Women’s March roiled by accusations of antisemitism
Within days of Donald J. Trump’s election, a diverse group of women united by their concern about the incoming administration gathered at a restaurant in New York to plan a protest march in Washington. They had seen the idea floating on Facebook and wanted to turn it into a reality.
The unity did not last long. Vanessa Wruble, a Brooklyn-based activist, said she told the group that her Jewish heritage inspired her to try to help repair the world. But she said the conversation took a turn when Tamika Mallory, a black gun control activist, and Carmen Perez, a Latina criminal justice reform activist, replied that Jews needed to confront their own role in racism.
The women who gathered that night would go on to organize one of the biggest protests in American history, remarkable not just for its size, but for its inclusive nature. The event on Jan. 21, 2017, inspired thousands of women who had never been involved in politics before to pour their energy into helping Democrats win elections this fall.
But the divisions apparent at that very first meeting continue to haunt the Women’s March organization, as charges of antisemitism are now roiling the movement and overshadowing plans for more marches next month.
Ms. Wruble was pushed out of the organization shortly after the march, and she now asserts that her Jewish identity played a role. She went on to help found an organization called March On, which supports local women activists.
The rift is now so dire that there will be two marches on the same day next month on the streets of New York: one led by the Women’s March group, which is billed as being led by women of color, and another by a group affiliated with March On that is stressing its denunciation of antisemitism.
Ms. Mallory, meanwhile, who is now co-president of the Women’s March group, has been criticized for attending an event by Louis Farrakhan, the leader of the Nation of Islam who has been widely reviled for making antisemitic remarks. Ms. Mallory has called Mr. Farrakhan “the GOAT,” or “greatest of all time,” on social media.
The accusations of antisemitism, which were outlined in an article this month in Tablet, an online Jewish magazine, have prompted some women to reconsider their support for the group.
Some Jewish women have announced on social media that they will not attend the mass protest in Washington on Jan. 19 being organized by the Women’s March group. Last month, Teresa Shook, a white woman from Hawaii who created the first Facebook page proposing a march, called for the group’s leaders, who include Ms. Mallory and Ms. Perez, to step down.
Rachel O’Leary Carmona, chief operating officer of the Women’s March group, cast the controversy as the growing pains of a new organization that is struggling to build a diverse coalition. She said steps were being taken to ensure that Jewish women felt welcome, including giving Women’s March leaders education about antisemitism and adding Jewish women to the organization’s “unity principles,” which highlight groups that are considered especially vulnerable.
Ms. Mallory and Ms. Perez say they categorically condemn antisemitism, and that when they asked Ms. Wruble to leave the group, it had nothing to do with her being Jewish. But they acknowledged that the role of Jewish women was discussed in that first meeting.
“Since that conversation, we’ve all learned a lot about how while white Jews, as white people, uphold white supremacy, ALL Jews are targeted by it,” Ms. Mallory said in a statement to The New York Times.
The allegations of antisemitism are particularly painful because Women’s March organizers made a commitment from the beginning to work across racial and religious lines, and to be led by what they considered the most “marginalized” women.
Now Women’s March activists are grappling with how they treat Jews — and whether they should be counted as privileged white Americans or “marginalized” minorities, especially in the aftermath of the October mass shooting in Pittsburgh, when 11 people were gunned down at their synagogue.
Tensions around identity have swirled around the Women’s Marchfrom its earliest days. Black and Latina women complained on Facebook that white women were planning a march without their input, and that mainstream feminists had long ignored their needs.
Ms. Wruble, a central organizer of the march, says she agrees that white women, including Jews, should grapple with their racial privilege. She put out a call for women of color to join the planning team and was connected with Ms. Mallory and Ms. Perez. At that first meeting, Ms. Wruble said, they seemed to want to educate her about a dark side of Jewish history, and told her that Jewish people played a large role in the slave trade and the prison industry.
“I was taken aback,” said Ms. Wruble in her first extensive interview about her experience organizing the Women’s March. “I thought, ‘Maybe there are things I don’t know about my own people.’”
