A Jewish staffer of the Women’s March is leaving the movement after expressing dissatisfaction with its response to a co-president’s continued support for the anti-Semitic preacher Louis Farrakhan.
The move comes amid continued public frustration within both the Jewish community and local chapters of the organization that the movement has not adequately reckoned with how its Farrakhan ties are hurtful to Jewish supporters.
Alyssa Klein announced on Twitter on Sunday that the upcoming week would be her last as the Women’s March’s social media director.
“If you’re in an environment that isn’t nourishing you (especially if you’re as talented & hardworking as Alyssa), you have to take that talent to places that do,” the group’s head of operations and partnerships, Mariam Ehrari, responded. “There’s work to be done & we gotta go do it in places that center love.”
Klein retweeted Ehrari’s message. It does not appear that any of the four main leaders of the Women’s March have acknowledged Klein’s departure on social media.
Ehrari, Klein and the Women’s March deputy head of communications, Sophie Ellman-Golan, the latter two of whom are Jewish, had written a series of tweets in recent days despairing at the firestorm that had engulfed their organization after co-president Tamika D. Mallory refused to repudiate her own long-standing support of Farrakhan. (None of them responded to requests to comment).
“This past year+, we have been so vocal about the need for everyone to show up for ALL marginalized communities. It breaks my heart that we don’t do it in the same way for the the Jewish community,” Ehrari wrote, adding, “If you don’t FULLY show up for Jewish people, if you have caveats for your allyship, you are not an ally, you are part of the problem.”
“I’m tired of our movements not taking antisemitism seriously,” Ellman-Golan tweeted last week. “It’s not okay. It is taking a toll on me and on all Jewish people on the left. We are tired and heartbroken.”
Klein was perhaps the most outspoken, retweeting condemnations by other feminists and writing messages like: “To anyone who has felt hurt this past week and beyond I just want you to know that you are not alone. You should never have to feel gaslighted. None of this is okay. And we should not be afraid to say it.”
Reports emerged last week that Mallory had repeatedly praised and associated with Farrakhan over the years and had attended his annual Saviours’ Day rally in Chicago at the end of February, where she received a shout-out from the stage.
Also at the event, Farrakhan said Jews control government agencies like the FBI and are responsible for “degenerate behavior in Hollywood turning men into women and women into men.”
Mallory, a former executive director of the Rev. Al Sharpton’s National Action Network, did not condemn Farrakhan when called upon to do so by Jewish organizations like the Anti-Defamation League. She originally acted defensively, tweeting statements like: “I am not a slave. I am a strong black woman who will not live in fear of any man or woman. You can try to take everything I have, but only GOD can have ME.”
The furor was compounded when it was discovered that two other Women’s March leaders, including the controversial Palestinian-American activist Linda Sarsour, had also praised Farrakhan.
Only days into the controversy did the Women’s March movement release a statement saying that Farrakhan’s remarks “are not aligned with the Women’s March Unity Principles” but adding that it “loves and values our sister” Mallory.
Criticism poured in from groups that had once supported the Women’s March’s aims, saying that the group and Mallory in particular had not done enough.
“The fact is that the left has an anti-Semitism problem,” Rabbi Sharon Brous, who spoke at the Women’s March, wrote on Facebook. “I have experienced it working in justice spaces for decades. This long precedes the Women’s March and will continue to persist until we engage in this conversation in an open and heartfelt way. All the more reason to stay in the struggle.”
“We would hope that public figures that aspire to be the leaders of social movements are truly equitable in the way that they tackle intolerance,” the national director of the Anti-Defamation League, Jonathan Greenblatt, told The Atlantic. “We don’t think it should take very much to call out when somebody makes claims like, ‘The Jews control the government. The satanic Jews are behind all the world’s ills.’ I think the response for this is a layup.”
Mallory did tell The Atlantic, “I don’t agree with everything that Minister Farrakhan said about Jews or women or gay people.” But she also noted the good works that Farrakhan’s group, the Nation of Islam, had done for her family and community over the decades in areas like crime and drug prevention, political organizing and emphasizing personal responsibility.
A regional chapter of Planned Parenthood canceled Mallory’s planned keynote address at a fundraising dinner next month.
The L.A. organization wrote on Monday that it “recognizes the power in words and we know how much pain these statements have caused for the Jewish and LGBTQIA+ communities and to you we apologize on behalf of the insensitive and out-of-touch actions of Women’s March, Inc.”
Many of the local messages were retweeted by the the national Women’s March’s Jewish leaders.
The Women’s March’s connection-by-association with an anti-Semite may have already begun to harm its reputation in some corners of the Jewish community: SAR, the prestigious Modern Orthodox high school in the Bronx borough of New York, successfully persuaded students not to participate in a planned national school walkout in support of gun control because it was a Women’s March initiative.
Others in the Jewish community, like Brous, are stressing engagement as a solution to bridging this impasse. The National Council of Jewish Women, which has partnered with the Women’s March since its inception, has been having conversations with its leaders about the Farrakhan issue since it arose, a representative told the Forward. The advocacy group Bend the Arc, whose leaders collaborated with the Women’s March on an anti-Semitism program at the movement’s convention in Detroit last fall, wrote in a statement on Saturday that they were also having such conversations. “In the meantime,” they wrote, “we will continue, with the Women’s March and other progressive allies, to build the intersectional movement our communities and country so desperately need.”
These conversations are also happening on an individual level. Stephanie Lowitt, a social worker in Boston who participated in the 2017 March, told the Forward that continued engagement with a “vital” movement like the Women’s March was crucial.
“We must remain in conversation with each other and not write each other off when we disagree, especially when we fundamentally don’t fully understand the roots of our disagreement or the roots of someone else’s hate,” she said.
“Those conversations — which are often really painful and frustrating — are where breakthroughs can happen, but when we disengage from those conversations, we maintain the status quo,” she added.
Of course, there’s a difference between theoretically understanding African-American support for Farrakhan, and dealing with his supporters in reality. When asked by the Atlantic what she would say to a Jewish supporter who was dismayed by her continued support for Farrakhan, Mallory responded, “I would say that I hear and understand that and I hope that as I’m able to understand how they feel, I hope that they will also take the time to understand why I have partnered with the Nation of Islam and been in that space for almost 30 years.”
But such nuance seemed to have been lost on one of the local chapters.
“We are disappointed in the National response to the condoning of Louis Farrakhan who espouses misogyny, homophobia and anti-Semitism,” the Florida chapter wrote on Saturday. “But we will not abandon the Movement – we will fight for it.”
Correction, March 13: A previous version of this article claimed that Mariam Ehrari is Jewish. In fact, she is not Jewish.
Aiden Pink is the Deputy News Editor for the Forward.