Attacks on the Women’s March Expose Race and Class Bias Among White Jews and Progressives
Attacks on the Women's March are counterproductive for everyone. The fight for social justice requires us to face and address together and compassionately the fundamental differences used to keep many communities apart and in fear of each other.
In January 2017, millions of people across the globe took to the streets to protest the election of Donald Trump as president of the United States. Trump not only “won” the presidency while badly losing the popular vote to Hillary Clinton, he lied incessantly, appears to have worked with a hostile foreign power to influence the election, campaigned on stoking hatred toward people of color, immigrants, and women (to name a few), and praised fascists and dictators. Out of shock and fear, nearly 5 million people in the United States came out for the Women’s March, estimated to have been the largest single-day protest in U.S. history, with just under half a million flooding the streets of Washington, D.C. and the rest joining 653 local marches across the country. The “resistance,” it seemed, had arrived.
On the surface, the enormous turnout for the Women’s March portended an unprecedented level of solidarity among and across groups more usually divided by race, income, geography, religion, and priorities. White women and women of color, Jewish and Muslim women, straight and LGBTQ persons protested. Everyone was afraid, and out of their fear they mobilized. The Women’s March began by living out a central principle of progressive movements: centering the most vulnerable, those most frequently targeted by Trump in the 2016 campaign—people of color, Muslims, persons with disabilities, LGBTQ communities and women (generally).
But the solidarity proved short-lived. While the first set of Unity Principles written by members of the Women’s March steering committee, which itself included prominent Jewish leaders, focused specifically on those most vulnerable, it did not mention Jews, which raised unnecessary suspicion. White supremacy and fascism endanger all of us, but we are not all equally in danger at all times, and while some communities in the United States feel unsafe for the first time in a very long time, others, such as communities of color and immigrants, have lived with danger for this country’s entire history. Centering the most vulnerable means exactly that: focusing first on the most vulnerable, through which we all benefit. (The 2019 Unity Principles now explicitly mention Jewish women.)
The perception of who is or was in danger and whose needs were being met quickly became a fault line, pitting white women and white Jews against women of color. In Haaretz, Emma Goldberg, echoing a 1967 essay by James Baldwin, wrote that controversies around the Women’s March “laid bare the uncomfortable contradictions that fuel Black-Jewish tensions. We white Jews suffer from anti-Semitism, but we’re protected from the anti-black racism coded into our country’s DNA.”
Within a year, the radical differences in experiences and history that have long separated us—and left some communities in this country far more vulnerable than others to poverty, violence, isolation, and exclusion—resurfaced. Historical divisions—especially between some Jews and Muslims (and by proxy, Israelis and Palestinians) and white women and women of color—eroded the nascent communal bonds, tilling ground for further dissension.
And then almost on cue came the smears: The earliest attacks began with slurs against Linda Sarsour, a longtime organizer and Muslim American of Palestinian descent who has for many years worked alongside Jewish social justice groups. When these did not gain traction, seeds of suspicion were planted about Tamika Mallory—a gun control advocate, leader in the Black Lives Matter movement, and one of the four national leaders of the Women’s March—who refused to “condemn” Black nationalist and Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan for his anti-Semitic views. She has since been asked to do this over and over, irrespective of the fact that his words are not her words, she is not responsible for him, and that asking her to do so means effectively condemning her “family” and community—the people who were there for her and her son after the death of her husband.
In a conversation in December, Heather Bruegl, a board member with Women’s March Michigan, compared Mallory’s situation to her own family: “2016 was a volatile election. I have family members that I know probably voted for Donald Trump, however I’m not committed to completely disassociate myself from those family members. They’re still part of my family. I still love them, ’cause they are family, but I can come out and say, ‘You know what? You voted for somebody who is not fit to hold the office. You voted for somebody who is making white supremacy mainstream, and somebody who doesn’t care about women, and you agree with that, and I don’t like that. I don’t like that you did that or said that, but I love you, because you are my family member.'”
Farrakhan is an 87-year-old man with no power who holds execrable views on many things, but who nonetheless has deep ties in the Black community. “[M]any black people come into contact with the Nation of Islam as a force in impoverished black communities,” wrote Adam Serwer at The Atlantic, “not simply as a champion of the black poor or working class, but of the black underclass: black people, especially men, who have been written off or abandoned by white society. They’ve seen the Fruit of Islam patrol rough neighborhoods and run off drug dealers, or they have a family member who went to prison and came out reformed, preaching a kind of pride, self-sufficiency, and entrepreneurship that, with a few adjustments, wouldn’t sound out of place coming from a conservative Republican. The self-respect, inner strength, and self-reliance reflected in the polished image of the men in suits and bow ties can be a powerful sight.”
