Tuesday, June 15, 2010

The failures of anti-oppression activists to deal with antisemitism

Left antisemitism matters.

David talks about the failures of anti-oppression activists to apply the basics of anti-oppression theory when the oppressed are Jews.
What distinguishes the rare discussions of anti-Semitism in these forums is not that folks universally mock and deride the concept. On the Feministe thread, you will find many that don't. What is different is that folks that would in other context be seen as trolls, here are just "the other side". The lack of 101 penetration is astounding. Respect how the Jewish community describes its own experience. Don't accuse us of being psychopaths, overly sensitive, manipulative, or flat out liars. Don't group our history and experience into the narrative of others. Being a Jew who disagrees with the bulk of the community does not earn you super-standing. The "anti-Semitism card" can and is easily trumped by the "anti-Semitism card card". Calling a particular statement respecting Israel anti-Semitic does not mean one condemns all criticisms of Israel as anti-Semitic. For that matter, critiquing one's statement regarding Israel does not necessarily mean we've called you anti-Semitic at all.
And, indeed, in a space like Racialicious, I've seen plenty of comments that are truly shocking. Unlike Feministe, every single comment at Racialicious is hand-moderated, so it's much better (but it can also be more worrying). It's really amazing that a commenter here would have to write:
Also, I really [don't] recommend starting anything with, “I have nothing against the Jewish people.” Really, that can only end in tears.
It's common wisdom at Racialicious that anyone who starts a sentence with "I have nothing against..." is about to say something racist.

It seems to me Racialicious, in particular, has made some progress (though Racialicious, in particular, also started pretty ignominously, despite their sincerity), but there's certainly still work to be done in all such forums. Sometimes a comment may be allowed by moderators who know that another comment will respond. Indeed, there was a response in another comment. But then look at the links provided that sparked these comments. There's a model there for dealing with antisemitism, in which Jews are seen primarily as privileged. The occasion of Helen Thomas's bigotry against Jews was used to remind people that antisemitism isn't that important. Particularly for sites that already struggle to include Jewish issues, that's not living up to their ideals.

The anarchist Left is not the anti-racist Left, so it's no surprise to find them doing worse, but they have generally absorbed some 101 lessons and desire to be strong anti-racists. There is a common root that makes it sometimes useful to view the anti-racist Left together with other Lefts. A guest post at Contested Terrain, shows how an anarchist website published an article from a right-wing, antisemitic website, then silenced criticism of the antisemitism.

Why? According to a study by Christopher MacDonald-Dennis, who interviewed "Jewish peer facilitators in a nationally recognised social justice program at a university in the Midwest":
The participants explained that many people, especially people of color in the minds of many respondents, saw Jews as not only agents but as “super-privileged White people”.
I don't think it's exactly "people of color" who are especially guilty of this (though I think there is obviously something that they felt they had to say and didn't know how else to say). Perhaps it may be more accurate to say it's the Left. But when I say that, I am including many people of color who may not be Leftists in a broad sense.

Sometimes, conflicts between different people of color have to do with resentment of the relatively more successful group. That's often been the case with Jews and other people of color in America. It's what James Baldwin was mostly talking about in Negroes Are Anti-Semitic Because They're Anti-White. But that interacts with antisemitism, which creates an impression of Jews as far more powerful than we are, in funny ways which non-Jewish anti-racists really have to take more seriously. And, contrary to the common perception that antisemitism among POC is driven primarily is this sort of resentment, a lot of it has simply to do with the nature of antisemitism. Because Jews are seen as powerful and scapegoated when things "go wrong," people with real greivances have powerful incentives to antisemitism, while the powerful are often in a better position to see the illogic.

Much of what Baldwin wrote is just not relevant to today's debates about antisemitism centered on Israel and anti-Zionism in the way it would be if we were talking about the Crown Heights riots. It's not just that the "White people" part of the MacDonald-Dennis quote, which reduces and minimizes the experience of Jews, needs to be made more complicated. It's that "super-privileged" part, which goes far beyond that, that needs to be explicitly countered. Baldwin wrote, in part,
For one thing, the American Jew's endeavor, whatever it is, has managed to purchase a relative safety for his children, and a relative future for them.
But, of course, the violence against Israel and the sanctioning and apologizing for that violence (as well as the attacks on Israel that deny Jews the sense of safety we otherwise draw from having that bolthole) means precisely that this isn't a relevant a part of todays discussions. Jews have fears that are real. It is not being "hysterical" for Jews to express those fears when someone calls Israel a "colonial" or "apartheid" state, and anti-oppression websites need to face up to that if they ever hope to achieve their ideals.

But anti-racists, who rarely understand antisemitism any better than the general public, routinely deny and minimize that fear at the same time they claim that Jews are privileged because we don't have to be afraid. In the name of creating a safe space, they may create bizarre and arbitrary rules for what is allowed, because they only see one kind of disruption. All of which is part of the process of subsuming the struggle against antisemitism into a more general anti-racist campaign that doesn't begin to serve the interests of Jews. Which is, in turn, part of the wider process of silencing and suppressing Jewish voices in general.

In some places, I'm glad to say they've begun to do better, but there is still more to do. Moderators are still learning what it takes to make a space welcoming for Jews. And I'd say anyone who moderates discussion of racism needs to read Steve Cohen's "Funny, You Don't Look Antisemitic" and realize that the failures of the Left with regards to antisemitism are not accidental. It's the nature of antisemitism that Left antisemitism has always been a meaningful and significant part of the problem. And it's not our job to educate you.

1 comment:

free radicals said...

well, looks like someone will finally get in a word edgewise about left antisemitism at the ARA conference:


also, for amusing internet battles on anarchist webpages:


"go pass around more rumors at your synagogue about how everyone is out to get jews."

and also


"I'm denying that left-anti-Semitism is even an actually existing problem. It has been hyperinflated by ARA-retards like you" ...

"here's nothing wrong with supporting Hezbollah either" ...

"Any state that calls itself a "Jewish state" and gives itself an ethnic character and then bombs people is provoking ethnic violence against its own. You don't even need racist critiques of Israel, Israel's own justifications for its behavior serve as racist critiques of Israel."