Rethinking Intersectionality: Toward Expanding the Progressive Tent

Updated Feb. 2023

“Intersectionality” is a term that “refers to the way social identities and forms of oppression overlap and intersect,” as Jay Michaelson explains. It is now “front and center in the way campus communities are engaging with Israel/Palestine, and linking it to other social issues.”

Some of Israel’s most virulent critics have had some success in promoting the intersectionality of the Palestinian cause with other social justice movements. BDS advocates have targeted activists who want to stop police brutality against Black Americans, sexual violence, homophobia, gender discrimination and other problems. It has become especially popular to link police violence against people of color with repressive tactics of the IDF and Israeli police against Palestinians.

As we’ll explain, we believe there are problems with the application of intersectional analysis to Israel/Palestine. But first, it’s important to acknowledge the positive contribution of this concept to progressive thinking on a broad range of other issues.

THE USES AND MISUSES OF INTERSECTIONALITY

“Intersectionality” was coined in 1989 by Black feminist scholar Kimberlé Crenshaw. She and others urged white feminists to acknowledge that people have multiple identities, and that African American women faced discrimination because of both race and gender. This concept can be a useful tool for examining the world and ourselves, and prompts good questions. How do the institutions and assumptions that prop up different kinds of oppression relate to each other? What is their cumulative impact on people who are victimized by them?

We believe that most people who embrace the Palestinian cause are motivated by a desire for justice, not academic theories of intersectionality. If those who are struggling against discrimination based on race, gender or sexual preferences are also energized to help end Palestinian suffering, that’s understandable and laudable. 

Still, linking domestic injustices in the U.S. to Israeli policies, and using intersectionality as a rallying cry, such as the equation popularized a few years ago in relation to the killing of Michael Brown near St. Louis, that “Ferguson = Palestine,” is not based on an accurate appraisal of either the Israeli-Palestinian conflict or American race relations. This kind of facile equation weakens progressive movements in both North America and Israel because it alienates progressive Jews who would otherwise be allies.

EXPAND, DON’T SHRINK, THE PROGRESSIVE TENT

It isn’t easy to wage successful struggles for social justice in North America. Progressives need to unite around the causes and principles we share, while agreeing to disagree on other matters. But when it comes to Israel/Palestine, rigid ideological litmus tests (“are you for or against BDS? Are you Zionist or anti-Zionist?”) are increasingly imposed on those who want to join social justice movements. This is splintering and hurting the American left.

One source of this problem is that, all too often, activists for other causes are buying into the anti-Zionist left’s simplistic vision of a very complex conflict. They take a binary approach that wrongly holds one party entirely to blame: i.e. contending that Israelis or Zionists are always vile, ethnic-cleansing, settler-colonialist oppressors and Palestinians and other Arabs are depicted with little or no agency.

As a result, those with more nuanced views, like leftist Jews who oppose the occupation and are appalled by Israel’s rightward drift, are told they have no place in the progressive tent. In some settings, if you say that part of your identity is bound up with Israel and you care about the future of the Jewish state, you are reflexively branded as an “oppressor,” and then the conversation shuts down. This impedes the struggle for social justice on a variety of fronts.

EXCLUDING WHOLE SELVES IN THE LGBTQ MOVEMENT

On January 22, 2016, at the National LGBTQ Task Force’s “Creating Change” conference in Chicago, BDS activists disrupted a reception scheduled for the Jerusalem Open House, an Israeli gay rights group. The reception was to be hosted by A Wider Bridge, which fosters ties between LGBTQ communities in the U.S. and Israel.

The protestors claimed that A Wider Bridge engaged in “pinkwashing” – a charge the organization denies. Many leaders of the LGBTQ community insisted it was wrong to deny Israelis the chance to describe their experiences. In response to this fracas, Rea Cary, the Director of the Task Force, wrote that “we are experiencing some of what happens when we ask people to be their full selves, to bring their whole selves to Creating Change…and those whole selves come into conflict.”

The notion of “whole selves,” the idea that we have multiple identities – e.g. white, male, queer, Jewish, Israeli – is a key component of intersectionality and modern identity politics. Israeli and American Jews who are actively confronting homophobia – many of whom actively oppose the occupation – did not deserve to have their whole selves assaulted by anti-Zionists who refused to allow them to speak. It is hard to see how this helped one Palestinian in the occupied territories; it is easy to see how it harmed the cause of LGBTQ rights.

