A guest-post by David Schraub of The Debate Link
Hey everybody. Lauren and the gang invited me to guest-post on Feministe on the Gaza conflict, though why they were foolish enough to invite me particularly, I don’t know. Certainly, they regret it now, as instead of giving them a “guest post”, I plopped down a 23 page tome that had been percolating for years now and was, I imagine, far in excess of what they had in mind. But kindly, they decided to give me the chance to post it here anyway – on the condition that I chop it up and make it into a series.
Anyway, let’s get the biography out of the way first. I’ve been blogging for four and a half years over at The Debate Link. When not doing that, I was getting my undergraduate degree at Carleton College, which I finished up in 2008, or working on my law degree, which I’m doing now at the University of Chicago. My eventual goal is to become a law professor with a particular focus on identity politics and anti-discrimination law, which I view through a critical, anti-subordination lens.
Growing up as a Conservative Jew in a very liberal, but very pro-Israel, congregation in suburban Maryland, I’ve gone through all manner of turmoil in terms of my perspective on the Israel/Palestine conflict. I have at various times in my life identified with the Labor, Meretz, Likud, Shi’nui, and Kadima parties. If Shi’nui hadn’t effectively died off in the last election cycle, I’d probably consider myself closest to them. But I have for quite some time now been a committed two-stater, and the idea that both Israel and Palestine have a right to a free, viable, secure, and independent state is one that I firmly believe and will vigorously defend against extremists on either side – be they Hamas terrorists or Greater Israel fanatics.
Since the latest Israeli operation in Gaza began, I’ve been conflicted about it, which isn’t unusual for me. On the one hand, I find it very difficult to believe that the Gaza campaign will “work” in any meaningful sense. It’s not as bombing Palestinian territories into ruins has a particularly good track record, and there is nothing in particular that has presented itself as compelling evidence that this attack will come out differently. On the other hand, the statement “bombing doesn’t work” doesn’t distinguish the strategy of “bombing” from any other Israeli strategy, including the “dovish” ones. Withdrawing from Palestinian territory or giving concessions to Palestinian leaders “doesn’t work” either. The original Israeli withdrawal from Gaza may not have been done with entirely altruistic motives, but was a significant risk taken by Israel that was met by an increase in violence. Israelis notice this. They noticed that Hezbollah stepped up its attacks after Israel left Lebanon, and they noticed that terrorist activity increased in the years immediately following the Oslo accords compared to the years immediately preceding them. The problem is precisely that nothing seems to work. And when nothing seems to work, I find it hard for myself to articulate what I want to be seen done, and I become very suspicious of those who would condemn but either don’t provide an alternative, or whose alternative would simply shift the injustice to another plane.
These points, though, are old hat by now, and have been covered on my own blog. I don’t know what you do when nothing works, I recognize that a true friend in the White House would know when to take Israel aside and tell it to chill, I think we need to realize the difference between being foolish and being evil. Oh, and I think the settler fanatics need to be excommunicated from Judaism. Suffice to say that, insofar as I direct my words to the mainstream Jewish community, my argument is simple: The occupation can’t endure. It can’t endure because it’s unsustainable for Israel, and it can’t endure because it’s oppressive to the Palestinians. Their right to self-determination must be recognized, and it is our responsibility as a community to press Israel to take the steps necessary (whatever they might be) to realize that right. That truth remains regardless of whether this particular operation is wise or foolish, right or wrong. It doesn’t change the underlying calculus a whit. You can read those thoughts elsewhere.
But since I have the microphone at Feministe, particularly, I want to talk about some broader-level issues that tend to come to a fore when I participate in discussions in this community, and other progressive environments like it. The folks on this blog (both writers and commenters) are, by and large, wonderful people. But – here and elsewhere – there is very little recognition and very much resistance to a true, critical engagement with anti-Semitism and Jewish experiences writ large. Indeed, the moment we start talking about anti-Semitism, we’re shouted down with accusations that we’re “playing the anti-Semitism card”. No charge infuriates me more, because no charge is more reviled by progressives then specious claims of card-playing. We’ve all heard how conservatives will short-circuit any discussion of racism by saying “oh, you’re just playing the race card”, and we all have learned the hard way that “the race card”, whatever its benefits, is easily trumped by “‘the race card’ card”. And yet, for some reason, I’m expected to take seriously sanctimonious statements which claim to deplore anti-Semitism but then proceed to assert that “accusations of anti-Semitism are often used to silence legitimate criticism of Israel’s activities”.
