y my second week at Stanford, I knew only three things: I was unable to drink alcohol responsibly, I didn’t really like my new friends, and supporting Israel was going to be a drag. I couldn’t escape the posters screaming about Israeli settler colonialism and human-rights abuses. They were plastered on the backs of the bathroom stall doors, right at eye level for the seated occupant. Even in the safest of spaces, there was nowhere else to look.

The posters had five bullet points. The first squarely connected Israel to American police violence. “Israel trains U.S. police how to deal with black people the way its occupation forces deal with Palestinians,” it read. The second bullet point explained that Israeli airstrikes deliberately target Palestinian women and children. The third accused Israel of systematically sterilizing African immigrants to reduce its black population. The fourth laid out religious discrimination against gays in Israel. The fifth linked the technology behind the Israeli “apartheid fence” to U.S. efforts to “hunt down undocumented migrants.”

The posters were the work of Stanford Out of Occupied Palestine, a rainbow coalition of 19 student organizations, including the Black Student Union, MEChA (a large, radical Latino student group), the NAACP, Stanford Students for Queer Liberation, Stanford American Indian Association, the First Generation and/or Low-Income Partnership, and so on. Their opposition was the Coalition for Peace. This was an odd kind of coalition, consisting of only one group: The Jewish Student Association.

Fellow students explained the disparity as the natural result of the sympathy from the marginalized for the marginalized. No doubt that is partly true. But what I saw that year, in 2014, was a well-oiled machine whose leaders were able to whip their constituent groups into action and frame the issue as the weak versus the strong, the weak versus the Jews. Defection from the anti-Israel cause meant not only abandoning one’s group and facing real personal costs, but also becoming a servant to power. I had just been introduced to intersectionality and witnessed its grip on the American campus.


ntersectionality theory was formalized in an academic paper. The critical race theorist Kimberlé Crenshaw wrote in 1989 that a rigid separation of racism and sexism blinded American antidiscrimination law to the experiences of black women who had faced something more than the sum of each bigotry. Yet treating intersectionality as an argument gives it too little, and at the same time too much, credit. Intersectionality needs to be understood first as a model of political organizing, second as a conspiracy, and only third as a theory.

Intersectionality is used to tear down an older model of political organizing, what Crenshaw calls the “trickle-down approach to social justice.” The trickle-down model rallied around feminism, promising that its achievements would eventually empower black women. It rallied around opposition to exploitation, assuming its victories would eventually reach poor people of color. The left that Crenshaw helped build considers these promises hopelessly broken. Fighting prejudices separately misses the true “intersectional experience.” That is, the racism and sexism that afflict black women are suffered as a unified experience. In this crucial but ineffable sense, racism and sexism can be said to merge into one.

As the International Socialist Review helpfully notes, this insight “has enormous significance at the very practical level of movement building.” Since “oppressions work together in producing injustice,” according to the summary of black feminist scholar Patricia Hill Collins, intersectionality has the effect of making solidarity a prerequisite of consciousness. In other words, one cannot be a full participant in the effort to secure social justice if one is a mere feminist or anti-racist. In fact, the anti-racist who fails to consider the special suffering of people of color who are gay or Palestinian is hardly an anti-racist at all. He must champion every left-wing cause as they all overlap. Different types of bigotry combine to threaten vulnerable people at their junctions.

Groups that can consistently mobilize their members to rally and vote do not just win but dominate campus politics, imposing their will on the ambivalent majority, most of whom will adopt whatever political view is least costly in their social circles. Though the situation is not uniform across the country, on elite campuses, the only group able to achieve this level of mobilization is the intersectional coalition of minority groups.

Jewish students, however, contest the intersectional coalition’s exercise of power. Sensing that their interests are threatened, the students adopt a defensive posture, parrying unprovoked attacks against Israel. Often, they seek to debate the enemy they do not want into deescalating hostilities. This is unlikely to succeed.

Intersectionality begins with identity über alles. Of course, a member of a marginalized group does not need to be told that she shares interests, histories, and experiences with her fellow group members. But intersectionality tells her anyway, stressing the integrity and community of the group and subgroup again and again. Already swimming with the current, its practitioners use ethnic and racial student groups, community centers, courses, majors, events, freshmen orientations, mentorship programs, and even themed dormitories to sort incoming freshmen into their identity group. These students, many of whom feel quite vulnerable, as they are 18 years old and away from their families and friends, are grateful for soft social landing spots with peers from similar backgrounds.

Strict sorting positions each group as a cog in a political machine. Shaped into cohesive units, identity groups can be organized and led credibly from above by one of their own. On a campus where identity groupings have become primary elements in the overall social network, opposing the group position is then framed as siding with the same force of injustice that is the group’s enemy. For this reason, defection becomes nearly unthinkable, no matter how unrelated the issue seems (black queers for Palestine?). In this way, racial and ethnic leaders are able to deliver votes and numbers to the coalition.


n my freshman year, the intersectional anti-Israel activists had plenty of ideas. The Native Americans, for example, cast Zionism as a continuation of the settler colonialism that had ravaged their community. We countered that Jews were indigenous to the land, but it didn’t matter. This was not a debate. It was simple coalition politics.

