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.