Feminist Movement Grapples With Antisemitism–Again

by Rafael Medoff

Prominent feminists are split over the issue of condemning antisemitism—just as they were in the 1930s. How sad that some things never seem to change.

Actress and women’s rights activist Alyssa Milano ignited the latest controversy when she said recently that she will not take part in the upcoming 2019 Women’s March unless its leaders publicly condemn the antisemitic demagogue Rev. Louis Farrakhan, head of the Nation of Islam. Those leaders responded with a vague and inadequate statement about antisemitism and other forms of bigotry.

The problem is rooted in the fact that several Women’s March leaders are unabashed admirers of Farrakhan. Last year, for example, Tamika Mallory, co-chair of the Women’s March, posted a photo on Instagram of herself and Farrakhan, smiling and with their arms around each other. She wrote: “Thank God this man is still alive and doing well. He is definitely the GOAT [Greatest Of All Time]. Happy birthday @louisfarrakhan.”

Speaking in Chicago on February 25 of this year, Farrakhan declared that “the Jews were responsible for all this filth and degenerate behavior that Hollywood is putting out.” Mallory attended the event. When Mallory was criticized for not speaking out against Farrakhan’s antisemitic remarks, Women’s March board member Linda Sarsour came to her defense.

“I will not sit back while a strong, bold, unapologetic, committed Black woman who risks her life every day to speak truth to power and organize and mobilize movements is questioned, berated and abused,” Sarsour declared on Facebook. “I stand with Tamika Mallory every day, with every fiber of my being because she has so much of what we need in the movement right now to win.” 

Sarsour has her own record of troubling statements and actions, such as saying “nothing is creepier than Zionism”; championing the cause of Rasmea Odeh, a convicted killer of two Hebrew University students; and asserting that there is no room in the feminist movement for anybody “who supports the State of Israel.” Anti-Defamation League director Jonathan Greenblatt has said Sarsour’s anti-Israel activity “encourages and spreads anti-Semitism,” and his predecessor, Abe Foxman, has described Sarsour as “bigoted.”

Carmen Perez, another of the four leaders of the Women’s March, not only reposted Mallory’s photo with Farrakhan, but has also posted a photo of herself holding hands with the Nation of Islam leader. Next to that photo, she wrote: “There are many times when I sit with elders or inspirational individuals where I think, ‘I just wish I could package this and share this moment with others.’ ” Mallory commented on the Perez photo: My family! Love you all” and “He looks great”. Sarsour added: “the brother does not age. God bless him”.

In response to Milano’s call for them to denounce Farrakhan, the Women’s March leadership last week issued a remarkable statement. “We recognize the danger of hate rhetoric by public figures,” it asserted. “We want to say emphatically that we do not support or endorse statements made by Minister Louis Farrakhan about women, Jewish, and LGBTQ communities.”

Note how they oppose “hate rhetoric” by “public figures,” but do not actually name those individuals. They say they “do not support or endorse” Farrakhan’s statements about Jews (and others), but they do not acknowledge that those statements were bigoted. Call it antisemitism without antisemites: they are against antisemitism in general, but will not admit that the man they admire is an antisemite.

Also note their anemic choice of words. The Women’s March leaders “do not support or endorse” Farrakhan’s statements. Imagine if they were asked about a notorious white supremacist such as David Duke, and responded weakly that they “do not support or endorse” Duke’s statements. That would be far from the strong and explicit condemnation we would expect.

Sadly, divisions among feminist leaders regarding antisemitism are nothing new. In the 1930s, the feminist leader Carrie Chapman Catt, for example, was outspoken on behalf of the Jews in Nazi Germany. But Evelyn Riley Nicholson (leader of the fight for women’s rights in the Methodist Church and a staunch pacifist) refused to sign Catt’s anti-Hitler petition in 1933; Nicholson said she doubted the reports of Nazi atrocities, and besides, Hitler’s actions were insignificant when “compared with the military program which our government [is] entering upon.”

A number of prominent American feminists and pacifists (the two causes frequently overlapped) in the 1930s “were reluctant to address the issue of anti-Semitism,” according to the historian Melissa R. Klapper (author of ‘Ballots, Babies, and Banners of Peace: American Jewish Women’s Activism, 1890-1940’). They were “unwilling to take political positions [regarding the Jews] that might derail work” they were doing to promote pacifism or women’s rights—even when their own colleagues, “leaders of the European peace movement—many of them Jewish—were disappearing, being arrested, or being forced into exile.”

The Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom, an important pacifist and feminist group, took a position of “neutrality” regarding Nazi Germany in the 1930s and opposed boycotts of German goods. In 1938, there were mass defections from the League’s ranks by its Jewish members —including the resignation of 140 of the Bronx chapter’s 150 members—after the League’s leaders refused to denounce Hitler’s persecution of Jews. They feared it might seem they were encouraging war against Germany.

Such attitudes were all too common even in the halls of power. Two days after the notorious Kristallnacht pogrom in Germany in November 1938, Mrs. Catt sent a telegram to the State Department, pleading: “The United States must voice its protest in the name of civilization itself.” The reason she had to issue such an appeal was because at a press conference earlier that day, President Franklin Roosevelt was asked by a reporter if he had any comment on the anti-Jewish violence in Germany, and replied “No, I think not.”

It was not until nearly a week after the pogrom, following an avalanche of telegrams to the White House from members of Congress, Jewish and Christian leaders, and prominent intellectuals and feminists such as Mrs. Catt, that FDR finally condemned Kristallnacht. Remarkably, however, the president’s brief, vaguely-worded condemnation did not mention the Jewish victims or the Nazi dictator who orchestrated the pogrom. He did not even include the word “antisemitism.”

Eighty years later, the tragic reluctance of some prominent Americans to seriously confront antisemitism continues to bedevil our society.

(As published in the New York Jewish Week – November 15, 2018)