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  • Teaching for CoalitionDismantling "Jewish-Progressive Conflict" through Feminist and Queer Pedagogy
  • Jonathan Branfman (bio)

Part I: Jewish-Progressive Conflict

introduction: teaching for coalition

Clashing definitions of Jewishness and anti-Semitism often divide Jews from progressives in the United States today, while stranding Jewish progressives in between. Many American Jews view themselves as a vulnerable minority, in solidarity with fellow minorities. Conversely, progressive (feminist, queer, and anti-racist) thought regularly conflates Jews with white gentiles, or mentions Jews exclusively as colonial oppressors in Israel-and-Palestine.1 Therefore progressive analysis frequently overlooks anti-Semitism, or treats it solely as religious prejudice against privileged white people. These fields also schematize privilege, oppression, and violence in ways that obscure anti-Semitism.

These clashing paradigms fuel a narrative I call "Jewish-progressive conflict," which hides commonalities and discourages coalitions between Jewish and progressive communities. As I show, many American Jews believe progressive thought is anti-Semitic. Conversely, though progressive discourse may not stereotype Jews as conservative, it often constructs Jews as obstacles when they call for serious attention to anti-Semitism and to Jewishness as a form of difference. When Jews discuss anti-Semitic stigma, oppression, or violence, progressives often perceive this move as unintelligible or even as a lie that undermines progressive analysis: an evasion to distract from "real" problems, dodge white guilt, or excuse Israeli violence against Palestinians. For Jews in progressive spaces, these opposite paradigms often compel a false choice: either conflate anti-Semitism with colorist racism or deny their lived experiences of difference, stigma, fear, and violence.

I respond to this tension with a three-fold argument: first, I trace the beliefs [End Page 126] that fuel "Jewish-progressive conflict" and clarify the resultant problems. Second, I pursue educational remedies to this clash: I argue that feminist and queer studies instructors should explicitly integrate topics of Jewishness and anti-Semitism into their intersectional lessons on privilege, oppression, and violence. These lessons must also explain Jewish identity and anti-Semitism beyond the context of Israel-and-Palestine. Third, I outline best teaching practices: strategies for defining Jewishness and anti-Semitism, explaining why they historically slip from progressive analysis, and clarifying how they co-structure other forms of oppression. I build these arguments through scholarship by gentile and Jewish feminists of color, alongside white-skinned Jewish feminists.2

Teaching about Jewishness and anti-Semitism enhances feminist and queer pedagogy on multiple levels. First, these topics are valuable in their own right. Second, these lessons can help students better analyze categories like race, gender, sexuality, and nation as well as concepts like intersectionality and systemic violence. Third, this education can reduce Jewish-progressive conflict by helping Jewish and progressive communities to understand each other better. In turn, such understanding can ease coalitional activism.

Such coalitions are vital in light of recent alt-right white supremacist rhetoric, policies, and violence worldwide. For example, October 2018 saw racially motivated gunmen murder two African American grocery shoppers in Kentucky and twelve white-skinned Jewish congregants at a Pittsburgh synagogue.3 March 2019 saw an Australian white supremacist gunman murder fifty Muslim worshipers in Christchurch, New Zealand, while April saw another white supremacist shooting in a San Diego synagogue.4 The Pittsburgh, Christchurch, and San Diego shooters all posted explicit white supremacist internet manifestos. Just before attacking the Pittsburgh synagogue, for instance, Richard Bower blended anti-Semitism with anti-immigrant xenophobia, racism and Islamophobia by ranting online about the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society (HIAS). HIAS is a Jewish nonprofit that has resettled millions of refugees in the US since 1881, including many recent Arab and Muslim refugees. Bowers posted that "HIAS likes to bring invaders in that kill our people. I can't sit by and watch my people get slaughtered. Screw your optics, I'm going in."5 Although Bowers had posted criticisms of Donald Trump (for supposedly falling under Jewish influence),6 Bowers's hysteria about "invaders" reflects the White House's own messages—like fear-mongering about Latinx and Muslim immigrants while ushering neo-Nazi rhetoric into the mainstream.7 Bowers's post also reflects a longstanding white supremacist conspiracy theory: that Jews are the puppet-masters behind all challenges to white, [End...