Intersectionality: Is it good for the Jews?

Credit for picture: July 28, 2020
Credit for picture: July 28, 2020

Intersectionality has been defined as “the interconnected nature of social categorizations such as race, class, and gender as they apply to a given individual or group, regarded as creating overlapping and interdependent systems of discrimination or disadvantage.” (1)

Intersectionality is widely applied on campuses across the United States to promote alliances between historically oppressed groups. It has been a powerful coalition building tool which magnifies the power of each group within the coalition. In recent years it has been most frequently used by anti-Israel voices on campuses across the United States. This has had the effect of marginalization and isolation of Jewish students on campus. (2) The effectiveness of intersectionality begs the question of why Jewish activists do not make use of this tool in the service of pro-Israel activism, as well as combatting anti-Semitism in the guise of anti-Zionism in the United States.
Similarities between the historic experience of Jews and of other oppressed groups is obvious on a macro/global level, even if less so on a micro/domestic level. The experiences of people of African descent both within the US and globally, Latin Americans, Native Americans and Jews intersect at many points as a global historical perspective demonstrates.
Potential commonalities with the historic African experience
Africans suffered from the European and Arab slave trades. Jewish experience, on a global and historic level, includes enslavement by Egyptians, Romans, Nazi slave labor camps, and in Stalin’s Siberia. ¬†Africans suffered under colonialism for centuries, while Jews watched one colonial power after another rule Palestine, our ancestral homeland. Patrice Lumumba and Jomo Kenyatta resisted imperialism, Jews resisted imperialism as well from Bar Kochba to the Warsaw Ghetto, to the Haganah and Irgun. Jews had their own provisional government in the form of the rabbis of each rabbinic period guiding us as we awaited our return to a sovereign state in our land. Like those of African descent who faced segregation in the American south and in South Africa under apartheid, we also were confined to ghettos across Europe the Middle East and North Africa. We share a common experience of slavery, resistance to imperialism, and ghettoization. This intersection between the African and Jewish historic experience has been recognized, in the inspiration taken from the Old Testament by figures such as Nat Turner who led a slave revolt in Jerusalem Virginia in 1831 (3), to Martin Luther King who often quoted the Old Testament (4). We need to emphasize this on campuses today in the interests of intersectionality with African and African American causes.
Potential commonalities with the historic Latin American experience
Similarly, Latin American history in the Americas also parallels Jewish history in key areas. This history begins with the begins with the indigenous peoples of the Americas. In 1492, the same year as the inquisition began, the conquest of the Americas was initiated with the arrival of Christopher Columbus. The fact that these two historic events occurred in 1492, is more than coincidence. DNA studies have shown that 25% of Spanish settlers in the New World were Jews fleeing the Spanish Inquisition, many Latin Americans are partly descended from these Spanish Jews (5). After Columbus arrived the destruction of the indigenous peoples of the Americas began, similarly to the destruction of the indigenous Jews of ancient Palestine by the Romans. After the Spanish arrived in the Americas they embarked on a campaign to replace native identity and religion with their own, just as Hellenism arrived in ancient Palestine with the Greeks, whose efforts were perpetuated by the Romans, and continued with the Byzantines who sent missionaries to attempt to eradicate Judaism in ancient Palestine. Lastly, the modern experience of both peoples immigrating to the US, establishing their own communities and gradually integrating into the wider culture while maintaining their identity is an additional parallel. In some places this occurred in the same neighborhood such as in the Lower East Side of Manhattan, later referred to as the Loisada when it became more heavily Hispanic
Potential commonalities with the historic Native American experience
Seen from a global and historic perspective the parallels between Native American and Jewish historical experience are not as apparent, but on a deeper level they are clear. According to “An Indigenous People’s History of the United States” by Roxanne Dunbar Ortiz, Native American (6), Native history since the arrival of Europeans and for the following 400 years has been resistance to genocide. By his own admission Christopher Columbus enslaved the native people he met. The 1500s saw conquistadores destroy native civilizations across North and South America, the 1600s saw massacres of native people in scalping by colonists, and local conflicts such as Kieft’s war in the area where Jersey City stands today, the Pequot war and others. The 1700s brought colonial wars such as Queen Anne’s War, King George’s War, the French and Indian war. The 1800s brought massacres of native people across the western United States. Genocide, in a Jewish context most recently refers to the holocaust. However, the Holocaust was only the most recent Jewish experience with genocide. It followed the Kishinev, Chmielnicki pogroms, the Inquisition, the Crusades and on and on, or previous centuries. Missionaries were dispatched to further the attempted eradication of native cultures as well as to “save” the Jews. Assimilation was also used destroy native cultures through boarding schools where native children taught European American culture and Christianity and were forbidden to speak their language, a similar tactic was employed by the Czar of the Russian Empire where Jewish children were drafted into life-long military service with the same effect. A further parallel, is the remarkable survival of native cultures just as Jewish identity has adapted and survived to modern times.
Our similarities are greater than our differences, all we need to do is look beneath the surfaces. The bridges are there to be built. We haven’t built them, and so others are building bridges to serve the interests of an anti-Semitic narrative. We ignore the potential power of intersectionality at our own risk. When Jewish campus activists speak to African American, Latin American, and Native American activists about the intersection between our people’s experiences we will have a powerful tool to combat anti-Semitic racism on campus, and we will in turn greatly strengthen the overall struggle for racial equality by adding our truth to the message.
1.  link accessed on July 27, 2020
2. “Intersectionality Excludes and Includes Jews must learn the difference”, by David Bernstein, Jewish Public Affairs, link accessed on July 27, 2020.
3. “Before the Mayflower, A history of Black America” by Leronne Bennett Jr, Penguin Books, New York, NY, 1988, pages 131-136
4. “King’s vision of Justice, Rooted in the Bible” by David Lull site accessed on July 27, 2020
5. “The Genetic Legacy of the Spanish Inquisition” by Sarah Zhang, The Atlantic, December 21, 2018,

6. “An Indigenous People’s History of the United States” by Roxanne Dunbar Ortiz, Beacon Press Boston, MA, 2014

About the Author
Steve Cohn, President and Founder of Belltown Analytics, was born in New York City. He worked with mostly the Islamic world while at the United Nations for 5 years where he gained experience in conflict resolution, an in depth exposure to global issues, and an intensification of his life long interest in issues involving Israel and Jewish continuity in the diaspora. His background consists of over 3 decades of financial and technical education and experience which he now applies to help small businesses stay in business after the social, political and economic upheavals of 2020.
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