How Intersectionality Became a Sinister Threat to American Jewry

August 7, 2019
Photo from Reuters

Intersectionality didn’t originate as an anti-Jewish idea. Coined in 1989 by Columbia University law professor Kimberlé Crenshaw in the context of critical race theory, and with the intention of clarifying the distinction between the overlapping nature of racial and sexual or gender discrimination in a legal context, intersectionality is a word with a noble beginning. 

The idea that people have various identities that characterize the way the world sees them is simple and reasonable, as liberals and conservatives generally agree. And naming this phenomenon “intersectionality” — creating a new word to encapsulate the simultaneous racial and sexual discrimination women of color experience on a regular basis — was revolutionary and valuable.

This is how language works: Words come into being when they’re needed, and become touchstones of a society’s needs in a particular moment. And the truth is that we needed the word “intersectionality” to signify a problem that everyone seemed to agree was a problem but that no one seemed to be dealing with.

But words can also be used as weapons. The concept of intersectionality was a big hit in many academic disciplines. But its first foray into popular culture was with the 2017 Women’s March on Washington, whose organizers cited women’s “intersecting identities” as being fundamental to how they are impacted by human rights and social justice matters. Soon celebrities like Ashley Judd at the 2018 Oscars were throwing around the term like confetti.

It was a new word for most people. We struggled to understand what it meant. Definitions began to appear all over the internet in an attempt to appease the newfound desire of the masses to understand this befuddling term that was suddenly critical to our understanding of the world. Many of these definitions were not in any way connected to the original incarnation of intersectionality as defined by Crenshaw, who in an interview for the Vox news website expressed surprise over the ways in which people have used the term. 

In one astounding use of the term, art influencer JiaJia Fei was quoted in the March 2018 issue of Vogue as suggesting that a certain show at the 2018 Fashion Week was a “total work of art: music, fashion, and art. There was a lot of intersectionality, not just in identity but also in creativity.” If you use a word enough, in passionate and meaningful contexts, it will grow like wild fire. But like a fire, once it spreads it can become impossible to control, leaving nothing but charred remains in its wake.

Intersectionality suddenly became a weapon to be used against anyone who has a connection to Israel or is sympathetic with its existence — and that meant Jews, all of them, even the ones who are highly critical of Israeli policies because, in the intersectionality war, identity trumps ethical intention. 

Some might argue that this is in fact what language is supposed to do — to evolve from theory to practice. But what happens when a word grows so quickly that it becomes a buzzword or a cliché, an idea more satisfying as a hashtag or a shorthand announcement of someone’s social justice street cred than as a signifier of the real and important work it was meant to do?

More importantly, how did this noble idea of intersectionality become an instrument to isolate and vilify liberal Jews? How did it sneak up on American Jewry to become an even more sinister threat than the boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement against the Jewish state?

Photo from Reuters

Evolution of a Word and Concept
Nowhere are these questions more important than in the convergence of intersectionality, anti-Semitism and anti-Zionism. When the organizers of the 2017 Women’s March called on the idea of intersectionality to clarify the brand of feminism that would define the movement, it was already evident that the role of Jewish women in this equation was tenuous at best. As reported on Dec. 10 2018 in The New York Times and on Dec. 23 2018 on the website Tablet, as far back as the earliest organizational meetings, the organizers saw Jewish women not as a marginalized group but as a powerful community required to “check their privilege” on a level deeper even than non-Jewish white people. 

In their effort to highlight the supposed privilege of Vanessa Wruble, a Jewish woman who was part of the first organizational meetings but later left because of how she said she was treated by other organizers, Tamika Mallory and Carmen Perez insisted falsely that Jews hold extensive historic responsibility for the slave trade and the prison industry — an idea peddled by notorious anti-Semite Louis Farrakhan, the Nation of Islam leader. In short, Jewish women who fall into the racial category of white (the possibility of which is constantly being debated given that “white” Jews have not historically been seen as white) were not particularly welcome at the Women’s March, and one wonders whether Jewish women of color were any less unwelcome. 

But Jewish women wanted to be a part of this historic movement, and many brushed off the allegations of anti-Semitism as something not endemic to the movement as a whole. At the march, however, as well as in other marches that would follow, blatant expressions of anti-Semitism were on display. Jewish women proudly displaying signs expressing their identities as progressive women and Jews were discriminated against. They were told they were not wanted.

Expressions of Jewish identity became conflated with expressions of support for Israel. No longer would the Jewish star be welcome at some of the marches because of its affiliation with the Israeli flag, which some found upsetting. Given that Linda Sarsour, long known for her anti-Israel sentiments, was a recent addition to the leadership, perhaps it was no surprise that the concept of intersectionality had been hijacked in such a way as to make Jewish women feel excluded.

