NEW YORK (JTA) — With the Women’s March coming up Saturday, local chapters and major progressive groups are continuing to distance themselves from the national leadership, which is scrambling to hold on to its big tent.
Though the national organization was once seen as a beacon of hope for progressives following Donald Trump’s election, it is now mired in allegations that its leaders have not only been too soft on but in some cases fostered anti-Semitism in the movement. The fact that the march was created as a protest not only against sexism but other forms of bigotry makes the allegations even more disturbing.
Where did things go wrong?
The accusations date back to organizer Tamika Mallory’s ties to Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan, who has a long history of making anti-Semitic comments. More recently, an article in Tablet alleged that Mallory and fellow organizer Carmen Perez made anti-Jewish comments at planning meetings. Throughout it, the Women’s March organizers — along with Mallory and Perez they include Palestinian-American activist Linda Sarsour and fashion designer and activist Bob Bland — have released various statements on the controversy. Some have been conciliatory, others have only inflamed the tension.
JTA looked back at the anti-Semitism allegations made against the march and how leaders responded.
On January 21, millions of women marched around the world — many wearing wool “pussy hats” to protest Trump’s past lewd remarks about sexual assault — in support of a range of issues, including gender equality, LGBTQ rights and racial justice. The day offered a searing rebuke to Trump’s rhetoric and seemed to be a galvanizing moment for the anti-Trump left, uniting women (and many men) across racial, socioeconomic and geographic divisions. It was the biggest one-day protest in US history.
On February 25, Mallory attended the Nation of Islam Saviours’ Day event, where leader Louis Farrakhan said that “powerful Jews are my enemy” and refers to “the Satanic Jew,” among other anti-Semitic and anti-LGBTQ statements. From the stage, Farrakhan gave a shout-out to Mallory, who posted admiring photos from the event on Instagram. The Anti-Defamation League and CNN anchor Jake Tapper pointed out Mallory’s attendance at the event, spurring calls for her to disavow Farrakhan.
It took over a week for the Women’s March to release a statement, and the organization was criticized for doing too little, too late. “Minister Farrakhan’s statements about Jewish, queer, and trans people are not aligned with the Women’s March Unity Principles,” the statement read. But the organizers did not fully disavow Farrakhan or criticize Mallory for attending his speech. “We love and value our sister and co-President Tamika Mallory,” the March 6 statement read.
Mallory, who is African-American, further defended her ties to Farrakhan in a piece for NewsOne published a day later. “Where my people are is where I must also be. I go into difficult spaces,” she wrote.
Mallory slammed Starbucks for enlisting the Anti-Defamation League as an adviser in a racial-bias education session for its staff. In an April 17 tweet, she accused the Jewish group of “constantly attacking black and brown people.” The coffee giant later announced that the Jewish anti-bigotry group would no longer play a leading role in diversity training.
The anti-Semitism issue returned to the spotlight again when actress and activist Alyssa Milano called out the organizers of Women’s March Inc. for the anti-Semitism allegations in an interview with the Advocate published on October 30, three days after the deadly shooting at Pittsburgh’s Tree of Life synagogue. Milano, who spoke at the march in 2017, said she would not speak at the event again if Sarsour and Mallory are in charge. Her comments were especially significant because it was her tweet urging women to share their experiences of sexual harassment and assault that helped propel the #MeToo movement into the mainstream. (Activist Tarana Burke had coined the term in 2006.)
On November 8, the Women’s March released another statement in which it disavowed Farrakhan’s anti-Semitic statements but threw its support behind Mallory and Sarsour. “We all know the real cause of violence and oppression of our communities,” the statement read. “This is well-documented and inspired by vile rhetoric coming from the Trump administration and from members of the Republican Party.” A day later, actress Debra Messing tweeted her support for Milano’s stance.
In a November 15 Facebook post, Sarsour defended newly elected Representative Ilhan Omar, a Minnesota Democrat, who was criticized after she expressed support for boycotting Israel. Sarsour wrote that the attacks against Omar, a Somali American, are “not only coming from the right-wing but some folks who masquerade as progressives but always choose their allegiance to Israel over their commitment to democracy and free speech.” The American Jewish Committee said Sarsour is relying on anti-Semitic dual loyalty tropes.
On November 18, Sarsour released a long statement saying that critics accused her of being anti-Semitic prior to the Farrakhan drama and that the accusations are because she is “a bold, outspoken BDS supporting Palestinian Muslim American woman.” She also said that Mallory’s family had a longstanding relationship with the Nation of Islam “after the brutal murder of her son’s father 17 years ago and the positive role NOI played in this Black single teen mother’s life.”
The following day Teresa Shook, a co-founder of the Women’s March, releases a statement calling on the national organizers to resign. “In opposition to our Unity Principles, they have allowed anti-Semitism, anti-LBGTQIA sentiment and hateful, racist rhetoric to become a part of the platform by their refusal to separate themselves from groups that espouse these racist, hateful beliefs,” Shook wrote.
On November 20, the Women’s March released its third statement, from Sarsour, addressing anti-Semitism, which took a more conciliatory tone. “We should have been faster and clearer in helping people understand our values and our commitment to fighting anti-semitism. We regret that,” the statement read.
Tablet published an article on December 10 citing participants who allege that Mallory and Perez made anti-Semitic comments at Women’s March planning meetings. The organizers denied making such statements, but the allegations quickly spread on social media and in various news outlets. Local Women’s March chapters told JTA that the latest controversy combined with the Farrakhan debate, are hurting their image. The Jewish Democratic Council of America called for the national Women’s March organizers to step down.
On January 14, the Women’s March named its new 32-member steering committee, which includes three Jewish women: transgender rights activist Abby Stein; Union for Reform Judaism staffer April Baskin; and Jewish diversity activist Yavilah McCoy.
That same day, Mallory and Bland appeared on “The View,” where co-host Meghan McCain confronted them about the anti-Semitism allegations. Though Bland condemned Farrakhan’s anti-Semitism, Mallory refused to follow suit. “[I]t’s not my language, it’s not the way that I speak,” she said.
As the march date approached, media outlets reported that a range of groups were no longer affiliated with the rally. Among them are the National Council of Jewish Women, the Jewish Women’s Foundation of New York, the Southern Poverty Law Center and Emily’s List. The Democratic National Council also decided not to sponsor the march, according to the Jewish Democratic Council of America.
On January 15, Perez penned an article in the Forward apologizing for the organization’s response to the anti-Semitism allegations and urging Jewish women to join the march. “I want to be unequivocal in affirming that the organization failed to act rapid enough to condemn the egregious and hateful statements made by a figure who is not associated with the Women’s March in any way,” Perez wrote. “This failure caused deep hurt and pain, especially because our movement is dedicated to centering inclusiveness.”
Also that day, nine liberal New York rabbis endorsed the Women’s March in a letter that says they had met with Sarsour and Mallory and shared their concerns about anti-Semitism. Though the letter acknowledged that differences remain, it encouraged members of the Jewish community to attend the march on Saturday.