Even given these realities, Mallory has been and continues to be pushed to condemn Farrakhan, a situation that actually is making some Jews less safe. In the Forward, Nylah Burton, a Black Jewish woman, writes that the attacks on Mallory and other Women’s March leaders are not only based in racism but make Jews of color more vulnerable. While “Mallory’s public embrace of [Farrakhan] was inappropriate to begin with … the sheer amount of racism and Islamophobia that defines much of the criticism against Linda Sarsour, a Palestinian Muslim activist, Tamika Mallory, a black gun control activist, and Carmen Perez, a Latina activist, has become more toxic and harmful than the actions that spurred the protests [against Trump].”
“For black people, and doubly so for black Jews,” Burton wrote in another piece, “it’s exhausting to exist in white Jewish spaces where Farrakhan is obsessed over as if he’s the main threat of modern anti-Semitism. Whenever he says anything anti-Semitic, white Jewish spaces erupt in a frenzy. But there’s a racism and toxicity baked into the way white Jews talk about Farrakhan. And it’s black Jews who suffer the consequences. Of course, Farrakhan is a detestable, vicious anti-Semite, as I’ve written twice. I don’t think any black Jewish person would disagree with me on that. But he has absolutely no power to enact any policy that would harm white Jewish people. He has no institutional power over white Jewish people. Meanwhile … [w]hite racists literally control all three branches of government at the moment, but black people still bear a large brunt of the blame for modern anti-Semitism.”
To a great extent, when we talk about anti-Semitism among Black people in the United States, we are not really talking about anti-Semitism as we conceive it. “No form of anti-Semitism is acceptable,” writes Burton. “But not all forms of anti-Semitism are alike. White anti-Semites are motivated by a hatred of Jews and a desire for power. Black anti-Semites are motivated by anger over gentrification, police brutality, and slavery.”
In effect, white Jews, of which I am one, too often see “anti-Semitism” in what is really the legitimate anger and despair of Black people at being dehumanized and marginalized by a social and economic system made for and perpetuated by white people, of which Jewish Americans have, indisputably, become much more a part than Black Americans, anti-Semitism notwithstanding.
In the obsession with Farrakhan, Mallory, the woman, the activist, the person has been totally erased. In social justice work, there are many leaders, some of whom are not formally “anointed” or known by many but who are in fact leaders because they do the work often with little or no support or recognition and often in the most marginalized spaces. Mallory has not only helped lead and build a national movement, she is a longtime activist whose work focuses on some of the most important human rights, public health, and social justice issues we face, including the disproportionate killing of Black men and youth by gun violence. Black men and youth in her communities are dying every day. This is a crisis.
Still, all anyone asks about is Farrakhan. I can’t recall a recent major interview or article that focuses in depth on Mallory’s actual work. Can you? One that focuses on the crisis of gun violence in her community and what she feels is being done or not being done about it? What the ramifications for the safety of Black people are of gun violence? Mallory, the Black woman advocate and organizer, has become one-dimensional Mallory, the “proximate anti-Semite.” And the entire conversation has been turned from focusing on the most vulnerable, i.e. communities of color, to focusing on the angst of white Jews. In a way, it’s analogous to the debates between “Black Lives Matter” and “All Lives Matter,” the latter being true in the abstract, but the former a statement of the profound war on Black people and people of color waged every day by our economic system, social system, the security state, and now the Jewish community. People of color were in danger before Trump, and they will be after Trump unless we all focus on the inherent violence in our society that gave rise to him.
U.S. political culture has long favored individual membership in single-issue groups led by charismatic and seasoned leaders with carefully vetted strategies and messages over organic and sometimes messy multicultural and multiracial movements aimed at deep structural change. We like to follow a leader, preferably one who serves as a reflection of our imagined perfect selves. We don’t like our leaders to make mistakes or “grow” on the job, but if they are white we will find reasons to forgive or excuse them, over and over and over. Thus, many feminists did not support demanding that Hillary Clinton apologize for racist policies supported by her husband Bill Clinton (which are to this day adversely affecting people of color), nor to disavow him. Yet racism kills Black people every day. Mark Zuckerberg and Sheryl Sandberg, both principals at Facebook and arguably two of the most powerful people in the world, have actually endangered more Jews in this country than anyone outside the Trump administration. They did so purposefully, using resources to deflect attention from Facebook’s own role in promoting racism, anti-Semitism, and subverting democracy during the election and afterward. And yet no one is interviewing them incessantly on why they actually promoted anti-Semitism. Nor do I see the same actors in the women’s rights or Jewish communities calling for them to step down as I do Mallory, though Mallory is not running a platform with more than 2 billion users, she’s not running for office, and she hasn’t endangered anyone. On the other hand, one could ask where was the groundswell of Jewish organizations supporting the NAACP #LogOutFacebook campaign, given Facebook’s targeting of Black people. Zuckerberg and Sandberg have money and power, and we allow white people with money and power, no matter who they are, to get away with things no one should and that people of color certainly can’t.
