The unspoken debate on Israel at the Women’s March on Washington

The unspoken debate on Israel at the Women’s March on Washington

Members of the National Council of Jewish Women were one of the partner organizations for the Women’s March on Washington.
Members of the National Council of Jewish Women were one of the partner organizations for the Women’s March on Washington.

Israel’s 50-year occupation of the Palestinian people was not one of the themes included in the Jan. 21 Women’s March on Washington. But it could have been. 

Palestinian-American Linda Sarsour, one of the march’s national co-chairs who has a well-known record of anti-Israel activism in New York City, did mention in her remarks that “most of all, I am my Palestinian grandmother who lives in the occupied territories’ wildest dreams.” But apart from Sarsour’s reference to the “occupied territories,” the Palestinian issue was not raised in Washington, DC, nor, to the best of my knowledge, on the platforms of other marches around the country, including the six held in New Jersey. 

Although there were reports that Jewish Voice for Peace activists intended to carry signs reading “Resist Together — From the United States to Palestine,” I haven’t heard from anyone who saw one. My wife and I attended the Asbury Park gathering, which drew thousands of participants, and we did not hear or see any references to Israel or Palestine.

This is good news. For those of us defending Israel against a campaign of delegitimization and Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS), the following sentence in the march’s original mission statement had raised a yellow flag: “We support the advocacy and resistance movements that reflect our multiple and intersecting identities (intersectionality).” In principle, intersectionality is not a pernicious concept. It simply refers to the concept that forms of oppression, such as racism, sexism, and xenophobia, are interconnected and need to be understood in relationship to one another. 

In fact, former Israeli MK Einat Wilf has argued that Zionism can serve as an inspiration to oppressed groups. The Jewish liberation movement, she observed, demonstrates that “Victimhood is not destiny. A history of marginalization, humiliation, discrimination, persecution, massacres, and even genocide can be transcended. A people, no matter how downtrodden, can find within themselves the power to change their future.”  

But intersectionality has been hijacked as an organizing principle by a network of anti-Israel activists. The oppression of African-Americans, or the LGBTQ community, or other defined categories, they argue, overlaps and intersects with oppressed Palestinians. Hence, we have seen the appearance in recent years of the slogan “From Ferguson to Palestine” within the Black Lives Matter movement. 

In addition, the term “resistance movements” in the march’s mission statement could easily be interpreted as including Palestinian resistance against Israeli occupation. 

Besides Sarsour, Zahra Billoo, San Francisco director of the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), also spoke at the march. A BDS activist, Billoo is known for sharing extremist material on social media, e.g., “Blaming Hamas for firing rockets at [Apartheid] Israel is like blaming a woman for punching her rapist.” There were other speakers with a history of problematic statements on Israel, as well.

In his Jan. 13 column in The Jewish Week, “Why Liberalism vs. Zionism Is a False Choice,” Rabbi Elliott Cosgrove noted that the leader of a progressive Jewish organization had declined to join as a partner in the march because “the group simply could not risk being a co-sponsor to an event where an Israeli flag might be burned…or worse.” 

It should also be mentioned that some Jewish organizations, including Hadassah and the Union for Reform Judaism, opted not to officially co-sponsor the march because it took place on Shabbat. 

All this background generally flew under the radar screen for most of the thousands of Jewish women who saw the march as a timely opportunity to protest President Donald Trump’s offensive rhetoric and policy positions on key issues. Regardless of how Jewish organizations responded, it was clear that there would be a large contingent of Jewish women at the event. 

Jane Felton of South Orange, a member of Congregation Beth El, went with her 14-year-old daughter Eva Hale. The intergenerational aspect was key, Felton told me, and both mother and daughter found it to be a “powerful” experience. She said she considered it an opportunity “to pray with my feet.” 

Despite initial concerns about security and other considerations, including the Shabbat dilemma, the politically progressive and staunchly pro-Israel National Council of Jewish Women (NCJW) made a critically important decision to sign on as a march “partner.” Thus, the organization’s representatives, especially its director of Washington operations, Jody Rabhan, were given a full seat at the planning table to help define the march’s messages and program. The result, which may or may not have been achieved without NCJW’s intervention, is that the march, except for Sarsour’s passing comment, steered clear of Israel. 

But, make no mistake, this is not a one-off. Let’s acknowledge that Israel has a problem with Democrats and other progressives. A poll conducted by the Pew Research Center earlier this month found that 74 percent of Republicans sympathize more with Israel than with Palestinians, yet only 33 percent of Democrats do. Antipathy to Trump is pumping renewed energy into the progressive movement, and those hostile to Israel will look for opportunities to advance their agenda. 

Trump’s warm embrace of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, and his selection of pro-settlement David Friedman as U.S. ambassador to Israel, adds fuel to the fire. We already saw this at play in an attempt by student activists to pass an anti-Israel divestment resolution at the University of Michigan in November. These activists circulated posters with pictures of Trump and Netanyahu side by side. Expect more of this linkage in the months ahead. 

But based on conversations I had and my own observations, I learned something important: NCJW’s track record on the social justice concerns driving the progressive movement, such as reproductive freedom, heath care, immigration and refugee policy, criminal justice reform, and the environment, reinforced its credibility with the other march organizers, prompting them to set aside any inclination they might have had to integrate the Israel/Palestine issue into the platform. 

The Jewish community can derive a valuable lesson from this experience: By championing these just causes, American Jews will also protect Israel.

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