Three progressive Jewish organizations have been advising the Women’s March behind the scenes on its well-publicized issues with anti-Semitism and a sometimes-fraught relationship with the Jewish community, the Forward has learned.
The National Council of Jewish Women, Jews for Racial and Economic Justice and Bend the Arc: Jewish Action are working with the Women’s March to help the anti-Trump movement stay united in the face of some top leaders’ support for anti-Semitic black nationalist Louis Farrakhan and other issues.
NCJW’s agenda “is in complete alignment with the national policy agenda of the Women’s March and the Women’s March movement,” the organization’s CEO, Nancy Kaufman, told the Forward.
She went on to say that her organization has repeatedly raised “legitimate, serious concerns” with Women’s March leaders, including Linda Sarsour and Tamika Mallory, but pointed out that those concerns were “not with the Women’s March per se, it’s [with statements by] individuals within the Women’s March. And that gets complicated.”
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Bend the Arc CEO Stosh Cotler told the Forward via email that she thinks the march leaders, including Sarsour and Mallory, are making progress addressing Jewish concerns. “We continue to have ongoing conversations with them and we are heartened by the changes and additional clarity they’ve provided over time,” she wrote.
JFREJ executive director Audrey Sasson did not respond to repeated requests for comment. The three groups’ meetings and conversations with the Women’s March were confirmed by a spokeswoman for the organization.
The idea for a women’s march on Washington first emerged on Facebook on the day after President Trump was elected in November 2016, and quickly snowballed into a national movement. It drew millions into the street and a second march this year was also successful.
Many progressive Jewish groups were eager to participate. “We were proud to be a partner organization as we think it’s important for Jewish people to show up and be a part of the resistance as the only way we’ll get through these tough times is by staying together,” Cotler wrote.
But some Jewish leaders were concerned about the presence of Sarsour – who was already well-known in New York as a pro-BDS advocate — as one of the march’s co-chairs.
NCJW worked with Sarsour in the days leading up to the march to make sure the speakers in Washington didn’t use their platforms to attack the Jewish state. Sarsour and other leaders agreed — and lived up to their end of the bargain.
Those Unity Principles, which were released ahead of the first march and amount to a platform for the group, have been criticized by Jewish groups for not originally listing Jewish women in the list of minorities that the march wants to protect — even though, according to the FBI, Jews are the largest targets of religious-based hate crimes. NCJW director of Washington operations Jody Rabhan was one of the contributors to the statement of principles.
Jewish women were finally added to the list on Thursday. The Women’s March has said they are revamping their Unity Principles ahead of revealing their formal political agenda at the 2019 march in Washington; Cotler said one of Bend the Arc’s senior staffers will be on the agenda committee.
The reason Jewish women weren’t originally on the Unity Principles list was “because it was about impacted populations of vulnerable people,” Kaufman said. “And in general, that’s not how we think of ourselves.”
“Now we feel much more impacted as a vulnerable people,” she added, referring to the rise in anti-Semitic incidents of the past two years, including the shooting at a Pittsburgh synagogue in October.
In addition to its work with Women’s March organizers, NCJW also organized around a half-dozen other Jewish groups to participate in the march and join the march’s list of partners,, including the Jewish Social Justice Roundtable and the progressive Zionist group Ameinu.
Joining as a partner “sort of fit in with the overall ethos of the organization, all of the issues surrounding the march were things that are important to us as Jews and as progressive Jews,” Ameinu’s committee chair for policy and advocacy, Brad Rothschild, told the Forward.
“At the time, before the march, the profile of Linda Sarsour and Tamika Mallory was not quite what it is today,” he added. “I don’t think there was any conversation around that…I don’t remember hearing [Sarsour’s] name prior to the first march.”
Rothschild attended the march in Washington, which had between 500,000 and 1 million attendees. He called it “cathartic in a lot of ways” after Trump’s election, and said the ensuing controversies since then hadn’t negatively colored his feelings about his experience. “The march wasn’t about Linda Sarsour,” he said.
But Sarsour and Mallory are two of the four faces of the march, and have been used – both by Jewish groups upset by anti-Semitism, and by conservatives opposed to some of their policy aims – to knock the movement as a whole. They have been repeatedly criticized over the past year — over ties to Farrakhan, opposition to the Anti-Defamation League’s role in Starbucks’ racial-bias training program, a trip to Israel and the West Bank that didn’t meet with a single group supportive of the Israeli government and, most recently, a lengthy article in Tablet alleging that march leaders had claimed that Jews bore a special responsibility as exploiters of minorities (which the organization denies.)
Through it all, Jewish groups have been advising them on the nature of anti-Semitism and how to engage with the Jewish community.
JTA reported in March that after Farrakhan gave a shout-out to Mallory when she attended one of his speeches, JFREJ executive director Audrey Sasson set up a meeting between Mallory and black Jews.
Since then, Sarsour, Mallory and head of communications Cassady Fendlay have said that they’ve learned more about anti-Semitism from conversations with Jewish allies. “I have learned myself so much about anti-Semitism that I know that two years ago I was not as aware of,” Fendlay told the Forward last week.
Kaufman said it was crucial for Jewish groups to stay at the table with such an important and influential political women’s movement.
“At any point, we can walk away,” she said. “But right now, it’s really important we stay engaged.”
Rabbi Jill Jacobs of T’ruah: The Rabbinic Call for Human Rights said her organization has never formally partnered with the Women’s March because it takes place on Shabbat. But she also said that staying within coalitions is important if people want to make change.
“We can’t leave every place where there’s anti-Semitism,” she said, pointing out that hatred of Jews exists on the left and the right. “We have to stay and teach people, because people don’t always understand it…in that context, you can actually make a lot of progress.”
To be sure, that’s not a view shared by all NCJW stakeholders. One life member, Rabbi Rebecca Einstein Schorr, told the Forward in May that she hoped the group would “take a stand” on the issue.
Kaufman said the national organization had been listening to members around the country, including “many who didn’t want us to sign on as a cosponsor.” She was working, she said, on “making them understand being at the table is better than not.” She added that many local chapters have good relationships with their local marches – which are all independent entities that in many cases have condemned the national march leadership.
Unlike Bend the Arc, NCJW is not formally endorsing the march this year, but is continuing to be engaged in what Kaufman called an “advisory capacity.”
Other Jewish groups are still trying to figure out their stances. Rabbi Amichai Lau-Lavie of Lab/Shul, one of the 2017 partner organizations, said that his community marched in New York in 2017 and 2018, but is still trying to decide whether to attend next month.
He said that early next month he and several other clergy members would be meeting with Women’s March leaders to discuss these issues, and that he had been participating in forums with rabbinic leaders and community activists to figure out what to do. “There’s a lot of learning that needs to be done,” he said.
What complicates things even further are the strained relationships between the Women’s March organization and the independent march organizers in some of the biggest Jewish population centers in the country.
New York has two competing marches at the same time – one coordinated by national Women’s March leadership and another by the group that did the last two marches in the city.
The homepage of the Los Angeles Women’s March’s website prominently displays a statement that explicitly states its independence and criticizes national leadership.
But in Washington, the only march is the one where Sarsour and Mallory are going to speak. Kaufman expects that many NCJW members will still attend, both in Washington and around the country.
“I don’t think any of us want to see the recharged women’s movement that started in 2017 derailed,” she said.