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The 2019 Women’s March: privileging victimhood and the power of class

Activism
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Over the weekend I rallied and marched in one of Seattle’s two women’s marches, with speeches from indigenous and immigrant communities, the Washington Poor People’s Campaign, Dreamers, and religious figures.  We chanted to end the school to prison pipeline and the building of an expensive youth jail, to fund education, healthcare, housing, gun control, and to end the government shutdown. We gave our support to transpeople and Native Peoples especially Missing and Murdered Indigenous women, to saving our environment, to welcoming immigrants, and fighting racism, anti-Semitism, sexism, homophobia, and “toxic masculinity.”  The day celebrated inclusivity and cross-sectional political organizing led by “womxn” and marginalized communities.  “Women are the Wall and Trump will Pay!”

The Women’s March in 2017, following the inauguration of the most sexist, racist, and dangerous president in the U.S., was the largest single day demonstration in our history. Despite all the expressions of unity, two years and many marches and outrages later, much has been written about this 2019 Women’s March and the angry schisms around accusations of anti-Semitism.  This has resulted in the loss of endorsements, the organizing of competing marches, and an enormous amount of public handwringing, along with calls for the resignations of the leadership and the weakening of the movement. At the same time, Jewish women have been exhorted to march in unity with the original Women’s March and the organizers talk about establishing a “platform on which truly progressive candidates can run and win in 2020.”

As I sort through the fractious messiness of this intersectional, (cross color and class), organizing effort, where smart, powerful, thoughtful women have done difficult and inspiring work, and made their share of mistakes as well, (reminding me that if you don’t make mistakes, you don’t make anything), certain themes emerge.

Tamika Mallory has been pilloried as an anti-Semite because of her relationship with Louis Farrakhan, who has a long history of bigotry and anti-Semitism, and at the same time of doing positive grassroots work within the African-American community and in particular, of supporting Mallory when she was a desperate single mom. Even Barack Obama met with Farrakhan during an event organized by the Congressional Black Caucus.

Linda Sarsour has been attacked as an anti-Semite because of her support for Palestinian rights and the boycott, divestment, sanction campaign against Israel. This is the same Sarsour who raised hundreds of thousands of dollars through her Muslim organization, MPower Change and other Muslim groups to support synagogues whose buildings or cemeteries were desecrated or in disrepair in St. Louis and Colorado. She is the same Sarsour who raised $239,000 to pay for the burials of the victims of the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh and who has worked with Jewish Voice for Peace and other Jewish organizations.

Both women have repeatedly met with their Jewish sisters and sought guidance from a number of progressive Jewish and LGBTQ partner organizations. They have repeatedly explained their progressive political positions, worked to include Jewish women in the Values and Principles statement and on the steering committee, and stayed in dialogue with their critics.  They have apologized to their Jewish sisters for not responding quickly enough to hateful statements made by Farrakhan. I wonder, how many times do they have to repudiate anti-Semitism and say they are sorry for it to be enough?

As a white Jewish woman with immigrant grandparents who fled the poverty and pogroms of Eastern Europe and grew up with the shield of rising privilege and prosperity in post WW II America, I suspect that something else is going on. It is not that I am personally ignorant of the realities of anti-Semitism. My mother used to talk of the real estate signs in Brooklyn, “No Jews or dogs allowed.” I lived in a picturesque New England town where Jews were accused by the Christian townsfolk of “destroying Christmas.” I went to an elite women’s college where private school girls wanted to touch me because they “had never met a Jew before.” Presumably they were looking for my horns and curious about my odd religious customs and food habits.

Today, the angry chorus of accusations are coming from white Jews who are accustomed to the privileging of their victimhood and the power of their class. The voices of Jews of color have been largely sidelined from this conversation. I am reminded as someone from an ethnic group that has only newly entered the category of whiteness, we have much to learn.  We can start with taking a step back and listening to all the marginalized women: Black, Latinx, Asian-American, Pacific Islander, lesbian, bisexual, queer, transgender, non-binary, and gender non-conforming, disabled, indigenous, immigrant, and Muslim, with whom we are presumably in coalition and who are the targets of a rather large share of the oppressions in this society.

As usual, it is easy to attack women of color, there is a long tradition of that, not only within U.S. society but also from the mouths of our grandmothers who referred to the apartment janitor in those Brooklyn apartments as “schvartze,” the Yiddish equivalent of the N-word. And in our synagogues and communal Jewish organizations where the Black Lives Matter position paper was condemned for its solidarity with Palestinians, Arabs in Israel/Palestine are ignored or demonized, there is rarely criticism of the AIPACs and Adelsons in our midst, and Jews everywhere are expected to march in sync with the racist and reactionary reign of Netanyahu and his rightwing cohorts. Why don’t we have to apologize to our sisters for that?

