Explained

The Women’s March anti-Semitism Controversy Threatening the Movement's Future

How angry rhetoric over Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan could derail the group at the very moment it should be celebrating a historic victory

Women's March Tamika Mallory, left, and Linda Sarsour attending an anniversary event in Las Vegas, Nevada, January 21, 2018.
Bloomberg

This should be a time of unbridled celebration for the Women’s March.

The midterm elections showed that the mass protest in January 2017, on the day following the inauguration of President Donald Trump, has borne fruit. Last week, an unprecedented number of culturally diverse women ran and won seats at the national and state levels – many of them crediting the Women’s March for inspiring them.

Yet the movement has been riven with discord as it begins to plan its third march for January, primarily around the refusal of three of the group’s four co-chairs – Tamika Mallory, Carmen Perez and Linda Sarsour – to distance themselves from controversial Nation of Islam founder Louis Farrakhan.

While he continues to make anti-Semitic and anti-LGBT statements – most recently declaring “I’m not anti-Semite, I’m anti-termite” – increased sensitivity to anti-Semitism following last month’s Pittsburgh synagogue massacre has magnified the backlash.

On October 30, three days after a gunman killed 11 worshippers at the Tree of Life synagogue, Hollywood actress Alyssa Milano was quoted in LGBT magazine The Advocate expressing unhappiness with the Women’s March leaders’ continued support of Farrakhan. Milano has been credited with popularizing the #MeToo movement in the past year.

“Any time that there is any bigotry or anti-Semitism in that respect, it needs to be called out and addressed,” Milano said. “I’m disappointed in the leadership of the Women’s March that they haven’t done it adequately. When asked if she planned to address the next march under its current leadership without a renunciation of Farrakhan, Milano answered: “I would say no at this point. [It’s] unfortunate that none of them have come forward against him at this point. Or even given a really good reason why [we should] support them.”

Milano was backed early last week by fellow actress Debra Messing, who tweeted: “I stand with you, Alyssa Milano.”

And last Thursday, a German NGO, the Friedrich Ebert Foundation, suspended plans to give a human rights award to the Women’s March. The award was postponed until after it could “have the matter investigated by an independent party.”

On Saturday, Teresa Shook – who initiated the Women’s March with a Facebook post – took to the social media site again, writing: “We cannot tolerate hate speech, bigotry, white supremacy, racism, misogyny, anti-Semitism, homophobia, xenophobia from within our own community or WM leaders. The soul of this Movement is love, aloha and solidarity. We must bring it back to that.”

In a telephone interview with Haaretz, Shook said she was disturbed by the division she sees in the movement. Asked whether she agreed with Milano’s reluctance to appear at the Women’s March under its current leadership, she said, “I can understand her position.”

She added that the Friedrich Ebert Foundation’s decision made her feel “sad for all of the women. There are so many women across the world who made that happen. I feel bad for them. It was their march,” she said.

Shook, who lives in Hawaii, is not formally affiliated with any of the Women’s March groups. She said she has deliberately remained independent, offering advice and support on an informal basis to help the movement in any way she can.

But she is concerned about its future. “I feel that we have to figure something out going forward. The rift is getting too big to heal, and I’m not sure what the solution is at this point. Many organizations have been reaching out to me asking what they should do – but I don’t have an answer.”

Minister Louis Farrakhan, the leader of the Nation of Islam, speaking at a press conference in Tehran, Iran, November 8, 2018.
Vahid Salemi,AP

Shook was the first person to suggest a march on the day after Trump’s inauguration. Another woman with a similar idea, Bob Bland, consolidated the various efforts spinning across social media into a central Women’s March organization, which assembled the first record-breaking march. Actively seeking diversity, Bland brought in Mallory, Sarsour and Perez in an effort to make the group more inclusive.

The three women became co-chairs with Bland, bringing a wealth of experience to the table when it came to organizing rallies and protests. But they also brought personal and professional connections to Farrakhan and the Nation of Islam.

Mallory has known Farrakhan since she was a child and has worked with the Nation of Islam for decades in urban anti-violence efforts. Sarsour is a prominent advocate for Muslim Americans, criminal justice reform and civil rights. She is also the former executive director of the Arab American Association of New York, and is a staunch supporter of the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement, opposing normalizing ties with supporters of Zionism.

