Monday, October 23, 2017

On Zionism, Anti-Zionism, Gender Violence, and Power

Last week, a post by Mahroh Jahangiri on the popular feminist blog Feministing lumped in "Zionism" with "racism, colonialism, [and] militarism" as part of the "systems of violence ... built to uphold white supremacy" which create "gender-based violence."

Unsurprisingly, many in the Jewish community were sharply critical. Feministing stood by its author, tweeting at its followers to "read this on #MeToo, racism, & Zionism."

If you read the post in question, this is a strange tweet. It's strange because the post is not actually "on" Zionism in any meaningful respect. By that, I don't mean that it presents a false, or caricatured, or strawman version of Zionism. I mean that the only mention of Zionism at all in the post comes as follows:
Though this should be obvious, in this moment it bears repeating: gender-based violence does not exist without other systems of violence, especially those built to uphold white supremacy (such as racism, colonialism, zionism, militarism). 
Zionism appears as a parenthetical aside, and other than that goes unmentioned (there's a similar, parenthetical inclusion of Israel later on). So what is going on here? (Warning: This post is lengthy).


Framed as it was, Jahangiri's parenthetical operates less as an argument "on" Zionism than it does a presupposition. It seeks to smuggle in as a presumption several assertions about Zionism that are -- to say the least -- seriously contested and problematic, such as that it is "built to uphold white supremacy", that it is of familial resemblance to racism and colonialism, and that it is implicated in creating gender-based violence.

In an excellent new essay on "blocking" (a concept I'll return to in a moment), feminist philosopher Rae Langton discusses the sometimes insidious role of presuppositions as a discursive move. Consider the statement "That pitcher throws like a girl!" Most directly, it is saying "that pitcher throws poorly," and we might agree or disagree with the statement. But it also presupposes a few things -- that there is a way to throw "like a girl", and that throwing "like a girl" is a bad thing. Notice that even if you disagree with the statement -- "no, the pitcher doesn't "throw like a girl'" -- one does not automatically or naturally contest the presuppositions.

One thing presuppositions can do, then, is they can smuggle in content as shared presumptions without directly justifying it or opening to critique, in contexts where the content might otherwise be far more vulnerable to challenge. The person who, if asked directly, would sharply deny that girls are necessarily bad athletes or throw pitches in a distinctively bad way, may well casually nod if his friend says "that pitcher throws like a girl."

"Blocking" disrupts such presuppositions. If someone says "even George could win the race," that "even" presupposes that George is an unlikely candidate to win (and again, note how nodding or shaking one's head wouldn't naturally be read as contesting the "even" part). If one responds instead by saying "whaddya mean, 'even'?", then one has blocked the presupposition. Of course, it still can be argued for as an assertion -- one may well have perfectly good reasons why George is a long-shot -- but that places the discussion on a very different terrain from when it was presupposed.

To be presupposed is a nice place to reside, if you can get there. It takes your position out of the rough-and-tumble of contestation, and into the nice, comfortable space of shared background assumptions. If someone challenges a presupposition, they automatically come off as a sort of spoil-sport or nitpicker -- the type of person who insists that you justify every god-damned thing (what kind of fanatic invests this much effort over a parenthetical?). Presupposition, hence, isn't just a description, it's also a move -- a tactical effort to place a particular position on the status-quo high ground and implicitly disadvantage efforts to dislodge it from its perch.

Reading Jahangiri's relevant passage clearly is written to present substantive views about Zionism as presuppositions that need not be argued. The structure -- a parenthetical aside, basically a throw-away, casually given to add a bit of illustrative flair -- is not one you use when you know (or want to admit) that you are making a contestable point. To demonstrate, imagine her parenthetical read as follows:
especially those built to uphold white supremacy (such as racism, colonialism, zionism, militarism, cubism).
The reader there would probably pull up short: "Hold it -- why 'cubism'?" And anyone familiar with Jewish humor knows the ensuing retort: "Why 'zionism'?"

The critical response to Jahangiri, then, is an attempt to block a back-door attempt to smuggle in presuppositions about Zionism. Feministing's after-the-fact attempt to say that the post was "on" Zionism is disingenuous, it seeks to recharacterize as an argument what was actually an attempt at rhetorical fiat. That the fiat could even plausibly work for Zionism (in a way it couldn't for "cubism") itself shows that the dimensions of power in this context are not necessarily what they're always perceived to be.

