B. Shira Levine
Navigating new wilderness

Silence on Farrakhan — A bridge too far for the Women’s March

There is a time to engage in diplomacy and a time to interrupt spaces, I learned during my crash course in activism following the 2016 election.  This lesson, though fraught in implementation, is an important one to apply to Jewish issues.

I’ve been open about my support for #BlackLivesMatter and the Movement for Black Lives, even throughout the controversy surrounding their inclusion of anti-Zionist rhetoric in a foundational document.  My point there: it’s an excruciatingly difficult line to draw, but we must endeavor to avoid conflating “anti-Zionist” and “anti-Semitic,” and be clear that we are willing to acknowledge the difference.  We must insert ourselves into the Israel dialogue rather than shutting down in protest whenever it comes up.

The recent backlash over a Women’s March organizer’s support for Louis Farrakhan presents the perfect counter-illustration to this point.  The Women’s March’s silence on Farrakhan is silence on anti-Semitism, and we must loudly object.

Backing up a moment: I marched in January 2017.  I took my then-3-year-old daughter.  We marched as Jews, carrying a banner expressing pride at being Jews from GA-05, a comeback at the president’s recent disparaging remarks at our representative John Lewis.  Our banner was a display of universal resistance, with symbols ranging from #blm to interfaith tolerance to gay pride–but our Jewish identity was the centerpiece.  I have no regrets about that.  The event was historic; I am proud to have been a part.

But how can I continue to support this organization in light of the defensive, oblique responses in response to questions about Women’s March organizers’ disturbing association with, and praise of, Louis Farrakhan?

I doubt I need to inform anyone reading this, but Farrakhan’s delightful history includes these gems:

  • Described “the Jews” as having a “stranglehold” on Congress and that they “control the movement of this great nation.”
  • Called Hitler “a very great man,” and stating “when it’s God who puts you in the ovens, it’s forever”
  • Referred to Judaism as a “gutter religion.”
  • Promoted anti-semitic volume “The Synagogue of Satan: The Secret History of Jewish World Domination”

And last Sunday, Farrakhan reaffirmed his decades of anti-Semitism, declaring the “powerful Jews are my enemy,” and berated the “Satanic Jew.”  Ms. Mallory was in attendance, causing many to question her own beliefs on the matter and, if unable to denounce this blatant hatred, her fitness to serve as a leader of a purportedly intersectional organization.

Mallory’s twitter responses cast herself as the victim of bullying, implied that criticism directed at her was racist, and even leaned on the “I have Jewish friends” trope.  She paid lip service to her commitment “to ending anti-black racism, anti-semitism, homophobia & transphobia,” but notably failed to distance herself from Farrakhan or his remarks. (I won’t even get into the numerous anti-Semitic comments in response to these tweets and others on the topic.)

On March 1, she tweeted a nebulous “If your leader does not have the same enemies as Jesus, they may not be THE leader!”

On March 2, she then doubled down with “Funny how folks interpreted my mention of one having enemies the same as Jesus, as me describing a certain group of people. That’s your own stuff. My point…Jesus had a number of enemies as do all black leaders. Period point blank.”

Ms. Mallory’s last remark is more than a little alarming–not only does it seem a bit strange to create a zero-sum-game dichotomy, but I’m at a loss as to how to interpret “as do all black leaders” other than to legitimize “black leader” Farrakhan’s “enemy.”   Last week, of course, he declared unequivocally is the Jews.

I have much admiration for Ms. Malloy’s accomplishments and I am grateful to her for her essential contributions to a protest that our grandchildren will study in school.  But these statements–and the silence on Farrakhan’s–are simply unacceptable.  And I will be withdrawing my support from the Women’s March until they address this travesty.

Given my previous criticism Jewish organizations for disengaging from the Movement for Black Lives (which I stand by), I want to note some key differences underlying my opinion that we must continue to engage with movements like Black Lives Matter, while protesting and boycotting organizations like the Women’s March:

  • Though Farrakhan certainly takes advantage of the popularity of modern anti-Zionism, his breed of anti-Semitism cannot be framed as criticism of Israeli policies.  While I disagree with the Movement for Black Lives’ position on Israel as well as the assumptions that underlie it–and the use of an inflammatory, ridiculous term “genocide” in particular–those despicable statements were were directed at a government, not a people.  I have used similarly inflammatory rhetoric when describing the current president of my country.  Do I believe those statements on Israel originated with and have been widely propagated by anti-Semites?  Certainly–but to me, that’s all the more reason to engage and adjust perception instead of turning our backs.  But here, we’ve already engaged–and when an organization’s leader refuses to condemn remarks declaring Jews an “enemy,” they leave us with little choice but to walk away.
  • The Movement For Black Lives is “a collective of more than 50 organizations representing thousands of Black people from across the country have come together with renewed energy and purpose to articulate a common vision and agenda.”  Statements claiming to represent the Jewish community at large whose purpose is to boycott an organization like this–accurate or not–give rise to the inference that the Jewish community does not support or care about Black people.  his drives unnecessary tension and paints the Jewish community in an unflattering light.  This does not apply to the Women’s March, which holds itself out specifically as an intersectional organization.  Their mission: “a women-led movement providing intersectional education on a diverse range of issues and creating entry points for new grassroots activists & organizers to engage in their local communities through trainings, outreach programs and events. Women’s March is committed to dismantling systems of oppression through nonviolent resistance and building inclusive structures guided by self-determination, dignity and respect.”   , But, simply, no movement can claim true intersectionality while refusing to denounce a known anti-Semite (who by the way has also made quite a few homophobic and misogynistic remarks).
  • One of my concerns with the Jewish establishment’s “distancing” itself from M4BL was that those “distancing” organizations had never much contributed anything noteworthy to M4BL to begin with–how can you “distance” yourself from something you were never a genuine part of?  Conversely, Jewish groups of all kinds lent massive support to and engaged in collaboration with the Women’s March leading up to and during the original January 2017 event.  The Jewish community is enough of a part of the Women’s March that digging its heels in has the potential to send a powerful message in a way that walking away from a meeting it never bothered to show up for does not.

There you have it – my public distancing from the Women’s March, and my case for why we “interrupt spaces” here while “engaging” with M4BL.

If you look at womensmarch.com today, you’ll see an emphasis on two issues I care passionately about, voter engagement and gun control.  I’m sure they are partnering with other organizations on events I hope to support and attend, too.  But we cannot permit the discourse on these two important issues (and others) to be filtered through a lens tainted with anti-Semitism. Tamika Malloy and anyone desiring to affiliate with Farrakhan must denounce or resign their posts.

About the Author
B. Shira Levine writes about Jewish spirituality and observance, parenting, intersectionality, and the U.S. and Atlanta Jewish communities. Views are her own and not those of her employer, synagogues, or any other organization.