Thursday, March 12, 2009

"Vat vill dem goyim say?"*

As an experiment, I decided to look at the (online) front page of today's NYT as a non-Jew without much feeling about or knowledge of things Jewish might see it. First, there's the news about Madoff, a story of greed and Jewish insularity if there ever was one, complete with profile shot of a stereotype-fulfilling nose. Reading this as a Jew, or as a non-Jew who knows many Jews, you're aware that a) not all Jews want to scheme people out of billions of dollars, b) not all Jews would have the math skills needed to control even their own checking accounts, c) not all Jews have big noses, and finally, d) nose size and ponzi scheming are unrelated qualities. But as a non-Jew without much exposure to Jews? Hmm.

In case Madoff didn't seal the deal: "Israel Stance Was Undoing of Nominee for Intelligence Post," ambivalent h/t to Nick. A Washington Post piece (what is my password on that site? if I remembered it, there'd be a link) on the same issue presents things otherwise (headline: "Freeman Blames 'Israel Lobby' for Withdrawal") but no matter. Anything hinting of a Jewish conspiracy delights the many Americans who always knew who was behind the scenes. If I were inclined to thinking this way, I'd have all kinds of new material. If I didn't know what to think, this would not be the moment I decided Jews were all kinds of sympathetic.

The Times piece on Freeman the Just certainly pushes things in a certain direction, but who knows, maybe a few pro-Israel groups and individuals did unfairly block an appointment. This seems possible to me, Jewy the Jewish Zionist, and should also seem like a possibility to those with no Semitic ties whatsoever. Yes, even a Jew can admit that someone Jewish might have done something... unpleasant. See Item 1 of this post. Do I feel confident in saying what happened in this particular case? Not at all.

But it's in the comments that things get interesting.**

That basic, PC, elementary-school tenet of tolerance, that we're supposed to blame 'some members of group X' for their bad behavior, not all who happen to share that group's religion, blood, or both, for their actions, as in 'some Asians' are studious, not 'Asians', seems lost on many. Commenters use 'Israel lobby' and 'Jewish lobby' interchangeably. If you weren't exactly clear on who were Jews and who were Israelis (and why would a non-Jew necessarily know or care? until relatively recently I wasn't quite clear who were Flemings and who were Walloons - a certain amount of ignorance of those not in your life is to be expected), you could easily not notice this confusion.

But what will our reader, just trying to get informed on the wider world, make of comments like these?:

"It is time for American Jews to decide whether they are citizens of the US or of Israel."

"There will be NO peace in the Middle-East until America frees itself from the Jewish Yoke and takes a neutral position rather than the one-sided approach which the Jews enforce upon us."

I mean, if you are Jewish, you're going to be all, WTF? No, there are not secret meetings all Jews get to attend, where Great Decisions are made, with the goal of hoarding shekels and strengthening our grip on world affairs. Most of us live lives of quiet mediocrity. But if you're not a Jew, and you're going only by Madoff and a potentially shady episode involving AIPAC? Your only reason not to suspect 'the Jews' of all manner of power and malice is, once again, the elementary-school one: just because some members of a group act in ways that confirm or seem to confirm unpleasant stereotypes, and just because stereotypes have to come from somewhere, does not mean that every last Jew is in on some plot, or even that those Jews not involved in nefarious schemes are somehow the exception. It most certainly does not mean action must be taken against 'the Jews' as an entity if the behavior of 'some Jews' is problematic. To all the commenters holding forth so nobly about how one must not conflate criticism of Israel with anti-Semitism, I suggest reading your fellow commenters, who are incapable of criticizing Israeli policy or US policy regarding Israel without making blanket condemnations of Jews.

*From I forget which Woody Allen movie. Either "Sleeper" or "Bananas."

** Online newspaper comments may be one of the more mocked forms of contemporary human communication, but it's pointless to overlook them altogether. Well, it is for me at least, because if you spend time wondering how the reading public reacted to articles in 1842, it's hard not to find it fabulous that you have this information at your fingertips for articles appearing today. (Does every reader comment? Hardly. Are those who do perfectly representative? No. But it's a whole lot more than we once had.)

17 comments:

PG said...

If your veiled-by-ignorance reader is that ignorant, how does she know from the linked NYT article that Madoff is Jewish? It's not mentioned. I didn't know it myself about Madoff until I read a NYT article about the most hard-hit victims having been Jews who attended his synagogue and Jewish institutions. Which seems more likely to generate sympathy rather than animus toward Jews as a group.

Do I feel confident in saying what happened in this particular case? Not at all.