Of course, there is still much to be said about the argument as an argument. And here I might surprise some of my readers when I say that there is a valid and important connection to be made between Zionism and gender violence. However, that connection isn't what Jahangiri presents it as, and once again her discursive framing seeks to presuppose an array of incorrect (and often quite damaging) assertions about Zionism vis-a-vis other social practices that do more to obscure than they do illuminate the issue.


"Wherever there is a position of power," Olympic gymnast McKayla Maroney wrote, "there seems to be potential for abuse." And since Zionism is, in some places, a position of power, then there is the potential for Zionism to construct and buttress gender violence.

Framed that way, this may sound unremarkable precisely because it applies so universally. Hollywood is, in some places, a position of power, and therefore in some places constructs and buttresses gender violence. Socialism is, in some places, a position of power, and therefore in some places constructs and buttresses gender violence. Evangelicalism is, in some places, a position of power, and therefore in some places constructs and buttresses gender violence.

Gender violence follows power, and power, as Foucault reminds is, is ubiquitous. Hence, gender violence is also ubiquitous. There is no space where one is free from power, and so there is no place where power can't be corrupted and turned towards gender-based violence and oppression.

And to be crystal-clear on the matter: there is nothing that exempts "left" or "progressive" spaces from these risks. From Black Panthers to Bernie Bros, progressive organizations and movements have never been remotely exempt from dynamics of gender violence. Franz Fanon speaks of women who "ask to be raped," in the same way that there are "faces that ask to be slapped." The "Comrade Delta" affair in the Socialist Workers Party is another example. Melanie Kaye/Kantrowitz's writings on gender violence in lesbian communities provide another. Power, of a particular kind, circulates in these communities too, and that power can and is leveraged to enact sexual violence.

We might think that this universalism, this ubiquity, itself makes it wrong to speak of the link between Zionism and gender violence because its not saying anything unique. "Yes," it might be conceded, "Zionism is linked to gender violence because all social practices are. But that makes the decision to particularly focus on Zionism more suspect, not less, since it implies that there is something distinctive about Zionism that actually is common to virtually any social phenomenon."

Yet this argument is wrong. Power is not an undifferentiated thing; that power is everywhere doesn't mean it operates the same everywhere. Gender violence operates through power, which means it will predictably adopt the idioms, pathways, and mechanics opened up by power. And because these will differ from position to position, there need to be particular discourses about sexual violence that are particular to specific arenas or dimensions of power.

How, for example, does gender violence act upon power in "repressive," Victorian communities? Well, it sharply delineates who are good (pure, chaste, virginal) girls and who are bad (classless, promiscuous, available) girls; or it tells women that sexuality is a duty owed to their husband (whose identity they've merged into, so no such thing as marital rape). In another community -- the "liberated" community of the sexual revolution -- power interacts with gender violence differently. Now it's about showing that you're not a prude or a square, that you're hip and with it, that you don't have hang-ups -- all of these, too, are easily leveraged for the purposes of sexual abuse, but clearly they're different and need a different narrative from the discourse we'd apply to Victorian sexual predation. To speak of power and gender violence as an undifferentiated whole would almost certainly obscure how it specifically plays out in one context or the other, and most likely both.

For that reason, we should expect that -- in places where Zionism is powerful, gender violence will play out in distinctively "Zionist" ways. It will "speak the language", if you will; it will have a character distinctive to the arena(s) of power it operates within. The activities of Lehava -- the far-right "anti-assimilationist" group which threatens Jewish/Arab interrelations -- is an obvious example of gender oppression shock troops acting through an explicitly Zionist lens (that 15 of their members -- including their head -- were just arrested likewise demonstrates that "Zionism" contains more than just this chord).

So I do think that it is important to work through the interrelation of Zionism and gender violence in a distinctive way. However, I think this is important for the same reason why it's important to work through the interrelation of anti-Zionism and gender violence in a distinctive way. Just as Zionism is, in some places, a position of power and thereby constructs a distinctive forms of gender violence, in other places anti-Zionism occupies a position of power and it, too, buttresses its own versions of sexual oppression.

It's worth noticing how Jahangiri's parenthetical -- placing "zionism" alongside things like "colonialism" or "racism" -- presupposes this potentiality away. Just as adding "cubism" to the parenthetical would obscure the meaning Jahangiri wishes to evoke, so too would altering it to read "racism, colonialism, zionism, antizionism, militarism" would no doubt be met with puzzlement. She seeks to link gender violence to various malign political movements; not to power as a general social feature. The implication is that gender violence comes attached to bad politics, and this itself opens the door to particular forms of victim-blaming and gaslighting that rely upon the rhetorical and political moves Jahangiri is making. If sexual violence is treated as a function of things like "racism" or "colonialism", what does one do when one's particular domain doesn't clearly lend itself to that narrative? What happens if the person who assaults you is a fellow in your anti-war group, or a leader in your anti-colonial resistance cell? In fact, we know exactly how the narrative plays out in those context: keep quiet, it didn't really happen, it's for the cause, you don't want to play into the enemy's hands, only a traitor or a turncoat would slander us so, if it happened here it can't be rape.

