NEW YORK – When hundreds of thousands of protesters gathered in Washington for the first ever Women’s March in January 2017, Jamie Oksenhorn had no choice but watch from her sofa in Basking Ridge, New Jersey.
She was three months pregnant at the time and on partial bed rest, on doctor’s orders.
A year later, baby daughter Alma in her arms, she attended a Women’s March rally in nearby Morristown.
“It is one thing to go alone, but to be able to bring her was incredible,” Oksenhorn tells Haaretz. “We were there not just marching for ourselves, but for women of the future – we were doing this for them.”
But this year, along with numerous other Jewish women around the United States, Oksenhorn has decided not to repeat the experience.
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Last year, reported accusations of anti-Semitism on the part of some of the co-chairs of the Women’s March emerged, casting a shadow over the movement. Among the national organizers, Linda Sarsour and Tamika Mallory came under fire for their support of Nation of Islam leader and avowed anti-Semite Louis Farrakhan.
Reports of an affiliation between the Women’s March leaders and Farrakhan led Oksenhorn and many of her friends to reconsider their participation in this year’s event, set for January 19.
Oksenhorn comes from a “very liberal, very progressive” and Zionist American-Jewish family, and works as a part-time religious school teacher at her synagogue. Her husband is Puerto Rican and not Jewish.
“I had understood that Linda Sarsour believes strongly in the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement [against Israel],” she says. “I knew that last year, but it wasn’t at the forefront and it didn’t overshadow the march in any way. I didn’t have to pay attention to that.
“But I can’t overlook any of this anymore,” she continues. “It is not just one person’s view out of millions: They are the face of the movement, and to attend is to agree with them. I don’t feel I want to be a part of it, and I don’t feel welcome there either.”
Several times over the fall, the Women’s March attempted to address what they referred to as “recent confusion and critiques over the values and direction” of the organization.
“The Women’s March exists to fight bigotry and discrimination in all their forms – including homophobia and anti-Semitism – and to lift up the voices of women who are too often left out,” a November 20 statement from Sarsour declared. “We are deeply invested in building better and deeper relationships with the Jewish community.”
In another declaration the same month, the movement wrote: “We recognize the danger of hate rhetoric by public figures. We want to say emphatically that we do not support or endorse statements made by Minister Louis Farrakhan about women, Jewish and LGBTQ communities.”
But the condemnations offered little reassurance to Jewish women like Prof. Deborah Lipstadt, who teaches Modern Jewish and Holocaust Studies at Emory University, Atlanta.
Over the past two years, while researching her upcoming book on anti-Semitism, Lipstadt says she began looking into the leaders of the Women’s March movement – and was “disturbed” by what she found.
“It was a repeated pattern of ignoring the fact that Jewish women face a particular kind of prejudice of anti-Semitism; suggesting that maybe anti-Semitism wasn’t really that serious; and affiliating with a known anti-Semite, Louis Farrakhan, who called us termites,” she tells Haaretz.
“Some progressive Jewish organizations have said they will stay on to educate them,” she says. “Well, excuse me: How much education does someone need to realize that calling any people termites is wrong? I don’t know that there is any room for educating there.”
Lipstadt, who considers herself a progressive on a variety of issues, also believes that boycotting the march does not mean abandoning the ideals she stands behind.
“These are not the only people in the world committed to progressive issues,” she says. “Leaders of movements against prejudice should have a modicum of knowledge, responsibility and morality. It’s a no-brainer for me.”
Stealing a march
In San Francisco, a Jewish-Israeli woman in her early sixties, who asked not to be named for fear of a backlash, has spent the past few weeks pondering whether to join this year’s march.
She had attended both previous marches in her city with what she describes as a feeling of “great delight and pride” – so much so that she didn’t even mind the rain merging with the tears of joy on her face on the first occasion.
She sought advice about what to do: From her friends through a Facebook post; by contacting various Jewish organizations; and even reaching out to organizers of different local marches. For a while, she even thought of marching with a sign dedicated to anti-Semitism. Ultimately, though, she decided against participating all together.
“My body as a presence would be counted toward the support of the national organization and nobody is going to make a differentiation,” she explains. “It would look like I’m not objecting to everything the leadership is doing. So for me, it’s the guilt by association – even though it is not deserved.”
She admits the decision did not come easy: In her youth, she had fought for the availability of birth control and abortion rights. “It really hurts, because I do want to be counted among the millions of women who are out there not just protesting but celebrating,” she says.
“I feel that my march was stolen from me,” she adds.
‘Having an impact’
Since the Women’s March scandal erupted, Jewish organizations and clergy across the United States have been facing questions from their local communities about whether to attend.
“The fact remains that despite the extensive time, energy and patience that many Jewish women leaders have devoted to continuing to dialogue and cooperate with the Women’s March leadership, we are still confronting many of the same unresolved issues that arose two years ago,” the Jewish Community Relations Council of Greater Washington said in a statement to Haaretz.
“We felt we needed to speak out unequivocally about the continued problems at the top of the movement, and to provide practical resources and options for the people that we serve in our own community, whatever they ultimately decide to do the day of the march.”