The three women worked together in Justice League NYC, a criminal-justice-reform task force co-founded by Perez. The latter is also executive director of Harry Belafonte’s Gathering for Justice organization.

Speaking at Farrakhan’s 2016 Saviour’s Day rally, Perez said her group was “really grateful for the minister and his support of the Justice League … knowing we have the support of the Nation of Islam, who’s constantly showing up for us and we’re here to serve as well.”

Their backgrounds and affiliations were never a secret. But until last winter, after the Women’s March held its first anniversary events, the level of controversy was minimal and did not interfere with the march and its spirit of unity – at least publicly. Attacks on the leaders, primarily Sarsour, came mostly from political opponents on the pro-Trump right.

That changed in late February, when Mallory attended a Saviour’s Day rally in Chicago. Farrakhan acknowledged her presence on stage, as part of a speech which included statements that “the powerful Jews are my enemy,” and Jews were responsible for “degenerate behavior in Hollywood, turning men into women and women into men.”

Her appearance drew public criticism from the left, with many calling on the co-founders to renounce the Nation of Islam leader or step down from their leadership roles.

But Mallory doubled down on her defense of Farrakhan – and Sarsour and Perez stood by her, further alienating many left-wing Jews. This led to cracks in the Women’s March coalition, with the heads of some chapters distancing themselves from the national leadership.

The tensions between the Jewish community and the Women’s March leadership intensified in April, after Mallory blasted Starbucks for including the Anti-Defamation League in its anti-bias training, accusing the ADL of “constantly attacking black and brown people.” As a result of the pressure, Starbucks dropped the ADL as a participant in its racial sensitivity training.

Throughout the controversy, the Women’s March organization has attempted to walk the delicate tightrope of denouncing the sentiments expressed by Farrakhan while supporting its co-founders.

During the first round of controversy, the group released a statement declaring that “Minister Farrakhan’s statements about Jewish, queer and trans people are not aligned with the Women’s March Unity Principles.” At the same time, the statement expressed continued support for Mallory. “We love and value our sister and co-president Tamika Mallory,” it said, adding that “neither we nor she shy away from the fact that intersectional movement building is difficult.”

Following the publicity generated by Milano’s comments last week, the organization issued another statement, saying it does “not support or endorse” the statements made by Farrakhan. Again, the group also staunchly defended its leadership as having “risked their safety” to fight “the threat of white nationalism, which is fueled by anti-Black racism and anti-Semitism.” It added “that many on the right are thrilled to use any tool they can find to divide and undermine our movement.”

And it seems it has sown discord, with Women’s March communications director Cassady Fendlay – who also works with the Justice League – accusing Milano of “acting in accordance with the tradition of white women who use the labor of women of color when it’s convenient for them, and then use their power to trash those women when it becomes more expedient.”

Milano’s “performative outrage, making a public statement condemning a Black man,” Fendlay wrote, “will have no impact on curbing anti-Semitism, neither in the Nation of Islam nor in our society. ... Milano and all the white women lined up behind her are actually enforcing the power of white supremacy through their misguided attempt to challenge hate speech.”

Progressive Jewish women fired back that the group’s rhetoric smacked of victim-blaming and whataboutism: “We cannot allow our movement to stand for partnering with hate, attending hate-group events, cheering violent speeches where minorities are called termites and satanic,” wrote activist Carly Pildis in Tablet.

Non-Jewish allies of the Women’s March, like anti-gun violence activist Shannon Watts, have joined Milano in expressing reservations about its leadership. Watts tweeted: “The Women’s March was never about specific leaders or the celebrities who spoke: it was about the women who marched.” (The tweet has subsequently been removed.)

One longtime Women’s March activist, who asked not to be named, predicts a “big blowout” in the organization in coming months. “This has been coming to a head for a long time – and it’s frustrating,” she told Haaretz. “It’s not what the march was supposed to be about. We already have so much ugly divisive rhetoric going on in the Trump administration, it saddens me that it has to take place inside our movement as well.

“We might have been able to overcome this earlier on, if the apologies had been stronger and there had been a commitment to do better,” she added. “But now it feels like the wounds are too deep.”