The ability to latch onto those narratives is, itself, a form of power that enables and insulates sexual violence, and it is an ability that one doesn't see unless one crafts a broader narrative of gender violence inside "good" politics. One can elide the problem by seeking to trace it all the way back to some corruption instilled by white supremacy, and maybe sometimes that's plausible. But for many women, this is a cloud of dust kicked up to obscure a more straight-forward truth: "this man assaulted me, and he was able to do so and get away with it because of the progressive modalities of power we were a part of." And while I don't think Jahangiri would endorse the claim that gender violence doesn't manifest inside "good" political spaces, this demonstrates the pernicious aspect of presupposition -- just like with the man who agrees the pitcher "throws like a girl," it gets us to affirm things indirectly that we'd never say directly.

In any event, what would a narrative of a specifically anti-Zionist form of gendered violence look like? It could start with the widespread expulsion of Middle Eastern Jews from Arab nations, an expulsion carried out under an anti-Zionist banner and one in which sexual threat and violence was very much a tool in the oppressive toolbox. It is a marker of the "success" of this violence that there are now very few Jews left to be subjected to anti-Zionist gendered violence in many of the spaces where anti-Zionism as a form of power is at its apex -- a fact that can easily be confused with denying anti-Zionism as existing at all as a meaningful form of gendered power (upon arriving in Israel, Middle Eastern Jews then faced separate victimization -- also often very much gendered -- by an Ashkenazi elite. Recent Mizrahi history overflows with such oppression, and unfortunately precisely because there is such a cornucopia of examples to choose from contemporary writings on the gendered oppression of Mizrahim are easily able to cherry-pick their favorites to advance either a Zionist or anti-Zionist historiography. The problem of using genuine oppression as a stalking horse for other political commitments is an issue I will return to below).

Moving forward, we could turn to a putative feminist activist in Egypt who specifically urged rape and sexual harassment be deployed against "Zionist" women as a means of anti-Zionist "resistance" -- culminating in the chilling warning "leave the land so we won't rape you." In Egypt, anti-Zionism occupies a position of power, and here we see how it can easily accommodate gender violence constructed through a sort of anti-colonialist resistance. Zionist are, after all, "raping" the land -- so why isn't turnabout fair play?

These are severe examples. But the mechanics can play out more subtly. In certain feminist spaces, anti-Zionism carries power, and it uses that power to expel, eliminate, or otherwise exclude certain women -- generally Jewish women who either are Zionist or don't perform non- or anti-Zionism in a sufficiently flagrant manner. We saw this, or attempts at this, at the Chicago Dyke March, at Creating Change in Chicago (Jahangari, writing for Feministing, endorsed that one too), at Columbia University, at the "targeting" by JVP of Jewish Queer Youth for infiltration and disruption. If these places are designed to be spaces of resistance to gender violence (and they certainly hold themselves out that way), then these acts of exclusion are instances of power -- acting through anti-Zionism -- functioning to make women and sexual minorities more vulnerable and more prone to such violence. And this form of violence, in turn, gets laundered and insulated through the particular frame of anti-Zionist power which acts to legitimize or even valorize it.

I don't actually want to pursue this further; my point isn't to provide a comprehensive gendered account of either anti-Zionist or Zionist violence (I'm not sure I'd be qualified to do so in any event). And if you're reading this as "Zionism isn't the problem, anti-Zionism is!" you're missing the point, in more ways than one. Zionism and anti-Zionism are distinctive, but not distinct, in that they can and do create and buttress their own forms of gender violence just as any other site of power can.  Any effective counter to these distinctive forms of gender violence needs to explore the phenomenon of gender violence in these arenas as distinctive -- that is, they need know what makes gender violence work here rather than some abstract and general theory of what makes it work everywhere.


So why, then, does this all feel so damn hard? We need a narrative of gender violence enabled by Zionism, just as we need one for anti-Zionism, just as for Hollywood just as for Evangelicalism just as for policing.

It feels hard in part because the people most excited to craft these narratives tend to have ulterior motives. They do it because they don't like Zionism or anti-Zionism, and they want to make their target look bad. This tends to lead to quite partial (in all senses) analyses and casts a pall over the whole endeavor -- but it also demonstrates some of the dialogical prerequisites necessary to do the analysis right. To illustrate, consider another case of a social practice which very much needs a distinctive analysis of its linkage to gender violence: Islam.

