Does Women’s March have an anti-Semitism problem? That is the question that has consumed corners of the internet all week, ever since Minister Louis Farrakhan’s spoke last Sunday at the Saviour’s Day convention in Chicago. Tamika Mallory, a co-president of the Women’s March who was in the audience for the speech, was even given a special shout-out from the stage by the controversial leader, spurring a furious backlash from the Anti-Defamation League and many Women’s March supporters.
On Sunday, Farrakhan gave a speech laden with anti-Semitic tropes: he made references to “powerful Jews” running the government and controlling Hollywood, blamed the Jewish people for apartheid, and praised anti-Semitic comments made by Billy Graham and Richard Nixon in the Oval Office years ago. He claimed that “the Jews were responsible for all of this filth and degenerate behavior that Hollywood is putting out turning men into women and women into men,” thereby adding a transphobic cherry to his mish-mash of anti-Semitism.
Soon after, CNN’s Jake Tapper wrote a Twitter thread condemning Farrakhan’s remarks and calling out Mallory’s attendance. Then the Anti-Defamation League, which released a report this week stating that anti-Semitic incidents rose 57% over the past year, likewise condemned the speech and pointed out Mallory’s attendance. From there, the criticism and outrage spread to Women’s March supporters.
“This one’s not hard,” tweeted writer Aminatou Sow.
Singer Regina Spektor, who performed at the Los Angeles Women’s March, called the association “gross.”
“How difficult is it to say anti-Semitism is unacceptable?,” asked writer Marisa Kabas.
The Nation of Islam, led by Farrakhan since 1978, has been labeled a “hate group” by the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) for a long history of propagating anti-Semitic and homophobic rhetoric and conspiracy theories. Although the group’s influence has dwindled over the years, the SPLC’s 2018 Year in Hate and Extremism report found that the number of Black Nationalist hate groups rose to 233 chapters in 2017, from 193 in 2016. SPLC links this rise to a backlash to the election of Donald Trump and a more pronounced rise in white supremacist hate groups. (Black nationalist groups, which are characterized by their anti-Semitic, anti-white, and homophobic rhetoric and conspiracy theories “have always been a reaction to white racism” the SPLC points out, but they “should not be confused with activist groups such as Black Lives Matter and others that work for civil rights and to eliminate systemic racism.”)
Despite this history, Farrakhan, who once called Hitler “a very great man,” remains revered among some activists for charitable work he’s done in African-American communities. He was the lead organizer of 1995 Million Man March to demand justice and strengthen unity among Black men and African-American families, and for his promotion of ideas, such as self-reliance, economic empowerment, and an emphasis on Black cultural identity.
In the year since the historic Women’s March on Washington and the founding of the activist organization that grew out of the original planning committee, the Women’s March co-chairs’ ties to Farrakhan and Nation of Islam have come up multiple times. In August of last year, just two weeks before White Nationalists descended on Charlottesville, Virginia, the New York Times ran an op-ed by opinion editor Bari Weiss, calling attention to Linda Sarsour, Tamika Mallory, and Carmen Perez’ relationship to Farrakhan.
In January, Refinery29 asked the organizers repeatedly for comment on Farrakhan, along with other controversies that cropped up over the year of the nascent organization’s existence. “In regards to Minister Farrakhan, I think that is a distraction. People need to understand the significant contributions that these individuals have made to Black and Brown people,” Carmen Perez told us at the time. “There are no perfect leaders. We follow the legacy of Dr. King, which is Kingian non-violence. We say we have to attack the forces of evil, not the people doing evil. We never attack people.” She also said she hoped people would have compassion for the organizers as they are still learning.
“As a white person, I have to unlearn anti-Blackness, and they have to understand where they have biases. I’m here doing that work, and so are they,” added Sophie Ellman-Golan, the deputy head of communications for Women’s March in the same piece earlier this year. When accusations of anti-Semitism came up, Ellman-Golan, who is Jewish, said she had multiple conversations with members of the Women’s March team about anti-Semitism and those conversations are ongoing.
But it remains unclear if Mallory is hearing her. She posted a video of the crowd on Sunday to her Instagram, and was seen clapping during Farrakhan's shout-out of the Women's March event, in which he added: "women have not been treated right by any government on this Earth."
“There is a persistent unwillingness to acknowledge that two of the organizers of the @womensmarch are groupies of Louis Farrakhan, whose anti-Semitism and homophobia rival Richard Spencer's,” wrote Yair Rosenberg of Tablet magazine, earlier this week.
“I wish my friend @Yair_Rosenberg was wrong about this. Actually he's 100% right,” added Jonathan Greenblatt, CEO of the ADL, in a retweet. “This reminds us that neither side of the spectrum is exempt from promoting or whitewashing hate.”
In response, Mallory published a string of tweets defending her record as an activist, but she stopped short of denouncing anti-Semitism or Farrakhan’s remarks. She also tweeted what some viewed as an “anti-Semitic dog whistle.”
Refinery29 sent requests for comment on Thursday, to both Cassady Fendlay, communications strategist for the Women’s March as well as Ellman-Golan, but has yet to hear back from anyone in the organization. (Ellman-Golan wrote a Twitter thread herself about anti-Semitism on the left this week, but she stopped short of referencing Farrakhan, Mallory, or the controversy directly.) We also reached out for comment from past partners of the Women’s March — Emily’s List, Planned Parenthood, NRDC Action Fund, the ACLU, and GLAAD — and did not receive responses by press time.
“I think people have to ask Minister Farrakhan about his views. I’m not responsible for Minister Farrakhan, nor am I a spokesperson for him,” Mallory said in an interview with CPAC TV, a Canadian politics cable station, on February 18, ahead of a speech she made at a convention for Canadian progressive groups. “What I do know is that I’ve worked with Minister Farrakhan for many years to address some of the ills in the black community, where we’ve transformed lives… In those areas we have been able to work together. As it relates to some of the statements he has made and some of his personal views, people have to ask him about that.”
Noted activist and writer Shaun King, Democratic strategist Symone Sanders, and fellow co-chairs Bob Bland and Linda Sarsour have also come to Mallory’s defense, but the outrage continues to escalate as the silence surrounding the horrific anti-Semitism of Farrakhan’s remarks becomes deafening.
Sarsour, who has also faced claims of anti-Semitism which she has denied, skirted the issue by tweeting “PSA: Don’t hold people to standards you refuse to hold yourself to.” Perez doesn't appear to have made any public comment.
Bland followed up her support of Mallory and Sarsour with a request: “If only folks would talk TO them instead of ABOUT them, they would learn so much,” on Twitter. When followers replied asking how they might reach them or expressing disgust with Farrakhan’s anti-Semitism, Bland replied with various defenses of their views against homophobia and racism. Though she referred to conversations she’s had with “Zionists,” Bland did not address the concerns of anti-Semitism.