March 24, 2023

Humility as an Intersectional Practice

Editor’s Note: Judith Rosenbaum is the executive director of the Jewish Women’s Archive and a member of HBI’s study group “Dialogues on Feminism, Anti-Zionism and Anti-Semitism.” The group discussed many of the issues of this blog in the March 14th session.

Reprinted with permission from the Jewish Women’s Archive. You can read the original article in its entirety here.

L-R: HBI Director Lisa Joffe, JWA Executive Director Judith Rosenbaum, WSRC Scholar Ruth Nemzoff, and University of New Hampshire Professor Marla Brettschneider discuss Feminism, Anti-Zionism, and Anti-Semitism.

By Judith Rosenbaum

I have a love/hate relationship with theory. Sometimes theory is beautiful, describing realities we’ve caught brief glimpses of but haven’t quite been able to wrap our minds around until we had language and structures to capture them. Theory can provide the illumination and clarity that seems to bring order to the universe.

And sometimes theory fails us. It can be too precise, too rigid, too sure of itself. This messy world often resists or challenges our theories, escaping their ideological confines to run roughshod over what we thought we knew.

The messiness of the world and the limits of intersectionality as a theory have re-asserted themselves once again in the events surrounding Women’s March leader Tamika Mallory’s embrace of Louis Farrakhan and refusal to publicly condemn his anti-Semitic and anti-LGBTQ diatribes. As someone who generally finds insight in the theory of intersectionality—a concept coined by legal scholar Kimberlé Crenshaw to describe the way identity and power structures are always more complicated than we realize—I was saddened and discouraged to see its glaring blindspot when it comes to antisemitism.

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Teaching Our Children When, How to Speak Out

By Ruth Nemzoff

Several years ago, an African-American student at Brandeis asked me, “What was it like growing up white in America? My response was spontaneous.

“I wouldn’t know. I wasn’t White then. They were killing my people in Europe. Here, they were banning us from entering the country. For those here, they limited our access to universities, country clubs and upscale suburbs.” My student was stunned.

Growing up in the 40s and 50s, I was Jewish, not White. Along came the civil rights movement and then, in 1989,  Black legal scholar Kimberlé Crenshaw coined the term “intersectionality” to describe overlapping or intersecting social identities and related systems of oppression, domination, or discrimination.  Her essay is titled, “Demarginalizing the Intersection of Race and Sex: A Black Feminist Critique of Antidiscrimination Doctrine, Feminist Theory and Antiracist Politics.”

Suddenly I was White, along with the Irish, Italians and other ethnic groups who had previously been denoted as “others.” That is, until last week. In Charlottesville, as the Neo-Nazis marched chanting, “We will not be replaced by Jews,” I was no longer merely White. My identity could no longer be lumped with all the other people whose skin are various shades of white.

In many ways I do benefit from the color of my skin. From the less important like getting served versus overlooked at coffee bars, to the most terrifying — neither my children nor I worry about getting pulled over and murdered by police for no reason. Because I am White, there are many cases my where competence is assumed, but still others where the opposite is true simply because I am a woman. For example, people assume I like cooking when I don’t. Conversely, I have earned less than male colleagues. When I ran for the N.H. state legislature, I was accused of being a bad parent. My male colleagues were not.

I recognize that the intersection of my white skin, my gender and my Jewishness is lost to others but not to me. Identity is both what we think of ourselves as well as what others think of us. I feel a kinship with the poor white male who can’t get a job, does not have enough money, but is told he’s privileged. He does not feel advantaged.  Having come to consciousness when Jews were terrorized, I can never be without fear. Underlying my financial and educational privilege is a subconsciousness that always reminds me to be wary.

My concern now is for the next generation of Jews – particularly those who are currently attending colleges. The alt-right/Nazi protests in Charlottesville, VA with their terrifying chant, have rekindled my fears.  Some believed that anti-Semitism was a figment of the Jewish imagination or a persecution complex or even a remnant of the past. Sadly, Charlottesville showed us that it is in fact alive and well here in the United States. Even scarier, our president and many of our elected leaders are unwilling to condemn it.

So what do we do? As parents and grandparents, as mothers and grandmothers, it is our obligation to educate ourselves about the happenings on college campuses. When is intersectionality used as a blunt instrument rather than a tool for understanding? How do we admit our privilege, while still helping others to acknowledge our precariousness. We must educate ourselves and then our children to respond to untruths and more importantly, to half-truths.

One of our obligations as Jewish women is to prepare our children for their place as Jews in society. Today’s campuses have both anti-Semitism and anti-Zionism. Sometimes it’s hard to tell the difference. Do we and our children know Jewish history? Do they know how to respond?

Our democratic obligation is to both love and criticize our government. It may be that we need to do this for Israel also. How do we prepare our children for the “whose oppression is worse” discussions raging on campus? How do we prepare them and ourselves to move the conversation into constructive actions for all oppressions?

How do we help our children both acknowledge some of the privileges they have as one demographic and the fear they have because of another? How do we help others understand that the well founded fears of one group are not more valid than the well founded fears of another?

We all know the quote from Pastor Martin Niemoller.

“First they came for the Socialists and I did not speak out –

Because I was not a Socialist.

Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out- 

Because I was not a Trade Unionist.

Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out –

Because I was not a Jew.

Then they came for me – and there was no one left to speak for me.”

Do we know how to speak out?  Do our children?

Ruth Nemzoff, Ph.D, is a resident scholar at the Women’s Studies Research Center, Brandeis University and author of Don’t Bite Your Tongue: How to Foster Rewarding Relationships with Your Adult Children and of Don’t Roll Your Eyes: Making In-Laws Into Family. She is the Former Assistant Minority Leader, New Hampshire House of Representatives.

