This Normal Life: Co-opting intersectionality - How to beat BDS on campus

Intersectionality holds that various forms of oppression – racism, sexism, classism, ableism and homophobia – constitute an intersecting system of oppression.

Anti-Israel demonstrators march behind a banner of the BDS organization in Marseille, June 13. (photo credit: GEORGES ROBERT / AFP)
Anti-Israel demonstrators march behind a banner of the BDS organization in Marseille, June 13.
(photo credit: GEORGES ROBERT / AFP)
The drama continues at Oberlin College.
Last month I wrote about growing anti-Semitism and BDS support at my alma mater (“An unforgivable offense at Oberlin College,” January 8). Now, the Facebook group “Oberlin Students and Alumni Against Anti-Semitism” has published an open letter with more than 200 signatures describing the toxic climate on campus for pro-Israel students, and calling for the establishment of a task force to put into place a “clear and immediate plan of action to address this current crisis.”
The message to students from too many campus organizations, the letter said, was “either forfeit your allegiance to Israel and join us, or we will brand you as an enemy of justice and complicit in the oppression of the Palestinian people.” The letter received wide exposure and was covered extensively in the media. It was then posted to the official Oberlin Alumni group on Facebook. And all hell broke out.
ANYONE WHO has followed the comments that any unabashedly pro-Israel article posted online will generate is by now familiar with the level of vitriol that regularly erupts. The Oberlin alumni discourse was no different. What did surprise me, however, was the response of pro-Israel Jewish alumni at this most famously liberal of American college campuses.
It seems that in order to argue against the BDS loudmouths (that is, to support Israel’s right to exist and protest its unfairly being singled out), Jewish alumni felt the need to overly emphasize their liberal credentials by denouncing Israel’s policies before coming to the country’s defense.
And so, sprinkled liberally into the BDS counter-narrative were a slew of “yes, but” comments by Jewish alumni: “Yes, Israel has perpetuated horrendous atrocities, but....” “The situation in Gaza and the West Bank is a mess; it’s a political nightmare, but....” “I am a Jew who believes that the governments of both Israel and Palestine have done monstrous things, but....” “I embrace my Jewish heritage but am largely disgusted by the Israeli government’s foreign policy,” and “I believe in the necessity and right of the State of the Israel to exist but I also think Netanyahu’s policies are a complete disaster.”
Now, I have plenty of problems with my country’s policies – look, I just did it, too – but it’s very disturbing that the pro-Israel side isn’t able to argue forcefully against BDS without injecting a kind of “hey, I’m liberal, too” qualifier into the conversation.
I posed the question to some pro-Israel colleagues online, including several current or recently graduated students at campuses other than Oberlin that have seen similar anti-Israel sentiment. Was I reading too much into all this? “You’re 100 percent right on,” one friend responded.
“Without adding such a statement, you are immediately deemed ineligible to comment.”
“It is troubling, but it is also necessary,” added another.
“When fighting against something as all-ornothing as BDS, you have to demonstrate that there is a middle ground; to show that it’s possible for us to be viewed as allies.”
The question of needing to be a good “ally” in order to turn the growing tide of BDS enthusiasm on campus comes from a topic that’s gotten quite a bit of media play lately: intersectionality.
David Bernstein described the concept well in a recent JTA column.
“Intersectionality holds that various forms of oppression – racism, sexism, classism, ableism and homophobia – constitute an intersecting system of oppression. In this worldview, a transcendent white, male, heterosexual power structure keeps down marginalized groups. Uniting oppressed groups, the theory goes, strengthens them against the dominant power structure.”
THE TERM was coined in 1989 by feminist scholar Kimberlé Crenshaw to describe how racial and gender discrimination overlap, specifically for African American women, but the application of the concept of intersectionality has been cunningly co-opted by the BDS movement.
In New York, for example, Students for Justice in Palestine has infiltrated the Columbia University anti- sexual assault group No Red Tape. In an editorial defending its partnership with the blatantly anti-Israel group, an NRT member wrote: “The fight against violence and oppression cannot be limited to Columbia’s campus.”
