Intersectionality and the mainstreaming of Palestine

Originally published in the third print issue of Palestine in America. Subscribe here 

BDS – Photo credit: T. Kim K


Princess Nokia did it. Macklemore and Ryan Lewis did it. Queer filmmakers did it. A group of NFL players did it. Barcelona city council members did it. Even Sacramento, California transit officials did it

In just the last few months, several artists and athletes have either quietly or explicitly canceled gigs and appearances in Israel or have refused to attend state-sponsored exhibitions, while grassroots activists have successfully pushed local elected officials around the world to dump urban contracts with companies that profit from Israel’s crimes.

As Israel continues to violate Palestinian rights with impunity, the 12-year-old Palestinian-led boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) campaign continues to grow and claim more victories: Major multinational companies have ditched Israeli contracts over boycott pressure, dozens of European communities have declared themselves Israeli apartheid-free zones and churches have continued to endorse the BDS call.

BDS has rekindled our hopes that, with internal nonviolent resistance and mounting international pressure, similar to that applied to apartheid South Africa, we can prevail over Israel’s system of oppression,” wrote Omar Barghouti, co-founder of the BDS movement who was targeted, interrogated, banned from travel and threatened by the Israeli government earlier this year.

Condemnation of Israel’s policies has continued to gain mainstream traction even in Trump’s America. A recent poll by the Brookings Institution found that nearly half of all Americans support imposing sanctions on Israel over its expansion of settlement colonies in the occupied West Bank including East Jerusalem.

Even with all the funds and resources at their disposal, Israel lobby groups are forced to admit – notably, in a leaked report authored by the Reut Institute and the Anti-Defamation League, obtained earlier this year — that their hasbara efforts to win hearts and minds are failing.

They fail as Palestine advocacy strengthens bonds with Black liberation, queer liberation and the fight for immigrant rights.

And they fail especially on college campuses, where some of the most spirited and relentless Palestine solidarity organizing is taking place.

While attempting to discredit and stunt the growth of BDS – the Israeli government has allocated tens of millions of dollars to fight it — Israel advocates are in a meltdown over their own scientific studies that conclude that when young people understand the inherent connections between human rights struggles, the result is a rapidly decreasing support for Israel.

RAMALLAH, PALESTINE – MAY 18: Palfest artists meet Omar Barghouti, co-founder of the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement, at Ceaser Hotel on May 18, 2017 in Ramallah, Palestine. Rob Stothard for Palfest

** “They don’t have our interests at heart” **

“For anyone with the slightest Zionist impulse, the downward slope of Israel support is disturbing,” lamented The Times of Israel in a June 21 profile of  Fern Oppenheim, a Zionist Israeli who runs the Brand Israel Group, a market research company that charts Israel’s popularity and the effectiveness of pro-Israel propaganda, and the group’s recent study on support for Israel – or lack thereof – on US campuses.

The current college atmosphere has categorized Israel as “just another symbol” of an oppressor-versus-victim narrative, Oppenheim complained.

With shock and dismay – she called the results of her survey “devastating” — Oppenheim told The Times of Israel that the rate in support of Palestinians by Jewish college students in particular has risen significantly over the last six years.

“In sum, the gap between Israel-supporters and detractors is widening. The current Israel advocacy programs are not working, and Jewish college students are the leading defectors from Israel support,” The Times of Israel warned. “Much of this change she blamed on the rise of ‘intersectionality’ on campuses.”

Indeed, intersectional organizing continues to outpace Zionist inculcation in millennial spaces while boycott, divestment and sanctions campaigns multiply. Activists say that Palestine advocacy has never before been so visible and so mainstream — a cause for alarm by the Zionist establishment.

“The fact that they think of intersectionality as a threat to Jewish communities and Jewish students, and are yet bewildered why more and more young Jews are criticizing the state of Israel, speaks to how out of touch and how really racist the establishment is,” said Rebecca Pierce, filmmaker and member of the Jews of Color and Sephardi/Mizrahi Caucus, a group in partnership with Jewish Voice for Peace.

The panic by Israel advocates around intersectionality clarifies that they don’t understand that it is “something that benefits young Jewish people who are increasingly aware of the fact that our experiences intersect with the experiences of other people,” she told Palestine in America.

“For a lot of us, myself included, if you’re Jewish and you’re Black, if you’re Jewish and you’re queer, if you’re Jewish and you’re marginalized in some way, this is an important way of understanding the world around you.”

Pierce explained that this anxiety by Zionists over intersectional organizing and growing young Jewish support of the Palestinian liberation struggle reveals that “they don’t have our interests at heart — and that we know what’s best for us better than they do, very clearly.”

Michael Bennett of the Seattle Seahawks declared publicly and unapologetically that he was rebuking an offer by the Israel to participate in a propaganda trip to Israel. Photo credit: Anthony May Photography

** “I will not be used” **

In January, one week into the Trump presidency, thousands of protesters simultaneously and spontaneously shut down airports all across the US in immediate response to the first iteration of the so-called Muslim ban. One of the popular chants, heard from San Francisco to New York City, was “From Palestine to Mexico, all the walls have got to go!”

“It is a chant that indicates an awareness of our connected struggle,” remarked Seattle-based professor and activist Nada Elia in an article for Mondoweiss following the protests.

“Just as the ‘Gaza to Ferguson’ connection that surfaced during the riots against police murders of African Americans in various US cities, the chant linking the Mexico Wall to the Israeli Annexation and Apartheid wall is a sign that points in the right direction, one of global struggle, global solidarity, global alliances,” Elia added.

