Dear Tamika, Linda, Bob, and Carmen,
It’s a new year: a chance to move beyond the mistakes of the past and to build a new beginning. The Third Women’s March is just a few weeks away, and you’re likely working ‘round the clock to prepare. I have the date circled on my calendar, too—but I am not quite ready to put on my sneakers yet. I have seen both tremendous progress and heartbreaking callousness from you in 2018. Before we can move forward, I’d like to talk about where we’ve been and where I think we could go next in 2019.
I believe that if this movement breaks or if you four are forced out of its leadership, as some, including Teresa Shook, have called for, it will be catastrophic for American Jewish women, for the resistance, for progressives—for all Americans seeking justice and equity. The angry wounds of such a deep cut could set us back decades and all of the problems we need to fix will worsen as a result.
Instead, I want to see us become a model for dialogue. Let’s do what previous movement leaders couldn’t, and build a truly inclusive movement for all women from historically oppressed communities. As one of your most vocal critics, my fate is tied with yours now—and so I want you to succeed. As women who face white supremacy, my fate is tied with yours—and so I need you to succeed.
And this is how I believe you can do so.
2018 started off badly, at least for Jewish women hoping to hold the Women’s March accountable on Jewish issues. I had been pushing this movement to codify anti-Semitism, Jewish women, and our needs and our oppression and our pain since before the original March, in 2017. It was the first thing that made me uncomfortable in the pink hat, that made my sneakers feel tight and my skin crawl. It was the first ask I made of you.
There are people who are constantly trying to take our history from us. They try to erase our fear, our oppression, our genocide, our exile from our land. They try to say we aren’t even real, we aren’t even Jews—not the real Jews, not the biblical Jews. Some of these people are your friends. You have, at moments, been those people.
Members of your leadership attended the Nation of Islam’s Saviour’s Day, an event where Minister Farrakhan referred to Jews as satanic, claimed Jews control the government, and that marijuana peddled by Jews was a plot to “chemically program” black men to have gay sex. I would have walked out of any space that spoke about your people–any people—this way. In contrast, your leadership posted Instagram posts saying the minister “speaks the Truth” and was the “GOAT.” As criticism mounted, on March 1, Tamika Mallory wrote “If your leader does not have the same enemies as Jesus, they may not be THE leader!” then claimed not to understand the phrase was an anti-Semitic dog whistle, calling the interpretation “funny” and saying “ that’s your own stuff.”
In March, the Women’s March put out a strong statement denouncing Minister Farrakhan’s statements about Jewish, queer and trans people, but Tamika put out a contradictory op-ed, leaving me with activist whiplash. Tamika and Linda then demanded that Starbucks drop the Anti-Defamation League from anti-bias training, which Starbucks agreed to despite the ADL’s long history of anti-bias training.
Put yourself in my shoes: I was being asked to understand and have compassion for your close relationship with NOI, an actual hate group whose leader essentially claims that my people are conniving reptilian leeches sucking the life out of America, but a storied Jewish civil rights group is smeared as beyond the pale? I mean: My God. By the time you two attended the Justice Delegation trip to the West Bank, tensions were at an all time high, and only further deteriorated as WM leaders waded into one of the most sensitive and fraught conversations for the Jewish community.
On Oct. 26, 11 Jews were murdered in a hate crime against their synagogue. As the white nationalist threat had been building against us, I felt you had left us behind. You had forgotten us. You had helped marginalize and erase our voices from justice movements by denying our voice and denying us a proper place codified as an oppressed people. It’s not that I thought that we should focus on you in lieu of the white nationalists and the far-right threat—it’s that I felt your decision to allow anti-Semitism was making it stronger nationally. Indeed, Minister Farrakhan has drawn praise from white supremacists for his anti-Semitism.
After Pittsburgh, after years of asking for accountability and dialogue, Jewish women were finally, tragically being heard. We were heard by Alyssa Milano and Debra Messing, who pledged not to march as long as you maintained your relationship with Farrakhan. The next month, former Women’s March activists Teresa Shook, Vanessa Wruble, Evvie Harmon, and Mercy Morganfield all raised their voices with newly public allegations of anti-Semitism and financial mismanagement. Then, on Dec. 10, Tablet published a 10,000-word investigation into the Women’s March citing Shook, Morganfield, and a host of other voices, as well as a deep dive into your financial documents. Your response was to try to suppress the story. It seemed that any chance of reconciliation between Jewish women and the Women’s March was over. A bad end to a bad year of relationship-breaking between Women’s March and the Jewish community.
Then something important happened. You released your new Unity Principles and for the first time, they included Jewish women. When I heard the news, I stopped my Shabbat cooking, put my hands on the kitchen counter and cried. I cried big, heaving sobs. I was grateful to be alone, just me and my mashed potatoes, having a moment. Women like me were finally being heard. We were finally being seen.
