Intersectionality is all the rage on university campuses these days, and now people can determine whether they are the oppressor or the oppressed, thanks to a handy online Intersectionality Score Calculator.
Users can toggle a slider between categories such as “white” or “person of colour,” “male” or “female,” “gay” or “straight,” “rich” or “poor” and “born in Canada” or “born elsewhere.” One of the identity factors allows users to put themselves on a spectrum between “not Jewish” and “devout Jewish.” At the end, the computer spits out a numeric score, saying to what extent the person experiences “systematic oppression and discrimination based on multiple identity factors.”
You can have some fun with the calculator, but intersectionality – and the related concepts of privilege and identity politics – are serious issues.
Intersectionality examines how identity contributes to systematic oppression and discrimination. American feminist scholar Peggy McIntosh describes white privilege as “an invisible package of unearned assets that I can count on cashing in each day, but about which I was ‘meant’ to remain oblivious.”
According to McIntosh, these include “cultural affirmations of one’s own worth; presumed greater social status; and freedom to move, buy, work, play and speak freely. The effects can be seen in professional, educational and personal contexts.”
Critics, meanwhile, point out that all the factors that go into privilege or oppression are things that people are born with and are not related to one’s own character. They wonder whether intersectionality is nothing but the new left’s version of a medieval caste system.
In the view of Prof. Michael Brown, a senior scholar at the Israel and Golda Koschitzky Centre for Jewish Studies at York University, it’s pretty clear where the concept of privilege comes from. “I suppose it comes from reality,” he said. “There are certainly individuals and groups of people who are historically disadvantaged. Certainly people of colour at times. If you go back long enough, Jews were a disadvantaged minority.” Today, however, he thinks that, “in many ways, Jews are not disadvantaged. They are not disadvantaged because of colour, and religion is not as important as it once was, to Jews and non-Jews.”
As for Israel, he thinks it’s “a different issue. Certainly there are lots of people who are not happy with Israel, and Jews are in the forefront of pro-Israel activism and it might not do them any good.”
Karen Mock is a human rights consultant with 40 years experience in the fields of anti-racism, anti-oppression, diversity and equity. The president of JSpaceCanada, a progressive Zionist organization, Mock’s view is that Jews can pass as white and do enjoy privilege, despite their problematic past. “Jews are indeed a historically victimized group and also currently victimized by both overt and systemic anti-Semitism, depending on the country or context,” she said. “But in white-dominated societies, Caucasian Jews also have white privilege, especially if they assimilate and are not observable Jews who are most vulnerable to being targeted.
“In almost all societies or cultures, there are the dominant groups – on the basis of class, religion, race – and there are victimized or oppressed groups. Once someone identifies as a victim, it is very difficult for them to see they may also be a member of the dominant group on a different dimension. Similarly, most Jews who carry the community trauma of having been victimized by anti-Semitism for centuries, even to the point of genocide, fail to see that they have the power and privilege of race if they are white in a white-dominated society.”
But Shimon Fogel, the CEO of the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs (CIJA), has some serious questions about intersectionality and identity politics. “At first, it meant one thing, but then morphed to mean something else entirely.
Not coincidentally, the two terms are related. Intersectionality was an observation that one could ‘layer’ challenges with regard to discrimination. So it is generally assumed that a person of colour is in some ways disadvantaged. Add being a woman and that disadvantage is exacerbated.
Add being disabled and it is aggravated even further,” he said.
“The problem arose when it came to mean that one disadvantaged group should lend support to other disadvantaged groups in expression of solidarity, not because they share a particular experience.” And when it comes to Jews, “clearly there is a basis upon which we can justifiably assert a unique status based on our identity or collective historical experience,” Fogel added.
On campus, and increasingly in broader settings, “there is an increasing awareness of structural racism and structural inequality,” said Mira Sucharov, an associate professor of political science at Carleton University. The term “structural” refers to the situation where “society intentionally or unintentionally favours whiteness and the concept of whiteness,” she explained. This can have practical implications, such as a person of colour being eyed as a potential shoplifter, where a white person would not be.
As to the implications of this concept for Jews, Sucharov noted that “not all Jews are white,” but said that “light-skinned European Jews share white privilege.”
“White people need to realize that they experience race differently than do people of colour, and that white people – myself included – still have much to learn,” Sucharov said.
