On Allyship

I took a break from a web forum called MetaFilter recently. I don't know how long it will last. Until I feel comfortable going back I suppose, which could be indefinitely.

I like MetaFilter as a site. I think it is an example for the rest of the web, in that it manages to be a general interest site that, thanks to smart moderating policies, is one of the few places on the web that isn't constantly poisonous.

But the site has a recurring problem with the subject of Judaism. It shows up occasionally on the site's back-end discussion board, MetaTalk. The first time I recall was back in 2007, when a user on the site leaped into a thread on Scientology to spread an old canard about the Talmud saying it was permissible for Jews to murder non-Jews.

This was a wilder time on MetaFilter, and responses to the thread were largely jokey, even from yours truly. It's a bit shocking to read threads from that time, but, generally, people were of the opinion that naked antisemitism shouldn't be allowed on the site, and that seems to have always been the site's policy. (It is worth noting that several of the site's moderators are Jewish.)

In general, the site has been rather good about this sort of thing, and I don't take specific issue with the moderating policies there. My issue isn't so much with the moderators at this moment as it is with the community as a whole, although I think the moderators play a large role in leading the community. I have been on MetaFilter since 2005, and in those 12 years I have never seen significant changes to the community's norms without the direct, specific, and continuous influence of the moderators.

Additionally, I should mention that while I am discussing MetaFilter specifically, it is as a representation of a larger issue: That of Jews and their allies.

What started this was a recent thread about white nationalist Richard Spencer getting socked in the face, which MetaFilter was generally okay with, as am I. But in the thread, somebody made a generalized distinction between the left and the right, saying:

"The right's propensity for violence is because they feel entitled to hurt us, to wipe us out, to enforce at any opportunity their sense of superiority.

"The left's propensity for violence, if you can call it that, is because we are afraid people will kill us for existing."

To which a regular user, we'll call him JFA, responded that the left is a big umbrella, and pointed out that Jews regularly feel threatened by certain anti-Zionist groups. He linked to an essay titled "Solidarity is for Goyim," which argues that, while Jews are frequently early and visible allies to many other groups that are in need, when Jews are in need, allyship is hard to find.

Antisemitism and the progressive community

This has been consistent with my own experiences, and I have long experience in the left. I cofounded a Jewish activist group in Minneapolis in the 1990s called the Jewish Activist Minyan, but found it enormously difficult to discuss issues of antisemitism with non-Jews in the progressive community, and when those issues came up -- especially the more subtle ones, the sorts of things that we now call microagressions -- found I was often dismissed.

As on MetaFilter, the Minneapolis progressive community generally thought obvious antisemitism was despicable, and, if they could punch a Nazi in response, were happy to. But when it came to smaller, endemic, near-invisible antisemitism that the left might be participating in and advancing? Nope.

I am going to try to divorce this as much as possible from discussions of Israel, although I can't entirely, because Israel is a significant subject for the left, and also is a place where unconscious antisemitism (or, sometimes, conscious antisemitism) will appear. It's also one of the places where charges of antisemitism are reflexively dismissed.

It's what happened in the thread. Rightly or wrongly, there are people on MetaFilter who think JFA uses the charge of antisemitism to shield Israel from criticism. I'm not going to go through his entire posting history to see if this is something he has ever done, because it doesn't matter.

But even if he did, and even if it did matter, I then chimed in and said his link rang true with me. I have no real history of discussing Israel on the site, for a few reasons. Firstly, my feelings about the place are complicated and frequently shifting. Secondly, discussions of the subject on the site have frequently been alienating to me, so I steer clear of them. Thirdly, as a Jew, I am often pressured to (and feel pressure to) weigh in on the subject, and I take issue with this, as it is a country I have very little relationship with and should not be expected to be a spokesperson for.

But I was ignored in favor of people immediately, reflexively lobbing dismissive statements at JFA. I then opened a MetaTalk thread to discuss this, and, despite me explicitly stating that I did not want this to be a referendum on JFA, but instead to discuss the larger issue of allyship with Jews, people kept insisting on discussing JFA, essentially saying it was impossible to discuss the subject because his participation was so problematic.

