An Appeal to Jewish Women to Support the 2019 Women’s March and Its Leaders

Rosalind P. Petchesky

December 25, 2018

Women’s March leaders from left Tamika Mallory, Bob Bland, Carmen Perez, Linda Sarsour. Photo: Jody Rogac/TIME

For the past nine months, controversy and obfuscation concerning allegations of anti-Semitism and complicity with Louis Farrakhan have surrounded the 2019 Women’s March and its Women of Color leaders, especially Tamika Mallory and Linda Sarsour. The complaints rage on, leaving a trail of divisiveness and malice in their wake. This is an appeal to the white Jewish women who have participated in this barrage, or stood idly by while it happened, to step back, hit pause, and think more clearly about what fears lie behind your anger, or your silence.

Others have recounted these sorry events with great precision, none more eloquently than Linda Sarsour writing on Nov. 18. It is past time for progressive Jewish women to step up and say, enough. Tamika’s denunciation of anti-Semitism and her honest explanation of how the Nation of Islam supported her as a single mom in Harlem when other resources were lacking should have sufficed. Who among us has not had to reckon with the contradictions and messiness in our own communities and families? My grandmother—a Jewish refugee in the early 20th century who escaped anti-Semitic pogroms in Russia and a patriarchal father who burned her books—was the first person I heard utter the derogatory Yiddish word “schwarze.” For too many in that generation of upwardly mobile Jewish immigrants, acquiring whiteness was tied to class status and racism. It’s a legacy we, their grandchildren, have to face honestly. When will the white Jewish feminists who rail against Mallory and Sarsour publicly and loudly denounce the Sheldon Adelsons and other wealthy right-wing Jewish donors who support the racist, anti-immigrant, misogynist, militarist policies of the Trump and Netanyahu regimes?

Pernicious Chain of Guilt by Association

Yet the attacks go on and on. Theresa Shook is now pressing Tamika, Linda, Carmen Perez and Bob Bland to “step down” as leaders. Why? Because they “have allowed anti-Semitism, anti-LGBTYQIA sentiment and hateful, racist rhetoric to become a part of the platform by [their] refusal to separate [themselves] from groups that espouse these racist, hateful beliefs.” This is a replay of the specious charges against Tamika begun last February. But Shook’s accusation unleashes an even more toxic virus: a pernicious chain of guilt by association. Tamika is guilty because she didn’t denounce Farrakhan and Linda Sarsour is guilty because she didn’t denounce Tamika and the Women’s March because it didn’t denounce Sarsour, and then all of us who support the march and its current leaders will be caught in this illogical and divisive web. But Linda Sarsour is singled out above the others. In the Jewish Telegraphic Agency’s piece reporting Shook’s statement, which named all four march leaders, the headline reads “Why the co-founder of the Women’s March wants Linda Sarsour to step down.” As a Palestinian Muslim supporter of BDS, Sarsour is seen as especially dangerous and a prime target of Jewish ire.

On November 21 the Forward reported that Linda Sarsour had issued a statement of “apology to Jewish women.” Why, I asked myself, should Linda Sarsour feel the need to apologize, and who are these Jewish women to whom she, of all people, feels obliged to say she hasn’t listened enough? After the barrage of malicious, groundless charges of anti-Semitism, the death threats and other vicious attacks to which she and Tamika Mallory have been subjected, isn’t she the one who deserves our apology?

How Many Times Does Linda Sarsour Have to Repudiate Anti-Semitism?

How many times does Linda Sarsour have to remind her Jewish critics of the hundreds of thousands of dollars she and her Muslim organization, MPower Change, and other Muslim groups raised to support Jewish synagogues whose buildings and cemeteries were desecrated or in disrepair in St. Louis and Colorado? or to pay for the burials of all the victims of the massacre at Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh? How many times does she have to declare her repudiation of anti-Semitism? I’ll never forget the videotaped message she sent to the on-line discussion group that Jewish Voice for Peace (JVP) conducted for our members shortly after the Pittsburgh murders. Her words of sisterhood, love, caring—but even more the intimate connection she conveyed with her eyes—touched us deeply. She helped us get through that hard time and see even more clearly how instances of anti-Semitic hatred are bound up with the same white Christian nationalism that affects her along with all immigrants, Muslims, Native Americans, and people of color.

