On Sunday night, Linda Sarsour, one of the leaders of the Women’s March, broke her silence about Louis Farrakhan.
For over a year, the leaders of the Women’s March including Sarsour, who didn’t respond to a request for an interview, have faced calls to denounce the anti-Semitic, homophobic, transphobic misogynist Farrakhan, calls they have always refused. These calls have waxed and waned with revelations of statements Sarsour and others made praising Farrakhan, as well as Farrakhan’s own penchant for anti-Semitic hate-speech. Most recent in a long history of anti-Semitic remarks, he called Jews termites in a video he posted to Twitter.
I’m not an anti-Semite. I’m anti-Termite. pic.twitter.com/L5dPQcnVg4— MINISTER FARRAKHAN (@LouisFarrakhan) October 16, 2018
In the wake of Robert Bowers’ massacre of 11 Jews at prayer, the demand to denounce Farrakhan reemerged with a vengeance. But this time, it wasn’t only from Jews. The famous actress and activist Alyssa Milano told reporters she would boycott the Women’s March unless its leaders denounced Farrakhan.
“A Letter on Loyalty, Agency and Unity,” written by Linda Sarsour (@lsarsour) https://t.co/QTqVDumN1m— Alyssa Milano (@Alyssa_Milano) November 19, 2018
“We have been CRYSTAL CLEAR in BOTH of our statements that we REJECT antisemitism and all forms of racism,” Sarsour wrote, emphasis hers. “We have been CLEAR that Minister Farrakhan has said hateful and hurtful things and that he does not align with our Unity Principles of the Women’s March that were created by Women of Color.”
But the Women’s March hadn’t been clear about these issues in the anemic statements they put out on the topic. At least, it wasn’t clear to Alyssa Milano, to say nothing of the many Jewish activists, many of them on the left, who wished for a more forceful condemnation.
This statement, too, isn’t that. Rather than a simple condemnation, it’s full of self-justification and insulting revisions of recent history.
While Sarsour acknowledges the “real pain, hurt and trauma” that Jews are currently experiencing, it is hard to read the statement and not see the Jewish community as its main antagonist. It casts the leaders of the Women’s March as the victims of a smear campaign organized first by two Jews and then by others who have called for Farrakhan to be denounced in, as Sarsour put it, “oped after oped after oped after oped after quotes from people who want to see their names in print and barely any mention of our contributions when they decided to tear us down.”
The statement reinforces a tragic reality: The Women’s March has positioned itself in an oppositional relationship with the Jewish community. “It’s very clear to me what the underlying issue is,” Sarsour wrote. “I am a bold, outspoken BDS supporting Palestinian Muslim American woman and the opposition’s worst nightmare.”
In so doing, the Women’s March has not only abdicated its responsibility as an intersectional space; it’s erased any sense that it has any responsibilities.
It is certainly true that there has been unfair, even ugly criticism of Sarsour from within the Jewish community. Some of this is straight up Islamophobic. Some of it clearly stems from those uncomfortable with seeing a woman in a hijab achieve power. Other criticisms hinge on Sarsour’s support of the BDS movement, casting this support as anti-Semitic.
It is not. I have written before that Sarsour successfully toes the line of being anti-Zionist without being anti-Semitic. Palestinians and their advocates have every right to pursue a non-violent political strategy to end a violent occupation that dispossesses Palestinians of their rights and property.
Similarly, Sarsour’s advocacy for the Jewish community is routinely erased, as she (justifiably) complained in the statement released on Sunday. Last year, when a St. Louis Jewish cemetery was desecrated, Sarsour raised close to $165K for its restoration and she helped raise $206,000 for the victims of the Pittsburgh massacre – paying for all the funerals. She spent the weeks after Pittsburgh attending and hosting solidarity rallies.
And yet, the idea that it is only Jewish misdeeds behind the toxic relationship that Jews have with the Women’s March is false.
For starters, there seems to be a double standard in who gets called out and who does not. “We are trained in Kingian nonviolence, the ideology of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. that at its core calls us to attack the forces of evil not those doing evil,” Sarsour wrote in her statement about why she won’t vociferously denounce Farrakhan.
And yet, Jewish support for Israel is routinely called out by those in the Women’s March. On election night, Sarsour told Amy Goodman that “the place where the Democratic Party has a downfall is that the same people who will support refugees and criminal justice reform then support for example the state of Israel.”
“The place where the Democratic Party has a downfall is that the same people who will support refugees and criminal justice reform then support for example the state of Israel.” - @lsarsourpic.twitter.com/cmpR6f09wJ— Democracy Now! (@democracynow) November 7, 2018
Really? Jews who support criminal justice and refugees are the downfall of the Democratic Party?
It’s not the first time she’s accused people who support Israel of betraying domestic causes for foreign affairs (one wonders why this criticism isn’t itself committing that same crime of prioritizing Israel over social justice here at home). Are people who support Israel’s right to exist really more worthy of vociferous condemnation than Louis Farrakhan? If Farrakhan is immune from censure because King instructed us “to attack the forces of evil not those doing evil” — does that mean that Jews who support Israel are the forces of evil, since they are worthy of being attacked?
Last week, Sarsour wrote something on Facebook that took that sentiment one step further. It was in support of Congresswoman Elect Ilhan Omar, who appeared to endorse the movement to boycott Israel, contradicting what Omar had led her Jewish constituents to believe during her campaign.
