WHAT IS INTERSECTIONALITY?
Intersectionality is a concept which “describes the ways in which systems of inequality based on gender, race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, gender identity, disability, class and other forms of discrimination ‘intersect’ to create unique dynamics and effects.”
LET ME MAKE ONE THING CLEAR
I believe intersectionality in activism is super important. You cannot be an ally to Jews if you exclude Jews of other intersections. For example: you cannot effectively support Jews if you are homophobic or transphobic, because gay and trans Jews exist. You cannot effectively support Jews if you are anti-Black, because Black Jews exist.
Rather, the point that I am trying to make here is that the word and the concept of “intersectionality” have been exploited to silence and exclude Jews. Intersectionality is important. But many on the left, in particular, have misunderstood the concept to be something that it’s not and have used this misunderstanding in a manner that actively hurts Jews.
JEWISH IDENTITY IS INHERENTLY INTERSECTIONAL
Even for Jews that are “just” Jews, without other intersecting marginalized identities, their Jewish identity is inherently intersectional.
Jews are a religious group. But we are also an ethnic group. And a (confederation of) tribe(s). And a nation Indigenous to a specific land.
(Please note: the term “nation” here shouldn’t be confused with the concept of a modern nation state. Rather, in this context, a “nation” is a group of people with a shared language, history, ethnicity, and culture, who see themselves as having a common political destiny. Though the term “ethnicity” is related to that of a “nation,” a nation is considered a more political term. That said, Jews are both an ethnic group and a nation).
But it doesn’t even end there! Because Jews suffered long term forced displacement(s), various sub-ethnic and cultural Jewish groups formed. This is why the Jewish community is so diverse, with Diaspora groups spanning the entire globe, from Ethiopia to China to the Americas.
To add to that, antisemitism is present everywhere across the political spectrum, and is a core part of ideologies such as white supremacy and Islamism (not to be confused with Islam). The history of the oppression of Jews is also deeply multifaceted and layered. We have suffered imperialism, colonialism, displacement and ethnic cleansing, war, genocide, segregation, disenfranchisement, and more. You name it, and we’ve probably been through it.
Frankly, the battle against antisemitism should be a prime example of intersectionality. Yet, due to a combined misunderstanding of Jewish identity and a misunderstanding of the concept of intersectionality, Jews have not also been ignored, but actively harmed within many activist circles.
CREATING AN "OPPRESSION HIERARCHY"
Oftentimes, people misunderstand the concept of intersectionality to mean that there is an "oppression hierarchy,” also known as the “oppression Olympics.” This is harmful for a number of reasons. For example, the oppression Olympics fosters competition, rather than allyship, between marginalized groups. Oftentimes, for instance, the Holocaust is compared to slavery in the United States, pitting Jews and Black Americans against each other. Except that Black American Jews exist, and also, suffering can’t be quantified. There is no need to compare and contrast the Holocaust and slavery; such a rhetorical exercise is dehumanizing to victims to begin with. This is the opposite of what intersectionality should actually look like.
OPPRESSION AS “SOCIAL CURRENCY”
This topic is a bit dicey and controversial, but I believe it’s something that’s really important to actively address. Because people have misunderstood and mischaracterized the concept of intersectionality, turning it into an oppression hierarchy, in many circles, oppression seems to have turned into a form of social currency. The more oppressed you are, the more marginalized identities you have, the more you are considered to be beyond reproach — even if you don’t know what you’re talking about. This is dangerous in general, but it’s also particularly dangerous for Jews, because antisemitism doesn’t function like other forms of bigotry, and it exists everywhere…even among other marginalized folks.
Additionally, oppression as social currency is problematic because it actually strips marginalized people of their humanity. Marginalized folks are no more and no less human than anybody else; they too can make mistakes and have problematic views. Putting marginalized folks on a pedestal is infantilizing, tokenizing, and frankly, bigoted.
Because many Jews present as white and because of pervasive antisemitic stereotypes of supposed Jewish wealth, power, and success, we oftentimes seem to fall at the very bottom of this marginalization hierarchy, even though antisemitism is quite literally the world’s oldest systemic hatred.