Thank you. I need to take this moment and say THANK YOU. Thank you for finally accepting that excluding us from Unity Principles was wrong, and for correcting it. Thank you for giving me a moment of hope in these dark times that try our souls. Thank you for acknowledging that we, as progressives, as fighters for a more just world, need to codify the status of Jews as oppressed people—not just to support the Jews, but to deny white supremacists one of their most powerful weapons. As Eric Ward wrote, anti-Semitism animates white nationalism and is central to the movement, providing an archenemy and an organizing conspiracy theory. We cannot succeed if we allow the specter of the hooked-nose goblin or all-powerful octopus to be successfully used by the Richard Spencers and the Louis Farrakhans to divide us—especially as we have real threats from the Trump administration, who seamlessly uses anti-Semitic tropes to attack immigrants, including Latinx, Muslim and black immigrants, endangering all of us, as demonstrated by the Pittsburgh shooting. As President Trump engages in white supremacist conspiracy theories he strengthens and emboldens the white nationalists who endanger our lives.
I know there are people who say this is too little too late. That there is nothing left to save here, that we should devote our energies to pressuring your sponsors to drop you or pull out of the march altogether. I urge those reading who share that view to pause. I want to argue, as someone who has been one of the most vocal critics of these four women, that the situation is bigger than the Women’s March. We cannot allow anti-Semitism to continue unchecked among the progressive left. We must codify Jews as in need of protection because, quite frankly, if we leave this table we will be on the menu. The Women’s March has learned a hard lesson and I believe these four women can help us share the importance of enshrining Jewish Americans as an oppressed people, for the good of Jews, for the good of justice movements, for the good of all of who are threatened by white nationalism and white supremacy. The Women’s March can help us hold our allies on the left accountable.
In return, the American Jewish community must work to strengthen the movements for justice with which we have been historically and culturally aligned. I have spent two years refusing to be kicked out of justice movements as anti-Semitism rose within every political corner of this country. Imagine a world where the Women’s March is helping spread that message and helping ensure that never happens. If we fail at this task, we will raise a generation of American Jeremy Corbyns—people incapable of understanding what anti-Semitism is and why it matters, because they are blinded by ignorance and hate. We will be cast aside as the spoilers, those who re-elected Trump, those who are implacable and incapable of building. We will be Jill Stein. We cannot allow this.
That’s why we must express our gratitude, however it was earned, to Tamika, Bob, Linda, and Carmen for the small steps. Thank you, ladies, for taking this first step. Thank you for adding us to Unity Principals. To my progressive friends reading this: Know that a new standard is being set. We will not be quiet again. Thank you, Women’s March, for ushering in a new more inclusive definition of anti-oppression.
Movements for justice must band together to defeat President Trump, the first of many steps to addressing white nationalism and white supremacy in America. In order to do that, we must find a way to reconcile, heal rifts, and work together. I believe we can reconcile the Jewish American community and the Women’s March by implementing these three steps.
First, take accountability for your actions: I know you have faced endless criticism, some of it based on lies, some of it rooted in hatred, in racism, misogyny, Islamophobia, in outright cruelty. But my criticism is based in love of justice, and justice demands accountability.
The threat right now to your movement is not something that was done to you. It is a result of your own actions, your own biases, your own cruelty and hatred. People tried to warn you that a backlash was building. Vanessa Wruble herself told you so on her way out the door. I and others wrote, and wrote and wrote about it. Celebrities made statements. Your own chapter heads expressed their dismay, privately and publicly. You ignored us all.
I did not make you go to Saviour’s Day. I did not make you post on Instagram with a man that calls me a termite and my marriage a threat to black America. I did not make you attack the ADL and defame their anti-bias work. I did not make you say that feminism can’t include Zionism. I did not make you sit on a panel on anti-Semitism while Jewish leaders were asking you not to. I did not make you say that anti-Semitism is not a systemic hatred. I did not make you go to Israel and call the founding of our homeland, our self-determination, our biblical dream, a crime against humanity. I did not make you march with Louis Farrakhan. I did not make you write that your Jewish critics were enemies of Jesus. I did not make you write cruel Facebook posts that undercut your organizational message. Jewish women did not do this to you. The “right” did not do this to you, “The Jews” did not do this to you. You did this. You did all of this.
As your friend and organizational partner, Mysonne, wrote on Twitter in the wake of the recent New York Times article and the firestorm of attention and criticism it brought to bear on you: “Educate us, embrace us, build with us. don’t use our ignorance to take our power, it’s wrong!” I loved this sentiment, and still do, but its utter disconnection from the reality of the past two years was striking. Jewish women have been asking—no, begging—for you all to embrace us, for the chance to educate you about our history and pain. The notion that now, after your repeated refusals to take us seriously finally created a real threat to your leadership, you or those around you would turn around and make this somehow our fault, or our responsibility, is precisely the kind of argument you’d abhor if it had been made to any oppressed group. And this is part of why recognizing us as an oppressed group is such an enormous breakthrough—it will help you contextualize critiques and address them in movement-building ways.
