Slavoj Zizek, "Antisemitism and intersectionality"
Calls for hate against Jews to be treated different from other discrimination could produce the bigotry it seeks to oppose
LJUBLJANA – On May 14, 2023, the European Jewish Association held its annual conference in Porto, Portugal, where it adopted a resolution calling for antisemitism to be “treated separately from other forms of hate and discrimination.”
The EJA is urging “other Jewish organizations to reject ‘intersectionality,’” a conceptual framework that tends to categorize groups as being either “privileged” or “oppressed.” According to the EJA, “antisemitism is unique and must be treated as such,” on the grounds that it is “state-sanctioned in many countries,” “given cover by the United Nations,” and not always regarded as a form of racism by other groups affected by hate.
But why are intersectionality and the demarcation between the privileged and the oppressed problematic from a Jewish standpoint? Generally speaking, intersectionality is a useful concept in social theory and practical analysis. When we consider particular individuals or groups, we discover that their experiences of oppression or privilege reflect a wide array of diverse factors.
Let us shamelessly quote Wikipedia’s definition:
“Intersectionality is an analytical framework for understanding how a person’s various social and political identities combine to create different modes of discrimination and privilege. Intersectionality identifies multiple factors of advantage and disadvantage. Examples of these factors include gender, caste, sex, race, ethnicity, class, religion, education, wealth, disability, weight, age and physical appearance. These intersecting and overlapping social identities may be both empowering and oppressing.”
The point, Anne Sisson Runyan of the University of Cincinnati explains, is “that forms of oppression are not just additive, as if they were wholly separate layers of domination. Rather, women of color actually experience a different form of racism from men of color, just as they experience a different form of sexism from white women.”
By the same token, the antisemitic idea of the “Jew” combines features of religion, ethnicity, sexuality, education, wealth and physical appearance. To be stigmatized as a Jew entails the ascription of various other features, such as uncleanliness, dogmatic adherence to religious rules, nefarious financial speculation and hidden global influence — all of which featured prominently in Nazi propaganda. The upshot of intersectional analysis is that all individuals experience unique forms of oppression or privilege by dint of the makeup of their identities. Consider a low-income Black lesbian; she is at a quadruple disadvantage almost anywhere in the world.
Why, then, do those who insist on the uniqueness of antisemitism reject intersectionality? The oppression faced by Jews in developed Western countries nowadays is somewhat more ambiguous, because Jews also tend to occupy positions of privilege (economically, culturally and so forth) and the association of the Jews with wealth and culture (“Hollywood” as Jewish) in the public imagination is itself a source of classic antisemitic tropes. The EJA worries that this combination of oppression and privileges makes antisemitism just another form of racial hatred, not only comparable to others but even milder when set alongside other modes of oppression. When we apply an intersectional lens, hatred for “the Jew,” the EJA fears, becomes a minor case in the broader taxonomy of hatreds.
Is this fear justified?
The EJA is right to insist that there is something exceptional about antisemitism. It is not like other racism: Its aim is not to subordinate the Jews but to exterminate them. The antisemite perceives them not as lower foreigners but as secret masters. The Holocaust is not the same as the destruction of civilizations in the history of colonialism; it is a unique phenomenon of industrially organized annihilation.
But it is the very coupling of “oppressed” and “privileged” which provides the key to understanding antisemitism, at least in its modern form. Under fascism, “the Jew” served as the external intruder who could be blamed for corruption, disorder and exploitation. Projecting the conflict between the “oppressed” and the “privileged” onto a scapegoat can distract people’s attention from the fact that such struggles are, in fact, intrinsic to their own political and economic order. The fact that many Jews are “privileged” (in the sense of their wealth, education and political influence) is thus the very resource of antisemitism: being perceived as privileged makes Jews a target of social hatred.
Problems arise when one tries to use the exceptional status of antisemitism to support a double standard or to prohibit any critical analysis of the privileges that Jews, on average, enjoy. In a 2020 Der Spiegel dialogue on antisemitism and the Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions movement against Israel, one finds the dictum that, “The Jew, and not the potential antisemite, determines who is an antisemite” (Wer Antisemit ist, bestimmt der Jude und nicht der potenzielle Antisemit). But if that is the case, should we not apply the same principle to Palestinians in the West Bank? Solely by dint of being Palestinian, they are being deprived of their land and basic rights.
But, more than that, the EJA’s stance relies on its own intersectional framework. Any analysis of the privileged positions held by some Jews is immediately denounced as antisemitic and even critiques of capitalism are rejected on the same grounds, owing to the association between “Jewishness” and “rich capitalists.” The Marxist thesis that antisemitism is a primitive, distorted version of anti-capitalism is thus inverted: Anti-capitalism is a mask of antisemitism.
If the implication is that Jewishness is both exceptional and inextricably bound up with capitalism, aren’t we just left with an age-old antisemitic trope? Do we not directly provoke the poor and oppressed to blame the Jews for their misfortunes? Other Jewish organizations should reject the EJA stance, not because of some obscene need for “balance” between different forms of racism, but to advance the very struggle against antisemitism.