NEW YORK – Among the dozens of American Jews who gathered at the University Synagogue in west Los Angeles on Monday evening, many had come in the hope of finding an answer to a now common dilemma: Whether or not to attend the Women’s March on Saturday in light of the ongoing anti-Semitism controversy embroiling the movement.
Linda Sarsour and Tamika Mallory, two of the co-chairs of the Washington-based movement, have come under fire for their refusal to condemn the anti-Semitism and homophobia of Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan, which cast an unshakable shadow over the organization. And ever since these accusations first emerged, many American-Jewish women have been conflicted about taking part in this year’s event – which will be the third annual march in cities across the United States.
Addressing the L.A. panel discussion on progressiveness and Zionism, one fourth-generation Angeleno woman told local Women’s March founder Emiliana Guereca, “When we don't feel our space is safe, we're not going to go. How are we going to make sure that the messages [of the speakers] are not those that push people out and make them feel uncomfortable?” she asked.
“We, from day one, have vetted speakers,” Guereca told the concerned woman. “We go through a program, and we usually ask our speakers to submit their one to two minute speech and we vet it.”
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Monday’s event in Los Angeles was one of three nationwide teach-ins organized this week by a movement called Zioness. It was launched to “activate and empower the vast majority of American Jews who identify as both liberal progressive and Zionist, and who are feeling really alienated from [the] progressive space,” founder Amanda Berman tells Haaretz.
Berman started Zioness in the summer of 2017, shortly after SlutWalk Chicago announced it would be following the example of the Chicago Dyke March, which had ordered three marchers to leave its June 2017 event after not singing pro-Palestine chants and displaying rainbow flags emblazoned with the Star of David.
“Zioness was born out of the frustration when we thought we couldn’t participate,” says Berman. “We didn’t realize how powerful it was going to be and how much it was going to mean to so many people.
“There hasn’t been an organization in the Jewish community that’s been representing the ideals of American-Jewish women the way that Zioness is,” she continues. “And there was just such a void in terms of a place that people can go to participate without checking any piece of their Zionist or Jewish identity at the door.”
In March 2017, an interview with Sarsour in The Nation sparked outrage when she said that there “can’t be” any room in feminism for “people who support the state of Israel and do not criticize it.” She added: “You either stand up for the rights of all women, including Palestinians, or none. There’s just no way around it.” The article angered many American Jews, who took to social media to challenge her claim.
“It’s a fact that most American Jews identify as both Zionist and progressive,” Berman says. ”So the people who are saying we are not allowed to be both, or that we can’t participate or show up as both, are bigots. There is no other way to explain that,” she says.
“It is not only wrong but outrageous and discriminatory to say that American Jews can’t participate until [they] disavow Zionism – which, frankly, is the original progressive movement,” she adds. “Zionism is the self-determination movement for the world’s most persecuted community. It is inherently progressive.”
Guilty by association
Ahead of Saturday’s Women’s March events, Zioness decided to hold the teach-ins – there are two others in Washington and New York – in order to “provide a place where [people] can go to get all their questions answered.”
The discussions are livestreamed on the group’s Facebook page to reach viewers all over the country. Panelists include state representatives, social justice activists and rabbis, as well as leaders of the local Women’s March chapters.
“A lot of people don’t realize that many of the local leaders are not only separate from Washington [the national leadership, whose organization is known as Women's March, Inc.], but have formally disassociated with and condemned the leaders in Washington, and have been doing amazing work in solidarity with our community,” says Berman.
Following the anti-Semitism controversy, many local chapters across the United States made a point of distancing themselves from the D.C. leadership over recent weeks. For example, on the homepage of its website, Women’s March L.A. writes: “For deeper clarity and understanding, WMLA and Women's March, Inc. are separate organizations that arose from a shared grassroots movement following the 2016 presidential election.
“WMLA does not share leadership, structure or funding with the Women's March, Inc. and does not have any input on the makeup of their leadership or decision making,” the statement continues.
In New York, too, organizers have been keen to spell out the difference between Women’s March, Inc. in D.C. and the Women's March Alliance, which runs the yearly event in the city.
