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.


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