The Ethics of Coalition Building

Over the past few weeks a conversation has begin to emerge in the Jewish community about the ethics of coalition building in a time of both political urgency and the rise in the experience of Jewish vulnerability. The latter — the sense that our community has to fight against external threats — inclines some to build coalitions with unusual suspects that transcend the usual rules of community relations. At the same time, if these unusual suspects identify with political movements which *also* play into Jewish fears about vulnerability, this political strategy risks not only backfiring in increasing Jewish vulnerability, but also making the efforts at coalition-building look naive. Looming over the conversation is a larger tension about American Jewish values, and the ways in which the advancement of a (Jewish) agenda of social justice with respect to American politics sometimes aligns with and often departs from the classic Jewish community relations agenda of self-preservation and an orientation towards traditional expressions of embodied self-interest. How we negotiate the work of allyship right now becomes a telling mirror on how we balance competing values and — ideally — integrate these values to a place of compatibility.

I’ve been writing and thinking about this issue a lot — sometimes in that order, sometimes the other way around — and thought it might be helpful to consolidate what I’ve written on this issue, with some responses and background, into one place. I am eager for this conversation to continue and hopefully to be gradually refined with the input of others. How we think about these issues today, in real time, could have real impact for how we construct our community’s politics going forward.

My first public take on this issue was in the Jewish Journal:

Then, a couple of weeks afterward, there began the spate of bomb threats towards JCCs. CAIR offered a reward to apprehend the perpetrators, and I offered the following comments on Facebook:

“I just saw the fascinating CAIR announcement of a $5k reward for information leading to the apprehension of the person(s) terrorizing JCCs with bomb threats over the past few months, and I have two reactions:

First, the most encouraging part of all this to me was the language in the announcement explicitly noting that the Jewish communal displays of empathy over the past months for the Muslim community in America are seen and welcomed, and the implicit acknowledgement that this is the reciprocity born of that good will. This is encouraging — tragic, of course, and still encouraging. The Jewish community and CAIR have not had a good history, and I suppose it is a good thing that an awareness of joint, if not shared, vulnerability unites us and compels us to see that much of what we share can help us look past all that which divides us.

But second, and not to sound ungrateful, for I know that people are striving to do right by each other: I am not enamored by this gesture of a reward. When Jews have been vulnerable in the past, as perhaps now, we have needed two things: neighbors, who stand alongside us and treat us as equals; and citizens and leaders who prevent episodic antisemitism from being legislated and/or structural-systemic persecution. Right now what I want to offer to other vulnerable populations is what I also want for my community, which is not a bounty in response to a crime wave but a healthy flow, even a culture of, empathy-sympathy for the plight (to help with the emotions of fear and the sense of vulnerability), and effective political and community organizing against the metastasizing of the threat into public policy (to help with the specter of what could be worse). I suppose what I am trying to say is, I am grateful for the sentiment — but how can we leverage this moment as American Jews and American Muslims to *really* become accountable and responsible for one another, beyond the symbolic gestures?

This is a genuine question that stems from my instinctive reaction, and I’d welcome your thoughts.”

This was then followed by the massive campaign led by Sarsour and others to raise the funds towards the repair of the Jewish cemetery in St. Louis. I responded with the following comments on Facebook:

“Anyway, I am basically thinking nonstop these days about the ethics of allying and coalitions, especially in light of the piece I wrote on Sarsour (and her involvement today with fundraising for the St Louis cemetery) and my comments earlier this week about CAIR, and here’s where I’m at. I’m sketching these out as separate if related observations, both because they make better sense to me thus far this way than as a coherent narrative, and in order to enable folks to disagree and annotate in a more organized fashion:

1. I feel this needs to go first: those who desecrate graves deserve whatever horrors await them back in whichever ring of hell they crawled out of in order to perpetrate this misdeed. Our sages refer to caring for the dead as חסד של אמת, a true lovingkindness, for it represents a debt of service to another that can never be repaid in one’s lifetime. Desecrating the dead then is the antithesis, a purely evil act. It also produces secondary victims in the members of the deceased’s family, damaging memory or reawakening traumas, seeding an anxiety that we have left our ancestors and our memories of them vulnerable along with their interred, and now disturbed, bodies. Finally, as Jews, we have sometimes preferred the dignity of death than the violation of God’s name that comes with forced iniquity in life, and therefore there is an extra perversity of antisemitic violence against those who have already perished. My prayers since this news broke have been with this community and its leaders, and directed — in that strange way that our tradition imagines is possible — towards trying to “elevate” the souls of the deceased whose resting place was violated.

