Monday, January 25, 2016

Intersectionality is the Not the Enemy: Reflections on the Creating Change Conference

              Even though it has been five years since I was ordained from the Jewish Theological Seminary, I often still field questions about what it was like to be one of the first openly queer rabbinical students studying there. When describing my experience, I often like to begin with this story: when one of my gay male classmates expressed concern to a JTS administrator that he would not be viewed as authentic out in the pulpit, the administrator responded, "you should consider growing a beard."  Obviously, I could not have received the same advice, and this story shows how my challenges as a woman and a queer person should not be viewed independently if you want to understand my experience in the world, the complicated nature of solidarity, and how to best be a source of support in the challenges that I face. It may not be impossible to speak about my identity as a queer rabbi without discussing my gender, but it certainly impoverishes the conversation and obscures an honest portrayal of the full essence of my experiences. My identity is not simply an amalgam of unrelated labels, but is the product of how all the aspects of my identity intersect and interact.  This story is a very simple example of how appreciating intersectionality can lead to a more nuanced and helpful understanding of reality, and in particular, how various compounded forms of oppression can express themselves in ways far more complicated than the sum of their individual parts.  In my experience, few people would view this theory (or lens of understanding) negatively or as a danger to the Jewish people.  
        Very few theories are inherently dangerous or always lead to negative outcomes. Most powerful and enduring political theories rise to prominence because they amplify previously hidden or excluded voices and enrich our understanding of how the world works. Rather, problems arise when those theories are overused, manipulated, or caricatured, either by their supposed proponents or opponents.  In the case of many on the the far left's hatred of Israel, and its activists' movements to silence all voices that humanize the varied experiences of Israelis, the theory of intersectionality is not being used as a way to further clarify the nuances of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, queer Palestinian or Israeli identities, or the occupation. Rather, many of these activists are seeking to advance an approach that I would call "bundled politics."  This form of thinking does not bring greater nuance to the conversation, but coercively requires an automatic allegiance to a certain set of political positions in order to carry the badges of a "progressive, intelligent, ethical, aware person." It not only pressures individuals to abandon critical, balanced thought in regard to a particular issue (in this case, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict), but also to succumb to group-think in regard to a wide variety of political and ethical issues. And only if you adopt all of the politics in this bundle, they assert, do you deserve a seat at the table in universities, conferences, or progressive politics.  Obviously, it is much easier to claim the validity and inclusion of the political positions in the bundle if you drown or force out all opposing points of view from the outset of a conversation.  Bundled politics not only elevates the stature of identity politics, but also seeks to formulate an identity based on political unanimity.  
         As we've seen with BDS fights within highly ideological and politicized academic disciplines, only one side of the conflict is ever presented, opposing voices are expunged and excluded, and only one tale of oppression in a complicated conflict is ever given voice or validated. While proponents of bundled politics might use the language of intersectionality in order to provide a veneer of nuance and academic grounding for their assertions, they are in fact abusing the theory and its original intentions.  They are calling for an automatic solidarity with one side of a deeply complex conflict based on a highly curated, partial, and overly simplistic portrayal of Zionism and Israeli identity that is reinforced through (often violent) abuses of power in classrooms and political settings.  In this respect, the greatest self-described proponents of intersectionality are the ones who pervert its original intentions the most flagrantly: flattening and simplifying conversations that need to be understood in their full complexity in order to be addressed effectively, ethically, empathetically, and with intellectual integrity.  
        In response to this trend, there have been a few writers in the Jewish press blaming intersectionality for an outbreak in anti-Israel activism that poses a threat to the Jewish community. I think that this critique is misguided. Understanding the ways in which various forms of oppression operate in concert, whether in the context of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict or issues of race, gender, class, and sexuality in the US, threatens no one.  In fact, when used as one lens among many, and in conjunction with rich, complicated, and rigorous understandings of history and politics, it helps us better empathize, understand, and act.  To claim that all of these theories make us "stupid," does not advance the discourse or our standing within it.  Rather, it evidences a paucity of understanding, a diminished sense of empathy, and a lack of intellectual generosity in appreciating theories that have emerged in particular from women and scholars of color. Moreover, we need to lead conversations about Israel and the conflict that do not obscure the darker elements of Zionism's history or current troubling trends in Israeli society if we want to claim the mantle of intellectual honesty and ethical superiority.  I think that certain elements of the mainstream Jewish community have gotten the message and have adapted accordingly, but there are still too many corners of the Jewish leadership who seek to limit conversations in ways that are intellectually dishonest and unhelpful.  
     I share the outrage of Jews and Zionists who recognize how antisemitism has infiltrated the academy and progressive politics in multiple and worrying ways. Even though these activists may vigorously deny the label of antisemitism, at the very least they benefit from deeply ingrained antisemitic attitudes that assume Jews (or the Jew-writ-large of the State of Israel) are inherently powerful, wealthy, aggressive, shadowy, clannish, and untrustworthy. With little of the intellectual honesty and empathy they claim to embody, many anti-Israel activists advance their cause with the aid of these dangerous tropes, and have enjoyed unparalleled success in singling out Israel for rebuke as a result.  As a consequence, not only are Israelis dehumanized in deeply repulsive ways by a supposedly humane academy/progressive political class, but BDS activism in the far left has become one of the most effective vehicles for reifying and spreading calumnies and discrimination against Jews.  This state of affairs has already led to violence against Jewish students on campus and the exclusion of valuable Jewish voices in progressive causes that have no clear, obvious link to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. 
     As a Jew, a Zionist, a progressive, a professor, and a campus rabbi, I am deeply worried about these trends and what they mean for my students.  I neither want to see them abandon solidarity with other oppressed groups that the Torah and our history demand, nor do I want them to internalize the antisemitism and simplistic narratives about Israel that are so pervasive on campus and in progressive political circles. Ultimately, we must have the self-respect and the self-confidence to both stand up for ourselves and for others.  We must refuse to be terrorized and silenced.  Nor can we afford to turn inward and abandon other causes for justice and freedom.  I anticipate that this will be a lonely road for the progressive Jewish community (even those who actively struggle on behalf of Palestinians) but hope that some of the language and spirit of solidarity can be extended even to us in the years to come.