I don't feel confident in saying that what happened to Freeman was unfair (though obviously it was unpleasant for him, but "unpleasant" is hardly a moral indictment unless you're Leon Kass). But I feel pretty confident in saying that his nomination was derailed in large part due to his views on Israel. To the extent that those views were characterized accurately, and that those views are not appropriate for the role he sought, there's nothing unfair nor unjust here, even if there were a massive teleconference for all American Jews to talk about how they would spread the message against him.

An Israel Lobby or a Jewish Lobby can be inherently unfair only if one believes that all positions or ethnicities in a democracy ought to have equal political weight regardless of either their popularity among citizens or their intrinsic worth, however that is measured. I don't consider it at all unfair that the pro-secularism lobby is larger than the pro-sharia lobby.

Phoebe said...

"If your veiled-by-ignorance reader is that ignorant, how does she know from the linked NYT article that Madoff is Jewish? It's not mentioned."

Yeah, this was an exercise I should have done in more than the moments between proctoring a test and getting dinner, as in, it was poorly-thought-out. But the idea here is, the ignorant reader has been maybe kind of following the Madoff story for more than just this one article. (For what it's worth, I have not been following the story, because I'm a hopeless-with-finance sort of Jew, earning and spending little in my quiet, mediocre way, and my eyes glaze over if I read about bankers beyond the 19th century.) What I meant, also, was for a reader to be not so much ignorant as apathetic/undecided, the way most people are reading about groups other than their own and the ones with whom their group happens to be feuding.

Your analysis of lobbies is interesting and I'll have to think more about it. My own take (and this came up, of course, with Walt-Mearsheimer) is that it is indeed anti-Semitism (yes, you're allowed to use this word) to insist that there are 'Jewish' versus 'American' interests in America, when the reality is that all subsets of Americans, taken individually, have demands that would fail to match up with some impossible-to-pin-down 'American interest'. Is SSM in the 'American interest'? What if most Americans don't want to see it legalized? Does that make gay activists traitors, not to another country, but to an extranational set of values?

But anyway, your take is more convincing than mine.

PG said...

I don't think being pro-SSM can be evaluated in any way similar to being pro-Israel, because SSM would be operating within the U.S. That is, whether there are good or bad things about SSM, we will all get the benefits and costs here at home. In contrast, when my dad spoke wistfully in 2003 of Pakistan's being the next country to get invaded and democratized and forcefully U.S.-allied, I think he's pretty clearly importing his interests as an NRI (non-resident Indian) into his U.S. foreign policy preferences. Ditto when he was angry at Clinton for putting trade sanctions on India (and Pakistan, but he always forgets that part) when they got nukes.

Yes, he can make an argument about why it's *also* in America's interest to invade Pakistan, or why it was wickedly hypocritical and quasi-imperialistic for a nuke-bearing country to condemn another, far more threatened country's getting nukes. But I find it implausible that anyone would have the collection of sentiments that my dad does without being pro-India.

And at the point that you're pro a particular other country's interests, you're potentially less than 100% concerned with American interests. (This is distinct from being interested in free-floating ideals. There doesn't seem to be a concern that a commitment to genocide prevention, wherever genocide occurs, is not in our national interest even when intervening in a particular genocide may *not* be in our interests, because people like that usually make it part of their definition of what "Americans interests" are to be anti-genocide or whatever.)

So I don't think there are "Jewish" interests that can be opposed to "American" interests. But Israel's interests potentially could be opposed to America's interests -- I don't think that's impossible, and I don't think it's necessarily anti-Semitic to believe that in any given situation, American interests don't align with Israeli ones.

For example, if someone is dumb enough to believe that Al Qaeda is driven by the desire to wipe out Israel (rather than by the much larger desire to restore some version of the Ottoman Empire), and that AQ will cease to be a threat to the U.S. once the U.S. ceases to be Israel's ally, that person could say the U.S. should stop being an ally because that would be in America's interests. That would be dumb, but not necessarily anti-Semitic so long as the person had the same belief about any other U.S. ally targeted by a worldwide terrorist group. ("The Tamil Tigers have started bombing U.S. embassies in Europe. OK, no more talking to Sri Lanka.")

Phoebe said...

"And at the point that you're pro a particular other country's interests, you're potentially less than 100% concerned with American interests."

OK, here's where we disagree. Those lobbying for SSM might argue that their concern is the future of the American nation, the realization of American values, etc., but it's clear enough that their concern is about the rights of gays (a transnational group), and only incidentally those gays finding themselves within America. It might well *hurt* American interests to permit SSM (although I for one can't see how), but it doesn't matter, because the point is to change America to fit the desires of the few, not to improve America according to some objective and universally-agreed-upon criteria, i.e. 'American interests.'

