The Torah of Intersectionality

When legal scholar Kimberlé Crenshaw coined the term “intersectionality” 30 years ago, she was responding to cases like that of Emma DeGraffenreid, who sued General Motors in 1976. DeGraffenreid and other Black women employed at the company argued that the auto manufacturer’s segregation of the workforce by race and gender was discriminatory, but the court dismissed the case because the plaintiffs were combining the categories of race and gender discrimination. It didn’t matter that race and gender discrimination overlapped against their persons—the law understood them as separate and non-overlapping categories.  

In a 2015 Washington Post piece, Crenshaw said:

Racial and gender discrimination overlapped not only in the workplace but in other arenas of life; equally significant, these burdens were almost completely absent from feminist and anti-racist advocacy. Intersectionality, then, was my attempt to make feminism, anti-racist activism, and anti-discrimination law do what I thought they should—highlight the multiple avenues through which racial and gender oppression were experienced so that the problems would be easier to discuss and understand.”

Since then, intersectionality has come to refer not only to the multiple vectors of oppression which can act upon a person—racism, sexism, class oppression, homophobia, transphobia, ableism, and ageism—but to the idea that all movements for liberation are interconnected. This multifaceted vision for the liberation of all people helps us to understand the stake we have in each other’s freedom and helps us to imagine the world that should be.

Meanwhile, for many decades, Palestinian refugees and human rights activists have been making the case that the cause for Palestinian freedom should be included, and centred, in intersectional movements against racism. Unfortunately, the urgent and important cause for Palestinian safety and self-determination has often been conflated with antisemitism and the delegitimization of the Jewish people’s right to the same things. At the United Nations Conference on Racism in Durban, South Africa in 2001, for example, where the drafting committee was chaired by Iran, genocidal antisemitism was given a forum (a flyer titled “What if Hitler had won?” was distributed at the conference) and Zionism was equated with racism. In 2014 and 2015, after Michael Brown was murdered by police in Ferguson, Missouri, the Black Lives Matter movement and the Movement for Black Lives centred Palestinian freedom in its intersectional vision of liberation, in some cases also adopting antisemitic language, imagery, and concepts, and delegitimizing the Jewish people’s right to safety and freedom.

Of course, one can champion the human rights of Palestinians while also championing the human rights of Jews. One can organize against the occupation (and spotlight its dehumanization of Palestinians and its corrosion of the Jewish soul) without delegitimizing the Jewish people’s right to safety and self-determination. One can challenge Israel’s systemic racism—as one challenges the systemic racism of one’s own society—without declaring the very existence of a Jewish state a racist enterprise by definition. 

In fact, true intersectionality requires the lifting up and embracing of both peoples, because intersectionality is about holding complexity. Intersectionality is about reversing the invisibility of subtle or unseen forms of oppression, and intersectionality is about making space for all human beings to be free. If “none of us are free until all of us are free,” no one will be free until both Palestinians and Jews are free. Any intersectional vision of Palestinian freedom and safety must equally preserve Jewish freedom and safety—and vice versa. 

Rarely, in the conversation about intersectionality, is antisemitism acknowledged as a real and dangerous form of oppression, even as it becomes increasingly vicious, violent, and visible in our time. Instead, Jews are often understood to be simply white people, with no acknowledgement of the experience of Jews of colour or the reality of anti-Jewish oppression. In the spirit of intersectionality, white Jews can both own our white privilege and receive solidarity on antisemitism, just as white queer and trans people receive solidarity on homophobia and transphobia. Instead, as intersectionality has been employed to exclude and target Jews, many Jews have turned against intersectionality, seeing it as a weapon of antisemitism. As a consequence, too many Jews have turned away from the Black Lives Matter movement and other essential efforts for human rights. This is extremely unfortunate, not only because our liberation is caught up with the liberation of all other people, but because intersectionality is a very Jewish way to see the world. 

In fact, Torah is an intersectional vision of humanity. In Torah, God, earth, and human society all intersect in every person. Torah tells us that we are earthly and social beings with a glimmer of the divine. In Genesis, the first human is made in God’s image out of the dust of the earth, formed from a mixture of adamah (earth) and nishmat chayim (the soul or breath of life directly from God). These aspects of our existence, along with our relationships with other humans and animals, are inseparable within us and experienced simultaneously. For example, Shabbat involves rest for people, animals, the earth, and God, in one all-encompassing cessation of labour. Similarly, in Exodus 23, Leviticus 19, and Deuteronomy 15 we see that caring for widows, orphans, strangers, and impoverished people—and treating all others with fairness and dignity—are a form of honouring God and are requirements for living on the land. The shmita (sabbatical year) restores balance with God, other people, and the earth through loan forgiveness and a hiatus in agriculture. Balance in the human, earthly, and divine realms is interdependent. Blessing—the ability to live in peace and well-being on the land—becomes possible only when we honour God, other humans, and the earth. Leviticus 26 tells us that disrespect in any of these realms will lead to eviction from the land.

I am writing this essay on Tisha B’Av, in remembrance of the many forms of catastrophe that have befallen our people. Ever since the destruction of the second Temple by the Romans in 70 CE and our dispersion into diaspora, the Jewish people have been forced to live with intersectional consciousness. Like all refugee peoples, we have existed within the complexity of mixed identities and oppressions. As global wanderers experiencing wave after wave of exile, many Jews lived as “the other” under several different dominant cultures within a single lifetime. Wherever we’ve found refuge in the world—whether in Morocco, Iraq, Romania, Denmark, Brazil, or Canada—we have navigated multiple intersecting identities for the last 2,000 years. We understand intersectionality intuitively. 

That is why I call upon the Jewish people in 5783 to turn back toward the intersectionality conversation instead of walking away. I urge us to do this by first listening deeply to women of colour (who started the conversation, after all) about their own experiences. I urge us to always look for opportunities to lift up the voices of Jews of colour within the conversation. I urge us to gently but persistently advocate for the inclusion of Jews among those deserving of intersectional solidarity and for the inclusion of an analysis of antisemitism in the collective understanding of how oppression works, acknowledging that antisemitism—though a form of racism—operates very differently from anti-Blackness and other kinds of racism. I urge us to call upon all those who seek liberation to study antisemitism, to take it seriously, and to understand its dynamic in our societies and in our movements for change. I urge us to approach the conversation with humility and a readiness to forgive any person or organization willing to admit error in failing to see and name antisemitism for what it is. And I urge us to make the case that this will not only be good and life-giving for Jews, but it will be good and life-giving for all those working to make a better world. 

May 5783 be a year of cheshbon hanefesh (accounting of the soul). May it be a year of courageous truth-telling. May it be a year in which all people become free.

Header image design by Orly Zebak.

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