Dear Shalom Center members, friends, and readers,
In recent days there have been some calls from some people in the Jewish community to boycott the planned Women’s March on January 19. This call has been explained on the ground that some of the March leaders have been unwilling to specifically denounce Minister Farrakhan of the Nation of Islam for his many blatantly anti-Semitic views and speeches.
One of the March leaders cited in this call has been Linda Sarsour, an important leader of the Women’s March movement that became powerful the day after Mr. Trump’s inauguration as President, and onward from then. I know that Ms. Sarsour has not only spoken words but also taken action strongly condemning anti-Semitism. She has, for example, raised hundreds of thousands of dollars to help repair desecrated Jewish cemeteries and to assist the survivors of the “Tree of Life” synagogue mass murders in Pittsburgh.
[In this photo, Linda Sarsour is at the far right, next to Gloria Steinem along with other leaders of the Women's March in 2017]
So I was very surprised by these attacks, and very open to hearing Ms. Sarsour’s views on them. When I received a privately circulated letter from Linda Sarsour explaining her views on these matters, I was and am deepy moved by it, and asked her permission to share it with The Shalom Center‘s community. She wrote back, “Please share as you see fit. Hope it brings some healing to broken hearts. – Linda”
Here is her letter: Shalom, Arthur Waskow
I am requesting for all who read my email to approach it with an open mind and an open heart with the understanding that you may not agree with what I will put forth and that is okay with me. This is not an email to persuade or to convince, it is an email with my voice and my experience and my truth - one that may not be comfortable for some.
I know and recognize that our Jewish family is experiencing real pain, hurt and trauma. I know this stems from generational trauma and history of genocide and that these past few weeks have triggered insecurity, fear and anxiety. This is a difficult time and it requires us to be clear-eyed and also recognize the real threats so we can protect each other. We are all we got and this movement is all we got.
The Farrakhan controversy began 8 months ago when Jake Tapper and Jonathan Greenblatt of the ADL "exposed/ promoted" a video of the Minister Farrakhan at an annual gathering for the Nation of Islam called Saviour's Day where Tamika D. Mallory was present along with 15,000 other people including many Black celebrities, business people, dignitaries and pastors. She was not a speaker.
Tamika has already discussed in length her longstanding relationship with the NOI after the brutal murder of her son's father 17 years ago and the positive role NOI played in this Black single teen mother's life. I won't rehash this but note it here for context. We heard painful and yet loving critiques from our Jewish friends, we had conference calls, meetings, we put out a statement that came out a few days late BECAUSE we have Jewish women on our staff who were impacted personally and working through a statement that was going to speak to all the concerns was not something that could happen overnight. Since then conversations continued and our important work continued.
Then the horrific Tree of Life shooting happened that took the life of 11 innocent Jewish Americans and all of a sudden Women's March was being asked to condemn the Minister Farrakhan. There was nothing new that happened between Women's March and the Minister. Folks decided to rehash 8 months ago. A white supremacist walked into a synagogue and killed 11 innocent people and the focus became the Minister Farrakhan and the NOI.
A few days before that a white supremacist sent dozens of pipe bombs to notable figures and a day before that a white supremacist killed two Black people at Kroger's (my Muslim American community also raised funds for these two innocent souls as well) after he could not get in to a locked Black church but here we were three women of color who are leading a powerful effective movement with millions of members being demanded to denounce Minister Farrakhan who had no relation to these white supremacists or these acts of violence.
Instead of coming together as a country to call out white supremacy and the violence being inspired by this Administration --- the deflection went to a Black man who has no institutional power. --- This is a feature of white supremacy.
This is not an email in defense of Minister Farrakhan. He can do that for himself. We have been CRYSTAL CLEAR in BOTH of our statements that we REJECT antisemitism and all forms of racism. We have been CLEAR that Minister Farrakhan has said hateful and hurtful things and that he does not align with our Unity Principles of the Women's March that were created by Women of Color. Minister Farrakhan will tell you himself that he does not belong to nor adhere to our progressive movement or yours.
