James Edward Johnson

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Further thoughts on antisemitism …

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I am always a little surprised by how fast professed anti-racists will engage in antisemitism. I have never experienced this phenomenon to the degree I have experienced it here in Iowa City. Most people here are really good people, but there is a small group of very vocal ideologues who are apparently not deterred in their open acts of antisemitism. Here are a few tips for avoiding antisemitism that I have recently considered:

Conspiracies are rare. Most cooperation is in the open. When I say something I am not speaking for any other Jew – either collectively or individually. When I act I am not acting on any other person’s behalf unless I am explicit in doing so. If you are quick to infer a conspiracy between my and other Jews, your inference is antisemitic. I am always shocked when people assume I am part of a Jewish conspiracy and not simply doing what I think is right on my own and for my own purposes.

Members of minority groups usually are angered when they perceive bigotry directed towards their group. Responses to such perceptions are not typically cautious and reasoned and can often appear spiteful or vindictive. Expecting minorities to suppress their anger and respond more civilly is a bigoted expectation. If a fellow Jew gets pissed off at you for your lack of sensitivity I am not going to try to put a leash on them. I do not infantilize Jews or anyone else by pretending my calmer response is more “proper” or “better” than their angry response. It is not my place to tell them how they should respond to your bigotry. Expecting one Jew to prevent another Jew from expressing their emotion in a visceral fashion is antisemitic. Expecting a male to restrain a female is doubly bigoted because it reinforces sexist stereotypes.

There are many individual members of every group who behave poorly at times. Attributing the actions of those individuals to their group, their community organizations or any other member of that group is a bigoted attribution. Minority communities tend to be well connected internally because of their minority status. That one poorly behaved member of a group might have connections to other members of the group is not evidence of general debasement of the group. It is evidence of the group’s normalcy. Expecting otherwise is destructive of minority groups, bigoted, and in the case of Jews, antisemitic.

More locally, there are a few groups (seemingly attended by the same small set of people) that routinely engage in these sorts of antisemitism. They are ostensibly pro-Palestinian in spite of having very few Palestinian Arab members. In practice, they are a lot more anti-Jewish, anti-Israel, and antisemitic than they are pro-Palestinian. What a shame. Don’t be enticed by the superficially tolerant rhetoric of such groups.

Written by JamesEJ

Thursday, December 16, 2010 at 2:39 am

Posted in antisemitism

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Understanding and overcoming bigotry …

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Henry Ford helped popularize the myth of Jewish control in America in the 1920s.

… a synopsis of some recent correspondence

I have recently been discussing outbursts of bigoted statements in a variety of contexts.  In current events terms, these discussions have sprung from events ranging from the debate over Park51, the misnamed “Ground Zero mosque”, to Rick Sanchez’s comments that Jews run the media, to Juan Williams’ expression of fear about outwardly Muslim airline passengers.

Let me deal with these issues by talking more specifically about Sanchez’s allegations.

Sanchez basically repeated the old antisemitic canard that Jews control the media.  That many people might make such a quick assessment is not that hard to understand – moreso when one considers the cultural background of antisemitism common in most communities.

In Iowa, for example, Jews are only one in 500 people.  Most people either personally know zero Jews or a very tiny number of Jews.  They do, however, turn on their TVs and see a fair number of Jews associated with both the news media and the entertainment industry.  Given the contrast, a quick assessment might indicate either that Jews run the media or substantially dominate it.  That is because the relative concentration of Jews in such context far exceeds the presence of Jews in an Iowan’s day-to-day life.

