BLM, Israel and the Dangers of Intersectionality
In the past month, America has transformed from a landscape of empty streets under COVID-19 lockdown to streets crowded with protesters, vocalizing anger and grief over generations of Black suffering due to systemic American racism. Catalyzed by the murder of George Floyd at the hands of police officers, the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement is energized, and the fantasy that racism no longer exists in America is being publicly and collectively debunked. BLM has the soap box and the world is listening.
American racism is not merely a police issue. The fact that racism is rampant in interactions between police officers and Black civilians is telling: it suggests that 21st century American racism is rooted so deeply in the American psyche that the Black body is often unlawfully and immorally viewed as a threat.
But police (and not all police) are not the only Americans guilty of racism; police/civilian racism is symptomatic of the undercurrent of racism in America as a whole. This recognition reveals the imperative for self and collective examination, insisting on a space for quiet reflection, listening, and learning, despite the discomfort that may arise from those findings; at its best, the BLM movement is simultaneously encouraging hyper dynamism and hyper reflection — and, if Americans nurture both equally, we will witness great and constructive change. Like many Americans, I am examining my inner and outer world to determine how I can contribute to an equitable and just America. Because I insist on examining nuance, I concurrently respect lawful law enforcement and support BLM because it is the voice of needed change.
However, for me, as a Zionist, Jewish American, my support of BLM becomes complicated, as BLM’s agenda is repeatedly exploited by the problematic umbrella of intersectionality — an ideology that overlaps categories of identity based on perceived shared experiences of discrimination.
Intersectionality lumps groups of people — despite their historical, cultural, political, and social differences — into an overly simplified binary of oppressed vs. oppressor. Intersectionality may be well-intentioned, despite its intellectual flaws, but when it comes to Israel, intersectionality becomes a veiled and hypocritical discourse to spew antisemitism.
Now to the detriment of Black and Jewish Americans, BLM protests/activism have become locations for intersectionality — and thus platforms to vilify Israel and create inaccurate parallels between racism in America and the Israeli/Palestinian conflict. Here are some examples:
In an effort to blame Israel for Minnesota police officer Derek Chauvin’s murderous behavior, a pro-Palestinian group began a widely circulated tweet which claimed that the Minneapolis police department was trained by the IDF- an absurdly illogical connection that can only be attributed to antisemitism.
Protestors desecrated synagogues across the nation, including one in LA-by spray painting “F—k Israel” on its facade.
In a protest in my own town, one of the organizers boldly asserted that American racism is akin to Israeli oppression.
Linda Sarsour’s MPower Juneteenth gathering unabashedly advertised that it was “open to all, minus cops and Zionists.” The audaciousness of such a caveat is terrifying considering the protest was at Gracie Mansion — the official residence of the New York mayor.
Anti-Israel rhetoric is antisemitic. But intersectionality constructs an arena where antisemitism can thrive behind the veil of supposed social justice. Because the rhetorical flaws of intersectionality erase social and historical nuance it also feeds the tribalized discourse that America has fallen prey to. Particularly among liberal circles, the Jewish self-determination has been irresponsibly translated into a narrative of Jewish oppression, and colonialism — a gross misrepresentation. But I am not writing to address those inaccurate accusations against Israel.
I’m writing to discuss how I can negotiate the contradiction of supporting the BLM movement, while recognizing how it is often misused to disseminate false information about Israel. In tribalist fashion, do I abandon my support of BLM because its surrounding discourse has perpetuated anti-Zionism (and antisemitism)?
No, I don’t, because I won’t abandon my Black American brothers and sisters in their cause. Nevertheless, in the spirit of honesty and self-examination, that I hope becomes the zeitgeist of our time, I look at the parallels that are drawn between Black Americans and Palestinians, despite their inaccuracies, and try to learn something:
In Israel, is the Palestinian/Israeli dynamic one in which Palestinians experience racism? Do Israelis view the Palestinian individual as a threat? In the Palestinian territories, anti-Jewish/Israeli hatred is academically and systemically indoctrinated. Martyrdom is encouraged and glorified. Palestinians have consistently launched or attempted to launch terror attacks against Israelis, including via rocket fire, suicide/homicide bombings, car rammings and stabbings. As such, Israel must constantly identify and subdue legitimate and violent threats from Palestinians, while still not succumbing to stereotyping and racism. Does Israel always succeed with this balance? I hope so. But I don’t know.
I do know, however, that Israeli/Palestinian conflict was not engendered from Israeli racism and colonialism, as BDS asserts. The situation, including Palestinian suffering, was borne from a complex historical reality too long to describe here. But in addition to Israel’s involvement, the Palestinian leadership has greatly contributed to the challenges both groups face by exploiting its own people and rejecting multiple opportunities for peace and economic betterment.
Still, to eradicate racism, should Jews look inwardly and question if they view Palestinian bodies differently than they view Jewish and Israeli bodies? Yes, absolutely. That type of self-examination is a constructive result of paralleling Black Americans and Palestinians. But that is where the constructive nature of it ends.
Labeling Israel as the “oppressor” is inaccurate and dangerous — not only to Jews, who have been suffering from an exponential rise in hate crimes, and who have historically/continuously advocated for Black American civil liberties — but it is also destructive to Black Americans, who will gain nothing by the vilification of Israel.
Now is the time to give Black Americans their platform to speak, without allowing other groups to exploit that platform with hate. Let’s hear BLM so we can self-examine and learn to create a better America for Black Americans. We need honesty and accuracy now, not grotesque over-simplifications and the lies of intersectionality. Let us empower BLM to be a model of how to combat social injustice with passion, intellectual honesty and nuanced discourse; we should discuss Israel-related issues, but not in context with BLM.
Elana Dushey is a publishing adjunct at The MirYam Institute. She earned her PhD in English Literature from Fordham University in 2015 with a dissertation that focused on Jewish American literature and its approach to Zionism and Israel. For 12 years, she taught literature, composition, and film at St. Johns University and Fordham University.
The MirYam Institute is the leading international forum for Israel focused discussion, dialogue, and debate, focused on campus presentations, engagement with international legislators, and gold-standard trips to the State of Israel. Follow their work at www.MirYamInstitute.org.