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? 


The Contentious Centrist said...

If you want to chart Arab antisemitism (not sure this is the most felicitous way of naming the religious and ethnic hatred cultivated in Arab-Muslim cultures) you would have to go back further in time to see what attitudes and behaviours characterized the relationship between the two communities before Zionist immigration inspired the fears you speak of.

For example, here:

"Moreover, the Muslim law requires that each religious denomination wear its specific garment so that each people may be distinguished from another. This distinction also applies to footwear. Indeed, the Jews wear shoes of a dark blue color, whereas Christians wear red shoes. No one can use green, for this color is worn solely by Muslims. The latter are very hostile toward Jews and inflict upon them vexations in the streets of the city…the common folk perse­cute the Jews, for we are forbidden to defend ourselves against the Turks or the Arabs. If an Arab strikes a Jew, he [the Jew] must ap­pease him but dare not rebuke him, for fear that he may be struck even harder, which they [the Arabs] do without the slightest scruple. This is the way the Oriental Jews react, for they are accustomed to this treatment, whereas the European Jews, who are not yet accustomed to suffer being assaulted by the Arabs, insult them in return."

Matt said...

Yes, there are precursors. However, their relevance isn't as clear. How, for instance, would we understand the very real and justified grievances of the Palestinians from within that framework? How would we relate to those who are opposed to Israel's actions and/or existence who would, nonetheless, firmly reject those historic inequities? I just don't see the usefulness of talking about that most of the time.

The Contentious Centrist said...

"How, for instance, would we understand the very real and justified grievances of the Palestinians from within that framework?"

Perhaps it is up to the Palestinians to distance themselves from this history. I doubt that you or anyone outsider that society can do it for them. But they could be encouraged to face up to their attachment to these traditions and begin a process of self-examination about how these deep seated convictions are an obstacle to their ability to see the Jews as human beings with their own history in this land.

Sari Nussebeh understands it. He is the only one.

The Contentious Centrist said...

"Yes, there are precursors."

A precurser is a person, animal, or thing that goes before and indicates the approach of someone or something else; harbinger.

The history of Arab-Muslim hostilities towards Jews qua Jews is at least 1400 years old, hardly a "precurser". If you are really interested in understanding Arab grievances, you will have to excavate into the irrational elements in them that defy any possible response to your formulation of "very real and justified grievances".

You can say that about many Israeli Jews, that their hatred and suspicion towards Arabs is rooted in very real experiences and grievances. We have the history of the last 70-80 years to account for it. Perhaps the suspicion was compounded by the arrival of the refugees from Arab lands who have brought with them the memories of the hostility they had experienced in these lands. But could you refer to these memories as "irrational"? Or rooted in deep religious hatred?

You cannot create a moral equivalence between Palestinian-Arab hatred and Israeli-Jewish hatred. Israelis have shown that they are perfectly willing to live in peace with the Arabs, despite the hatred and the suspicions. How many Palestinians have been willing to follow the same path? How many Palestinian peace proposals can you cite?

Matt said...

Actually, I think perhaps you should reread my post. I'm not, for instance, trying to create an equivalence, even though I think both sides have legitimate grievances.

The Contentious Centrist said...

"... both sides have legitimate grievances."

If that were the case there should be no obstacle to a settlement. That the conflict cannot be settled by addressing legitimate concerns of both parties means that the conflict is imbued with irrational grievances that cannot be addressed except by national suicide on the part of Israel. Israelis have shown that they can be rational and will be rational, for the right price. Palestinians are clinging to myths as if those were rational grievances. There is no price that Israelis can pay to dress these grievances. There can be no negotiation between myths and down to earth interests. The onus has to be put directly on the Palestinians to embrace a paradigm change in their view of the world. Once this happens, normal negotiations can take place with normal consequences for each side, like compromise. But it won't do to coddle Palestinians' grievances without challenging their irrationalities.

Matt said...

It's not inconsistent (and, in fact, is correct) to say that both sides have both legitimate and irrational grievances. And even if both sides had only legitimate grievances, it wouldn't necessarily follow that a resolution would be easy.

"But it won't do to coddle Palestinians' grievances without challenging their irrationalities"

Again, perhaps you should reread the post, because I do take a particular stand that you don't seem to be engaging with.