Rabbi Ruth Gais did not consider sitting out the Jan. 19 Women’s March this year.
“I want to keep my eyes on the prize, and my prize is the prize of change,” she told NJJN. “I wouldn’t miss marching if I could help it.” Gais is the leader of Chavurat Lamdeinu, an independent minyan that meets at Congregation Ohr Shalom: The Summit Jewish Community Center.
But that doesn’t mean she was unaffected by the cloud of anti-Semitism and anti-Israel accusations swirling around the March’s national leaders. The divisiveness made her “sad,” and so did the lackluster showing at the Upper West Side march. “There wasn’t quite the same ruach” compared to the two previous marches she attended in New York City, she said.
Maybe that’s because plenty of people who attended in previous years sat out this year’s various marches, including one in Washington, D.C., and several in New York City.
“I used to feel that the march was for all of us, whether you supported Israel or not,” said Jane Felton of South Orange, who participated with her daughter in the 2016 march in the nation’s capital. “In light of what’s taken place over the past two years, the march no longer feels like it’s for me or others who support Israel’s right to exist.” Felton did not participate in any march this year.
Local women were divided about whether or not to participate as the controversy raged on about whether the Women’s March movement is shot through with anti-Semitism.
“We are told, ‘Welcome, join women’s empowerment, LGBTQ issues, Black Lives Matter, environmental rights, and all of these progressive issues that speak to us as Jews; have a seat at the table, but check your Zionism at the door,’” said Linda Scherzer, director of the Community Relations Committee of the Jewish Federation of Greater MetroWest NJ. “Sorry, that’s not acceptable to me. I’m entitled to believe what I believe and I’m not about to have Linda Sarsour tell me what I believe.” Sarsour is one of the national leaders of the Women’s March movement.
Scherzer planned to march in Trenton under the Zioness banner, a progressive Jewish group, but Gov. Phil Murphy issued a state of emergency due to Saturday’s winter storm, effectively canceling the Trenton march.
As the Women’s March movement plans its next steps, Jewish women and the Jewish community as a whole are having to navigate choppy waters in a debate that touches on fraught issues like anti-Semitism, intersectionality, black-Jewish relations, and how best to protect alliances that could potentially benefit Jews.
“The issue really came down to, do you engage with people who have associated with people that we consider anti-Semitic, with movements like BDS that we consider problematic for Israel? Do you engage or do you ignore? That is the big question,” said Nancy Kaufman, CEO of the National Council of Jewish Women.
Elaine Durbach of Maplewood, a contributing writer for NJJN, came down squarely on the side of “ignore.” She attended Saturday’s march on the Upper West Side.
“I was motivated to go to not let anger about anti-Semitism diminish this great show of people power,” she said. “We march as individuals, uniting to show [President Donald] Trump and his cohort that their version of America hasn’t taken over.”
Much of the debate centers around the notion of intersectionality — the concept that all forms of oppression are connected and to fight one oppressor, you must fight them all — which has long been a difficult concept for the Jewish community. Ostracized for their support of Israel, many Zionist Jews have felt unwelcome in intersectional movements. But after last year’s synagogue attack in Pittsburgh, the deadliest attack on Jews in the United States, the question of whether Jews constitute a privileged group or a victimized minority has complicated its relationship to intersectional activism. That tension was heightened when leaders of the Women’s March were accused of making anti-Semitic remarks in private and associating with Rev. Louis Farrakhan.
Rabbi Faith Joy Dantowitz of Temple B’nai Abraham in Livingston sat out this year’s march after struggling with these issues. “As a Jew, I am not willing to tolerate acquiescence to behavior condemning my existence,” she said. “In this tender post-Pittsburgh shooting period, it is incumbent that Jews not sacrifice their Jewish pride while standing up for other causes.”
In recent weeks, leaders of the Women’s March embarked on something of a public relations blitz as well as numerous closed-door conversations with Jewish leaders, attempting to turn the tide of opinion in their favor. The media appearances convinced some groups, but left others wanting.
The inclusion of international issues, including opposition to anti-BDS laws, in the Women’s Agenda released on Friday added another point of friction for Jewish community organizations engaging with the Women’s March.
Yavilah McCoy, an activist on issues of diversity in the Jewish community who was appointed to the Women’s March steering committee earlier this month, agreed on the need to put aside differences and work together. “It is necessary in this moment for us to work both with the allies we feel we have and the allies we feel like we wish we had,” said McCoy. “We have to stay at that table.”
While stating that she believed the leaders of the Women’s March had adequately condemned anti-Semitism, she questioned the value of asking Tamika Mallory, an African-American woman and the leader of the march most closely associated with the Nation of Islam leader, to condemn Farrakhan. “In African-American communities, to ask people of color to condemn each other is a limited resource given the ways in which racism and white supremacy have asked people of color to separate,” said McCoy. “We have to check … if that’s a reasonable ask. We also have to ask whether, in our community, we’re willing to cash that same check.”
Shira Hanau is a staff writer for The New York Jewish Week, NJJN’s sister publication.