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Is Ideological Purity Too Much To Ask Of Intersectional Feminists?

A version of this article originally appeared in New Voices.

A green text bubble flashed across my phone.

“You should write about the Farrakhan, Women’s March, anti-Semitism, intersectionality thing.”

I turned my screen dark. I’d been avoiding this.

I know. I’m a Jewish feminist writer. I drink my morning coffee out of an Emma Goldman mug and my phone auto-predicts the term “intersectional feminism.” I should be all over this. But frankly, I’m deeply conflicted.

Because at its core, this story asks a question I don’t know how to answer: Can intersectional feminism be radically inclusive and ideologically pure at the same time? And if it can’t, who are we leaving behind?

In case you’ve been living under a rock, or avoiding the news like a sane person, Tamika Mallory, Women’s March organizer and co-president, went to a speech by Nation of Islam Minister Louis Farrakhan on February 25, posting a (since-deleted) picture of her and Farrakhan on Instagram.

At that speech, Farrakhan said some straight-up anti-Semitic things. The winners: Farrakhan said he “pulled the cover off of that Satanic Jew” and that “the powerful Jews are my enemies.” He also complained of Jews “turning men into women and women into men,” adding some transphobia to the mix.

Farrakhan’s anti-Semitism isn’t surprising or new. But Mallory, as a representative of an intersectional movement, came under fire. Intersectionality as a theory maintains that all struggles against oppression are linked and require joint action, fighting anti-Semitism included. So to Jews, Mallory’s failure to condemn Farrakhan felt like a double standard.

In response, the Women’s March issued a statement on March 6 saying, “Minister Farrakhan’s statements about Jewish, queer, and trans people are not aligned with the Women’s March Unity Principles.” But they also defended Mallory.

The statement went on, “We love and value our sister and co-President Tamika Mallory, who has played a key role in shaping these conversations. Neither we nor she shy away from the fact that intersectional movement building is difficult and often painful.”

This whole debacle makes me feel all the angsty duality of the “evil Kermit” meme, an often spoofed picture of two versions of Kermit the Frog arguing contradictory ideas with himself.

Image by Screenshot

Me: Hypocrisy!

Also Me: It’s more complicated than that.

On one hand, the Women’s March made its bed and now it has to lie in it. On today’s left, we’re all about ideological purity, defining rigidly what we can and cannot tolerate or normalize in the push against everyday oppressions. And Women’s March organizers haven’t been shy about embracing anti-normalization, the idea that you can’t have ideologies or behaviors counter to your coalition’s goals mixed up in your movement. Linda Sarsour’s argument that Zionism has no place in intersectional feminism is a prime example. By her logic, even passively supporting a state that endangers Palestinian women means neglecting the fight for all women. “You either stand up for the rights of all women, including Palestinians, or none,” she told The Nation. “There’s just no way around it.”

So, back to Mallory: She didn’t do anything. She didn’t say anything anti-Semitic, but her own movement’s stance has always been clear: silence is complicity – and complicity with any type of oppression has no place in intersectional feminism. By sitting there, by not publicly condemning Farrakhan, she committed a crime within a set of rules her movement helped create. If Women’s March leaders really believe anti-Semitism is counter to their mission, if they’re going to keep their claim to ideological purity, they would have to come down as strongly on Mallory as they would on a co-organizer cheesing in an Instagram pic at AIPAC.

But what if ideological purity is too much to ask — of Mallory, Zionist feminists, or anyone else?

It might be time for us to admit that anti-normalization and intersectionality make weird bedfellows. Anti-normalization is by definition exclusive. It’s about creating a society, particularly an activist community, with a consistent set of values. That means some ideologies — and the people that perpetuate them — don’t make the cut, Zionism often included to many Jews’ dismay.

Intersectional feminism, meanwhile, prides itself on its wide-ranging inclusivity, espousing that the unique struggles of all women overlap and call for solidarity across communal lines. But activists committed to causes that intersect are also going to inevitably diverge on other issues by nature of those same communal differences. And maybe that’s ok.

I don’t like Louis Farrakhan. I think his comments are dangerous and hurt my community. And still, a part of me feels for Mallory. As an Orthodox Jew, how many times have I sat through rabbis’ sermons that slipped into comments about Arabs or Muslims that made my stomach churn? How many times have I rationalized to myself that those same rabbis empower my community in other ways? I don’t stand by my decisions in those moments. I don’t stand by Mallory’s. But I see the human tension in them.

Mallory’s ordeal with Farrakhan is a powerful reminder that intersectional feminism has a choice to make as a movement. Do we insist on purity, that our allies unwaveringly uphold a shared set of values and condemn the same set of figures? Or do we accept that intersectionality is messy, that our allies sometimes won’t remember to stand up for us, that they’ll sometimes tolerate or even espouse ideas we truly find hateful and vice versa — and can we march together nonetheless.

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