The concept of intersectionality recognizes that multiple forms of oppression and discrimination can impact individuals at the same time. For example, African-Americans experience systemically and socially both economic disadvantage and racial discrimination. Black women face an addition layer of intersectional oppression and black LGBTQ people add homophobia to the mix.
Intersectionality can be problematic for the Jewish community. As we have discussed in this space previously and will again, despite historical realities, Jewish people are often perceived by others as an advantaged, rather than a disadvantaged, minority. It does not take long on the sort of online forums where the term intersectionality is commonly used before stereotypes of Jewish power show up. Similarly, Zionism is seen by some not as the realization of an indigenous rights movement for self-determination that it is, but rather as a form of colonialism.
In one of the most self-evident examples of intersectionality’s potential blind spots, the intersection of Palestinian rights and gay rights begets ludicrousness like Queers Against Israeli Apartheid, which makes common cause with extremists who throw homosexuals off roofs in order to condemn the perceived colonialism and myriad other “sins” of Zionism. Very frequently, in the discourse found in some far-left circles, antisemitism is dismissed because it does not fit the ideology of those who determine where the intersections are. Or, rather, it is made to not fit.
This is too bad, because selecting which humans are eligible for inclusion in a human rights movement based on immutable characteristic is, by definition, a human rights movement founded on false premises.
Of course, social theory and the real world are disparate points on a spectrum. A beautiful real-world example of something we might term intersectionality took place last week here in Vancouver.
Bernard Richard, British Columbia’s Representative for Children and Youth, spoke at the ceremony for the awarding of this year’s Janusz Korczak Medal for Children’s Rights Advocacy. He observed that it might be difficult for some people to see the parallels between a Jewish Pole who died in the Holocaust and a social worker and activist who is a Canadian First Nations woman. But the inspiring intersection of these two lives makes eminent sense.
Dr. Janusz Korczak, as regular readers know, was a hero of the Holocaust who chose to accompany the 200 children in the care of his orphanage to their deaths in Treblinka, despite the Nazis offering him a reprieve. But he is a hero not only for the way he died, but for the work of his life. Seen as the originator of the children’s rights movement, Korczak insisted on the recognition of children’s innate humanity – rather than merely their potential – and insisted on seeing children as individuals fully deserving of respect and self-determination.
Far away in time and place, Dr. Cindy Blackstock insisted on the rights of indigenous Canadian children. A human rights complaint she initiated, which took nine years to wend its way through the byzantine structures of federal institutions, resulted in a January 2016 decision that Canada has consistently discriminated against the 165,000 aboriginal children who live on reserves, and their families, by systemically underfunding services to those children and youth based solely on their identities.
Blackstock was awarded the annual Korczak medal for exemplifying the values of Korczak in advancing children’s rights.
In her acceptance speech, Blackstock spoke of walking in the footsteps of ancestors and others who came before. Korczak and Blackstock are both models for all who seek to advance the condition of children in the world. It is impossible to imagine what future greatness may be inspired by their examples. A Polish Jewish man, Korczak effectively invented a concept that is now entrenched in United Nations testaments to the rights of the child, affecting the lives of potentially every child on earth. An indigenous Canadian woman, Blackstock shepherded a human rights challenge that will improve the lives of every child living on reserves in Canada, and their families.
Someday, who knows when or where, these two examples will inspire some other individual to stand up where injustice and inequality intersect with some other group of people. Then that individual will themselves become a model for others.