I am a Jewish woman who grew up in an observant Zionist household but changed my views about Israel, Palestine, and US militarism through decades of work in civil rights, feminist, social justice and peace movements. And there are thousands and thousands more American Jewish women like me. We encompass three generations, and we support the Women’s March under the leadership of Sarsour, Mallory, Perez and Bland. Though I write this letter only for myself, I am confident that the great majority if not all of my colleagues in JVP in New York and across the country (we have 2200 dues-paying members in New York City alone and some 15,000 members nationally); in our sister organization, JFREJ (Jews for Racial and Economic Justice); in other groups with whom I work, such as the National Women’s Studies Association, Jews Say No! and Women in Black would agree that Linda Sarsour and Tamika Mallory deserve our full support and gratitude, not our opprobrium. Significantly, the National Council of Jewish Women at this writing continues to support the Women’s March and its leaders.

Right-wing Zionists Behind This Campaign

I do not doubt the sincerity of those Jewish women who are raising the issue of anti-Semitism in the women’s movement. But let’s be clear about who the main forces pushing this campaign are and their real agendas. Organizations like the Anti-Defamation League (ADL), the American Jewish Committee (AJC) and AIPAC (the Israel lobbying group) know all too well that the political landscape in this country is changing. These organizations fear they are losing a whole generation of young Jews who do not adhere to the code of blind devotion to Israel and its policies. Even some liberal Zionists, for example the journalist Peter Beinart (@PeterBeinart), are beginning to question the false equation between criticisms of Israel and anti-Semitism and urging our legislators to take a sharper look at the brutalities of Israeli occupation.

In reality the “Jewish community” is a kaleidoscope of many communities. Today American Jews represent a huge diversity of political and generational views, religious (or non-religious) practices and beliefs, ethnicities (growing numbers of Jews of Color), and degrees of connection to or separation from the State of Israel. And this is exactly what organizations like the AJC, the ADL and AIPAC fear: they can no longer claim a monopoly on who speaks for Jews. They certainly do not speak for me and, I dare guess, a vast number of Jewish women.

Moving beyond an overwhelmingly white Women’s March seems to me something to celebrate. It is time to stop letting Farrakhan be a lightning rod of racial division and to get on with the important work of addressing the persistence of white supremacy as well as anti-Semitism within the mainstream women’s movement.

The murderer who slaughtered eleven elderly Jewish worshipers at Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh targeted his prey not only for being Jews but also for being supporters of immigrants and refugees. We need to learn from this. In a climate of fear, violence, intimidation and rising fascism, the only way forward for a truly transformative Women’s March and movement is to unite the struggles to end violence, racism, anti-Semitism, Islamophobia, misogyny, settler colonialism everywhere, including in Palestine, and the white nationalism that undergirds them all. And this means holding out our hands to the courageous leaders who propel this vision, like Linda Sarsour and Tamika Mallory, saying we stand with you, we have your back.

 

Rosalind Petchesky is a political scientist and a leading socialist-feminist theorist on the U.S. movement for reproductive justice and the international reproductive rights movement. In addition to writing important books and articles, Petchesky is active with Jewish Voice for Peace, New York City chapter, and CUNYforPalestine, in support of the international BDS (Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions) movement and justice for Palestinians.

Comments
  • karen b says:

    I have struggled with this issue since the beginning. It struck me at a very emotional level, however, after much reading of different points of view and debating with friends I am moving closer to supporting the march. I may not move quick enough to support this year’s march, but moving I am.

    I think a strategic mistake the 4 leaders and the Advisory Committee made was to keep Mallory as a leader. I believe she made a significant mistake and one which caused tremendous angst and divisiveness. As much as she has accomplished with the Women’s March movement, for the sake of the ultimate goal I think she should have stepped down. The controversy rages partially because she continues to remain in her position. But, I know its difficult for leaders to step down for the good of the movement.

    My current position to not support the march comes from being hurt by anti-semitism, stubbornness, and some confusion. However, it is my position that successful leaders learn from their mistakes and I hope Mallory, in particular, and the other 3 leaders are more educated about anti-semitism and truly believs that anti-semitism is real and dangerous not just for Jews.