As Pierce noted, such systems of oppression copy each other — and once they are exposed, the systems cannot be put back into isolation.

Immediately following the airport shutdowns, professional athletes helped highlight the connections between the struggle for Black liberation and support for Palestinian rights.

The Electronic Intifada reported that Colin Kaepernick of the San Francisco 49ers, who famously refused to stand during the national anthem in protest of racist police violence against Black people, retweeted a February 7 tweet following the Muslim ban stating that if anyone was outraged by the actions of the US government, they should surely also be “livid about the apartheid tactics Israel forces on Palestinian Muslims.”

Days later, Michael Bennett of the Seattle Seahawks declared publicly and unapologetically that he was rebuking an offer by the Israel to participate in a propaganda trip to Israel.

Bennett and 10 other NFL players had been encouraged by legendary Black activists, athletes and artists who have long supported the Palestinian emancipatory struggle — including Angela Davis, Alice Walker, Dr. John Carlos, Alicia Garza, Marc Lamont Hill, Boots Riley and Danny Glover — to pull out of the junket.

Upon learning that the trip was organized and designed by the Israeli government in an attempt to mold Bennett and other players into “goodwill ambassadors” for the Zionist state, and ostensibly as weapons against the BDS campaign, Bennett replied, simply, “I will not be used in such a manner.”

“One of my heroes has always been Muhammad Ali,” Bennett added. “I know that Ali always stoodstrongly with the Palestinian people, visiting refugee camps, going to rallies and always being a ‘voice for the voiceless.’ I want to be a ‘voice for the voiceless,’ and I cannot do that by going on this kind of trip to Israel.”

In the end, six out of 11 NFL players pulled out of the trip, dealing a public blow to what was supposed to be an easy win for the Brand Israel campaign.

Speaking about his decision not to take part in the trip, Bennett told a crowd in Washington, DC in April: “I was just like, ‘Man, this just reminds me of being in the civil rights movement and what’s going on at this time.’ For me, I just couldn’t do it.”

Pierce said that it wasn’t surprising that Bennett instantly recognized the connections between oppression of Black folks in the US and the way he was being exploited to how Palestinians are treated.

“We’re in this age of information where we have access to the direct voices of Palestinians who are able to tell their story better than anyone could, “ she said.

With that framework of intersectional understanding, it “benefits our own struggles,” Pierce added. “It speaks to the fact that we are so much stronger together.”

The NFL itself has a long way to go, obviously, despite the woke politics of some of its rostered players.

In late June, professional football veterans were sent to Jerusalem to expand the league’s brand toward Israeli fans, who, as the Associated Press reported, “have taken a liking to the army-like strategy, camaraderie and collisions” of the sport.

As Alternet pointed out, “the result was not only a de facto embrace of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s radical agenda, but a dual celebration of the Israeli Defense Forces and the sport’s implicit militarism.”

The junket, organized by New England Patriots’ owner and Israel supporter Robert Kraft, was called “Touchdown in Israel II: Mission of Excellence” (because of course it was).

NFL players had been encouraged by legendary Black activists, athletes and artists who have long supported the Palestinian emancipatory struggle — including Angela Davis — to pull out of the junket. Photo credit: Emerson College

** “You can only go so far” **

After Trump’s election and his administration’s continuance of Barack Obama’s policies of surveillance, crackdowns on dissent and a refusal to curb racist state and civilian violence against Black and Brown people and people of Arab and Muslim descent, activists say there is a renewed urgency to work together to support collective justice struggles – especially as Israel advocacy groups ramp up their campaigns of harassment, intimidation and disinformation.

“Leading up to Trump, there has been a lot of on-the-ground organizing and relationship-building that has taken place,” activist Izzy M told Palestine in America.

“When individuals build relationships with others who do other movement work, it comes naturally that we will have each other’s back,” he said. “It’s one thing to say, ‘I’m in solidarity with you because our struggles are similar,’ but it’s another to really build that relationship with others.”

Izzy highlighted the growth of activism against pinkwashing – a public relations campaign to promote Israel’s image as an enlightened haven for LGBTQ issues in order to deflect criticism of its human rights abuses – as an example of the kind of strength an intersectional approach to activism can have on a movement.

As members of the Palestinian queer community called for an international boycott of the Tel Aviv Gay Pride parade in June, international filmmakers and artists pulled out of

Israel’s premier LGBTQ film festival – a move that forced The Jerusalem Post to admit that while the festival “has been around for more than a decade, it has never faced a campaign this successful against it.”

“As a Palestinian trans person in the queer community, I can only speak from my experience; but for me, what the Palestine LGBTQ movement has shown the world is ‘don’t f*** with us,’” he laughed.

“What the Zionists are trying to do is to strip us of our agency, of our voices; they’re trying to silence the narratives of Palestinian queers who live directly under their oppression,” Izzy explained. “What we’re seeing now is that when you try to insert yourself under a historically progressive movement, you can only go so far.”

If you stand for liberation, you can’t stand for Zionism or the Zionist project, he added.

Taking that stand, he said, is “a microcosm of intersectionality, in terms of the fight that’s going down within progressive spaces.”

Nora Barrows-Friedman

Nora Barrows-Friedman is a staff writer and associate editor at The Electronic Intifada, and is the author of In Our Power: US Students Organize for Justice in Palestine (Just World Books, 2014).

Leave a Reply