The NYC Women’s March Careens Into a Debate About Zionism

The Women’s March Alliance and Zioness co-hosted an event last Thursday.

Toby Irving
January 22, 2019
Congresswoman Carolyn B. Maloney, Manhattan Borough President Gale A. Brewer, and NYC Council Member Ben Kallos marching with Zioness signs at the uptown Women’s March on Saturday. Photo: Zioness via Facebook

ON THE THURSDAY EVENING before the third women’s march, the Stephen Wise Free Synagogue hosted a “teach-in” led by Zioness, a group attempting to open a space on the left for those who identify both as liberals and as Zionists. There were roughly 100 people in the sanctuary, mostly women, ranging from teenagers to baby boomers. A large panel was gathered to promote the Women’s March being held on the Upper West Side and hosted by the Women’s March Alliance (WMA), unaffiliated with the national Women’s March organization. Speakers on the nine-person panel jumped between the Equal Rights Amendment (a focus of Rep. Carolyn Maloney, who gave the opening speech), to the legitimacy of intersectionality, to the BDS movement. The panel included two female rabbis, one city council member (with potential mayoral aspirations), representatives from A Wider Bridge and the Anti-Defamation League, and two representatives of the Women’s March Alliance.

Though scarcely mentioned by members of the panel, the event was clearly staged as a response to a number of overlapping controversies regarding the Women’s March movement and its leadership, who have been accused of of antisemitism. Tamika Mallory, a black gun control activist who previously worked for Al Sharpton’s National Action Network, has struggled to explain her relationship with Louis Farrakhan, leader of the Nation of Islam, known primarily by non-black Americans for his antisemitism and homophobia. Another Women’s March leader, Linda Sarsour, a Palestinian-American community organizer from Brooklyn, has been persona non grata in the mainstream Jewish community for years, mostly due to smear campaigns related to her work in the Palestinian liberation movement.

And yet, when asked by Jewish Currents, Katherine Siemionko of the Women’s March Alliance (whose website proudly declares its 100% independence from the national Women’s March), did not identify antisemitism as a motivation for holding a separate march. Instead, she described a broader struggle between local and national leadership, details of which were reported by Tablet last month. Siemionko, whose group also planned the New York City marches in 2017 and 2018, noted that the WMA filed for a permit for the 2019 march immediately following the 2018 march. In the summer of 2018, she caught wind of the national organization (officially, Women’s March, Inc.) claiming it would be organizing the New York City march. Siemionko described a series of phone calls with Sarsour in the fall, in which Sarsour requested that the national organization be listed on the event permits and for national leadership to be represented on the WMA board. When they failed to reconcile differences, the national organization ultimately filed for its own rally permits. Siemionko expressed bafflement that the national leadership would go so far as to establish what she refers to as a “counter-march.” For their part, national organizers’ have said that their intentions were to make the local event “more inclusive to the city’s immigrant and minority communities.” They brought in the New York Immigration Coalition to co-host the additional rally being planned for Foley Square, a group which was initially interested in merging with the local WMA. In the end, the national-local organizational divide, which is not unique to New York City, could not be allayed, with both marches occurring simultaneously this past Saturday.

While the origins of the divide between the national Women’s March and the WMA in New York did not involve antisemitism, the controversy and WMA’s subsequent alignment with Zioness, the Anti-Defamation League, and the Stephen Wise Free Synagogue, provided an opportunity for the Women’s March Alliance to position themselves against Women’s March, Inc. as the truly inclusive grassroots march. As reported by The New York Times and echoed at the Thursday night teach-in, in choosing an Upper West Side location, the Women’s March Alliance prioritized the accessibility of a Saturday march to observant Jews living in the area. This event was thus presented as an opportunity for the organizers to express appreciation for a marginalized group within the women’s movement with public tension with the national organizers. Siemionko, in her introductory statement, choked up while expressing over-the-top admiration for the Jewish community (a sentiment echoed by other non-Jewish members of the panel), saying “I’ve never known Jews to quit. You are an incredibly strong, community-oriented people.”

But what about Zioness? Amanda Berman, the founder and president of Zioness whose political career includes 10 years running former Pennsylvania Governor Ed Rendell’s Office of Citizen Service, and membership on the youth leadership board of Friends of the Israeli Defense Force, moderated the panel. Berman introduced Zioness as “a new movement that is working to empower and activate the vast majority of American Jews who are deeply committed both to our progressive values and our Zionist identities. We are standing up to the suggestion that somehow Zionism is divorceable from what it means to be a Jew. It is not.” Echoing disturbing political trends which have culminated recently in a wave of proposed anti-BDS legislation in the name of fighting antisemitism, Berman and the panelists continued throughout the evening to actively conflate Jewish identity with Zionism. While they were clear that they believed one could be Zionist and still criticize the Israeli government, their remarks rested on the assumption that to challenge Zionism itself is an act of antisemitism.