“Women’s March Alliance is not affiliated with Women’s March, Inc. or its founders and is run by grassroots volunteers,” a statement on the group’s website declares. “We do not support any organization or person that is anti-Semitic, anti-gay, anti-woman, or does not support equal rights for every human. We welcome any and all people who want to raise women’s voices through education and activism,” it adds.
But despite constant efforts to differentiate themselves from the D.C. leadership, it has been a “very big struggle,” says Katherine Siemionko, who heads Women’s March Alliance.
“No matter what, when you talk about the Women’s March or an event around the Women’s March, the name just makes it impossible,” she says. “So I think this is the last year we will be calling ourselves Women’s March Alliance. We will be undergoing a complete name change.
“We’ve received hundreds of emails, we’ve lost thousands of followers as a result of the confusion,” she reveals.
But beyond simply distancing their chapter from any allegations of anti-Semitism, Siemionko says she and her team have actively included the Jewish community in their work.
“We host the Women’s March specifically on the Upper West Side because we have a large Jewish contingent and don’t want them to choose between Sabbath law and marching for progressive rights,” says Siemionko, explaining the decision to hold the event in an area which many Jews can reach on foot.
“In August 2017,” she adds, “three of our board members went to Israel with Jewish Community Relations Council – New York to make sure we are inclusive of both Jewish and Palestinian relations. So this is something that we engage in on a regular basis.”
With hundreds of thousands expected to follow the Women’s March Alliance’s route down Columbus Avenue on Saturday, Women’s March, Inc. will hold a competing demonstration a short subway ride away, at Foley Square.
“This year they are really pushing for it,” Siemionko tells Haaretz. “It’s just really frustrating that an organization that says it supports women is intentionally trying to defraud a city.”
Still, she hopes American Jews will show up to the Women’s March Alliance protest and make their voices heard.
“You cannot back down from anti-Semitism, you have to stand up,” she asserts. “And if it makes you happy to come to the Women's March to say ‘We do not support anti-Semitism,’ and have your own banners and your flyers, we welcome that.”
While Women’s March, Inc. and its controversy-plagued organizers will be leading the Washington protest, Jewish residents of the capital are also being encouraged to join unaffiliated marches being held nearby.
“If there is a perfectly good march that is within commuting distance of here where we can be in a space where we are completely welcomed and accepted, that is a completely intersectional space, why don’t we do that instead of going to the Mall?” asks Guila Franklin Siegel, associate director of the Jewish Community Relations Council of Greater Washington.
As part of its efforts to provide guidance to the community, the JCRC issued an online advisory dedicated to the Women’s March, in which it shares information about nearby unaffiliated marches in Baltimore and Annapolis, but also Philadelphia and New York City.
But beyond January 19’s marches, Franklin Siegel says there are other ways in which American-Jewish women can defend their progressive ideals in a safe space. “Being engaged on these issues is not a one-day affair,” she says. “The work of promoting equality and justice happen year-round.
“The issues people are upset about, the issues people are marching about, are the very issues that JCRC works on day in, day out,” Franklin Siegel says. “It makes us feel good to go to marches, and it’s important to inspire and mobilize people. But the real social change happens day in, day out on the grassroots level.”
At the Jewish Women’s Foundation of New York – a group of philanthropic Jewish women promoting and funding other Jewish female leaders around the world – program manager Rachel Siegel concurs that the values of social change are part of everyday Jewish values.
“We definitely support marching, but there are other ways you can advocate for things that you believe in – like contacting your local representatives or national representatives,” she says.
Siegel notes that this weekend is also Martin Luther King weekend, which often represents an opportunity to volunteer. “This could be a great option for those interested to connect to one another and their community,” she says. “And if we are talking about more timely things: There is a movie about Ruth Bader Ginsburg out [“On the Basis of Sex”], so go with your friends, your daughters or granddaughters, and have a conversation about Jewish women leaders.”
“It’s all around us – there is so much you can do,” Siegel concludes.
As for marching on Saturday, Zioness’ Berman believes American-Jewish and Zionist women have an obligation to show up to any protest unaffiliated with the D.C. chapter.
“It’s critical for the advancement of the movement,” she says. “It’s critical to stand with the allies who have come out in support of us; it’s critical for us to retake our seats at the feminist and progressive tables that we’ve been pushed out of. And we can’t do that by staying home.”