2. The campaign to raise real money to repair the cemetery was genuinely a holy act, precisely as the kind of true lovingkindess to which I referred before. It would qualify as a holy act regardless of who did it, and has a specialness attached to coming from the American Muslim community in the midst of its own vulnerability. There is no redemption inherent in vulnerability, but there can be a ray of light when one group’s vulnerability enables them to inhabit the experience of another. On that level, I just say thank you and I feel intense gratitude for this leadership in this moment. When I was in Morocco we visited the Jewish cemetery in Marrakech, which still serves a nearly-entirely diminished community and is still taken care of by the community and the state; but the anxiety of what would happen without its local caretakers was palpable. It made me think of my ancestors’ graves, somewhere indeterminate in darkest Eastern Europe, and almost surely in disrepair. This will inevitably happen to the graves of the Jewish people in light of our chronic relocations; it must not happen in the communities where we still thrive, and I am grateful for the succor that comes to prevent it from whatever sources.

3. Some have accused this campaign and its organizers as doing this for the purposes of “hasbara” in defense of their political views which are antagonistic to the mainstream Jewish community on Israel. I find this to be hopelessly cynical, skepticism that takes caution too far down the path towards nihilism. This was a sincere act at least in outcome, and that must attenuate the skepticism about motives to some degree. I do not believe in litmus testing the giving of charity based on the politics of the giver, especially when the charity is attached to so clearly a designated use and cannot, on its face, carry a political message.

4. Others are celebrating — in my view, also cynically — that the actions of these activists enable the severing of Israel and Jewishness as necessarily constitutive features of the same identity. They argue that it empirically demonstrates that someone can be pro-Jewish and passionately anti-Israel, and that this is a good thing. While I agree that pro-Israelism and Jewishness are not identical, and while I agree that some in the pro-Israel world constantly and unhelpfully conflate the two, I believe continuing the work of reinforcing a separation of the two does more harm than good, exacerbating unhelpfully polar divisions in Jewish life rather than resetting a balance that is already off kilter. As I do not celebrate the ironic extremist Zionism of white nationalists (and I shudder at granting them ownership over any aspect of that identity), neither do I celebrate what some see as philosemitism in a particular gesture by individuals with extremely troubled relationship and deep political disagreement with much of the Jewish people.

5. This, then, is I think a key point: I believe the only useful and warranted skepticism right now lies in being as precise as we can be, and not hyperbolic: in naming that this act of charity can be kind, meaningful, etc *without* being TRANSFORMATIVE — either in terms of how we relate to the particular individuals who led the campaign, or more broadly to the agenda of Jewish-Muslim relations. I believe *strongly* that the route towards improved relations involves engaging with and through, rather than sidelining, our political identities; that this comes closer at enabling us to inhabit our fuller and more complex identities, and enables the work to reach into sectors of our community with sincerity far beyond just the envoys at each community’s border; and that taking this approach avoids the inevitable (false) deemphasizing or overemphasizing of politics (by ignoring it for too long) that can be deeply damaging in the long run.

Put crudely: there are aspects of the BDS movement, especially among those adherents committed to the notion of “antinormalization,” which imply violent outcomes masked in the cloak of nonviolent organizing language. I find antinormalization to be, at its core, a form of dehumanization; and I find that the unwillingness to engage with the corporate, political, and — yes, powerful — dimensions of the contemporary Jewish people and its ideology of Zionism, in all its complexities, for fear that *engagement alone* will license and legitimate particular political positions, to be a tool to deliberately not be in relationship with a whole person, and instead to curate aspects of The Other to whom one wants to express generosity, to reduce the other rather than to see the other, and I find it tragic and unwelcome. I am grateful for the lovingkindness to our deceased relatives, but I am hungry for lovingkindness to our living and breathing people; and the only way I can live with both is to treat the lovingkindness expressed here with gratitude that is isolated from the sentiment that much, much more effort and intention is needed in order for the gesture to be transformative.

Nu? The work continues.”

In response to the Sarsour piece, Bari Weiss then published this piece on Tablet:

Weiss characterized my position as follows:

“Still, anti-Trumpers argued, Sarsour’s personal imperfections didn’t come close to forcing Jews to disavow her and her movement. Echoing Brous, Yehuda Kurtzer, president of the Shalom Hartman Institute of North America, pushed back against those who use support of Israel as a single-issue litmus test. In a piece in the Jewish Journal, he made the case that American Jews should stick to what he dubbed the “two-thirds and 51 percent” rule: “We identify in political communities, or organize for particular causes, with people who share, or at least do not operate in contradistinction to, two-thirds of our core moral imperatives, and with whom we agree on a minimum of 51 percent of our moral concerns,” he writes. By this standard, Sarsour’s leadership role is not a deal breaker. “Rotten compromise, the kind we must not do,” wrote Kurtzer, “entails making common cause with evil.”

