Women’s March Leaders Struggle to Address Anti-Semitism Controversy

Women's March chairwomen Bob Bland, Linda Sarsour, Carmen Perez, and Tamika Mallory / Getty Images
• March 7, 2018 10:18 pm


The leaders of the Women’s March are struggling to deal with its ties to notorious anti-Semite Louis Farrakhan, and they are concerned about the effects on their "intersectional" movement.

The leaders of the Women’s March have said the Farrakhan controversy is part of a "learning process" that has to do with understanding people’s "different experiences," BuzzFeed reported. Farrakhan, the leader of the Nation of Islam, said in a speech that Jews are "the mother and father of apartheid," and declared that "when you want something in this world, the Jew holds the door."

Women’s March co-chair Tamika Mallory attended the Saviours’ Day event where he said this, and she has defended Farrakhan on Twitter, even as the Women’s March distanced itself from him in a statement nine days after the event.

"It was just the beginning of a learning process we all had to go through," Women’s March co-chair Bob Bland said. "Women are not a monolith and a lot of the issues we’re dealing with are longstanding issues between communities that will not get solved today or tomorrow."

Women’s March co-chair Linda Sarsour, who has also attended Nation of Islam events, said feminist collectives such as the Women’s March have to be inclusive of those whose work has brought them close to those outside the mainstream. She expressed concern that intersectional feminism is threatened by people not understanding "different experiences" of other women.

"There has never been a true, intentionally intersectional feminist movement. And the reason it hasn’t happened is precisely because of the controversy we’re in right now," Sarsour said. "When you’re trying to build a movement made up of people with different experiences, some that you will never understand, we’re going to have to agree that unity is not uniformity."

Mallory has called the work of organizing "complicated" and denied that she is anti-Semitic.

"As I continue to grow and learn as both an activist and as a woman, I will continue to grapple with the complicated nature of working across ideological lines and the question of how to do so without causing harm to vulnerable people," Mallory said.

Another one of the Women's March leaders, Carmen Perez, said the controversy associated with Farrakhan is a "distraction" in January.

"In regards to Minister Farrakhan, I think that is a distraction," Perez told Refinery29. "There are no perfect leaders. We follow the legacy of Dr. King, which is Kingian non-violence. We say we have to attack the forces of evil, not the people doing evil. We never attack people."

The Women’s March’s statement said Farrakhan, who has a long history of virulent anti-Semitism, said some things that do not align with their principles.

"Minister Farrakhan’s statements about Jewish, queer, and trans people are not aligned with the Women’s March Unity Principles," the statement said.

Some are worried that denouncing Farrakhan too strongly would lead to standards so high that the movement would fracture. The Women’s March has already excluded some pro-life groups, but its leaders are concerned deeper divisions may lead Palestinian groups to break off based on others’ involvement with pro-Israel groups, for instance.

Bland said she prefers to be tolerant in most disagreements rather than denouncing others.

"I have people in my church who believe immigrants are taking their jobs. I have people in my church who think Muslims are bad and responsible for 9/11. I have people in my church who probably cross the street when they see a black person," Bland said. "I haven’t been asked to denounce anyone."

Anti-Israel groups have been a mainstay of Women’s March events, where denunciations of Zionism are frequent. Sarsour has said "nothing is creepier than Zionism."