Sunday, March 13, 2016

Against Coalitional Intersectionality

In the Forward, Sigal Samuel contributes a new entry to the debates regarding intersectional discourse and the place of Mizrahi Jews inside of it. It is a worthy addition, and as one might suspect I'm pleased to see it in one of my favorite media outlets. I highly recommend reading it, and I hope that we see more articles and columns in this vein.

That said, Samuel's article does finally prompt me to explain why I will continue to fight against the definition of "intersectionality" as "the idea that different forms of oppression are linked" such that, for example, "Jews must stand in solidarity with Palestinians because our liberation is intrinsically tied to theirs." I dub this "coalitional intersectionality" -- that an anti-racist organization cannot "just" fight racism but must also align with anti-sexism organizations and anti-colonial organizations and so forth (as Samuel puts it: "standing up for victims of sexism and homophobia should also mean that we stand up for, say, victims of Israeli state violence.").This may well be a worthy sentiment. But, I will argue, it's not "intersectionality" -- indeed, often it actively undermines of intersectional analysis. And while I've become resigned to accept this is a losing battle, because I think "intersectionality" as I understand it to be an incredibly valuable category I think indulging in the conflation causes us to lose something very rich and quite difficult to replace.

Intersectionality, as I view it (drawing directly from Crenshaw), is about the interaction of multiple (marginalized) identities and how that interaction is not reducible to each constituent element. As applied to Mizrahim, it critiques the view that one can the oppression of Middle Eastern Jews simply by fighting anti-Semitism and anti-Arab racism -- that is, that if we fix the oppression of "Jews" and fix the oppression of "Middle Easterners" we will by definition resolve the oppression of "Jewish Middle Easterners". Instead, it suggests that the intersection of Jew and Middle Eastern creates a cluster of experiences and wrongs which are not adequately encompassed by simply adding "Jew" and "Middle Eastern" together.

My frustration with the "coalitional" model of intersectionality that is being deployed in activist circles, therefore, is that it actually exacerbates the problems that intersectionality was designed to address -- it contributes to the erasure of those parts of multiply-marginalized groups that are not assimilable into either of the constituent identities. In a sense this shouldn't surprise: in many respects intersectionality began as a rebellion against the uncritical demands of the "coalition" -- that black women must subordinate their discrete interests as black women for the benefit of the sisterhood or the good of the black community (where "sisterhood" was defined by white women and "black community" by African-American men). The basic problem identified wasn't that feminist and anti-racist organizations didn't work together, it was that their agendas were set by the dominant categories within each group and so even when they were "allies" the resultant alliance still was non-inclusive of the black woman marginalized within each.

Coalitional intersectionality starts from the problem that, say, feminist organizations didn't sufficiently attune themselves to racism, but it presents the remedy for double marginalization as the white women saying "okay, we'll be anti-racist as that's defined by 'the black community'" (aka, the black men). Perhaps the black men say in turn "okay, we'll be anti-sexist as that's defined by 'the sisterhood'") (aka, the white women). This doesn't cure the intersectional problem, it reinscribes it by perpetuating the marginal status of black women in both communities. In the Mizrahi case, simply declaring that we must "fight anti-Semitism" and "fight anti-Arab racism" fails to acknowledge that the meaning of fighting "anti-Semitism" or "anti-Arab racism" simpliciter is defined by how the dominant castes within those groups (Ashkenazi Jews, Gentile Arabs) conceptualize the oppression and articulate its remedies. Such conceptualizes can and often are quite distant from how internal minorities, like Mizrahim, conceptualize their own situation.

For example, Zionism is often presented as a means of fighting anti-Semitism -- the creation of a Jewish national homeland liberates Jews from being in a position of supplication towards others. However, if the mid-20th century Mizrahi activists Samuel cites are right (more on this in a second) then Zionism really is only doing that for Ashkenazi Jews -- it is not attentive to the particularities of the Mizrahi experience, it doesn't even liberate them as Jews and certainly not as Middle Easterners. If we flip over and describe the relevant form of fighting anti-Arab racism as anti-Zionism, the same problem emerges -- abolishing the Jewish state is a way of curing discrimination against Gentile Middle Easterners; it speaks very little to the marginalization Mizrahi Jews experience even as Middle Easterners let alone as Jews. Once one thinks about it, it is highly likely that a program for liberating Mizrahi Jews will not stem from simply adding the (Ashkenazi) Jewish liberation project to the (non-Jewish) Middle Eastern liberation project (even if such a merged project was coherent). It almost certainly will be a unique politics that is not neatly encompassed either in conventional Zionist or anti-Zionist frames -- that is to say, which resists the pre-existing "coalitions" in play.

