BLOG: How Intersectionality Shaped My Identity

Jessica Simon
on May 31, 2016

J Street’s blog aims to reflect a range of voices. The opinions expressed in blog posts do not necessarily reflect the policies or view of J Street.               

There’s been a lot of buzz in the Jewish world lately about “intersectionality.” This morning, NPR did a story on how the ADL is grappling with the issue. Since intersectionality and its relationship to Israel is in the news, I thought I’d take the opportunity to share my personal experience with the term.

As Jewish communal organizations and their leaders struggle to explain what is happening today on college campuses with regard to Israel, it is tempting to find a simple explanation. The word intersectionality as a concept has been defined (or interpreted) lately in many articles from Tablet to Jewish weeklies as everything from an “anti-Israel” idea, to a new boycotts, divestment, sanction strategy, to the source of hostile conditions for Jewish students on college campuses. The way it’s being discussed is as if this “intersectionality” is a newfound fad we seem to be hearing about for the first time. But this term is not new, and it’s not specifically about Israel.

Ten years ago, while an undergraduate at Syracuse University, I learned that, more than a word, intersectionality is a framing tool. At the time, it helped me find a community of people who shared my values, with whom I could learn and grow. It was and still is a tool that challenges me and others to question assumptions about the world at large.

At SU, I was a young Jewish feminist liberal Zionist with leftist politics on Israel and US policy. There was no J Street U or BDS movements, which were in their infancy. Most protests on campus related to the Iraq War, international exploitation of poor workers, women’s rights and minority rights.

For a campus known for its sports and Greek life, the number of those who cared mostly about activism and social change was relatively small, but I found a campus home in a student group called the Committee on Women and Art.

This group became my community, and for four years, I, along with fellow feminist activists, organized an annual Matrilineage Symposium. This week-long festival included performances, workshops and lectures by up-and-coming feminist artists. A glimpse into the symposium and a bit of history still lives online in a Daily Orange campus newspaper article here).

Our goal was to bring feminist artists to campus who presented art and ideas that challenged students, faculty and community members, and thus helped those in the audience grow as activists, artists and human beings.

We hosted a range of feminist artists, many of whom went on to formidable careers. During my tenure, we hosted graphic novelist Alison Bechdel, singer-songwriter Toshi Reagon, performance artist Carmelita Tropicana (a.k.a. Alina Troyano) and poet Vanessa Hidary. Many of these artists defied the easy boxes that the art industries (regardless of media) tried to put them in. These artists embodied intersectionality through their unwillingness to limit their identity. They resisted the pressure to pick just one identity (black, lesbian, latina, feminist, male, female, radical, artist). To us, bringing them to campus this was putting intersectionality into action. It also made them my heroes.

From my public policy and feminism classes, I learned the myriad of ways that race, class, gender and economic inequality are linked. Intersectionality was, again, a framing tool, to understand how these different social phenomena relate to one another and complicate attempts to create social change. For example, with educational achievement, the biggest predictor of a student finishing a four year college degree is parental income. This challenges the notion that race, gender or IQ are reliable factors for assessing whether students will be “successful” in college.

In addition, intersectionality was a personal tool as well, since I often felt pressure to choose one or more parts of my own identity depending on the room I was in. I felt this pressure in subtle ways. It was clear to me that there was no room in Jewish spaces on campus for my leftist politics on Israel or LGBT identity. It was clear that in feminist or leftist spaces, my Jewish liberal Zionist identity had no place either. And it was clear that in most spaces, feminism wasn’t welcome. Therefore, I felt I had to choose an identity when I walked into any meeting, class or room so that others would be comfortable with knowing who I was, even if that meant stripping myself of my ability to be true to myself.

The artists I helped bring to campus resisted this reality by creating and performing their art.

Whether LGBT, bi-racial, feminist, female, Jewish, Christian, secular, left, radical, I learned from these artists that as poet and activist Audre Lorde said “There’s always someone asking you to underline one piece of yourself – whether it’s Black, woman, mother, dyke, teacher, etc. – because that’s the piece that they need to key into. They want to dismiss everything else.”

And once I understood the intersectionality of my own identities, I was able to begin to learn to never dismiss any part of myself in any room. What I learned from intersectionality was to live every day unapologetically as my whole identity. Eventually, I learned that to do so, meant I would not fit neatly into anyone’s boxes, but that this is what ultimately would make me an effective and powerful activist in my Jewish community.

As a J Street staff member who works with students, leaders and community members, I speak daily with young Jews who look at the situation on college campuses as a complicated reflection of the Jewish communities they grew up in where all too often, the subject of Israel was avoided except as a place to support unconditionally. For many young people I speak with, the college campus is the place where they first learn Israel is imperfect, that many Jews and non-Jewish progressives alike are angry about the status quo.

To do anything but embrace all of the identities of our college-age children and their friends is to fail our next generation. Jewish leaders cannot fit young Jews who say things they do not like into a mold they dictate. Rather, by accepting and following the leadership of our young Jewish leaders, in all their complexity, I believe the American Jewish community will emerge stronger since there will be a vocal majority of pro-Israel pro-peace Jews who will support Israel as a Jewish and democratic state.

That means we cannot dismiss students when they point out that they are Zionist AND against the occupation. That they are queer and feminists and proud to be Jewish and they want their Jewish Federations to preserve human rights for all Palestinians as well as Jews. Intersectionality is a tool to say essentially the Israeli saying Gam v’ Gam. This is true AND this is true at the same time. In that sense, intersectionality can actually be a tool to be embraced, not feared – it can help us better understand our own complex relationships with Israel and the world around us.

Jessica Simon is the Deputy Regional Director for the Capital Region at J Street