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Jewish organizations look to co-opt ‘intersectionality’ in the fight against BDS

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.

A new ad from the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs.

A new ad from the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs.

The recent launch of a new campus-based initiative at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education (OISE) is a clear example of this new trajectory. The project, titled, ‘The Anti-Semitism and Holocaust Studies Project: Enhancing Social Justice, Anti-Racist, and Anti-Oppression Education,’ was founded by Karen Mock, a “human rights consultant” who has worked for B’nai Brith and JSpace. Describing the initiative to the Canadian Jewish News, she said, “there are faculty who identify people like us as Zionists and say we are therefore not credible in the anti-oppression world so this is what we are doing to try to counter that.” While none of OISE’s social justice education faculty accepted her invitation to the launch, Mock viewed the event as a success, creating a network capable of doing similar work on other campuses in the future.

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.

David Zinman and Sam Bick
About David Zinman and Sam Bick

David Zinman and Sam Bick are settlers on occupied Kanien’kehá:ka territory (Montreal) and are part of a group of Jews who draw inspiration from legacies of Jewish resistance to racism and colonialism, structures they both currently benefit from as Eastern European-descended Jews.

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9 Responses

  1. a blah chick
    a blah chick on January 26, 2016, 4:10 pm

    When you put the Dersh on your banner you must know the battle it already lost.

    “Describing the initiative to the Canadian Jewish News, she said, “there are faculty who identify people like us as Zionists and say we are therefore not credible in the anti-oppression world so this is what we are doing to try to counter that.”

    And how exactly will you do that? You’re only hope is to deluge the opposition in whatabouty and lies and it’s not going to work. The people involved in BDS are there because they have educated themselves about the situation in Israel/Palestine. They are not going to be swayed by pretty pictures of Lucy Aharish or a Gay pride parade.

  2. pabelmont
    pabelmont on January 26, 2016, 5:48 pm

    Years ago and perhaps still, in the USA there was a notion and practice of interreligious getting together where Jewish religious folks met with various Christians (say a rabbi or two meeting with several Protestant ministers and a few Catholic priests) for the stated purpose of smoothing out what were said to be old frictions attributable to antisemitism. It seemed to many that the real (but unstated) purpose of these meetings was to persuade the Christians that in the interest of continuing this smoothing it was necessary to suppress criticism of Zionism/Israel.

    If these anti-BDS folks try to cozy up to human rights people, I hope this suppressive purpose will be clear enough and will be combated.

  3. jaspeace2day
    jaspeace2day on January 26, 2016, 5:49 pm

    The ball is rolling and has an unstoppable momentum because it is a “truth” ball. Roll on ball!

  4. niass2
    niass2 on January 26, 2016, 11:32 pm

    They can mumble all day long. This Jew supports BDS and is against apartheid and is not interested in their self pity contest. Any questions? Now back to planning for summer Grateful Dead tour, me hear we’re going to Santa Fe.

  5. yourstruly
    yourstruly on January 27, 2016, 2:44 am

    By equating BDS with antisemitism Zionist organizations expect to deter anti-racist movements from making alliances with BDS activists? Except it’s not Jews per se but Zionist Jews (specifically) and the Zionist entity (Israel) which occupies the homeland (Palestine) of the Palestinian people that BDS is opposing. And even though Israeli leaders claim that they speak for all Jews, the presence of Jews in BDS, either directly or via membership in BDS allied Jewish organizations such as JVP &JSP, exposes this claim to be false. Another Zionist falsehood is their accusation that pro-Palestinian/anti-Zionist Jews are self-haters. The mistake here is that of equating Zionism (Jewish nationalism) with being Jewish. Nothing could be farther from the truth, at least for Jews like myself who express our faith through always siding with the oppressed, never with the oppressor, even (better, especially) when the oppressor happens to be a co-religionist, as in the Israeli occupation of Palestine. As for BDS’s alleged antisemitism, the movement’s leaders have repeatedly disavowed antisemitism. Once again, what they oppose, same as a growing number of Jews, is the Israeli settler colonization of another people’s homeland. Simple as that!

    • on January 27, 2016, 2:56 am

      @Yourtruly, thank you for saying exactly what I feel in my mind on this subject. I look forward to reading more of your comments.

    • Mooser
      Mooser on January 27, 2016, 11:00 am

      “The mistake here is that of equating Zionism (Jewish nationalism) with being Jewish.”

      Okay, you are rightNow go convince the Zionists of that!

      Don’t tell us, tell them! Better still, go tell “Yonah”!

      And how do you plan to explain this Torah verse, except as a command to Zionism:

      If I could, I surely would, stand on the Rock where Moses stood!

  6. ckg
    ckg on January 27, 2016, 10:46 am

    In a talk this week to a Boca Raton audience, Dershowitz explained why “BDS will never win.”

    Dershowitz said: “No college in America will ever actually divest from Israel. Jews are first-class citizens in America and we can bring all our resources — especially financial — to bear. Any college that tries to enact BDS will be bankrupted.”

    Dershowitz, 77, said that when BDS came to Harvard University a few years back — where he was an esteemed professor at Harvard Law School from 1967 to 2013 — he led the opposition.

    Dershowitz said: “It was our position that the university is not just made up of the current students, but by all those who have gone there and their families. We energized the Jewish alumni to say that if the university divested from Israel, the Jewish alumni would divest from Harvard. That ended that.

    “Using our financial power in this way is how we can fight back. Jews have lived the American dream and we have earned the right to use all our resources.”

    So the contest, it appears to me, consists of BDS proponents’ appeals to moral justice versus its opponents’ great financial power. Daunting, yet all the financial power in the old South didn’t prevent that arc from its bend toward justice.

    • amigo
      amigo on January 27, 2016, 12:29 pm

      Dershowits is doing a lot of bragging about , “Jewish money “.Isn,t that what attracts accusations of antisemitism , when a non Jew raises the subject.

      ““Using our financial power in this way is how we can fight back. Jews have lived the American dream and we have earned the right to use all our resources.” dershowits

      Gee , Netandyahu says Jews are under an existential threat in the USA.

      Mr dershowits should understand that he does not have the right to use his Jewish money and power gained through said money to shut the rest of us up and to support the crimes of the rogue nation.So let him spend all his money.Maybe another OJ will come along to replenish his ill gotten gains.

      The man is a puke inducing moron.

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