The Women’s March represents the new movement for social justice – and I’m proud to be marching with them

Rebecca Vilkomerson
Executive Director, Jewish Voice for Peace

Angela Davis, on finding out last week that her award from the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute was being rescinded because of her outspoken support for Palestinian rights, said, in part, that this is “not primarily an attack against me, but rather against the spirit of the indivisibility of justice.”

That phrase eloquently sums up the animating spirit of left and progressive politics in this moment. It is a time of political activation like none I’ve seen in my lifetime.  From striking teachers in LA, to abolishing ICE, to the green new deal, to street protests measured in the tens and hundreds of thousands – we are in the fight for our lives, and we all know it.

This era was largely set off by the first Women’s March the day after Trump’s inauguration in 2017.  And on January 19th this year, I’ll be proudly joining the Jewish contingent at Foley Square in New York at the rally affiliated with the national March.

One of the guiding principles of this time is not just the growth of each of these movements, but the ways we recognize that all these issues have a connective tissue that demands mutual support and mobilization: fairness, equality, dignity, and hope for the future. We’re also witnessing the dynamic leadership of people who have long been marginalized in every aspect of our society, particularly women of color.  From the Women’s March to the most recent class elected to Congress, leaders look different, sound different, and have different core constituencies than many white people are accustomed to – and that is an essential development.

Another feature of this moment is the visceral fears engendered by the Trump era of open white nationalism that is now directed at Jews – along with the Black, immigrant, indigenous and Muslim communities that have always been its target. Especially since Pittsburgh, Jewish lives and safety feel at risk.

That doesn’t, however, justify using accusations of antisemitism to shut down essential conversations both about Israel and about the varying degrees of power and privilege that white Jews in particular have in relation to other communities facing structural oppression.

As a result, we’re also seeing renewed rifts between mostly white Jewish progressives and leaders of color. The Jewish conversation about the links among  antisemitism, racism, power and positionality – and underneath it all, how these conversations relate to Israel – has boiled over in the last few weeks, after decades at a low simmer.

Even as the Women’s March has caused an open divide among progressive Jewish women, additional incidents have piled up: Marc Lamont HIll losing his job at CNN because he spoke out for one state in Israel/Palestine; Rashida Tlaib being accused of antisemitism because she called out Marco Rubio putting Israel’s needs in front of the U.S.’s when he introduced an anti-boycott bill in the Senate during the shutdown; and most recently, the civil rights award for Angela Davis rescinded because of her support for Palestinian rights and the BDS movement.

In each case, a dynamic, inspiring person of color who is in a position of influence, is being policed and shut down by egregious accusations of antisemitism by people who identify themselves as politically liberal.

Levi Eshkol, Prime Minister of Israel from 1963 to 1969 coined the phrase, in Yiddish, “Shimshon der nebechdiker,” or Samson the Weakling.  Samson, of course, was a famous biblical strong man. Eshkol used it to describe Israel in the 1960s and it still applies today: both basking in its strength and successes, while constantly also seeing itself as weak and vulnerable.

You could say that America’s Jews, at least those of us who are white, have a similar psychological profile. In the U.S., all doors are open to us–in housing, education, walking freely in the street without fear of police repression, access to jobs, etc.  But we still hold an image of ourselves as vulnerable victims, one that has now been reasonably reinforced by the events of the last two years.

Antisemitism cannot be tolerated in any movement for justice. But in this new era of multiracial movement building and strong leadership by people of color, the pain and oppression that many communities face needs equal understanding and attention with Jewish concerns. The sense of vulnerability that many of us are experiencing for the first time must be tempered with the reality that many of our siblings in other movements have to face every moment of every day of their lives. And we still need to be able to grapple honestly about the differing levels of risk that we face from ongoing structural oppression.

Jewish Voice for Peace has been going through our own racial justice transformation process, prompted by our Jews of Color Mizrahi and Sephardi Caucus. One of the things we are learning over and over, especially those of us in leadership positions who are white, is that we all have blind spots – things that we simply don’t see because of where we sit.  We need to open ourselves and train ourselves to look beyond what we see from our own perspective to what others are seeing and experiencing, in order to address structural change. Otherwise, we end up making demands of others that we don’t make of ourselves, and using our own fears functionally to maintain the status quo – where we have more power.

That is what is happening to  the Women’s March leadership. The outpouring of racism and Islamophobia toward Tamika Mallory and Linda Sarsour, all in service to the demand that they respond to antisemitism, which they have done repeatedly, illustrates these blind spots. All of us in our own communities have complicated relationships to navigate. The level of demand and vitriol directed at Women’s March leaders, for behavior that we tolerate among ourselves, should at the least give us pause. In fact, their vibrant committed leadership, not just to their own communities but to all of ours, should be celebrated.  

Jewish people have an opportunity to be part of building a vibrant, multiracial, powerful movement at a moment when it is needed more than I can ever remember. There’s a vital role for all of us – let’s not squander it.



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