Fake News and Queer Theory: Feminists on Anti-Semitism at Hebrew U.

This post is now up at Times of Israel.

I just attended a session at the Sassoon Center for Antisemitism at Hebrew University on Sartre and the Jewish Question.

11:15-13:15 Session 3 Sartre, Fanon, and the Subject of Decolonization

Chair: Martina Weisz, The Hebrew University of Jerusalem

Louise Bethlehem, The Hebrew University of Jerusalem Sartre, Fanon and the Subject of Decolonialization: Preliminary Remarks

Vinzia Fiorino, University of Pisa Jean Paul Sartre, “Frantz Fanon and Carla Lonzi: a Bizarre Genealogy”

Nina Fischer, University of Edinburgh “Minor (Transnational) Intersections: Jews and Aboriginal Australians between Anti-Semitism and Racism”

Sarika Talve-Goodman, The Hebrew University of Jerusalem “Blackness and the Body in a Transnational Frame: From ‘Anti-Semite and Jew’ to Black Lives Matter”

Revital Madar, The Hebrew University of Jerusalem “A Moment of Inconsistency: Letting the Black Body into the Sphere of Western Humanity”

About half way through the introductory remarks by Bethlehem I realized I was actually witnessing the kind of parody that I had only imagined in reading Judith Butler: a presentation thick with feminist, queer theory, jargon, promoting a radical (even messianic) political agenda of liberation and authenticity, that, among others, considered axiomatic the identity of Black and Palestinian suffering; and the corresponding racism of Israelis and American whites.

Sarika Talve-Goodman traced an arc of “racially marked bodies unfit for personhood,” and the “heterosexism” that drove this inhumane way of treating the “other,” from European racist imperialism (Fanon) through Israeli treatment of Palestinians and police treatment of Blacks in the US. In her “intersectional and herstorical perspective,” all this is part of a liberationist agenda aimed at challenging “violent imperial masculinity” with “a theory of sexuality” that promotes a “non-homophobic, non-racist politics.”

All of this discourse might just have been an academic matter, amusing to some, obviously very grave from the perspective of its performers.  But these revolutionaries take their vocation seriously. These were not theoretical speculations divorced from the real world, but attempting at least, to engage the world, and presumably, to influence the world, profoundly. And part of the movement involves making common cause with other victims of hierarchical (state, hetero-patriarchy) interventions.

(Talve-Goodman advertised her approach as offering to “open our collective eyes to new dimensions of state interventions into our lives.”)

Ferguson, she asserted, became “ground zero” in the global struggle against racism. “For a moment, Ferguson became the world.”  And in that moment, that the Palestinian and Black movements came together in intersectional solidarity. The brave new alliance of the coming years of world struggle against racism.

Ferguson, as some may recall, was a protest against police brutality that exploded on the world scene when a cop shot down an innocent victim, deliberately, in cold blood. As Joshua Muravchik summarized the narrative in his study of Black Lives Matter:

The 18-year-old and 300-pound Brown, described as a “gentle giant,” carried no weapon at the time of his death. And according to individuals who said they had witnessed the shooting, he had either been gunned down while running from the officer or facing him with his hands raised, pleading, “Hands up, don’t shoot.”

That was certainly the presenting event, the one that fed an escalating cycle of violent protest. Michael Brown’s tragic murder embodied the struggle. “Hands-up Don’t Shoot” became a meme, jumping from protest to protest.

In the PoMoPoCo language of the panel, the black body has no status in “humanity” in the racist attitude of the colonialist mind; black men only enter the realm of humanity in their death, in being murdered for nothing more than having the wrong color skin. And the privileged and powerful, the white apartheid enforcers, can kill these non-people and then carelessly offer exculpatory narratives about how “he slipped on a bar of soap and fell off the balcony” to cover their inexcusable brutality.

(It was hard to escape the feeling that these panelists had taken the depiction of empire in StarWars – the faceless forces of oppression – as a guide to the exercise of power in the 21st century, despite Foucault. As one attendee noted, “their very language is impoverished by the theory,” to which I’d add, an impoverished language apparently also banishes nuance.)

Forensic investigation, however, supported a very different narrative, one that affirmed most every claim of the officer who fired the deadly shots, Darren Wilson: that Brown had assaulted him in his car, that the initial bullets were at very close range, during a struggle, that Brown was neither fleeing nor standing still shouting “Hands up don’t shoot”, but advancing towards the officer when he shot him dead. However one wishes to criticize Wilson’s handling of the case, the lethal narrative that he deliberately murdered an unarmed, non-threatening civilian in cold blood, as an act of contempt and hatred, was precisely not true.