Thursday, January 21, 2016

A Time for Silence in the Face of Injustice?: Parashat B'Shalach

          We live in an era of outrage, much of it justified.  Just this morning alone, I felt my blood pressure rise as I read more about children being poisoned by their governor in Flint, Michigan, trillions of dollars wasted on unjustifiable military expenditures, and the ten-year anniversary of Ilan Halimi's torture and murder in France.  I could go on, as most of us could.  The world is full of legitimate injustices, and we are also bombarded with messages from the media intended to outrage us and click on the next article.  Even if we focus on the legitimate and clear evil in the world, how could we ever condone or encourage others to remain silent as we face these daunting realities?  
        This week's portion, Parashat B'Shalach, commands the children of Israel to do just that.  As the Israelites flee Pharaoh and the Egyptians, they are told to stand still, watch, and be quiet!  They are commanded to witness God's salvation, to stand still and silent while God fights on their behalf:

וַיֹּאמֶר מֹשֶׁה אֶל הָעָם אַל תִּירָאוּ הִתְיַצְּבוּ וּרְאוּ אֶת יְשׁוּעַת ה' אֲשֶׁר יַעֲשֶׂה לָכֶם הַיּוֹם כִּי אֲשֶׁר רְאִיתֶם אֶת מִצְרַיִם הַיּוֹם לֹא תֹסִיפוּ לִרְאֹתָם עוֹד עַד עוֹלָם. ה' יִלָּחֵם לָכֶם וְאַתֶּם תַּחֲרִישׁוּן (שמות יד: יג-יד).

Exodus 14:13 - Moses said to the people, Don't be afraid! Stand firm and see the Lord's salvation that He will wreak for you today, for the way you have seen the Egyptians is [only] today, [but] you shall no longer continue to see them for eternity. 14 The Lord will fight for you, but you shall remain silent!

How do we square Moses' instructions with a tradition that teaches us to pursue justice and rebuke those who who bring sin upon themselves and the community? Doctor Yair Barkai of Bar-Ilan University culls a variety of exegetical sources that shed light on what might have motivated Moses' instructions to the Israelites.

