Tuesday, November 14, 2017

How Not To Argue Against Student Divestment Proposals

Students who support the human and civil rights of Palestinians are submitting proposals on college campuses that call for their universities to divest from companies that profit from Israel’s occupation and administration of Palestinian territories.

As a faculty member I believe it is inappropriate for me to take a position publicly on a student issue. (Others might reasonably disagree.) But I would like to answer some of the questions that opponents of the proposal often raise. Although there may be good reasons to oppose divestment proposals, you won’t find them in the questions below.

1. “Why should student government associations single out Israel for divestment when there are worst human rights offenders?”

The answer is simple: there are students at the university whose lives are directly impacted by Israel’s actions in the Palestinian controlled territories. Some of them are of Palestinian descent; others may have relatives on the West Bank and Gaza. Some of them are Israelis who support this symbolic gesture. Then there are roommates, friends, and ordinary people who sympathize with the plight of the Palestinians under occupation.

To suggest that these students should be more concerned with the plight of Syrian refugees or with human rights violations in China than with their own people is dehumanizing and inconsistent; dehumanizing, because it is human to care most about those who are closest to you; inconsistent, because the partisans making this charge clearly are themselves concerned more with defending Israel than with much worse human rights violations.

2. “Aren’t there two sides to every question? This proposal only presents one!”

It is indeed important for the student legislators to educate themselves about the proposal and to listen carefully to both sides. What they will learn is that although both both Israelis and Palestinians have suffered from violence, only one side has controlled the lands, lives, and resources of the other side for over fifty years. Israelis do not live under Palestinian military occupation; their lands are not expropriated for Palestinian settlement; their freedom of movement is not restricted. Israelis collect their own taxes; are governed by their own elected representatives; are subject to their own civilian justice system.

3. “Isn’t the situation more complicated than the proposal suggests?”

The situation in the Middle East and in Israel/Palestine is indeed complicated. But there is nothing complicated about denying human rights to an entire people on the grounds of security and the desire to construct settlements on their land. No partisan of Israel can seriously argue that its security requires denying fundamental human rights to Palestinian civilians on a permanent basis.  No country’s security can be defended in that manner.

4. “Aren’t divestment proposals bad for the peace process?”

Even if the answer to the above is yes – and it has recently been argued by the Crisis Group analyst Nathan Thrall that only external pressure has moved the Israel/Palestinian peace process forward – these proposals are not about states and the political aspirations of people. They are about respecting the human and civil rights of a people under a never-ending occupation. Were Israel to annex the West Bank and Gaza and offer full and equal citizenship to the Palestinians living there, there would be less need for these proposals.

5. “Instead of calling for divestment, why not call for investment in peace?”

Once again, divestment proposals are not about peace, or the rights of Palestinians and Israelis to states of their own. They are about human rights that must be ensured before there are peace negotiations. Neither side is ready for peace negotiations, which can only be conducted by sides of equal or near equal power.  Calling for the university to invest in peace is admirable; but calling upon it to divest from companies that profit from the occupation is one way that students can express solidarity not only with those students whose families and friends suffer daily, but with all the Israeli and Palestinian people of good will who support the rights of both sides to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

Whether university student government associations ultimately decide against or for divestment proposals, this is an educational moment. Universities have academic courses on Israel/Palestine that I recommend students check out. Students and faculty can learn a great deal by listening to each other, and by educating themselves on this critical issue. We are all part of one community.

Tuesday, August 29, 2017

Some Elul Suggestions for Liberal Zionists and for Progressive Jews who are Not

Elul is the Jewish month for soul-reckoning. Traditionally, Jews don't make New Year resolutions, but they are expected to try harder in anticipation of the High Holiday Season. So in that spirit, I have a few practical suggestions for my liberal Zionist as well as my progressive non-Zionist and anti-Zionist brothers and sisters (and for myself).

1. Pay for a subscription to Haaretzand read it several times a week. Sign up for the daily notifications. Read articles by reporters like Nir Hasson, Amira Hass, and Gideon Levy, and op-ed writers like Dimitri Shumsky and Daniel Blatman, among others. Read 972mag regularly.  Get an education on what is happening to the Palestinians living in Palestine today. I am amazed at the people who have all sorts of views on Israel, but who don't read keep up with Haaretz. Reading the paper on a regular basis not only shows support for its journalistic courage; it has a long-term cumulative effect.You can read Gideon Levy once or twice and be shocked. You can read him a third or fourth time, shake your head, and turn the page. But if you read him weekly, year in and year out, and if you have not hardened your heart,  you will be transformed.