Zioness was founded around the time that Sarsour criticized those who claim to be feminist and do not “stand up for the rights of all women, including Palestinians.” The organization has links to further right activists: As reported by The Forward, Berman and the organization have close ties to Brooke Goldstein, a vocal right-wing, pro-Israel voice dismissive of Palestinian identity and progressivism writ large. Rabbi Jill Jacobs, Executive Director of T’ruah, described Zioness’s attempts to enter progressive organizing with ultimately pro-occupation political views, as “cheapen[ing] the Jewish presence,” and endangering alliances built by Jewish anti-racist organizers.

The emergent left and its Jewish contingents are increasingly comfortable going beyond mere political disagreement with the Israeli government and army, as evidenced by growing support for BDS by members of Congress and the growth of groups such as IfNotNow and Jewish Voice for Peace. The members of Zioness and the Jewish (and non-Jewish) panelists strongly identify as liberals, with Tyler Gregory of A Wider Bridge at one point distinguishing the panelists from social democrats, who are often aligned with the BDS movement. Berman was consistent in her support for immigrant and refugee rights and anti-racism efforts, and she identified antisemitism as “the central organizing principle of white supremacy.” But the panel clashed when they came to the topic of intersectionality, which some liberal and conservative critics have charged excludes Jews. After one panelist, Melanie Robbins of the ADL, offered a fairly specific definition of the term (though notably leaving out its origins in Black feminist theory), another, Rabbi Robyn Frier Bodzin, dismissed it entirely as primarily divisive in its usage and “contrary to Jewish thought.”

For an intersectional movement to have no room for Jewish identity is lunacy. But that lunacy only becomes a potential reality if, in fact, Zionism is made inseparable from Judaism. To argue this point, Berman cited the sh’ma, an important Jewish prayer, claiming that its beginning words “Hear O, Israel” are evidence of Zionism’s centrality for Jews (and not merely a usage of the biblical name for the Jewish people).This example produced a few giggles in the room, but the assertion that Zionism is nearly universally felt by American Jews as an existential facet of their identity went unchallenged by panelists or in the handful of audience questions handed to the front on notecards.

The confidence in such a consensus and the simple acceptance of Zionism as part of Jewish identity was striking, especially in contrast with conversations happening in other corners of the Jewish community, including among other liberal Zionists. Peter Beinart, often seen as the lone voice for what’s left of American liberal Zionism, openly struggles with what it, and the Israeli government’s actions, mean for his Judaism. On The Breakfast Club last week, Tamika Mallory adeptly explained how antisemitism and anti-black racism work in concert within white supremacy. But on Thursday night, the crowd laughed off the suggestion that maybe Mallory has learned from progressive Jewish organizations like Bend the Arc and the National Council of Jewish Women. Though others on the left are openly wrestling with questions of Zionism, white supremacy, and antisemitism, Berman and her panelists’ political positioning rely on the simple fallacy of Zionist ideology as identity.

Earlier on Thursday, before the event at Stephen Wise, New York’s Rebecca Traister published her own big-picture take on the Women’s March controversies. She comes to one conclusion: march anyway; the leaders are not the story here. She credits the symbolic and real importance of the women of color who came to leadership nationally, and the injustice and racism inherent in what is being asked of them. And she also says that “it is the work of the masses of women—not the individuals who played a valuable role in making space for them to gather in 2017—that is reshaping this country.” Traister accurately forecasted the reporting on the dwindling numbers of marchers compared to last year. But while the media narrative of the Women’s March’s struggles (if measured in New York Times alerts) has put antisemitism at the core of the divisions within the women’s movement, it has obscured both a deep struggle to achieve just distribution of leadership in one of the most visible progressive movements, as well as important debates about Zionism in the Jewish community. Neither of these challenges are new, and both engage with questions of inclusivity and power. Zioness saw its opening to express clear alignment with an inarguably progressive movement while in clear opposition to Sarsour, Mallory, and their allies. It is unclear if the Women’s March Alliance, in its fight with the national organization, knows just how far it has waded into a century-and-a-half’s worth of debate over Jewish national identity.

Correction: A previous version of this article misstated Linda Sarsour’s position on Zionism; she did not say that Zionists cannot be feminists, but that one cannot be a feminist and oppose justice for Palestinian women.

Toby Irving is a PhD Student in Political Science at the CUNY Graduate Center.