensic evidence from the victim and suspect’s electronic devices. This includes a photograph of the suspect’s erect penis." And how do you get a photograph of a teenager's erect penis?
In a “locker room” in the center, [Detective] Abbott and two uniformed, armed officers executed the search warrant. Abbott ordered Sims to “pull down his pants so that photos could be taken of his penis.” After Sims complied, Abbott instructed Sims “to use his hand to manipulate his penis in different ways” to obtain an erection. However, Sims was unable to achieve an erection. Nonetheless, Abbott took photographs of Sims’ flaccid penis using Abbott’s cellular telephone. 
At that point, Abbott told the kid's attorney that if he couldn't achieve an erection on demand while surrounded by three armed officers in a police station, he'd take him to the hospital "to give him an erection-producing injection." It was here that public outrage finally compelled the government to back off.

Unsurprisingly, the teenager sued the officer for violating his constitutional rights -- but perhaps more surprisingly, he actually won (if you're thinking: "of course he won -- surely, police officers can't constitutionally force kids to masturbate in front of them," then I have some very sobering stories to tell you about how qualified immunity typically operates).

Monday, December 04, 2017

But Can Hanlon's Razor Explain This?

You know, it wasn't long ago that if you told me the Texas prison system banned Shakespeare but permitted Mein Kampf, I'd have assumed it was due to some form of incompetence. And not, say, a genuine preference on the part of Texas prison administrators for White supremacist and Nazi literature over literary classics.

Now? Less sure.
“‘Mein Kampf’ is on the approved list because it does not violate our rules,” said a prison official.
 Lovely.

Saturday, December 02, 2017

What's The Point of That Woman?

I understand why Tom Coburn wants to be in Congress.

Ditto Marsha Blackburn or Marco Rubio or Deb Fischer or even Steve King. These people have policy priorities and political changes they wish to accomplish -- ones I disagree with, to be sure, but they have them -- and being in Congress is a solid mechanism to turn their dreams (also known as my nightmares) into reality.

But I do not really understand why Susan Collins has any desire to be in the Senate. What motivates her? What causes her to get up in the morning? What exactly is she hoping to accomplish?

I don't think she really harbors any deep desire to put our tax code through a wood-chipper to benefit the ultra-wealthy while decimating students and the working-class. Were she running the show, there's no way she'd produce a tax plan even remotely similar to the one that she just voted for. At the same time, she obviously doesn't have any interest in actually voting against her Republican colleagues more than once in a blue moon, or putting up more than token resistance to policies she'd never draft were she the one in charge. She's the epitome of a moderate Republican: someone who talks about voting against Republican proposals before voting for Republican proposals.

So what's the point? Why does she bother?

I mean that honestly. I have no idea what motivates Susan Collins. I do not understand what drives her. She appears to exist in order to roll over.

Why would one want to live that life? It's baffling to me.

Wednesday, November 29, 2017

Things People Blame the Jews For, Volume XXXVIII: Their Own Pedophilia

No, this isn't going to be a post about "Bernie Bernstein". That's people blaming the Jews for exposing pedophilia. Big difference.

No, this is about a Catholic priest, recently convicted of sexually abusing children, who reportedly told them that when he was fondling their testicles, it was actually "an old Jewish ritual."

Putting aside the inherent horror of the crime, there's something extra abhorrent about a Catholic priest trying to communicate to his victims that it all actually traces back to Jews and Jewish ritual -- an attempt which has horrible echoes of a long line of Christian antisemitism sowing lies and slander about Jewish religion and practices. Nope. Nope, nope nope.

Tuesday, November 28, 2017

Post-Turkey Roundup

Back from seeing the family in Rhode Island. But what is Thanksgiving without leftovers?

* * *

Is Donald Trump boosting a conspiracy website arguing that Jews run the world still news? I think it's still news.

Right-wing website hires a woman to pose as a survivor of sexual assault by Roy Moore in an attempt to embarrass the Washington Post. Unfortunately for them, the Post is a real newspaper that actually does fact-check, so they figured out her scheme. Maybe she should've called Bernie Bernstein?

Tamar Zaken writes on Mizrahi Heritage Month (aka, November): "We cannot define the Mizrachi heritage in terms of expulsion or destruction."

The New York Jewish deli owned by a Yemeni Muslim.

Marty Lederman looks into the fun statutory issues governing who's actually running the Consumer Financial Protection Board right now.

Monday, November 27, 2017

Evil Things Come in Normal Packages

One of the first bits of independent research I ever did, as an undergraduate at Carleton, examined how southern judges responded to Black litigants making claims in the Jim Crow era. Everyone is familiar with the Scottsboro cases, for example, and many lawyers know of the two Supreme Court cases that resulted: Powell v. Alabama (reversal of convictions due to failure to provide counsel) and Norris v. Alabama (reversal of convictions due to exclusion of Blacks from the jury pool).

But before the Supreme Court heard those cases, they went up through the Alabama judiciary, which issued its own rulings. It will not surprise anyone that the Alabama Supreme Court had affirmed all the convictions. It might surprise some that in Powell, at least, that affirmance came over a vigorous dissent by the Chief Justice of that court.