However, a person employing their intellect can readily overcome such a rush to judgment.  First, while Jews in Iowa are about one in 500, Jews in the US are one in 50.  In media centers like New York and LA, Jews are more like one in ten.  So, even if there is no clustering of Jews in the media (and there might be some of that too), an Iowan should expect to see about 50 times the proportion of Jews in the media as in Iowa.  This is true merely on the basis that Jews in the media are representative of the localities in which they are employed.  That is, however, a shocking difference that is likely to provoke an outsized estimate of Jewish influence.  But, such outsized estimates are easily countered, again, by making informed observation and employing our intellects.  There is much more evidence than this, but we can start with the observation that CNN and Fox are both owned and run by non-Jewish heads.  Even when one looks narrowly to prominent Jews in the media it becomes clear that they have no coordination and little agreement and so the idea of a ubiquitous “Jewish control” is downright ridiculous.

And, this pattern plays out in a wide variety of bias issues. The initial prejudice is easily justified by a simple observed difference between a foreign context and a familiar context.  Human learning is predicated on our ability to generalize, but here such generalizations serve to create an imagined reality that wildly exaggerates true reality.  This can apply to issues like black crime or family malfunction, Jewish control or miserliness, Muslim terrorism or misogyny, gay male illness or sexual predation, female seduction or manipulation, … In order to challenge these stereotypes, we have to understand the different contexts that give rise to them.  The rampant prevalence of prejudice throughout human history clearly demonstrates that this is tied to human nature and that suggests that it cannot be ignored and is not generally self-correcting.

In Sanchez’s case, just a little education probably would have helped him understand why the myth of Jewish control of the media is an antisemitic prejudice.  Williams didn’t need the education and so he followed up quickly with an explanation of how an initial fear should not be employed to give rise to bigotry.  Acknowledging the fact of one’s fears and suspicions, however unreasonable such fears may be, is an important part of legitimizing the more rightful assertions against prejudice provoked by such fears.  We cannot combat bigotry without recognizing its fairly natural and common origins.

That said, if one asks only that we “understand” bigotry, they probably are promoting it.  If one asks for “understanding” that burdens the victims of bigotry with the responsibility to avoid it, they are probably promoting it.  We must understand bigotry, but only because our fight against it will be very difficult if we refuse to understand the natural propensity for humans to develop biases.  The challenge is developing a discourse that allows us to develop the latter understanding without encouraging the bigotry promotion inherent to the former “understandings”.

Written by JamesEJ

Monday, November 8, 2010 at 2:13 am

Posted in extremism

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The Ghetto … worse than the films.

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A Film Unfinished is showing now at the Bijou Theater at the University of Iowa.  The Israeli documentary covers the known and lost footage taken by the Nazis of the Warsaw Ghetto.

I saw it last night and it is a very powerful film that makes even those familiar with the Holocaust pause in consideration of the terror of Naziism … well before the Jews were sent to the gas chambers.

Here is a preview:

Go watch it at the Bijou … between now and Thursday.

Written by JamesEJ

Sunday, October 24, 2010 at 5:44 am

Evangelical Christians show more tolerance than the Left.

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John Hagee

Pastor John Hagee at the 'Night to Honor Israel' in the Quad Cities.

On Thursday, I went to the Christians United for Israel ‘Night to Honor Israel’ in Davenport. The 2,400 seat Adler Theater was filled nearly to capacity with conservative evangelical Christians. This is not typically my sort of crowd.  Conservative preacher Pastor John Hagee, who is among the best known conservative evangelicals in America, was the keynote speaker.  The crowd was filled with people who have a strict view of a different faith than mine and who have fairly severe differences with me on a wide range of social policies.

And yet, I was warmly welcomed, as a Jew, among these people.  Hagee made clear that his love and support for the Jewish people is not based on any expectation that we convert to Christianity or any other sort of compromise of our beliefs.  The crowd echoed that view.

And so, I wonder, why is it that among the supposedly tolerant and accepting people on the left here in Iowa City, I feel no tolerance; while among the typically less tolerant and conservative Christians, I feel real tolerance … even acceptance?

By way of example, a far-left Democrat from here in Johnson County, told me at the state Democratic Convention that I was a disloyal American and that I should leave and move to Israel.  I feared nothing like that on Thursday evening.  In fact, I experienced the opposite … my Jewish identity was seen as a patriotic expression of my American heritage.  God bless these people for showing me real acceptance.


