Wendy Kalman
There are many ways to see and understand

It’s not Farrakhan that is the issue

Linda Sarsour speaks onstage during the Women's March on Washington, January 21, 2017, in Washington, DC. (Theo Wargo/Getty Images/via JTA/Times of Israel)
Linda Sarsour speaks onstage during the Women's March on Washington, January 21, 2017, in Washington, DC. (Theo Wargo/Getty Images/via JTA/Times of Israel)

I think too many are missing the point with Linda Sarsour, the Women’s March and its anti-Semitism. And as I shared with friends on Facebook recently, here’s why:

Last week Times of Israel reported on her apology to Jews for not coming out clearly enough against Louis Farrakhan’s anti-Semitism; her words did nothing for me. The bigger issue than distancing from Farrakhan is distancing from BDS and anti-Zionism. But Sarsour takes the opposite stance; she is a proud BDS supporter who categorizes Zionists as the extreme right.

For me, her position regarding the legitimacy of Israel and its supporters vis-a-vis the Palestinians is what makes her position anti-Semitic. Here, she pretty much avoids that discussion.

Let’s start with anti-Zionism. I personally do not believe that one has to be anti-Israel to be pro-Palestinian.

Both peoples need to have a home and self-determination (though I cannot see the PA and Hamas ever uniting or holding elections again let alone allowing alternative political groups to arise that actually seeks peaceful coexistence, but that is a topic for another day).

I do believe she and other anti-Zionists’ demonization of Israel contributes to anti-Semitism that comes from the far left & is exclusionary. Though it is good she has distanced herself and the March from Farrakhan here, it is not enough. That is an easy thing to do, given his anti-Semitic homophobic and transphobic positions. (Though I must say, if allegations that the Women’s March is paying Farrakhan’s Nation of Islam security detail for services are correct, that puts all their sincerity into question.) At any rate, Sarsour and the Women’s March organizers need to do better. They need to address their position on Zionism, on Israel, on American Jewish women who support Israel.

Her famous statement that Zionists cannot be feminists and her recent one that Americans who are Zionists are not really democratic or liberal clearly excludes anyone who supports Israel from her world.

I’ve seen Jewish calls to suck it up, given her perspective, but why should intolerance and exclusion be excused, let alone the norm for a group seeking to redress societal balances?

To me, her and Mallory’s pro-BDS anti-Zionist stance is what the leaders of the Women’s March need to address. If Zionism (per Merriam Webster) means a movement supporting the restablishment of a homeland in Palestine and support of the modern state of Israel (to be clear, it does NOT say “without Arabs”), then how does she define anti-Zionism? For the life of me, I cannot see any way which does not delegitimize Israel.

And if she does that to a sovereign and established state and demonizes anyone who supports it (as opposed to only criticizing its government’s actions and inactions), then she is still travelling in anti-Semitic territory.

As for BDS, an argument can be made that it is anti-Semitic too.

I see its call for boycotting, divesting and sanctioning all of Israel (and not just entities doing business in the territories) as a means of delegitimizing the country. The country exists legally; so this tactic to me is anti-Semitic. It also calls for the full right of return. To me, dictating a demand that would redefine the nature of the country is an attempt to deny its right to decide its own fate; i.e., strip it of its sovereignty. When you say that the country recognized and defined as the homeland of the Jews cannot legitimately exist and that its supporters should be banned and excluded from everything, to me, that is anti-Semitic.

I found two items which may help explain this better. The ADL’s explanation is one; it helps point out how if either its tactics weren’t so broad or if its goal had been something like demanding the two sides be held accountable for the lack of negotiation, then I don’t think the movement would be demonizing as it is. Even more striking in light of the BDS’s actions and goals is the working definition of anti-Semitism that the US and international community have adopted (which seems to be still in place).

According to these definitions, BDS is anti-Semitic. And even if one doesn’t think so, the entire Zionist/anti-Zionist piece is. And that’s where dialogue with Sarsour and Mallory and the leaders of the Women’s March (and with other groups which support these views) should begin, by defining and clarifying. The search for consensus on definitions is far more productive than blaming; it can lead to figuring out ways to resolve the situation (both the actual situation with Israel and Palestine and that of the Women’s March leaders and where they and the group itself stand). Pity so many prefer condemning and blaming rather than talking. (Sounds funny, but that’s what I love about now being married to an engineer. His focus, like mine, is on defining where are we now, determining where we want to go, and figuring out how we get there. So much better than so many who were all about ego and control and emotion, etc…).

I am not asking her to be a Zionist, but I do disagree with her point that Zionists cannot be progressive. Couple that with the point she made way back when that Zionists cannot be feminists and you see a pattern. I consider myself progressive and a feminist. I also support Israel’s right to exist and I support Palestinians’ right to a home of their own. They are suffering and no one on either side is doing anything to reduce that, especially in Gaza. Knowing that the leadership of neither side is doing anything to show they are interested in peaceful existence and knowing that alternatives on the Palestinian side cannot arise under present circumstances, I think the world has to be creative in figuring out how to make it happen (and wrote about that some time ago, see also the comments on that blog). Grassroots organizations perhaps. World pressure on both leaders. Ways to bypass the governments, like conferences and think tanks coming up with proposals to address the different parts of a future agreement (like reparations instead of full right of return).

For Sarsour to categorically exclude a group and say they cannot be progressive or feminist, to me, reeks of intolerance. We should all be looking for ways to proactively work together to resolve the plight of all those oppressed. In my eyes, neither BDS nor exclusionary tactics does that. And I do not know if a Women’s March is the platform for any of this when you are trying to build alliances.

As for BDS, I can’t blame her for wanting something to be done, but BDS is not the way. BDS forced SodaStream to close its factory in the territories and put Palestinians out of work. BDS is against a program that brings Jewish and Arab teachers together. If you read what it is urging boycotting, divesting and sanctions of/from and why, you can see it only holds Israel completely responsible for the intractability, and that the rationale for the three goals do the same. The goals do not include promoting negotiations or talks or resolving the Fatah-Hamas divide that contributes to the plight of those in Gaza. I think for BDS to be effective in both helping Palestinians and in forcing Israel to act, it needs to reformulate its targets and its demands.

Supporting Palestinian rights, which is what Sarsour wants, does not have to define itself as being against anything Israeli. It should evolve to searching for solutions and promoting tolerance. As I said two weeks ago in my last blog on the topic, after Alyssa Milano, Debra Messing and a German NGO decried the Women’s March, if the leaders cannot rid themselves of their far left anti-Semitic position, if they continue to categorically deny a place for Israeli-supporting Jews in the progressive movement, then perhaps it is time to find another women’s group to support, one that promotes unity.

About the Author
Wendy Kalman, MPA, MA, serves as Director of Education and Advocacy Resources for Hadassah The Women's Zionist Organization of America, Inc. Previous roles include senior academic researcher for an Israel education nonprofit, knowledge manager at a large multinational as well as roles in marketing and publishing in the US and in Israel. She has presented papers at political science and communications conferences and has participated as a scholar-in-residence at an academic workshop on antisemitism. Wendy lived in Israel for over a decade and is a dual citizen, fluent in Hebrew.
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