By Guila Franklin Siegel
“I’m tired of our movements not taking anti-Semitism seriously. … It is taking a toll on me and on all Jewish people on the left. We are tired and heartbroken.”
So tweeted Sophie Ellman-Golan, the highest-ranking Jewish woman among the leadership of the Women’s March movement, in response to her colleague Tamika Mallory attending a Nation of Islam rally and cheering on Rev. Louis Farrakhan as he spewed forth the kind of anti-Semitic rhetoric for which he is notorious.
I am one of those Jews that Ellman-Golan references. But make no mistake, I am not tired or heartbroken. I am angry.
I am angry at the apparent double standard on the left when it comes to appeasing blatant bigotry. To date, responses among many Jewish progressives have ranged from deafening silence to angst-ridden, qualified expressions of dismay. Activist Jews must stop hedging, equivocating and lamenting. Rather, we must stand up for ourselves and our people.
We would not expect African-Americans to apologize for having a “zero-tolerance” policy toward public figures who champion racist beliefs. Jews understand that the pernicious legacy of slavery and Jim Crow lives on in current attitudes, policies and actions, and that telling blacks to shed the heavy, piercing baggage of their history is both an insult and a folly. The United States is still a land where merely “driving while black” can lead to calamity, and where racial disparities in economic, educational and health care status remain appalling. It is this unacceptable status quo that compels many American Jewish organizations, including the Jewish Community Relations Council of Greater Washington, where I serve as associate director, to continue to prioritize advocacy and community education on issues such as criminal justice reform, strengthened hate crimes laws and racial justice writ large.
Jews must demand the same respect for our people’s journey and narrative that we give to others, whether in our tweets, Facebook postings and other public comments, or in the context of the ongoing, invaluable, behind-the-scenes relationship building in which Jewish leaders and progressive coalition partners are engaged. Less than a century after the liberation of Auschwitz, the horrific, searing reality of the Holocaust continues to reverberate for most Jews. It influences how we raise our children, where we live, the schools we attend and the causes we champion on behalf of other persecuted minorities. Polls consistently show that the Holocaust is the most unifying common identity marker among American Jews.
Yes, Jews have experienced success and privilege in the United States that is unparalleled in our history. But that privilege has its limits. In my work, I have learned to hold two conflicting truths in my heart and mind: American Jews enjoy the luxury of openly living vibrant, meaningful Jewish lives, and also of advocating from a position of comfort and security for justice, compassion and equality for all people. At the same time, anti-Semitism is the stubborn, pernicious weed that can be relied upon to intermittently sprout with surprising hardiness, even in America, as it has disturbingly done over the last two years.
Perhaps my acceptance of that dissonance spares me the heartbreak currently being experienced by many Jewish progressives. In my Jewishly grounded feminist and social change work over the last 20 years, I have advocated for and partnered with women as diverse as young, fervently Orthodox Israelis seeking financial self-sufficiency for their families to low-income Latina mothers in Northern Virginia learning the basics of self-organizing and grassroots activism. Inasmuch as I devote my heart and soul to championing the rights of all who are disadvantaged and disenfranchised, I also hold the history of my own people front and center, without apology or remorse. I try to maintain a clear-eyed perspective about the ubiquitous nature of anti-Semitism, without becoming overly defensive or parochial or giving up on the task of healing of our broken world for the benefit of all.
At a time like this, maintaining that equilibrium is a challenge. Women’s March leaders stated that building an intersectional movement is “difficult and often painful,” and that their “external silence” is because they have been engrossed in internal discussions. But rejecting Mallory’s actions and statements should have been an easy lift for women leading an intersectional social justice movement, if that movement was truly inclusive. As we at the JCRC have emphasized time and again, there is simply no excuse for silence in the face of the growing normalization of anti-Semitism across the political landscape.
This is not the time for fatigue or disillusionment. It is a moment to raise our voices with clarity and conviction, whether we do so publicly or in private conversations with coalition partners. Jewish feminists have nothing to apologize for, and everything to fight for. We must speak up in honor of our foremothers who endured inquisitions, pogroms and genocide, and whose daughters were at the forefront of so many important social and political movements in our nation’s history. We must confront the scourge of anti-Semitism even, and especially, when it manifests in the spaces we most cherish, among people we thought we knew and could trust. For in standing our ground with authenticity and courage, we are not only speaking up for ourselves and our own people — we are protecting the integrity of the Women’s March movement from irreparable harm.
Guila Franklin Siegel is the associate director of the Jewish Community Relations Council of Greater Washington.