Anti-Semitism Controversy Divides Women's March: 'We Can't Betray Our Jewish Community'

Washington state chapter disbands, Michigan co-founder urges supporters to join events unaffiliated with official Women's March as anger at leaders over Farrakhan and 'anti-LGBTQism' grows

Bob Bland, co-chair for the Women's March, center, speaks as fellow co-chairs Linda Sarsour, left, and Carmen Perez, right, listen, Las Vegas, Nevada, January 21, 2018.
Bloomberg

Divisions between the different Women’s March chapters are deepening as the third march approaches, centering around support for anti-Semitic and anti-LGBTQ Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan by three of its national leaders, with at least three local branches either cutting ties or issuing calls against the national group. 

The head of the Washington state chapter announced last week that it would disband after the January 19 event. Meanwhile, a former leader of the Michigan state group urged activists to “abstain” from attending marches in Washington D.C. and Detroit funded by the national organization, encouraging them instead to participate in other Michigan marches which are not sponsored by or affiliated with the Women’s March.

A disclaimer now appears also on the home page of the Women's March Los Angeles, one of the largest in the nation in 2017, which drew celebrities including Barbra Streisand, Kerry Washington, Natalie Portman and Ariana Grande, explicitly distancing itself from the national leadership.

The statement reads that the Los Angeles chapter "has no affiliation and was never part of the Women's March" and is "its own separate organization, with separate leadership, board and funding. WMLA was the first organization to incorporate under the Women's March name in 2016, with no guidance or input from what is now Women's March, Inc."   

Angie Beem, Washington State director for the march, wrote in a Facebook post on Thursday, that: "We have conveyed the message, multiple times, that [the Washington State Women’s March] does not agree nor support [the national organization leadership’s] praise of Farrakhan and all he stands for. We have decided to distance ourselves from Women’s March.” 

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“Because of the events happening at the national level and their refusal to acknowledge and apologize for their anti-Semitic stance, we have decided to dissolve our Women’s March on Washington State organization in order to separate from the national message that is being sent, both from a social justice standpoint and a financial standpoint,” she added. 

Beem recounted in a December 10 article in Tablet how she pushed for “at least two” of the four co-chairs of the march – Bob Bland, Tamika Mallory, Carmen Perez and Linda Sarsour – to be removed. Beem was one of several local leaders who reportedly expressed deep dissatisfaction with the movement’s leadership. The article contained charges that the national group was not financially transparent and had contracted with Nation of Islam-affiliated organizations for security. It also contained an account of Perez and Mallory allegedly “berating” one of the group’s original organizers, Vanessa Wruble, not only for being white, but also for being Jewish, reportedly telling her, “your people hold all the wealth.” 

The report added fuel to existing signs of dissatisfaction of many of the original founders and leaders of the Women’s March movement, many of whom – including Teresa Shook, who first conceived of the march – resigned or distanced themselves from the national leadership. 

Beem said in her Facebook post she originally joined the Women’s March because she believed it would be “a powerful movement to fight against racism, sexism, and the issues that oppress our marginalized and vulnerable. The four National Team co-chairs have lost sight of that and have allowed their personal biases to cloud our mission and purpose.”

She said she felt that “continuing to be a part of the Women’s March with the blatant bigotry they display would be breaking a promise. We can’t betray our Jewish community by remaining a part of this organization.”

Despite the announcement, she said, five individual cities in Washington were still holding 2019 marches and she asked for donations to help make that happen. “After the 2019 event, each city will determine on their own, if they will continue.”

In Michigan, a letter circulated by a list of signatories calling on activists involved with the march to “reconsider ... involvement with the Women’s March Inc. national organization and its affiliate Women’s March Michigan.”  

The letter was headed by Sarah Eisenberg, the co-founder of Women's March Michigan, who has since left the group. “As organizations and individuals committed to inclusion and intersectionality, we urge you to use your voice to push for change, either within the national Women’s March Inc. or within Women’s March Michigan. We ask you to abstain from attending January demonstrations organized by these organizations in Washington DC or in Detroit, and to encourage others to do the same.”  

The march’s leaders, the letter said, “have demonstrated a pattern of repeatedly embracing anti-Semitic and anti-LGBTQ movements and leaders, and refusing to accept responsibility or to be accountable for their own anti-Semitic statements.” 

Despite the controversy, at least one major feminist group is standing by the Women’s March. Planned Parenthood told the website that it will join the march in fighting "unprecedented attacks on our health and rights from the Trump-Pence administration.”

Erica Sackin, the group's communications director, said “the Women’s March has become a symbol of our collective resistance to these damaging and discriminatory policies and Planned Parenthood is proud to once again, join our progressive partners for the #WomensWave mobilization to protect and advance the progress we've made as a movement dedicated to equity and justice for all people.”