We spend a lot of time reading the Jewish press to prepare for our podcast. And whether it’s the Jewish Telegraphic Agency, Tablet, or the Canadian Jewish News, it’s become clear to us that these media outfits don’t exactly foster a diversity of thought. Look no further than discussions around Zionism and Palestine, in which the Institutional Jewish Community (IJC) is given free range to repackage the same tired arguments in support of the same tired strategies.
But over the past two months, a new approach has emerged in the pages of North American Jewish newspapers and websites, which may signal a change in course for the monolith that is the IJC. This new strategy consists of recognizing (or at least talking about) the idea of intersecting oppressions, with the goal of situating the IJC in support of various liberal or progressive causes.
Before going any further, it bears noting that such a tactical shift would have been inconceivable 10 years ago. First, the IJC has historically refused to recognize the success of BDS and other forms of Palestine solidarity activism, only recently being forced to publicly identify its gains. And second, this language follows from the recent work of Black Lives Matter activists, who have forced discussions of intersectionality and social justice into the mainstream.
The intersectionality framework itself identifies the separate but interrelated logics of oppression. Based on the work of Kimberlé Williams Crenshaw, it has served as an ideological grounding for struggles against injustices and inequality since the 1980s. Unfortunately, the IJC’s new engagement with this framework hasn’t been accompanied by any meaningful ideological changes. Rather, intersectionality is only addressed within the context of fighting BDS and is either misunderstood, or intentionally mischaracterized, in the various articles published by IJC-affiliated writers.
The principal text for this new political strategy was written by Mark Yudof, a #MajorMacher from the University of California, who wrote an article in December entitled ‘BDS and Campus Politics: A Bad Romance’ (we believe this is almost certainly a Lady Gaga reference, but can not confirm at press time) In it, Yudof calls for a new approach to the North American campaign against BDS, one that focuses on isolating BDS activists from the progressive coalitions that support them on campuses. These networks of solidarity are so troubling for the IJC because they expose the Zionist project as a settler-colonial one. Initiatives such as Black Palestinian Solidarity and solidarity trips to Palestine organized by members of the Dream Defenders are examples of why intersectionality poses such a problem for the IJC. To be clear, Yudof doesn’t take issue with the ideological framework that underpins these coalitions, he simply identifies their existence as strategic problems.
Yudof’s solution to this problem is for Zionist groups to beat BDS activists at their own game, by building similar coalitions across the country. (And he’s already begun this work, establishing the national Academic Engagement Network last month). In “Bad Romance,” Yudof suggests that Zionist groups should start emphasizing “democratic participation and civil rights; tolerance; equality for people of all races, ethnicities and sexual orientations” and get to work “repairing relationships between Jewish students and other groups, especially communities of color.”
While we’d love to see the IJC move towards engaging in genuine solidarity with struggles against injustice, this proposal is a cynical attempt to capitalize off the struggles of others. The article goes so far as to position people of color as an opposing group to Jews, participating in the white supremacist erasure of all Jews of color.
Since this manifesto was published, we’ve seen a range of Zionist groups taking on this new approach. In early January, David Bernstein, President of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs, wrote a widely circulated article, which is a good example of how intersectionality is being misunderstood, or intentionally mischaracterized, in these conversations. Bernstein makes the inaccurate claim that “intersectionality is a community relations strategy,” as well as the essentializing suggestion that “anti-Israelism” has achieved “popularity among ethnic minorities.” The second argument in particular makes clear that his understanding of the intersectional framework is limited. Unlike Yudof, Bernstein is explicit about why this strategy is now being entertained: “we may not be able to discredit intersectionality with Israel across the board, but we can limit its reach.” While IJC-affiliated figures like Bernstein may have received directives to start talking “intersectionality,” it’s clear that many of them don’t quite yet understand what it means.
As we focus on the the Institutional Jewish Community’s new strategies, it’s important to remember that the old approach is still very active. The version of Israel advocacy that presents BDS on par with anti-Jewish legislation passed in Nazi Germany, for example, is still alive and well. (just take a look at this Canadian Jewish News article from early January). However, this new strategy has the potential to become a defining characteristic of Zionist advocacy on campuses over the next few years. And while there have been instances over the past ten years where Zionist groups have tried to mobilize around certain leftist causes, it’s never before been part of a consistent and coherent campaign from Canada’s IJC.
It’s also important to keep in mind that this cynical attempt to co-opt the language of intersectionality is just the most recent attempt by the IJC to paper over a worsening ideological problem. Refusing to acknowledge that opinions in favour of settler colonialism in Palestine are shifting, supporters of Zionism are holding on to an increasingly untenable political position in North America. (Look no further than the recent Tablet article “How Intersectionality Makes you Stupid”). Instead of worrying about public relations battles and strategies to discredit BDS activists, the Federations and Institutional groups would be better served by learning what this framework actually means. (This Jewish Voice for Peace statement would be a decent place to start.) In that way, the people who make up the IJCs would be confronted with the different ways that Jewish people fit into complex structures of power, and how we can participate in destroying, instead of upholding, those same structures.
This article is based on a discussion from Treyf Podcast Episode 11 – Mizrahi Resistance to Anti-Arab Racism.