The Native American student group, along with those of the black, Latino, Muslim, and Asian communities, is part of the Students of Color Coalition (SOCC). This is Stanford’s dominant political machine. Every year, SOCC endorses a dozen candidates for student council and, in exchange, requires them to campaign as a slate. The effect is to stop candidates from building independent political profiles, making them entirely dependent on the larger machine. It’s worth it for both sides: Every year since 2009, SOCC candidates have won a majority of the student council, and often a supermajority. Even in 2015, when it was dogged by allegations of anti-Semitism that were published in the New York Times, SOCC still won nine of 15 possible council races. Year after year, its member groups out-organize the opposition and corral the votes of their racial and ethnic compatriots and their left-wing supporters in sufficient numbers to overwhelm an apathetic student body. These wins translate into more diversity administrators, sexual-assault trainings, money for community centers, and calls for a diverse faculty.

Remarkably, in 2014, the student council fell one vote short of the two-thirds majority it needed to pass a resolution calling for divestment from Israel. Two student-council members, one leftist Latina and one leftist Jew, had abstained and voted against the resolution, respectively. In short order, the activist communities of which they were part made clear that the offending members had only one path to avoid social ostracism. A week later, a re-vote was called, and before anyone knew what was happening, both students switched their votes. Defection from the intersectional coalition was too costly for them to bear.

Intersectionality does not by itself explain the campus left’s hatred for Israel. Decades ago, long before today’s intersectional coalitions existed, Soviet and Arab anti-Zionist propaganda were popular on the left. There are, however, two facts worth noting about today’s groups. First, they almost always include the Muslim Students’ Association and Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP), both of which push the coalition to undertake anti-Israel action. SJP is also an extremely well-organized national group that can make the rest of the coalition’s job easy by supplying its prepackaged divestment campaign.

Second, the coalition defines itself as the collection of marginalized groups. This leaves only two options for nonmember groups, such as whites and Jews: They become either part of the power structure or allies of the marginalized. The former is assumed because all whites benefit from skin-color privilege, but the latter can be earned.

As Mia McKenzie, the writer behind the popular website Black Girl Dangerous, explains, the key to being an ally is to “shut up and listen.” Articles about how to be an ally invariably begin here. They may say all the right things, but white allies still, quite literally, lack skin in the game. They remain privileged, able to defect to the power structure at any time, and their nonwhite partners know it.


his lingering suspicion requires white allies to humble themselves publicly and repeatedly before people of color. Accordingly, they confess their privilege, how they benefit from it, and how it is so baked into American society that they are irredeemably tainted and poisoned by it, despite their best efforts. The ally must show he subordinates his identity and interests and must pledge loyalty to the movement, its identities, and its interests. In the end, the intersectional movement has little to tell these students other than to confess their sins. But for the guilt-drenched modern conscience, that is more than enough. White students line up for these coveted roles, eager to profess their disgust with their identity.

Jewish students have it tougher. To subordinate themselves, it is not enough to condemn whiteness. They must also take on the “mainstream Jewish community” and Israel itself. What other way can a Jew demonstrate her allegiance? If she refuses to forsake Israel, then she is just another hypocritical white liberal, happy to tout social justice until it threatens her own privilege. In this way, many otherwise progressive Jews reveal themselves to be bad allies. By putting Israel before the coalition, they appear to put themselves before the coalition, clinging to their place in the power structure.

The intersectional movement can interpret this Jewish intransigence in the way that it understands all opposition: as backlash from the power structure. Who else would oppose the oppressed but the oppressors? So when Jewish students organize against the intersectional coalition, they confirm that they do not fit in among the marginalized, an impression aided by their observable or presumed whiteness and wealth.

Treating opposition as aggression from the power structure is a means of manufacturing concern for those who are opposed. Surely universities should not allow vulnerable minorities to be targeted and attacked—which is how the coalition understands the power structure’s political mobilization aimed against it. This framing then justifies everything from classroom callouts to speech codes to shouting down speakers, behavior that has escalated on the left and collapsed on the right since 2013. The campus left claims to be exercising its right to self-defense, responding to your aggression.

If the marginalized are conceived as basically united, the temptation is strong to see the marginalizers as similarly united. Patricia Hill Collins writes, “Regardless of the particular intersections involved, structural, disciplinary, hegemonic, and interpersonal domains of power reappear across quite different forms of oppression.” What the marginalized are really fighting, in this view, is power, and power is fairly homogenous, even when it goes under different names. The oppressors of the Palestinians and the oppressors of black Americans, therefore, can be joined in the same system of power relations.

This theory can be vulgarized quite readily into a conspiracy. One need only conceive the power structure as a unit, undertaking coordinated action. It then appears to have many tentacles striking all over the world, to be exceedingly powerful and organized. But it’s also secretive and denies it has any diabolical plans. In other words, it starts to resemble the House of Rothschild, Henry Ford’s International Jew, or the Elders of Zion of the anti-Semitic imagination.

