We anti-Occupation Activists Aren't a 'Danger' to the American Jewish Community

David Bernstein is right – in the spirit of intersectionality, more activist groups are embracing BDS in solidarity with the fight for Palestinian liberation. But the Jewish community can't – and shouldn't – isolate itself from them.

Henry Rosen
Max Fineman
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A BDS flag hangs off New York's Manhattan Bridge, August 2014.Credit: AP
Henry Rosen
Max Fineman

In his recent opinion piece entitled “The anti-Israel trend you’ve never heard of”, in which he denounces intersectionality as fueling the growth of BDS, David Bernstein, president and CEO of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs, misrepresents the motivations and principles behind Palestine solidarity activists’ work to ally themselves with other social justice causes.

Bernstein's argument, and the policies of many Jewish communities when it comes to Israel, leads Jewish communities to put themselves on the wrong side of history, sacrificing their commitment to supporting various struggles for justice for defending the increasingly indefensible policies of the Israeli state.

Bernstein’s argument distorts the concept of intersectionality, dismissing its use as a term to describe the connections between various forms of oppression and painting it as a mere “community relations strategy.” As black legal theorist Kimberlé Crenshaw, who first coined the term intersectionality, explains, “intersectionality is an analytic sensibility, a way of thinking about identity and its relationship to power”.

Intersectionality is not simply about the banding together of multiple marginalized groups in order to amplify their voices, although it does make it easier for groups to unite in coalition to build their power.  Intersectionality is a framework of analysis that recognizes people hold multiple forms of identities and addresses the connections between various forms of marginalization and oppression.

An intersectional framework enables social justice advocates to challenge interlocking oppressive structures of power in a holistic way. As Audre Lorde said, “There is no such thing as a single-issue struggle, because we do not live single-issue lives.” For example, feminism that does not account for how race and class influence women’s experiences of oppression fails to address the needs of poor women and/or women of color. Crenshaw’s introduction of the framework of intersectionality seeks to combat the erasure of people or aspects of their identities from single-issue movements.

Intersectionality is not merely a tactic for “building alliances, and using those relationships as an opportunity to sell their cause,” as Bernstein would have people believe. Our struggles against oppressive power structures are interconnected, and we must challenge them collectively. Activists who do Palestine solidarity work ally with other groups and deploy an intersectional framework in order to ensure that these patterns of social and systemic marginalization are not reproduced within spaces that seek collective liberation. Our vision is one of freedom, dignity and equality for all people, and that collective liberation can only be won by uniting to challenge the ways that imperialism, racism, patriarchy, police violence, or other systemic inequities that shape our lives.

Bernstein calls on the Jewish community “to establish our own intersectionality with groups on the mainstream left” and “strengthen ties to these more moderate groups”. But Bernstein’s proposed strategy is just that: a strategy, and one that blatantly co-opts the language of social justice movements to actively oppose the liberation of marginalized peoples.

Intersectionality is not a public relations strategy or a base-building tactic for BDS or pro-Israel advocates to deploy in order to gain popularity. It is a worldview and tool of political analysis, rooted in Black feminist thought, which seeks to root out oppression in all its multiplicity and complexity. By definition, this concept cannot be co-opted by Israel’s defenders to attempt to divide the very groups intersectionality seeks to empower.

The activist networks that embrace intersectional politics are not a threat to the mainstream Jewish community. Anti-racist and anti-sexual assault groups employ an intersectional framework to recognize the shared patterns of oppression that operate in the Israeli occupation and in their own local contexts because they see the resonances and even direct connections in those varied contexts. The framing other movements fighting systematic oppression as “bad for the Jews” creates an artificial and undesirable opposition between Jewish safety and fighting for the justice of oppressed groups. We need to commit, as a community, to exploring and understanding the links between our multi-layered identities and those of groups fighting against structural violence across the world.

The threat Bernstein and many other pro-Israel leaders see in intersectional politics is that activist groups are increasingly embracing BDS and standing in solidarity with students fighting for Palestinian liberation. If these movements are beginning to embrace the Palestinian struggle because of their commitment to collective and universal liberation, the Jewish community’s answer cannot be to isolate itself from those movements.

We believe it is necessary to think about intersecting identities within Jewish communities as well. Jews are not and have never been homogenous, and as such there is no way to approach issues affecting Jewish communities without bearing in mind that sexual assault survivors, people of color and other people of marginalized identities also exist in Jewish spaces.

As Jewish students involved in the Palestine solidarity movement, we value intersectionality as a principle that grounds our work in the reality that people inhabit multiple identities and thus people experience multiple oppressions simultaneously. Working in support of the Palestinian call for BDS from a Jewish perspective grounded in intersectional politics should not be deemed ‘dangerous’ to the Jewish mainstream. Rather than creating barriers and drawing red lines, our Jewish communal leadership should be listening to and thinking carefully about the motivations and principles of those involved in intersectional political movements.

Our work as Jewish students in solidarity with Palestine is first and foremost to support Palestinians in their struggle for liberation and an end to the occupation. And in addition, we are seeking to transform our own Jewish communities, to center values of justice and collective liberation rather than exceptionalism and isolation.

Henry Rosen is a junior film and Jewish studies major at Vassar College in Poughkeepsie, New York.

Max Fineman is a sophomore philosophy major at Columbia University in New York City.

Both are members of the Jewish Voice for Peace Student Network.

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