Written by JamesEJ

Saturday, October 9, 2010 at 7:15 pm

… and how to mitigate the risk. (2 of 2)

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Please note, this is the second of a two-part post. Read the first part here.

Kinnick Stadium at The University of Iowa (via HawkeyeSports).

So, you are sitting in a packed Kinnick Stadium with 70,000 of your closest friends …  A small single-engine plane flies low overhead and a fine powder begins falling from it.  What do you do?

The natural reaction is to panic and flee.  But why?  What do you accomplish by running?  You breathe more deeply, expose yourself to a wider area, endanger others with your panic, and gain nothing.   Imagine the powder is anthrax – how will this save you?  Anthrax, even in inhalational anthrax infections, does not kill quickly and is treatable.  You should stay still, avoid exposure in place by covering your mouth, and wait to find out what just happened.  You will be no worse off for doing so and you could very well be much better off.  By staying calm and reacting specifically to what you do know, you will help avoid causing harm to yourself and others.

The best solution to mitigating terror is not a top-down government solution.  It is public awareness and education.  Terrorism works because people improperly weigh risks and respond irrationally.  If people respond rationally – even if this were an anthrax attack – few would die at all and none would die because of mass hysteria.

Of course, as I noted in the prior post, a fake attack without any anthrax is easy.  Obtaining many pounds of anthrax spores, however, is many times more difficult.  Most likely, a terrorist making such an attack is relying on the response of people to his actions because he is likely not capable of an attack with the actual thing.  It is wise to remain cautious, but reasonable to presume that the attack is a hoax.

If we all responded to terrorism in the way we respond to auto accidents, terrorism would disappear tomorrow in most places.  Terrorism has a very low death count.  If it is worth your fear, then dozens of ordinary things deserve your fear too.  Never get in a car; in fact, stay at home.  Never meet new people.  Rarely use electricity or gas. Don’t even think of ever getting a pool in your backyard.  Become a recluse.  You should be crippled by fear of every ordinary risk if terrorism scares you.   It is not worthy of your fear because you will almost certainly die of causes other than terrorism.

Even at a small airport, the government should do little more.  Small airplanes are not, in themselves, very lethal.  You can kill as many people with one as you could with an SUV.  It is not worth hardening or securing.  If the government should secure small planes, then it should secure every gasoline semi-trailer, every fertilizer inventory, every gun store … every theater where someone might shout “fire!”  Even in these places, it is the diligence of the local people, and not the government, that will flag people for further examination by the authorities.

Persistence by pilots and staff in a municipal airport – by securing aircraft, noting and responding to suspicious people, raising alertness, … – will probably do far more to thwart my described potential attack than any government action.  This is, in large part, because terrorists adapt and exploit security holes.  The only practical response is to develop a cultural attitude wherein people adapt and change their behavior when they see potential criminal planning.  Remember, America mitigated the harm of one of the attacks on September 11.  Untied 93 was brought down prematurely, saving untold numbers of people, because ordinary people did something that the terrorists did not expect them to do – implement a response directly based on the specific actions of the terrorists.

Only that kind of ordinary vigilance will thwart these sorts of attacks.  More importantly, only this response will thwart attacks in a manner consistent with our nation’s commitment to a liberal, tolerant, and open society.  We need to be reasonably alert, remain in control when we sense heightened danger, respond with appropriate action when we see suspicious activity, and most of all, not respond with the irrational fear upon which terrorists rely for their efficacy.

Written by JamesEJ

Monday, July 19, 2010 at 5:45 pm

How to perpetrate pure terrorism … (1 of 2)

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Please note: this is not a true how-to.  It is an exercise in situational awareness intended to highlight risks and provoke discussion.  Part 2 will address potential solutions to the problem posed here.

Risk awareness is a two-sided thing. In order to protect yourself from harm you need to consider how a criminal or terrorist might see you.