That's when I left.


Now, some of it is that my nerves are quite raw right now. This is a tough time. It's like a wildfire, and everybody's home is burning a little, and so I understand that perhaps the frightening rise of antisemitism, and the question of how people can be allies for the Jews, may not be everybody's first priority.

At the same time, our house is also on fire, with JCCs experiencing bomb threats and an official statement from the White House on International Holocaust Remembrance Day deliberately leaving out Jews, a gesture that, generously, was extraordinarily tone deaf.  Ungenerously, it was a move to strike the specifically Jewish experience out of the Holocaust, to universalize it in a way that erases history, which wouldn't be a terrific surprise given that there are White Nationalists in the White House just now.

So we could use a little support. Beyond that, we need our allies to do the same sort of work they ask of us. In the same way I am asked to be aware of where I am privileged, where I may be blinkered, where I may have unconscious assumptions and biases, where I assume authority that I don't have and reject authority that others have, all that -- well, Jews should be able to ask that of others.

But the article I linked above describes something they call "Gentile Fragility," and I have seen it. It's an unconscious, reflexive rejection whenever something about the Jews comes up that isn't Protocols of the Elders of Zion levels of obviousness.

If I can use another example from MetaFilter, back in 2009 there was fierce debate about the appropriateness of the use of the term JAP.  I was pretty active in that thread, and found it maddening. Not only was the idea that the phrase was offensive dismissed by many users, but the discussion itself was dismissed with the suggestion that there are more important things to talk about.

I was very hurt by that thread, because JAP is self-evidently a slur. But it went on forever, with people endlessly arguing about it. And I think what hurt most was there was no deference to the fact that here I was, a Jew, explaining in unambiguous terms what the issue was, and was held to be no more authoritative than a gentile who had never actually thought through the subject until that very moment and was having a knee-jerk reflex to give themselves permission to use it.

I know this is not unique to Jews. I see it happen to every minority group online. But people need to know that it happens to Jews, too, and we need their support when it happens. As an example, there is someone I am Facebook friends with who is a member of the Romani community. She friended me on Facebook because she saw my frequent and very public defense of the Irish Traveller ethnic group.

As happens occasionally, I saw a comment she made in a thread that interested me, so I peeked in. It was a group of mostly Romani commenters, and for some reason the thread deteriorated into a vicious series of openly antisemitic comments. And I kept waiting for this Facebook friend to step in and defend Jews in the way she had seen me defend others.

It didn't happen.

Speaking for the Jews

I feel this way a lot. Where are our allies? In the wake of the JCC bomb threats, I, like the author of "Solidarity is for Goyim," looked around for non-Jewish institutions that spoke out against this, and was shocked at how little public commentary there was. I have looked around for institutional responses from non-Jews to the absence of mentions of Jews or antisemitism in the official White House statement on International Holocaust Remembrance Day and found it almost entirely absent, but for a comment in an interview by Tim Kaine.

A thankfully deleted comment in my MetaTalk thread might suggest the reason why: It stated without equivocation that Jews do not experience institutional oppression, and therefore antisemitism is not seen as being a serious as other forms of oppression.

This isn't true -- the institution of antisemitism publicly privileges a few Jews in order to make them scapegoats, as demonstrated by the "Jews control the media" libel. That still exists, and is being used by the current administration to delegitimize the media. It's very present and is indeed institutional.

But even if the charge that there is no institutional oppression of Jews were true, what difference does it make? The world is full of big and little evils, and while we may have to prioritize the big over the little in an emergency, it does not mean we get to ignore the little altogether. And it is especially worth noting that antisemitism often escapes attention because the Jewish community is small, and the Jewish community is small because of genocide.

We are not living in a post-antisemitism world, as some seem to think, or in a world where antisemitism is so minor as to be inconsequential. We are instead living in a world where the Jewish community is so small that our suffering is easy to ignore.

