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Finding a place for Jews in the politics of intersectionality

Jews are often bewildered that modern liberation movements see them as oppressors not victims. Changing that thinking requires a paradigm shift.
Karin Stoegner
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Illustration: TJI

Published: 3 May 2024

Last updated: 1 May 2024

Intersectionality is an analytical instrument for critically understanding the multidimensionality of power relations. It emerged first in the 1970s, in debates on Black Feminism and signalled an intersectional struggle, i.e. a struggle on two fronts: against sexism within the Civil Rights Movement and against racism within the Women’s Movement.

Jews are often excluded from feminist anti-racist social movements that claim to be guided by intersectionality. The vehement anti-Zionist orientation of some of these movements, be it Women’s March on WashingtonChicago Dyke March or Black Lives Matter, poses the question: why does the intersectionality framework routinely exclude antisemitism?

Many intersectional feminist movements that stand up against racism have great difficulty in grasping how antisemitism works. They understand antisemitism as only a form of racism, while they reduce racism itself to the dichotomy of White and Black, with Jews implicitly or explicitly identified with ‘Whiteness’.

This is analytically disabling because antisemitism does not run along the colour line, and consequently not along the binary divide ‘privileged/non-privileged’. Jews are not ‘Whites’. However, both ‘Whiteness’ and ‘privileged/non-privileged' are central to the concept of racism that is prevalent today in academic discourse and in the discourse of intersectional political practice.

While antisemitism and racism are historically closely related, they have developed in different directions after the Shoah.

The Whiteness frame, as a tool for making structural racism visible, not only proves to be completely unsuitable for antisemitism, but can even confirm antisemitism, as David Schraub has pointed out. The privileges associated with Whiteness include power, influence, money, property, education, dominance, participation, being heard and having a voice, cliques and networks, and positions inherited over generations.

If this frame is applied to the White majority society, ingrained power structures can be made visible. If, on the other hand, it is applied to the Jewish minority, this frame can actually result in the confirmation of antisemitic stereotypes such as the excessive influence of Jews in business, politics and the media.

The exclusion of global antisemitism from anti-racist intersectional analyses and practices means that Jews are increasingly not recognised as a minority that has been racially persecuted and murdered for centuries, and Israel is not recognised as a refuge for Jews worldwide after the Shoah.

Instead, Jews appear as representatives of an exploitative, structurally racist group and Israel appears as a bastion of Western imperialism in the Middle East, as an artificial and alien element in the midst of supposedly indigenous Arab peoples.

By completely subsuming antisemitism under the category of ‘racism’ it appears to be the problem of bygone times. In fact, while antisemitism and racism are historically closely related, they have developed in different directions after the Shoah and in post-colonial contexts.

Contemporary antisemitism no longer primarily operates as a racism but has changed into post-national forms, in which Israel is utilised as a universal scapegoat for wars and crises worldwide. The discrimination against Jews today is different from that of People of Colour. If this difference is not recognised, current forms of antisemitism that differ from racism, such as antisemitism related to Israel, not only disappear but can also mask themselves as anti-racist and oppositional.

Jews are regarded as unclassifiable in the three dimensions that are central to the classical intersectionality approach: gender/sexuality, class and race/ethnicity/nation.

Most societies are organised along binary markers such as down-up, inside-out, white-black, male-female, hetero-gay. Accordingly, ideologies such as racism, sexism, homophobia, nationalism, and ethnocentrism position People of Colour, women, gay and lesbian people, foreigners, and strangers more or less unambiguously along these binary codes.

Antisemitism, by contrast, is characterised by ambivalence with regard to these markers. It does not position Jews unambiguously on one or the other side of these markers, but rather attributes to Jews a position beyond binary categorisation.

The history of antisemitism shows that Jews are regarded as unclassifiable in the three dimensions that are central to the classical intersectionality approach: gender/sexuality, class and race/ethnicity/nation. In antisemitism, Jews are not clearly assigned to classes either, but identified simultaneously with communism and capitalism, especially with financial capital. Jews do not so much represent a foreign, hostile identity, but rather a non-identity, in other words the threat of the dissolution of identity itself, of unity itself.

The anti-categorical character of antisemitic stereotypes makes it hard to grasp for dominant intersectional approaches that assumes the interdependence of stable categories. Antisemitism denies Jews any clear categorisation and derives its effectiveness and efficiency from an almost ‘queer’ thwarting of familiar binaries and from undermining clear categorisations. Antisemitism itself blurs the categories and portrays the Jew as not belonging to any identity criteria.

Antisemitism is a particular fear that the unity and identity of the nation, religion, community, etc. might be infiltrated and decomposed. Conspiracy myths are a manifestation of this fear. In this context, Jews do not represent a foreign and/or hostile identity, but rather an anti-identity, i.e. the dissolvant of fixed boundaries of collective, cultural identities. Here, a difference to newer forms of racism like cultural racism and ‘racism without races’ becomes clear.

Inconsistency, ambiguity and comprehensive unclassifiability; fluid boundaries and manifold overlaps with other ideologies; these are the reasons why antisemitism has developed into a comprehensive and delusional world-view in the course of the rapid and disruptive modernisation process. It has helped to stabilise a system of values and norms that appeared to be under threat.

More than other ideologies, antisemitism helps to maintain the traditional rules of capitalism, patriarchy, and nation-state order by always being sexist, homophobic, nationalist, and racist and in addition by posing as anti-capitalist and anti-imperialist. The consistently anti-categorical moment, by positioning Jews beyond the categories, distinguishes antisemitism from other ideologies, which are much less ambiguous.

This insight challenges those approaches that assume there must be a critical potential in an anti-categorical view. Antisemitism itself transgresses categorisation effectively, positioning Jews beyond gender, sexuality, class, race, ethnicity and nation. Antisemitism gains its effectiveness from exactly this characteristic.

We have to understand the banality that in antisemitism, everything can be interpreted against the Jews – particularly that they allegedly do not correspond to the socially prescribed categories.

An intersectional approach must not be limited to the insight that society is structured by certain categories, but must, in a radical critique of power, uncover the social reasons and conditions of these categories. The process of perennial categorisation of people in society and the underlying traditional identity logics must also be criticised.

We need approaches to identities and cultural relativism that ensure intersectionality does not blind out antisemitism, and which are therefore connected to truly emancipatory practice.

This article is an edited version of an article published in Fathom Journal, entitled Intersectionality and Antisemitism: A new approach.

About the author

Karin Stoegner

Karin Stoegner is Professor of Sociology at the University of Passau, Germany.


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