It’s still worse. The lethal narrative that spawned the outrage was the deliberate fabrication of the most violent of the protesters, who threatened everyone in the black community who would dare contradict it. Joshua Muravchik notes:

These witnesses were almost all reluctant. According to the report, signs had been posted around the neighborhood that read “snitches get stitches.” Residents seemed to believe it. One of the seven “repeatedly refused to give formal statements to law enforcement for fear of reprisal should the . . . neighborhood find out that his account corroborated Wilson.” The report goes on: “Served with a county grand jury subpoena [he] refused to appear. . . . explain[ing] that he would rather go to jail than testify.” Another phoned in his account, but “prosecutors and investigators tried to no avail to interview” him.

Another, when called before the grand jury, initially claimed memory loss. Another “was reluctant to identify herself and ultimately met with [detectives] in a library parking lot.” Yet another initially offered a version contrary to physical evidence; when confronted on this by FBI interrogators, she replied, “You’ve got to live the life to know it,” explaining that “she feared offering an account contrary to the narrative reported in the media that Brown had held his hands up in surrender.” In short, fear hung over the neighborhood.

This is the world of the mafia, of enforced omertà, of a bullied and frightened community, forced by hetero-patriarchal thugs to stay in line. So this ground zero, this center of the world of resistance to oppression and racism that joins the struggles of victims the world over, is actually the product of lethal narrative, forensically proven false, and advanced by testosteronic males looking for violent confrontations. The sharp rise in execution of policemen in the wake of Black Lives Matter mobilization, as well as the rise in black-on-black murders when the police are driven from angry “communities” both attest to the dynamics of hate speech and the violent “resistance” it engenders.

When I asked whether there were any epistemological problems with basing theoretical affirmations of identity and solidarity on fake news, Ms. Talve-Goodman responded that she was from Saint Louis, and this kind of thing “happened all the time.” “So… fake but accurate?” I asked, thinking of the NYT headline about Rathergate. “Yes.”

What can she mean, “it happens all the time?” Not that St Louis cops kill black people “all the time.” That’s clearly not happening. That cops harass black men all the time? Perhaps. But that’s only distantly related to the wanton murder that so outraged the public. What is much more closely related to wanton murder, on the other hand, is how often blacks kill blacks.

Criminologist Peter Moskos notes:

Each year in Baltimore’s Eastern District approximately one in every 160 men aged 15 to 34 is murdered. At this rate, more than 10 percent of men in Baltimore’s Eastern (heavily black) District are murdered before the age of thirty-five.

And most of those deaths, by a factor of ten (!) are committed by fellow black men. Notes Muravchik:

Ironically, despite the specter of black-on-white crime, a white person is as likely to be killed by a police officer as by a black civilian. A black person on the other hand is about ten times more likely to be killed by another black civilian than by an officer. Anyone taking to heart the sanctity of black lives might well endorse stricter courts and policing rather than the reverse.

BlackLivesMatter has a response to this:

The continued focus on black-on-black crime is a diversionary tactic whose goal is to suggest that black people don’t have the right to be outraged about police violence in vulnerable black communities, because those communities have a crime problem. The Black Lives Matter movement acknowledges the crime problem, but it refuses to locate that crime problem as a problem of black pathology. Black people are not inherently more violent or more prone to crime than other groups. But black people are disproportionately poorer, more likely to be targeted by police and arrested, and more likely to attend poor or failing schools. All of these social indicators place one at greater risk for being either a victim or a perpetrator of violent crime.  To reduce violent crime we must fight to change systems rather than demonizing people.

In other words, “don’t change the subject.” We’re indicting white racist police here (even if they’re actually sometimes “of color”), and the structural racist oppression they embody. To draw attention to the desperate dysfunctions of the black community, the staggering banality of violence and the tribal culture of honor and shame that permeates the behavior of black males, and which most often targets other blacks, is to “demonize people.” Apparently demonizing the true (privileged) racists with fake narratives is not wrong because (we always-already know) they’re evil people; criticizing black thugs is demonizing, because they’re victims of the “system” that must be changed. In other words, Black Lives matter when taken by “whites.” When taken by blacks, it’s the unfortunate consequences, as Glenn Lowry puts it, of a racist system that brutalizes them.