When it comes to the question of identity politics, Prof. Gad Saad has no time for what he calls the “grievance Olympics.” A native of Lebanon, Saad fled to Canada in 1975 at age 11, when, as a Jew, his life was threatened by various militias that were unsympathetic to his religious heritage.
“We are more than a member of any particular tribe or group; we are individuals and we should succeed or fail based on our individual merits,” he said.
An evolutionary behavioural scientist at the John Molson School of Business at Concordia University in Montreal, Saad also runs a YouTube channel called The Saad Truth. He argues that identity politics, and the associated concept of white privilege, are toxic. Canada, he believes, is one of the most tolerant and accepting countries on earth. It’s not perfect, “but in a historical perspective, we certainly live in the least bigoted society ever known.”
As to the idea of privilege, “I hate the term ‘privileged group,’ ” he said. Today, whites are said to be privileged, “but there are whites who are poor and less privileged than other groups.” More broadly, “The term ‘privilege’ is ascribed to an entire group of people, despite the fact that there is huge variance in the extent to which people within said groups are supposedly privileged or not.… I don’t buy into that language.”
Fogel also takes issue with ascribing privilege to Jews. He points to Jewish history in Canada to indicate how misused the term “privilege” is, as it relates to Jews: “Jewish quotas existed at Canadian universities up to the 1970s. How could we possibly be viewed as part of any privileged class? Indeed, Jews gained entry into various professions and social strata by dint of exceptional hard work and dedication to excellence and sense of purpose.”
Nevertheless, he believes Jews should care how they are seen and categorized by others. “Of course we should care, to the extent that such categorizations limit our access or diminish our legitimacy or dismiss our narrative and history,” he said.
Ran Ukashi, the national director of B’nai Brith’s League for Human Rights, noted that when it comes to Jews and identity politics, “some in left-wing circles see Jews as an oppressed group still,” due to anti-Semitism.
“But within the same school of thought, you’ll see the opposite,” he continued. “Zionism has been transformed within the discourse – Zionism is equated with all forms of oppression around the world.” What for the vast majority of Jews is a form of national self-determination is seen by others as a form of colonialism. Jews are now described as Nazis and Israel is compared to South Africa under apartheid.
That makes things difficult for left-leaning Jews. “How do you balance Jewish self-determination with the desire to be (in solidarity) with marginalized groups?” Ukashi asked.
Ilan Orzy has seen several instances on campus where Jewish students have been labeled as privileged and had their views downplayed. It usually occurs when there’s a discussion about Israel, said Orzy, the director of advocacy and issues management for Hillel Ontario. Jews who advocate for Israel face a dismissive attitude and on one occasion, an extremist opponent of Israel labeled a Zionist Jew as an “AshkeNazi,” Orzy said. In discussions about Israel, he added, “they paint the Jewish student as part of the problem, not the solution.”
The issue can manifest itself in people not looking beyond a student’s skin colour, seeing only that he or she is white and not acknowledging what that person thinks and believes, Orzy said. “Unless we are looking at the individual in terms of their inner thoughts, you’re seeing them as less than relevant to the conversation at hand.”
Orzy noted that there have been instances in which pro-Israel Jewish students have been excluded by their peers from student advocacy organizations because of their allegiance to the Jewish state. “In many spaces, Jewish students are forced to confront a fork in the road, when it’s either they have to defend their allegiance to Israel and put it above their allegiance to social justice advocacy, or put their allegiance to social justice advocacy above their allegiance to Israel. I have seen students make that decision,” Orzy said.
Robert Walker, the director of Hasbara Fellowships Canada, views things much the same way. “Our fellows have seen more instances where a pro-Israel side is dismissed in a summary manner, merely because many of our students are Jews, (and are) therefore seen to be privileged and therefore excluded from consideration or mainstream dialogue.
“It manifests in different ways. We’re currently dealing with a situation where a number of students were speaking about suffering in the world. A Jewish student explained that many people experienced discrimination and their opinion was dismissed without consideration because that person was Jewish.”
The views of pro-Israel students can be similarly disregarded. “Their opinion is often dismissed for being Jewish or pro-Israel and seen as part of the privileged white bourgeoisie,” Walker said, noting that there is now no level playing field when it comes to campus discussions. “People are dismissed simply for who they are. We’re seeing this more and more.
“Inevitably, there will be students who shy away from raising their voices for Israel because they will be ridiculed for doing it.”