Following on the claims that Mallory was an anti-semite, came more baseless accusations against Sarsour—also repeated over and over in the media. Rumors suggested she was involved in financial malfeasance and mishandling of money raised to repair vandalized Jewish cemeteries and to help victims of the Pittsburgh synagogue massacre. At least some of these claims appear to have originated with tweets from a right-wing Jewish activist who later deleted them (and who blocked me for asking questions about them), but not before an article written by Tiana Lowe was published in the Washington Examiner, which was also later deleted (and who also blocked me for asking questions). Similar charges were levied in a poorly written, poorly sourced, and easily dismissed article in the Tablet (the authors of which clearly don’t know much about non-profit finances, and appear not to have talked to a non-profit executive or accountant). The same article nonetheless continues to be cited and repeated, spreading false information like a game of telephone tag.
The fact that the other two Women’s March leaders—Perez, a leader with deep roots in youth organizing, detention, and social justice advocacy, and Bob Bland, an activist and fashion designer—stood by Mallory and Sarsour has made them targets of criticism as well.
Sarsour is undaunted. She is, in her own words, an “unapologetically Muslim, and unapologetically Palestinian American” person who is willing to protest and be arrested to save other people’s lives. So it does not surprise me that in what can often be a petty world, she would intimidate and unsettle many who are used to other forms of leadership. And it does not surprise me that white American Jews would find her unsettling because, generally speaking, too many of us like Muslims who don’t talk too much about Palestinian rights.
What Is the Women’s March?
For all the controversy, I encounter many people who don’t know what the Women’s March is, or what they do. And in recent months, I have heard the constant refrain, “Are you going to march? Which one are you attending?”
The questions have consistently struck me as superficial for two reasons.
One, “Are you going to march?” has really been a question about whether you support the Women’s March led by Sarsour, Mallory, Perez, and Bland, or whether you’ve been swayed by attacks on them and therefore are not attending “their” march. But by taking to the streets, you are not marching for Sarsour, Mallory, Perez, or Bland. You are marching for yourself and in solidarity with others for the benefit of all. You are protesting and hopefully also organizing to defeat fascism and white supremacy in the United States and throughout the world. The notion that anyone should stay home because of a controversy based on false premises is not only petty, it is profoundly self-defeating and feeds right into the right-wing playbook. The real question is how to become a full-time participant and ally in supporting democracy, each day, every day.
The “March” is also about far more than “marching.” It’s about reaching and mobilizing people who are not yet engaged and building widespread leadership and organizing skills across the country for the long term, something that those who don’t know the leadership of the March and have not bothered to ask also appear not to know.
“The Women’s March started as a march,” Sarsour told me in a phone interview in January, “but when we saw the power of the mobilization and the types of people that we were able to attract to the Women’s March, the overwhelming majority of people who’ve never marched ever in their lives, some of whom have never engaged in any type of activism, we saw an opportunity to continue organizing these folks. Political education. Voter registration. Voter engagement. Direct action training. Training in civil disobedience.”
“It’s a different niche than any of the other organizations who are engaging people who are already [politically] engaged,” she continued. “And we were able to really tap into a segment of the American population that wasn’t necessarily engaged until Donald Trump became president.”
This is the political work we need to support democracy, the engagement and investment of as many people as possible, everywhere possible. And this is at the core of what drives Sarsour.
Winnie Wong, an organizer and political consultant, said most reporting on the Women’s March excludes important aspects of the institutional makeup of the March. “It is s a decentralized social movement,” Wong said, “and its various incarnations and also chapter formation and how they are building power is part of a longer process story that never gets reported in newspapers.”
“Women’s March, Inc. the national entity led by Tamika and Bob and Carmen and Linda have gone about things differently” than other organizations, Wong said. “They have not gone after big grants from foundations or from philanthropic organizations. What they have done instead is launched a membership program which is raising small dollar membership money which then allows them to be able to operate very efficiently and with greater freedom.”
“In many ways,” she continued, “the structure is more similar to a dues-paying membership organization like the Democratic Socialists of America or a union. This means that the Women’s March is now in a position to be able to create programming and also execute political strategies that are independent of input from [institutional] donors. I think that’s really important.”