2. Read Palestinian policy voices, like the Al-Shabaka policy network.  Those folks represent some of the most thoughtful Palestinian voices writing today. For too long discussion about Israel has been an intra-Jewish family affair. Jews need to be listening to Palestinians and working together with them.

3. Ban two words from your vocabulary when you refer to each other: 'anti-Semitic' and 'racist'. There are bigots everywhere, but hoping that the State of Israel will be replaced by a state that provides equal rights for Israelis and Palestinians is not anti-Semitic; saying that the Jews don't have a right to a state is not anti-Semitic. What is anti-Semitic? Wishing Jews harm because they are Jews, or considering them to be objectionable because they are Jews. Calling a Jew who supports BDS an anti-Semite is often itself anti-Semitic, since it presumes to restrict what Jews can acceptably say. That's the first half of the suggestion. The second is to reserve the term 'racist' for real racist statements, not for statements that are interpreted by other people as  'dog whistles'. Yes, we should be sensitive to what we say. But we should also be charitable in interpreting what others say, all things being equal. Terms like 'anti-Semitic' and 'racist' are terms of moral opprobrium. They represent the nuclear option, and their use should be restricted.

4. Learn about Zionism before you praise or condemn it. Don't reduce it to a slogan or a category. From its inception Zionism spoke with several voices and appealed to different sentiments within the Jewish public.  Its development was not linear and, like everything else, was a product of its historical context, and adapted to changing circumstances. For all its flaws in implementation, Zionism has provided  hundreds of thousands of Jews with feelings of  dignity, self-worth, ethnic pride, and security. The surge of Zionist identification among American Jewish progressives in the late 1960s and the early 1970s coincided with (and was influenced by) the Black Power and the Women's Liberation movements.  This does not justify the problematic aspect of Zionism, its inevitable clash with the rights of the Palestinian natives. It doesn't justify the path it took, which was not inevitable, but was the product of decisions in historical context. Nor does it excuse some of its extreme versions. But both tactically and principally,  the pursuit of justice for the Palestinians should not be held hostage to an ideological struggle over Zionism, especially when our identities are invested in that struggle.

5. Most importantly,  the struggle for Palestinian rights must  be placed front and center. Ending a long and brutal occupation must be the goal that brings together Palestinians and Jews, and Zionist and non-Zionist Jews  It's not about our own identity issues as Americans or as Jews, or Jewish Americans. Injustice is committed hourly in the name of the Jewish people. There are times when the pursuit of universal values should trump ethnic and communal loyalties. Even after Charlottesville, and the rise of the alt-right, the American Jewish community is still, barukh ha-Shem, very strong and safe. Jewish communities may be potential victims everywhere, but there is only one place where the Jewish community is a perpetrator. That puts upon us a responsibility to unharden our hearts and to do the right thing.  It's not about us; it's about what is being done to them in our names.

Thursday, July 6, 2017

Does Aristotle write for Tablet and the Forward?

Aristotle's logic includes not only rules of valid inference but also fallacies, i.e., rules of invalid inference and other strategies to trip up your opponent in debate. 

If Aristotle were around today, he would offer the following rule for the online writer: Always link to a claim that doesn't really support your claim. Most of your readers won't check your links anyway, just as most readers of scholarly articles don't check footnotes.

Two articles on movements that support boycotts, divestment, and sanctions against Israel appeared in the mainstream Jewish media today. What they shared was the "confirmatory link" fallacy.

Over at Tablet, Prof. Jarrod Tanny (a.k.a. Jarropolk Tenewitz) calls upon Jewish Studies colleagues to recognize Jewish Voice for Peace's "demagoguery" and take a stand against the organization.  He attributes to JVP a litany of offences, and, as any good academic, provides links ostensibly to support his claims. But a perusal of the links shows that none backs up his assertions.