He first brings a famous midrash that deals with these verses from the Mekhilta d'Rabbi Ishmael:

(מכילתא דרבי ישמעאל בשלח, פרשה ב):
ארבע כתות נעשו ישראל על הים, אחת אומרת ליפול אל הים ואחת אומרת לשוב למצרים ואחת אומרת לעשות מלחמה כנגדן ואחת אומרת נצווח כנגדן. זאת שאמרה ליפול אל הים נאמר להם: " הִתְיַצְּבוּ וּרְאוּ אֶת יְשׁוּעַת ה'", זו שאמרה נשוב למצרים נאמר להם: "כִּי אֲשֶׁר רְאִיתֶם אֶת מִצְרַיִם ", זו שאמרה נעשה מלחמה כנגדן נאמר להם: "ה' יִלָּחֵם לָכֶם", זו שאמרה נצווח כנגדן נאמר להם: "וְאַתֶּם תַּחֲרִישׁוּן ". "ה' ילחם לכם", לא לשעה זו בלבד ילחם לכם אלא לעולם ילחם כנגדן של אויביכם.
There were four types of Israelites on the ocean shore: One type said "we'll fall in the ocean," another said, "we shall return to Egypt," one said, "we will make war upon the Egyptians," and the others said, "we will cry out against them."  To the first group, Moses responded, "Stand resolute and watch God's redemption," to the second group he said, "you will never again see the Egyptians," to the next group he said, "God will fight for you!" and to the last group he said, "you will be silent!" "God will fight for you", not only in this hour alone, but God will fight for you against your enemies for all eternity. (Mikhilta B'Shalach, Parashah Bet)
According to the midrash, each part of the verse was directed toward a different type of Israelite.  The ones inclined to cry out were told to be quiet.  According to two commentators, these Israelites were told to stay mum because they were not fit to fight or cry out.  Ibn Ezra said that the Israelites could confront the Egyptians in word or deed because the Egypt/Egyptians "had not left them."  Both physically and spiritually, Egypt had not left the Israelites, and they still engaged with Egypt and its leaders as their lords and masters.  Until they had physically left Egypt and spiritually cleansed themselves of the internalized inferiority that they Egyptian masters had instilled in them, they weren't the right agents to confront Egyptian evil. 
      Rabbeinu B'chai (Spain 1255-1340) provides another potential reason.  If the Israelites had cried out after a lifetime of worshipping the same idols as the Egyptians, God might be less sympathetic to the claims of the Israelites.  In essence, the Israelites were not so holy and pure themselves, and their cries would highlight their own sin and hypocrisy more than elicit God's righteous indignation on their behalf.  Better to keep their mouths shut and let God do God's thing for God's own reasons.
    Finally, Rabbi Shmuel Bornstein, in opposition to the previous two commentators, posits that the silence of the Israelites should not to be interpreted negatively.  Rather, they should show faith in God's saving power by not crying out.  The ultimate act of faith is to stay silent.  This idea builds off a saying of R. Meir in the aforementioned midrash, "If God will fight for you when you are silent, how much the more God will do for you if you sing God's praises!"  When we cry out or criticize, even with the best of intentions, we may be communicating to others that we don't have full faith in their power to act.  
      So, what do we learn from these texts?  Should we always stay silent and simply wait for God's rescue?  Absolutely not.  We learn in our tradition that it is forbidden for us to rely upon miracles. Rather, we can take direction from the words of Ecclesiasties, "there is a time for silence and a time for speaking out."  The Israelites will have to fight against Amalek, an evil even greater than the Egyptians, not so soon in the future. There will be plenty of time for crying and fighting.  There will be numerous battles for the Israelites and their children to fight.  However, as they stood at the shore of the Sea of Reeds, they didn't have the strength, centeredness, mindset, or credibility to be fighters in this battle.  In order to weather and survive the long journey ahead, our ancestors needed to know how to pick their battles, and be willing to rely on God when they didn't have the strength or the skills to succeed on their own.  No person or people has the power to fight every battle effectively every time.  This parashah teaches us that we should have the wisdom to know when to rest, and to always have the allies -- Divine and human -- who can cry and fight for us when we don't have the power or positioning to be our own best advocates.
Shabbat Shalom!