From the very beginning, many Jewish women, including those who identify as committed progressives, were apprehensive about the Women’s March. But few would have predicted that two years later, a deep rift over anti-Semitism would turn a movement intended to highlight solidarity into a cautionary tale of the hazards of identity politics.
Jewish ambivalence surfaced in the days leading up to the first march on Saturday January 21, 2017, the day after the inauguration of President Donald Trump. Concerns that it was taking place on the Jewish Sabbath were amplified when the event's public face became that of Palestinian-American Linda Sarsour.
There was worry that an effort led by the head of the Arab American Association of New York, an outspoken supporter of the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement, might not be a place where proudly identified Jews were welcome. Memories were still fresh from the previous summer, when marchers holding a flag with a Star of David were removed from a lesbian rights march in Chicago.
But any misgivings were overshadowed by the need for American Jewish women, overwhelmingly Democratic and liberal, to stand up and be counted as pink-hatted soldiers fighting for the issues they feared the new president threatened: reproductive rights, LGBT rights, immigrant rights, racial justice, environmental protection and voting rights. More than a dozen American Jewish organizations came on board to officially sponsor the march, and unofficially, groups marched under the banners of their Jewish-community groups and local synagogues.
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“We will raise our voices and partner with organizations to create a persistent and clear message of resistance to any and all abhorrent policies and actions by our new government,” was the battle cry of New York’s Rabbi Sharon Kleinbaum, spiritual leader of the city’s largest LGBT synagogue, as she rallied her congregants to the march's cause.
Indeed, those who took part were inspired and elated, and the relationship between Sarsour and the progressive Jewish community seemed to be on solid ground.
After the march, Sarsour herself told Haaretz that “Jews are some of my biggest supporters.” The vilification of Sarsour was chalked up to the work of Trump-supporting conservatives. Jewish women embraced what the march had accomplished, and celebrated the fact that they had felt comfortable there.
“I didn’t see one anti-Israel sign, not one BDS sign,” Nancy K. Kaufman, the chief executive of the National Council of Jewish Women, said after the event. “I’ve been at many marches and nine times out of 10 there are anti-Israel people showing up, often from the Jewish community. With this march everything stayed on message.”
There were, however, several aftershocks in the months after the first march. Sarsour ruffled feathers when she was quoted as saying that feminism and Zionism were incompatible. Then it turned out that Rasmea Yousef Odeh was involved in planning the march’s second action, a global one-day strike called A Day Without Women. At the time, Odeh was an Arab rights activist who had been convicted of participating in a terrorist attack in Israel that claimed two lives. She was also accused of immigration fraud for lying about her past upon entering the United States and applying for citizenship. (She was deported the following September.)
But any misgivings soon dissipated, subsumed in the roller-coaster ride of the first year of the Trump presidency, particularly the traumatic events before, during and after the Charlottesville Unite the Right rally in August 2017. Charlottesville highlighted the need for a maximum level of solidarity among racial and religious minorities, not only in fighting Trump, but in facing what felt like a frightening renaissance in white supremacy that his presidency inspired.
The feelings of solidarity continued into the second Women’s March a year ago. Once again, there was discomfort that the event was again taking place on the Sabbath, and doubts about Sarsour remained. But once more, the National Council of Jewish Women said that it had communicated with the march’s organizers. Reassured that there would be no “Israel bashing” at the event, Jewish women remained strong supporters of the march. Once again, many Jewish groups sponsored the effort and showed up in large numbers.
“Do we agree with Linda Sarsour and some of the things she’s said about Israel? Absolutely not, and we’ve been clear about that,” Kaufman said at last year’s march. “But we do not believe that we should be politicizing something where there is agreement.”
Three months later, everything changed. Navigating Israel and BDS within the social justice movement wasn’t always easy, but it was possible. Confronting the virulent anti-Semitism of Louis Farrakhan, the controversial leader of the Nation of Islam, was a different matter altogether.
Less than three months after the second March, the group’s co-president, Tamika Mallory, attended the Nation of Islam’s annual Saviors’ Day rally where Farrakhan said that “the powerful Jews are my enemy” and that “the Jews have control over agencies of those agencies of government.” He called Jews “the mother and father of apartheid,” adding that they espoused “degenerate behavior in Hollywood, turning men into women and women into men.”
Media coverage of the event and Mallory’s post on social media marking her attendance shined a spotlight on the long-time association of Mallory, Sarsour, and a third Women’s March co-chief, Carmen Perez, to Farrakhan.
The Women’s March responded with a statement saying only that “Minister Farrakhan’s statements about Jewish, queer, and trans people are not aligned with the Women’s March Unity Principles” and that “the world Women’s March seeks to build is one free from anti-Semitism.” The group’s failure to clearly condemn Farrakhan’s views was a red line for many Jewish women – including those who had enthusiastically participated in the first two marches.