Is that statement true? While I guess some people sometimes do cry anti-Semitism merely to shutdown discussion, that is rarely the true purpose. Rather, we’re actually trying to point out a couple of things. One, non-Jews aren’t the supreme arbiters of what counts as anti-Semitism. We have the right to name our own reality, and when Jews claim anti-Semitism, that can’t be brushed aside so easily. Two, while it must be possible to criticize Israel in a non-anti-Semitic fashion, it is certainly impossible to have a discussion about Israel or any other Jewish institution without at least talking about anti-Semitism, if only as a set of shared background assumptions. Similarly, while I can accept that someone might be able to criticize affirmative action without being racist, it would be utterly bizarre to have any sort of serious discussion about AA if the issue of racism was taken off the table. But that is precisely what seems to be desired. When you take anti-Semitism off the table when talking about Jewish concerns, or racism off the table when talking about POC concerns, what results is not a conversation but “a coerced argument…that concedes the key intellectual contest.” Third and finally, when we demand that anti-Semitism be put on the table, even in the face of strenuous declarations that the speaker is not an anti-Semite, we are applying to our experience Kimberle Crenshaw’s maxim that racism does not disappear “by proclamation alone.”
These are rather basic applications of well-established progressive tenets in the anti-subordination arena. So why are they being so bitterly resisted? The argument seems to be that Jews are not truly oppressed or subordinated. This, I can only submit, is laughable given the history and current situation of Jews worldwide. Something else is at work, and whatever it is, it’s not being used to consider and reject our claims – it’s being used to deny our right to file the complaint in the first place.
This is troubling to me. Obviously, being Jewish, I don’t like my voice being waved away as being unimportant, already spoken for, partisan (as compared to?), or (to borrow from the late Critical Race Theorist Jerome McCristal Culp) “a type of shrill craziness.” But also, the way the discourse is proceeding feels like an extreme abdication of the commitments progressives claim to hold to. Phoebe Maltz, a brilliant and iconoclastic Jewish blogger, once wondered why people critique the left “from the left”. If they disagree with the left so much, why not go somewhere else? The answer, as I tell myself anyway, is that this terrain matters to me, and I won’t cede it without a fight. I firmly believe that to be of the left means commitment to the liberation of all people, a desire to hear and incorporate all stories, and an opposition to all forms of oppression and subordination. Insofar as some people seek to deny the inclusion of my liberation, experience, and struggle, I think they should be the ones who must set sail from the movement, not me. And so, one of my projects is to try and work through anti-Semitism as a structural phenomenon that ought to be approached through the critical, anti-subordination lens that progressives have pioneered as the leading and proper alternative to mainstream “liberal” anti-discrimination norms; those which presume the evil to be episodic, predicated on differentiation, and unconnected to the broader currents through which we construct and live our lives.
Here I have to pause to make an observation about oppression in general. Simply put: it’s complicated. To say that Jews are a subordinated group in the world is not to pass any judgment on the social realities of any other group – including their relationship to Jews. Rather, oppressions cross-cut. I do contend that every non-Jew in the world – atheist, Christian, Muslim, Buddhist – benefits from what we might call “Gentile privilege” vis-à-vis the Jew, insofar as they are not afflicted by the particular nexus of stereotypes, assumptions, prejudices, obstacles and standards that constitute anti-Semitic oppression. But I can say that and still simultaneously affirm that Jews, along with all other non-Muslims, are privileged as against Muslims along the contours of that oppression. In a world where both Jews and Muslims are oppressed, Jews have an advantage over Muslims for not being Muslim, and Muslims have an advantage over Jews for not being Jews. Similarly, one could say that Israel is in a privileged position compared to Palestinians locally (in terms of localized power in the Israel/Palestine conflict), while also arguing that Jews are subordinated compared to Arabs globally (in terms of globalized power to affect the terms of discourse and sanction in international institutions such as the UN). Christianity may have the advantage over Islam globally, while being very much on the bottom in, say, Iraq. Not only are these positions not inconsistent with each other, they are, in my view, essentially to avoiding the easy “oppression Olympics” trap. Elisabeth Schussler Fiorenza’s term Kyriarchy I think is a good word for this. That I’m focusing on anti-Semitic oppression doesn’t mean I think that’s the only oppression operating here. It just means it is one that I think needs to take a place at the center of our analysis, and one that I think suffers from a severe lack of serious inquiry from a critical left perspective.