More to the point: if one reads the opinions in those cases, one is struck by their ... normalcy. The general sense of how the southern legal system treated Black litigants in the Jim Crow era might be summarized as "the litigant is Black, the litigant loses. The end." That's both right and wrong. On the one hand, the law really was -- consistently and systematically -- stacked against Black litigants, in ways that made it virtually impossible to achieve justice. On the other hand, the legal opinions always had the appearance and trappings of normal, unremarkable legal analysis. They looked the same, more or less, to how legal opinions look today. Sometimes, opinions aren't unanimous. Sometimes -- rarely, but sometimes -- Black litigants even won in the southern judiciary.

Why does this matter? Well, it seems to me that we do -- at some level -- expect that systematic injustice of the Jim Crow variety is (for lack of a better word) aesthetically distinctive; coming in clear packages of snarling viciousness that makes no bones about its own evil. And a corollary of that is that, to the extent we don't witness that sort of snarl as widespread in the present day, we must not be witnessing systematic injustice (of the Jim Crow variety). But what my research indicated, and what I continue to believe, is that this presupposition is incorrect. Even then, evil was wrapped in normalcy and held the trappings of justice and civilization. Which means that any normalcy and civility we witness today is not probative evidence that we are not ourselves witnessing evil.

All of this is, of course, warm-up to the discussion of that New York Times article on the "normal" neo-Nazi next door. I haven't read that profile, and it strikes me as quite plausible that it was done poorly. But I admit to significant discomfort over the notion that it's wrong to "normalize" Nazism (or antisemitism, or racism, or what have you) in the sense that it's wrong to present it as something that is perpetuated by people who in many respects appear "normal": not snarling monsters, not people twirling their mustaches and cackling about their desire to immiserate the universe.

Now, not all the critics are making such a claim: Jemele Hill, for instance, recognizes that the genre isn't per se wrong but thinks the execution is off -- a totally fair claim.


The JTA analysis likewise contends that the problem with the piece is that the author seems to just assume "oh, we all know these views are garbage" -- but of course, the actual moral of the story here is that lots of people, people who don't "wear it on their sleeve", people who maybe (gasp) read The New York Times, actually don't "know" that and will accordingly read the piece in a very different light than what the author intended.

But contrast that critique to Ezra Klein's, who confidently tells us that there's nothing "new" about the observation that evil is banal. In a sense he's right, but the reason that Arendt's work still resonates is precisely because we're resistant to the message. This is why people wince when they hear the label "The New Jim Crow" -- we may have problems, sure, but Jim Crow? That was so ... explicit! The obviousness, the alleged abnormality of it, is taken to be the knockout argument against applying it to the present day.

It seems trivial to say that Nazis, too, shop for groceries and like to pet puppies. But to the extent that many people really do seem to take the stance that "Nazism can't be a problem here -- all the folks in my neighborhood are normal folks who shop for groceries and pet puppies", then it actually does matter to reiterate that terrible people share those qualities too.

In short: Our markers for extreme injustice are far, far off-base. We think we'll see head-to-toe swastika tattoos and street executions on every corner. And since we don't see that, we assume there's nothing left to see. But injustice doesn't always, or even often, come clothed in such distinctive garb. Most of the time, evil things come in normal packages -- and it's important to point that out.

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.

Tuesday, October 31, 2017

Labour Members Are Only Human

Discussing analogies of Israel or Zionists to Nazis, the Chakrabarti Inquiry on antisemitism in the UK Labour Party concluded that such comparisons are "incendiary", "intended to be incendiary", and "bring the Party into disrepute." It thus took the firm and decisive stand that Labour members should ... "resist" saying such things.

I questioned at the time whether the "temptation [is] really that overwhelming." But apparently the answer is yes: for Labour has just overturned the expulsion of yet another "Nazis were really Zionists" member (recall this is what got Ken Livingstone suspended, but not expelled).

Basically, Labour seems to view comparing Israel and/or Zionists to Nazis the way you or I might view a decadent chocolate dessert. Probably not good for you, and certainly not something one should indulge in regularly -- but can anyone blame you if you succumb to temptation every once in awhile?


Monday, October 30, 2017

What It Will Take for Trump's Base To Turn

Three of Donald Trump's confederates have now been indicted on counts related to Russia-collusion (one has already pled guilty). Trump's nationwide approval ratings are at an all-time low. So now is either a strange or a great time to ask -- what will it take for his core base to finally turn on him?

And the answer is: I'm not sure they ever will.

The reason isn't necessarily that they approve of what he's doing. But think of what it would mean for a Trump partisan to really, truly, turn on him.

It would mean admitting that the people they hate most -- the media, the liberals, the academics, the dreaded "elites" -- they were right. That the Trump backers who thought he'd "drain the swamp" or bring back coal jobs, or tackle the opioid epidemic or whatever it is they believed Trump would do, were hoodwinked. Just like we told them they would be.

That's deeply humiliating, and ultimately, that's the key barrier to Trump's base turning on him.

So I suspect they'll deny it for as long as they can. And they can for a long time. There's nothing that will compel them to come around, of course. Media reports? They're biased! Job losses? Impossible to trace those back to Trump policies; maybe it's liberal sabotage. Criminal indictments? That's the deep state. There will always be an out, or an excuse, or a dodge.

Reckoning with what really happened, admitting that one's mortal enemies had it right all along, well, that would take a pretty big dose of personal responsibility. And we all know how modern conservatives fare on that metric.
"There comes a point in every plot where the victim starts to suspect; and looks back, and sees a trail of events all pointing in a single direction. And when that point comes, Father had explained, the prospect of the loss may seem so unbearable, and admitting themselves tricked may seem so humiliating, that the victim will yet deny the plot, and the game may continue long after."