As usual, there is also a long list of “pro-Israel” groups and Israeli propagandist organizations that are working behind the scenes to foment division and protect Jewish white privilege and victimhood. WoMen4All is promoting alternative marches under the guise of fighting bigotry by welcoming all genders, ethnicities and races (and fighting BDS, supporting Israeli propaganda, Islamophobic spokespeople, and defending Zionism). The Jewish Community Relations Council states that Jewish women and their allies should not have to choose between their pride as Jews, Zionists, and progressives. The march is criticized by Zioness, an effort organized by Amanda Berman of the rightwing Lawfare Project, to promote Zionism as a progressive force. A Wider Bridge, an Israeli lobby group, uses Israel’s gay community to pinkwash the Israeli occupation and attacks LGBTQ who support Palestinian rights as anti-semitic. There is a long history of pro-Israel lobbying groups not only attacking the Women’s March, but also movements like Black Lives Matter, Democratic Socialists of America, and candidates and professors who express support or advocacy for Palestinian rights.

Which brings me to an uncomfortable but key point. How does Zionism fit into this discussion?  It has become clearer and clearer to many Jewish activists and their allies that if we are working for equal rights for all, if we are condemning racism, anti-semitism and Islamophobia, if we are working to create safe societies for women, if we are working against gun violence, then Zionism becomes increasingly problematic. Political Zionism as a movement that led to the formation of the Jewish state, was premised on the expulsion of the indigenous Palestinian population and the privileging of the (white) Jews who led the movement and settled the land. Within Israel, there is a long history of racism and economic and political disenfranchisement towards Jews of color and towards Palestinians and more recently African asylum seekers. Zionism as a political movement has continued to do great harm to Palestinians through the growth of Jewish settlements in the West Bank, the severe siege of Gaza with its humanitarian catastrophe, the expulsions of Palestinians in East Jerusalem, and the second-class citizenship of Palestinians with Israeli citizenship. If Zionism is a liberation movement for Jews that is predicated on great harm to Palestinians, then it becomes increasingly indefensible to progressive people everywhere.

In Israel there has also been the rise of the ultra-Orthodox who are controlling personal law to the grave detriment of women’s and gay rights and of a more racist, fascistic element that characterizes many in Netanyahu’s increasingly rightwing coalition. No amount of medical breakthroughs, brilliant literature, high tech industry, beautiful music, fabulous dance, spiritual moments, and gorgeous beaches can undo the fact that settler colonialism is by definition indefensible. Jews may dream of a country where they no longer fear anti-Semitism, but the dilemma is that Zionism is ultimately a form of white supremacy and is inherently racist and unsustainable in the longterm. It is also deeply corruptive to the believers.

The Women’s March has put this harsh dilemma front and center in the Jewish community. I would argue that Jewish women and their allies are going to have to make a choice.  Ultimately, our liberation depends on a collective liberation against white supremacy, challenging the assumptions and institutions that oppress us and drive our society towards greater inequity and injustice.  We need to resist the forces unleashed by Trump and his minions and we need to take power by organizing across class and racial divides. Ultimately, anti-Semitism will only be defeated when white supremacy is defeated.  While we agree to fight rising fascism, misogyny, bigotry, and all forms of oppression against marginalized people, there will be disagreements, criticism, mistakes, difficult conversations. Within the Jewish community we need to start that conversation with a long hard look at Zionism.

Alice Rothchild
About Alice Rothchild

Alice Rothchild is a physician, author, and filmmaker who has focused her interest in human rights and social justice on the Israel/Palestine conflict since 1997. She practiced ob-gyn for almost 40 years. Until her retirement she served as Assistant Professor of Obstetrics and Gynecology, Harvard Medical School. She writes and lectures widely, is the author of Broken Promises, Broken Dreams: Stories of Jewish and Palestinian Trauma and Resilience, On the Brink: Israel and Palestine on the Eve of the 2014 Gaza Invasion, and Condition Critical: Life and Death in Israel/Palestine. She directed a documentary film, Voices Across the Divide and is active in Jewish Voice for Peace. Follow her at @alicerothchild

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7 Responses

  1. Keith
    Keith on January 22, 2019, 4:51 pm

    ALICE ROTHCHILD- “The Women’s March in 2017, following the inauguration of the most sexist, racist, and dangerous president in the U.S., was the largest single day demonstration in our history.”

    All of these women’s marches are organized and funded by organizations tied to the Democratic Party, at least indirectly. And the focus on Trump serves to direct attention away from the systemic nature of the problem. Virtually all of the problems you claim to oppose are problems which are caused or exacerbated by empire and militarism. An American feminist movement worthy of the name would be focusing on restructuring society away from militarism and empire, not focusing on Trump and support for Democrats. By and large, American “feminists” are imperial feminists overly concerned with breaking the imperial glass ceiling. Getting a woman elected President so a woman can bomb Third World women and children. Beginning in 2019, four of the five top defense companies have women CEOs. This is progress?

