Intersectionality (Take 2)

In my last post (Jan issue of JMore), I wrote about an historic intersection near my house and titled the piece “Intersectionality.” In this post, I want to tackle the same term and its typical usage. It’s a word at once embraced and maligned, depending on your political perspective and, to some extent, your age. And it’s a concept to which pro-Israel activists take great exception because they feel (justifiably, I think) it has been used to unite disparate populations and activists around the world against the State of Israel.

When it comes to social justice, there are two primary modalities: achieving and understanding. Most activists are achievers – they wish to solve systemic and societal problems. They eschew quick fix, helicopter-in volunteerism whose results, they contend, are often more about satisfying the volunteers than they are about solving problems. They resist platitudes and pooh-pooh photo-ops from politicians who speak the language of institutional transformation but are rarely effective in implementing sweeping reforms. And the achievers very much want institutional change, to upend biased systems of control and to rebalance power dynamics so laws and policies work more in favor of the vulnerable.

This impulse is, in fact, a Jewish one. The Torah says “proclaim liberty throughout the land, to all the inhabitants thereof” (Lev. 25:10). The edict signifies the beginning of the 50th “Jubilee” year when debts are forgiven and slaves set free. Hitting the societal “reset” button is attractive, especially for those who feel the powerful elite have been able to press their advantage over the proletariat with impunity. But the Rabbis preferred incremental over disruptive or radical change. They understood revolutions rarely succeed in creating sustainable solutions (let alone equitable) ones. So they taught one should give tzedakah but not so much she impoverishes herself. And some rabbinic sources suggest a wealthy person who becomes poor should be supported by the community in a manner with which he is accustomed, even if it means receiving more than his share (Talmud Ketubbot 67b).

Focusing on instant vs. incremental rates of achieving, though, draws attention from the essential disconnect between achieving and understanding, and herein lies the tension contained within the word intersectionality. When the platform of the Movement for Black Lives (endorsed by some, rejected by others within the loose coalition of those who organize under the banner “Black Lives Matter”) maligned Zionism and the State of Israel, it did so for ostensibly intersectional reasons. Their claim: the suffering of oppressed peoples in one part of the world (e.g. African Americans or Native Americans) is fundamentally linked to the suffering of oppressed peoples in other parts of the world (e.g. Palestinians). This is an alliance born out of the desire to achieve, to magically and radically reshape the world order, to rebalance society a la Leviticus.

But intersectionality, in its more pristine (and I would argue more useful) form, isn’t about achieving alliances so much as it’s about understanding the intersection of different aspects of identity – within rather than between people. The term was first coined by Prof. Kimberlé Williams Crenshaw in 1989 to critique feminist thought, underscoring the extent to which oppression of black women exacerbates their experience of both racism and sexism. Crenshaw points out because “…the intersectional experience is greater than the sum of racism and sexism, any analysis that does not take intersectionality into account cannot sufficiently address the particular manner in which Black women are subordinated.”

The problem with utilizing the framework of intersectionality for discussing Israeli/Palestinian politics is two-fold. First, it appropriates a useful term from its useful context and draws attention away from, say, the particular experience of African American women or transgender Palestinians or Jews of color. Second, it creates sharp alliances along blurry lines in order to leverage the powerless against the powerful. This goal is not wrong, in and of itself – the powerless do need allies, and it’s better for various marginalized groups to find common cause with one another than to work at cross purposes (which only serves to reinforce systems of oppression). But that strategy only works in the long run if each community takes pains to understand and recognize, first and foremost, the uniqueness of one another’s causes. To do otherwise is to flatten all oppression into an amalgam of grievances and rob whole societies of any lasting solutions.


Intersectionality (Take 1)

Druid park entrance 4

Among the — I suspect many — things I do that drives my wife crazy is talk incessantly about an intersection near our house. The intersection of Madison Avenue and Druid Park Lake Drive has been under construction since 2016 — and was finally completed in November!

Frequently, over almost two years, I would say something like, “I was walking the dog, and the crew was out working on the stoplights today.”  Or, “they finished the brick path!”  Or, “they finally redid the tin blue roofing under the arch.” And Miriam would roll her eyes, smile and pray they’d finish soon just so I’d stop talking about it!

In 1860, the City of Baltimore and Mayor Thomas Swann dedicated Druid Hill Park, one of the oldest public parks in America. For about a century, the grand entrance to the park could be found at Madison Avenue, where the northbound streetcar turned toward McCullough at the majestic sandstone archway bearing Swann’s name.  From the archway, families with children could walk from what’s now called Reservoir Hill straight into the park and stroll up the tree-lined and elegant stone-paved mall behind the conservatory toward the boat lake. The relationship between the neighborhood and the park was seamless.

Druid Park entrance

But in 1961, Baltimore dedicated the Jones Falls Expressway, access to which from Greater Mondawmin included a triple-level interchange. Great care was taken to move cars with rapidity past the park toward the highway – hence Druid Park Lake Drive was born. The park, once fully integrated into its surrounding neighborhoods, was now amputated from them, leaving future generations in Auchenteroly Terrace, Liberty Square, Park Circle, Woodberry, Hampden and Reservoir Hill scratching this green phantom limb.

When Miriam and I lived on “Lake Drive,” we used to chuckle that getting the grass mowed in the median between our home and the street meant calling the Department of Rec and Parks, because the park service retained responsibility for green space on either side of the major traffic artery, which had been routed straight through the southern portion of the park.

To this day, Maryland’s Department of Transportation focuses primarily on moving automobiles, not human beings, from place to place. Walking, jogging, biking, pushing a stroller or walking your dog – these are a secondary concerns.  That’s why I’ve been so excited about the intersection at Madison Avenue.  The park is our front yard, but for years, we’ve had only two pedestrian crossings to the park from the south, each more dangerous than the next.  Our first act of advocacy upon moving to Baltimore was, with the help of the Reservoir Hill Improvement Council, to guilt the city into repairing the broken walk signal at Linden Avenue. The message sent went something like this: “The new Beth Am rabbi is running across four lanes of fast-moving traffic with his little kids.” The signal was fixed within a week.

Druid Park entrance 3

For as long as there has been human civilization, there have been roads and intersections. In rabbinic literature, these are rightly seen as liminal spaces, places of transition where values and priorities are clarified.  The Talmud (Ketubbot 17a) stipulates that if a wedding procession meets a funeral procession at a crossroads, the wedding takes precedence. Each are important, but joy and promise demand more immediacy than sadness and loss.  I wonder how many couples, Jewish and not, walked together, holding hands and smiling at the undulating grassy landscape before them as they passed beneath Mayor Swann’s arch during the century before the JFX was built.

The new intersection is pretty nice, as intersections go. They installed classy, historic-looking lights and walk signals and removed the yellow stoplights which had been haphazardly strung across the road. Most important, they added an accessible crossing with lines repainted so traffic has to stop further back.  Now distracted or aggressive drivers are much less likely to hit my dog or my kids when we cross. It’s a step in the right direction but much more is needed to truly rethread the park with its surrounding neighborhoods.

A version of this post can also be found here.