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Intersectionality and the progressive assault on Zionism

To progressive antisemites, Zionism and Israel have become the scapegoat for all the world’s evils.

Protesters hold a "Queers for Palestine" sign in New York City on Nov. 12, 2023. Credit: Syndi Pilar/Shutterstock.
Protesters hold a "Queers for Palestine" sign in New York City on Nov. 12, 2023. Credit: Syndi Pilar/Shutterstock.
Paul Schneider
Paul Schneider is an attorney, writer and member of the Board of Directors of the American Jewish International Relations Institute (AJIRI), an affiliate of B’nai B’rith International.

Not long ago, it was possible to be a liberal Zionist and a progressive. That has changed. Today, liberal Zionists are decidedly unwelcome in progressive circles. Indeed, to many progressives, hatred of Israel is a membership requirement. The term “liberal Zionist” is seen as an oxymoron.

Leftist anti-Zionism has been around for quite a while. But why has it now become dominant among progressives?

One of the main reasons is the theory of intersectionality.

Intersectionality began as an obscure academic concept invented by Kimberle Crenshaw in 1989. It grew out of her work as an early proponent of critical race theory. Crenshaw’s intersectionality held that a person who suffers from discrimination based on two characteristics (a black woman, for example) experiences more than just the combined effect of two kinds of discrimination.

Over time, intersectionality morphed into a broader doctrine. It holds that different forms of oppression are linked and reinforce each other. Thus, we cannot oppose one without opposing all the others. The result, as Yascha Mounk has noted, is “to place a very high entry barrier on anybody who wants to participate in a political movement. If somebody wants to join a feminist movement committed to intersectionality, these activists now also expect that person to agree with a set of specific positions about such varied topics as the nature of race discrimination, the injustices suffered by disabled people and the conflict in Palestine.”

The results are often strange. For example, Palestinian-American activist Linda Sarsour has said that one cannot be both a feminist and a Zionist. Yet the only country in the Middle East where women enjoy equal rights is Israel.

It’s equally bizarre that the anti-Zionist group Jewish Voice for Peace states that its “leadership, staff and membership is overwhelmingly queer and/or trans” while seeking to dismantle the only country in the Middle East where members of those groups can live openly and safely.

This has not prevented progressives from closing the doors to Zionists. Progressive congresswoman Rashida Tlaib recently declared, “It’s become clear that you cannot claim to hold progressive values yet back Israel’s apartheid government. And we will continue to push back and not accept that you are progressive except for Palestine.”

Clearly, progressives believe that intersectionality gives anti-Zionism the same positive moral value as, say, feminism or the American civil rights movement. This allows many progressives to sanitize their hatred of Israel. Hamas’s genocidal antisemitism becomes “resistance.” The genocide of Israeli Jews becomes “decolonization.” The destruction of a people’s heritage becomes an admirable goal, if not a moral imperative.

Intersectionality also gives Israel-haters an aura of respectability when they proclaim the blood libel that the victims of Nazis have become Nazis. Or that people defending their country against a genocidal foe are themselves committing genocide. Or that an indigenous people, connected to the land for millennia, are actually colonists. Or that Jewish refugees from Eastern Europe and Mizrahim kicked out of Arab and Muslim countries are now imperialists. Or that a multi-ethnic country where people of color make up at least half the Jewish population practices white supremacy. Or that a country of less than 10 million people and roughly the size of New Jersey has successfully conspired to dominate American politics.

Perhaps the leading manifesto of intersectional anti-Zionism is the book Except For Palestine: The Limits of Progressive Politics by the antisemite Marc Lamont Hill and Mitchell Plitnick. Hill is a journalist known for hobnobbing with the venomous antisemite Louis Farrakhan, leader of the Nation of Islam, and proclaiming the genocidal slogan, “Free Palestine from the river to the sea.” Plitnick is a former co-director of Jewish Voice for Peace. The gist of their book is that it is somehow hypocritical for progressives to oppose Palestinian activism.

“If we are to adopt a progressive political outlook—one rooted in anti-racist, anti-imperialist, humanistic and intersectional values—we must begin to prioritize the freedom, dignity and self-determination of Palestinians,” they assert.

In other words, support for Palestinian demands is the sine qua non of progressive identity. Hill and Plitnick say that this support must include the so-called “right of return,” which would put an end to the Jewish state and replace it with an Arab supremacist nation.

The website of the hate group Students for Justice in Palestine sums up anti-Zionist intersectionality, stating, “We believe the struggle for a free Palestine is also the struggle for Black liberation, gender and sexual freedom, and a livable and sustainable planet. All pursuits for freedom, justice and equality are materially connected and require us to struggle against state violence, colonialism, capitalism and imperialism, in all of their forms.”

These are windy words, but the truth is that SJP’s only “struggle” is to destroy the Jewish state.

Under intersectionality, Israel has become a stand-in for all violations of social justice. It embodies all the evils of the world. If this sounds familiar, it should. We’ve seen it before.

In the end, the progressive assault on Zionism is about the need for a scapegoat. And why not? Jews have played that role for centuries. Of course, it’s no longer acceptable in the West to make Jews as individuals into scapegoats. So, progressives do the next best thing: They attack the Jews as a collective. First and foremost, that means opposing Zionism, the collective movement for Jewish liberation.

As Einat Wilf has argued, the way to combat this assault is for Jews to reclaim Zionism and assert that it is an essential part of their identity. They should be confident in that identity, she says, and refuse to allow progressive ideologues and bullies to compromise it.

At the same time, we should all have the courage to call out intersectionality for what it is: An existential danger to Jewish life.

The opinions and facts presented in this article are those of the author, and neither JNS nor its partners assume any responsibility for them.
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