Intersectionality suddenly became a weapon to be used against anyone who has a connection to Israel or is sympathetic with its existence — and that meant Jews, all of them, even the ones who are highly critical of Israeli policies because, in the intersectionality war, identity trumps ethical intention. But while the Women’s March may have been the first large mainstream use of intersectionality as a weapon against Jews, it was merely reflecting a sentiment that had been percolating on certain university campuses for a number of years.

It’s no secret that some campuses have been a breeding ground for anti-Semitism, often through the vehicle of anti-Israel rhetoric. To state the obvious, Israel is not above criticism. Criticism of Israel does not automatically equate to anti-Semitism. In fact, it’s unthinkable that any person who isn’t morally or ethically bankrupt wouldn’t be critical of some of the ways in which Israel has dealt with Palestinians. But this isn’t about legitimate criticism of Israel; it’s about something much more sinister.

Photo from Reuters

Spreading Into the Mainstream
The (mis)use of intersectionality in the Women’s March fueled those sinister anti-Israel sentiments on university campuses. Campus anti-Israel activists (both students and professors) were suddenly able to harness the mainstream awareness of intersectionality in their efforts to convince people that Israel is the worst human rights offender in the world. Academia may have contributed to the use of intersectionality in the Women’s March, but the march’s twisting and dismantling of the term fed right back into campus anti-Israel activities. With more mainstream awareness of the idea of intersectionality — here falsely positioning Jewishness and Zionism in the same corner as racism, homophobia and sexism — anti-Israel activists were poised to attack, knowing that the pop culture advent of intersectionality meant that students and faculty sympathetic to their cause, if ignorant of its intent, would now be in abundance.

This leads me to address a new and highly destructive but real instance of intersectionality, one that, as Cary Nelson writes, in his June 2019 book “Israel Denial: Anti-Zionism, Anti-Semitism, and the Faculty Campaign Against the Jewish State,” “brings together academic professionalism, professional prestige, pedagogical practices, a misrepresentation of academic freedom, and all the vetting and reward procedures of the contemporary research university — and saturates them with anti-Zionism and antisemitism.” Nelson, Jubilee Professor of Liberal Arts and Sciences at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and an affiliated faculty member at the University of Haifa, has written a brave new book that is the most thorough analysis of the campus epidemic of anti-Semitism and anti-Zionism to date. It is an extensive and meticulously detailed book that engages the anti-Israel rhetoric of scholars and professors such as Judith Butler, Steven Salaita and Jasbir Puar, among others. What Nelson makes clear is that much of the BDS movement’s momentum has been perpetuated by faculty members who have published books and essays in support of that movement against Israel. 

So far, much of the Jewish community’s efforts have gone to counteract the BDS movement. But intersectionality is sneakier and more ominous. 

As Nelson points out — lest this epidemic of professors bent on demonizing Israel becomes fuel for the far right’s inclination to demonize academia and university campuses in general — the most troubling part of this issue is actually just a “smaller group of influential faculty members who pretend to understand these issues more broadly and who have written books and essays that aim to make original contributions to the anti-Zionist cause.” But although they are few in number, some of these would-be scholars have become academic celebrities based on their often-unfounded attacks on the Jewish state. Yet the fact is that many of these “scholars” know very little about the issue, and most of them have “reached outside their earlier areas of specialization to embrace new research agendas” dealing with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, in many cases offering as fact details that have been completely fabricated and discredited by other sources. 

Puar, for example, made famous by her unsubstantiated assertions during a lecture at Vasasr in September 2016, of Israeli harvesting of Palestinian organs and deliberate policy of shooting to maim Palestinians, declared in a 2015 essay that she is “committed to ‘an anti-Zionist hermeneutic,’ ” which Nelson suggests provides critical insight into the interpretive principles that “color her perceptions, guide her thinking, and shape the arguments” she has made. For Nelson, this is not simply admission of a bias; rather, she is “championing an anti-Zionist world view.” In other words, she has committed to pre-judging “all evidence on the basis of a controversial political ideology.” 

Typically, this would be more than enough to prevent the work from being taken as serious scholarship by academic organizations and university publishers. As Nelson meticulously works his way through Puar’s most well-known claims about Israel and demonstrates that the principles that guide her work are highly problematic and deeply troubling, he also shows that her work is but one example of why we should be very concerned about what he calls the “apparent politicization of peer reviewing at university presses.” Her “methodology, her standards of evidence, her style of argumentation, her lack of interest in opposing views, her penchant for drawing conclusions unsupported by facts, and her willingness to let political convictions guide every aspect of her anti-Zionist project” — all these would raise red flags if the topic at hand were anything other than Israel. The question is why faculty and academic presses are giving such shoddy and biased scholarship a free pass. For Nelson, one answer is that an “ends-justifies-means strategy” is preferred when it comes to work dealing with the Jewish state.