Terrorism is not about killing large numbers of people. If it were, terrorists could be more successful by making and selling inexpensive automobiles. Cars kill many more people than do terrorists and yet we hop into cars all the time with little worry that we might die.

Terrorism is about controlling people through fear and forcing people to do greater self harm than the terrorist can do directly. A terrorist who secretly causes the apparent accidental deaths of dozens is a failure. A terrorist who very publicly attempts to murder innocents and fails to kill even one is a success.

Putting myself in the place of a terrorist, I am aware of many gaps in national security that could be readily exploited in many places, and certainly in Iowa City.  Here is one:

Small airports are completely unsecured. Go to any small non-commercial municipal airport and you will readily make such an assessment. You can walk up to the hangars, enter the tarmac, and approach parked planes with little or no questioning or interference. The planes in such airports are small, easy to fly, and less secured than most cars parked on the street. Of course, if you steal a plane, there is a high probability that you will get caught eventually – planes are difficult to conceal or fence. However, if you just need one for a short period of time, there are few barriers to commandeering one.

Chest x-ray taken 4 mo. after the onset of anthrax in a 46 yr. old male (via CDC).

Flour is completely unregulated and probably never could be regulated. It is widely available, widely used, and cheap. Even if it were not, there are a huge number of similar look-alike substances – chalk, talc, plaster, powdered sugar … But, for a terrorist, these substances, when applied in the right context might as well be anthrax. They are, of course, non-toxic, but since the 2001 anthrax attacks the American public has been conditioned to associate unusual dispersion of fine powder with anthrax.

If a person receives an envelope with white powder in it, it will cause that person to panic, trigger a significant police/security response, and make people cautious about receiving and opening their mail.

But, if someone aerially distributed a large volume of powder over a crowd, it would cause immediate and widespread panic. If done over an area where there are few known exits, such as an open air stadium or arena, that panic would cause people to run towards those exits at such a rate and with such force that many people would be crushed to death – either by asphyxiation or blunt force trauma. Many more would be injured and fear of large gatherings would suppress interest in a huge variety of entertainment and other mass public events.

Specifically, in Iowa City, stealing a plane, carrying a dozen bags of flour on board, and dumping them at low altitude over Kinnick Stadium during an Iowa football game would cause such panic. People would presume it was a terror attack, attempt to flee the stadium, and kill many by falling, trampling, and crushing asphyxiation as the exits became overwhelmed.

It would be the ultimate terror attack. The acts of the terrorist alone are not particularly murderous. Only because of the resulting terror would people be killed and injured.

It does not have to be this way. My next post will address what to do about this …

Update: Part 2.

Written by JamesEJ

Monday, July 19, 2010 at 7:00 am

Posted in terrorism

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AMIA massacre 16 years later …

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Z-Word over at the AJC comes through in reminding us of the AMIA massacre of Jews in Buenos Aires by Hezbollah 16 years ago today, and giving us an update on the current situation:

Though the AMIA massacre occurred on July 18th, 1994 the official commemoration of its sixteenth anniversary took place on the 16th. In these two stories covering the events that took place you’ll find Guillermo Borger, head of the AMIA community organization. the one directly affected by the attack, praising the “good performance” of the present administration with regard to the investigation into the attack and lauding Cristina Fernández de Kirchner’s “bravery” in calling for the extradition of the Iranian fugitives in her speech to the General Assembly of the United Nations.

via Two Theses On The AMIA Massacre at Z-Word Blog.

Here in Iowa City, I have heard several people refer to Hezbollah as “brave”, “freedom fighters”, and other such nonsense.  Such people need to read about the AMIA bombing (that killed 85 and wounded hundreds) and learn that groups like Hezbollah are not simply enemies of Israel.  They are enemies of the Jews and all tolerant people everywhere.

Read the full post at Z-Word.

Written by JamesEJ

Sunday, July 18, 2010 at 9:51 pm