She said she went home that night and searched Google to read about the Jewish role in the slave trade. Up popped a review of “The Secret Relationship Between Blacks and the Jews,” a 1991 book by Mr. Farrakhan, which asserts that Jews were especially culpable. Henry Louis Gates Jr., a Harvard professor, has called the book the “bible of the new antisemitism.”
Ms. Wruble said she did not dwell on the issue because she wanted to work together on the march, which was only two months away. Ms. Mallory and Ms. Perez brought a friend on board, Linda Sarsour, a Palestinian-American activist. The three women — and another woman named Bob Bland, a white fashion designer who created one of the first Facebook pages about the march — became the event’s official leaders. They were widely featured in the press as the public face of the movement.
Behind the scenes, Ms. Wruble said she felt cast aside.
She said she was told by one of the march leaders that “we really couldn’t center Jewish women in this or we might turn off groups like Black Lives Matter.” While Black Lives Matter is a diffuse movement, some activists have issued statements expressing solidarity with Palestinians under Israeli occupation.
At one point, Ms. Wruble said she asked about security for the march and was told by the leaders that the Nation of Islam would be providing it.
“I said, ‘You are going to open up the march to intense criticism,’” Ms. Wruble said, warning that it would be a red flag for Jews. She said they dismissed her concerns in a heated email exchange and accused her of unfairly maligning the Nation of Islam.
As the march grew closer, Ms. Perez gathered a diverse group of activists who created a set of “unity principles” that would tie all marchers together and highlight those viewed as the most vulnerable at the time.
“We must create a society in which all women — including Black women, Indigenous women, poor women, immigrant women, disabled women, Muslim women, lesbian, queer and trans women — are free,” it read.
Ms. Wruble noticed that Jewish women were not included, but said she was too busy with logistics for the march to focus on it.
In an interview, Ms. Mallory and Ms. Perez said that they work in communities where Mr. Farrakhan is respected for his role in rehabilitating incarcerated men. They attended the 20th anniversary of the Million Man March in 2015, which Mr. Farrakhan planned.
But they said they did not subscribe to his views about Jewish people and never mentioned the slave trade in that first meeting with Ms. Wruble.
“It never happened,” Ms. Perez said.
They also denied telling Ms. Wruble that she could not be an official leader of the march because she is Jewish.
In fact, they said, they urged her to be more assertive if she wanted public recognition. “A closed mouth does not get fed,” Ms. Mallory told Ms. Wruble in an email viewed by The Times.
Ms. Mallory said the Nation of Islam was not hired for security. An internal document obtained by The Times said that the Women’s March group does not ask the religious affiliation of contractors, but said that because private security firms employ a large number of Nation of Islam members, “it is likely” that some members of the sect have provided security for Women’s March events.
Even though the march was a success, Ms. Wruble said that she felt angry and that the event’s official leaders were more focused on celebrity than building the movement. She also felt they were unwilling to confront their own bias against Jews. At a meeting days after the march, an argument broke out between Ms. Wruble and the other leaders.
Ms. Mallory and Ms. Perez began berating Ms. Wruble, according to Evvie Harmon, a white woman who helped organize the march, and who attended the meeting at Ms. Mallory’s apartment complex.
“They were talking about, ‘You people this,’ and ‘You people that’ and the kicker was, ‘You people hold all the wealth.’ I was like, ‘Oh my God, they are talking about her being Jewish,’” said Ms. Harmon, whose account was first published by Tablet. “The greatest regret of my life was not standing up and saying ‘This is wrong.’”
Ms. Mallory denied that she disparaged Ms. Wruble’s Jewish heritage in that meeting, but acknowledged telling white women there that she did not trust them.
“They are not trustworthy,” she said, adding that Ms. Wruble gossiped behind the backs of the other march leaders instead of confronting them when she had an issue. “Every single one of us has heard things that offended us. We still do the work.”
Shortly after that meeting, Ms. Mallory, Ms. Perez and Ms. Sarsour decided they did not want to work with Ms. Wruble anymore.
On her way out, Ms. Wruble texted a senior adviser to the organization with a warning: “The one thing I would suggest you discuss with them is the antisemitic piece of this,” she wrote. “Their rhetoric around this stuff will hurt the movement.”