The books and essays written by the individuals whose work Nelson confronts are typically published by university presses and peer-reviewed academic journals, which legitimizes their arguments and allows readers to assume that the arguments are grounded in real and substantial research. Herein lies one of the most troubling issues that Nelson confronts — the idea that peer-reviewed scholarship can now be “compromised by political commitments.” 

Photo from Reuters

Dubious Scholarship Among Peers
This is not particularly surprising. When a scholar submits a manuscript for publication at an academic or university press, in some cases the scholar is also required to submit a list of names of scholars (peers, if you will) who would potentially be interested in reviewing the manuscript in order to assess whether it is worthy of publication. It doesn’t take a lot of math to realize how easy it is then to manipulate the review process and ensure that one’s manuscript reaches only those who are sympathetic to the political biases that undergird the work in question.

What Nelson does in “Israel Denial” when responding to the work of Puar and others is the work that should have been done by the faculty members who assessed her work in preparation for publication. The chapter on Puar is indeed one of the most riveting, and the painstaking work of real and meticulous scholarly inquiry that guides Nelson’s approach here is extraordinarily clear and, quite frankly, emblematic of what it means to be a scholar and a deep thinker capable of engaging with opposite viewpoints.

And yet, the fact that this work had not been done and had to be done by Nelson is indeed distressing. That Puar’s obsession with falsifying facts to serve an anti-Israel agenda was given a pass by scholars and publishers alike should be disturbing to anyone in academia regardless of their politics. As Nelson says, Puar has “turned personal susceptibility to conspiracy theories into an academic principle: rumor-based research” — shameful indeed.

“Israel Denial” is a staggering work of rigorous intellectual inquiry that helps us understand how a deep anti-Israel animus in academia has fueled the rise of intersectionality as a movement to isolate and exclude Jews. 

Lest those who have not read the book accuse Nelson of using biased sources to confront the fiction of Puar and others with the facts, he has made extensive use of data drawn from Palestinian, World Health Organization and UNICEF testimony and reports, rather than from Israeli sources. His resources are all readily available, and, as he reminds us, would have been readily available to the scholars who willingly ignored them in their efforts to discredit Israel. Nelson also traveled to Israel numerous times to speak with Palestinian health experts, all of whom expressed (in direct opposition to Puar’s assertions) that food availability is not an issue, but rather poverty and inability of individuals to afford quality food. Nelson outlines a number of serious challenges to health in Gaza, citing infrastructural problems including raw sewage flowing into the Mediterranean — problems that “cannot be fixed without reliable electricity,” which cannot be improved while Hamas and other terror groups “persist in pursuing low level but relentless military campaigns against Israel.”

The chapter on Puar is fascinating, but it is only one of many. His chapter on Salaita, for example, demonstrates how a false claim of intersectionality between Native American history and the Israeli-Palestinian situation created an entire career for the former professor. Salaita’s name became recognizable in mainstream circles in August 2014 when the University of Illinois withdrew a conditional job offer for a position in American Indian Studies based on a series of what were perceived to be anti-Semitic tweets. But as Nelson points out, Salaita’s anti-Israel and anti-Semitic sensibilities were already evident in his published work. Salaita suggests in one instance that “when Israel misbehaves, all Jews, no matter where, become responsible” and in another that it is Israel that “generates anti-Semitism.” 

But Salaita’s tweet on June 19, 2014 after news broke that three Israeli teenagers had been kidnapped and slain by Palestinian terrorists was particularly telling: “I wish all the f—— West Bank settlers would go missing.” Nelson is careful to state that he does not know whether Salaita is anti-Semitic, but he also argues that Salaita “knew the tweets would be perceived as anti-Semitic, knew that they would cause pain, knew that they would be anti-Semitic in effect, and that he took pleasure in anticipating all that.”

In thinking about the so-called intersectional focus of Salaita’s work on indigenous cultures, I asked Nelson to talk specifically about intersectionality and he directed me to a 2016 issue of Inside Higher Education in which he argued in “The Intersectionality Muddle” that when it first began to take shape in the 1960s and 1970s, the concept of intersectionality “helped give theoretical warrant to the need to understand social positioning and the experience of identity as products of multiple forces and categories. Female identity was not constructed in the same way across all social and national differences, despite numerous analogous consequences.” 

Nelson goes on to say in relation to the connections people have made between the 2014 Ferguson, Mo., case of a white police officer shooting and killing an unarmed black man and conditions in the Palestinian Territories, that the “logic rests on a far more speculative claim: that injustices intersect even if they occur in different parts of the world in different contexts under different political systems. Then the intersection often occurs only in the mind of the beholder or in a political manifesto, and it begins to function like a conspiracy theory.” Intersectionality, he concludes, “has been transformed from a theory into a political slogan.” And, finally: “It may well be that intersectionality has been too thoroughly corrupted to preserve what was once its academic and political utility. If so, there’s little to be gained in crying over spilled verbiage. But its continuing corruption needs to be tracked and called out for what it is.”

