Carly Pildis, a political organizer, is a critic of the left from within. She has been doing the good work of pleading with her fellow progressives to stop tolerating anti-Semitism. She did so admirably in her widely-read piece for Tablet, “Jews Get to Define Anti-Semitism: Not Shaun King.” The kind of anti-Semitism to which Pildis objects has brought back the “Zionism is racism” slur. That is a paradigm through which Jews are judged unfit for social justice work and the deeply anti-Semitic Nation of Islam leader, Louis Farrakhan, is rehabilitated. Tamika Mallory, a co-chair of the Women’s March, was happy to be present at a speech in which Farrakhan said, among many other equally anti-Semitic things, that “the powerful Jews are my enemy.”
Apart from a boilerplate assertion of her opposition to anti-Semitism, Mallory has not reckoned with her embrace of Farrakhan. Indeed, in the thick of the controversy, Mallory tweeted, “If your leader does not have the same enemies as Jesus, they may not be THE leader.” Law professor and blogger David Schraub spoke for many Jews of various political persuasions when he described this comment as “less of anti-Semitic dog-whistle than a bullhorn.” Mallory has since focused on shifting attention from her downplaying of the virulent, naked anti-Semitism of Farrakhan, which is still a problem on the left, to her hatred of Israel, which mostly isn’t.
Shaun King, a columnist best known for his Black Lives Matter activism, chose to focus on what he considered the most important aspect of the story. His preoccupation was with the fact that people like Schraub, who criticize Mallory for, at the very best, warmly embracing an anti-Semite, are not merely oversensitive but damned liars. Having given Mallory a clean bill of health concerning anti-Semitism, he added, “Your lies won’t work.”
This is where Pildis’s criticism comes in. How dare Shaun King give Mallory a clean bill of health, when a “central tenet of anti-oppression work is that marginalized communities are the authors of their own experiences,” and “those who experience a specific oppression get to define it”?
King, who has responded to the resulting controversy by unsubtly implying that Zionists are behind it deserves everything he gets. And Pildis is right to call out the left for having increasingly sensitive “macroaggression” detectors on behalf of every group but the Jews, who are not supposed to complain about anti-Semitism unless swastikas and goose-stepping accompany it. Nonetheless, it would be a mistake to embrace Pildis’s premise, that what is or is not anti-Semitism, or racism, or sexism, should be determined solely by those who suffer from each of these prejudices.
Practically speaking, of course, this premise is a double-edged sword. Critics of the boycott, divestment, and sanctions movement against Israel are frequently accused of Islamophobia and racism, particularly when they tangle with Palestinian solidarity groups. If it is true that “those who experience a specific oppression get to define it,” then it’s hard to see what defense one has against such accusations, even when they are defamatory.
Practicalities aside, and thinking about how this kind of debate plays out on college campuses, the premise that a person’s experience must not be questioned undermines the vital work of subjecting beliefs to rational scrutiny.
Decency and good sense suggest that when we don’t have any experience of a wrong, we ought to give considerable deference to those who do have such experience. But that is something well short of claiming, on the basis of group membership, exclusive authority to define what does and does not count as prejudice toward that group. So potent is this means by which an argument can be definitively settled that is hardly necessary to demonstrate Farrakhan’s anti-Semitism or to make a strong case for Mallory’s. It is also precisely the kind of “identity politics” that conservatives, and even quite a few on the left, otherwise consider politically and intellectually destructive. We should reject it, even when it seems to give us the upper hand.