When it first debuted in 2017 as a protest of Donald Trump’s election as president, the Women’s March was praised for bringing together women of all races, ethnicities and religions in a vast and unprecedented show of unity on the Mall.
The controversy stems from an incident last winter when an African American co-president of the march attended a Nation of Islam event at which black nationalist Louis Farrakhan made incendiary remarks about Jews.
Since then, the march’s national leadership has doubled down to quell the outrage — reaching out to the Jewish community, denouncing anti-Semitism, meeting with rabbis and unveiling a new steering committee that includes three Jewish women.
But the damage remains. For Jewish women who had planned to attend the rally, the decision has become unexpectedly personal and fraught, leaving some feeling forced to choose between their Jewish identity and their desire to demonstrate for women’s rights and social justice.
Their quandary is rooted in the long and instrumental alliance between Jewish and black civil rights activists that has become increasingly strained in recent years. The rift also highlights the challenges the progressive left has faced in organizing and sustaining an intersectional feminist movement, which recognizes that women’s identities are shaped in different ways by race, class, gender, ethnicity and religion.
“As a moral issue, I really don’t know where to come down on this,” said Janet Harris, who flew from her home in Eugene, Ore., to Washington for the past two Women’s March events.
Harris did not want to appear to be endorsing a man known for making anti-Semitic statements. But she also worried that by sitting out, she would be feeding into an attempt by some “trolls” to sow division between black and Jewish women. About a week before the march, she decided not to purchase a plane ticket.
Still, others said the recent controversy should further motivate Jewish women to be present at the Women’s March, to spark a dialogue about anti-Semitism and serve as a bridge between the Jewish community and other groups on the progressive left.
“We need to seek more common ground,” said Laurie Solnik, a 65-year-old federal retiree who lives on Capitol Hill. “You don’t do that by turning your back.”
Co-president Tamika Mallory’s attendance at the Nation of Islam event in Chicago was followed last month by allegations from a Jewish former march organizer, who accused Mallory and a Latina leader of saying Jews should grapple with their roles in racism and the slave trade. Those allegations were first reported in the Jewish magazine Tablet.
While seeking to repair the breach with Jewish women, Women’s March leaders stopped short of denouncing Farrakhan, who is known for making virulently anti-Semitic remarks.
Their reluctance to condemn the black nationalist has led Jewish leaders to cut ties with the D.C. march. Local women’s marches across the country have made a point of distancing their rallies from the national leadership.
The Jewish Community Relations Council of Greater Washington released a statement last week saying it could not endorse the march or encourage Jewish women and their allies to attend. But the council welcomed Jewish women to attend independent local marches in nearby cities such as Baltimore, Annapolis and Philadelphia.
Nancy K. Kaufman, chief executive of the National Council of Jewish Women, a sponsor of the 2017 Women’s March, said the allegations of anti-Semitism have alarmed many Jews who are already on edge following a recent spike in anti-Semitic hate crimes and the Pittsburgh synagogue shooting that left 11 people dead. Until the Women’s March thoroughly addresses its issues with anti-Semitism, Kaufman said, “we cannot as an organization engage” with this year’s event.
It’s unclear how many people the Women’s March in the District will draw this year. In an application to the National Park Service, organizers estimated more than half a million people — about the estimated number that came out in 2017 — would attend. But Dana R. Fisher, a sociology professor at the University of Maryland who studies and tracks protest movements, said turnout probably will number in the tens of thousands, weather permitting. So far about 9,400 people have expressed interest in attending the event on Facebook.
The march’s leaders have outlined a political platform prioritizing reproductive rights, equal pay, raising the federal minimum wage and passing the Equal Rights Amendment, among other items.
In an interview with The Washington Post, Linda Sarsour, one of the national organizers of the Women’s March, said the leaders reject Farrakhan’s anti-Semitic, homophobic and transphobic statements. But Sarsour declined to specifically reject Farrakhan, saying that she has never met him and that the organization believes in “attacking the forces of evil” and not individuals.