And it appears to be working. In fact, while they rarely receive credit, the Women’s March leadership and its allies—the Center for Popular Democracy, Social Security Works, Indivisible, Bend the Arc, UltraViolet, CREDO, and many others—have been at the forefront of organizing actions in many of the most critical fights of the past two years. There were airport protests of the Muslim ban, protests of the Trump administration’s family separation policy, protests against efforts to gut the Affordable Care Act, and endless days of protesting the nomination of Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court.
The Women’s March has also catalyzed advocacy efforts by 180 active “sister marches” from Florida, to Indiana, to Washington state, and in between. Sarsour notes that the theme of this year’s march, the “Women’s Wave,” arose when they created a map of sister marches across the country. “If you look at the Women’s March website right now, and you go to the section on Women’s March and “Sister” marches, you’ll see a map. And the map is so beautiful. That photo is so amazing … we made the pins blue, in color. And when you look at it, it literally looks like exactly what we’re calling this year’s theme, which is Women’s Wave. It looks like a wave of blue. It looks like the United States of America is under water.”
“The fact that there is an organization of people that’s able to keep the momentum and for three years in a row,” Sarsour continued, “where these women have been able to get up and organize [and because of the] consistency that we’re able to provide … we are kind of radicalizing women who weren’t otherwise part of the movement that we were a part of [and that] is really powerful.”
Deborah Harris’s experience is emblematic of many women with whom I’ve spoken. Harris, a Black woman, was coordinator of the Las Vegas, Nevada, Women’s March until she recently moved to Illinois. Harris told me that one of the most transformative aspects of the work she’s done with the march is engaging with white women from other parts of the country who have been willing to show up with and for her. “You know, I met a group of women in July  when we did the Separating Families Campaign and these women have consistently shown up for every other campaign since. The last major one that we did in D.C. was Cancel Kavanaugh. And honestly, and this is really all we ask, honestly, the most powerful thing they have done is listen, and not just listen to listen, but listen with intent, and compassion, and purpose to protect and serve alongside women of color to create spaces of liberation.”
“It’s a blessing,” she continued, “when you have women that aren’t familiar with the spaces of oppression to step into that space with you and say, ‘How do we do this together? I’m going to put aside what I think I know, what I’ve been told, what I heard, and I’m going to step in this space with you and we are going to do this together because I’m making a choice to respect you, the person who I see, what I see you doing. And I’m going to trust your voice. I’m going to trust your experience.'”
Transformation was a consistent theme of the state-based March leaders with whom I spoke, who see and are experiencing the power of the Women’s Marches to bring people together, to train people in basic organizing, and to break through the barriers that separated communities.
Florida-based artist Jayne Arrington is working to organize people in a conservative area of Florida. “We’ve supported or hosted climate science marches locally, tax marches, and a march against Monsanto. We’ve had health care rallies, and gotten involved in elections,” she said. “One of the things that we did was to host a women’s day with the local mosque and it was an educational forum, and we had 130 women show up from seven counties. So that was really big, a really big deal.” In other words, in an otherwise largely white and largely conservative area of Florida, 130 white women showed up to share a meal with and learn more about and from Muslim women with whom they might never otherwise come into contact. This is the kind of breaking down of barriers and isolation the “sister marches” are doing everywhere.
Liz Hunter-Keller, a Seattle-based communications professional and chair of the communications team for Seattle Womxn Marching Forward, the Women’s March Seattle Chapter, and Pam Emerson, an environmental policy professional also on the steering committee, told me in December that their group helps support a wide range of efforts from “indigenous women’s groups working on missing and murdered indigenous women to supporting an organization called Rooted in Right that’s working on disability justice to the East African Community Center to young environmental professionals of color who are working on climate justice issues in our community and on trans issues. We’re doing a lot of work with leaders and frontline organizers around immigration. There are leaders in all of these different areas.” The community groups set the priorities and the Women’s March helps them organize and build collective strength.
Hunter-Keller and Emerson agreed that the growing cross-movement power generated and supported by the Women’s March is the root of the backlashes and attacks on Sarsour and Mallory. “It’s very scary [to those now in power],” Hunter-Keller said, “not just to have a powerful black woman and a powerful Palestinian woman; it’s very scary to have women across the country realizing their power together, from different communities and from different identities. And that is what the Women’s March does, and that is very scary for people who don’t want us to do that. So, when they have an opportunity like this to sow division, that’s what they’re gonna do, and they did.”