  • Lisa Ames says:

    Okay, I have more to add here. I must speak “truth to power.” The opinions I’m reading are very hurtful. I am a Jew who abhors Netanyahu and wants to see justice and equality for Palestinians as well as for everyone else. I am not supporting racists and reactionaries, and I am not a Zionist; I do not “fear” a decline of respect for Jews, except in the context of the WM.. It is an obvious anti-Semitic stance to behave and speak in such a way that woc need to be heard but Jewish women- some of whom are also woc – do not. I have knocked myself out this year learning about white privilege, about NOT being silent when it come to racism, about needing woc to lead, about oppression that many of us had been aware of but hadn’t done much about. I have done this work and it’s still a journey. Of course no one is perfect. That’s an excuse for the leaders to not denounce Farrakhan? I understand Tamika’s gratitude to him, but why won’t she say she doesn’t stand by him in his horrible anti- Semitism? Is there a reason that these women will not denounce him? I, and many friends both Jewish and not, denounce Netanyahu; WHY can’t they denounce Farrakhan? If I were to say I abhor Naziism but would not denounce members of the KKK, what would you people think of me? It WOULD be guilt by association. Let’s get real. As our awful President said about Charlottesville, there are good people on both sides. Really? How about that he assumes “some” Mexicans are good people? It seems to me that we’re behaving somewhat like him when we generalize -as in the comments here – about Jewish women. Why should I have to defend anything about my opinions? If the WM wants to be inclusive, then BE inclusive! Speak out against hatred and haters of every stripe!!

    • Johanna says:

      You ask the leaders of the Women’s March to include Jewish women and to clearly state their opposition to anti-Semitism. This they have done multiple times, as Rosalind Petchesky documents in her article. You and others are dissatisfied with their actions, claiming that unless and until they publicly denounce Louis Farrakhan and his organization, you will find them “anti-semitic.”
      You claim to have done important personal work to understand your own white privilege. This work should have alerted you to the challenges of working across the racial divide in this country and led you to understand that demanding public denunciations for an entire organization, rather than for a set of ideas, is counterproductive to building bridges across these divides.
      You say you are willing to denounce Netanyahu so therefore Tamika Mallory and the other leaders should be willing to denounce Farrakhan. Well, as you might have learned from your personal work on anti-racism, the prejudices of a social movement leader and those of a powerful head of a militarized and wealthy state are not comparable. Further, your personal denunciation of Netanyahu is simply that—it has no public/political significance. For the Women’s March to denounce an entire organization that has the support of thousands of Black people in this country, would only serve to drive a further wedge between the Women’s March and those members. The Women’s March leaders have made clear in their political program, in their public statements, and in their actions their recognition of and opposition to anti-Semitism and thus their disagreement with Farrakhan. That should be good enough for you to lend them your support. Refusing to do so, does indeed make you part of the Zionist campaign against the Women’s March, regardless of your claim to not be Zionist.
      ,

  • MaryBJ says:

    Thank you Roz. As Marybeth Gardam said so eloquently, “We march in our brokenness. . .” We must be vigilant and deeply attentive, but not thwarted, when we splinter. Vigilant about the way differences among us are used to co-opt and divide us, and deeply attentive to the concerns being raised. Remember when leaders in the mainstream women’s movement shunned lesbians and women living in poverty? Bit by bit, most of us listened deeply through the pain and fear and cacophony, and we grew stronger in our analysis and our unity as a result. We can do this again, and again, and again.

  • The Women’s International League for Peace & Freedom US Section has supported the women’s march since it began. This year we’ve discussed these accusations and what to do about them. In existence since 1915, we have seen a lot of divisive politics and efforts to divide women. Empowered women, standing together and speaking out is what the alt right fears most. And dividing us, causing us to deny the womanhood that overrides politics, religion and culture, that is how they hope to silence us.

    Women have more in common with one another than anything that keeps us apart.
    We are wives, daughters, mothers and grandmothers. We are sisters too.
    We give life then see it wasted through war and violence.
    We are discounted at every level of society. EVERY level.
    We have to work harder, be better and withstand all sorts of attacks, not least from our own sisters at times.
    Whatever miscreant policies are inflicted on society, it is women who all too often have to pick up the pieces and care for those left behind.