And it's the same with a pro-Israel lobby--a pro-Israel group might (will) argue that it is in America's interest (values-wise and policy-wise) to support Israel, when it's clear that interests lie perhaps not only with the well-being of the Jewish state, but with the well-being of (American) Jews in particular. A pro-Israel group could certainly impact life for Israelis, but the interest is really in the stance of Jews in America, with Israel seen as somehow guaranteeing calm for Diaspora Jews.

But let's say that weren't even the case, and pro-Israel lobbyists really did just care about how America treated Israel. Just as with domestic policy, the government must adopt some foreign policy. It seems unreasonable to label all pressure lobbyists put on one type of policy as potentially outside American interests, but all pressure put on the other type as about wishing America (as opposed to a small subset of people who happen to live in America) well.

I mean, there is a difference, in that as versus SSM, another country is affected. But pro-SSM advocates are also less than 100% concerned about what's best for America, simply because most Americans are not gay, not openly at any rate, and may well be neutral or negative towards SSM.

Or, in brief: there is no greater reason, on the face of it, that allowing SSM is good for non-gay Americans than there is for thinking non-Jewish Americans benefit from the US supporting Israel. To the majority of Americans not personally moved by these issues, they're about the few claiming, with more or less conviction, that the many would benefit from their getting their way.

PG said...

Those lobbying for SSM might argue that their concern is the future of the American nation, the realization of American values, etc., but it's clear enough that their concern is about the rights of gays (a transnational group), and only incidentally those gays finding themselves within America

I think putting a ton of energy into SSM lobbying is self-indulgent if one thinks of one's community as a transnational group. There would be much more utility to the international community of homosexuals if our asylum policy recognized sexual orientation, for example. I'm pro-SSM and donated money to No on 8 and all that, but even I think you're much worse off being a homosexual stuck without hope of escape in various countries where you face a real likelihood of imprisonment and even execution, than being a gay person in CA who has to be "domestically partnered" instead of "married."

Yet how much have you ever heard about SSM versus asylum? Sorry, I call BS on the idea that SSM lobbyists' "concern is about the rights of gays (a transnational group), and only incidentally those gays finding themselves within America." And I totally include myself in that group, because I haven't done squat to advance asylum issues. I don't know any poor oppressed gay people in Turkey or wherever; I do have gay friends whom I want to have rights equal to mine in America.

There's also the analogy problem of SSM being claimed as a matter of rights and the tendency of rights-as-trumps in our domestic political discourse that doesn't happen with ... well, anything, in foreign policy. It's not like we have a "right not to be ethnically cleansed" trump in our foreign policy or much of a tribunal to which one can appeal (as SSM supporters can go to the courts and thus circumvent certain democratic processes).

Finally, for those who see SSM as an issue of Constitutionally mandated sex equality, as I do, SSM *is* "to improve America according to some objective and universally-agreed-upon criteria." That's part of what rights-talk is about: to impress upon people that if they say no to MLK's or Ellen DeGeneres's civil rights, they're not just being mean to blacks or lesbians; they're BETRAYING THE CONSTITUTION. (Which is a reasonable stand-in for the meaning of the nation, at least for some of us.)

Phoebe said...

I see your point, and I may have overstated (misstated) the case for gays as a transnational group (although I've heard of some organizations that do work with that idea in mind). But I still think that if that's a stretch, it's also a stretch to believe that pro-SSM advocates are primarily worried that their opponents are "BETRAYING THE CONSTITUTION." They're primarily worried that gays cannot marry as straights can, and are thus denied certain rights/benefits. Whatever national or constitutional concerns there are, and however useful they are in court cases, are, I think, a distant second in importance in terms of anyone's actual concerns or motivations for getting involved.

Matt said...

Btw, while I love your first comment, PG, I changed my mind about whether Freeman's withdrawal was Israel-centered when I found out about the 87 Chinese dissidents who sent a letter to Obama.

PG said...

Phoebe,

it's also a stretch to believe that pro-SSM advocates are primarily worried that their opponents are "BETRAYING THE CONSTITUTION."

People in a broad-based movement have different motivations. I think a lot of allies who are not themselves gay may have reasons to support SSM that aren't the same as those of the people most directly affected. For example, it's in a feminist's interests to support SSM because that pushes the further breakdown of gender norms in marriage.

Matt,

Thanks. I don't think the withdrawal was due solely to Freeman's views on Israel, but I think those were more important than his views on China, particularly if it's the dissidents' letter that you consider the catalyst. I'd consider more problematic for Freeman the already-disclosed e-mail he allegedly authored that was supportive of the Tiananman crackdown. Dissidents write letters all the time, but the quotes from that e-mail were some nasty soundbites.