Was it mere coincidence that both Palestinian and BlackLivesMatter causes exploded onto the global progressive scene on a wave of indignation, triggered by fake news, in 2000 with the icon of hatred, Muhammad al Durah, in 2014 (right after a saturation of lethal journalism about the Gaza war of that summer), with Michael Brown – both supposedly victims of deliberate, cold-blooded, racist murder that drove good progressives into waves of outrage and protest?

Is it mere coincidence that in both cases, those pushing the lethal narratives and inciting the violence, are capable of brutalizing and killing their own people with disturbing regularity?

Is it mere coincidence that when confronted with the dishonesty of the narratives they adopt, the response is that the fake represents a “higher truth”?

Is it mere coincidence, that both the #BlackLivesMatter movement and the Palestinians intimidate and use violence against journalists who report news that puts them in a bad light?

Is it mere coincidence that in both cases, Black or Palestinian Lives only matter when taken by Whites or Zionists? Where are the progressives demonstrating against Black on Black or Arab on Arab violence?

Is it mere coincidence that, as with the Palestinians, a humanitarian racism informs the pseudo sympathy of the social warriors for these poor violent victims have no agency? It’s all the fault of the system and those who benefit from it, and no blame can be attached even to the “leaders” of the marginalized and underrepresented people, who exploit that humanitarian racism to provoke conflict. What choice do they have?

Impotence would be bad enough, but silent as well? Why is it that members of the Modern Language Association can think of nothing better to do at this year’s meeting than condemn Israel?

Does this explain why in both the case of the Palestinians and US Blacks, the progressives (including these critical theory feminists) side with the most brutal bullies on the scene, adopt their narrative, and betray the very people – the women, the beta (civilian) males in these communities – who suffer at the hands of “leaders” claiming that violence is the most authentic form of resistance, when it is actually the most likely predictor of their own propensity to oppress?

Do these dysfunctional correlations in progressive discourse explain why, with a sympathetic President in the White House, and the author of a book denouncing the inaction of the West when faced with actual genocidal developments serves him as US Ambasssador to the UN, and a Human Rights community active the world over, the progressive world is impotent as Aleppo’s people are murdered by the hundreds and thousands?

***

Does this vignette about one panel characterize the rest of the conference? Did anyone discuss Anti-Semitism as different from, rather than coterminus, with racism? Did anyone deconstruct Sartre and Fanon (and Homi Bhaba and Hannah Arendt) as their writings so richly deserve? To judge from the double appearance of Eva Illouz and the non-appearance of Elhanan Yakira, I’d guess that discourse was probably seriously underrepresented. Poor Robert Wistrich.

There’s a double tragedy here. On the one hand there’s the perversion of academia: a self-accusatory, linguistically impoverished theory is elaborately wielded to shame and debase privileged structural racists (US whites, Israeli Jews), and to protect and exalt some of the nastier, more violent fascists (Palestinian Jihadis secular and religious, Black “revolutionaries”).

On the other are the lost opportunity costs: academia, which could and should serve as a venue for serious and well-informed discussion, gets colonized by theory based on fake news, and the really serious stuff gets ignored. I went to the panel to hear some serious discussion of Fanon and Sartre and decolonization, and all I got was this lousy blogpost.

7 Responses to Fake News and Queer Theory: Feminists on Anti-Semitism at Hebrew U.

  1. Igor Foukzon says:

    “This is what fools people: a man is always a teller of tales, he sees everything that happens to him through them; and he tries to live his own life as if he were telling a story.”
    ― Jean-Paul Sartre, Nausea

    Much – if not all – of any serious demagoguery seems to be reducible to one of the following tactics (or a combination of them):

    1) “I don’t hear you” (silently waiting until an opponent goes away – and then spreading the falsities again);
    2) “So much the worse for the facts” (attributed to Hegel), the “narrative” is ueber alles;
    3) My personal “favorite”, when a demagogue, being caught distorting someone’s attention on the key issues, calls the very disclosure of his or her (self-)deceptive tricks “diversionary”.

    P.S. …speculation has always so obstinately defended the universality and necessity of its truths. The truth spares no one, no one can escape it; it is this, this alone, that has enticed the philosophers. Leibniz’s “persuasion” was only a hypocritical mask behind which the longed-for “constraint” hid itself. It is said in Scripture, “You shall receive according to your faith.” Would Leibniz or any other philosopher have ever had the audacity to say, “You shall receive according to your truth”?
    – Lev Shestov, Athens and Jerusalem

    • Richard Landes says:

      nice. and #4: accuse the person who reveals your lies of demonizing you and inciting people’s hatred against you.

