Last week, current Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan—a well-known anti-Semite—gave a speech where he said “the powerful Jews are my enemy” and that he had “pulled the cover off of that Satanic Jew and I'm here to say your time is up, your world is through.” Other previous Farrakhan highlights include saying the Jews were behind 9/11 and calling Adolf Hitler a “very great man.”
That alone is a story. But it doesn’t end there.
Soon after the speech, news broke that Women’s March leader Tamika Mallory was in attendance; she even received a shout out from Farrakhan during his address and posted about the event on social media. Meanwhile, Women’s March leader Linda Sarsour has collaborated with the Nation of Islam in the past, and Carmen Perez defended Farrakhan in the past, telling Amelia Harnish in January that there are “no perfect leaders” and that people need to understand Farrakhan’s contributions to Black and Brown circles.
Understandably, the Jewish community — particularly people who have supported the Women’s March and other social justice causes — wanted answers. We also wanted something that most thought would be pretty simple for a bunch of women who spend their days parading around their intersectionality: We wanted them to denounce anti-Semitism and the words Farrakhan said against Jews. This isn’t a new thing; after all, we ask public figures to denounce awful people and hate speech all the time.
To say we didn’t get that is an understatement. Instead, we got Tamika Mallory posting a bizarre series of tweets calling valid criticisms “bullying” and refusing to apologise for her support of Farrakhan and her lack of denouncement regarding his words. Linda Sarsour suddenly decided that she was very cool with silence and just retweeted one of Mallory’s tweets, as did Bob Bland. Carmen Perez took it one step further, quote-tweeting Mallory and saying something about the national organisers’ “lifetime commitment to liberation.” Missing from that? A condemnation of Farrakhan.
At this point, here’s what I’ve got to say to all of them: You’ve got to be fucking kidding me.
The past several years — since, quite frankly, the start of Trump’s campaign for president — have been particularly difficult for lots of people. Guess what? That includes Jews. Neo-Nazis chanted “Jew will not replace us” in Charlottesville. Jewish cemeteries were desecrated. Hundreds of Jewish schools and organisations received bomb threats. In fact, within the same 48 hours that Farrakhan gave his anti-Semitic speech, the Anti-Defamation League reported that anti-Semitic acts in the U.S. spiked 57% in 2017 over the previous year.
And as awful and traumatizing as these moments are, what’s also bad is watching people be more than happy to erase anti-Semitism from these narratives. I wrote about this erasure during Charlottesville back in August, and more recently, we’ve seen a co-optation of the well-known Holocaust term “never again” being used to memorialise the Parkland shooting victims. I’ve been very vocal about my support and love for what the Marjory Stoneman Douglas teenagers are doing, and I don’t blame them at all for the oversight; if this phrase was going to be used for anything, I’m glad it’s going to something as meaningful as ending gun violence in this country. Still, it’s very uncomfortable to watch a term you’ve used to talk about your family and people’s own heritage and history be taken away overnight. This also doesn’t even begin to describe the erasure of Jews of colour from practically every American narrative; as Diane Alston noted, there are Black Jews who are more directly impacted by Farrakhan’s words, not to mention Black members of the LGBTQ community and other groups who’ve been targeted by the Nation of Islam leader in the past. What do the Women’s March leaders say to them?
In 21st century America, anti-Semitism doesn’t necessarily manifest itself the same way other oppressions and marginalisations do. But there’s an underlying pain in knowing that when it comes to social justice, you’re essentially told you’re on the bottom of the totem pole, and leaders of many so-called “progressive” movements want it that way; to them, you’re completely negotiable, and no amount of conversation changes that. The oppression that your ancestors and the people around you have suffered is seen as just some point in a history textbook. Despite all the talk about intersectionality, many of these people think it’s perfectly acceptable to leave out Judaism, often for reasons that have nothing to do with faith itself or the reasons why Jews have been brutalised for centuries. The Women’s March leaders aren’t special; they’re just the latest group of people to reveal themselves. And in this case, they’re not even trying to pay us lip service.
But here’s what gets me about these women in particular: Demanding other people examine the issues that are most uncomfortable to them while not doing it yourself is disgustingly hypocritical. And as I tweeted on Saturday, just because you’re intersectional and educated on certain issues and doing great work in those spaces doesn’t mean you’re intersectional and educated on all issues. We can all always do better.
For the past several days, I’ve ruminated on a bigger question facing Jews: Where does that leave us? The Women’s March leaders have spent the past 16 months making this big deal about not staying silent and not being complicit. So using their own logic, I don’t think they’ll mind if I take their silence and very deliberate lack of straight-up condemnation as a sign of complicity. What they’re doing is anti-Semitic, and I don’t have to have to look to these women for guidance on every social justice issue. Neither do you. They aren’t my leaders. They didn’t create activism or intersectionality—in fact, these are values with strong roots in most Jewish circles. And the continued commitment to creating a better world will outlast the relevance of any one group or its leaders.
And you know what? Perhaps it’s time to question why we’re continuing to let these Women’s March leaders and their associates try to dictate the conversation anyway. One of the key lessons of this era is that the symbols of yesterday don’t need to be the symbols of today or tomorrow. At the end of her piece on evolving protest fashion, Connie Wang wrote, “Pussyhats were enough when fear and grief paralysed us. The day before the march, a pussyhat gave me back my voice and my body. With those back in my possession, I don’t need a hat to keep moving forward.”
The same goes for movements. On 9th November 2016, we needed these women leading the Women’s March and organising the community that was beginning to form. We needed them to articulate what we were fighting for, even if we didn’t necessarily agree with every one of those guiding principles. We needed to know we weren’t alone. We needed our rage and sadness and fear to be seen and heard and legitimised. We needed to educate ourselves and mobilise and do better.
Well, it’s March 2018. People are finally educating themselves. They know they’re not alone. They — especially women — are mobilised. They’re working on doing better. And yeah, people aren’t perfect and leaders aren’t perfect; I’ll give Carmen Perez that. But now, in part because of the work the Women’s March leaders (and, um, lots of other people who also happen to not be anti-Semitic) did, we each have our own guiding principles now. We don’t need a group to tell us how to feel or gaslight us so that we fall in line when there’s obvious injustice and blatant hypocrisy. The march was never about these four women to begin with.
We don’t need the national organisers of Women’s March. What we need is for women—and everyone, for that matter—to march toward a better tomorrow with us. And regardless of what the Women’s March leaders say (and don’t say) about us, I hope folks who are marginalised in this country know this: I, and so many other Jews, will always march with you, too.
Lily Herman is a contributing editor at Refinery29. Follow her on Twitter. The views expressed are her own.