Saturday, October 4, 2014

"What good is a tweet?" (The Packing and Unpacking of Meaning and the Steven Salaita Case)

Everyone will get a chance to meet and listen to Steven Salaita in Chicago next week.

There's a temptation to treat the Salaita case as a straight-up free speech case. (Perhaps tinged with outrage about the ethnic cleansing of the Palestinians.)

But I think that Salaita has accomplished something very important -- though difficult to unpack -- and so I'm going to try to bring together and organize some thoughts.

(1) Speaking quite openly

I'll begin by saying that I think Salaita has acted as a provocateur to force us to talk about what we often won't talk about: the confusion among several categories related to the Israel/Palestine situation, and the way that that confusion shuts down communication.

"He was speaking about this matter quite openly. " (Mark 8:32)

I believe we are called to speak openly about important matters.

(How many of us are in the closet about important questions like Israel/Palestine?)

(2) "What good is a tweet?"

I was at a family event about a year ago when a very smart (but somewhat skeptical) retired businessman challenged met to explain what the excitement about Twitter is all about. "What good is a tweet?"

The tweet that launched a thousand blog posts:
"Zionists: transforming 'antisemitism' from something horrible
into something honorable since 1948. #Gaza #FreePalestine"
7:15 p.m. July 19, 2014 @stevesalaita
Put aside for the moment the answer I gave him at the time; I'm realizing in the context of thinking about Salaita (e.g. what I am about to say in sections 3 ff. below) that what's really important is that sometimes the conversation doesn't get started with 14,000 words -- it needs to be 140 characters or less.

Short and sweet. And provocative.

(I'm reminded of Winston Churchill: "Broadly speaking, the short words are the best, and the old words best of all.")

Now . . . if I could sum up in 140 characters what makes a provocative and effective tweet . . . .

(3) The Venn Diagram

What is Salaita forcing us to confront when he tweets: "Zionists: transforming 'antisemitism' from something horrible into something honorable since 1948. #Gaza #FreePalestine" ?

In my opinion, he is forcing us to speak quite openly about three rather distinct things that get treated (incorrectly) as if they were the same thing:

* the state of Israel (and whether you criticize it or support it)
* the ideology of Zionism (and whether you criticize it or support it)
* the religion of Judaism (and whether or not you share in its values and beliefs)

I say these are "rather" distinct because I believe they are more like the Venn diagram at right -- we can discuss the degree to which they intersect and overlap, but they are certainly not totally overlapping.

I confess that it was less than two years ago that I saw a presentation by Joel Finkel from Jewish Voices for Peace in Chicago, and I first learned that Zionism is a distinct ideology and one that is not only not supported by every Jew, but is, in fact, felt to be in contradiction to Jewish values by some Jews.

As many people would readily agree, I came by my confusion honestly. Rabbi Brant Rosen was quoted in The New York Times a few weeks ago observing, “For many Jews, Israel is their Judaism, or at least a big part of it. So when someone challenges the centrality of Israel in a public way, it’s very painful and very difficult, especially when that person is their rabbi.” ("Talk in Synagogue of Israel and Gaza Goes From Debate to Wrath to Rage" -- of which more later . . . )

I suppose this encourages us to point out a fourth thing -- one that is not so distinct:

* the ethnicity called "Jewishness"

In my opinion, this fourth thing is like a fourth circle plopped down on top of our neat 3-circle Venn diagram, overflowing all the edges.

And so it gets more and more difficult to talk openly about these issues . . .

(4) A big "container": antisemitism

Now here's the hardest part of all: there is this thing called "antisemitism" which results in violence against people whose ethnicity is "Jewishness," but really can't be explained in terms of anything that has to do with that ethnicity -- even as multitudinous as that ethnicity is.

" J  E  W  "
Charlie Chaplin spoke quite openly
about the rising tide of virulent
antisemitism in Europe in the 1940
film, The Great Dictator.
Antisemitism is a fifth thing -- a kind of derangement. It is a uniquely insidious kind of derangement that finds expression in events ranging from the fleeting (e.g. the unconscious, offhand, unexpressed slur) to the personal (e.g. bias) to the society-wide (e.g. blacklisting) to the epic (the Holocaust).

As a derangement, antisemitism may have all kinds of nominal association with feelings about Jewishness, or Judaism, or Zionism, or Israel, but it doesn't bear any logical relationship to ideas about Jewishness, or Judaism, or Zionism, or Israel. Derangement arises in spite of -- not due to to -- logic.

And so here is what I think Salaita is forcing us to talk openly about: there is often an implicit (and sometimes explicit) suggestion that criticizing Israel or Zionism is antisemitism, and/or that it can lead to antisemitism.