Among the many Jewish organizations that took part in previous marches is the National Council of Jewish Women – a 125-year-old organization driven by progressive ideals, many of which are represented in the Women’s March unity principles.
The council says it will not be co-sponsoring this year’s Women’s March, unlike last year, but will not be boycotting it either.
“We have chosen to pursue the concerns that have been raised directly with the leaders of the Women’s March, and are in dialogues with the leaders to help them better understand why everyone is so deeply troubled and upset by some of the comments that have been reported,” CEO Nancy Kaufman tells Haaretz. “I think this is too important an issue right now for us to absent ourselves from the conversation.”
As a national organization, the council has instructed individual chapters across the country to “do what they feel comfortable doing locally based on their relationships with the local people,” Kaufman explains.
“I do think there is hope,” she adds. “I do believe we are being listened to and are having an impact. We 100 percent support the principles of the Women’s March, but we don’t ignore things like this.”
In addition, Kaufman stresses that “if this became an anti-Israel march in any way shape or form, we would not be part of it.”
For Rabbi Sydney Mintz of the reform Congregation Emanu-El in San Francisco, attending this year’s march – just as she has the past two years, despite the controversy – was never in doubt.
“The women’s movement is much larger than the personalities leading the Women’s March,” she says. “American Jews, as we know, have fought in every single civil rights struggle in the history of the United States of America. For me, those two things are very important in terms of being a Jewish American.”
“If we had stopped and pointed a finger at every leader of civil rights movements in the history of this country who made a mistake in some way, would we have any justice at all today in the United States?” she asks.
While Mintz acknowledges problems relating to some of the leaders, she says she is not marching for them.
“I’m not even marching for myself – I’m marching for my granddaughters,” she says. “I’m thinking about all of our grandchildren who will look back at the Jewish community and say to their grandmothers: ‘What did you do? Did Jewish women stay a part of this coalition when things got very difficult?’”
At the first Women’s March in 2017, one of her congregants gifted Mintz a pink yarmulke, reminiscent of the signature pink pussy hats flooding the streets during the protest. Mintz plans on wearing it to the march this year as well.
“I feel like by showing up I have a voice, and I urge Jewish women to wear yarmulkes or be there with Jewish symbols and not be silent,” Mintz says. “Because I think it is important for Jewish women now to move forward into the Women’s March and continue to lead the women’s movement as we have since its inception,” she adds.
Mintz, who also serves on the national board of the Jewish activist group Bend the Arc, says she believes in engaging with the movement’s leadership and that Jewish women can still take part in the Women’s March without agreeing with its organizers.
“I don’t think the Women’s March is the women’s movement – but it is a vital part of it,” she says. “I am a fourth-generation American Jew; Israel is always going to be important to me. But this is about the rights of women in this country. We have to fight for it.”
A Zionist attendee
The controversy has undoubtedly sparked a dilemma for many women who feel they have to choose between their progressive values and their Jewish identity.
Transgender American-Jewish activist Hannah Simpson commonly describes herself as a Zionist. She has been on several trips to Israel and participates in many public demonstrations, often proudly displaying a rainbow flag with a Star of David on it.
That will also be on display on January 19, because Simpson is determined to attend the march.
“We are marching while transgender women are being shot; we are marching while girls are having their genitals mutilated; we are marching while children are detained at our borders; we are marching while Syrians face chemical weapons,” she tells Haaretz. “We are marching because 6 million Jews were marched into gas chambers and children born today will probably never meet someone who can testify firsthand.”
Simpson also notes that if her presence as a transgender Jewish woman gets counted as support of the Women’s March brand, “that’s fantastic.”
Like many in the transgender community, Simpson has faced her fair share of discrimination and attacks. But as she attended the Women’s March last year, dressed as Joy from the Pixar animation “Inside Out,” she felt she had her place in the crowd.
“As for being a Zionist – let us not forget that Israel has had a female head of state before [the United States], and we’re a fair bit older,” Simpson says. “I take pride in being part of the Jewish future around the world – the legacy that the people who created Israel envisioned and took their place in the world to protect.”
Back in New Jersey, Oksenhorn says that although she strongly agrees with many of the issues championed by the Women’s March movement – such as abortion and LGBT rights – her Jewish and Zionist identity is too strong to put to one side.
“In our home we show a lot of pride in who we are,” she says. “I make sure [my daughter] is surrounded by books by Jewish authors about being Jewish, by Hispanic authors, and I’m planning to teach her pride in herself and self-respect.
“There is no hiding that anti-Semitism occurs and is out there. And it’s something we talk about in our home – especially after Pittsburgh,” Oksenhorn says, referring to last October’s massacre at the Tree of Life synagogue. “We can’t back down from certain things that are important to us, even if it’s frustrating that we can’t be at an event we wanted to attend.”
Oksenhorn is still planning to mark the day with a few friends who have also opted out of the march.
“We’re going to take time to write letters and send cards to our representatives and celebrate being women, being mothers, on that day – just in our own way that doesn’t condone the behavior of the four women who run the Women’s March movement.”