Sunday, September 14, 2014

On Offensive Speech and Ethnic Sensitivities -- Part Two

When I was growing up in the late fifties and  early sixties, my best friend’s mother was an outspoken Jewish liberal who embraced every progressive cause. She would drag my friend and me to civil rights protests and talk about the issues of the day with great liberal passion.

Once I told her that my older brother was  considering buying a Volkswagen, and she replied,  “I simply cannot buy anything from Germany, certainly not a Volkswagen.”  I pointed out to her that Volkswagen cars were sold in Israel, that Germany had paid reparations to Israel, and that many Germans had volunteered to work in Israeli kibbutzim. But she wouldn’t budge; she could not bring herself to buy anything German, even though this was twenty years after World War II, and it was a different generation.

Her position bothered me at the time, since I had been taught that we shouldn’t blame the children for the sins of the parents. Her personal boycott of Germany and Germany goods didn’t jibe with her liberalism. I never talked to her about it; had I done so, she probably would have  conceded that she was acting from her gut.  But she was my best friend’s mother, a close family friend whom I loved dearly, and so I just kept quiet. Even today I will excuse a holocaust survivor who feels that way.  Still, not buying from the Germans today simply because they are German strikes me as bigoted, and while I may excuse somebody who acts in a bigoted manner because of some extenuating circumstance, I have to understand that it is the only extenuating circumstance, and perhaps the principle of charity, that excuse that person. The bigotry itself is worthy of moral condemnation, though in the greater scheme of things there are worse sins than not buying products from a certain country because of a historical grievance.

Which brings me back to Prof. Salaita’s tweets. Though I was offended by them less than others, I did find some of them coarse, unenhanced, and demeaning for a university professor. I particularly didn’t like the one that wished that all the settlers would disappear like the three kidnapped Israelis had disappeared.  Don’t misunderstand me. I consider the settlement movement a moral abomination;   through the systematic theft of land it not only destroys the lives of particular people, it destroys the life and aspirations of a people. The settlement movement is not merely an “obstacle to peace”; it is a crime against humanity  and to the extent that I am an Israeli citizen, and pay taxes, I am complicit in that crime.

But at the same time, settlers are human beings and cannot be just wished dead. So like Prof. Klug who will not march in the company of somebody carrying a sign equating a Jewish Star with Nazism, so too I will not retweet those tweets that I find offensive, not just to Jews, but to any decent being.

That said -- and said loudly – let us not forget that in the greater scheme of things the crudeness of a few tweets pales behind the enormity of the crime of Israel against the Palestinian people, a crime that ebbs and flows from the banal evil of the day-to-day occupation to the demonic evil of its periodic outbursts where Israel feels it has  to “establish deterrence” by collectively pushing the Palestinian  people into the mud.  (I am sure that I have just offended many of my coreligionists. I have tenure, but I do not plan to tweet that remark, and I ask you you not to retweet it.)

And when a member of the group who has suffered, and continues to suffer, says something that is offensive to the group responsible for that suffering (or who supports the group responsible for that suffering), then by all means call out that person for his offensive remarks – but cut him some slack and get over it. 

The only reason I have spent this much time on the subject is that every month there is a Finkelstein or Blumenthal or Abunimah or Salaita who says something that may strike some Jews as offensive. Instead of rushing to condemn these people, who speak for the victim, perhaps intemperately at times, it would be better to invite them to explain their harsh words.

That was what the President of the University of Illinois should have done at the outset with Prof. Salaita.   Had he been a tenured member of the faculty he would not have been treated in this dismissive manner.  At my university, when professors say something that is considered out of line,  they are given a hearing in the appropriate forum.

That’s what she should still do now. And until she does, the university will suffer the consequences for her insensitivity. 

As for my liberal Zionist friends who have been pummeling Prof. Salaita; may I suggest that they all take a deep breath and keep things in proportion. Reject the tweet, if you like, but try to cut some slack to the tweeter. And invite him to explain his position.

On Offensive Speech and Ethnic Sensitivities -- Part One

“Even if one grants that the University of Illinois acted wrongly in the case of Stephen Salaita, the tweets themselves should be considered deeply offensive, and,  while not overtly anti-Semitic, they conjure up themes and motifs that smack of anti-Semitism. This may not be grounds for dismissal, but it is certainly grounds for condemning the tweets on their own.”

The above is a composite of several reactions to the post below  that I would like to examine. But before I do, consider the following  case, taken from Brian Klug’s essay, Offence: the Jewish Case

At a pro-Palestinian rally  in England, following Operation Cast Lead in Gaza, there was a placard that represented an Israeli flag, only instead of the Star of David there was a swastika (or a Star of David and a swastika with an “equals” sign between them).  Now to a Jew this is deeply offensive, for when a Jew sees the Star of David, he associates it with Jews in general or with Judaism – after all, the Nazis required Jews to wear the yellow star well before there was an Israeli flag.  The placard is taken by many Jews to  imply that the victims are to be identified with the perpetrators, and worse, that Judaism is Nazism.  Even a  placard that explicitly stated that  Israel Defense Forces were acting like German soldiers, as offensive as that might be to many Jews, would be less offensive than one in which the Star of David is identified with, or is replaced by, the swastika. What could be more anti-Semitic than that?

