When CNN correspondent Jake Tapper broke the story that prominent leaders of the Women’s March were buddies with notorious anti-Semite Louis Farrakhan, a crisis broke out in Jewish-progressive circles. The awareness of growing anti-Semitism in progressive movements was nothing new for those of us who had been following trends in both the Black Lives Matter movement and the Women’s March since 2016, whose promotion of Linda Sarsour left a bad taste in the mouths of those of us for whom the concerns of these movements were consonant with our Zionism. In both instances, Jews who were self-proclaimed Zionists became persona non grata and were unwelcome at rallies and demonstrations dedicated to the self-determination of all oppressed or minority communities—everyone except for Jews.
The Louis Farrakhan story changed things, perhaps because Farrakhan’s rhetoric is so obsessively hateful of Jews that it becomes an exercise in complicity to refrain from condemning it. Even in its tepid apology, the Women’s March leadership didn’t actually get around to condemning Farrakhan; they just stated that his ideas didn’t exactly “align” with their principles. I suspect this unenthusiastic response is because intersectional theory and Farrakhan’s message have a lot in common: They both promote the idea that life’s meaning can be found by dividing people into a hierarchy of virtue where those with histories of oppression have supreme value over those who belong to communities who have engaged in oppression historically. Unpacking this toxic doctrine and offering an alternative is necessary for fostering better relationships between communities involved in coalition-building in progressive spaces, both on the street and in the classroom.
Intersectionality didn’t start out toxic. The term was originally penned in an essay in 1989 by Kimberlé Williams Crenshaw, a law scholar who created a single, all-encompassing term for what happens when individuals experience intersecting forms of discrimination. For example, if a woman of color wants to pursue action after being discriminated against, she cannot effectively do so if existing laws address race-based discrimination or gender-based discrimination but not both. Because we all have multiple identities and affinities, and any or all of them may be the source of active discrimination, intersectionality in a legal framework makes sense.
Intersectionality has since become something altogether different, a rigid system for determining who is virtuous and who is not, based on traits like skin color, gender, and financial status. The more white, straight, or rich you are, the less virtue you have—and vice versa. Some have pointed out that it’s eerily similar to Christianity, complete with pointing out one’s original sin (whiteness), preaching repentance (admitting you’re privileged), and ritualistic attempts at salvation (working to dismantle one’s own alleged role in oppressing others). It posits that human beings with their predetermined physical attributes have predetermined roles to play in life; as such it is a theory with cosmic implications, and its doctrine includes language about “dismantling power structures” all while trying to establish its own countervailing power structure in order to redeem a fallen world. It is not hard to see how and why such a system goes wrong, both for the accused and also for their accusers.
This framework that intersectionalists offer leaves Zionist Jews out of the equation for achieving social justice. It does not matter that Jews were historically oppressed and created the most successful liberation movement of the 20th century; it doesn’t matter that they suffered genocide at the hands of white Europeans barely 70 years ago. The fact that many Jews have white skin color is proof that they are part of the problem. This is why the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is viewed as a zero-sum game by many intersectionalists who believe the Israeli position is, by default, oppressive, simply because “Israelis” are viewed as “white.”
Curiously enough, intersectionality is similar to the doctrine that Louis Farrakhan and the Nation of Islam preach. In Farrakhan’s case, it is a much more overtly religious creed, but the principles are the same. According to the Southern Poverty Law Center, Farrakhan believes that “white people were not created by God but by the evil black scientist Yakub … [who] used eugenics to create white people. … Because of the process by which Yakub created the white race, white people are inherently deceitful and murderous.”
In other words, Farrakhan also believes that white people were literally born in original sin—the sin of being white. He also believes that people of color are superior to white people and that Jews are especially worthy of derision and persecution; thus taking away Jewish power is key to bringing about redemption.
One could argue that Farrakhan and certain progressive movements share this perspective. Why else would the movement for black lives and the Women’s March leadership make statements about no other geopolitical conflict on Earth except for one involving Jews? One group is using political language, and the other is using religious language, but both reflect a cosmic, conspiratorial obsession with the Jewish people, who are positioned as the root of all evil.
“Hitler was a great man.” This and other anti-Semitic statements made by Farrakhan have given way to a bizarre unspoken agreement between white supremacist groups and some leaders in the Women’s March. While Tamika Mallory has asserted that Farrakhan is “definitely the GOAT,” or greatest of all time, the alt-right group the American Renaissance has reached out to Farrakhan because it shares the view that white people and black people need to be separated. Even members of the Ku Klux Klan have donated money to Farrakhan in support of his anti-Semitic rhetoric. In addition to being incredibly racist, all of this activity has led to a breakdown in progressive spaces where Jews are shunned and forced to leave a critical component of their identity at the door.
Intersectionality’s greatest flaw is in reducing human beings to political abstractions, which is never a tendency that turns out well—in part because it so severely flattens our complex human experience, and therefore fails to adequately describe reality. As it turns out, one can be personally successful and still come from a historically oppressed community—or vice versa. The human experience is complex and multifaceted and deeper than the superficial ways in which intersectionalists describe it.
To mend the damage they doing, leaders in progressive spaces need to ground their work in the understanding that we are all human beings—layered and complicated and all containing the capacity to do good or evil, regardless of our skin color or station in life. The question should not be how to trade one supremacist exercise of power for another, but how to empower every community with the necessary tools. Progressive leaders should thus ground their criticisms of social problems in a desire to see all human beings flourish. For example, if one has a problem with something a white person has done to another community, progressives should criticize it not out of a desire to tear that white person down but to uplift every individual—including that white person. This criticism would be constructive, not corrosive and would ensure that unnecessary enmity and discord do not develop between communities in the course of righting wrongs. Progressives should ground their work in love and compassion—which are bulwarks against the stereotype and objectification that the Louis Farrakhans of the world traffic in.
Recently, I had lunch with comedian Sarah Silverman in Los Angeles, and we discussed her new Hulu show, I Love You, America. Throughout the show, Silverman speaks to Trump supporters in good faith and with a spirit of generosity. The goal is not to come to perfect agreement—they hardly ever do. But she does break bread with them and works to discover the common bonds that unite us all as well as the need to have compassion for each other in spite of profound disagreement. It would behoove other progressive leaders to adopt Silverman’s approach; these movements will become tainted by sordid aims if their leaders fail to do so.
This article is part of a Tablet series about Louis Farrakhan, anti-Semitism, and race relations.