A street filled with protesters in pink hats, a few people are holding up a large "Temple Sinai" banner
A sizable Temple Sinai of Oakland contingent attended the Oakland Women's March, January 2017. (Photo/Robert Berger)

Many Jews ready to hit streets at Bay Area Women’s Marches, despite controversy

Updated January 19

Despite festering charges of anti-Jewish bias directed at national Women’s March leadership, local march organizers have made a point of publicly condemning anti-Semitism, warmly welcoming Jews into their ranks and urging them to take to the streets this Saturday Jan. 19, in the Bay Area Women’s Marches.

Northern California march locations include Oakland, San Francisco, San Jose, Sacramento, Pleasanton and Walnut Creek. Scores of similar marches will take place across the country on the same day, including the third annual national march in Washington, D.C.

“There is no place in our movement for oppression or intolerance,” wrote members of the Women’s March San Francisco leadership team in an open letter published Jan. 15. “We recognize that anti-Semitism is oppression. If Jewish people or any marginalized community doesn’t feel welcome at our events, we have failed as leaders.”

It went on to say, “We want to you to know [Jews] are a treasured and essential part of the coalition.”

The letter was written after organizers met with several key Jewish community leaders, including Jewish Community Relations Council executive director Abby Porth, Rabbi Noa Kushner of The Kitchen, Amy Berler of the Jewish Women’s Fund, JCC of San Francisco board member Susan Lowenberg and CEO Marci Glazer.

Glazer will be one of the featured speakers at the rally preceding Saturday’s S.F. Women’s March, which starts at 11:30 a.m. at Civic Center Plaza.

A similar open letter from organizers of the Women’s March in San Jose proclaimed that the anti-Semitic bias that has infected the national Women’s March “is not who we are.”

The San Jose organizers said their march, like the one in San Francisco, “is a separate organization” from the national body and is “uniting against anti-Semitism. We seek to empower women and equity-minded warriors … and we share your values of diversity, equity and inclusion.”

The S.F.-based JCRC also issued a policy statement on the Women’s March this week, saying “we encourage Jews who do attend to do so while proudly expressing all aspects of their identity, including being Jewish.”

The need for such public statements arose after months of criticism directed at two national Women’s March leaders — Linda Sarsour and Tamika Mallory ­­­­— who each have made multiple incendiary statements about Jews, Israel and Zionism.

Sarsour claimed that one could not be a true feminist without embracing the Palestinian cause and rejecting Zionism, while Mallory has embraced Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan, whose long history of anti-Semitic vitriol is well documented. Earlier this week on the daytime TV talk show “The View,” Mallory pointedly refused to condemn Farrakhan, saying only “I don’t agree with many of [his] statements.”

The controversy was enough to compel the Democratic National Committee to drop its partnership with the national Women’s March.

We seek to empower women and equity-minded warriors … and we share your values of diversity, equity and inclusion.

The Jewish News Syndicate reported that in recent weeks, other progressive groups have yanked their support from the march because of the controversy, among them the National Council of Jewish Women, the Southern Poverty Law Center, the American Federation of Labor-Congress of Industrial Organizations, the Human Rights Campaign, Greenpeace, Children’s Firearm Safety Alliance, Coalition Against Gun Violence and Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense.

In a Jan. 14 interview with the Israeli paper Haaretz, renowned Jewish history professor and author Deborah Lipstadt blasted the Women’s March leaders for “a repeated pattern of ignoring the fact that Jewish women face a particular kind of prejudice of anti-Semitism; suggesting that maybe anti-Semitism wasn’t really that serious; and affiliating with a known anti-Semite, Louis Farrakhan, who called us termites.

“Some progressive Jewish organizations have said they will stay on to educate them,” she added. “Well, excuse me: How much education does someone need to realize that calling any people termites is wrong?”

Rabbi Chai Levy of Congregation Netivot Shalom in Berkeley said some of her congregants were concerned about anti-Zionist statements coming from national Women’s March leaders. Ultimately, because her synagogue is Shabbat observant and because “there didn’t seem to be enough interest,” she decided not to organize a contingent to attend the march. But she did encourage her congregates to decide for themselves.

Levy said she spoke with women within and outside the synagogue about whether to participate. “I didn’t want to boycott, as some around the nation were suggesting, and I preferred to find a constructive way to participate as a Jewish community,” she said. “But I am supportive of participation in the local marches, especially those that are addressing the issues of anti-Semitism and including Jewish women’s leadership.”

In fact, Netivot Shalom member Leili Davari will be a speaker at the Oakland Women’s March on behalf of Bend the Arc.

Sarsour and Mallory recently met with a group of liberal rabbis in New York in an effort to heal the wounds. Ultimately the rabbis endorsed the Women’s March, saying in a follow-up letter they had engaged in “frank discussions about the issues that are dividing our communities.” Though the letter acknowledged that differences remained, it encouraged members of the Jewish community to attend the marches.

“We pledge to remain actively involved with the Women’s March, its next steps, its hopeful agenda,  and its leadership, Linda and Tamika in particular,” the rabbis said.

There was plenty of comity in the Bay Area.

Glazer said she was impressed by the words and deeds of the S.F. march organizers, which is why she is eager to participate.

“Women’s March S.F. has unequivocally both rejected anti-Semitism and welcomed participation of Jewish women and men, irrespective of their politics,” she said. “We are all of us in some way clamoring for our voices to be heard, and they are not 100 percent overlapping. The work of coalition-building is a messy one, and it has boundaries, but if we don’t show up at the table, then our voice is not heard.”

Other prominent Bay Area Jewish women have signed on to the march.

Rabbi Dev Noily of Kehilla Community Synagogue in Piedmont wrote in a Facebook post that it’s important “for Jews to stay with the Women’s March, and to address the anti-Semitism that surfaces there as a natural and expected part of working in broad coalitions. Black and brown women, some of them Jewish, also have to address the white supremacy that surfaces. Muslim women have to address the Islamophobia that surfaces, trans women have to address the transphobia that surfaces.”

Noily added, “I don’t need to agree with everything everyone else in the coalition believes. I only need to agree with the shared agenda of the coalition. I believe that the leadership of the Women’s March is genuinely interested in addressing anti-Semitism, and that the best thing for U.S. Jews is to accept the good faith of the effort they’re making.”

Updated to more accurately reflect Rabbi Chai Levy’s thoughts about the Women’s March controversy.

Dan Pine

Dan Pine is a contributing editor at J. He was a longtime staff writer at J. and retired as news editor in 2020.