Islam (like -- to be clear -- Judaism, Christianity, Buddhism, Atheism ....) is in some places a position of power, and therefore in some places constructs and buttresses gendered violence in a distinctive way. Yet to speak of a distinctively "Muslim" form of gender violence makes many of us blanche, and for understandable reasons. All too often, the people who are purporting to draw out this distinctive connection are doing so as a stalking horse for other -- Islamophobic -- politics. Their goal isn't really to provide an accurate or cohesive picture of how Islam-as-power and gender violence intersect. It's to present Islam is a distinctively bad, corrupt, oppressive, or backwards.

Endeavors of this sort aren't really hard to spot. Sometimes, the bad faith lies right there on the surface: Islamofascism Awareness Week is "that magical time of year when Republicans briefly pretend to care about gay rights." But the more comprehensive tell is in the tone the analysis takes. There's a palpable sense of excitement, of glee, in uncovering how Islam really, truly, fundamentally, inalterably is misogynistic. And as a result, their constructions of Islam are sharply essentialist and unyielding in declaring that the only authentic, legitimate, viable Islam is the sort that oppresses women. The last thing these interpreters want is for resources to emerge within Islam, getting their power from Islam, which can serve as points of resistance against gendered violence. The entire point is for Islam to be irredeemably corrupt; any actual pathways opened up for Muslim women are accidental and immediately sacrificed if they risk admitting that Muslim women qua Muslim women might have agency, that Islam is something that can give to them and not just take from them (for all the talk about liberals not backing "Muslim feminists", it's the conservatives who truly hate them insofar as they're Muslim feminists and therefore must be hypocrites, delusional, and/or liars. Ex-Muslim feminists, now they're a different story....).

Thin as her parenthetical is, there's no real question that something quite like this is Jahangari's project. Grouping Zionism in with entities like racism and colonialism presents it -- presupposes it -- as ontologically irredeemable, flawed to its essence (again, this is why "anti-Zionist" can't fit -- even if she conceded that it could manifest through gendered violence, she'd want to insist it was and could be more than that). And because it's the anti-Zionism, not the anti-sexism, that motivates the inquiry, Jahangari wants this to be true. The last thing she wants is resources emerging within Zionism that could counter or resist gender violence, even though that'd seemingly be a net gain for the fight against misogyny. Such a prospect is inconceivable, indeed contradictory, to her; it is like the prospect of a "feminist racism" -- impossible in concept and undesirable in practice. Zionism is a diseased tree, all of its fruit must likewise be poisonous. The predictable result is that she will ignore, overlook, or dismiss the myriad ways in which one could find gender- (and otherwise-)egalitarianism within and through Zionism.

This is the reason why speaking about distinctively Zionist or anti-Zionist "forms" of gender violence is hard. It's because they're very often stalking horses for other, less savory political commitments; or are easily co-opted into their service. There's good reason for suspicion as to motives, and good reason for suspicion as to accuracy. Without a deep and comprehensive understanding of Palestinian and Arab history, experience, and oppression, and (probably) without significant sympathy for and affinity towards Palestinians and a desire to see them fully vindicated in their quest for national liberation and equality, the author of an "anti-Zionist form of gender violence" is likely to get it wrong, often in very serious ways. Likewise, without a deep and comprehensive understanding of Jewish history, experience, and oppression, and (probably) without significant sympathy for and affinity towards Jews and a desire to see us fully vindicated in our quest for national liberation and equality, the author of a "Zionist form of gender violence" is equally likely to badly misstep. Put simply, it is not unreasonable to demand that persons undertaking the politically and ethically delicate task of tying Zionism (or anti-Zionism)  to gender violence be persons who have shown themselves aware of the full complexity of the issue and who are not inclined to engage in a political hit job.

All of this is a way of saying that, just as discourses that are anti-colonial or anti-racist or anti-Zionist (or Zionist) don't stand outside of patterns of gender violence, neither do discourses about gender violence stand outside of racist, colonialist, or antisemitic or Islamophobic patterns. And that brings us to the final point I want to make, which is about the website which published this essay.

The Feministing tag for "Racism" has dozens upon dozens of entries. So does "Transphobia" Likewise "Islamophobia". That's good. That shows they are invested in those issues, recognizes their importance, and has some familiarity with their complexity and nuances. It doesn't make them beyond reproach -- that's not my place to say -- but it does suggest that these are matters they take seriously and can speak on with some authority.