    ALICE ROTHCHILD- “Both women have repeatedly met with their Jewish sisters and sought guidance from a number of progressive Jewish and LGBTQ partner organizations….They have apologized to their Jewish sisters for not responding quickly enough to hateful statements made by Farrakhan.”

    What consummate arrogance! These women did not owe their Jewish “sisters” an apology, nor do they need your guidance. They are groveling before Jewish power. Surely you are aware of that? Jews are the richest, most powerful ethno-religious group in the US, a situation not possible if there was meaningful anti-Semitism. Charges of anti-Semitism are little more than a club to beat the less fortunate into submission. And the statements made by Farrakan are of trivial importance compared to the systemic inequality built in to our present system. Systemic inequality, I made add, which has benefited Jews enormously.

    ALICE ROTHCHILD- “Ultimately, anti-Semitism will only be defeated when white supremacy is defeated.”

    Your comment suggests that you view anti-Semitism as a serious problem. I see no evidence for this unless, of course, you go along with the definition of anti-Semitism which includes criticism of Israel as anti-Semitism. And then it is a problem for the Zionists, not liberal you. Norman Finkelstein had occasion to discuss British anti-Semitism as relates to the anti-Corbyn hysteria. He indicates that the British experience – anti-Semitism is marginal and British Jews are disproportionately wealthy – tracks closely with the US.

    “The degree of anti-Semitism infecting British society has been the subject of numerous polls over a sustained period of time. These surveys have uniformly, consistently, and unambiguously concluded that anti-Semitism (1) has long been a marginal phenomenon in British society, infecting under 10 percent of the population, (2) is far less salient than hostility to other British minorities, and (3) is less pronounced in the UK than almost anywhere else in Europe….
    ….
    “The three richest Brits are Jewish.[12] Jews comprise only .5 percent of the population but fully 20 percent of the 100 richest Brits.[13] Relative both to the general population and to other ethno-religious groups, British Jews are in the aggregate disproportionately wealthy, educated, and professionally successful.[14] These data track closely with the picture elsewhere. Jews comprise only 2 percent of the US population but fully 30 percent of the 100 richest Americans, while Jews enjoy the highest household income among religious groups.[15] Jews comprise less than .2 percent of the world’s population but, of the world’s 200 richest people, fully 20 percent are Jewish.[16] Jews are incomparably organized as they have created a plethora of interlocking, overlapping, and mutually reinforcing communal and defense organizations that operate in both the domestic and international arenas. In many countries, not least the US and the UK, Jews occupy strategic positions in the entertainment industry, the arts, publishing, journals of opinion, the academy, the legal profession, and government.”
    (Norman Finkelstein) http://normanfinkelstein.com/2018/08/25/finkelstein-on-corbyn-mania/

    • punterweger
      punterweger on January 23, 2019, 10:20 am

      As an admirer of Norman Finkelstein and Jeremy Corbyn, I find your intemperate and misplaced response to this very thoughtful article symptomatic of a left that would rather berate each other over imputed sins than join hands in the struggle to beat back a resurgent right.

      • Keith
        Keith on January 23, 2019, 10:55 am

        PUNTERWEGER- “… a left that would rather berate each other over imputed sins than join hands in the struggle to beat back a resurgent right.”

        And I see a “Left” that is best described an an imperial Left, intimidated by charges of anti-Semitism and engaging in identity politics. We are part of a corporate controlled, financially interdependent global empire run amok and utilizing divide and rule to divert attention from the systemic problems of empire, militarism, and neoliberal globalization. Trump is but a symptom of the problem and the “resurgent right” has considerable support from the fat-cats who control the system. Getting caught up in elite contrived sectarianism adds to the problem. And focusing on Lois Farrakhan is counterproductive.

  2. Marnie
    Marnie on January 23, 2019, 7:49 am

    Stay focused and don’t get sidetracked by the distraction designed and employed to keep women from working together and striving together for a better world. Don’t let any man, woman or zionist define you and don’t get into the stupid games of ‘condemning someone’ (just a cute phrase for kissing zionist ass) because of something they said, which you aren’t responsible for. Only what comes out of your mouth or flies off your keyboard are you responsible for, not someone’s elses crap. I’m still disgusted beyond belief that the little princess meghan mccain is still given a spot at the table on the View after her recent shameless outburst, race baiting and antisemite baiting of Tamika Malloy. Fuck that loud, obnoxious, self-centered stupid cow; better yet, kick her off the show, as she’s completely clueless and ignorant of the lives the 99% lead.

