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The Women’s March Doesn’t Get to Decide Who the ‘White Jews’ Are

Singling out ‘white Jews’ isn’t progress, it’s just more of the same prejudice and exclusion from the Women’s March

Lizzie Skurnick
January 17, 2019
Lizzie Skurnick
The Skurnick FamilyLizzie Skurnick
Lizzie Skurnick
The Skurnick FamilyLizzie Skurnick

Growing up a mixed-race Jewish girl in 1980s New Jersey, I know I would have found the newly announced Jewish board members of the Women’s March—scholar Yavilah McCoy, a black Orthodox Jew from a convert family; April Baskin, an ambassador for multiracial Jews; and transgender activist raised Hasidic Jew Abby Stein—a thrilling validation.

It surely would have been for my mother, the only black mom at my shul and a lapsed Catholic who dutifully made hand-grated latkes from her mother-in-law’s recipe while Jewish moms shamelessly brought in Ore-Ida. It would have been, I hope, to our temple’s music director, who could only come out by dying of AIDS. And, as the girl who couldn’t find a salon to style my frizzy, intolerably multiracial hair for my bat mitzvah, I would have known I wasn’t alone.

But when I got the email announcing the three leaders, I couldn’t enjoy the moment at all. Despite calls for unity, even leaning into the chaos, all I see is another dig by the Women’s March at those pesky Jewish feminists who happen to be white.

For those who haven’t been following, three of the public faces of the Women’s March—organizers Linda Sarsour, Tamika Mallory, and Carmen Perez—have had close ties to the Nation of Islam, and its nutty, virulently anti-Semitic leader Louis Farrakhan. But the animus of the leaders, it turns out, is not only for Jews, but, in particular, white Jewish women. (Bob Bland, a white woman who is not Jewish, has long been a public face of the March.) As a recent Tablet article detailed, this was not a coincidence.

At the first planning meeting, Mallory and Perez assailed another organizer, Vanessa Wruble, with the debunked myths Farrakhan peddles about America’s white Jews being responsible for slavery and holding all the wealth. Since then, Mallory has denied the incident, but refused to disavow the Nation of Islam leader, even going so far to suggest that white Jews—that’s her construction, not mine—“uphold white supremacy.” I never thought anyone could make me long for the kind of anti-Semite who just wants to talk about Israel.

Look at the appointment of McCoy, Baskin, and Stein, and it at first seems like a deft political move. Comment on white Jewish women’s absence from the line-up, and the Women’s March can respond, Why? Are you saying these aren’t real Jews? You white women were racist after all.

But it’s not really that deft, because it’s white Jewish women Mallory, Sarsour, and Perez have been assailing, without cause, all along—wielding that noxious designation, the “white Jew.”

First of all, “white Jew” is a nonsense term. It’s certainly not how Jews think of themselves, or each other. This is not to say we don’t have a long and active practice of enforcing our own ethnic hierarchies and declaring who is or is not a Jew. German Jews who came to New York in the 1800s scorned the next waves of immigrant Eastern European Jews of the shtetl who came to the Lower East Side. Israelis claimed Ethiopian Jews were not really Jewish. People without Jewish mothers are not Jews; people who eat pork are not Jews; Jews who only go to services on the High Holy Days are not Jews. My mother is black, I don’t believe in God, and we had a Christmas tree. Look: I just disqualified myself to half of the chosen people.

But “white Jew” has found a foothold, I think, in my generation because it’s Jews who don’t look what we like to think of as “Jewish” who have suffered the most. Hollywood has a vision of what a Jewish woman looks like, and she’s somewhere between Golda Meir and Barbra Streisand. (Don’t get me wrong, the real stars hid that they were Jewish.) Because our generation is proudly multiracial and LGBTQ, when we are rejected, it’s along those lines.

And that means we have been tokenized, fetishized, challenged, excluded. Angela Warnick Buchdahl, the first Korean-American rabbi at New York’s Central Synagogue, has spoken eloquently on practicing Judaism while looking Korean. When, after a Birthright trip to Israel, a teacher told her he only taught Torah to Jews, she almost decided to leave the faith entirely. “I don’t have a Jewish face, I don’t have a Jewish name,” she told her mother. “I could just disappear as a Jew and no one would know the difference.” “Is that even possible?” Her mother asked.

The message? We Jews are family. And, like all families, we can torment each other however we want. But Mallory, Sarsour, and Perez, and Women’s March Inc. are not Jewish—and I’m pretty sure they didn’t agonize about the struggles of multiracial, multiethnic, LGBTQ Jews before last month.

By leaving out white Jewish women, the Women’s March is suggesting that, to be a full fledged member of their movement, you have to possess some other virtue that makes your progressive creds legit. This is a profound insult to the new board members, who deserve more than to be props in some hasty stab at intersectionality. And it’s an insult to white Jewish women, who should never have been singled out in the first place.

For the organizers, these new board members might function as a gentle corrective: Jewish women finally worthy of the feminist, progressive stamp. But note to the Women’s March: You don’t get to say who’s a feminist. And we certainly don’t need you to tell us who’s a Jew.

Lizzie Skurnick, the editor-in-chief of Lizzie Skurnick Books, writes the New York Times Magazine‘s “That Should Be a Word” column, and is a frequent contributor to NPR’s All Things Considered.