So when we unpack a statement like "Zionists: transforming 'antisemitism' from something horrible into something honorable since 1948. #Gaza #FreePalestine," the main question I believe we need to be asking is, "Who is encouraging (or at least tolerating) the confusion between all these categories? What would be different if the confusion didn't exist?"

Is it possible that the "antisemitism" that we know as a derangement (horrible) has been substituted for some other "antisemitism" that we now confuse with logical (and thereby conceivably honorable) postures such as anti-Zionism and criticism of  -- even opposition to -- the state of Israel?

(5) View from the faith community

Christian communities have, I believe, an important role to play in working for peace and justice in Israel/Palestine, and throughout the Middle East.

It is important for Christians to speak openly about the issues and about possible paths toward solutions.

It may feel like a very "Christian" thing to do to insist on civility, and deplore the sharpness of Salaita's provocations. It would be the easiest thing in the world to simply avoid the Salaita case (and even shun Salaita).

But perhaps the much bolder and more Christian thing to do is to acknowledge that many of us fear to speak openly about issues in Israel/Palestine, lest we anger Jewish friends, colleagues, and counterparts.  (And that, by the way, by allowing our actions to be constrained by low expectations of these other people, we hurt them in the process, too.)

So: I believe the "Christian thing to do" is to follow the example so courageously set by the many Jewish activists who have spoken out to say "the actions of the state of Israel and the adherents of Zionism do not jibe with my Judaism!" We need to speak openly to criticize Israel when it needs criticizing and renounce Zionism if we think it needs renouncing, and walk shoulder to shoulder with righteous Jews.

We made it this way 
A Peace to End All Peace: 
The Fall of the Ottoman Empire and 
the Creation of the Modern Middle East
by David Fromkin
(6) Israel/Palestine war: Who benefits?

In all of this conversation and inquiry, I believe it is very important to remember that there is another entity that has a role in all this.

When people can't speak openly about Israel -- because of all the confusion about categories like the state of Israel, the ideology of Zionism, the religion of Judaism, the ethnicity of Jewishness, and the derangement of antisemitism -- it tends to support the maintenance of the status quo in the Middle East. That is a status quo that satisfies the leading imperial power in the world -- the United States.

We sometimes stumble into saying things along the lines of "Israel and AIPAC make the U.S. . . . ." Anytime we hear ourselves heading in that direction, we should hasten to say quite openly, "In the Middle East, the power calling the shots is the U.S."

These are my thoughts on the Salaita case, and why I think it should cause many more -- not fewer -- people to speak openly about the situation in Israel/Palestine.

What are you prepared to speak openly about?

Related posts

Just imagine the effect of qualifying the usual blanket statements about "what Jews think" or "what Jews say" with specifics about which Jews are under discussion. I believe 2015 will turn out to be the year that people everywhere begin to tease apart the the notions of "Jewish" and "unconditional supporter of Israel."

(See The End of the Myth of Monolithic Jewish Support for the Actions of the Israeli State )

I wonder if, years from now, we will be thinking back to today and feeling surprise at how little we thought about some of the developments in our world, and in our country, and how we talked about them even less. Someday will I have to explain to my kids, or to my kids' kids, why it was that "people just weren't talking about it" . . . ?

(See Why Weren't People Talking About It? )

The big takeaway for me from this panel was the message conveyed by Ali Abunimah: people in Gaza say now that there is a ceasefire, and the summer 2014 massacre in Gaza is behind us, please don't let up on your advocacy. Don't drop it! I left convinced that Christian congregations -- including congregations of the ELCA, of which I'm a member, as well as others -- are one of the key places that continued faithful attention to issues of peace and justice in Israel / Palestine must be carried out.

(See PRAY, LEARN, ACT: Congregations Need to Stay Engaged on Palestine )

When someone asks you, "Does it really matter whether you sign up for those Facebook events?" or "Why go out and participate in those rallies and marches?" this is what you can tell them . . .

(See Stand Up and Be Counted )

Why is the U.S. in a permanent state of war? More than anyone else, the beneficiaries of permawar are the politicians who thrive on the power to make and control wars.

(See J'ACCUSE: The Beneficiaries of Permawar)

It can be confusing because we engage in so much public expression -- lots and lots of self-disclosure on Facebook, for instance -- that it may not seem true to say that there are limitations on free expression.

(See Building Metropolises of Self-Censorship )

Other related links

October 19, 2014 - "Anti-semitism charge is increasingly being leveled against Israel’s mainstream critics" by Philip Weiss on Mondoweiss: "As Israel grows more isolated in world opinion in the wake of the Gaza slaughter, the anti-Semitism charge is being thrown around in a new way, at a new crowd. It’s now slung whenever westerners are too critical of Israel."