The tag for "Anti-Semitism" has two posts. And one of them never actually mentions anti-Semitism at all (the other is from three years ago).

One need not demand perfectly equal time to think that maybe, just maybe, for a globally-oriented anti-oppression site antisemitism is more than a two (rounding up) post problem. But evidently Jewish oppression is not something Feministing writes a lot about, and there is no evidence that it is something it knows a lot about. That's not condemnable in of itself -- lots of people don't know lots of things -- but it might suggest that arenas involving Jews are arenas they shouldn't write on. There's little evidence that Feministing is the sort of place where one would find "a deep and comprehensive understanding of Jewish history, experience, and oppression", let alone "significant sympathy for and affinity towards Jews and a desire to see us fully vindicated in our quest for national liberation and equality." Lacking those qualifications, it is exceptionally unlikely that Feministing is a good candidate for exploring this issue in a non-oppressive way, and it shouldn't make the attempt. There are plenty of Zionist-identified websites who like nothing more than regaling everyone with how hopeless backwards, regressive, illiberal, and repressive Palestinian society is (towards women and everyone else), and they should desist as well -- they're not helping anyone, I sincerely doubt they're trying to help anyone, and they're not good at their jobs.

But Feministing certainly aspires to greater heights than that, so I don't feel bad about subjecting it to more comprehensive critique. This controversy was, in no small part, Jews telling Feministing that its presuppositions about Jewish political practices were wrong, stilted, and offensive. Thus far, Feministing hasn't shown itself receptive to the critique; it clearly thinks what was said was wholly inbounds and offered no basis for objection. We can be a bit perplexed about what undergirds its confidence on the matter, given Feministing's general lack of attention to the issue. But that never seems to stop anyone. The heart of antisemitism in its epistemic dimension is the perceived entitlement to talk about Jews without knowing about Jews.

One suspects that, even if they read this post, the editors of Feministing won't make any adjustments in response to it. There's almost no pressure on left-wing websites to talk about antisemitism, and there's even less pressure on them to not talk about other matters of concern to Jews if they don't talk about antisemitism. There are other discourses of power operating on and around Jews which rationalize this behavior; most notably the trope of Jewish hyperpower which takes "ignoring Jews" and reconstructs it into "resisting overbearing Jews Zionists" (and how easy would that be to deploy here: "Zionists -- so touchy and fragile that a single parenthetical aside can spawn a 4,000 word essay!" If it's not already clear, I tip my cap to the cleverness of the move if nothing else).

The next most likely (which is not to say likely) move is to start writing on antisemitism more -- but from a perspective that just happens to be perfectly harmonious with the political positions they wanted to hold about Jews prior to starting. Such a move would be very easy to pull off -- I'm sure a dozen JVP activists are already primed to volunteer -- but that wouldn't make it any less of a bad faith maneuver. It lets the tail wag the dog; instead of accepting the potential that positions might need adjustment in response to a Jewish narrative, it seeks to adjust which Jew they listen to for the sake of preserving a set of political commitments arrived at prior to any serious reckoning with Jewish voices. (Incidentally, the appeal of this particular tactic explains why groups like JVP are so often gatekeepers seeking to exclude other, more mainline Jewish voices, from inclusion in the feminist tent. If one needs a Jewish voice, and they've made it so they're the only Jewish voice in the room, then a lot more people will be relying on them and their power gets magnified tremendously. And the real kicker is that they can insulate their privileged position by recharacterizing the absence of other Jews -- which they facilitated through exclusion -- as proof that Jews-not-them don't deserve to be in the room and can justly be ignored).

If they did want to ethically broach these topics, they'll have to challenge themselves more than that. But to be honest, I'm not sure the groundwork is ripe for Feministing, specifically, to do this work at this time (which isn't to say that nobody can do it). There's no rule that says every site has to be qualified to tackle every form of injustice. Feministing has a serious blindspot on Jewish issues, and if they set about resolving it based on commitments they formed by and through the exclusionary practices they're supposedly seeking to rectify, the "reform" will almost certainly be a corrupted and partial one.

There's a lot to be said on Zionism, Anti-Zionism, Gender Violence, and Power. Someone -- probably not Feministing -- should get on that.

1 comment:

Joe in Australia said...

I'm impressed that you could craft a thoughtful response in such a timely manner. Kol hakovod. Regrettably, I don't think there's much chance of Feministing engaging in any dialogue. You're responding to the offhand way in which anti-Zionism is imported into a discussion on feminism, but it anti-Zionism appears to be their house policy.