  3. Helena Cobban
    Helena Cobban on January 23, 2019, 8:17 am

    This is a great, thoughtful piece as always from the amazing Dr. Rothchild! Worth noting, too, that there seems to be evidence of deliberate attempts by rightwing/patriarchal forces to very cynically use accusations of instances of anti-Semitism oby people/leaders on the “left” to divide the left and sow confusion among its supporters– and also, on occasion, even to fabricate instances of anti-Semitism in order to buttress these charges. See, for example, Asa Winstanley’s powerful recent expose of this having been done against the Jeremy Corbyn camp/campaign in the UK. In the UK context, I can’t tell you how many good friends or family members of mine have raised– as their first “criticism” of Corbyn– the alleged “fact” that he is surrounded by anti-Semites… But, as Asa shows, many of those allegedly Corbynista but definitely anti-Semitic Twitter accounts were almost certainly created and controlled for that purpose by Corbyn’s numerous rightwing political opponents– many of whom, very likely, are genuine anti-Semites.

    I’m not saying that this is definitely happening here in the United States (yet.) But it certainly could. So it increases the need for us all to develop a much more thorough understanding– and ability to explain to our friends– of the distinctions between anti-Semitism and criticism of Israel (including, criticism of the Zionist project as a whole.)

  4. Misterioso
    Misterioso on January 23, 2019, 10:25 am

    https://jewishweek.timesofisrael.com/sarsour-rejects-farrakhans-anti-semitism-while-attacking-anti-bds-laws/

    The New York Jewish Week, January 20/19

    “Sarsour Rejects Farrakhan’s Anti-Semitism While Attacking Anti-BDS Laws”

    JTA — “Linda Sarsour defended the legality of the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement against Israel during her speech on stage in Washington D.C. at the third Women’s March, hours after rejecting the anti-Semitic statements of Louis Farrakhan.

    “Sarsour, a leader of the Women’s March movement, called herself ‘a proud Palestinian-American woman’ and said that ‘there are no perfect leaders’ in her remarks in Saturday. She said that ‘the media can talk about any controversy they want, but the real controversy is in the White House,’ a reference to charges of anti-Semitism among the movement’s leadership.

    “’We will protect our constitutional right to boycott, divest and sanctions in this country,’ Sarsour also said, a reference to pending legislation in the Senate to allow state and local governments to refuse to use the services of companies that boycott Israel.

    “Prior to attending the march, Sarsour on Saturday morning told CNN’s New Day Weekend with Victor Blackwell and Christi Paul that the Women’s March rejects anti-Semitic and homophobic statements by Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan.

    “’We unequivocally have rejected the comments made by Minister Farrakhan on LGBTQ communities and on Jewish communities. We have said multiple times on our statements at womensmarch.com, we unequivocally denounce transphobia and ask people to ask us directly and to read our statements and understand we have been doing this work before there was a Women’s March,’ she said. ‘And our track records are very clear: That we have stood up for all communities. We are the first people on the front lines when there is a fight for justice in this country.’

    “She noted her meeting earlier in the week with 13 rabbis from the New York area, after which nine of the rabbis endorsed her and the Women’s March.

    “’What that proves is that we have been doing the work. We have been learning and evolving as a movement and people have to understand that we are trying to create a big tent of women of all religious backgrounds, people of color — people of different sexual orientations, even people across the different ideology,’ Sarsour said.

    “’We are a polarized nation so we went to the rabbis. We had a meeting and talked about issues of pain and trauma and historical trauma and trauma of black people in America. Muslims, refugees. So we will continue those conversations,’ Sarsour said.

    “For the third year in a row, the main Women’s March was held in Washington D.C. and hundreds of sister marches were held across the country. According to reports there were fewer participants than in previous years, in part due to the accusations of anti-Semitism against the leadership of the March.

    “Three of the speakers on the main stage on Saturday were the three Jewish women named last week to the Women’s March steering committee: transgender rights activist Abby Stein; Union for Reform Judaism staffer April Baskin; and Jewish diversity activist Yavilah McCoy.

    “Marches not affiliated with the national march also were held on Saturday in cities throughout the country.”

  5. David Green
    David Green on January 24, 2019, 12:25 am

    I basically agree with Keith’s critique, and would only add that it’s been clear for quite some time that Linda Sarsour is an opportunist, a hustler, a wheeler-dealer, a phony, and a fraud. She’s so in with the #resistance establishment, and Brand BLM. Please tell me anything she’s ever done to actually address the plight of the Palestinian people. Her rhetoric is self-serving; she incessantly claims victimhood while promoting herself. Her rhetoric, if you listen to it, lacks any serious content.

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