Easy for non-Jews, that is. I work at a Jewish newspaper, and a lot of our content comes from Jewish wire services. Every day I must go through the news briefs they send out, and every day it includes stories of antisemitism: Students at the University of Houston praising Hitler on social media and expressing a desire to hurt Jews; A German publisher who apologized for including an antisemitic image in a schoolbook; a Crown Heights driver who threatened to shoot a crossing guard and a Jewish child; printers at Stanford, Vanderbilt and California, Berkeley that were used to print antisemitic fliers; Jewish actor Shia LaBeouf shoving a stranger who told him "Hitler did nothing wrong."

All these stories came in Friday. When we go to press, I must wade through all the stories of antisemitism and pick out which ones were are going to print, usually based on severity or novelty. It's likely the Jewish community doesn't know the startling frequency of antisemitic events, since they see only a fraction of it in print. I am sure it is all-but invisible to the non-Jewish world.

Some suggestions

I asked for help in the MetaTalk thread, help in how to address both this invisibility and the lack of allyship; help was not forthcoming. I have some general suggestions, as they are as follows:

1. Speak out: Jews need support too! We've a very small group, as I said, and so our experiences and concerns are often invisible, as I again said. We need non-Jews to amplify our concerns and our voices, and to speak out on our behalf. Don't presume that because there are visible Jews in the media that the Jewish experience is well-represented, or especially current.

2. Don't presume you understand antisemitism: It can be hard to fathom a form of oppression that seems to privilege people. That privilege is not universal, and historically it has always proved to be temporary and provisional. The history of antisemitism is one of a small percentage of Jews being granted visible privilege and all Jews subsequently being punished for that. Since we tend to discuss oppression in terms of privilege, it can be hard to fathom an oppression that adds privilege, rather that strips it away. But this is what antisemitism does, and its insidiousness is that this often renders antisemitism invisible.

3. Don't accuse Jews of using charges of antisemitism to silence critics of Israel: Yes, I know there are Jews who do this. I know they are irritating. But I see this charge launched preemptively all the time -- there was one MetaFilter thread on antisemitism in which it was mentioned dozens of times, but nobody could point to a specific example when pressed.

As a result, it seems far too often to be a way of submarining any talks of antisemitism by insisting on dishonest motives. If you are truly an ally, all charges of antisemitism must be taken seriously, even if you suspect their motives. Investigate the charge. Ask questions. Especially if more than one Jew brings it up.

Make no mistake, there is a lot of antisemitism that masquerades itself as criticism of Israel, and I would think, if you are genuinely attempting to address injustice in Israel, you would not want to be associated with antisemitism, and would want to make sure you are not accidentally participating in it.

Is it possible for Jews to abuse that, to simply fling around the charge without merit? It is. You still must take it seriously. In the end, you can decide the charge is meritless, but not without actually examining the charge. That's your responsibility as an ally, and, frankly, that's your obligation as a non-Jew.

Is this a pain-in-the ass? You bet. Consider it your fee for being on the wrong end of 2,000 years of antisemitism.

4. There will never be an ideal spokesperson: It becomes very easy to dismiss charges of antisemitism because the person leveling it may be far from ideal. But I've watched this dynamic play out before, and it always seems like the person who is readiest to speak out is the person who is easiest to disregard. They're too loud. They're too pushy. They overreach. Their motives are suspect. There just seems to be this litany of reasons to ignore them, none of them having to do with the thing the person just said.

Well, if you wait for the right person to phrase something the exact right way, it turns out you can put off addressing the issue forever. I know it is irritating to deal with irritating people, but, then, I don't know how to raise an unwelcome subject without being irritating.

And here's the thing: In the MetaFilter thread, when I raised the same topic as the disreputable JFA, people continued to address JFA. I've seen this phenomenon before, of people selecting who will be the spokesperson for an issue, and deliberately choosing the one they consider least credible.

I never know whether these tactics are deliberate or unconscious, and I guess I don't care. Either way, they frame the discussion in a way in which it can be delegitimized. Don't do that.