Especially odd is his link purporting to provide evidence for his claim that JVP doesn't take leftwing anti-Semitism seriously. I clicked on the link expecting to find a JVP statement to that effect. Instead, my browser was redirected to an ADL website which made no mention of leftwing anti-Semitism at all, much less JVP's alleged tolerance of of it. Giving Prof. Tanny the benefit of the doubt, I clicked again and read the entire ADL profile. Again, no mention of "left" or "leftwing" anti-Semitism. I then googled "JVP" and "anti-Semitism" and found JVP's  condemnation of Alison Weir, a pro-Palestinian activist, for not dissociating herself from anti-Semites, as well as noted leftwing anti-Semite Gilad Atzmon's criticism of JVP for its position.  

Although this was the most egregious of the nine links purportedly supporting Prof. Tanny's claims, an examination of each one of them shows that they don't support them at all. I don't have time for all the debunking; just click and see for yourself. And that's leaving aside the fact that some of the links don't even take you to JVP websites.

Unlike Prof. Tanny, I am not discouraged that other Jewish Studies academics are not rallying to his call. Apparently, he is one corner; the rest of his colleagues are somewhere else.

But why pick on Tablet when, the Forward, under the misleading headline, "David Grossman Play Under Attack By BDS Supporters" claims that Grossman's play is a "surprising target" for boycott, when it is not being targeted for boycott at all. As anybody who reads the  link to Adalah NY can see, the boycott is not at all targeted against Grossman or his play as such, but against the Israeli government's support of the play, and the fact that the two Israeli theater companies producing it perform in settlements built illegally on Palestinian land. (The first reason is mentioned by the Forward.)  "Why would anybody boycott a play by a good Israeli like David Grossman" makes as much sense as "Why would anybody boycott a symphony by a good Russian like Shostakovich?? And yet when the Moscow Symphony Orchestra performed in the United States at the height of the student struggle for Soviet Jewry, Jewish activists outside the concert halls asked concertgoers to boycott the Soviet Union's exercise in public diplomacy. It wasn't Shostakovich or the conductor that was being boycotted. (I suppose this could be called "Shostakovich -washing")

At least Tablet and the Forward provides links, and to be fair, the Forward gets most of the story right. But maybe they assume -- or hope -- that their readers won't click.

Or maybe when it comes to non-violent actions taken by supporters of Palestinian human rights, demonization is de rigeur

Sunday, March 12, 2017

Selling Purim to Progressives in the Era of Trump

It has been my custom to reproduce this “Selling Purim to Progressives” post occasionally on Purim.  The last time was in 2015, when we were in the midst of the Iran negotiations.

Well, since then the world made a deal with Iran. Trump may say that it's a lousy deal, but he doesn't plan on changing it soon, certainly not to Bibi's liking, And as for the guy who's running Trump, forget about it; Putin is telling Bibi to move on.

That's the good news. We all know the bad news, and it's not about Haman, either.

I wrote a few years ago that the real message of the Scroll of Esther should be that diplomacy works; self-defense is the last resort; and one should act  only with the consent of the legitimate authority. In other words, Jewish unilateralism and aggression are dumb and counterproductive.

But what do I mean by "the real message".  Every story has multiple messages and morals. The one we choose says as much about what we are about as what the story is about.  So my first point is: Progressives are not forced to cede interpretative rights to anybody. It is possible to focus on the particularism and the tribalism in the story. That may be justified, depending on the context. But we should be wary of the demand for relevance. A friend on FB claims that Barukh Goldstein ruined the holiday for him; another friend said the same for a revenge attack on Jewish civilians. A third said that it reminds him of settlers rejoicing over the death of Palestinian "Amaleks".

When I think of Purim, the first thing I think of is being dressed up as part of a donkey who was  led around by Haman, or was it Mordecai, when I was in elementary school. That leads to me think of Scout Finch dressed up as a ham on that fateful evening she and Jem were attacked by Bob Ewell, in To Kill a Mockingbird. And then my mind switches back to the festivities at the the Krieger Auditorium of the Chizuk Amunoh Congregation, where they are singing,

Oh, once there was a wicked, wicked man,
And Haman was his name, sir!

But I regress....

