Rabbi Rebecca Einstein Schorr said her local Women’s March in 2017 was “exhilarating” and “amazing” — a precious memory, until she learned that the march’s national leaders had met with and praised Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan.
They also refused to repudiate him, despite his anti-Semitic and homophobic remarks.
Schorr will not be attending this year’s march, so she was thrilled last week to learn that Alyssa Milano might not, either — and for the same reason.
Milano, who popularized the hashtag #MeToo in 2017, said last week that she wouldn’t participate in the next march until its leaders denounce Farrakhan as a hater of Jews and LGBTQ people.
“It was validating to have someone like Alyssa Milano … see what we’ve been seeing and to name it and to make a stand,” Schorr said.
Their actions have affirmed Jewish disenchantment in the Women’s March, in addition to highlighting various rifts — over the Farrakhan issue, over who gets to control the hundreds of marches planned around the country, and even over a legal dispute about the use of the “Women’s March” name.
An estimated five million people marched across the country in 2017 — the largest single-day protest in American history — with millions more joining the following year. It remains to be seen whether the controversies will make a significant dent in attendance at next year’s marches, scheduled for January 19.
“A lot of people feel like the Women’s March national board has hijacked what other women created and what was never meant to be used as a pro-Palestinian, anti-Israeli, anti-ADL, anti-Jewish women, pro-Farrakhan-type operation,” Nisi Jacobs, a 3D video editor from New York, told the Forward.
To be sure, not everyone has been on board with the new round of criticism of the Women’s March. “White actress announces boycott of Women’s March unless its gets rid of the Palestinian-American woman and African-American woman who founded it, or until they recite from the script she demands,” journalist Glenn Greenwald, who is Jewish, tweeted in response to the Milano story.
And while most of the Jewish women who commented on Facebook about the Women’s March’s most recent statement on the matter were expressing anger or disappointment, some said they were willing to move on — though using a regretful tone.
“Please Linda Sarsour and Tamika Mallory understand words and actions have serious consequences and all leadership at WM will be held to a standard that will not tolerate hypocrisy,” one woman wrote, referring to two of the movement’s leaders who are in the spotlight over the Farrakhan issue. “I look forward to moving forward with love and peace and in action - in all of our common and intersecting missions - under the promise of this powerful statement.”
But some Jewish women might stay home, or march with another group. “I need to see what else is available, what’s happening in my immediate community,” said Schorr, who lives in Pennsylvania’s Lehigh Valley.
In response to an inquiry from the Forward about Milano’s comments, the Women’s March said in a statement: “Women’s March wouldn’t exist without the leadership of women of color, and we stand with Linda Sarsour and Tamika Mallory. Women’s March leaders reject anti-Semitism in all its forms. We recognize the danger of hate rhetoric by public figures. We want to say emphatically that we do not support or endorse statements made by Minister Louis Farrakhan about women, Jewish and LGBTQ communities.” It subsequently posted the full statement on its Facebook page.
After both Milan and the Women’s March made their statements, the march’s head of communications, Cassady Fendlay, followed up with a Medium post criticizing the actress for “acting in accordance with the tradition of white women who use the labor of women of color when it’s convenient for them, and then use their power to trash those women when it becomes more expedient.” She also said that while Farrakhan’s words were “anti-Semitic, homophobic and misogynist,” she has “never felt unsafe around the Nation of Islam.” (Fendlay tweeted in 2015 about her attendance at a Farrakhan speech, where Mallory also spoke)
The controversy started in March, when it was revealed that Mallory was in the audience at a Farrakhan rally when the NOI leader gave her a shout-out — in the same speech he claimed that Jews control government agencies and are responsible for “degenerate behavior in Hollywood turning men into women and women into men.”
Despite a public outcry, Mallory refused to condemn Farrakhan, and Sarsour — already controversial in the Jewish community for her support of the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement against Israel — backed her ally. It eventually emerged that Sarsour, Mallory and a third Women’s March board member, Carmen Perez, had frequently met with and praised Farrakhan.
The Farrakhan issue has dampened enthusiasm for next year’s march, said Katherine Siemionko, the founder and president of the Women’s March Alliance, which organized the Women’s Marches in New York City in 2017 and 2018.
“We’ve lost many followers,” she told the Forward. “We’ve gotten hate mail.”
Every one of the hundreds of Women’s Marches around the country is an independent entity that shares the branding of the Washington, D.C. march, which is run by Sarsour, Mallory and company. But most would-be march participants don’t understand that distinction, and have taken their frustrations out on local leaders — some of whom are also opposed to the Women’s March co-founders.
In March, when Mallory and Sarsour’s Farrakhan ties first emerged publicly, the Los Angeles chapter apologized “on behalf of the insensitive and out-of-touch actions of Women’s March, Inc,” and national leadership was condemned by local chapters in Florida and Washington.
In April, Mallory and Sarsour accused the Anti-Defamation League of racism on Twitter; the Houston chapter responded by calling on national leaders to “Wake up and set aside personal agendas” in an op-ed in the Houston Chronicle.
And in May, after Mallory traveled to Israel and the West Bank with a pro-BDS organization, the Rhode Island chapter disaffiliated entirely as a direct response to the allegations of anti-Semitism, becoming the “RI Womxn’s Action Initiative.” The Connecticut chapter tweeted at Mallory that it would “not stand for any further anti-Semitism” before deleting the tweet.
The latest issue between the national leadership and local chapters is a trademark dispute. The national organization has tried to trademark the phrase “Women’s March,” meaning any local group who wanted to hold a rally under that name, or create branded clothing or other merchandise to commemorate the events, would have to pay royalties. This has been opposed in legal filings by local march organizers in some of the largest cities in the country, including New York, Los Angeles and Chicago, who claim that nobody should be able to trademark a common phrase that, in Siemionko’s words, “belongs to the people.”
Both the Women’s March Alliance and the national Women’s March are now organizing separate marches on the same day in New York next January. The Women’s March Alliance says Sarsour, a native New Yorker, had demanded that either the national organization got to place people on the New York planning committee, or they would plan a counter-march. The national Women’s March says the Women’s March Alliance isn’t affiliated with them and “has refused to work with our official Women’s March New York chapter leaders, who are women of color, on the 2019 march.”
“It’s very frustrating for us as ‘sisters’ — we don’t have the PR they do, we don’t have the voice they have, but we’re getting shut down because the organizers of this march have a brilliant PR team and millions of dollars,” Siemionko said.