Rabbi Rebecca Einstein Schorr says that participating in the first Women’s March in 2017 was “one of the most uplifting, powerful moments of my life. It was just an incredible experience.”
That moment is over. Schorr feels anti-Semitism has tainted the march.
“I can’t in good conscience say that I support a movement or feel a part of a movement that clearly does not embrace me back,” Schorr told the Forward.
Schorr’s feelings reflect a broader trend in the relationship between the Women’s March and the Jewish community, which started out on a high note right after President Trump’s election but has since seen some rough spots over perceived anti-Semitism. Now a more organized backlash is forming. Some individuals and groups are speaking out against the march, and an organization has formed to push for change within the march and provide an alternative for disenchanted activists.
The Women’s March could not be reached for comment.
When the Women’s March coalesced in the wake of Trump’s election, many Jewish groups, such as Bend the Arc, the National Council of Jewish Women and the Reform Action Coalition, joined as partners after satisfying themselves that there was no Israel bashing. Cracks appeared in the coalition soon after the inauguration, however, starting with leader Linda Sarsour’s claim in March that one could not be a Zionist and feminist.
Jewish frustration spiked again a year later after a series of statements and actions by leader Tamika Mallory. She refused to distance herself from anti-Semitic preacher Louis Farrakhan when it emerged that she had attended and even spoken at rallies organized by his Nation of Islam. At one of them, he gave Mallory a shout-out in the same speech in which he claimed that Jews control the FBI and are responsible for “degenerate behavior in Hollywood turning men into women and women into men.”
In the last few weeks, Mallory and Sarsour successfully called on Starbucks to disinvite the ADL as a provider of anti-bias training because of the Jewish organization’s work facilitating police exchanges between American and Israeli security officers.
Then Mallory traveled to Israel and the West Bank the first week in May as part of an organized tour meeting with Israeli and Palestinian not-for-profits that are highly critical of Israeli policies.
Mallory and her alleged tolerance for Jew hatred has become a flashpoint spurring some march members to distance themselves from the movement she leads.
Rhode Island’s Women’s March chapter broke with the national movement in a statement on Thursday: “National leadership’s reluctance to call out Antisemitism, and their defensiveness when asked to examine their own prejudices in this area.”
The group in Houston published an op-ed in the Houston Chronicle demanding that the national leadership take a series of steps to “refocus and articulate who we really are,” including by having Mallory “go beyond their initial statements in this matter of Farrakhan’s hate-mongering and to name and reject Farrakhan’s hate speech.”
The new pressure group, which calls itself “Women’s March for All,” has introduced a petition, already signed by more than 2,700 people, calling for the leaders of the Women’s March to resign and be replaced by “leaders who are not affiliated with and do not defend those associated with any organization classified as a hate group,” referring to the Nation of Islam.
“We don’t want to see the movement crumble,” said Debbie Hall, a paralegal and writer who’s a Women’s March for All member, told the Forward. “And them not resigning is going to cause that.”
The National Council of Jewish Women and Bend the Arc have nothing new to say in response to Mallory’s trip to Israel or campaign against the ADL, spokespeople told the Forward. While those groups issued statements after the Farrakhan kerfuffle condemning Mallory’s statement, they pledged to continue working with the movement, in part to educate them on Jewish concerns.
Schorr, a life member of NCJW, said that their current stance “in no way affects my support of some of these auxiliary organizations. But I do hope that as time passes, should we continue to hear comments from the national leadership, that a group like the NCJW will take a stand.”
Other Jewish activists and feminists say the march is a lost cause, or getting to that point.
“If they want to be forgiven, they have to be sorry,” activist Carly Pildis told the Forward. “And they are unabashedly not.”
New leaders are essential, say some of the critics.
“There is an irony of a leadership who claims to be small-d democratic but has no democratic institution around it,” former Clinton White House communications director Ann Lewis told the Forward. “There is no way the people who march can express their opinion on their leaders.”
Hall said that she would not join in if the current leadership was still in place next January, and that she knew of “plenty of chapters that would refuse to march with that leadership in place.”
Schorr and Pildis agreed.
“I’ve only ever been a Jewish woman,” Schorr said. “I can’t separate those two things out. My desire for equal rights for all genders is rooted in Torah. So when there’s an organization that is not including us but [claims to be] fighting for equality for all, it’s a little hard to stomach that.”
Others have not yet made up their minds.
“Come back to me in January,” Amanda Berman, the founder of the Jewish feminist group Zioness, told the Forward. “But for now, I will say that wherever the millions of women are, is where we will be.”
Members of Zioness were present at this year’s Women’s March and other popular public social justice programs, in some cases drawing Sarsour’s ire.
Berman and members of Zioness have repeatedly condemned Mallory and Sarsour: “They’re dividing these millions of women, and turning it into a conversation that has nothing to do with women’s empowerment,” she said.
But, she added, the Women’s March was still a “critical initiative.”
“If there’s a chance that these movements…can move the needle, we will be a part of that,” she said. “But we will continue to fight to be included equally.”
But others advocated for a more dramatic approach.
“It’s hard to walk away from people you have relationships with, and I understand people thinking you can influence things from the inside,” Pildis said. But the Farrakhan factor hit especially close to home for her: she is in an interracial marriage and has a biracial child, and Farrakhan has repeatedly and forcefully condemned miscegenation, calling it “wrong with God.”
“I can’t really stand with people who can put up with that sort of language,” she said. “And I want Jewish leadership to stand up for my family more than they stand with the Women’s March.”
Hall predicted that more organizations, including Women’s March chapters, would try to distance themselves from Mallory and Sarsour, whom she called “poison.” She said that after the not-for-profit New York community planning organization Hester Street announced that it was honoring Sarsour at its annual benefit next month, Women’s March for All convinced prominent individuals to take themselves off the host committee, including the founders of the organization and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer.
“To be accused of anti-Semitism, to not apologize for anti-Semitism, and then to go on a trip to Israel to meet with a BDS group and only see it from one perspective…to me, you’re basically giving all of us the finger by doing that,” Hall said.
Correction, May 7: A previous version of this article stated that Women’s March for All is a Jewish organization. In fact, it is comprised of people of all religious backgrounds.
Aiden Pink is the Deputy News Editor for the Forward.