Much has been made about the brouhaha over Stars of David at the Chicago Dyke March last month. The upshot is that several attendees were asked to leave because they, and their insignia, expressed support for Israel. Such expressions allegedly made other marchers “feel unsafe.”
As a professor at a local college fraught with racial tension and anti-Semitism, I know well the anti-intellectual, mob mentality that seeks to marginalize voices through the damning claim that one makes another “feel unsafe.” The stars were a “trigger.” And once that accusation is hurled – that you have somehow made someone feel “unsafe” by “triggering” their so-called trauma – you are all but cast out of the academy, forever besmirched by a reputation-damaging Scarlet Letter. You are shunned by colleagues and students. And in most instances, such as in my own case (which necessitated a legal filing I discussed in an earlier blog post), these canards of unsafeness are cast by Left at its own membership. And in most instances, too, the accusations are not only false, they rest upon a deeply flawed understanding about social life: that round pegs of identity can be forced into the square holes of scapegoating.
Such is the case with the concept of intersectionality. The idea was first coined by a legal scholar, Kimberlé Williams Crenshaw, as part of a wider intellectual project known as “critical race theory.” It is a project that all Jews should embrace. The core feature of intersectionality is that each of us is not a singularity; we have complex, overlapping identities. Thus a black women, as Crenshaw argued, should not be treated by the law as either a “women” or an “African-American” but, rather, as what she is: an African-American women. Her identity is the intersection of two legal categories, and her legal protections should focus on that intersection.
Jews should find this idea compelling. It allows us, for example, to affirm that we are simultaneously marginalized in America because we are Jewish even as we benefit from our honorary whiteness. We are not wholly “white” nor wholly “Jewish” but, given the history of the United States, we are both white and Jewish even as those two terms are often opposed. Thus, you may feel thoroughly Jewish down to each pore of your personality. But if you appear white, then others will surely treat you as such, at least in some settings. Our identities are complicated, whether you are Jewish or not. And intersectionality was designed to train attention to that kind of complexity – they very complexity that has fueled the font of creativity of Jewish life in America.
Intersectionality explains my unease in many public places in, say, the Midwest of the country. At a public pool, for example, I pass largely unnoticed because, as a white person, I blend in with the majority. But the proliferation of fundamentalist Christian T-shirts, tattoos, bumper stickers, jewelry, and political sentiments is such that, as a Jew (and a New York Jew at that!), I am also an outlier and, to some people, a theological and cultural enemy.
Now, the people at the Dyke March who barred the marchers carrying banners with Stars of David were not acting on intersectionality. Quite the opposite: They were guilty of denying the complex identity of someone who is Jewish and supports Israel and supports Palestinian rights and supports LGBTQ rights. Instead, they reworked that multilayered identity into a naïve, false scapegoat: the enemy. They were guilty of that most time-honored hatred in Western Civilization: the Jew is an irredeemable outsider, not welcome in any moral community. They essentialized, we might say, Jewish identity in such a way that to be Jewish is to be incurably opposed to all that is just. I am confident that almost all participants in the Chicago Dyke March, like myself, oppose President Trump. But like him, they build walls. Intersectionality seeks to open doors.
No, it is not intersectionality that is at fault. Indeed, had the Dyke March participants truly embraced intersectionality, then they would have welcomed the very marchers they asked to leave.
It is not the principle of intersectionality that causes left-leaning Jews to be vilified by so-called progressive movements. It is, instead, those who misunderstand the term but use it as a cudgel.
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