A Statement in Opposition to the NWSA Resolution on BDS

By Janet Freedman

The National Women’s Studies Association, at their annual conference beginning Nov. 14, will hear arguments for and against their proposed resolution, to support an economic, cultural and academic boycott of Israel, in support of the Boycott, Divest and Sanction (BDS) movement.

Dr. Janet Freedman, a longtime member of the NWSA as well as a member of the HBI’s Academic Advisory Board and a scholar at the Women’s Studies Research Center, prepared these remarks in opposition.

FreedmanWhen I am determining how to work in solidarity with those who are seeking peace between Israelis and Palestinians, I start with a question.

Do you think that the state of Israel should continue to exist?

My support for any action on the Israeli/Palestinian issue is predicated on knowing that those involved are committed to the continued existence of the state of Israel.

I am equally committed to the creation of a Palestinian state.

The divide between the aspirations of the Palestinians and Israelis has deepened to the point of despair on both sides and throughout the world.

When I read the BDS resolution proposed for endorsement by the NWSA, and the supporting FAQs, I am deeply offended. The material in support of the resolution states:

“What is really anti-Semitic is to define all Jews with a philosophy that many find abhorrent to the traditions of social justice and universality that Judaism enshrines.”  

I am angry to have my Judaism defined for me and to be told by NWSA what is “really anti-Semitic.”

While I can convey my progressive politics in Jewish groups, increasingly, I do not feel I can express my Jewish voice within the progressive community, including NWSA, which has been one of my homes for many years. With just a few gaps, I have returned to conference after conference since the late 1970s because I want to engage in “difficult dialogues,” the theme of two recent conferences.

But, in spite of this proposed resolution, there has been little dialogue about Israel and Palestine. I am aware and saddened that the zeal with which many come to their position on BDS is often in contrast with an awareness of history, or a respect for the accuracy of the information brought to their advocacy.  Although I have read a good deal about Zionism and about the countries and political struggles in the Middle East, this has not yielded clarity, but an acknowledgement of myriad complexities and contradictions.

I feel it is important to bring knowledge, understanding and careful reflection to every action, and that it is particularly important to learn from people who are affected by the conflict every day – the Israelis and Palestinians whose familial, spiritual, economic and political pasts, presents and futures are involved. Tourists, and even those who regularly spend some periods of time living in the area cannot speak from the personal experience of Israelis or Palestinians.  From my relatively secure environment in the United States I can only imagine the terror that affects them.

The BDS movement directs our energy away from ways to find a peaceful solution that respects the humanity of both Israelis and Palestinians.  It oversimplifies to the point of gross inaccuracies. Terms such as “imperialism,” “colonizing” and other tropes distort actual history.  The rhetoric turns a complex issue into a two-sided one that erases many narratives. It equates supporting BDS resolutions with a pledge of solidarity with Palestine while placing those who question that strategy in the enemy camp, assumed to be opposed to justice and even made the objects of scorn and vitriol.  Organizing efforts have become ends in themselves, unintentionally – and sometimes intentionally – based on the spreading of rumors and misinformation to the detriment of the people who are actually involved in the daily struggle. It is anti-Semitic. I would ask those who villainize Israel while insisting they do not hate Jews to consider Audre Lorde’s words: “I urge each of us here to reach down into that deep place of knowledge inside herself and touch that terror and loathing of any difference that lives here.”

Jews recently celebrated Simchat Torah, the holiday that marks the ending of the last reading of the Torah and the beginning of a new cycle, and invites Jews to rejoice in the source of their religious identity. I remember the time as a young child when my father and other males in the synagogue marched around the sanctuary taking turns holding the holy scrolls close to their hearts. Israel had just become a state and much of the world – including the progressive community – rejoiced with our congregation. Last month I celebrated the holiday once again. We formed a circle; now women and children as well as men held the hand-lettered sacred scroll, slowly unfurled to reveal the ancient texts that underscore the Jewish values of Torah, avodah (prayer and service to the community) and gemilut chassidim (acts of loving kindness).

My granddaughter, soon to be a bat mitzvah, joined other children also marking that milestone this year. They stood before the portion they will read on their special day and summarized their parts of the stories that shaped my life and values, the Jewish commitment to social justice – and my granddaughter’s legacy. It is the story that took the Jewish people to the land of Israel.

I am inspired by my tradition, but know that a complex history followed the events recorded in the Torah that have brought us to the present, very difficult moment.

Like other religious and political communities, the Jewish community includes fundamentalists and extremists, but it is diverse and inclusive, too. It is not always easy, but I can bring a progressive voice to Jewish settings. I can find personal affirmation, a welcoming community with whom to pray in my own way, and to express and be respected for my efforts to be progressive, feminist, pro Israel/pro Palestine/pro peace and to acknowledge and explore commitments and contradictions with other Jews.

I cannot allow the words of this resolution and these FAQs to tell me whether a “good” Jew is one who sides with those who see Israel as a demonic entity or to imply that if I do not, I do not deserve to be heard, to be seen, perhaps even to live.

I am not among those who feel that they can be Jewish without supporting the existence of the state of Israel. I know too many people who would have no home without that home.

I am shocked and offended that an academic organization that prides itself on “difficult dialogue” would adopt any sort of boycott of ideas.

We can do better than this. We must do better than this. If we do not the search for justice will devolve into a call for vengeance.

I hope you will join me in opposing the endorsement of the BDS resolution.

Dr. Janet Freedman is a resident scholar at the Brandeis University Women’s Studies Research Center and author of Reclaiming the Feminist Vision: Consciousness Raising and Small Group Practice.

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