      • Igor Foukzon says:

        That’s one of the variations on the theme #3 – a “preemptive attack”, to mark it simply. Turning the accusations upside down. “Nothing to say in your defense? Blame the victim!”.

        The fourth – probably the most persuasive and powerful – “golden rule” is… a TONE. A nonsense, expressed with a serious face, looks – especially to itself – by far less stupid. We hardly, and it is not a coincidence, find any JOYFUL or cordial moralist around. As one contemporary Russian writer said, moral pathos is a technique which allows to fill any dolt with a feeling of their utter superiority. Or, coming back to my beloved Shestov (Schwartzmann):

        “Moral people are the most revengeful of mankind, they employ their morality as the best and most subtle weapon of vengeance. They are not satisfied with simply despising and condemning their neighbour themselves, they want the condemnation to be universal and supreme: that is, that all men should rise as one against the condemned, and that even the offender’s own conscience shall be against him. Then only are they fully satisfied and reassured. Nothing on earth but morality could lead to such wonderful results.”
        – All Things are Possible (Apotheosis of Groundlessness)

        I had been thinking for a good while on the ways of withstanding the above mentioned sophistries. The famous Socratic method proposes to play yourself “naive” in order to unobtrusively lead a sophist to the precarious logical conclusions of their seemingly appealing initial claims. Its late Kierkegaardian development offers a similar strategy: to destroy the worldview of the self-decieved you have to “enter inside”, actively live it (whether in your writings or in the real life) “together” – and then simply let them choose their ways in a moment of so provoked inevitable existential crisis.

        But the best option, to my mind, is a GENUINE – not moralistic! – care for our enemies. Precisely here a demagogue cannot imitate us anymore: for in the depths of his or her troubled soul they actually care for no one, not even for themselves – lonely looking in a mirror and loving “the whole humanity” in their own eyes. As another French philosopher, Albert Camus, said: people love humanity in order not to love anybody separately.

        To put the things into our context, I’ll impudently quote myself: Jewish and (Falestinian) Arab people come from the same family, and it is exactly the tragedy that both (but mainly the latter) are reluctant to embrace that for their own good. Tirelessly emphasizing this point, I believe, could be the most powerful – and ethical – Hasbara approach.

        P.S. Thank you, Professor Landes, for your remark – and the totality of your work. I feel honored to talk with a man whom I personally consider the best expert in the fields of contemporary Middle-Eastern studies and the religious (and pseudoreligious) triumphalism.

  2. Elliott A Green says:

    accusing the Jew of racism is exemplified in the lawfare harassment of Georges Bensoussan, the chief historian at the Memorial of the Shoah in Paris and author of a lengthy work on Jews in Arab countries. He merely pointed out that the North African Muslim migrants to France are imbued with antisemitism with they imbibe with their mother’s milk. This means that they are taught hatred of Jews at home from an early age. Bensoussan is being harassed by a Collective against Islamophobia with the collaboration of the reprehensible Shlomo Sand. What is the academic community in the USA doing to support Bensoussan?

    http://jewishrefugees.blogspot.co.il/2016/12/plain-speaking-bensoussan-prosecuted.html

  3. Ariel says:

    This panel is a travesty and there is malfeasance taking place here. It is one thing for the useful idiots at the H.U. to sponsor this panel, and quite another for it to take place at the center that Vidal Sassoon founded and bankrolled. Vidal really cared about the Jewish People (as is well known, he fought as a _volunteer_ in the War of Independence) and about eradicating anti-Semitism. Vidal was not an academic, but knew that anti-Semitism was important to research. He placed his trust in academics to fulfill this vision, and now they are, at least in part, violating this trust– and as the saying goes, he must be rolling in his grave. Besides the academic nonsense, this panel essentially promoted anti-Semitism. I don’t quite get what the director of the center had in mind in approving this abomination.

    From Wikipedia: “Having had a lifelong commitment to eradicating anti-Semitism, Sassoon started the Vidal Sassoon International Center for the Study of Antisemitism, or SICSA, in 1982.[3] Located at Hebrew University of Jerusalem, it is devoted to gathering information about antisemitism worldwide.”

    • Barry Meislin says:

      Why the surprise?

      I would think that spewing and promoting anti-Semitism is precisely what a pomo symposium on “the Jewish Question” would be about….

      Especially at the Hebrew University, whose pomo credentials must, in an ever more competitive global academic bubble, be assiduously upheld.

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