Phoebe said...

"People in a broad-based movement have different motivations. I think a lot of allies who are not themselves gay may have reasons to support SSM that aren't the same as those of the people most directly affected."

That could be. I guess my own reason for supporting SSM is both personal and not, in the sense that while my interest in marrying a woman is nil, I'm thinking primarily about gay people/couples I know and how they should be allowed to marry (and often are, in effect, married), and only after that about how it would benefit society if children who grew up to gay grew up knowing that they could lead the family lives they wanted, including but not limited to marriage.

PG said...

Phoebe,

Sure, but keep in mind that if you constrain the universe of people who might support SSM to those who know people in committed homosexual relationships, that's going to eliminate quite a few Americans. I didn't know anyone openly gay until I was in college, and I didn't know any gay people who had been in the same relationship for more than two years until I was close to graduating from law school. Despite not knowing people immediately affected, I still supported same-sex marriage rights due to an abstract belief in equality. The abstractions are necessary to pull in those folks with no personal connection, even if one also uses emotive images (e.g. the effect on white people in places like Minnesota of seeing blacks during the civil rights movement getting hit with fire hoses).

lgm said...

...use 'Israel lobby' and 'Jewish lobby' interchangeably...

It isn't only critics who do this. People like Walt and Chomsky who criticize the Israel lobby are called anti-semitic by that lobby. I don't know whether Walt is Jewish, but Chomsky is.

I don't think you can deny that the Israel lobby campaigned against Freeman. They came at him with a coordinated full court press. You can't criticize them for opposing someone they think is harmful to Israel. That's their job.

You can regret that they were so effective. By numbers, they should have less influence than the Sweden lobby (by size of country and number of relatives in the US). Yet they seem to have veto power over anything the US does that has anything to do with the middle east.

Phoebe said...

"I don't know whether Walt is Jewish, but Chomsky is."

Good grief, are there really still people left who think a person who's Jewish can't, on account of being Jewish, hold or spread negative views about 'the Jews', i.e. be anti-Semitic?

PG said...

lgm,

Population size of the country has squat to do with influence, and probably ditto number of relatives. China's always had a massive population, but that's no reason for it to have been influential on U.S. policy when we had no relationship with China. There are a lot more Cuban-Americans than Icelandic-Americans in the U.S., yet somehow we don't seem as friendly toward Cuba as we do toward Iceland. I'm talking about the relative preference of the people within the country. If the majority of Americans like Israel more than Saudi Arabia, it is perfectly appropriate that we have a larger and more influential Israel Lobby than Saudi Lobby. (Indeed, the influence of Saudi Arabia on the U.S. probably isn't proportional to voters' liking of SA.)

Phoebe said...

Thanks PG, I knew you could explain that better than I could.

lgm said...

Phoebe, do you think Chomsky is anti-semitic? Can you think of a critic of the Israel lobby who is not anti-semitic? Do you think a call for Israel to return land taken from Arabs since 1967 (which international law requires it to do) is anti-semitic. I think it not only is not anti-semitic, but pro Israel -- being the best road to peace.

PG, the Cuba lobby (the anti-Cuba lobby, actually) often is ranked with the Israel lobby as institutions that distort US foreign policy in unproductive ways. Almost nobody in the US foreign service thinks the embargo against Cuba does anyone any good, not in the US and not in Cuba.

PG said...

lgm,

Your statement was, "By numbers, they [the Israel Lobby] should have less influence than the Sweden lobby (by size of country and number of relatives in the US)."

Do you measure "influence" by how friendly the U.S. is to the country from which the X-Americans originated (in which Israel fits your idea of outsized influence, but Cuba doesn't), or do you measure influence by how far our policy deviates from what you consider to be a policy "doing good" (in which Israel and Cuba both fit, but that's what one would expect of a tautology)?

Any argument about whether this or that lobby has an inappropriate level of influence first has to define what is an appropriate level. I am quite happy with my definition that a lobby that reflects the preferences of the voting population is a perfectly appropriate-sized lobby. The general dislike of "lobbyists" is because they are "special interests" that are *not* representative of voters at large.

Phoebe said...

lgm:

"Phoebe, do you think Chomsky is anti-semitic?"

I have no opinion on the matter. And no, I do not think it is anti-Semitic to want to see an end to the settlements. What I don't think, and what I thought I made clear in my response, is that someone being of Jewish origin, or even religiously Jewish, makes them somehow immune to anti-Semitic ideas or actions. Which was, I'm assuming, your implication in mentioning his being Jewish, something I hadn't known about him, and that, once again, is irrelevant.