Shulamit S. Magnus
Jewish historian

On Jew-hatred in the Women’s March

On Jew Hatred in the Women’s March

In the wake of Donald Trump’s election victory two years ago, despite his recorded remarks bragging about committing sexual assault, to which he felt entitled as a self-declared “star,” millions of women and men marched throughout America to protest his misogyny and stoking of ethnic and other hatreds. The Women’s March, conducted in dozens of locations aside from the main one, in Washington, DC, declared that women are not sex objects and that they would push back forcefully against Trump to protect and advance women’s issues.

Jews participated heavily in the March, as individuals and as organizations. The National Council of Jewish Women was a formal partner. Other Jewish groups—the Reform movement, Bend the Arc, Jews United for Justice, T’ruah, while not formal partners, participated loudly under their banners and brought thousands of their members to the DC March alone. Rabbi Sharon Brous, founder and director of IKAR, spoke at that rally. Jews are natural allies for the cause of equality, dignity, protection of the vulnerable in society, and for progressive social policies, like national health care; and they showed it in their disproportionate support for and participation in the main March and in dozens of local ones. Some might call that “intersectionality.”

Not, however, two of the organizers of the March, who are also organizers of the next one, coming in January, 2019.  Linda Sarsour and Tamika Mallory have allied themselves with inveterate Jew-hater and baiter, Louis Farrakhan, among whose more recent remarks is that Jews are “termites.” Farrakhan, of course, has a long history of venomous Jew-hating pronouncements, which has not stopped Mallory from declaring him the “Greatest of All Time,” while posing with him in an adoring, body-close embrace. A third March organizer, Carmen Perez, is also a vocal admirer of Farrakhan.

Even more to the point in a feminist March: Sarsour has declared that feminism cannot tolerate Zionism; one cannot be a feminist, this self-appointed Pope of feminism has pronounced, and a Zionist. While Sarsour has asserted that, “You either stand up for the rights of all women, including Palestinians, or none. There’s just no way around it,” apparently, she sees a very wide way around including the rights of Israeli women, or of Jewish women elsewhere, in the feminist cause. When the Women’s March issued “Unity Principles,” these called for a society in which “women—including Black women, Native women, poor women, immigrant women, disabled women, Muslim women, lesbian queer and trans women—are free… and in safe and healthy environments free from structural impediments.” Notably absent from this list are Jewish women. The declaration could simply have called for absolute equality and rights for—women– and arguably, should have. It chose to specify certain groups and to omit Jews.

The Women’s March has a Jewish problem and needs to confront it. Until and unless it does, stating explicitly that the pronouncements of Mallory, Sarsour, and Perez about Farrakhan and about Zionism, do not reflect the March’s positions, difficult and painful as this would be, Jewish women need to distance ourselves from the March. So does anyone else who refuses to allow women’s priorities to be co-opted in the service of Jew-hatred. This, too, is intersectionality: Jew-hatred cannot be denied as a problem, much as is done with misogyny; or denied its specificity, subsumed dogmatically as part of a “larger” problem, racism.

Pronouncements about proper, acceptable Jewish self-identification are no different in their arrogant presumptions about Jews than are patriarchal pronouncements about women’s proper identities and rights. Feminism anoints no one with hierarchical privilege or authority to determine proper and improper forms of Jewish self-identification. Deciding that Palestinian nationalism is consistent with, even made imperative by, feminist principles, but that Jewish national self-determination and statehood violate them; that “good” Jews, that is, those deserving of support (Sarsour has helped fund raise for vandalized synagogues), are those who identify by religion (dhimmi under Qur’anic doctrine), but not nation; and that “bad” Jews, that is, Zionists, are to be anathematized, are positions with no place in the Women’s March. They must be disavowed explicitly.

As a Jewish historian, the dynamics in this matter are eerily and distressingly familiar. Leftist Jews in Eastern Europe were told they were retrograde, reactionary, counter-revolutionary, if they were Zionists. But Jewish socialists who formed the Jewish socialist Bund, which became a major party, with membership numbers exceeding that of the Communist party, were also ostracized and then, in the USSR, sent to gulags and murdered for being similarly, retrograde, reactionary, and counter-revolutionary– even though they were vehemently anti-Zionist. They were out on the Communist scale because, like Zionists, Bundists recognized Jews as a specific group, with a specific language (to the socialists, it was Yiddish, not Hebrew); culture; and needs, not least, protection against Jew-hatred. But the orthodox Communist party position was that Jew-hatred was a symptom of capitalist rot that would disappear in the Revolution, and if you disagreed with that analysis or in any way recognized the Jews as a group and not just a symptom of something else, you were an enemy of the people and of the one, correct dogma.

The denial of Jew-hatred as a specific problem is a problem in its own right. Jeremy Corbyn, head of the British Labour party, holds this position, and any version of it in the US, under whatever banner, has to be called for what it is: Jew-hatred. To specify Jews alone among peoples as inherently disqualified from defining ourselves as we determine; and to arrogate feminism, or leftism, or patriotism, or any other position– in the old days it was Christian doctrine, today it is Muslim doctrine in many anti-Zionist quarters– as the arbiter deciding for Jews what is acceptable self-definition, is a sub-set of Jew-hatred.

The right of self-determination does not of course, give Jews individually or as a group, including in the Jewish State, a pass for all actions. We are to be held to universal standards, if such exist in reality. Above all, we must hold ourselves to our own, highest standards, derived from Jewish teachings (and yes, yesh va’yesh, there is a range of such, but I am talking about mainstream, ethical demands voiced by prophets and rabbis over millennia). Not least, we must hold ourselves to the lessons of our own painful experience as a minority. Personally, I think Israel’s Declaration of Independence gets it just right.

But back to this March– it is tainted until and unless it makes clear, officially, that the dogmas that Sarsour and Mallory have pronounced as orthodox feminism– if you don’t hold them, you are not and cannot be, a feminist; and their approving association with Farrakhan–  are not in fact, those of the Women’s March.

Jews will not be scapegoated or marginalized by any ideology, or defined out of our identities as Jews and as feminists. Period.

About the Author
Shulamit S. Magnus is a professor of Jewish history and an award-winning author of books on Jewish modernity and on Jewish women's history and writing.
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