This was originally posted on JWeekly.com January 7, 2019.
I am a rabbi — here’s why I’m going to the Women’s March
I have learned one thing from the coalition building I’ve done between Muslims and Jews — it’s hard, even painful. Inevitably we discover rifts in our partnerships that puncture an otherwise shared vision. Sometimes those rifts feel deeply personal.
And so it is with the Women’s March and Jews. Many of us stand bewildered and hurt on account of the continued relationship between some of the national organization’s leaders and one of America’s most vocal anti-Semites.
But truth be told, we can always find a reason to walk away from the table. For me, there are more reasons to stay.
So here’s why I will rush to be at the Los Angeles march as soon as I finish leading Shabbat services on Saturday, Jan. 19, and why I am proud that my mom will be marching that same day in Washington, D.C. at the third annual national Women’s March. (There are also women’s marches scheduled for Jan. 19 in Oakland, San Francisco, San Jose, Sacramento, Pleasanton and other Northern California locations.)
First, on the simple strategic level — abandoning the cause gives more power to anti-Semitic sentiment, not less. Walking away from the coalition leaves a void of Jewish voices. Whatever problem with anti-Semitism that the Women’s March has had, it most certainly will not lessen in our absence.
I believe this logic applies on the political right, as well. I know this perspective is unpopular on the left, but just as progressive Jews should not disappear in the face of anti-Semitism, I believe that Jews in conservative spaces ought not to cede the conversation to the extremist voices in their midst. Our fatal flaw on both sides of the political spectrum has been the ease with which we call out anti-Semitism on the other side while turning a blind eye toward it on our own. We must find the courage not only to call out the anti-Semitism over there, but to take it on among our friends and partners. If we’re serious about fighting anti-Semitism, then we need to address it where we actually have influence.
In my more generous moments, I find empathy for the saving role that the Nation of Islam played for Women’s March co-leader Tamika Mallory when she lost her child’s father to gun violence. Relationships are complicated — you can love someone and not condone their beliefs or behavior.
If I had a personal relationship with her, I would say, “It hurts to see you remain passive in the face of anti-Semitic rhetoric. I’m not asking you to give up this relationship that has been so important for you. But is tochecha [rebuke] possible? A rebuke that comes from a place of love? Can you hold a relationship and call it out at the same time?”
Relationships are complicated — you can love someone and not condone their beliefs or behavior.
But I can’t say that because I don’t have a relationship with Tamika Mallory. Or with Linda Sarsour. So, whatever frustration, hurt or anger I may feel from their actions and inactions, the Women’s March is not actually about them. It’s about all women in America — Jewish, LGBTQ, black, Muslim, Latinx, working class, immigrant and white.
This movement is not a centralized organization run by four women. It is a groundswell crying out against the systematic oppression that 40-plus years of feminism has yet to unravel.
Indeed, the Women’s March L.A. has taken great pains to distinguish itself as its own separate grassroots entity — unaffiliated with the national leadership and their controversies to drive this point home.
I have no doubt that the national leadership will continue to make missteps along the way. But their missteps do not supersede the need for a movement that does more than just march one day a year — it provides a motivated and sophisticated base for continued activism around women’s rights, health and safety.
Jewish women, and, yes, all women, should continue to push for a more inclusive movement in women’s marches both locally and nationally — speaking up when the leadership needs to be held accountable. I am heartened by the response of the national Women’s March to include the fight against anti-Semitism in the unity principles.
And yes — I am heartened by Sarsour’s apology that “We should have been faster and clearer in helping people understand our values and our commitment to fighting anti-Semitism. We regret that.” It’s not exactly what I would have wanted, but it’s a step in the right direction. It’s a step that comes from being at the table.
For those who insist that I walk away from the table to prove that I am not a self-hating Jew, I ask you in turn what actions you will then take to further women’s equality? Rabbi Robin Podolsky captures this in her quote from my teacher Rabbi Rachel Adler, “None of the men who demand that we boycott the march have pledged to help us eradicate sexual harassment and assault, pay inequities or glass ceilings in Jewish camps, schools, synagogues and communal institutions.”
So if you have another viable way to enhance women’s rights that is uncomplicated by intersectional politics and all of the difficulty and pain that comes with building coalitions, I’m all ears.
Until then, I will be at the Women’s March Los Angeles right after services on Jan. 19 — joining the Jewish Center for Justice as a proud Jewish presence at the Women’s March L.A.
– Rabbi Sarah Bassin