Following the debate over anti-Semitism and the Women’s March has felt like having a year-long front-row seat to a soliloquy by Fiddler on the Roof’s conflicted Tevye: on the one hand, on the other hand, on the other hand. On the one hand, the attacks against the Women’s March leadership, especially Linda Sarsour and Tamika Mallory, cannot be untangled from many critics’ clear discomfort with women in power, especially women of color, especially unapologetic women of color. On the other hand, some Jewish women have said they were aware of those underlying dynamics and still felt wounded—and perhaps scared.
On the other hand, march leadership has made strides to answer their critics, holding meetings, trainings, apologizing, and expanding leadership ranks to include Jews. On the other hand, even those who sympathized with Mallory’s reluctance to kowtow to pressure over ever-convenient bogeyman Louis Farakkhan may have wished march leaders had said something affirming to Jews—and LGBTQ folks—early on, if only to shut the critics down and return to the issues.
I’ve been watching this “controversy” spiral for months, especially loud in Jewish media circles, and, frankly, shuddering at its ability to sustain itself even as the women’s march team organized to oppose inhuman family separations, and staged protests at the Kavanaugh hearings, and did work electing progressive women in the midterms.
Clearly, the Women’s March debate goes deeper than the Women’s March. For self-styled progressive Jews, in fact, this debate is part of a broader slate of arguments that have arisen in a moment of frightening anti-Semitism and an administration unwilling to oppose it. These include substantive disagreements about how anti-Jewish oppression fits into an intersectional movement, as well as an existential divide about the source of the threat we face today.
And yes, we do face a threat. When I lace up my shoes this Saturday, I will feel scared—but not of my fellow marchers, no matter what they think about Mallory’s relationship to Farrakhan. I will feel worried about white guys who hate Jews and people of color and like to plow their cars through demonstrations or shoot up synagogues. This distinction keeps getting lost in the back and forth over the march. Everyone in social movements feels discomfort or exclusion at times, because, in a fundamentally unjust society, prejudice lives in all of us. Yet separating ourselves is a self-righteous way out. As a coalition of Jewish women of color wrote: “As White nationalists have historically and presently organized themselves against Jews, we have not experienced communities of color organizing themselves to target our Jewish community.”
The march leadership has asked us to stay on board and have “courageous conversations.” It’s an invitation we should take up. White American Jews must reckon with the fact that we haven’t necessarily earned the right to be accepted off the bat as natural comrades to people of color. Indeed, if we have to hearken back to figures like Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, who demonstrated for civil rights in the 1960s—a commonly cited figure in Jewish spaces—we have a problem. If Jews of color are constantly describing being treated as outsiders in our gatherings, we have a problem. We have to ask why, when Black Lives Matter emerged as the most important civil-rights movement in decades, mainstream Jewish groups chose to fixate on a single platform plank about Palestine. Right now, black Jews in particular are doing the difficult work of prodding the community into tough self-examination. Staying in coalition with groups like the Women’s March is committing to untangling these threads.
Staying involved with the march also means standing up for a version of Jewish survival that is diaspora-rooted and separate from Israel politics. Within Jewish circles, the debate over the Women’s March is a close cousin of the debate about the “real” danger to Jews, and whether that includes the hot-button Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions movement against Israel. Many Jews who support the march tend to believe that participating in BDS is not inherently anti-Semitic and that even opposing Zionism, like Linda Sarsour does, is not a deal-breaker. The opposing camp includes a contingent that believes that the umbrella of anti-Semitic rhetoric is a wide one, covering both Marc Lamont Hill and Richard Spencer. But Hill was fired for phrasing the substantive and necessary view that Palestinians deserve freedom in a way that disturbed some Jews; Spencer claims to admire Israel while sharing a worldview with the Pittsburgh shooter; both have received the same “this cannot stand” response. (Notably, the ability of Jewish groups to be heard when we complain is evidence that we do hold a degree of privilege in the United States.)
These serious divides within Jewish spaces helps explain the deafening decibel level of the Women’s March battles on Twitter, to say nothing of in The New York Times, Tablet, and the op-ed section of The Forward, which has been churning out takes on the matter for months. Honestly, it’s been exhausting. But if we can question the march’s leadership for not shutting this discussion down months ago, shouldn’t we also blame ourselves for continually feeding the flames?
Last week, a series of vile articles in Israeli publications targeted Jewish women of color, even questioning their Jewishness, because they don’t toe the party line on Zionism and race. I’m convinced that the nastiness exhibited towards the Women’s March leaders in Jewish spaces created a permissive environment for these horrid attacks, and that many mainstream Jews, in our endless hunger to read articles speculating about what is or isn’t in Tamika Mallory’s heart, enabled them. It will take time and work to undo the damage.
So, the tenor of the debate has turned me, a march agnostic, into a participant. I initially felt no need to hit the streets on Saturday because the gathering seemed to me like a mere anniversary of the first one. But the months of online shouting have made me feel compelled to show up as a way of reaffirming my commitment to organizing in coalitions, examining my own privilege, and focusing on the threat of white nationalism.
I’m not alone. In fact, my renewed resolution to hang in for the fight seems to be shared by a surprising number of Jewish women. I’ve been fascinated and heartened by the cascade of Jewish women in my feeds, of varying ages and political stripes, who have announced in recent weeks that they will show up at the marches—reminding themselves that the gravest danger is not coming from within activist circles but from without. They are heeding a call by Jewish women of color, who have invited “all Jews to get free alongside us,” and they will see you in the streets.