Opinion

Why Jewish Women Must Not Quit the Women's March

The Women’s March is America's most vital and effective coalition for resisting hate. We Jewish women must be part of it

A demonstrator holds a "Never Again" sign during the second annual Women's March Chicago in Chicago, Illinois, U.S. Jan. 20, 2018
Bloomberg

Since accusations of anti-Semitism in the Women’s March leadership were first published in the New York Times and Tablet, many prominent Jewish individuals and institutions - as well as prominent non-Jewish political and anti-racist groups - have announced that they will not join this year’s march.

Such a defection would be a mistake for Jewish activists.

The perception that Jews are choosing isolation over solidarity would undercut our community’s ability to organize effectively against white nationalism. It would also set back our own communal legacy of coalition-building to seek social justice.

Participants in the March for Racial Justice in New York City, U.S. October 1, 2017
STEPHANIE KEITH/REUTERS

As an American Jewish activist, I was raised on stories of my community’s social justice leadership. I studied the Jewish leaders who participated in the Mississippi Freedom Summer, got arrested to protest Jim Crow segregation, and marched arm-in-arm with Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr in Selma, Alabama.

This was a legacy I sought to carry on in my own life, by rallying for racial justice on Yale’s campus, getting arrested to protest Brett Kavanaugh’s confirmation, and marching with Women’s March organizers in New York in 2018.

Over time, I researched black-Jewish relations and learned the complexities of the history that I’d been taught. I learned about the fracturing of the special relationship between Jews and African-Americans - how Jewish opposition to affirmative action, disputes over Israel, strains of black anti-Semitism, and ultimately the Crown Heights riots tested the coalition built between these two vulnerable communities. 

Now, particularly with Women’s March co-president Tamika Mallory’s show of support for Louis Farrakhan, American Jews face a critical test: whether to maintain our support for the Women’s March movement despite our discomfort with elements of its leadership.

With white nationalist forces growing stronger in the U.S., marginalized communities must resist in solidarity with one another. If Jews are able to build trust with the Women’s March by communicating openly with its leaders - especially as they signal increased commitment to embracing Jewish women’s place in the movement - we will demonstrate our ability to play a constructive role in the urgent task of multiracial coalition-building.

It is rational that Jewish activists have experienced frustration and pain in deciding whether to participate in this year’s march. But removing ourselves from the movement by refusing to march does not resolve any breaches of trust. Defecting will only deepen the tensions, making it difficult to rebuild relations among all of the movement’s communities in the long term.

Deciding instead to stand with the movement and join this year’s march may not be easy - but over time, it will allow the Jews to continue helping movement members and leaders grow their understanding of the dangers of anti-Semitism, as we grow our own understanding of white supremacy in all its forms.

After all, organizing in solidarity with others does not mean agreeing with every position they hold; it means weathering through and confronting the controversies.

Women’s March leaders have already demonstrated their readiness to strengthen engagement with Jewish organizers. In December, the national movement added Jewish women to its list of vulnerable communities in its updated Unity Principles.

In so doing, movement leaders signaled their understanding of the dangers that the Jewish community confronts at a time when anti-Semitic incidents are on the rise. No less important, they acknowledged the risks of alienating a community that has been critical to American struggles for justice.

Now, Jewish activists can respond by demonstrating our dedication to the movement’s growth and continued vibrancy, so long as it continues to denounce anti-Semitism when it appears and fight against every manifestation of hate.

The American-Jewish community has long been committed to the fight for racial justice; we’ve also spent decades advocating for protection for our community against violent white nationalism. We haven’t always understood those two struggles as one and the same. But understanding how white Jews are targeted by white supremacists while also benefitting from some of the structural privileges of whiteness is an essential part of building a unified front against bigotry in the U.S., one that enables us to acknowledge rather than ignore the nuances of our identities as activists.

In a moment when governmental institutions are in disarray and white supremacists are gathering power, the Women’s March has proven itself a vital force defending communities at risk.

When the Trump Administration began separating children from their parents at the border in June, more than 575 Women’s March members were arrested, placing pressure on the government to reunite families. When Congress moved to end Obamacare, 250,000 Women’s March members sent postcards to their senators to defend the legislation. The Women’s March is building the largest intersectional anti-hate coalition in America's history.

In the face of a dysfunctional government, it is social movements that can amplify the voices of the vulnerable and propel lawmakers to take action. It would be short-sighted for American Jews to isolate ourselves from the country’s most effective vehicle for resisting hate.

Emma Goldberg writes on political and cultural affairs. She has been published in the New York Times, Forbes, the Huffington Post, and Salon. Twitter: @emmabgo