Jewish students respond to Zionist criticism of intersectional BDS movements
While the movement on U.S. campuses to divest from companies complicit in the Israeli occupation of Palestine grows, large American-Zionist organizations have taken a new messaging approach to attempt to stem the growing grassroots tide.
Earlier this week, the new head of the Jewish Council on Public Affairs (JCPA), David Bernstein, published an editorial decrying “intersectionality.” However, eleven campus chapters of Jewish Voice for Peace (JVP), a national Jewish organization which supports Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS), signed onto a statement in response to similar Zionist condemnations of intersectional organizing for Palestine.
Many Jewish student organizers who work on Palestine solidarity have a personal stake in intersectional approaches to divestment.
“Specific issues, such as pinkwashing, show how colonizing states will use LGBT people to burgeon their own image,” said Natalia Shevin, an organizer with Students for a Free Palestine at Oberlin College and a member of the JVP Student Network. “This, as a queer Jew, makes it necessary for me to push back against both those dangerous narratives that perpetuate and allow violence, colonization, and occupation to continue in Palestine.”
Before Bernstein became the CEO and president of JCPA last month, he served as the Executive Director for the David Project, a national campus Zionist organization, from 2010 to 2014. While the JCPA bills itself as an umbrella group representing American Jewry at large, its emphasis on advocating for a “strong U.S.-Israel relationship” often takes priority.
American Jewish Zionist leadership has been concerned about multi-issue coalitions supporting BDS on campus for at least a year now. After the University of California Student Association (UCSA), the representative body of most of the UC student governments, endorsed divestment last February, anti-BDS leaders blamed intersectionality.
“Campus politics have been hijacked by a group of students who are intent to conquer,” Rabbi Chaim Sedler-Feller, the longtime UCLA Hillel director, said at the time. “The coalition of Arab, Muslim, Latino, Asian and gay students. They’re all oppressed minorities.”
*Sarah, a student at a large East Coast private school who organizes with Jewish Voice for Peace, spoke with Palestine in America via email. She pointed out that intersectionality is not a theoretical issue, but a way to describe the reality of the Israeli occupation.
“The ability of the Israeli state to suppress Palestinian populations depends on sexual, race-based, and economic forms of violence. To say ‘we’re not talking about sexual assault or violence today’ is absolutely wrong, and erases the existence of Palestinians who identify as survivors and victims,” she said.
“People should not have to negotiate their identities to fight for single-issue causes,” Sarah added. “I approach my Palestine solidarity work as a person of color, a woman, and a survivor, and all of those identities inform why supporting Palestinian liberation is important to me and allow me to work with empathy… to recognize the layers and complexities of peoples and their situations.”
*Name has been changed