So what does boundary-crossing evil look like? Is it OK, for example, to support the civil rights of Palestinians, undocumented immigrants, and women who wear hijab while also calling for the denial of the national and indigenous rights of Jews, and rejecting the rights of women in Muslim-majority countries to control their own bodies? Is that a fair definition of Kurtzer’s 51-percent rule? If you call for the death of Zionists but support Palestinian nationalism, is being against Donald Trump the moral tie-breaker that makes you a legitimate ally of American Jews like me — and immune from our criticism? Kurtzer doesn’t say, but the assumption was that nothing had thus far emerged in the anti-Trump movement to meet the rotten compromise test.”

In response, I wrote the following on Facebook:

Bari Weiss has written a thoughtful critique, which I’ve linked to below, of my (and others’) take on the ethics of coalitions. I’m grateful to Bari for continuing this conversation and for pushing back in important ways, as I believe this is a critically important issue for us to continue to think about in this anxious-activism moment.

I have four quick-hit responses consisting of a quibble, two medium-level substantive issues, and one significant piece of pushback:

First, a quibble: Weiss characterizes my Jewish Journal piece as “echoing Brous” — though I think Sharon would agree that she and I were actually taking very different stances on Sarsour: hers a full-throated defense, mine an effort to articulate the calculus of issues involved in making common cause with people with whom we disagree. Anyone following my work on this will know that my interest here is not a coded effort to come to Sarsour’s defense, as much as to try to help Jewish leaders think the issues through. I think it served Weiss’ rhetorical argument to classify both of our approaches together, but the issue here is not as “pro/con” as it appears.

Second: I think Weiss makes a big and unnecessary mistake in the gratuitous section about Sharia Law. Weiss suggests on the basis of one clearly sarcastic tweet — one that I think means to serve as an apologetic for the nice aspects of sharia law (no interest lending) — that Sarsour advocates for the replacement of American law with Sharia law, which is the stuff of what the most odious anti-Muslim voices in this country have conspiratorially peddling about American Muslims as the latest manifestation of a long history of casting suspicions of disloyalty on religious minority groups. And to do so, Weiss then tells us that people who support sharia law support the beating of women. These are two loaded moves. First one has to demonstrate that the Muslim leader in question actually supports the dismantling of American law and its replacement with sharia, and this is a big lift patently not demonstrated here. And second, one has to take a legal code more seriously than just identifying its most odious elements. Are we to say about Jews who adhere to Halacha that they self-evidently support the chaining of women to their husbands? This whole section was a throwaway insult against Islam that really undermines the sincerity of Weiss’ implicit claim.

The third issue, alluded to in the previous, is evidentiary. I found myself craving more in Weiss’ piece as a demonstration of her argument than just the handful of tweets that have been in circulation for a long time. I don’t contest the awfulness in them, and I no longer underplay the significance of Twitter as a means of acquiring power and leveraging it. But I think this was an opportunity to do the kind of investigative reporting that would help us discern between the tweet-messaging, on one hand, and the character-witnessing of other faith leaders on the other. More information is needed.

Finally, the big point: I absolutely agree with Weiss that the emerging voice of Rasmeah Odeh should not be allowed in the leadership of the left, and that we should work hard to exclude it. I do not here or elsewhere believe in the cheapening of Jewish blood, to use Weiss’ phrase; and while I believe that people can repent, I do not want even repentant antisemitic terrorists — and it’s not even clear that Odeh is repentant — anywhere near the causes I care about. And I promise to try to be vigilant about this.

And yet the clarity of the Odeh case is precisely why the Sarsour case is more complicated, and while Weiss wants us to understand that the former implicates the latter, it is not so clear. Put differently: I oppose BDS for largely tactical reasons, and I also see its ethical and moral limitations. But it is a non-violent movement and we must be incredibly disciplined about differentiating between terror violence and nonviolence as strategies in conflict. Otherwise — when people pretend that boycott=bombing — they, too, become complicit in the very “cheapening of Jewish blood” that they deride in others.”

I intend to keep this page live and the conversation going as long as it continues productively and substantively. Please feel free to send me links of thought-pieces that advance this conversation.