HOW ANTISEMITISM ACTUALLY FUNCTIONS WITHIN WHITE SUPREMACY
First, it’s important to understand how antisemitism works in general, because antisemitism is hardly exclusive to white supremacy. While other bigotries generally regard their victims as inferior, antisemitism regards Jews as “superior” in a sense, as all powerful, borderline supernatural, manipulative puppetmasters controlling everything for our own benefit. It’s a strange dichotomy where antisemites consider us both beneath them, but also above them.
Antisemitism serves a very specific purpose within white supremacy. White supremacists not only believe that Jews are behind a supposed “white genocide,” aiming to replace white folks with Brown and Black folks, but they also use antisemitism as a divide and conquer technique. If other marginalized people can point the finger at Jews, instead of at the actual perpetrators of whatever problem they’re encountering, then those actually at fault are let off the hook. Some examples of this include the scapegoating of “Israel” for police brutality in the United States, or the Nation of Islam blaming Jews for slavery in the United States.
ALL WHITE SUPREMACY IS ANTISEMITIC, BUT NOT ALL ANTISEMITISM IS WHITE SUPREMACIST
Antisemitism is foundational to white supremacy, but it is not exclusive to white supremacy. This is especially important to understand, because antisemitism is very much foundational to other ideologies stemming from other marginalized folks, such as Islamism (again, not to be confused with the religion of Islam). That said, because of the internet, all these different ideologies are merging more and more, making things increasingly dangerous for Jews. For example, Islamist groups use similar recruitment techniques as white supremacists online, generally by preaching hatred of Jews.
PREJUDICE + POWER
Racism equals prejudice plus power is generally used as a definition of racism within activist circles. And while it certainly applies to other groups, as far as antisemitism goes, this isn’t exactly always the case.
Again, antisemitism is used as a divide and conquer technique to appeal to other marginalized folks. This means that marginalization — or lack thereof — is not necessarily an indicator of antisemitism. Many of the violent attacks against Jews in recent memory have been perpetrated by other marginalized folks, such as the Monsey Hanukkah stabbing in December of 2019 or the Colleyville synagogue hostage crisis in January of 2022, not to mention the plethora of violent and deadly Islamist attacks targeting Jews in Europe over the past several decades.
It’s also important to understand that antisemitism does not exist in a vacuum. When a marginalized person spreads antisemitic conspiracies, tropes, and stereotypes, this easily and quickly falls into the hands of white supremacists, and vice versa.
Because of pervasive antisemitic stereotypes, conspiracies, and tropes, antisemites usually see their antisemitism not as a bigotry but as a sort of “sticking it to the man,” or targeting those in power. This was even true in Nazi Germany, even though the Nazis placed Jews at the very bottom of their racial hierarchy.
AMERICENTRISM AND WESTERN CENTRISM
Another issue in understanding antisemitism is that many activists have a deeply Americentric or at least Western-centric perspective. Americentrism is the conscious or subconscious idea that American culture is most important or the tendency to judge other cultures by American standards. In other words, you are viewing the world from a United States-centric perspective, rather than understanding that different contexts exist in different areas of the world.
The problem here is that Jews are an ancient people that have long been scattered across the globe, and as such, antisemitism has existed in many vastly different societies. Not all antisemitism looks like American antisemitism, and not all Jews have the same positionality as American Jews.
A glaring example of this is the lack of understanding or even basic acknowledgment of antisemitism in the Arab and Muslim worlds. The fact that Muslims and Arabs experience marginalization and oppression in the United States does not take away from the fact that in the Middle East, for example, Muslims and Arabs not only hold systemic power, but Islam has also been (mis)used as a tool to oppress Jews.
To this day Jews are gaslit about the oppression that we experienced at the hands of the Arab Empire(s). This ranges from the ahistorical claim that “everyone got along in Palestine before 1948,” that Jews were “treated well” in Muslim countries, or that the ethnic cleansing of Jews from the Arab world either “didn’t happen” or was actually the fault of the “Zionists.”
Instead of "prejudice + power = racism," which works for other forms of racism (e.g. anti-Blackness), I think a more accurate formula to understand how antisemitism works, specifically, is the following:
For a full bibliography of my sources, please head over to my Patreon.