Klug points out that this reaction is understandable given Jewish sensitivities and memories, but it is also possible, and maybe actually the case, that the placard writer didn’t mean any of that, that she just wanted to protest vehemently against  Israeli military actions against innocent civilians, and she used the swastika, a universal symbol of evil often used in other, non-Jewish contexts, such as anti-war protests in the United States.  His point, I think,  is two-fold: that Jews, like other groups, have understandable, and in some cases commendable, sensitivities,  but that in assessing whether something is anti-Semitic or not, the intentions of the author should be taken into account. Even something as prima facie anti-Semitic as defacing a synagogue, though criminal and condemnable, is not necessarily an anti-Semitic ac; it depends in large measure on the intentions of the perpetrator. 

Klug writes of the offending banner:

I was not on marches where placards with this image were displayed…Some of the protesters who stepped out under the aegis of this image are, I am sure, decent human beings whose views about Israel’s actions in Gaza are not very different from my own. I might even agree completely with what they say. But if they asked me to join them under their banner I would have to reply, adapting a phrase that wasn’t Voltaire’s, I approve of what you say, but I wouldn’t be seen dead in your company.

Klug was referring to the marchers. To the placard writer, I would say, “I approve of your condemnation of the massacre of innocents, but, as a Jew, and, frankly, as a decent human being, your rhetoric, no matter what your intent, renders it impossible for me to link arms with you in this procession.”

That’s not the end of the story; two further points should be made. First, offence is subjective, from which follows that not every offence carries the same weight, and indeed some offence may be morally praiseworthy, e.g., offending an Israeli military that has committed war crimes. Second, even when being offended is understandable and even  justifiable,  “getting over it” might be the right thing to do, especially when the one giving offence has historically suffered at the hands of the offender's group, or the group the offended supports.  Much depends on context, not just the context of the offence, but of the offender and the offended.

But more of this in Part Two.

Thursday, September 11, 2014

Some Short Takes on the Salaita Affair

Since Corey Robin has done such a fine job of reporting and commenting on the Steven Salaita affair (Prof. Salaita’s job offer was revoked by the President of University of Illinois at Urbana-Campaign after some pro-Israeli donors had complained about some of his tweets that offended them), I have only a few things to add.

1) First, I have yet to see a single person defend the President’s decision who is not pro-Israel.  One would expect that advocates of civility codes would be the first who feel that universities have a right to monitor the social media of professors to see if anything they say or write is deemed offensive to a particular group of students.  Mind you, I am not talking about what they say in the classroom, although I tend to be fairly conservative here in my commitment to freedom of expression.  I am talking about what they say and write outside the classroom.

2) Prof. Steven Plaut at Haifa University denies that there are Palestinians (he places the term in “quotes”) but considers them all to be terrorists!  Does that offend some Palestinian students? I suppose it does. But the offensive claptrap that Plaut writes  is his own damn business – unless it presents an imminent danger to individuals or groups. I realize that this is my American meshugas, that there are hate speech laws in European countries (and in Israel).  But what can you do, I’m an American and believe in those values. That is why I opposed banning Meir Kahane’s Kach party many years ago, and I still oppose banning it today. That is why I opposed banning the vile book Torat ha-Melekh or Hitler’s Mein Kampf.

3) I have no way of assessing Salaita’s quality as a scholar, but two universities have offered him tenured positions based on his teaching, service, and scholarship. So even his critics have to admit that he is admired and respected within his profession (or at least I haven’t heard anything to the contrary). 

4.  Finally, I would like to address the content of what one writer considers Salaita’s “most hateful tweets”, and, as an intellectual exercise, pose the following question to his detractors.

Had Salaita tweeted or blogged the following:

a. By conflating Jewishness and Israel, Israel is partly responsible when their disproportionate attacks on civilians are followed by regrettable anti-Semitic incidents in Europe.

b. If criticizing Israeli treatment of and attitudes towards  Palestinians is anti-Semitic, then insofar as that criticism is justified, and indeed, commendable, so is anti-Semitism.  But of course, criticizing Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians is not anti-Semitic; it is “anti-Semitism” only in the eyes of the Zionists, who conflate Judaism and Zionism.

c. The IDF spokesperson appears to justify violence committed against the Palestinian people, using techniques that are reminiscent of apologists for ethnic cleansing.

would his detractors still have argued that he is unfit to teach at the University of Illinois? No doubt many would. But I agree with much of those sentiments. So why do they go after Salaita and not go after me?

Either because Salaita’s language is more blunt and vulgar than mine, or because he is a Palestinian American, rather than an American Israeli. I have the creds that he lacks, and so I am protected in ways that he isn’t. 

I have the feeling that the latter explanation is more accurate. Being part of a powerful minority, with Jewish and Israeli creds,  has its advantages.