WASHINGTON — Leaders of the Women’s March tried to allay accusations of anti-Semitism roiling their movement on Saturday, as they gathered for their third annual march on Washington.
After months of controversy, the cloud hanging over the organization because of its leaders’ alleged anti-Semitism led not only to a smaller turnout from years past, but also appeared to overshadow the group’s policy goals.
In a relatively subdued demonstration compared to 2017 — without the star-studded presence it had become accustomed to — speaker after speaker addressed the Jewish community directly.
“Over the last year, my sisters in Women’s March and I have faced accusations that have hurt my soul, charges of anti-Semitism,” Carmen Perez, one of the organization’s national co-chairs, told a crowd of hundreds gathered under grey skies in DC’s Freedom Plaza. “And I want to be unequivocal in affirming that Women’s March and I and my sisters condemn anti-Semitism and homophobia and transphobia in all forms. There is no defense of bigotry. There is no excuse for hate.”
Over the last several months, the Women’s March has been embroiled by accusations that the leadership pushed out one of the movement’s co-founders because she was Jewish, and that two of the co-chairs said in a private setting that Jews were responsible for the oppression of people of color. Both of those leaders — Perez and Tamika Mallory — have denied the charge. The group’s leaders also have close ties to the notorious anti-Semite Louis Farrakhan, the leader of the Nation of Islam.
“To my Jewish sisters,” said Mallory when speaking from the stage, “do not let anyone tell you who I am. I see all of you. I see you and I hear your pain.”
On Friday, Mallory initiated more controversy for the group when she refused to say on a PBS broadcast that Women’s March believed Israel had a right to exist.
“I have said many times that I feel everyone has a right to exist, I just don’t feel anyone has a right to exist at the disposal of another group,” she said.
The interviewer, Margaret Hoover, pushed her to specify whether that applied to the Jewish state. “Does that include Israel and Israelis?” she asked. “I’m done talking about this,” Mallory responded.
Mallory also posed with Farakhan two years ago after he made anti-Semitic remarks. Appearing on The View this week, Mallory refused to explicitly condemn him. “That is not my language,” she said instead, referring to Farakhan’s history of invective against Jews.
Attempting to shift attention from the firestorm surrounding the Women’s March, another national co-chair, the Palestinian-American activist Linda Sarsour, suggested on Saturday that it was a distraction from a real crisis: Donald Trump’s presidency.
“The media can talk about whatever controversy they want, but the real controversy was in the White House,” she said. “What’s controversial is a president and administration that cages children. That throws tear gas at human beings at the border. A president who wants to take back rights for LGBTQ people. What’s controversial is our complicit support for a Saudi-led war in Yemen. Controversy is collusion with Russia. So if you want to talk about controversy, let’s start talking about the real controversy.”
Sarsour, who is a vociferous backer of the anti-Israel BDS movement, said the Women’s March had called for defending “freedom of speech and the constitutional right to boycott, divestment, and sanctions in these United States of America.”
She also said Michigan Rep. Rashida Tlaib, the first Palestinian-American member of Congress and another BDS supporter, was her “favorite” new voice on Capitol Hill.
There has been a push in Congress over the past year to pass the Israel Anti-Boycott Act, which would criminalize boycotts against the Jewish state.
The legislation has been deeply controversial. It’s opposed by both the American Civil Liberties Union and the liberal Middle East advocacy group J Street, which opposes the BDS movement, on the grounds that it would unconstitutionally suppress the speech rights of BDS adherents. The bill’s authors say it would protect US companies from needing to comply with boycott attempts called upon by international bodies, like the UN.
As opposed to the high turnouts of the last two years, Women’s Marches in Washington and elsewhere drew smaller numbers, and many high profile supporters stayed away.
Many who did show up were also forced to grapple with the anti-Semitism allegations.
“We know there is no room for anti-Semitism in our movement. We know this,” Democratic Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, a 2020 presidential contender, said at a Women’s March in Iowa. “We know that our movement is empowered when all of us lift each other up.”
In New York, an alternate women’s march organization held a parallel rally a few miles away from the official New York Women’s March protest.
While many Jewish protesters and groups said they would stay away from the march, some did participate, including Abby Stein, a transgender Jewish woman and ordained rabbi.
Stein gave an impassioned speech in which she said that “some in the media are trying to divide us.”
Those gathered, she added, should seek unity. She went on to lead a cheer seeking to exorcise various forms of hatred, yelling out each one in succession.
The first one she screamed: anti-Semitism.