5. Don't insert yourself into in-group discussions: Jews, as a whole, agree on nothing. The Talmud, the compendium of Jewish law, is nothing but one long book of arguments, some spanning centuries, between rabbis who absolutely do not agree with each other. In terms of practical application of Jewish law, we mostly picked one group to follow, the House of Hillel, even though there was another group, the House of Shammai, who disagreed with Hillel on everything.

So there has never been Jewish consensus. As a result, if something seems to be antisemitic, you will always find one Jew who says it isn't. And that's fine -- one of Judaism's great strengths is its diversity, although you'll find Jews who disagree with me on that.

But that makes it easy for non-Jews to pick through Jewish arguments and find Jews whose viewpoints support their own. Don't do this. It is not the place of a non-Jew to pick a side in a Jewish argument because it supports their worldview.

6. Jews are the experts on their own experiences: Jews know what it means to be Jewish better than non-Jews. Defer to their expertise.

I know it is hard for people in the majority to hear this -- they didn't like it when women said they know more about the experience of being women than men do, they didn't like it when black people said they know more about being black than white people do, and they haven't liked it any other time. I don't know why this is, as this little precept seems self-evident, but it is so often ignored that I feel I must write it.

7. Don't blame Jews for antisemitism or expect them to fix it: There is a long and genuinely murderous history of Jews being held as responsible for the hatred against them. There were a lot of reasons offered: Jews represented the criminal classes, Jews would not assimilate, etc. This phenomenon even had a name: The Jewish Question.

The Jewish question is inherently antisemitic, as it presumes the Jews are a problem. The Final Solution actually got its name because it was proposed as the answer to the Jewish Question.

There is a temptation sometimes to say, well, if Jews did this, or they did that, or if Israel stopped doing this or that, things would be better for the Jews.

If you are tempted to do this, stop. It presents antisemitism as being an inevitable and reasonable response to something Jews have done. But the responsibility for antisemitism always lies with the antisemite, and we have 2000 years of history that prove that nothing Jews do has any effect on antisemitism. The Jewish Question is just a way of shifting blame for antisemitism away from antisemites and onto Jews.

Jews didn't create antisemitism, and therefore it is not their job to fix it. Truthfully, I am irritated at feeling like I have to write this essay, because while I am happy to have input in a series of suggestions like this, the fact that it has been left to a Jew to write it tells me non-Jews are not taking responsibility for their behavior.

8. Atheists out there: I am an atheist. I am culturally Jewish, but I am one of many, many Jewish atheists, including some rabbis.

There is a noxious and pernicious trend where particularly belligerent atheists think they can be unpleasant about the subject of Judaism because they are unpleasant about all religions. That the only commentary needed is a blinkered dismissal of an ancient superstition because this sort of fantasy is inherently an evil.

As one atheist to another, cut it out.

9. A last note: Finally, since I started this with a discussion of my experience on MetaFilter, I will mention the importance of online moderation. I have consistently seen the environment on MetaFilter shift because the moderators have taken an active role in discouraging behavior that creates problems, and have never seen it change without that effort.

I have noticed some shifts in MetaFilter policy since the last time the questions of MetaFilter and the Jews was brought up -- at least one instance where they stepped in to delete a "Jews just claim antisemitism to silence critics of Israel," as an example. I am not sure what further moderation policy would look like, but I know that I will need it publicly articulated before I am comfortable returning to the site.

And I need it publicly articulated for two reasons. Firstly, if it isn't, how will I know anything is being done? And how will I know that I feel these decisions will be effective?

But secondly, MetaFilter relies on its user-base to police for misbehavior, and without the users flagging comments that are a problem, they can be overlooked. Without the moderators making clear policy decisions, users will not know what should be flagged.

That's one of the ways they can speak up on the site. And, as I said, in general, I need people to speak up.

1 comment:

  1. A very thoughtful and well-considered post. I hope it gets attention in the communities you're a part of, and I'm pleased that one of my posts was able to help prompt it.