The terror attack on Israel by Hamas has been a divisive—if clarifying—moment for the left. The test that it presented was simple: Can you condemn the slaughter of civilians, in massacres that now appear to have been calculatedly sadistic and outrageous, without equivocation or whataboutism? Can you lay down, for a moment, your legitimate criticisms of Benjamin Netanyahu’s government, West Bank settlements, and the conditions in Gaza, and express horror at the mass murder of civilians?
In corners of academia and social-justice activism where the identity of the oppressor and the oppressed are never in doubt, many people failed that test. In response to a fellow progressive who argued that targeting civilians is always wrong, the Yale professor Zareena Grewal replied: “Settlers are not civilians. This is not hard.” (She has since locked her X account.) Chicago’s Black Lives Matter chapter posted a picture of a paraglider, referencing the gunmen who descended on civilians at a music festival near the Gaza border from the air. (The chapter said in a statement that “we aren’t proud” of the post, which was later deleted.) Harvard student groups posted a letter stating that its signatories “hold the Israeli regime entirely responsible for all unfolding violence.” (Several of the named groups have since withdrawn their endorsement.)
The New York branch of the Democratic Socialists of America promoted a rally where protesters chanted “resistance is justified when people are occupied” and one participant displayed a swastika. These actions prompted criticism by Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, perhaps the DSA’s most prominent figure, and the resignation of members including the comedian Sarah Silverman. In a statement, the New York City Democratic Socialists regretted the “confusion” that its rhetoric had caused, but added: “We are also concerned that some have chosen to focus on a rally while ignoring the root causes of violence in the region, the far-right Netanyahu government’s escalating human rights violations and explicitly genocidal rhetoric, and the dehumanization of the Palestinian people.”
In the United Kingdom, where I live, a journalist for the hard-left outlet Novara, Rivkah Brown, tweeted that “the struggle for freedom is rarely bloodless and we shouldn’t apologise for it.” (She has since deleted the post, saying she responded “too quickly and in a moment of heightened emotion.”) Ellie Gomersall, the president of the National Union of Students in Scotland, apologized for reposting content justifying Hamas’s actions. Two days earlier, Gomersall had accused the British Labour Party leader Keir Starmer of being “complicit in the deaths of … trans people” for saying that “a woman is a female adult.” Got that? A politician with an essentialist view of womanhood is complicit in the deaths of innocents, but a terrorist indiscriminately murdering people at a music festival must be understood in context.
In the fevered world of social media, progressive activists have often sought to discredit hateful statements and unjust policies by describing them as “violence,” even “genocide.” This tendency seems grotesque if the same activists are not prepared to criticize Hamas, a group whose founding charter is explicitly genocidal: “The Day of Judgement will not come about until Moslems fight the Jews (killing the Jews), when the Jew will hide behind stones and trees.”
Many of those making inflammatory statements come from what’s sometimes known as the “intersectional left.” This tendency is strongly influenced by the academic disciplines of queer theory and critical race theory, and by the postcolonial idea of the “subaltern,” or marginalized class. Like woke, intersectionality has become a boo-word for the right—but unlike woke, it is a label that some activists proudly embrace, particularly academics and young feminists.
I will go to my grave defending the original conception of intersectionality, a legal doctrine advanced by the American critical race theorist Kimberlé Crenshaw. She made the useful observation that civil-rights legislation has usually treated protected characteristics such as sex and race as discrete, when in fact they are often interlinked. One of her examples was a St. Louis car plant that, for many years, hired white women and Black men but never Black women. Even after management stopped discriminating, Black women always ranked low on the seniority list and therefore were especially vulnerable to layoffs. Yet how could they sue when they were not subject to racism or sexism per se, but an intersection of the two?
However, Crenshaw herself has expressed surprise at how the meaning of intersectionality has changed through its invocation in pop culture. “This is what happens when an idea travels beyond the context and the content,” she told Vox in 2019. In escaping from the academy into the mainstream, intersectionality morphed into both a crude tallying of oppression points and an assumption that social-justice struggles fit neatly together—with all of the marginalized people on one side and the powerful on the other.
That’s how you end up with Queers for Palestine when being queer in Palestine is difficult and dangerous. (In 2016, a Hamas commander was executed after being accused of theft and gay sex.) It’s also how you end up with candidates for Labour Party leadership signing a pledge that insists there “is no material conflict between trans rights and women’s rights,” even when—as in the eligibility rules for women’s sports—some wins for one group plainly come at the expense of the other. The pop version of intersectionality cannot deal with the complexity of real human life, where we can all be, in Jean-Paul Sartre’s phrase, “half-victims, half-accomplices, like everyone else.” In fact, you can support the Palestinian cause without excusing acts of terrorism committed by Hamas. You can question Israel’s military response without excusing acts of terrorism committed by Hamas.
Fitting Israel into the intersectional framework has always been difficult, because its Jewish citizens are both historically oppressed—the survivors of an attempt to wipe them out entirely—and currently in a dominant position over the Palestinians, as demonstrated by the Netanyahu government’s decision to restrict power and water supplies to Gaza. The simplistic logic of pop intersectionality cannot reconcile this, and the subject caused schisms within the left long before Saturday’s attacks. In 2017, Linda Sarsour, one of the organizers of the Women’s March, told The Nation that Zionism and feminism were incompatible: “It just doesn’t make any sense for someone to say, ‘Is there room for people who support the state of Israel and do not criticize it in the movement?’ There can’t be in feminism.” In January 2018, several pro-Palestinian groups boycotted a Women’s March because it featured the actor Scarlett Johansson, who once made an ad for an Israeli company that has a factory in the West Bank. On the other side, Jewish groups condemned three of the Women’s March organizers, including Sarsour, for associating with the openly anti-Semitic Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan.
The leftist belief in the righteousness of “punching up,” a derivation of standpoint theory, is also important here. Again, this idea has mutated from the reasonable observation that different groups have different knowledge based on their experience—I have never experienced being pulled over by a traffic cop as a Black man, and that limits my understanding of the police—to the idea that different rules apply to you depending on your social position. When an oppressed group uses violence against the oppressor, that is justified “resistance.” Many of us accept a mild version of this proposition: The British suffragettes turned to window smashing and bombing after deciding that letter writing and marches were useless, and history now remembers them as heroines. But somehow, in the case of the incursion from Gaza into Israel, the idea of “punching up” was extended to the murder of children. I simply cannot comprehend how any self-proclaimed feminist can watch footage of armed militants manhandling a woman whose pants are soaked with what looks like blood and decide that she has the power in that situation—and deserves her fate.
The sheer number of apologies and climb downs that followed the initial wave of inflammatory posts suggests that some of their authors issued knee-jerk statements of solidarity before they understood exactly what they were endorsing. As the full extent of the weekend’s barbarity becomes clear, some on the intersectional left are—to their small credit—revising their initial reactions. But others are doubling down. Confronted with real violence by genocidal terrorists, they failed the test.