Intersectionality Can Be Beneficial to Peacebuilding: Jay Rothman



Newsletter #183— December 11, 2023

Israel/Hamas Discussion Banner

From the BI Israel/Hamas War Discussion


The lead graphic, with a picture of an intersection, says "Part 2", because this follows Colin Rule's comments on our post entitled "Intersectionality, Israel, and Peacebuilding: How Do They Mix?"  Jay Rothman also wrote us about that post, so we are calling his submission "Part 2."  Jay is President of the ARIA Group, Inc. an international conflict resolution training and consulting and evaluation company. He has been a friend and a colleague for years and was one of the collaborators in the original Beyond Intractability planning meetings.  We interviewed Jay twice last summer (here and here*) and he wrote back recently, observing

"Welcome to my world--40 years in the desert of the Arab-Israeli conflict leading to conflict, conflict and more conflict with friends and enemies alike. And yet, so much learning!"

Indeed, Jay, we are learning a lot from this discussion, and we hope others are too.  But being in conflict with friends is hard, too. It would be much easier if we all agreed, but then there would be no learning. So here we are.


See Full BI Israel/Hamas Discussion


Jay's Essay "From Intragroup Conflict to Intergroup Cooperation" Using "Intersectionality" as a Tool

by Heidi Burgess and Guy Burgess

December 6, 2023

Jay shared a chapter he wrote for Research in Social Movements, Conflicts and Change, entitled "From Intragroup Conflict to Intergroup Cooperation." (Volume 37, pp 107-123, published in 2014). In that, he hypothesized that

by successfully engaging internal conflicts about outgroups within ingroups, sides may separately become more willing and able to successfully and interactively solve shared problems and achieve superordinate goals between them. History is filled with attempts at cooperation between antagonistic groups whether through negotiated agreement, functional cooperation, promoting positive contact and attitudes, and so forth that have led instead to worsening attitudes and renewed confrontation. Even when polarized groups decide to cooperate to achieve superordinate goals (Sherif, 1966) they are often unable to make this leap from conflict to collaboration. I posit that this may be in part because inadequate attention is paid first to intragroup conflict dynamics vis-a`-vis outgroups.

He went on to explain that: 

after some joint decision has been made by contending groups to pursue a shared agenda with the other side, actual implementation of such an agenda might be made more effective if parties were to first address internal divisions about the what, why, and how of such intergroup cooperation. That is, instead of initially seeking to construct a specific plan for cooperation between contending groups, I suggest that looking inward within each group may help to condition eventual cooperation between contending groups

It may not be clear how this relates to the current Israel/Hamas situation, since there has been no "joint decision to pursue a shared agenda" with the other side, at least beyond the negotiations over hostage releases and ceasefires. The relevance, Jay pointed out in his recent email about this article concerned his discussion of "intersectionality," a term which he uses differently than we did. Again quoting from his 2014 article:

The theory of intersectionality suggests that within groups, individuals have multiple identities and loyalties (Crenshaw, 1991). Intersectionality theory has developed primarily in response to issues of race, gender and class, and ways these differences are often smoothed over within groups to the detriment of those whose differences are deeply salient and disregarded. Not only does the theory usefully complexify group identity, but it also points to potential bridges with outgroups, some of whose members are cross-cutting, and around whom coalitions can be forged (Cho, Williams, & McCall, 2013). ...

In terms of intersectionality, when people recognize the multidimensionality of their own group’s members and accept that they can have multiple loyalties — that they can be both ingroup and outgroup members at once — they may also begin to see how the constituent parts of the other group could also be multi-dimensional (and contribute to complexifying their views of the other).

Intersectionality thus can be a kind of translational politics. When members of an ingroup are also members of an outgroup — particularly if that outgroup is discriminated against or reviled by the ingroup — they can bridge between them in ways that sets the stage for the possibility of future agreement and joint action. Such double membership individuals can translate, inform, and ultimately even resist their group’s subordination of their sub-group.

When differences within groups are articulated and accepted, groups can come to discover within themselves a diversity that they had previously overlooked, and find vehicles to span apparent gaps between them and other groups based on their own internal complexity and diversity.

This is certainly a more positive and very different view of intersectionality that one we had previously, and it is very consistent with our suggestion in many other parts of this blog and BI as a whole, that it is important to "complexify" one's image of any conflict situation and of "the other."  Jay points out that it is important to "complexify" the image of oneself as well.  Indeed, it is very important to keep in mind that not all Palestinians want to kill all Jews and not all Israelis want to destroy all Palestinians.  Indeed, most do not. Most probably want to simply live their lives in peace and are quite willing to allow "the other" to do so as well. Unfortunately, the leaders on both sides, and extremist groups on both sides, have driven events such that peace has become a distant dream, at best. If "intersectionality" means understanding the diversity of all sides, it, indeed, seems useful. 

