Op-Ed: Worried about intersectionality? Oppose the Israeli occupation

Amna Farooqi
Amna Farooqi

COLLEGE PARK, Md. (JTA) — David Bernstein, the new president of the Jewish Council on Public Affairs, wrote in JTA last week about an important phenomenon impacting campus activism and debate around the Israeli-Palestinian conflict: intersectionality.

Bernstein observed that the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement, or BDS, has been building alliances with other social justice groups, emphasizing the solidarity between Palestinians and other oppressed peoples. He suggested that in response, pro-Israel groups need to be working on other social justice issues and developing their own strong partnerships.

The phenomenon that Bernstein described is real and important, and the pro-Israel establishment needs to wake up to why it is happening. But it is wrong to view intersectionality itself as a cynical BDS strategy or a silly ideology thought up by naive students.

In fact, the concept extends far beyond the Israeli-Palestinian issue, and is an important part of life on and off college campuses today.

At a time when xenophobic remarks are commonplace from some of our presidential candidates, many people feel an urgent need to stand up for equality and social justice. The same values that motivate students to stand with Black Lives Matter compel us to stand against Donald Trump’s Islamophobia or the conservatives’ war on women.

Students see connections between different injustices, and we want to be able to work together to combat them — to be good allies.

Bernstein is correct that the pro-Israel community needs to learn how to be a good ally to progressive groups working to end various forms of oppression. But he doesn’t seem to be clear on what being an ally entails.

Progressive partnerships are based in shared values. Pro-Israel students shouldn’t seek to work with movements like Black Lives Matter as a quid pro quo — “If we help you, you’ll help us” — but because they are genuinely angry about systemic racism and want to help put a stop to it. Only a genuine commitment to supporting social justice can win the respect of progressive groups the pro-Israel community wants to partner with.

Demonstrating that commitment doesn’t just mean joining in battles against injustice here in the United States. Many progressive movements see Israel’s occupation as related to the same injustices they are fighting in their own communities. We must take their concerns seriously. Peacefully ending Israel’s occupation is a legitimate and important social justice issue — and the pro-Israel community should treat it as such.

Personally, intersectionality helped me to make sense of my experiences as a Muslim woman of color. As I grew up and wanted to oppose racism, sexism and other systems of oppression, I came to college looking for a place to exercise my values, where I could be progressive and proud in all facets of my identity.

For me, J Street U has provided that space because it is a pro-Israel organization that is as committed to peace and security for Palestinians as it is for Israelis. We’re a movement of people who recognize the injustices facing Palestinians and are determined to work for a solution. Through J Street U, I’ve learned that it’s possible to be both pro-Israel and progressive.

The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is complicated, and both sides bear responsibility. There have been instances where activists in some progressive solidarity groups do not recognize or acknowledge those nuances, which is frustrating. But no reasonable, honest person can deny that Palestinians deserve civil rights and self-determination, which they have been deprived of for almost 50 years.

As long as the institutional pro-Israel community ignores the occupation and treats its effects on Palestinians and Israelis as insignificant or marginal, it will continue to alienate progressives. The pro-Israel community has to do more to oppose the occupation and advocate for a two-state solution that guarantees security, liberty and self-determination for Israelis and Palestinians if it wants to be part of progressive alliances.

We have a responsibility to do this if we want to be real allies. Not just for Palestinians, but for Israelis, who deserve to live safely and securely in a Jewish state without fear of violence.

Can the pro-Israel establishment stay silent while the occupation approaches its 50th anniversary and still expect progressive students to take it seriously when it says it is doing all it can to support civil rights and social justice for all? The answer should be obvious.

We can talk all we want about the importance of allyship as a communal relations strategy to combat the BDS movement. But until the pro-Israel community gets serious about the occupation and supporting meaningful change in the lives of Palestinians and Israelis, we won’t have — and won’t deserve — many progressive allies.

Amna Farooqi, a senior at the University of Maryland, is president of the J Street U national board.