On the day after Donald Trump’s inauguration, women from around the country took to the streets to protest the election and rhetoric of the new President. Women met on the streets of their own towns and cities across the country and around the world, and they traveled from far and wide to protest in Washington DC. Jewish groups, both national and local, participated in these gatherings as sponsors and facilitators, Organizations including the American Jewish World Service and the Jewish Women’s Foundation were official partners, and liberal congregations (both religiously and politically speaking) from across the East Coast organized buses so congregants could attend.
But was this really a gathering for all women? And should Jewish groups have participated at all? If they knew more about the sponsors and organizers, many Jewish women might have felt less comfortable joining the Women’s March.
One of the key organizers of the event and a featured speaker, Linda Sarsour, director of the Arab American Association of New York, bills herself as “an award-winning, Brooklyn-born Palestinian-American-Muslim racial justice and civil rights activist, community organizer, social media maverick, and mother of three. Sarsour has been at the forefront of major social justice campaigns both locally in New York City and nationally.”
A little investigation into her background, however, paints a different story. In 2015 Andrea Peyser of the New York Post did a bit of digging ) into Sarsour’s Twitter account, and reported:
“Sarsour contends that Israel and American supporters of the Jewish state are responsible for slaughter in the Mideast….Her outrageous online assaults sank to a depressing level this month, when [she] tweeted a picture of a small Palestinian boy standing before Israeli soldiers clutching rocks in both hands. She added the words, “The definition of courage.”
When a Jewish Queens City Councilman, Rory Lancman, pushed back against Sarsour’s statements on Twitter, Sarsour deemed him a “Zionist troll.”
After the March, one of Sarsour’s first impulses was to champion the paid maternity leave policy in, of all places, Saudi Arabia, while downplaying that little issue of women not being allowed to drive.
The Jerusalem Post’s Lahav Harkov, herself on maternity leave, asked Sarsour why, if this the only metric by which to judge a country, why Sarsour doesn’t give Israel, which offers 14 weeks of leave, more praise. A tweet from last year from Sarsour surfaced after the March as well, championing the benefits of Sharia law.
“You’ll know when you’re living under Sharia Law,” she wrote, “if suddenly all your loans & credit cards become interest free. Sound nice, doesn’t it?”
Is this the kind of feminism Jewish women, or American women in general, really want to align themselves with?
Sarsour isn’t the only questionable ally Jewish organizers and marchers found themselves chanting alongside on Saturday.
The social activist, actor and singer Harry Belafonte served as the March’s honorary co-chair. This is despite the fact that some of his past statements about Jews have been worse than the most objectionable things Donald Trump has ever said. In 2008, CNS News reported on some of his more reprehensible remarks, including “Hitler had a lot of Jews high up in the hierarchy of the Third Reich.” Belafonte later “regretted” and clarified his foolish remark, but the damage was done.
The Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) also helped organize the protest. CAIR’s Zahra Billoo, who also spoke at the event, is no stranger to controversy about Israel either. According to Algemeiner, /) “Billoo has a long record of radical statements,” comparing the “Israeli army to ISIS, and she heads the chapter of CAIR that posted an infamous “wall of resistance” poster sowing fear and suspicion among Muslims against federal law enforcement.”
And what of CAIR itself? Algemeiner goes on:
CAIR [has] a page claiming to debunk its connections to the Muslim Brotherhood and Hamas, but the IPT found gaping holes and lies in the report. And CAIR’s connections are not really matters of interpretation. They are established in internal documents the FBI took from members of the Hamas-support network. The FBI read those documents and promptly cut off communication with CAIR “until we can resolve whether there continues to be a connection between CAIR or its executives and HAMAS, the FBI does not view CAIR as an appropriate liaison partner.”
Despite CAIR’s claims that “We stand together in solidarity with our partners and children for the protection of our rights, our safety, our health, and our families — recognizing that our vibrant and diverse communities are the strength of our country,” the reality is far murkier.
Adding insult to injury, Orthodox Jewish women, bound by the laws of the Sabbath, were largely unable to participate in the Saturday event without a great deal of planning and effort. Sixth and I, an unaffiliated synagogue in DC, organized a great deal of its Shabbat programming around the March. Its rabbi, Shira Stuman, told JTA that the march’s agenda, “felt like values that were important to us.” The Religious Action Center, the Reform movement’s legislative advocacy arm, held a Sabbath service at the Hyatt Regency Washington led by local Reform rabbis. Are the stated aims of the march, including an emphasis so strong on reproductive rights that pro-life groups were publicly removed as partners, more important than Jewish values?
There are many women, myself included, who are uncomfortable with the rhetoric from Trump and his campaign about Jews and women. Unfortunately, the Women’s March did not feel like a cause for conservative, pro-life or Zionist women like me. I’m glad I wasn’t in the crowd to hear leftist activist Angela Davis reference Palestine among her grievances.
Whatever discomfort I may feel about Trump is not enough for me to ignore the discomfort I would feel marching alongside and listening to the likes of Linda Sarsour, Angela Davis, Harry Belafonte, or CAIR. The March’s organizers may claim to speak for America’s women, but given those they’ve chosen to associate themselves with, it’s clear that while the numbers might have been there, a variety of beliefs and ideologies was not.
Bethany Mandel is a regular contributor to The Forward. Follow her on Twitter @Bethanyshondark