SHRINKING THE ACTIVIST TENT IN FERGUSON

In August 2014, amidst protests over police violence in Ferguson, Missouri, BDS advocates developed new alliances with African American activists in the U.S. While this was happening, St. Louis-based Rabbi Sharon Talve worked closely with the Black community in Ferguson, supporting their struggle against racism and police violence. But she was castigated by a small group of people for being pro-Israel. Her chief “crimes?” Taking a tour of Israel organized by AIPAC, calling for a halt in rocket attacks against Israelis during the second Gaza War, and participating in an AIPAC-sponsored event in her synagogue. 

The fact that she had also spoken out against the mistreatment of Palestinians, and invited the pro-BDS group, Jewish Voice for Peace, to her synagogue, was of no consequence to her attackers. They just wrote her off as someone who supported “genocide” and “apartheid” and therefore deserved to be excluded from a vitally important social justice movement.

In contrast, KB Frazier, who was at her side in the Ferguson protests, said that “calls to exclude Talve and supporters of Israel from the protests serve only those seeking to divide the movement,” the Forward reported. “Frazier, like other activists, did not rule out a tie among Ferguson, Palestine and other battlegrounds. But [he said] the only way to discuss what he views as `systematic racism’ is to create a respectful dialogue within the movement.”

That makes sense. It doesn’t mean passionate opposition to the occupation should stop; on the contrary, the opposition needs to grow stronger. It does mean that left-leaning activists should stop boycotting Jews who are fighting against a variety of injustices but won’t denounce everything that is connected to Israel.

HAMPERING WORK AGAINST SEXUAL ASSAULT 

During the summer of 2022, two Jewish undergraduates at the State University of New York at New Paltz charged in a complaint to the Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights that they were expelled from a student group devoted to helping sexual assault survivors because they support Israel, alleging a violation of Title VI of the 1964 Civil Rights Act. Whether or not this case constitutes a civil rights violation, excluding students from groups and causes solely because of their views on Israel is becoming increasingly common on college campuses.

A student organization devoted to the critically important problem of sexual assault should welcome members regardless of their views on the Middle East.

BROADEN INTERSECTIONALITY: ACKNOWLEDGE ANTISEMITISM

American Jews are mostly white (about 10% are people of color) and they are largely (but not entirely) successful economically. When Jews describe themselves as an oppressed or endangered minority, it is often hard for progressives to take them seriously. But antisemitism didn’t stop being a problem after the Holocaust. On the contrary, it’s become more serious in recent years. 

We’re not talking about anti-Zionist rhetoric, which some people automatically – and often wrongly – equate with antisemitism. We’re talking about the real thing.

Eric K. Ward, an African-American civil rights activist and theorist, wrote “Skin in the Game: How Antisemitism Animates White Nationalism,” an illuminating essay explaining how antisemitism is a cornerstone of white nationalist racism. This was published in June 2017. In August 2017, as if on cue, the “Alt Right” and neo-Nazi demonstrators at Charlottesville, Virginia chanted “Jews will not replace us” – articulating the “Great Replacement Theory” – that Jews are scheming to bring non-white migrants into the country to replace the dwindling white majority.  

In 2018, this far-right conspiracy theory turned deadly with an attack on the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh. Eleven Jews were murdered at a Shabbat service by a shooter who targeted a community that he knew supported HIAS, the Jewish social service organization that assists immigrants and refugees. 

Since then, lethal attacks targeting Jews have increased at an alarming rate across the country, together with numerous non-lethal attacks and acts of vandalism.

Still, according to feminist scholar, Janet Friedman, “while professing the challenging of interlacing systems of oppression that must be addressed together, antisemitism is frequently unseen or excluded” by feminists at the National Woman’s Studies Association. The same thing is true of others who view the world through the prism of intersectionality.

April Rosenblum, a self-described “anarchist,” has a better idea. She urges the left to take the constantly mutating virus of antisemitism more seriously:

In a world that’s very difficult to change, anti-Semitism makes things seem easy to solve. It lets us fix our gaze on an imagined group of greedy, powerful Jews at the root of the world’s problems, and moves our eyes right past the systems that actually keep injustice in place: capitalism, weapons dealers, oil companies, you name it…A status quo in which anti-Jewish theories are `common sense’ in countries around the world is a serious thing.

That status quo ought to be more visible in progressive circles, not only because it’s unjust and dangerous, but also because it is relevant to Israel/Palestine. In a world where antisemitism won’t go away, we at TTN believe the Jewish people still need a place of refuge, a homeland. So do many other anti-occupation progressives, both Jews and non-Jews. More people on the left should start understanding and acknowledging the importance of preserving this refuge.

office@ameinu.net The Third Narrative
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