In December 2015, the National Women’s Studies Association overwhelmingly passed a resolution in support of BDS. One of the sponsors of the resolution explained that “one cannot call oneself a feminist and address inequalities and injustices without taking a stand on what is happening in Palestine.”
And from there, intersectionality as applied to Israel spreads. How else to understand the picture posted to Instagram during the Ferguson, Missouri, protests in 2014 of a man holding a sign that said: “The Palestinian people know what it means to be shot while unarmed because of your ethnicity.” Or the seemingly random demand by the Black Student Union at none other than Oberlin College that the school divest from Israel “because the oppressive and violent acts towards Palestinians mirrors the anti-Blackness currently in the United States.” Or the violent fracas that exploded when anti-Israel activists disrupted a Friday night reception sponsored by the Jerusalem Open House for Pride and Tolerance at an LGBTQ conference in Chicago, calling it an attempt to “pinkwash” Israel’s image.
“Whatever we make of [the] specific linkage, [intersectionality] is a concept that is here to say,” writes Jay Michaelson in The Forward. It is “woven into the fabric of being a social justice activist, especially among young people. [It is how they] understand their work.”
In that respect, the NWSA and NRT, and the protesters in Ferguson and Chicago, see themselves “as part of an intersectional social justice movement, and solidarity with Palestine – expressed in the form of BDS – is part of that movement,” Michaelson says.
Intersectionality helps explain BDS’s growing success – and perhaps also why the Jewish Oberlin alumni felt it so necessary to couple their anti-BDS arguments with statements bemoaning Israel’s politics: Young liberal America, although with the noble pursuit of social justice at its moral center, has incorporated intersectionality as one of its guiding principles. And it’s very difficult, maybe impossible, to turn that off selectively, even – especially – if you’re pro-Israel.
To be sure, American college students have trended toward liberalism for years (I was one of them), but this is something more emotionally entrenched. The overarching campus narrative of opposing oppression wherever it occurs – which nearly always includes Israel, if only in a vague way – serves the intersectional agenda, even when there’s no formal anti-Israel organization involved.
And that poses a real problem, says Michaelson.
“Being a Zionist in such circles is an anomaly.... It’s possible in principle, but rare in practice.”
What can be done? David Bernstein writes that “publicly attacking intersectionality and its adherents is not likely to do much damage... rather, the Jewish community must do more to establish our own intersectionality with groups on the mainstream Left, which is not nearly as prone to radical currents.
Strengthening ties to these more moderate groups [can] erect a firewall... making it less likely that [they] will ever take the bait from the BDS movement.”
PRO-ISRAEL GROUPS need to make “common cause” with like-minded liberal groups – less radicalized LGBTQ activists or anti-abortion organizations, for example – wherever possible, because “promoting Israel alone is not going to cut it,” Bernstein says. One student I spoke to said her school’s Hillel maintained excellent intersectional relationships with the Latin American Student Union.
Yet in this solution lies an even bigger problem: the disconnect between the liberal agenda of most North American Jews and the current Israeli government.
It’s inconceivable that any representative of the coalition that leads the Jewish state today would be taken seriously as an “ally” in a campus milieu girded by intersectionality.
And the kind of pro-Israel videos that regularly appear in my Facebook feed (government produced or otherwise) simply don’t have the kind of nuance or bridge-building that can create the kind of “firewall” Bernstein proposes.
In this respect, Israel – the target of the BDS campaign – can do little to stop it. That battle has to be left to the ever-diminishing number of pro-Israel students on campus. And they need to be nurtured, as one student told me, “through personal connections to Israel such as Birthright. It’s about turning ‘I’m Jewish’ or ‘I’m Israeli’ into a statement of pride instead of shame.
That will enable students to walk around campus with confidence in their pro-Israel beliefs. Other students see this and it rubs off.”
Once armed with calm conviction and genuinely felt talking points, they can go to battle. But we’d be fooling ourselves to believe that this will exorcise intersectionality entirely; it’s simply too ingrained.
Which means that, sometimes, we’re going to have to put up with some of our student warriors engaging in some trash talking while working assiduously toward making the case for Israel’s right to exist.
The writer is a freelance journalist and editor. His blog, “This Normal Life,” has appeared online at The Jerusalem Post since 2002.