Rabbi Rant: Jewish Intersectionality

by Aaron Potek / July 5, 2017

Once again, American Jews are at the center of a conversation about intersectionality.

For those less familiar: intersectionality, as described by Nathan Heller, is “a theory, originating in black feminism, that sees identity-based oppression operating in crosshatching ways. Encountering sexism as a white, Ivy-educated, middle-class woman in a law office, for example, calls for different solutions than encountering sexism as a black woman working a minimum-wage job.”

This theory, in theory, provides a more nuanced way of looking at oppression through the lens of multiple, intersecting identities. It’s a framework that reminds us not to reduce people to any one identity. Yet it has led to very unnuanced ways of thinking – forcing complex identities into an oppressor/oppressed binary and demanding a total consensus on that categorization.

This reductionist form of intersectionality is often applied to the American Jewish identity, which becomes reduced to oppressor (Jew = Zionist = Oppressor) and is thus unwelcome in social justice spaces. We saw this play out most recently just a couple of weeks ago when three people carrying rainbow flags with Jewish stars were asked to leave the Chicago Dyke March.

As in past instances, this led to a litany of counterarguments that Judaism doesn’t necessarily mean Zionism or that Zionist doesn’t necessarily mean oppressor, along with the subsequent debate addressing the degree to which those conflations amount to anti-Semitism.

These responses are important, but they ignore a broader logical flaw that is incorrectly associated with intersectionality. If all oppression is interconnected, the flawed logic goes, then fighting to end one example of oppression requires that we all agree on and speak out about all examples of oppression. And if you are an oppressor in one realm, then you are de facto an oppressor in every realm.

But the interconnectedness of oppression does not mean all oppression should be lumped together, nor does it mean anyone is defined solely by any one oppressive belief. In fact, a proper understanding of intersectionality leads to the exact opposite conclusion. Each instance of oppression, like each person, is a unique and complex combination of different factors and components. The challenge is in being able to simultaneously hold both truths – that different forms of oppression are interrelated and distinct.

Even if Jew = Zionist = Oppressor (it doesn’t), that should not exclude Jews from all spaces that advocate for the rights of others. Belief in one cause does not require a belief in all causes; being considered an oppressor on one issue should not prohibit one from being an ally on another issue.

Yet many social justice movements today seem to be demanding uniformity of thought. They are making the same mistake that was first recorded in the story of Babel.

In chapter 11 of Genesis, we are told that “everyone on Earth had the same language and the same words.” They came together to build a tower, but God disapproved and scattered them across the earth. Why did God disapprove? One interpretation is that their mistake was in coming together with “the same words” – silencing disagreement and forcing a complete consensus. And so God disperses the people, perhaps to teach us: enforcing ideological uniformity and eliminating difference is not how you build coalitions.

The defense of Judaism and Zionism is important. But that shouldn’t distract us from working on other social justice issues, such as queer rights. We do not need to agree on everything to work together on something.

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