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Intersectionality as a Weapon
It goes without saying that certain academics, like Salaita, have benefited from the transformation of intersectionality from theory into political weaponry. What remains is the question of whether faculty members who knowingly or unknowingly participate in this process will be self-reflective and honorable enough to apply the meticulous kind of intellectual inquiry that Nelson uses to their own scholarship and to the scholarship of their peers.

Nelson’s “Israel Denial” is the culmination of extremely important work, and it reflects an urgent need for those in academia — both professors and students — to do the work they have long purported to do, to think critically and carefully about cultural and political issues, especially when lives and livelihoods are literally at stake. While the book has been available only for a few months, I asked Nelson whether he thinks the work he has done is making a difference.

He stated: 

“In writing the book, I was very much aware that the combination of its two basic aims — to delegitimate so-called academic ‘research’ hostile to Israel’s existence as a Jewish state and to put forward practical ways to advance a two-state solution — would not appeal to the hard-core members of either the right or the left. There is a portion of the formerly Zionist left that is clearly now only interested in finding opportunities to criticize Israeli policy. So much so, in fact, that they see no admirable future for the Jewish state at all. They are not ready to embrace [co-founder of the BDS movement] Omar Barghouti’s call for euthanasia as a solution to the problem of Israel, but they no longer have any patience for peace proposals of any kind — neither final stage principles of agreement, nor interim steps (of which I identify some 50 examples) of how to begin creating an atmosphere in which good-faith negotiations could proceed. You cannot get those folks engaged in the practical conversation ‘Israel Denial’ aims to promote. At the same time, they have a uniformed visceral reaction to the book’s exceptionally detailed demolition of the books and essays Israel’s academic opponents are publishing.” 

These reactions, of course, are a distraction from the primary agenda of finding fault with Israel. But it is not just opponents of Israel’s existence that may take issue with the book. 

Nelson continued: 

“I write in the book about one other preoccupation of former Zionists: their fixation on the story of their own struggle with Zionism, of the drama of their gradual disenchantment with the Jewish state. I do not treat those personal dramas sympathetically, which alienates some readers. 

“On the opposite side of the fence are those on the political right who see no potential partners for peace anywhere among the Palestinians. They welcome the book’s critique of anti-Zionist pseudo-scholarship but abhor its peace proposals. One early review urged that ‘Israel Denial’ be reprinted without the peace proposal chapters, that they literally be cut from the book. I really had not anticipated that suggestion. What is clear is that such people are deeply conflicted about seeing both elements between the covers of one book. I am not unhappy about the fact that I have made them unhappy.”

At the Women’s March, as well as in other marches that would follow, blatant expressions of anti-Semitism were on display. Jewish women proudly displaying signs expressing their identities as progressive women were discriminated against. They were told they were not wanted.

Nelson admitted that “Israel Denial” is a very long book. While some readers will simply concentrate on the chapters they admire, Nelson hopes that “over time, there may be some people willing to tackle the tensions between the book’s two goals sympathetically.” Meanwhile, he is “confident that the book will make one very important difference — to discredit the anti-Zionist and anti-Semitic publications a number of universities are issuing.”

Nelson hopes further that the book can be used “as part of a campaign to shame university presses and journals into more responsible publishing practices: demand that faculty authors provide evidence for their claims; fact-check assertions that are not proven. A chorus of Israel opponents on university press staffs and among those faculty who evaluate manuscripts now collaborates to publish wholly irresponsible work and give it a university imprimatur. I believe that trend can be challenged and substantially weakened.”

“Israel Denial” is a staggering work of rigorous intellectual inquiry that helps us understand how a deep anti-Israel animus in academia has fueled the rise of intersectionality as a movement to isolate and exclude Jews.

So far, much of the Jewish community’s efforts have gone to counteract the BDS movement. But intersectionality is sneakier and more ominous. By associating support for Israel with oppressive forces everywhere, intersectionality on college campuses terrorizes Israel supporters and takes anti-Semitism and anti-Zionism to yet another level.

Nelson’s book is one of the more unsettling texts I’ve encountered precisely because it reveals what could ultimately become an unraveling of the standards that have long made academic work credible and sustainable. The abuse of intersectionality to perpetuate the world’s oldest hatred is only the latest and most shameful example.

Monica Osborne is scholar of Jewish literature and culture. She is the author of “The Midrashic Impulse and the Contemporary Literary Response to Trauma.”

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