Second, you must invite in new voices: Your voices are valuable, and powerful, and needed. But your voices are not every voice. I know it’s easier to amplify the concerns of Jewish women who don’t challenge you—whose ideas about Jewish identity, anti-Semitism, and Israel line up squarely with your own. But those who do not challenge us do not help us grow, especially in the fight for justice.
Reach out to those who have criticized you. Reach out to women who you KNOW will challenge you, especially on the topics that are hardest to address—especially Farrakhan and Israel. I am sure many synagogue sisterhoods, JCCs, Hillels and other Jewish communal spaces would welcome the chance to talk to you. Listen to the bubbe who brings babka, the refugee from Ukraine who fled with nothing, the black Jew who challenges anti-blackness in Jewish spaces, the Mizrahi Jew who cries, recounting losing her home in Iraq, and the LGBTQ Jew whose family embraced her queerness but not her intermarriage. We are so much more than you know us to be. Come meet us. Some of the people you meet will inspire you, change you, and become the new leaders you need to help rebuild. Others you will never see again. But their words—and their experiences—should stay with you, and should join the panoply of experiences of black, Latinx, Native American, queer, disabled, immigrant, and Muslim women that inform your ideas and your activism.
Third, you must rein in your first impulse to smear your critics: The Women’s March should have a code of conduct that instructs staff and volunteers on how to handle accusations of oppression and what the expectations are. It is unacceptable for Women’s March employees and grassroots leaders to be smearing those who critique the march for failing to be inclusive LGBTQ and Jewish women. Please, stop allowing your employees or colleagues to curse out Jewish activists on social media; stop letting your friends or colleagues smear critics as “right wing” or “neocons” or “fascists” for reporting fair stories or pointing out legitimate problems; stop releasing contradictory personal and organizational statements that leave us wondering who you really are and what you really think of us.
This recently escalated with Karen Fleshman’s deeply irresponsible piece claiming that critiques of the march stem from Russian interference. This is stratospherically dangerous rhetoric that harms both the Jewish community and broader resistance efforts for accountability from the Trump administration. Please don’t forget that the Pittsburgh shooter blamed Jews for bringing in foreign invaders. This kind of conspiracy theory can lead to targeting of American Jews and makes me fearful for our community, especially Jews who came to America as refugees from the former Soviet Union.
When I read this piece, I reached out to Karen. She and I were on the phone within 24 hours, and within 48 she had published a clarification and apology. Reach out to those who cause you pain. Don’t let your minions on Twitter or elsewhere fight your hardest battles or have your toughest conversations; they won’t do it nearly as well.
Leadership must demand accountability from friends and partners, especially during these fraught and unstable times. I know you face unfair, racist, Muslim-hating rhetoric—I see it in my mentions, where I see it as my responsibility to shut that shit down immediately. You have to do the same. We are all watching, and we can see what you do and don’t allow to be said in your name.
Indeed, and I know this is perhaps the hardest ask, I believe you must disassociate professionally from those who continue to engage in hate speech. I know some of these people do enormous good in your community, but they attack mine on a daily basis. I know you want to call out the hatred, not the person, and invoke Kingian nonviolence but it hurts to see you stand shoulder to shoulder with people who deny my humanity and my dignity. You aren’t making this ask of everyone, that we should all hold hands and walk with those who call us termites and satanic, only of queer women and Jewish Women. It feels disingenuous and wrong. The ask hurts us.
I know you disagree and believe there is some value in maintaining your connections to these bigots. But then the burden is on you to come up with a way to honor my humanity while linking arms with those who dehumanize me. Show me how you will demand accountability from friends like Louis Farrakhan and Bishop Swan, who seek to erase our history, blame us for the world’s ills and engage in white supremacist conspiracy theories while marching alongside them. If you believe you can engage with this visceral hate and hold it accountable, fine, but you owe it to those whom these men target to prove to us that you are doing this. I owe it to you to call out hate wherever I see it, wherever it lives in my world and my community; you owe it to me, too.
The good news is most of us want to reconcile and end this family feud, all of us wiser, more intersectional, more just than before. I have been infuriated and deeply depressed by seeing how xenophobia, racism, Islamophobia, and misogyny wave been utilized against you in the name of fighting anti-Semitism. It is clear my community also has work to do on the path toward inclusivity, equity, and justice. If we reconcile ourselves, I am sure you can help us on the path to truly living our Jewish values. But you will also have to listen to us. You will have to learn from us, as we learn from you. You will have to be humbled, as will we. It can be so vicious when sisters fight, but you know in the end you love each other. We could be like that together.
Carly Hope Pildis