Identity and Intersectionality from a Contemporary Jewish LGBT Perspective

I presented this talk to the World Congress of LGBT Jews meeting in Washington, DC, this past weekend. The theme is identity and intersectionalities from a contemporary Jewish LGBT perspective:

I'd like to reiterate what Commissioner Chai Feldblum taught at Friday night services - that civil rights progress is a dialectical process. The arc of history may, indeed, bend towards justice, but the arc is not a simple geometric figure; there are twists, hairpin turns and knots along the way. Topology is a more useful political science tool than Euclidean geometry.


Recognizing that, though, is very helpful. We'd all like the world to improve quickly and simply, but it doesn't. Those who lived through the African-American civil rights movement of the 40s-60s know that, and we do ourselves a disservice by sanitizing history. The three axes of civil rights progress were evident then - legal, legislative and cultural change pathways. The armed forces were integrated after the war, and Jackie Robinson integrated Major League Baseball in 1947. The Supreme Court ruled unanimously in Brown v. Board of Education seven years later, and that was followed by a backlash that often led to death through lynching and riots. Congress passed a minor civil rights bill in 1958, which was followed by lunchroom sit-ins and Freedom Riders, culminating in the March on Washington. That provoked more violent resistance, and culminated with the passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act.

But for all that progress, not everyone benefited. Though black women played a role in the movement, they were only an afterthought in an attempt to derail passage of the Act which backfired. The National Women's Party was racist to the core. And being gay in the movement was not acceptable, as was evident in the story of Dr. King's trusted advisor and friend, Bayard Rustin. Yet the African-American civil rights movement, which freely appropriated Jewish liberation tropes throughout, sowed the seeds of equality for all women and all LGBT persons. The knot has slowly been unraveling. Recognizing this will help those, whenever there is a homophobic or transphobic law passed, from falling into a pit of despair. There is no reason for using terms like "cultural genocide" or quotes from Pastor Niemoller when one can see the dialectical movement which is necessary. Kerry Eleveld makes this point well in her latest post about North Carolina's HB2.

My personal journey began with my primary identities being that of orthodox Jew, then lapsed orthodox Jew, Zionist, medical student, doctor and surgeon, spouse and parent, and repressed woman. My inability to access the repressed woman deeply impacted intersectionally all my other identities, and it was only when I was able to transition that I could begin to fully integrate all my identities. It didn't happen all at once; for example, though a lifelong liberal Zionist, I was able to ignore the actions of the Israeli government for decades. Only when Prime Minister Netanyahu declared himself "King of the Jews" and came to address Congress last year, spitting in the President's face, did I pull my head from the sand and take action.

I wasn't the only one in denial. The Germans call this struisvogelpolitiek - ostrich politics. American Jews, who became "white" in the eyes of the federal government in 1987, have allowed themselves to become deracinated since fully assimilating in the 60s and 70s. When I worked as a staffer on the Montgomery County Council four of the nine Councilmembers were Jewish, but only one identified as such. When I ran for the Maryland state Senate in 2014 as a proud Jewish woman I had people ask me what I was thinking. "Dana, you're trans, but you don't bring that up. Instead, you speak of your Jewishness. What's up with that?"

Now, it can't be simply a matter of communal affluence. There are plenty of poor Jews, even here in Montgomery County, and the American community that is equally affluent, Asian Americans, is still considered a minority by everyone. It's not just skin color, since there are plenty of darker-skinned Sephardic, African and Indian Jews here and in Israel. It's even fair to say that Israelis are more "of color" than Palestinians, who make up a more homogenous ethnic group. But today, in the campaign for the 8th Congressional District Democratic nomination, we have many candidates who tout identity as the prime reason for voting for them - black, Hispanic, and Indian, and two women who promote their gender prominently. There are two Jewish candidates, but one identifies as a secular humanist and the other, while he has worked on Middle East policy for the federal government, is not running as a Jewish man. There is no Jewish identity politics, and as long as there isn't in a world of where identity is center-stage, Jews will be left out.

Circling back to the African-American civil rights movement, today's iteration is led by the #BlackLivesMatter movement. Everyone knows the leadership, such as it is, is African-American. But most don't know it was founded by three women, and not just any three women, but three queer women. Those intersectionalities are real to the LGBT community, but even many of them don't know that fact. And if you don't mention it, it really doesn't matter.

One interesting fact - while the backlash to #BLM included #WhiteLivesMatter, #AllLivesMatter and others, only #TransLivesMatter and #BlackTransLivesMatter were allowed to appropriate the hashtag. Those examples of intersectionality have been allowed to flourish and make a difference.

But even that has a dark side. The focus on identity politics, which often devolves into a justification based on victimization, can generate its own forms of bigotry, including the most ancient and persistent of bigotries - anti-Semitism. With the ongoing deracination of Jewish identity, the stage was set for the crisis at Creating Change last January.

As I've reported (here, here, here and here), the conference was disrupted by anti-Zionist and anti-Semitic protestors who were demonstrating against a reception for Jerusalem community leaders (Jerusalem Open House leaders Tom Canning and Sarah Kala) who provide support for LGBT Israelis and Palestinians. This followed an attempt by Dean Spade several weeks earlier to have the invitation to those guests rescinded because it conflicted with Spade's rabidly anti-Israel posture.

My point is that because of the Jewish community's own struisvogelpolitiek, we were taken by surprise and unprepared for this challenge. We should not have been - the anti-Zionists had already held workshops at Creating Change as far back as 2011, and the BDS movement had been picking up steam across college campuses. Given the conversion of the Creating Change conference from one providing education and tools for advocacy to a competition for which group could be the most offended and then the most disruptive, we should have been prepared.

We weren't, and that is because American LGBTQ Jews had so successfully assimilated into the political and social landscape that we no longer had any standing as an identifiable community. And, yet, the anti-Semites had no problem finding us, and doing so under the guise of anti-Zionism. The time has come for the Jewish community at large, and the LGBT community in particular, to commit to play identity politics with the rest, and for the liberal community, both here and in Israel, to take a stand and organize.

As a postscript - there is a new organization, the Queer Zionist Alliance, which is organizing to do just that. A possible organizing principle for this revitalized community could be the creation of a written constitution for the state of Israel, which would embody the Jewish people's highest ideals in the Jewish state and energize the resistance against the increasingly brazen theocratic and expansionistic Israeli right.