Jay goes on to tell a story about how this played out in a class he taught in 2006 on identity-based conflict and cooperation at Jezreel Valley College in northern Israel. He reported:

When the Second Lebanon War erupted, the tensions in the mixed Arab-Jewish class were high. We invited the students to participate in a visioning process about the future of improved Arab-Jewish relations in the college and more broadly in Israeli society. It turned out some of their ideas for how this should occur were deeply and internally divisive. On the Israeli side, one participant suggested that “good fences make good neighbors.” Quite literally, she was in favor of a radical approach of forcing more separation between the populations and even voluntary transfer of part of the Arab population to a envisioned State of Palestine. Her Jewish colleagues were outraged and an internal shouting match ensued. After everyone calmed down, they engaged in a deep value-based conversation. One student appealed to his colleague “out of exhaustion.” He explained, “I believe as a people we [Israeli Jews] are all tired. We want to live normal lives, to raise our children to have good futures—not to fight forever. When we have to fight for our existence, we must and we will. But this last war had nothing to do with that … Rather, it was a leader’s war and the people were just pawns … I live with Arabs; I grew up with them. We are friends and this ensures that we don’t hate and fear each other … it won’t help us to live separately; rather we must live better together.” As the students continued their discussion, sharing personal stories of fears, hurts, and hopes, the atmosphere changed and an attitude of mutual regard took shape. Soon afterwards, as the group began negotiating its shared vision, the student agreed to give up her advocacy for a goal the group would obviously never accept, and was satisfied to agree with her group on general and accommodating goals of improving understanding and fostering mutual respect between Jews and Arabs, generally.

On the Arab side, as well, an internal dispute erupted when two students could not agree on who should be “blamed” for the problems between the sides. One said it was clearly the full responsibility of the Jewish majority to treat its minority population with fairness and dignity. Another retorted that she was playing the victim card and not taking responsibility at all for the Arab communities responsibility and agency. The two fought these ideological battles vociferously — trading attributions of “primitive-minded” and “self-hating” — until I stepped in as a mediator. I asked them to engage in conflict framing from the other’s perspective, inviting them to gain a broader perspective by listening to each other, with the hope that while they might not necessarily agree with each other, they could achieve the ability to understand each other’s perspective. After a while, commenting that indeed each has heard the other, I inquired about their deeper concerns and after sharing such values as honor, and dignity and self-responsibility, they and other group members formulated a goal about greater openness between the sides and mutual development for a new future. ...

This case illustrates the move from simplicity and binary views (both internally and about the other side) to complexity. The students in both communities, who had been adversaries because of their ideological differences, came to accept the legitimacy of each other’s experiences, but then modulated and, broadened their own outlooks, and reached an agreement on shared and cooperative goals.

If intersectionality now meant that and produced that kind of result, we'd be much more enthusiastic about it. But from our more recent reading, not going back to Crenshaw, or Jay's article from 2014, but looking instead at Yasha Mounk's 2023 book The Identity Trap, (which has an extensively documented history of the development of this idea), "intersectionality" has come to many to mean something entirely different now. Drawing from Mounk, New York Times columnist David Brooks describes this succinctly.

We’re living through an era of collapsing paradigms. The conceptual frames that many people use to organize their understanding of the world are crashing and burning upon contact with Middle Eastern reality.

The first paradigm that failed this month was critical race theory or woke-ism. Yascha Mounk has a good history of this body of thought in his outstanding book “The Identity Trap.” But as it applies to the Middle East the relevant ideas in this paradigm are these: International conflicts can be seen through a prism of American identity categories like race. In any situation there are evil people who are colonizer/oppressors and good people who are colonized/oppressed. It’s not necessary to know about the particular facts about any global conflict, because of intersectionality: All struggles are part of the same struggle between the oppressors and the oppressed.

This paradigm shapes how many on the campus left saw the Hamas terror attacks and were thus pushed into a series of ridiculous postures. A group of highly educated American progressives cheered on Hamas as anti-colonialist freedom fighters even though Hamas is a theocratic, genocidal terrorist force that oppresses L.G.B.T.Q. people and revels in the massacres of innocents. These campus activists showed little compassion for Israeli men and women who were murdered at a music festival because they were perceived as “settlers” and hence worthy of extermination. Many progressives called for an immediate cease-fire, denying Israel the right to defend itself, which is enshrined in international law — as if Nigeria should have declared a cease-fire the day after Boko Haram kidnapped 276 girls in 2014.

American universities exist to give students the conceptual tools to understand the world. It appears that at many universities students are instead being fed simplistic ideological categories that blind them to reality.

Are Mounk and Brooks being unfair?  If so, we don't understand why so may progressives are cheering on Hamas. Intersectionality may have been intended to complexify, but it seems to us that it has more recently been twisted to grotesquely oversimplify. Yes, the Palestinian people are oppressed.  But that oppression is as attributable to the failings of their own leadership as it is to Israeli actions. Think about what happened in the U.S on 9/11 and how the US responded. Clearly, there is much more to this story than intersectionality.  But intersectionality, as the term is used in 2023, certainly seems to us to be part of the story.

Update on Jay's Aria Project in Yellow Springs, Ohio

In the same email, written on November 15, Jay shared news about the school bond issue he talked about in both of his summer interviews with us (see Newsletter 141 and Newsletter 153). He reported the good news that "the school levy passed, but just barely (by 90 votes out of over 2000). Still it failed by 3-1 previously, so nearly 50-50 is better than it seems at first." It does, indeed, and it shows the value of the multi-pronged effort that Jay, Daniella Cohen, the Yellow Spring Community Foundation, the Village Mediation Project, and the School Board itself did to change attitudes (and votes) as much as they did. Bravo to Jay, Daniella, and all others involved in this effort!


Cho, S., Williams, K., & McCall, L. (Eds.). (2013). Special issue on intersectionality: Theorizing power, empowering theory. Signs: A Journal of Women, Culture and AU:6 Society, 38(4).

Crenshaw, K. (1991). Mapping the margins: Intersectionality, identity politics, and violence against women of color. Stanford Law Review, 43(6)

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