My point is that the words of the Scroll Esther, or for that matter, Jewish liturgy, are not always to be taken literally; in some instances, they are not to be taken literally at all. Why should I, who believe in the divinity of Torah, be bound by what the text says, a text written millennia ago by people whose morality and worldview I only partially share? Yes, there are lessons to be learned -- read on, progressive skeptic! -- and, yes,  there are passages that make me cringe. But at the end of the day, I have chosen to live my life as a Jew according to the rhythm of the Jewish calendar, and according to my memories, the connections with school, family, shul, etc.

It wouldn't occur to me to abandon a Jewish holiday because of a problematic text. If I did that, I would chuck most of tradition. I would much prefer wrestling with those who take the tradition over to the dark side of particularism, chauvinism, and tribalism. Can we find these things in the Scroll of Esther? Less than in Joshua, more than in Isaiah. But we can also choose to interpret it according to our moral intuitions and reasoning, which is precisely what my cultural heroes, the medieval Jewish philosophers, did.  For some, that is an intellectual cop-out (hey, I teach in a philosophy department!) For me, it's a life choice.

And now, back to Selling Purim to the Progressives 4.0

Why don’t progressives like Purim? Oh, that’s easy.  It's not just the Scroll of Esther; it's the Amalek thing; it's the Barukh Goldstein thing (Goldstein was the settler who on Purim murdered Palestinians in prayer); it's the Hanan Porat "Purim Sameah" ("Happy Purim") thing (That's what the Gush Emunim leader allegedly said when he heard about the Goldstein massacre, though he claims that he was not celebrating Goldstein, but urging people to continue with the holiday, despite the horrible thing that had happened.) And mature adults don’t like the primitive customs associated with reading the megillah and Purim, like making deafening noise when the villain Haman's name is mentioned, or getting stone drunk. “A holiday for little children and idiots,” one person recently summed up Purim for me.

Well, that’s true to an extent. But Purim doesn’t have to be that way.  And the Scroll of Esther can be read to teach an important moral lesson. But we’ll get to that.

Consider the following:

As Marsha B. Cohen points out in her excellent post here, the Scroll of Esther is not history. I mean, there probably never was an Esther or a Mordecai or Haman. The story of Purim is part of the Jewish collective memory, which means that it never happened. So don't worry about innocents being killed, because according to the story, no innocents were killed. According to the story, the victims were guilty, or the offspring of those who were guilty, and in the ancient world, the offspring are generally considered extensions of their parent.  Is that a primitive, tribalistic morality? Of course! But it helps a bit to realize that we are in the realm of fantasy. I can't shed tears over the death of Orcs either.
Once the book is understood as a fable written two thousand years ago, there are two possible ways of responding to it: by reading it literally as representing a morality that gets a B-(after all, Haman is indeed a villain that turns a personal slight into a call for genocide, and the Jews are indeed set upon), or by reading into it, against the grain of the story, our own moral imperatives.
I adopt both responses, but I prefer the latter. For one thing, I am doing what my medieval Jewish culture heroes, the rationalist philosophers like Maimonides, always did -- providing non-literal interpretations of scripture that were in tune with their own views.

James Kugel has argued persuasively that if you detach the Bible from its classical interpreters -- which is what Protestant Christianity and modern Biblical criticism attempts to do -- then the book you are left with is mediocre as literature, and only partly agreeable as ethics. The Bible has always undergone a process of interpretation, of mediation, even in its very text, because none of the classic readers could relate to it as a document produced in a certain time and place, but as timeless.
So for me to relate to the Scroll of Esther, and to the Purim holiday in general, I emphasize (and distort) those points that are congenial to my ethics and worldview, and just dismiss the rest as pap for members of the family with a tribal morality.   I read the story of Esther as a fictional fantasy about how my people, through political wisdom and without religious fanaticism, or the help of a Deus ex machina, triumphed over the enemies who wished to destroy them because they were different.

And that is a message which I will apply not only to my people, but to all beleaguered peoples who are in danger of having their identity and culture -- and physical welfare-- destroyed by forced assimilation, in the name of a superior culture and/or ethnic homogeneity. Because if what Haman wanted to do the Jews was wrong, then it is also wrong when anybody wishes to do this to any group.

After all, think of a contemporary leader who, because of slights to his national honor, and unwillingness to genuflect to his country’s power, punishes an entire people by  withholding their tax revenues, or turning off their electricity.

Pretty scary guy – and not just on Twitter.