    Our womanhood should override our religious and political differences, our racial differences and our class differences.
    If it does not, that only means we’ve allowed fears to stand in the way of action.

    Of course it is in the best interests of the alt right to keep us divided.
    They’ve always feared the power of women standing together.

    I hope we can overcome these concerns, address them and put them to rest.

    Certainly there must be more discussion among us about how to be better allies, how to support each other at every class level, how to HONOR our differences yet recognize that only by standing together as women can we be heard.

    But those discussions must not keep us from standing together.
    We are women…. Christian, Muslim, Jew, white, black, brown.
    We spring from unique and richly textured cultures that need NOT be homogenized in order to embrace what matters.

    We must seek and find the kernal of truth that exists in each of us…. that as women our most vital role is to preserve and protect human values, the rights of the least of us, the voices of the silenced and the earth who is our true mother.

    None of us is perfect.
    In fact, imperfection must be the starting point for addressing where we err, how we can heal, how better to support one another… WHILE WE MARCH and SPEAK UP.

    We march in our brokenness, we march and speak up despite our own failures, maybe even because of them.

    • Lisa Ames says:

      Will the current Women’s March Inc. leadership denounce Farrakhan and distance themselves from him? If so, I will certainly participate in the March. I think that if the leaders were in any way affiliated with a racist speaking out about women of color, everyone would immediately shout out racism. What’s the difference?! I want to stand with all women and I’ve challenged myself to be woke about all issues relating to oppressed communities. But why does it not go both ways? Why is it okay to not be woke about anti-Semitism? I do not consider myself a Zionist, and I am proud of my Jewish heritage although I do not actively practice the religion. I am a humanist. I speak Spanish and am involving myself with the refugee/immigration horrors we currently face. I also have practically given my life to the Resistance over the past 2 years. I can‘t fathom how so many women are now ready to dismiss the “petty” concerns of Jewish women. Jews have always, since the beginning of time, been scapegoated, oppressed, marginalized, and murdered. My grandparents immigrated to the U.S. as refugees fleeing the pogroms in which they would have likely been killed. I cannot betray my grandparents’ suffering by marching under the auspices of anti-Semites. If you are not part of the solution, you’re part of the problem. I fight for all women. So should our leaders. But talk is cheap. Anyone who does not denounce an anti-Semite (I.e. Louis Farrakhan) has to own her own anti-Semitism, just as if I followed a anti-Muslim leader I’d have to own my own xenophobia! Or if I was connected in any way to David Duke, I’d be a racist. By not denouncing Farrakhan, the WM leaders are creating division. Jewish women are not the ones dividing us. If they want to do what’s best for all women in our quest for equal rights and to fight all white male supremacy, they will have to refuse any and all marginalization of any of us. I thought that’s what intersectionality and reconciliation were all about – caring intensely about all women, regardless of heritage. Inclusion is for all women — EQUALLY for all. I’d appreciate a response to my thoughts.

  • Laura Myers says:

    I wholeheartedly support your position. Do these critics not understand that they are supporting the racists and reactionaries? Zionism has poisoned their good judgment.

  • Thank you Rosalind! This is excellent. Here is a sign-on statement written in a similar vein by Jewish women and queer, transgender and gender non-confirming activists.

    https://www.change.org/p/sara-kershnar-palestinian-liberation-is-central-to-a-liberatory-feminist-movement?recruiter=6442308&utm_source=share_petition&utm_medium=copylink&utm_campaign=share_petition&utm_term=3e05e07651d641f9a445fc63080c5dd8

    Please sign-on if you agree. We will then publish it and send it to the national organizers and each of us can send it to our locals.

  • Samir Twair says:

    Excellent article! Thank you! You can send it to Washington Report on Middle East Affairs to be published.

  • Leslie Cagan says:

    Thank for you this statement!

  • Elly Leary says:

    Rosalind, Thank you thank you for this. Is there something we can do collectively? Like a group statement? A letter to Tikkun? The NYT?
    to the Women’s March Board (is that even possible?). Can JVP (of which I am a titular member) help us? Jews for Social and Economic Justice? I’m down to help in anyway.

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