Mallory has said the Nation of Islam came to her aid after the death of her son’s father about 17 years ago. In recent days, the march organizers have met for hours-long meetings with rabbis and Jewish leaders to discuss how anti-Semitism intersects with other types of racism and oppression, Sarsour said.
“I have never seen anti-Semitism discussed in the way it’s being discussed right now in the progressive left,” Sarsour said, adding that she respects the choices of Jewish women opting out of this year’s march and is grateful for the time that many Jewish women are taking “to reflect on these moments.”
“I say to all my Jewish sisters that you are welcome, and we have a common enemy that is white supremacy,” Sarsour said.
Alliances between Jewish and black communities have been crucial to decades of social justice movements. The NAACP worked closely with the Anti-Defamation League and other Jewish groups during the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s. In 1965, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel marched side by side in Alabama from Selma to Montgomery.
But the close relationship between the groups has become complicated over the years, particularly amid tension over the Nation of Islam and Israel. In 2016, for example, some Jewish leaders condemned the Black Lives Matter movement for releasing a platform that accused Israel of committing “genocide” against the Palestinian people.
Leading up to the third D.C. march, many Jewish women have been engaged in torturous deliberations about whether they should still participate.
Elizabeth Sternberg, 61, of Silver Spring, is a lifelong marcher, growing up in the District and going to antiwar marches in the 1960s and 1970s. And she realizes the privilege she’s had as an educated white woman. “I want to show up as an ally for people who do not have the privilege that I have,” she said about this year’s Women’s March. “It’s sort of an obligation.”
She also acknowledges the positive role the Nation of Islam has played in many black communities that she said were abandoned by the government. But as a Jewish woman, she finds it “unacceptable” that the national leaders of the march refuse to disavow Farrakhan. “And I think that may be, for me, the tipping point.”
Shari Schwartz, a 56-year-old retired federal analyst, compared the Women’s March leaders’ resistance to decrying Farrakhan to Trump’s hesitation to disavow white nationalists after the deadly 2017 clash of protesters in Charlottesville.
“I can’t march with women who oppose one hate monger but refuse to condemn another,” said Schwartz, a resident of Vienna, Va.
Rachel Lachenauer is a 29-year-old D.C. resident who works for a reproductive health organization and identifies as a progressive queer woman. But she’s also the grandchild of a Holocaust survivor, and she resents progressive circles that make her feel unwelcome due to her support of Israel.
“My Jewish identity is so inextricably linked to who I am as a person,” said Lachenauer, who is leaning toward not participating in the Women’s March. “I won’t participate in a situation that makes me choose between my identities. I’ve been a Jew my entire life, and I’ve been a feminist my entire life. There is no way to separate those things for me.”
But Rachel Nadelman, a 41-year-old Jewish D.C. resident, says that some people are too quick to “get on the bandwagon” claiming that something is anti-Semitic “without looking through it.” In her view, opting out of the Women’s March would be taking the easy route.
She harked back to last year, when D.C. Council member Trayon White Sr. (D-Ward 8) espoused an anti-Semitic conspiracy theory. Instead of calling on him to resign, many Jewish leaders offered forgiveness and invited him to take part in Seders during Passover.
“We all come with our biases, and the only way that we can really change that is not if Jewish people completely remove themselves,” Nadelman said. “In general, white people who want to be a part of change need to get a little more thick-skinned about criticisms coming out about white people.”
Sabrina Sojourner is a spiritual leader in a group straddling both sides of this debate — African American Jews. She is bringing together a group of about 100 Jewish women of color from across the country to march in Saturday’s D.C. event.
Sojourner expressed frustration with times in which she has felt the white Jewish community has aimed its anger at black groups such as the Nation of Islam for alleged anti-Semitism. She argued Jews should instead maintain their focus on white-nationalist groups, “where the violence is coming from.”
“I’m not saying that anti-Semitism is not real within the black community, but to equate it or even raise it higher than white supremacy is just disproportionate, and it also undermines our Jewish values,” she said.
Sojourner referenced the Jewish concept of tikkun olam, or “repairing the world,” a call to social action against injustice.
“We’re not supposed to be repairing the world just when people are treating us nicely,” Sojourner said.
Marissa J. Lang contributed to this report.