This apparent contradiction, and the fact that many Jews believe the BDS movement to be anti-Semitic because they believe it calls for an end to the Jewish state, led the Anti-Defamation League to weigh in (full disclosure: I appeared on a panel last week co-hosted by the ADL):
This is alarming. BDS doesn’t just criticize Israel’s gov., it denies its right to exist as a Jewish State. @IlhanMN also said she supports a two-state solution. Rep-Elect Omar, you owe it to your new constituents to clarify your views https://t.co/KkTFFfuPu8— ADL (@ADL_National) November 15, 2018
“This is alarming,” ADL tweeted. “BDS doesn’t just criticize Israel’s gov., it denies its right to exist as a Jewish State. @IlhanMN also said she supports a two-state solution. Rep-Elect Omar, you owe it to your new constituents to clarify your views”.
In response to the ADL’s tweet, a campaign was started in support of Omar, and Sarsour posted the campaign to Facebook. But her commentary shocked many, myself included. Deploying a classic anti-Semitic dogwhistle, Sarsour noted that the attacks against Omar are “not only coming from the right-wing but some folks who masquerade as progressives but always choose their allegiance to Israel over their commitment to democracy and free speech.”
Jews masquerading as this or that to curry favor is a staple of anti-Semitic literature, as is the accusation of dual loyalties. And when Sarsour was pressed about who she meant specifically, she wrote in a comment, “like ADL for example. As a civil rights organization they should be committed to the constitution of the United States of America regardless of their organization position on a foreign policy issue.”
I was shocked by the language, doubly so because I actually agree with Sarsour somewhat. I don’t think that fighting BDS — which is a non-violent resistance campaign that hurts Israel’s image and not much else — is worthy of the attention of Diaspora communities, who are being murdered for being Jewish. Israel after all has a real civil rights problem when it comes to the Palestinians, and it should focus on addressing that problem, rather than asking Diaspora Jews to fight those pointing it out in a non-violent way.
I wish the ADL would resist pressure from the right to focus on this. And yet, the majority of American Jews have been convinced — wrongly in my opinion, but convinced they remain — that BDS is anti-Semitic.
In this and other ways, the ADL is a metonymy for the American Jewish community. ADL, like over 90% of American Jews, is staunchly pro-Israel. And like most American Jews, it exists in the sometimes uncomfortable space between Zionism and liberal politics. Attacking the ADL on precisely this issue — the places where there’s tension between liberalism and Zionism — is attacking the American Jewish community as a whole.
This isn’t to say you can’t criticize the ADL. As I said earlier, I sometimes find them coming down on the wrong side of things, in particular when it comes to Israel. Their exchange programs with Israeli law enforcement leave a bad taste in my mouth, along with certain episodes in the organization’s past. And I think they were wrong to call Sarsour an anti-Semite when she was slated to speak about anti-Semitism last year.
Having Linda Sarsour & head of JVP leading a panel on #antisemitism is like Oscar Meyer leading a panel on vegetarianism. These panelists know the issue, but unfortunately, from perspective of fomenting it rather than fighting it. https://t.co/s4tvBrvjBj 1/2— Jonathan Greenblatt (@JGreenblattADL) November 13, 2017
And yet, for over 100 years, the ADL has been a favorite target of anti-Semites, precisely because it is such a good substitute for the American Jewish community. Which means that when one does criticize the ADL, it’s imperative not to deploy the language that triggers the epigenetic trauma Jews carry in their bones.
One of the ways to do that is to be accurate. And it’s simply false that the ADL’s tweet threatened anyone’s constitutional rights. They posed a question to Omar based on what appear to be conflicting statements about BDS.
More importantly, is the ADL, which shares the values of the vast majority of American Jews, really more worthy of attack than Farrakhan? Is the ADL really “the forces of evil”?
Many on the left point to Farrakhan’s lack of institutional power when Jews ask that he be denounced by lefty leaders. But does the ADL’s Twitter account really have more power than a congressperson? Isn’t that a little insulting to Omar? Doesn’t it rely on an uncomfortable portrayal of Jews as having a bit too much power?
Does the ADL’s Twitter account have more power than the Women’s March? Recall that the last time Sarsour attacked the ADL, criticizing Starbucks for hiring the civil rights organization to lead anti-bias training, she succeeded in having them booted from the training.
In her statement, Sarsour writes that she and the other Women’s March leaders are being stripped of their agency when “every few months we are asked to condemn the Minister about words that we did not say.” Aren’t they precisely being granted agency — the agency to change a conversation with their words, and the responsibility to use those words wisely to support communities under threat?
It’s exactly on this topic of how much power they have that the leaders of the Women’s March appear to be struggling — to transform from local community organizers into national leaders, or rather, to admit that this transformation has happened.
When you’re the leader of a national movement, you’re not just speaking truth to power; you, too, have power, and with that power come certain responsibilities. And while some of your enemies might have more power, the Jews who are committed to social justice and who feel marginalized by your words though committed to your values certainly do not.
Sarsour may say in her defense that she did not mean Jews generally in her statement or in her Facebook post. But in her statement, she anticipates Jews will be most uncomfortable reading it. “I know for some this may not have been easy and may have triggered you and I see you,” she writes. “Sit with this. Absorb it from a place of love and commitment to making this movement work. I pray that our Jewish family recognizes that this resistance is for you too and that you embrace the solidarity we have shown because we have a lot more to give.”
As a national movement, it’s the Women’s March’s responsibility to stop erasing their own power vis-a-vis the Jewish community and take responsibility for the impact of their words — and their silences.
Batya Ungar-Sargon is the opinion editor of the Forward.