Intersectionality and the Jews in the Age of Trump

An earlier version of this essay was presented at the American Historical Association 123rd Annual Meeting on January 6, 2018, on a panel entitled “Crossing Boundaries: Rewriting 19th-Century Central European History.”

I write these words just weeks after the synagogue attack in Pittsburgh, the deadliest anti-Semitic violence in the United States for decades, perhaps ever. In a shocking manner, this tragedy provokes many observers to point to the climate of race and religious hatred unleashed by our current administration. While the Israeli government expresses the pat view that contemporary anti-Semitism in the United States “comes from the left as well as from the right,” there is reason to doubt that simplistic account. It is a dangerous error to equate left-wing and right-wing hostility to Jews. Critics of Israeli policies coming from the left focus on the problematic of the Israeli occupation. Their duels remain limited to speeches, proclamations, classroom debates, and problematic organizing coalitions. The murderer of 11 Jews in Pittsburgh was motivated by entirely different animosities, furious that Jews in that community were working to aid refugees seeking asylum in the United States.

Precisely how we should parse critiques of Israeli government policies that seem to bleed into hatred of the Jews is a fraught but very pressing project. Indeed the blurry and disputed boundary between anti-Semitism and demands for justice for Palestinians has become even more inflamed than it has been for decades. Some observers argue that accusations of anti-Semitism have been “weaponized” by defenders of the Israeli status quo, who inflate the charge as a way to silence critics of the occupation. Others maintain that the Jewish state and indeed the Jewish people are experiencing deadly antagonism from enemies who are simply posing as critics of the occupation.

During the last two years, as the anti-Trump movements have flourished, the political turmoil over these issues has become visible and problematic. In June of 2017, three Jewish women marchers were asked to leave the annual Dyke March in Chicago, allegedly because they were carrying a rainbow flag which featured a Jewish star, interpreted by other marchers as a symbol which “inadvertently or advertently expresses support for Zionism.” In March of 2018, a sign posted on a wall at the Stanford University campus declared “From Palestine to Mexico, Those Walls Got to Go.” Jewish activists alienated by these easy equations and equations are righting back by forming new clubs which explicitly reference uncritical support for Israeli state policies. Here where I live in California, we see new groups such as Democrats for Israel, who insist that candidates running on the Democratic Party ticket support the “fundamental right to self-determination for the Jewish people in their indigenous homeland.” The British Labor Party has been consumed with parallel debates about whether and when critiques of Zionism and the occupation should automatically be classified as hostile to the Jewish people. Of late the focus there has been on whether the Labor Party should endorse the “Working Definition of Anti-Semitism” proposed by the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance.

As readers may be all too aware, the intersectionality approach is attracting blame for its role in inspiring activists in the anti-Trump movements. One of intersectionality’s harshest critics is also the most prominent. In March of 2017, the Harvard University law professor Alan Dershowitz published an article with the alarming title “‘Intersectionality’ is a Code Word for Anti-Semitism.” Dershowitz defined intersectionality as “the radical academic theory, which holds that all forms of social oppression are inexorably linked.” To his mind, this notion “has become a code word for anti-Americanism, anti-Westernism, anti-Israel and anti-Semitic bigotry.”

Dershowitz’s harsh denunciation of intersectionality may sound strident, but his sentiments are definitely shared by many Jews who have been drawn into activism in the last two years. The conflict over Israel-Palestine has the potential to disrupt broad coalitions fighting to preserve democracy in our troubled times. Is Dershowitz right to lay the blame for the problem at the door of an arcane academic formulation? We can only answer his accusation by sorting through the three very different uses of intersectionality at the current moment. Before concerned Jews join Professor Dershowitz in a war of words against the intersectional approach, it is useful to grasp the inner workings of the intersectional way of thinking.

Many critics of the term intersectionality today would be surprised to read Kimberlé Crenshaw’s pathbreaking 1991 article, which first appeared in the Stanford Law Review. She was actually not celebrating identity politics. On the contrary, her aim was to show how identity politics tends to “inflate or ignore intragroup differences.” Crenshaw challenged how contemporary laws described black women either as African-Americans or as women. Rather, she argued, laws need to address the specificity of their situation as both black and female. Note carefully that Crenshaw definitely did not point to parallels between different types of discrimination. Nor did she assume that all forms of oppression were essentially the same. On the contrary, her point was that particular combinations of prejudice combine in specific ways to shape individual experiences. We can call Crenshaw’s approach granular intersectionality, because she focused on the complexity of individual lives.

Perhaps Professor Dershowitz is not aware that our knowledge of the Jewish past has expanded greatly by looking at our history this way. Although scholars rarely use the term, the granular intersectionality approach has inspired some cutting-edge research in Jewish history. Years ago, binaries were used freely. For instance, we divided behaviors and institutions and practices as either acculturated or integrated. Now, rather than affixing one label to individuals or to entire social circles, scholars look more closely at specific behaviors, and use less judgmental, more nuanced labels to sort out those behaviors. For instance, historians of Jewry have taken up a paradigm developed by the legal scholar Kenji Yoshino. In his analysis of gay identities, adapted very easily for the study of ethnic assimilation, Yoshino has suggested the terms covering and passing. The Yoshino paradigm is a wonderful example of how close attention to shifting expressions of identity helps us understand how historical actors in the past made specific decisions about belonging and assimilation.