Deborah Harris not only saw transformation in other people but also in herself. “I come from an Evangelical background, and so navigating this space has been particularly difficult because I, myself, have to do some work on me in order to show compassion, understanding for people, I, myself, and the Evangelical church still considers not worth it. And so I want to give voice and give space to women who may have come from my background, pro-life, anti this, anti that.”
And really, she continued, I want “to do what Christ did. He showed up. He didn’t care who you were, he showed up. Now, we have lost sight of showing up and showing compassion that we have just erased the dignity of so many people where we allow atrocities to happen to them and don’t blink an eye. I had to make a hard decision that I didn’t want to be that person anymore because I was that person.”
When I asked Harris if she could give me a concrete example, she said: “I believed all pro-choice people were bad. That was a past belief of mine. I believed that all LGBTQIA people were bad. I didn’t want to be associated with them. I believed that transgender persons didn’t have rights. You know what I’m saying?”
And I had to really ask myself one day, is that really showing Christ’s love? It’s not. Is that who I want to be? No, because who knows who in my family may be struggling with these things. Who knows who of my best friends may be struggling with these things and I have to make a decision that I didn’t want to turn my back on people anymore. Christ raised me better than that. And so that’s the space that I, myself, want to work on, is that we can do this work. We can. This is the work we’re called to do. And we must be brave in this space in doing this work. Do not hide who you are. Do not hide where you come from. But learn how to protect everyone, learn how to understand, learn how to lead with compassion, and open yourself up to all of these people that our Christ died for. And that is something that is missing within this movement.
Another persistent theme from those involved in state-level Women’s Marches is the idea that the people involved are there for everyone, irrespective of their political beliefs. Asked what she would want someone not involved in the March to know, Virginia-based Amanda Mileur said: “I would probably let them know that whether you are a supporter of the march or not, we’re fighting for you, too, you know, the fight for women’s equality, the fight against racism, you know, just the fight for equality across the board, the fight for trans rights, for LGBTQ rights … all of these things. You don’t have to agree with us, for us to be fighting for you. If you are a white woman living in Oklahoma who believes that all of this is so much bullshit, I’m still fighting for you. I am still fighting for your right to be a full and whole citizen with all of the rights owed to you. If you are a transgender person, I am fighting for you for all of the rights and respect that are owed to you as a human being. It has nothing to do with whether you agree with me or not. I’m still fighting for you. And so are all of us.”
For those members of the Jewish community who work directly with the leadership of the Women’s March, the attacks have also been dispiriting. “Many of us have also been worn down by the disappointments we have had in each other when our movements haven’t had the capacity, competency, or coordination to fight back effectively against our adversaries,” wrote Dove Kent, former director of Jews for Racial and Economic Justice in a public Facebook she granted me permission to share. “For some, there’s also been disappointment at the way that racism and antisemitism have been left to intersect and fester at this time, turning us against each other instead of forging us against those who seek to do us harm through the unraveling of democracy.”
“We must build each other back up,” Kent wrote. “We must bring compassionate accountability to our movements and do all that we can to strengthen our ties to each other in the face of the enemy we are up against. I am literally Ride or Die with those who are fighting for a multiracial, multi-faith democracy at this time.”
The fight for social justice requires us to face head on the realities of what has kept so many of us apart. It requires us to make an enduring commitment to work through the fundamental differences borne of vastly different life experiences, and the social exclusion and marginalization of many communities. It requires accepting and dealing with conflict and mistrust among allies within the movement who, ostensibly, all share the same goals. It requires the ability to recognize that our grievance is not necessarily the only grievance or even the most important grievance in that moment, especially if we are white. It requires us to recognize that maybe there are legitimate reasons for one group to be suspicious or mistrustful of another. It requires us to extend love and patience to our allies, something we don’t often think about, much less express.
For lack of love and patience, and out of deep suspicion, attacks by some liberals and progressives over the past year on the leaders of the Women’s March have helped undermine what is potentially one of the most important social justice movements of the past century. In my view, privileged white women generally and privileged white Jewish women (again, of which I am one) are in part responsible. I hope those who have been least willing to see past their own fears of change and least willing to engage in what Kent calls “compassionate accountability” will think twice about what sitting out efforts to build a truly transformative movement mean for our democracy and for all of us.
CORRECTION: This piece was updated at 5:34 pm on Saturday to correct an attribution error. A quote originally attributed to Batya Ungar-Sargon was instead from a piece by Nylah Burton. The quote is as follows: “No form of anti-Semitism is acceptable. But not all forms of anti-Semitism are alike. White anti-Semites are motivated by a hatred of Jews and a desire for power. Black anti-Semites are motivated by anger over gentrification, police brutality, and slavery.”