Consequently, what actually tends to happen when intersectionality turns coalitional is that one side of the identity is sublimated into the other. If we erase the distinctively Jewish elements of Mizrahi experience, we can act as if we are advocating on their behalf simply by virtue of pursuing a program combating anti-Arab discrimination as conceptualized by and implemented through non-Jewish Middle Easterners -- e.g., through an anti-Zionist program. The "Mizrahi" part of the equation drops out; fighting for Middle Eastern Jews is not viewed as different from fighting for Middle Easterners generally, and fighting for Middle Easterners generally is constructed via the interests of the dominant elements within the category "Middle Eastern" (which are not Jewish)  It's the mirror image of the attempt to elide the "Mizrahi" part of "Mizrahi Jew" among some Zionists -- if we combat anti-Semitism (viewed through an Ashkenazi lens), we effectively liberate Mizrahi Jews (who are, in effect, simply "Jews", which is to say, Ashkenazi Jews). Both are instantiating the same exact wrong upon Mizrahim -- erasing them at the point of their difference from their putative ally (if I focus on the former case, it's because folks doing the latter tend not to even conceptualize themselves as being "intersectional" in the first place).

This is why those few persons who do attempt to incorporate Mizrahim into a (coalitional) intersectional lens do so by immediately reaching for those who identified Mizrahi oppression as stemming from Zionism. If Mizrahi Jewish and Palestinian oppression can be merged under a single metric, then the tension dissipates and the coalition becomes easy -- it is as if there is no distinction at all between that which ails Middle Eastern Jews and Middle Eastern non-Jews.

The problem, of course, is that most Mizrahim don't conceive of their situation in that manner. Some people proceed then to the simple brute erasure of Mizrahi Jewish difference -- either by ignoring them as a category outright, or by only accepting the legitimacy of Mizrahi voices who align with their understanding of anti-Arab oppression (that is, by delegitimizing any Mizrahi voices which are distinct from the dominant Arab chord). By contrast, my Berkeley colleague Smadar Lavie, who herself is a Mizrahi activist seeking to promote this sort of anti-Zionist Mizrahi-Palestinian alliance, is honest in admitting that such endeavors today have a very small constituency within the Mizrahi community. Where she errs is in saying that the inability to establish a Mizrahi-Palestinian coalition demonstrates that intersectionality is (for the time being) a dead-end. It's not a dead end because enabling coalitions is not the purpose of intersectionality. Intersectionality is a method for identifying forms of marginalization which otherwise would escape the eye. It is wholly expected, and consistent with intersectionality's roots, that there would be distinct problems experienced Jewish Middle Easterners that were not reducible to, and might be sharply in tension with, the politics promoted by non-Jewish Middle Easterners (or, of course, non-Middle Eastern Jews).

In this light, it is worth exploring why, exactly, a Mizrahi-Palestinian alliance has not been forthcoming. Samuel notes, for example, that the Israeli national project constructed "Jew" and "Arab" as binary categories, encouraging Mizrahim to distance themselves from an "Arab" identity as a means of solidifying their place in the Jewish state. Moreover, Mizrahi and Sephardic Jews are often deeply mistrustful of the (Ashkenazi-dominated) Israeli left, which unfortunately was significantly responsible for their marginalization during the initial wave of Mizrahi and Sephardic arrivals following Israeli's independence. It has been the Israeli right, by and large, which has facilitated their inclusion in Israeli society while the overwhelmingly Ashkenazi Israeli left continues to think of them as backwards, reactionary, and tribalistic.

These examples carry legitimate weight, but it would be wrong to assume that but-for (Ashkenazi) Jewish malfeasance Mizrahi Jews and Arabs would be thick as thieves. Certainly, the circumstances surrounding the removal -- effectively expulsion -- of Mizrahi and Sephardic Jews from the Arab world plays no small role in their less-than-coalitional outlook. And considerable swaths of the project of constructing an Arab national or pan-national identity have come at the expense of Jews and in opposition to Jews; at the very least they've rarely been encompassing of Jews on equal terms. As Sephardic Jewish researcher Mijal Bitton argues, the failure to adequately reckon (often, the outright denial of) with this raw history of oppression Mizrahi Jews experienced in Arab countries makes it extraordinarily difficult for Sephardic and Mizrahi to act as a "bridge" between Jews and Arabs, much less view themselves as in "coalition" with Palestinians.

