As the Women’s March was gearing up for its fourth go on Saturday, the skepticism and disenchantment were palpable. Articles questioning the relevance of the Women’s March in 2020 abounded, comparing the low turnout to the estimated 4 million in 2017. I, too, was strongly skeptical of the Women’s March of 2020 — as a feminist, but also as a Jew and as a Zionist.
There are plenty of reasons why I — and many other feminists — question the relevancy of the 2020 Women’s March that have nothing to do with anti-Semitism or anti-Zionism. For one, there’s less of a need for expressive displays in 2020 and a greater one for concrete, pragmatic action — be it registering voters, volunteering for local and national campaigns or writing amicus briefs for the critical abortion case before the Supreme Court this year. As University of Maryland professor Dana Fisher told The Washington Post, “Nobody needs another pink hat.”
Top Women’s March leadership has also left some questioning how much of a grassroots, big-tent movement it actually was in the first place. There was a protracted battle between national and local chapters about who owned the brand, according to The Daily Beast. In September, the Women’s March announced a new board, replacing three of the four original leaders: Bob Bland, Tamika Mallory and Linda Sarsour (Carmen Perez stayed on).
Over the last three years, I have become acutely aware that the leading voices in modern feminism, as embodied in the Women’s March leadership, were hostile to my presence — as both a Jew and a Jew who believes in our right to self-determination, Zionism. At one point, Sarsour implied that women like me were not welcome in the Women’s March.
In 2018, Tablet magazine and The New York Times reported that the Women’s March leadership made concerted efforts to push out an activist because she was Jewish, as well as promoted Louis Farrakhan’s “The Secret Relationship Between Blacks and Jews,” which Henry Louis Gates Jr. called “the bible of the new anti-Semitism.” The news wasn’t exactly shocking, considering that in the months leading up to those revelations, the Women’s March leaders demonstrated a disturbing practice of defending support for and ties with Farrakhan — a notorious anti-Semite, homophobe and sexist.
The Women’s March promised big-tent feminism, a movement that sought the elevation and empowerment of all women and their interests beyond the traditional realms of reproductive justice, equal pay and Title IX. This was a commendable aim — except that Jewish women tended to be the exception to this big tent.
If there is one thing that modern intersectionality gets right (at least in theory), it’s the recognition that our various identities are intertwined and influence our perspective within any movement. I am not merely a feminist, but a Jewish and Zionist one — and the latter two weigh especially heavily on me when I think about the Women’s March.
When it came to matters involving Jews, the Women’s March seemed noticeably slow to respond and mealy-mouthed at best in its apologies. Jewish women who voiced even an iota of qualified support for Israel were met with hostility, but that didn’t only affect Zionists. By effectively forcing Jewish women to prove they didn’t support Israel, all Jewish women got the message that our acceptance was qualified and conditional.
My thinking prior to this year’s march was that if I decided to attend, it would be to defy the way the Women’s March has attempted to police the bounds of feminism. Even though there is new leadership, and I am hopeful they will do better than their predecessors, I have not forgotten the past.
After the Tree of Life massacre, the Jersey City attack, the Poway shooting, the Monsey slashing and myriad other anti-Semitic incidents, Jewish women have bigger fish to fry than convincing the Bland-Mallory-Perez-Sarsour acolytes of our worth.
In the past three years, American Jews have experienced unprecedented violence and harassment. Recall that just a handful of months after the Tree of Life massacre, Rep. Ilhan Omar insinuated that American Jews were not loyal to our country. Congress was not only unable to rebuke Omar but failed to condemn anti-Semitism in and of itself.
Some nine months after that, there was the targeted anti-Semitic attack in Jersey City in which the assailants killed three people in a kosher supermarket and a cop beforehand. To add insult to injury, a Jersey City school board member criticized the show of sympathy for the Jewish victims and called Jews “brutes.” While the governor of New Jersey and the Jersey City mayor called on her to resign, she has enough public support to retain her position. That speaks volumes about tolerance for anti-Semitism — and in a town less than 10 miles from the socially, politically liberal New York City.
Anti-Zionism, which was already too welcomed in progressive spaces, has become more vitriolic. Last year, the Ethical Cultural Fieldston School welcomed a professor who compared Israelis with Nazis. Then, when the school invited two rabbis to talk about anti-Semitism, a teacher angrily tweeted about it and apparently flipped off the rabbis. The teacher has since been fired, but amid significant protest.
Among my classmates, I see people who believe Jewish self-determination goes hand in hand with white supremacy. Today, so often the focus is not on the nuances of a viable two-state solution or even Palestinian rights, but rather on cheekily comparing the one Jewish state to the people who killed 6 million Jews or people like the man who murdered us in Pittsburgh.
I am not sure the Women’s March has contributed to these problems, but I am hard-pressed to say it has helped mitigate them. Under the Bland-Mallory-Perez-Sarsour leadership, the Women’s March was dismissive and slow to respond to concerns of anti-Semitism (though the new leadership appears more responsive), and some of its individual leaders have explicitly minimized the harm of anti-Semitism. Additionally, their hostility toward feminists who showed any semblance of support for Israel helped elevate anti-Zionism as socially acceptable.
As Rabbis Ammiel Hirsch and Josh Davidson — the two rabbis who spoke at Fieldston — wrote in The New York Times, “A hateful obsession with Israel too often descends into hatred of Jews, even if it doesn’t start there. Hateful words lead to hateful deeds. This environment produces, teaches, accelerates and normalizes anti-Semitism.”
The Women’s March was nothing short of remarkable in 2017. But to a large degree, it devolved into a battleground where Jewish women were forced to prove their feminist bona fides.
Feminism is so much more than the Women’s March. The less time we waste convincing people that we — Jews, Zionists, anyone who disagrees with the Women’s March leaders — deserve a place at the feminist table, the more work that can actually be done. pjc
Emily Shire is a journalist whose work has appeared in The New York Times, WashingtonPost.com, Slate and JTA.org, where this article first appeared. She is pursuing her J.D. at Yale Law School.