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.