And “critical” matters too. If I had just reprinted the aforementioned Debate Link posts, which are pretty standard fare for the left-of-center Jew, I’d get a very predictable response. Some folks would go off on benders about how I’m insufficiently attuned to Israeli evil. But most would respond more politely and more equivocatingly. It’d be some mixture of affirming Israel’s right to defend itself, recognizing that Jews have had a pretty sucky history, while expressing discontent with Israeli policies and generally lapsing into “both sides are unjust evildoers” moral equivalency.
But I don’t want to engage in standard liberal bromides. That’s not what this site is for. I want to get radical. Radical means examining problems at the root. Radical means we don’t assume that our standard assumptions and methodologies of behavior work for everyone or are beyond criticism. Radical means we don’t accept things at face value. Radical means forcing people to look their privilege in the eye and demand they account for the story of the other, even when it’s uncomfortable, even when it might mean revisiting some core presumptions.
Nobody likes it when their own analysis is thrown back in their face. White feminists who had to deal with the critique of WOC were deeply upset by it, because they considered themselves allies. Ditto with the largely White disciples of the Critical Legal Studies movement, when it came under attack from the Critical Race Theorists; same for civil rights leaders who were harshly indicted by feminist and gay rights movements for the way they treated the women and gay and lesbian persons inside their ranks. And I know the turmoil that went through the Jewish community when we found out that not every Black person thought we were playing a positive role in the struggle for civil rights. In all these cases, many of these putative “allies” slapped down their former friends once they stepped beyond moderate critiques and tame attacks, and began demanding fundamental change. The governing rule of subordinated speech is that it is heavily bounded: you start demanding more than what the big boys think you deserve, and you’re going down right quick. This is an instinct that must be resisted. I don’t revel in causing discomfort, but at the same time, being an ally of the oppressed means listening to their voice, and we’re not the one’s who have to give way here.
I focus on Western anti-Semitism, for a few reasons: One, I know more about it than I do about anti-Semitism in other cultures; two, I’m writing on a website based in the West; and three, the effects of globalization have spread Western anti-Semitism worldwide and made it into a lingua franca when talking about the Jews. My working definition of Zionism is quite tailored: It merely says that “The creation of Israel as a Jewish state was a good idea and it should stick around” (Phoebe Maltz said it, though I forget where). Examining the way the discourse and practice interlocks with ancient and modern anti-Semitic practice is essential if we’re going to try and unpack the privilege and begin talking about Israel as equals in the discussion, from a perspective that refuses to settle for anything less than the liberation of all peoples.
In the subsequent posts, I want to look at the way that Israel and Zionism are often discussed in the international community through the particular lens of a critical account of anti-Semitism and some of the dominant anti-Semitic stereotypes that sustain it. The next three posts after this one will look at the connection between anti-Zionist discourse and several classic anti-Semitic stereotypes: namely, the blood-thirsty Jew, the hyperpowerful Jew, and the superseded Jew. Incorporated in this last mindset will be a progressive critique of liberal “neutrality” as it operates against subordinate peoples, and explain why calls for a liberal, multi-ethnic democracy as a replacement for Israel as a “Jewish state” are, in fact, no solution at all to the problem of anti-Semitic oppression. The post after that will ask “Why Israel” – both why is Israel seemingly singled out for vitriol above and beyond equal or worse offenders (particularly by the United Nations), and why did the Zionist project have to stake its claim in Israel, as opposed to Germany, Alaska, Persia, or some other locale. Finally the last post will examine the case of anti-Zionist Jews and how it affects the preceding analysis, as well as give some guidance on how to talk about the Israeli/Palestinian conflict (including the Gaza operation) while being mindful of the issues of privilege and oppression that affect Jews.