White Feminism, Anti-Semitism, and Intersectionality: We All Have Learning to Do

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The times are so fraught. Especially since the shooting in Pittsburgh, many of us American Jews have wondered how serious a threat anti-Semitism is to our daily lives. Who are our allies?

That Sunday, I attended an interfaith vigil in downtown Chicago that honored the 11 Jews who died at the Tree of Life synagogue. It also honored the two African Americans who were killed by a white nationalist at a Kentucky Kroger store after he tried and failed to enter an African American church. I was glad to see that both the crowd and the speakers came from diverse backgrounds. There were Christians and Muslims as well as Jews, African Americans and other people of color as well as whites.

I personally was most inspired by rabbinical student Tamar Manasseh, an African American activist who works to end gun violence. “I’m a black, Jewish woman, and I’m up here talking to you. So nothing is impossible!” With those words, she simultaneously embodied intersectionality and recognized that she challenged the assumptions of many who were gathered there.

Intersectionality means all oppression is connected

What do racism, anti-Semitism, sexism, homophobia, and nationalism have in common? They’re all forms of “othering” by which people with more power privilege and distance themselves from others the powerful perceive as different, and, therefore, inferior. Many of us experience multiple forms of oppression because of our differences from the majority who hold power. That oppression causes pain. And it’s easy for people in pain to become so caught up in it that they don’t notice the pain of others around them, including the pain they’ve caused.

Since Europeans arrived in North America and took control from the Native Americans who were here first, white people have been privileged here, and they protected their privilege with violence. Since there has been patriarchy, men have been privileged everywhere it exists, and male power and control have been maintained with domestic violence and rape. Men did not treat women as autonomous human beings.

From the time that Africans were kidnapped and brought to this continent against their will and slavery was recognized in law, people of African descent were treated as property rather than human beings.

As Christianity spread through Europe, those who called themselves Christians committed violence against and denied the humanity of Jews, Muslims, and others whose beliefs were different. Add to this mix the class distinctions between the haves and the have-nots, and the result is that many people are oppressed in some contexts and might be oppressors in others.

When we focus on our own oppression, we don’t see how we benefit from privilege

To the extent that people are focused on their own oppression, they won’t necessarily see the ways they oppress others or the ways they benefit from privilege. If we don’t interact with people of other races, religions, gender identities, or whatever, we assume that everyone’s experience is like ours — except the people who (we think) have it better than we do.

So Jews of European origin might lump all gentiles together with the old canard, “Scratch a gentile, find an anti-Semite.” They may not recognize that Black Americans (and other racial minorities) have been oppressed in North America in ways that we have not. Several years ago, my mother wondered aloud why her Black neighbors hadn’t cooperated enthusiastically with the police investigating some incident in their building. “Maybe their experience with the police is different from yours,” I said. “Oh,” she said as the look of comprehension spread across her face.

My mother opposed racism; she was a tester to enforce fair housing laws when they were newly enacted in the 1960s. But there were aspects of racism, and particularly its systemic nature, that she hadn’t thought through.

Innocence doesn’t excuse ignorance

Because she hadn’t thought deeply about how racism might affect her neighbors, she was ready to judge them. Her intentions were innocent, but the results could have been harmful. That she didn’t automatically consider the experience of her Black neighbors reflects her white privilege.

Recent articles referring to white feminism make the point that white feminists privilege their own pain and issues while failing to acknowledge that women of color experience a combination of racism and sexism — the point being that we don’t see the sexism because we don’t see the racism that overlays it.

Unfortunately, racism in the (white) feminist movement is nothing new. White women in the women’s suffrage movement treated opposed the Fifteenth Amendment, which granted voting rights to Black men, because it excluded women, and didn’t want to lose the support of white racists by supporting voting rights for Black women and men.

Anti-Semitism, the Women’s March, and Farrakhan

The Pittsburgh shooting reminded us that white supremacists hate us Jews, too. It also revived the controversy over the support of Women’s March organizers Linda Sarsour and Tamika Mallory for Louis Farrakhan and their refusal to acknowledge that Farrakahan’s hatred of Jews (and LGBTQ folks) is wrong. The Nation of Islam, which Farrakhan leads, served and supported the Black community both before and during his tenure. Because of that history and the NOI’s message of Black self-empowerment, many people give Farrakhan respect despite their disagreement with his hatred of Jews and LGBTQ people.

Sarsour and others on the left oppose the Israeli occupation of Gaza and its treatment of Palestinians in the occupied territories. To the extent that these activists equate Zionism with racism, it is sometimes difficult for Jews to distinguish opposition to Israeli policy from hatred of Jews. So some of Sarsour’s statements have been heard as anti-Semitic. For example, she accused Jewish progressives of prioritizing loyalty to Israel over their commitment to democracy and free speech.

I’m delighted to note that Sarsour finally got it. She has denounced Jew-hatred and apologized to the Women’s March for her failure to communicate quickly and clearly enough her support for Jewish and LGBTQ people.

And I urge other white folks and other Jews to support and participate in the work against racism and Islamophobia. That’s our responsibility too.

Writer, attorney, knitter, mom by adoption, activist. Always open to learning and growth.

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