Traditionally, the villains of the Chicago Slutwalk have been the city’s police officers, who organizers accuse of being part of the “institutional rape culture” and the misogyny driving it. This year, however, the march had a different focus: Israel and Palestine.
Which, coming just a few months after the expulsion of three Jewish women from the Chicago Dyke March—an event which sparked an international backlash and united left and right in condemnations of anti-Semitism—shouldn’t come as much of a surprise. About 300 people showed up Saturday at the downtown Chicago park that served as the rally point for the walk, among them a contingent of about a dozen individuals who were part of a movement called Zioness, whose signs depicted a woman dressed in a red t-shirt and proudly displaying the Magen David.
According to Zioness organizer Amanda Berman, who had flown in from New York specifically to attend Chicago Slutwalk, representatives of the movement were there in solidarity, not protest.
“This conversation has been going on for quite a long time I think between the whole Jewish progressive community,” Berman told Tablet. “It took a turn after the [Dyke] March and the messaging that Zionists can’t be feminists, progressives or activists in social justice causes. Zionists and Jews have always been on the forefront of social justice issues, and to be alienated and marginalized because of who we are is unacceptable, hurtful, and bad for the people that we all want to fight for.”
Fighting was on everyone’s mind: Before rally speakers stepped up, a Slutwalk organizer stepped up and told participants not to engage in “antagonism from anyone in this march or in this rally.”
And yet, tempers flared.
While a series of speakers addressed issues that included sex worker rights and solidarity with transgender women of color, a series of vitriolic pro-Palestine, anti-Israel speeches set the event’s tone. Among participants, too, a battle between signs was waged in the background: While the Zioness representatives were not expelled, every time they held up one of their placards, a group of Slutwalk participants raised red umbrellas—the international symbol of solidarity with sex workers—in order to cover them.
“I was holding up my sign, and two or three people at a time would walk in front of me and pushed my sign out of the way,” a Zioness participant named Judy said. “Whenever I moved my sign, they would follow me to block me. They didn’t say anything. They just assumed I was a hateful person who could not be a feminist because I am a Zionist.”
“They don’t want us to participate and it is unfortunate that we are being targeted because we are Jews,” Berman asserted. “I just asked someone, who said Jews were welcomed but Zionists were not, ‘what is a Zionist?’ She didn’t answer. I asked her why I was not welcome and she replied “I’m done engaging.’”
A more detailed explanation was provided by an invited Palestinian speaker named Leilah.
“You cannot be a Zionist and a feminist!” Leilah insisted to raucous agreement. “If you believe Zionism and feminism are compatible then you believe feminism has the room to accept the genocide, racism and displacement of indigenous people. Not today. Whether you like it or not, we refuse to allow feminism to be a safe space for any form of hate including Zionism.”
Slutwalker organizers responded by leading a prolonged chant of “free Palestine.”
It was an adequate summary of the organization’s inflammatory behavior in the months leading up to Saturday’s event. In late July, the Slutwalk released a statement of solidarity with the Dyke March Collective, asserting they would not allow “Zionist displays” at their event. Once again, international condemnation swiftly followed, and, in their own display of defiance, Jewish feminists made their intentions clear to show up at the Slutwalk waving whatever they chose.
Then, in an interview on July 25, the event’s organizer, Red S.—her preferred pseudonym—tried to deescalate an increasingly tense situation by asserting that the Slutwalk solidarity statement came from “a sense of urgency because of a lot of the backlash that [Dyke March] organizer’s we’ve worked with in the past, know and love were falling under.”
“I must emphasize that flags are not banned from Slutwalk,” she added. “What is banned is bigoted behavior or things that threaten other people or make them feel unsafe. We always have had some counter-protestors and we do what we can to distance ourselves from them and the things that they yell at us.”
Five days later, however, Red announced on her social media that she was “stepping down from organizing this year’s Chicago Slutwalk.” She would not comment to Tablet as to why.
A subsequent statement from the Slutwalk Collective quoted Palestinian activist Linda Sarsour “You either stand up for the rights of all women, including Palestinians, or none.” In a nutshell, women’s rights are human rights.”
Gretchen Rachel Hammond is an award-winning journalist and a full-time writer for Tablet Magazine.