Hundreds of thousands of women and allies marched in cities all over North America Saturday, bringing people from across the spectrum together to stand for equality and justice. It was the third annual network of women’s marches that sprang out of the shock and alarm after the election of U.S. President Donald Trump.
To ensure that the nearly spontaneous eruption of resistance to the direction of American (and world) politics was more than lightning in a bottle, a movement was solidified in the form of Women’s March Inc. This body, led by a small group of activists who quickly gained international fame and recognition, not only came to helm one of the most remarkable new grassroots movements in American history, they also became central figures in the cadre of leftist, socialist and progressive political activists that is loosely defined as “the resistance.”
Unfortunately – or, perhaps, fortunately, for reasons we’ll explain – the small group of Women’s March leaders has recently been beset by controversy. In a book-length analysis last month, Tablet magazine reconstructed accounts of the earliest hours of the march movement – including the marginalization of Jewish women who were there at the start and the assertion, apparently made in one of the earliest meetings, that “white Jews” were partly responsible for “white supremacy.”
Additionally, some of the leaders of Women’s March Inc. are associated with Louis Farrakhan, head of the Nation of Islam and an unrepentant Jew-hater and Hitler admirer who last month capped a career of antisemitic rhetoric by declaring Jews “satanic.” Tamika Mallory, one of the most visible faces of the march movement, has referred to Farrakhan as “the GOAT” – the greatest of all time.
These developments led march organizers in various cities to disassociate their marches from Women’s March Inc. While some figures tried to patch over or reconcile divergences within the movement, such efforts were undermined by top leaders, including Mallory, who appeared on national TV the Monday before Saturday’s marches. She defended her position on Israel and Palestine. She declared “the Palestinians are native to the land,” and that “there are people who have a number of sort of ideologies around why the Jewish people feel this should be their land. I’m not Jewish. So for me to speak to that is not fair.” She’s not Palestinian, either, her interviewer noted, yet she had no qualms defending Palestinians’ right to national self-determination.
At a time when another organization might aim for conciliation, Women’s March Inc. leaders seemed to double down on their troubles. In her keynote speech to the march in Washington Saturday, Linda Sarsour, another leading figure, expressed support for the BDS movement. While she had, earlier, finally rejected Farrakhan’s antisemitism and homophobia, her decision to use her limited time on stage to focus on BDS – an issue peripheral at best to the women’s movement – suggests she is not finished enflaming tensions with Jewish people.
Notably, attendance was down at rallies across the continent, including here in Vancouver. There could be a range of explanations – Trump-fatigue, weather – but certainly some Jewish and non-Jewish women were motivated to stay away because of the association of march leaders with bad ideas.
Within the loose affiliation of “resistance” figures, several of the individuals elected to the U.S. Congress in November’s midterm elections have made themselves known for statements about Israel and Palestine. One of the freshmen, Rep. Ilhan Omar, a Democrat from Minnesota, came under criticism for a 2012 social media post in which she wrote: “Israel has hypnotized the world, may Allah awaken the people and help them see the evil doings of Israel.” She has since said that she didn’t understand the implications in her choice of words.
Another new legislator, Rashida Tlaib, Democrat of Michigan, made her entry into Washington known by displaying a map of the world with a Post-it note with the word “Palestine” covering Israel.
These examples – and there are more – are disheartening. That these ideas have moved from the recesses of crackpot online discussion forums and into Congress, into one of the most significant grassroots organizations and, apparently, into a significant swath of the Democratic party, is certainly concerning. But there is a silver lining: it also allows us to openly confront the trend and, perhaps, to gain allies in opposing it.
When we talk about the need to shine light on dark crevices of bigotry, this is exactly what we mean. Social media has, for better or worse, allowed anyone with any views to broadcast them. In the chaotic network of the internet, there is no practical, central force for contesting bigotry and other bad ideas. When those ideas and expressions seep into institutions like Women’s March Inc., Congress or, even more noticeably, the U.K. Labour party, this presents an opportunity unavailable elsewhere. It is a chance to bring these issues out in the open and contest them in the light of day. Among other things, it forces people with power and influence to make a choice.
Among those who made choices in recent weeks – the choice to withdraw as sponsors of Women’s March Inc. – are prominent individuals and organizations, including the Democratic National Committee, the Southern Poverty Law Centre, the women’s political action group EMILY’s List, the LGBTQ advocacy group Human Rights Campaign, the pro-choice organization NARAL, the Centre for American Progress, and Amnesty International.
This is the kind of unified voice we need: a concerted rejection of antisemitism or Jew-baiting or Israel-bashing that has emerged as a force in important places.