Thursday, July 14, 2011

Again, on broad definitions of racism

I disagree with these two posts, but the comments on both are well worth reading.

Like Phoebe, "I do not gasp in horror when Palestinians adopt the symbolism or vocabulary of sinister, old-school, Western anti-Semitism, or if they condemn Jews and not just Israel/Israelis." At least not most of the time.. Sometimes I'm startled by just how blatant and extreme it is (which is meaningful even if, per Phoebe, we take it as an attempt to coral the prejudices of others rather than as some more essential quality of the speaker), but often I just feel sad. What usually bothers me in a more immediate way is when Western "allies" take up the same antisemitic tropes (and there are more than enough people who are far too uncritical of Palestinian claims to keep me busy if I wanted to make that my sole focus) or when Arab or Muslim leaders who have more actual power in global relations (such as Ahmadinejad) do so. And I completely agree that we need to find better ways to recognize the legitimate interests of both sides, which I think is the major point of the posts. When we call a speaker racist (as opposed to their speech), it typically means that that speaker should be banned from the discourse because their presence is unproductive. If we ban too many Palestinians or too many Jews, we wind up completely disrupting the discourse in a way that is certainly unproductive, because there's no one left to convince. A conversation between Nonie Darwish (who harbors no antisemitism whatsoever) and Richard Silverstein (who harbors no anti-Palestinian prejudices whatsoever) would be plain dumb and would not adequately represent the legitimate claims of either side. Further, since few people would be evenhanded in banning speakers on both sides, we might introduce a bias that probably ought to be called racist. Still, I disagree with Phoebe over whether it's useful to call certain behaviors by Palestinians or Jews "racist." She distinguishes very clearly between the immediate actors and outsiders, and I think that distinction is worth preserving.. but not by banishing terms like "racism." For starters, I don't think the distinction she seeks to make works. We can distinguish between actors on the basis of their role in the conflict, but why should we distinguish between the claims of different actors on that basis when the claims are identical? And while we might seek to be inclusive of a variety of perspectives and actors in our conversation, that doesn't mean that all claims are equal in that conversation. In short, I don't think it's often useful to think of racism as a matter of intent or as an exercise into soul divination.

Often, I go back to the 1929 Hebron Massacre. (Phoebe talks about the "ultimate" cause being about land, so lets go back in time.) Palestinian leaders spread a rumor that Jews were massacring Palestinians in Jerusalem. Palestinians (enough) in Hebron chose to believe that rumor because they were willing to believe almost anything about Jews, and they chose to respond by killing Jews. Ultimately, it was about preventing Jewish immigration and the possibility of Jews forming a state when Palestinians, themselves suffering under British colonialism, wished the land for their own state. The Palestinians sought to frighten Jews away and to force the hands of the British 
 (who, we shouldn't forget, had actual control over immigration but prioritized keeping the peace and keeping control). But I look at how Jews were prevented from immigrating to so many places, and I feel I must understand this (together with the sad story of the MS St. Louis, the Evian Conference, and plenty of other stories for which the whole world bear responsibility) as a part of the murder of 6 million. I can't not call that privilege. I can't not call that racism. I think I can understand how Palestinians might have thought their cause (not their methods) was just, but that doesn't mean agreeing that their cause was just. Isn't that indifference to the lives of Others, evidenced in restricting immigration, the very heart of privilege? And isn't privilege just a different perspective on racism?