A Jewish version of intersectionality

A Jewish gay pride float at Chicago's gay pride parade in 2013. Credit: Wikimedia Commons.
A Jewish gay pride float at Chicago's gay pride parade in 2013. Credit: Wikimedia Commons.
Ben Cohen
Ben Cohen
Ben Cohen, a senior analyst with the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, writes a weekly column for JNS on Jewish affairs and Middle Eastern politics.

By Ben Cohen/JNS.org

Whatever else is said these days about anti-Semitism, it remains the case that being accused of it is a surefire way of gaining name recognition among thousands, if not millions, of people who would otherwise never have heard of you.

Had a group of Jewish women waving gay pride rainbow flags embossed with the Star of David not been ejected from a recent LGBT parade in Chicago, I doubt the “Chicago Dyke Collective” would have made headlines.

All the condemnation this group of fanatics justifiably received was internalized in the only way that makes sense to them: by lashing out once again at Zionism as a form of “racism,” and by justifying a nasty instance of racist exclusion as an act of “resistance”— in much the same way that racial segregation was trumpeted in the Old South as a defense of “civilized” values.

Inevitably, the scandal of anti-Semitism on display at the LGBT parade in Chicago has generated a slew of articles about “intersectionality”—the idea that all forms of social oppression are linked, but with the caveat that what counts as “oppression” can only be determined by those who are “oppressed.”

Therein lies the trick. Among the evangelists of intersectionality—whose tone, to my mind, has more in common with scientology than with a rationalist politics of left or right—the idea that Jews can be oppressed even in theory is dismissed with contempt, because Jews are regarded as bearers of racial and social “privilege.” If someone is accused of “anti-Semitism,” the logic proceeds, it’s because that person has dared to criticize expressions of Jewish privilege—for example, by visibly identifying with a state built upon the cardinal sin of “Zionism.”

In my view, arguing with someone who sees the world through the prism of intersectionality is a waste of time, because intersectionality is a device to prevent authentic debate from occurring the first place. Here’s a good example: During a meeting at Dartmouth College in May, Palestinian-American BDS activist Linda Sarsour refused to answer a question about her stance on female genital mutilation, on the grounds that the questioner was a “young white man” whose perspective was by definition offensive to her.

This sort of dumbed-down totalitarianism isn’t amenable to reasoned exchange. But there’s a more important point: For the intersectionality folks, argument is besides the point.

Leon Trotsky, the Communist leader exiled from the Soviet Union by Josef Stalin, was once asked why he had been defeated in their epic political struggle, when Stalin was clearly Trotsky’s intellectual inferior. Trotsky gave a proper Marxist answer. “A political struggle is in its essence a struggle of interests and forces,” he wrote, “not of arguments.”

Even though Trotsky—who was fond of good cognac and hunting—would have had very little in common with the safe spaces and trigger warnings of intersectionality, his observation would probably resonate with the more thoughtful of its advocates. Arguments, this strongly materialist view holds, are simply reflections of the political forces advancing them; hence, an activist who is committed to the liberation of “Palestine” will not hear in a counter-argument from a Zionist merely an argument, but rather a dishonest rationalization of “Zionism” and “racism” that is paid for by the “apartheid regime” in “occupied Palestine.”

How, then, to respond to this freeze on thought? One answer is to ignore it, or to at least put it in perspective by recognizing that certain things—like booting Jewish women out of a parade—infuriate us precisely because they are not the norm. Another response is to take on the whole edifice of intersectionality by highlighting the almost violent way that it shuts down independent, critical thinking, and by challenging its academic and media advocates to speak in propositions, not declarations.

A third approach—and the one I find most intriguing—is the suggestion that Jews, particularly those in progressive circles, should develop their own version of intersectionality. There are many peoples around the world with whom we share common links and mutual experiences of persecution: Roma gypsies in Eastern Europe, Kurds and Yazidis in Iraq and Syria, and pretty much every religious minority—from Christians to Baha’is—that lives under some form of Islamic rule.

The advantages of this kind of advocacy should be obvious. Jews, who often feel alone in these contexts, will realize that they are not. The largely ignored struggles around the world against genocide and tyranny—all those examples we invoke when we talk about “double standards”—will start getting the attention they deserve. This combined force can begin the task of speaking truth to the growing power of intersectionality in our schools and universities.

Practically speaking, I can think of one great organization—UN Watch—that already works along these lines. Theirs is an example worth studying, because this problem is not going away.

Ben Cohen writes a weekly column for JNS.org on Jewish affairs and Middle Eastern politics. His writings have been published in Commentary, the New York Post, Haaretz, The Wall Street Journal and many other publications.

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