This year’s foray into Internet comment debate revolved around the incident last month at Harvard Law School where third-year law student and BDS activist Husam El-Qoulaq opened up a world of hurt on himself and his movement when he used a Q&A session with visiting Israeli politician Tzipi Livni to ask her why she smelled.
This last piece talked about the incident and its immediate aftermath, and you can read some less deranged attempts to defend El-Qoulaq’s behavior here and here. This brings to three the number of letters written by Harvard Law students urging readers to not think of their classmate as an anti-Semite simply because he utilized a trope (that of the smelly Jew) with over a millennium’s worth of bigotry associated with it.
The most thoughtful of these letters asks us to not judge a man by a lone incident and to instead try to understand him as a fully-formed human being whose passion might have led him to misjudgment. This is actually a pretty strong argument, one with which most of us can sympathize. But if you add in El-Qoulaq’s primary political identity – that of a full-throated BDS activist – it brings up the question of why someone who is part of a movement dedicated to intentionally creating and disseminating one-dimensional portraits of political enemies (Israeli Jews) in order to incite Internet mobs should be treated with kid gloves when his behavior generates such a one-dimensional portrait of himself and makes him the subject of similar mobbing.
In between this thoughtful (if unsatisfying) defense and the usual lame attempts to put accusers on the defensive, there exists a more sinister defense play that – while lucid – sets us all up for the defining of deviancy downward so far that it puts the very notion of passing judgement on bigots into question.
This defense begins by trying to narrow El-Qoulaq’s crime as much as possible, making the entire argument over whether by calling Livni “smelly” he was drawing on that aforementioned “smelly Jew” stereotype or not. Saying the Israeli smelled was an attempt to use parody to mock the Israeli leader, defenders claim; an option the activist took in lieu of asking her a legitimate (likely tough) question or disrupting her by hissing and hooting when she spoke. In fact, this defense continues, he’s used similar terminology when attacking a Palestinian with whom he disagrees, so accusations of odiferousness should be seen as a general sign of disrespect, not an anti-Semitic one.
This defense requires critics to know what was in the heart and mind of El-Qoulaq when he spoke those words, which makes it impossible for all but mind-readers to refute the argument (especially if his defenders get to judge the evidence). And, needless to say, attempts to draw conclusions from previous behavior (notably his role as a BDS activist) remain unanswered.
But here is where those defenders make a crucial move that threatens everything in which they claim to believe. For, in justifying El-Qoulaq’s actions, they claim that this was a reasonable option for someone who passionately believes in a political cause (in this case, the alleged guilt of Israel for the suffering of Palestinians). With such a pure motivation, they continue to claim, any tactic is permissible – including the tactic of accusing a Jew (or anyone else) of being smelly, which they also characterize as a reasonable form of political theatre.
Taken to its logical conclusion, such an argument would mean that if someone felt their cause to be just and pure, and could pull together a large enough group to defend any means they use to pursue agreed-upon political ends, then any words (no matter how hurtful) and any actions (no matter how inappropriate or even violent) are fully permissible.
One suspects that their defense is an expedient, rather than attempt to create a maxim that can be applied generally in all political situations. But once a genie (especially one that liberates the political id, such as “by any means necessary” – with the perpetrator allowed to define “necessity”) is out of the bottle, it becomes nearly impossible to stuff back in.
This election cycle, for instance, features a candidate whose popularity comes from allegedly “telling it like it is” no matter who is defamed or harmed by the statements he makes. Most of us who value measured politics and manners find the rise of such a figure disturbing, but what do we have to fight against it if a norm has been created that says political passion gives one license to say and do anything?
No doubt defenders of El-Qoulaq would bristle at the merest suggestion that their unquestioning defense of one bigot maps out how other bigots can justify their behavior. In fact, the laziest parts of the defenses I’ve been describing try to throw opponents off balance by implying that their criticisms might represent a form of prejudice. But this simply illustrates the sort of special pleading Israel’s critics insist they be allowed, one in which they (and they alone) get to decide whose speech and behavior represents hate speech vs. passionate political “theatre.”
When Daniel Patrick Moynihan wrote about “defining deviancy down,” he was warning readers that changes to social norms inevitably have unintended consequences, rarely all good. Sadly, what seems to be happening at Harvard Law is yet another example of how the justification of attacks on Jews are used to redefine what is and is not permissible. For kids allegedly preparing themselves to live and work in a world where words and rules have meaning, this is a very dangerous game indeed.