The result is that proponents of the coalitional model typically exhibit ignorance of the actual conditions and perspectives of Mizrahi and Sephardic Jews in favor of an imagined harmony of interests among all "Arabs" (non-Jew and Jew alike) that is conducive to collective action. A deeper investigation demonstrates that it is neither surprising nor a product of "false consciousness" that Mizrahim do not generally believe that an anti-Zionist program will do them any good; even as many very much believe that the Israeli state as currently constituted is insufficiently respectful to and attentive towards their unique histories, cultural heritages, and political priorities. Such a political standpoint does not fit neatly into either the (Ashkenazi) Jewish or (non-Jewish) Middle Eastern "coalition".

A good intersectional theorist is not intimidated by this. The entire point of intersectionality, after all, is to bring such issues to the surface when too often they remain submerged underneath the dominant discourses of "Jew" (as defined by Ashkenazim) or "Middle Eastern" (as defined by Muslim or sometimes Christian Arabs). I would suggest that an intersectional approach is in fact essential to ensuring that Mizrahi Jewish perspectives are given an adequate airing. And done properly, an intersectional lens attunes us to seeing how our own narratives -- even when we think of them as anti-oppression or liberatory, often do not encompass those outgroups within outgroups (like Mizrahi Jews), and how instead of seeking to engage with such groups in an egalitarian fashion we instead seek to brute-force them into the frames we've already established.

But the coalitional intersectionalist can't look past the fact that the Mizrahim are poor candidates for a "coalition" with other groups who are already members in good standing. Their interests in fact do not align nicely with the groups already included in the pantheon,  they do not see themselves in terms which parallel the conceptions that dominate their constituent elements. To incorporate them into a coalition that is already in solidarity with (Ashkenazi) Jews would require significant alterations to the project -- incorporating Arab and Middle Eastern cultural practices and heritage, attacking head on discrimination Mizrahim face in Jewish communal settings inside and outside of Israel. And by the same token, to incorporate them into a coalition that is already in solidarity with (non-Jewish) Middle Easterners would likewise problematize key elements of that endeavor -- recognizing that Zionism is viewed as an essential liberatory element of some Middle Easterners' life experiences, acknowledging and fighting for the equal status of Jews as Middle Easterners, with equal entitlement to determine what that means. Such work would be tremendously difficult; and there is little evidence that non-Mizrahim (Jews or non-Jews) are willing to budge all that much in deference to Mizrahi differentiation. In essence, Mizrahim are welcome into the coalition on the non-negotiable condition that they not challenge any other member of the pack -- even when some of those members are directly responsible for facilitating Mizrahi marginalization. It is no wonder that Mizrahim refuse to enter on such terms.

So what is to be done? Coalitional intersectionalists are at a loss. At best they ignore Mizrahim outright and go about their coalitional work with those groups that are more easily assimilable. At worst they actively demand the exclusion of most Mizrahi voices as harmful to the good of the coalition, or pluck out those few whose perspectives can be incorporated into the preexisting coalitional politics with minimal stress. In neither case is Mizrahi marginalization adequately addressed; indeed, it is perpetuated in both.

This is not intersectionality. This is the very thing intersectionality was trying to combat. And it's why I'm deeply troubled by the activist trend to reduce "intersectionality" into the project of building coalitions.

1 comment:

Unknown said...

There is another, more important reason why we reject "Arabness": it robs us of our identity and transforms us into "Arabs of the Jewish faith", as if there were no real difference between us and our neighbors aside from our "religion" (although admittedly, one could make a stronger case for Mizrahi/Arab similarity than, say, Ashkenazi/white European similarity). We've never seen ourselves in this way, and we still don't (there are obviously exceptions, but they're just that: exceptions). In fact, the entire concept of "Jews are not a distinct Middle Eastern people, but rather just a collection of people from around the world who share a faith and tradition; Jews are Poles, Russians, Iranians, Germans, etc who are no different from their respective neighbors, aside from their faith" is fundamentally harmful to us, and also factually (even scientifically) incorrect. Sadly, the manner in which you've written this piece suggests that you've accepted this idea wholesale. Correct me if I'm wrong.