Commentary Magazine

Justice? Not my Job

AP Photo/Mark Lennihan, File

Bari Weiss has explained why Linda Sarsour, a  Palestinian-American activist famous for her role in the 2017 Women’s March, has no place on a legitimate left. So I hesitate to say anything more about her. But a comment she made at the New York March for Racial Justice on October 1 is worth examining because it is emblematic of a wider tendency on the left.

“It is not my job as a Palestinian Muslim woman to educate Jewish people that Palestinians people deserve dignity and respect,” Sarsour said recently. Claiming, quite unconvincingly, that she educates her own community about anti-Semitism, Sarsour suggested that it is up to Jews to educate other Jews and whites to educate other whites, and so on. Educating across racial, religious, or other lines: that’s nobody’s job.

Freddie de Boer, a man of the left who worries that his side is committing dangerous strategic blunders, suggested that this “not my job” stuff is now “central to the woke identity.” Sarsour was not making something new up. Rather, she was trotting out the same line that student activists use when they say that “marginalized” groups should not be tasked with the exhausting and unpleasant work of convincing privileged louts that they are privileged louts. That is why activists sometimes demand to be paid for their time and “emotional labor.”

On second thought, that sounds a lot like a job.

Without assuming that activists always or even usually have grievances strong enough to justify the intensity of recent protests, it’s not hard to identify where the idea that cross-cultural persuasion is not their job originates. When you think your dignity is being denied, it is obviously more than irritating. To then be asked to bring others, who may themselves not be especially worthy of respect, gently around to treating you as an equal must be similarly frustrating. One thinks of Frederick Douglass, in his Fourth of July Oration, claiming that what’s needed is not argument—to pretend that black humanity really needs to be argued for is to concede too much—but “blasting reproach, withering sarcasm, and stern rebuke.”

But then again, Douglass does, in the very same speech, make arguments. He balances the need to insist on justice and to preserve his dignity with the need to persuade others. In many of his speeches, Douglass recognizes the need both to persuade others of the right of black people to be part of the American community, and to insist that they will not accept membership in that community on just any terms.

In other words, Douglass recognizes, just as today’s activists do, that there is something grossly unjust in the fact that oppressed people have to persuade their oppressors to do what they ought to do freely. But he does not reject the work of persuasion.

Of course, the Fourth of July Oration is delivered prior to the end of slavery, so Douglass has a much simpler and more powerful case than student activists or Palestinians do for being a victim of oppression. Notwithstanding the leftist insistence that we live under white supremacy, the assertion that it is “not my job” to persuade others sounds like an assertion of power. At least on college campuses and within the left, the nominally oppressed are in a position to dictate terms to those among their nominal oppressors who wish to be considered “allies.”

It is not easy to work out the relationship between today’s left and the civil rights movement, whose legacy it has not officially rejected. It is true that King was more radical than our bland Martin Luther King Day celebrations suggest. But he certainly was not with the “not my job” element of the left. The very purpose of putting one’s body on the line, of suffering beatings, of risking one’s life, was to educate, to “awaken a sense of shame within the oppressor” with a view toward “reconciliation.” One does not have to accept King’s philosophy of love—that wasn’t Frederick Douglass’s style—to think that the new philosophy, which disparages attempts to educate people outside one’s community as too great a concession to injustice, is likely a dead end.

Of course, Sarsour goes a step beyond many activists in implying that it is the job of Jews to educate other Jews about the evils of Zionism. Someone so eager to deny that there is any connection between anti-Zionism and anti-Semitism should be more careful about suggesting that Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians is a collective Jewish responsibility.

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