We are trained in Kingian nonviolence, the ideology of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. that at its core calls us to attack the forces of evil not those doing evil. We believe in redemption for people of color who have been discarded, denounced and condemned for centuries in this country. People who engage in acts or behaviors or hold beliefs based on their own historical trauma. It's why we are not ashamed to work with formerly incarcerated individuals who have committed crimes that for some in society would have determined and decided to give them death. We have been slandered for working with criminals - but we are committed to a movement that leaves no one behind.
Some folks who claim to be in the resistance or represent the resistance have no ideology or theory of change and have no understanding of the nuance that comes with organizing with communities of color because they have not done the work - and I pray that they do meet, build and learn because it will transform how they show up so they can help and not harm.
Last year when a St. Louis Jewish cemetery was desecrated, with no hesitation I raised close to $165K for its restoration and because of the generosity of many in my community it allowed for the restoration of another Jewish cemetery in Colorado that was neglected for years. Immediately after the Tree of Life shooting, my colleague Tarek and I (through MPower Change) raised $206K to pay for ALL the funerals of the 11 innocent Jews that were killed. My role as a movement leader is not just to say profound words it is to set an example of what meaningful allyship looks like that is beyond thoughts and prayers. This was all erased. oped after oped after oped after quotes from people who want to see their names in print and barely any mention of our contributions when they decided to tear us down.
The labels of antisemitism were here before the Minister Farrakhan controversy 8 months ago. Who remembers when a campaign was started by the alt-right and right-wing Zionists to get me disinvited from a CUNY commencement speech last June? Who remembers the campaign against me last fall around my participation in a New School panel about the importance of combatting antisemitism in this moment with Jewish Voice for Peace and Jacobin Magazine? Minister Farrakhan was not even a factor yet in the conversation. I was already being labeled an antisemite and by extension the Women's March.
It's very clear to me what the underlying issue is - I am a bold, outspoken BDS -supporting Palestinian Muslim American woman and the opposition's worst nightmare. They have tried every tactic at their disposal to undermine me, discredit me, vilify me but my roots are too deep and my work is too clear and they have not succeeded so by proxy they began attacking my sister Tamika Mallory - knowing all too well that in this country the most discardable woman is a Black woman.
Tamika has been disinvited from some things, and her twitter account that I have access to is full of hate that is unfathomable, saturated with the N-words and worst things said to Black women. I will NEVER throw Tamika away. My loyalty to Black women who have risked their lives for all of us is and will be unshaken. I will continue to hold Tamika up because she has done that for too many people that society has written off.
Tamika and I are women with our own agency. We speak for ourselves and ourselves alone. We are being stripped of our agency when every few months we are asked to condemn the Minister about words that we did not say, nonetheless the words of a man who did not consult us on his words. We are being held to standards that no one would hold themselves to.
I can share numerous examples of times when movement leaders could have said more and done more for various communities or in response to hateful things that have come from their communities and their "leaders"- blatant anti-blackness, Islamophobia, anti-Palestinian rhetoric - yet that is UNFAIR which is why I don't expect it nor demand it. As a Muslim, I know all too well that I am expected to answer for other Muslims’ actions when white folks never have a second thought about having to do that. --- This is a feature of white supremacy.
Let's also recognize who the majority is that leads the attacks against women of color leaders - not people of color led institutions or activists. Wonder why. Who benefits when a powerful, effective and proven organization is attacked? Who benefits when the movement is divided? Who benefits from the confusion and the fractures? Not us. Not marginalized people. Not those who are counting on us to win.
Let us not fall for the longstanding tactics of white supremacy of divide and conquer. Unity is NOT uniformity. I am not building a unified movement where we will all agree on every single point and issue. I am building a complex, intersectional movement with the clear understanding that it will be messy and uncomfortable because if it was going to be easy someone would have done it a long time ago and we would all have our rights and be enjoying our lives in a free democratic country that treats us all with dignity and respect. But here we are.
We have seen UGLY. I pray that none of you have to experience what we have. A litany of death threats, unsolicited hate mail some with threats of violence. FBI visits to notify me of credible threats to my life that I had not even seen, the need for security detail, surveillance systems for my home - I don't say this for any pity or sympathy because I am NOT a victim, I am a survivor of a white supremacist system that wants to ban and rid itself of people like me and Tamika, I say this to say that these public toxic conversations invite these things to happen to us and we all have a responsibility to want us to be safe and out of harm's way. Tamika and I did not choose to be activists, this work chose us.
