Monday, June 15, 2009

speaking for Jews and others

In this post, Jeffrey Goldberg chides Roger Cohen for being naive on Iran. Cohen writes:
I erred in underestimating the brutality and cynicism of a regime that understands the uses of ruthlessness.
That is, indeed, an understatement worthy of derision. But Goldberg does something odd.
Brutal and cynical? Really? Who would have thought that the Iranian regime could be so brutal and cynical and ruthless and undemocratic? Well, perhaps gay people, who are executed by the regime for their sexual orientation.
He goes on to list other groups persecuted by Iran, groups he doesn't have the authority to speak for. His list does include Jews. The effect is to fold the oppression of gays into the oppression of Jews, which not all gay people might appreciate. Without including Jews, however, the effect would be to completely appropriate the oppression of others, which would be worse. This probably isn't the worst example since it's likely few queers or Bahai's or others persecuted in Iran would object here. (Though on what authority do I say so?) So I hope my criticism of Goldberg is seen as constructive engagement in a tone appropriate to that aim, but is still worth mentioning that we should be careful how we speak for others. When Roger Cohen speaks on behalf of the Jews of Iran, he is not only wrong in blatantly obvious ways, but he is also assuming an authority he doesn't have to speak for others.

But there's also something else about the need to include Jews among others, which is not unique to this situation. It even appears with the Holocaust, where plenty of people have difficulty understanding the centrality of antisemitism and emphasize the non-Jews killed to deny the meanings of the Holocaust for Jews. In fact, even the common belief that 5 million non-Jews were killed in the same way Jews were is problematic:
I gave them the example of how the late Simon Wiesenthal invented, without any basis in fact, the notion that the Holocaust constitutes the murder of 6 million Jews and 5 million non-Jews.

He did so, he admitted to Professor Yehuda Bauer, in order to get non-Jews to care about the Holocaust. He assumed that they would not do so unless there were non-Jews included in the total. He therefore created a number that was almost – though not quite as large as the number of Jews.
As if antisemitism and the murder of Jews were not reason enough to care. I think Goldberg is mistaken in the way he frames the issue with Iran, but I think it stems from a well proven fear that Jews speaking about Jewish issues will not be taken seriously. Jews like Roger Cohen (who is certainly entitled to his views no matter how wrong they are) are promoted when they say things useful to others. At the same time, Jews like Goldberg are dismissed, typically with antisemitic stereotypes about neurotic Jews who abuse their fears to manipulate and control politics in pursuit of global domination, when they say things others don't want to engage with.

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