We can call a second, much more expansive and controversial use of the term linkage intersectionality. The basic idea is that two or more sorts of hatred can co-constitute each other. Some of those who agree with this framework concentrate on the shared motives of all those who discriminate against the powerless. In the words of one critic, “what the marginalized are really fighting, in this view, is power, and power is fairly homogenous, even when it goes under different names.” Some recent research provides a magnificent illustration of how useful linkage intersectionality can be when we seek to integrate persecution of the Jews into a broader picture of race hatred in the American past. The premise of this type of research is that when Jews were depicted visually as Negroid in their features, such depictions can be taken as a measure of the intensity of the hatred directed at them. Contrariwise, when propaganda and images showed Jews looking and acting White, this was a sign that hatred was abetting, and social integration and even passing became more possible. The point is that placing hatred of Jews in a wider context of hatred is a useful research strategy.

Now let me turn away from how those in the ivory tower productively employ the two notions of intersectionality. To truly answer Dershowitz’s bold assertion, we must investigate what I call a vulgar version of linkage intersectionality which has become popular among contemporary activists. Alas, when it comes to applying the linkage approach to contemporary politics, all subtlety and nuance have been lost. Since the eclipse of Marxism as a way of uniting diverse constituencies, the infinite splintering of identity groups has proved problematic for those seeking to organize for social change. A vulgar linkage intersectionality comes to the rescue as a way to unite gender activists and people of color in coalitions. The implications for political organizing are significant. If activists vanquish one sort of discrimination, the assumption is that the other oppressions will fall too. Patricia Hill Collins’ maxim that “oppressions work together in producing injustice” is used to underscore that all discrimination is tightly linked. The consequence of this conviction is that opponents of bigotry must sign on to opposing all forms of oppression, or they risk being thrown in with the class of oppressors. Victimhood confers status, which means that a wide variety of individuals seek to share their predicament. Linkage intersectionality provides a useful umbrella for those who participate in the “Olympics of suffering.”

And here is where the on-again-off-again ability of Jews to pass as White, along with the success of Zionism, gives the appearance that Jews do not belong to the ranks of the oppressed. The slightest acquaintance with Jewish history should refute this view. After all, not only did Zionism flourish as a practical response to widespread anti-Semitism, but during much of the past two centuries Jews were decisive in sparking and supporting many wider movements for social justice. It is painful for those who feel this history in their bones to rankle at being excluded from the victim category. But although we historians do try to live in the past, contemporary social movements obviously live in the present. Socialist and peacenik Zionists who still try to mold Israel into a morally coherent culmination of our national liberation struggle are lonely. There seems sometimes to be no legitimate public space between a militantly anti-Zionist mood on the left and the frightening lurch toward theocracy we see in modern Israel.

The upshot is that a vulgar adaption of linkage intersectionality is deeply flawed. We need to avoid magical thinking about just how interconnected specific oppressions are, either in their causes or in their consequences. Alas, the simplistic linkage of various oppressions actually has a long history on the left. Women, Jews, and African-Americans were often instructed to put their particular struggles on hold while representatives of the working class fought for social equality. The rhetoric was that particular oppressions would dissolve as soon as the major contradictions of class were solved. Jews on the left have struggled with this problematic for over a century. Indeed, the socialist multiculturalist Bund was founded back in 1897 precisely because Jewish activists were tired of leaving Jewish causes behind when they joined the socialist movement.

To argue that the contemporary use of linkage intersectionality is misguided is not to say that we should continue to dodge painful debates about the half century of Israeli occupation of the West Bank and Gaza. Indeed, the bitter, acrimonious tone we hear on this issue is certainly one consequence of avoiding these touchy conversations in our families, among friends of different religions and political views, and certainly among activists united in various anti-Trump movement platforms. We must talk more among each other about what to do, not less.

But we should be mindful that not every candidate, not every demonstration, not every party platform needs to address the Israel-Palestine problematic. There are reasons to be wary about allowing a foreign-policy issue to become a litmus test for joining a particular movement. We must resist the contemporary tendency for every mistreated individual to insist that their issue is front and center in every program and every demonstration. The entitled attitude that one must achieve psychic emancipation while fighting for wider goals is a most irritating chutzpah, yet another symptom of an over-the-top identity politics. We see this behavior on both sides of those fighting out the Israel-Palestine conflict inside of American social change movements.

Besides avoiding magical thinking about how oppressions connect to each other, there are other steps well-meaning activists could take to reduce the in-fighting about Israel-Palestine. Conflicts inside the anti-Trump movements would be less painful if the Jewish political tent was larger. A more robust representation of the pro-peace pro-Israel movement would create more sympathy for Palestinian laments. A genuine dialogue movement of people-to-people diplomacy within Israel and the United States would provide a setting for authentic give-and-take between the protagonists.

The hard truth is that however dicey we find the assignment, careful delineation of anti-Zionism and anti-Semitism is a crucial task for all of us, as it has been for well over a century. A sloppy slide from one to the other is a mistake on both sides of the seemingly intractable Israel-Palestine conflict. It is dismaying when Harvard professors with enormous prestige throw around accusations that are immensely destructive. The concept of intersectionality is not to blame for the woes of a divided anti-Trump movement. In its proper academic usage, the concept of intersectionality is smart and useful. Rather than attack the term, we should concentrate on re-thinking the vulgar adaptation of linkage intersectionality. At the same time, we must also avoid exaggerated attacks on organizers of coalitions fighting for democracy, robust civil society, and the rule of law. Let us work together to lower the heat and increase the light.

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