This is not a side job, or a labor of love - this is a matter of life and death for the communities we love and come from.
I ask you all to model how we approach each other in the movement. Have conversations, reach out, ask questions, give benefit of the doubt, contextualize moments outside of your own personal feelings, remind yourself of the good this person or persons or organization has done. Use critical thinking skills.
Be honest with your feelings, speak from the I, propose solutions and not demands. Challenge people in your circles, engage people. Tearing down, threatening movement leaders with "say this or else we won't do this or if you don't say this then its meaningless" is not the way.
The Women's March is an important institution in this resistance. We have organized the largest single day demonstration in American history, we have been the catalyst for 20,000 women to run for office, we have trained thousands of women in civil disobedience and direct action, organized the largest women led civil disobedience back in June around family separation, co-led close to 30 days of organizing around Kavanaugh and shifted the entire narrative, worked diligently with many of you on elections in key states winning back the House and NOW we are in the midst of organizing another HISTORIC mobilization to remind the Administration that we are still here as a resistance and send a message to Congress and yes to our friends in Congress that we will create the political will for them to be brave and hold them accountable to the platforms they ran on.
Thank you for reading this far. I know for some this may not have been easy and may have triggered you and I see you. Sit with this. Absorb it from a place of love and commitment to making this movement work. I pray that our Jewish family recognizes that this resistance is for you too and that you embrace the solidarity we have shown because we have a lot more to give. I am available for one-on -ne conversations and am committed to making the time.
Stay focused. The real threat is white nationalism and white supremacy. They want to destroy us all. We are all we got and you know that you can count on me and the Women's March leaders to continue to be bold and put it all on the line. We hope to see you on January 19th, 2019. We promise you that we have remarkable things in store and you will leave inspired once again.
I will leave you with a quote that guides the way I show up in this work and I hope that it speaks to all of you. It is by an aboriginal woman by the name of Lila Watson and she said:
"If you have come here to help me, you are wasting your time; but if you have come here because you believe that your liberation is bound up with mine, let us work together."
My liberation is bound up with all of yours.
*** *** ***
(Arthur back again:) As I said, I am deeply moved by this letter. Yet I do not agree with all of Ms. Sarsour’s views. I have, for example, publicly disagreed with the call of the “official” BDS [“Boycott Divest Sanction”] movement for total boycotts of all Israeli institutions, and I have publicly debated with its Palestinian leaders. (At the same time, I have supported boycotts of companies that are directly supporting the Israeli occupation of Palestinian territories on the West Bank.)
My own opposition to a total BDS directed against all of Israeli society, along with my strong opposition to the Israeli government and the Occupation, comes from my own ties to the decent elements in Israeli society. So from my own rresponses I learn to respect the responses of a Palestinian-American with strong ties to the Palestinian community under Occupation in its homeland, and to understand why such a person would feel drawn to BDS. In this way I honor our disagreement -- both sides of it – even while I hold strongly to my own view.
Should my disagreement on this question push me toward boycotting a movement that I strongly support – the Women’s March -- in which Ms. Sarsour is a leader? God forbid!
Indeed, just the opposite. Contempt for women and their subjugation is an aspect of the white nationalism that also encourages fear and hatred of immigrants and refugees, Muslims, Blacks, Latinx, Native Americans, and the free press; that emboldens anti-Semitism; and that through the Trump-Netanyahoo alliance subjugates Palestinians. Resistance to white nationalism connects the fuller liberation of American women from sexism with the fuller liberation of the Jewish community from anti-Semitism.
In our very diversity, our different cultures, our disagreements, we are the rainbow refractions of ONE light. The Quran teaches that humanity was created in many different cultures precisely so that we can learn to understand each other. Jews affirm in the Sh’ma that the Divine Interbreath of Life is ONE. The Torah’s call that we pursue “justice, justice” – in its different voices -- is ONE. The love we owe each other is ONE.
To Lila Watson's and Linda Sarsour's challenge, I respond: We have indeed come together because we do believe that "your" liberation is bound up with "mine." So let us work together!