Some activists began a petition campaign demanding that supporters of the march “remove their sponsorship until the organization’s current leadership is replaced by leaders who are not affiliated with and do not defend those associated with any organization classified as a hate group.”
The controversy was intense, but soon, once again, it became buried in the relentless pace of news cycles in the Trump era. As it had the previous year, internal dissent among Democrats was put on the back burner as they did their best to unite for a common goal: this time, victory in the November 2018 midterm elections.
Weeks before the vote, the controversy reignited. First, on October 18, Farrakhan tweeted a video of himself delivering a speech peppered with denunciations of Jews, headlined: “I’m not an anti-Semite. I’m anti-termite.”
Soon after came the Tree of Life synagogue shooting in Pittsburgh; the killing of 11 people dramatically raised awareness about anti-Semitism. In an interview, actress Alyssa Milano, who had become a prominent voice in the #MeToo movement, said she would not be comfortable appearing at the third Women’s March unless its leaders clearly condemned Farrakhan.
Milano’s stance was echoed by another actress, Debra Messing. Throughout November, as the march neared, the damage that the Farrakhan association had done became increasingly evident. Twice that month the march’s leaders tried to stem the tide against them. A statement on November 8 declared that “Women’s March leaders reject anti-Semitism in all its forms” and “We want to say emphatically that we do not support or endorse statements made by Minister Louis Farrakhan about women, Jewish and LGBTQ communities.”
On November 20, Sarsour issued a personal statement admitting that “we should have been faster and clearer in helping people understand our values and our commitment to fighting anti-semitism. We regret that.”
Two big names drop out
Any impact by these statements, however, was blunted by the blow on December 10, with a Tablet Magazine article detailing the ways the national Women’s March’s finances were insufficiently transparent and reporting that the group contracted with Nation of Islam-affiliated groups for security. Even more damaging, the report included an account of Perez and Mallory allegedly “berating” one of the group’s original organizers, Vanessa Wruble, for being Jewish as well as white, reportedly telling her, “your people hold all the wealth.”
Kaufman, the chief executive of the National Council of Jewish Women, told The Washington Post that, because of the Women’s March’s anti-Semitism issues, “we cannot as an organization engage” with this year’s event. She had been the march’s biggest cheerleader in the mainstream Jewish community for the two previous years. Adding fuel to the dissatisfaction, even Teresa Shook, who first conceived of the Women’s March, distanced herself from the national leadership of the movement she had inspired.
Next came the exodus of sponsors, with the list of organizational partners dropping to less than half the number the previous year. Prominent groups like the Southern Poverty Law Center, the AFL-CIO, Emily’s List, and notably, the Democratic National Committee, were gone. From the once-extensive list of Jewish groups, only three remained.
In the final days leading up to the march, a charm offensive reaching out to the Jewish community was launched. Three Jewish members – two Jews of color and a Jewish transgender activist – were included in a new 32-member “steering committee” for the march.
Sarsour and Mallory met with a group of nine liberal rabbis, who then issued a letter disclosing their “frank discussions about the issues that are dividing our communities,” and though acknowledging remaining “differences,” the letter encouraged members of the Jewish community to attend the march.
Many Jewish women have decided to stay home. Others are making it a point to take part in local marches and related events that make clear they have no affiliation with the national organization.
So is there a lesson in this painful exercise?
Some progressive Jews say they’re grateful for the chance to launch a wide-ranging conversation on anti-Semitism and the different parts of society where it appears, though the price for that conversation has been high. Meanwhile, the infighting in the progressive movement and between racial and religious minorities delights bigots and white supremacists.
“I think it has been completely appropriate to call out the anti-Semitism of Louis Farrakhan,” says Rabbi Jill Jacobs of T’ruah: The Rabbinic Call for Human Rights, a group that has not taken part in any of the marches for religious, not political, reasons. Neither the group nor Jacobs participate in events that take place on Shabbat.
“But at the same time, the Women’s March is about the many millions of women who came out on the street two years ago. It’s not just about two or three women in the march leadership,” she says.
“When we spend so much time on this one march and one or two women we are missing the forest for the trees. The hyperfocus on them as stand-ins for all progressives helps those who would split Jews from the whole progressive world – and we Jews need to be part of that world.”
Others question the cost of admission.
In a Haaretz opinion piece Thursday, Sara Yael Hirschhorn, a visiting Israel studies assistant professor at Northwestern University, asked whether “fighting to be included in asymmetric and even abusive coalitions of progressive ‘solidarity’ is worth it – or even possible.
“How inclusive and welcoming coalitions are towards Jews has always been the canary in the mine of liberal democracies. The question of anti-Semitism in the Women’s March may well reveal the limits of liberalism within the movement, and the profound failure of identity politics to provide full inclusion of all groups.”