It is sadly axiomatic that those who perceive evil as residing in a single matrix or enemy will eventually blunder into anti-Semitism. At least some will eventually conflate that enemy with the Jews and that matrix with their supposed lackeys. This is how remarkably diverse conspiracy theories converge. And this convergence is always to the detriment of the Jews, who become synonymous with a power elite.

The intersectional coalition is vulnerable to this sort of conspiracy theorizing for three reasons. The first is tactical. To engage their diverse coalition, intersectional movements must exaggerate the unity and malevolence of its enemies. The unity helps show anti-sexual-assault activists, for example, that Israeli “apartheid” should be their issue, too, because of how it props up the same system of domination that inflicts violence on Palestinian and other women. The result is a picture of a uniquely wicked Jewish state lurking behind the world’s evils.

Second, on campus after campus, the intersectional coalition’s main opposition is composed of Jewish students. And when Jews are already the proximate tactical enemy, and the movement already sees itself as engaged in an epic struggle against the powerful, it is all too easy to conflate the Jews not only with Israel but also with the entire power structure, and blame them for all sorts of other things. Just ask the Palestinians.

Third, there is the uncomfortable fact that anti-Semitism in America is more common among racial minorities than among whites. The Anti-Defamation League’s most recent data on anti-Semitic attitudes confirm the longstanding trend. Twenty-three percent of African Americans were found to hold anti-Semitic attitudes, compared with only 14 percent of the general population and 10 percent of whites. U.S.-born Hispanics clock in at 19 percent, but the number for foreign-born Hispanics, not an insignificant group in America, is 31 percent. Even worse, the ADL Global 100 found that 34 percent of Muslim Americans hold anti-Semitic views.

All these challenges mean that intersectional movements should be extra vigilant in detecting the development of anti-Semitic conspiracy theory within their ranks. Unfortunately, intersectionality is endemically blind to anti-Semitism.

Consider Gabriel Knight, a Palestinian-American former member of Stanford’s student council. In 2016, he publicly defended talk of “Jews controlling the media, economy, government, and other societal institutions” as mere “questioning [of] potential power dynamics.” It is notable that, despite intense pressure, Stanford’s Students of Color Coalition refused to rescind its endorsement of Knight for reelection, even after other organizations had done so, and even after Knight pulled out of the election. Since Knight technically remained on the ballot, the powerful endorsement brought him close to winning.

Strict classification by identity makes Knight and other people of color members of the in-group, the coalition of the marginalized, while the Jews calling for him to step down are considered members of the out-group, the coalition of the dominant. This completely reverses the polarity of the situation. Knight becomes the plucky underdog, daring to punch up and challenge the power, which immediately reacts by destroying him. By default, punching up appears to be resistance to domination; punching down is seen as dangerous oppression and bigotry. Actions by Jews, who are considered to have power, can be interpreted as threatening, but most actions against them cannot. Consequently, the modern anti-Semite’s punching up at the powerful Jews, whether those in Israel, America, or Germany, is not seen as punching at all.

Comments by Tamika Mallory, co-founder of the Women’s March and a defender of Louis Farrakhan, are illustrative of the intersectional blind spot. Mallory castigated Starbucks for hiring the ADL to conduct anti-bias training for its employees, since “the ADL is CONSTANTLY attacking black and brown people.” This is how she sees it: the ADL—white, Jewish, respectable—versus poor Louis Farrakhan—black, Muslim, marginalized. Recognizing anti-Semitism from below requires using a lens that the intersectional movement simply lacks.


s I walk on Stanford’s campus today, three years after the intersectional divestment campaign of my freshman year, I pass SJP’s mock “apartheid wall.” Placed right in the center of our main plaza, it too cannot be missed.

On one side of the wall, in large letters, someone has written, “Respeta mi EXISTENCIA o espera mi RESISTENCIA.” The Black Power fist has been drawn directly below it. Something else is written next to it in Arabic. Farther over, “Corea for Justice in Palestine” has been plastered across a drawing of the map of both Koreas. Next is the slogan “From Palestine to Mexico, Those Walls Got To Go,” with both nations’ flags appended to the side. Below reads “APIs [Asian and Pacific Islanders] against APARTHEID” and “BORDERS—what’s up with that?” Back on the left, somebody wrote “End Gun Violence,” “Equality,” and “Black Lives Matter.”

As a piece of propaganda, this is pitiable stuff. “Equality” is generic and lame; “End Gun Violence” seems totally unrelated; the Mexican connection is laid on way too thick; and why exactly is Korea spelled in English with a “C”? The whole thing is a hodgepodge, the result of too many artists with too many markers.

But on closer inspection, there was just the right number of markers at work: one for every group. MEChA, the Latino student group, wrote the Spanish and drew the Mexican flag. The Black Student Union drew the fist. The Muslim Students’ Association contributed the Arabic. Even the Asian American Student Association got in on the action. Each identity group had added its own inward-directed slogan, signalling to its members that they were being implicated in the fight. Forget theory. It is on this basis—I’ll rally my people if you’ll rally yours—that the intersectional machine cooperates and wins.

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