If you’ve been following the controversies surrounding the Women’s March, then you know there has been a lot going on. Back in October, during B’nai B’rith’s 175th Anniversary Leadership Forum, we held a panel discussion on the topic of “The Crisis of Zionism in Progressive Spaces.” It was a lively discussion on the issues facing Zionists in the American progressive community between B’nai B’rith International CEO Daniel S. Mariaschin, leading Democratic Party strategist Ann Lewis, President and CEO of Zioness Amanda Berman and journalist Emily Shire. The talk brought to light much of what is being discussed in the news today re: anti-Semitism disguised as anti-Zionism, the fact that the Israel is more and more becoming a partisan issue in American politics, and the fact that Zionists do not feel welcome, and in many cases are actually denied participation with, coalitions on issues of social justice.
In a nutshell: in January 2017, women across the United States joined in marches in solidarity for women’s rights, LGBTQ rights, gun control, rights for all minorities and marginalized peoples, etc. The national Women’s March on Washington took place in Washington, D.C., and was organized by a few co-chairs. For many, it was a monumental moment in American history, where women felt they had something to say and demanded to be heard. Unfortunately, in the weeks to follow it became evident that one of the leaders of the march, Linda Sarsour, was a virulent anti-Zionist (which many of us agree is anti-Semitism). Sarsour tweeted things like “Zionism is creepy” and recently accused Jewish lawmakers of the age old dual loyalties canard. What were Jewish Zionist women to feel about joining in a march organized by someone with her views? Recently, after one of the organizers, Tamika Mallory, attended an event hosted by notorious anti-Semite Louis Farrakhan and called him ‘the greatest of all time’ on social media, the original founder of the Women’s March Teresa Shook, finally, publicly demanded that the organization’s four co-chairs, Linda Sarsour, Carmen Perez, Tamika Mallory and Bob Bland, step down for allowing “anti-Semitism, anti-LBGTQIA sentiment and hateful, racist rhetoric” to become part of the organization’s platform.
After this hit the news (though, for most of us, their hate was not news), more and more groups—Jewish and not have decided enough is finally enough and dissociated themselves from the national march in D.C. that will be happening on January 19. Many groups have instead organized separate marches because they will not allow a few hateful people to determine their civil liberties. Amanda Berman, President and CEO of Zioness, a movement that was founded in the wake of the anti-Zionism happening throughout the progressive movement, proudly attended the past National Women’s Marches in D.C. and mobilized other Zioness activists to march in their local cities. They march precisely to say—we will not sit home quietly, because Jews have always been at the forefront of these issues and Linda Sarsour does not get to decide who will march for justice and equality and who will not. Berman has stated, “The American progressive movement has been devolving into a safe haven for radical anti-Semitism, couched as anti-Zionism and framed in the language of social justice. The movement exploits sympathetic, compassionate, and often young Americans -– many of whom are themselves Jews – teaching them that those who support a Jewish homeland, Jewish self-determination and Jewish-liberation are in fact oppressors, murderers and even Nazis.” Berman made clear at our panel discussion in October that it is all the more important to show up at the march as a proud Zionist than it is to not attend. Critics have said going to the national march actually legitimizes the D.C. chairs and therefore as Jews and proud Zionists, we should not attend. In light of the overwhelming hateful rhetoric coming from the D.C. organizers, and after so many sister marches canceled events alongside the national march—Zioness decided this past week that they too will no longer march with the co-chairs in D.C. but will mobilize in every other city across the U.S. with a Zioness chapter.
All of this really brings to light a few critical issues: when is enough considered enough? On an individual and collective level—what is the threshold to decide to walk away from the national march?— Should it have been right after we found out who Linda Sarsour really was? Were we able to reconcile attending if she was the only organizer who used hateful rhetoric? Did it matter enough when Mallory refused to denounce Farrakhan? Or only when all four chairs were publicly asked to resign? Was it when the New York Times reported Tablet Magazine’s investigation that—allegedly—during the inception of the Women’s March in the very first meetings, it was asserted that Jewish people bore a special collective responsibility as exploiters of brown and black people?
At what point did their hate cross the threshold for what individuals and the Jewish community as a whole would stand for? It is an important point to examine. What are we willing to ignore, accept or denounce?
So, what does this all mean? I believe the Women’s March issues are representative of larger problems going on in American politics and society, and as staunch Israel advocates, we must acknowledge these issues going on or else they may get worse. Yes, there is anti-Semitism at the top levels of the D.C. Women’s March, just as we saw it overtly (written into the charter) of the Black Lives Matter platform. These facts have become emblematic of how far reaching anti-Semitism and anti-Zionism have become in the progressive movement.
How close is the progressive movement to legitimizing anti-Zionism? I would argue quite close. Since when did being a progressive go hand in hand with criticizing the State of Israel or downright rejecting its existence? Could it be that one day the mainstream American center left no longer supports aid to Israel, or a two-state solution?
These issues used to be a problem for our college kids fresh on campus encountering the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement (BDS) and mock IDF/Palestinian “massacres,” but these problems are now seeping into the mainstream political left in this country. Since the establishment of the State of Israel, support for Israel was never a partisan issue in the United States. But more and more, we are witnessing a major shift in this support and a shift in acceptable language and norms; for example, the use of the word “occupation,” equivocating protestor and terrorist, etc. These controversial terms are becoming less controversial and more acceptable. It is becoming somewhat commonplace to hear someone like Bernie Sanders—with millions of people taking his word as gospel— to speak factually incorrectly on the Israeli/Palestinian conflict. And when the correction is made (facts show his claims are wrong), it is not publicized widely in the media.
But how many of his young followers listened to the wrong information and have now made assumptions that will permanently stay with them? For example, his protégé, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who is now a member of the House of Representatives, called the killing of Palestinian “protesters” (aka Hamas) by Israeli troops at the Gaza border, a “massacre.” AOC—as her fans call her— has become one of the most influential people amongst liberals today. Rashida Tlaib, the first Palestinian-American Muslim elected to Congress, who posed with Linda Sarsour holding a map with “Palestine” in place of Israel the day she was sworn into Congress. Further, Tlaib has said she supports the BDS movement, has called for cuts to U.S. military to Israel and accused American Jewish lawmakers of dual loyalties.
Sure, we can shrug these few people off as ignorant, misinformed, immature, whatever you want to call them—but they were elected to Congress and they have power and influence! As Israel advocates, we cannot allow for this type of behavior and rhetoric to become commonplace. Is it fair that one cannot support progressive issues while being a proud Zionist? You’re either with us on every issue including criticizing the State or Israel or you’re not? Isn’t this bordering on anti-Semitism?
The leaders of the Women’s March and the newly elected progressive congresswomen currently have a sort of rock-star fame, and they are majorly influential amongst millions of Americans who will be voting in the years to come. We must reckon with what is happening and challenge it or the future of the America/Israel alliance is at stake. If the controversies surrounding the Women’s March have taught us anything, it is that we cannot afford, for both future generations and this one, to let Israel become a partisan issue in American politics. Criticism of an Israeli policy is one thing, anti-Zionism is another. If we allow the latter to become an acceptable position of our elected officials or the organizers of a national march, we risk normalizing anti-Semitism in the United States in the 21st century.
Rebecca Rose is Associate Director of Young Leadership & Development at B’nai B’rith International. She holds an M.A. in Political Science in Security and Diplomacy from Tel Aviv University.
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