Claims Of Anti-Semitism Cloud The Women's March | KERA News

Claims Of Anti-Semitism Cloud The Women's March

Jan 2, 2019
Originally published on January 3, 2019 2:53 pm

As organizers prepare for another Women’s March later this month, there’s a split in the movement between some women of color and former march leader Vanessa Wruble, who says she feels she was forced out of the group’s leadership in part because she is Jewish.

The rift has gotten more public exposure after a recent story in The New York Times reported that early on in planning efforts, fellow leaders Tamika Mallory, a black activist, and Carmen Perez, a Latina activist, told Wruble that Jews need to confront their own role in racism.

“What I remember — and what I was taken aback by — was the idea that Jews were specifically involved, and predominantly involved, in the slave trade, and that Jews make a lot of money off of black and brown bodies,” Wruble (@vanessawruble) tells Here & Now‘s Robin Young. “And those were the statements that I remember. And similar things were repeated sort of throughout our organizing together.”

Mallory (@TamikaDMallory), who is co-president of the Women’s March, says those exchanges with Wruble reported in the Times didn’t happen.

“That conversation did not happen. I didn’t say that at all,” Mallory says. “We’ve heard from the trans community, when they have had issues with not feeling included in the Women’s March. We’ve heard from black women who have had a continual sort of struggle with the Women’s March, and we have continued to step up to that and … try to find ways for each community to feel included in the work that we’re doing.”

Editor’s Note: The audio atop this post will be updated with a version that contains our interview with Wruble, which aired Wednesday, and Mallory, which aired Thursday.

Interview Highlights

On women of color taking issue with Wruble’s comments during initial Women’s March organizing meetings that her Jewish heritage inspired her activism

Vanessa Wruble: “What I was trying to say at that moment was, part of the way I come to this work is understanding my own history. Obviously, Jews have a long history of persecution, and understanding specifically the Holocaust really made me feel like I need to fight on behalf of other people who are being oppressed and marginalized and hurt by the majority society. And that I think is what I was trying to express in that conversation.

“It’s not unique to me to feel that way. Tikkun olam, repair the world, is a Hebrew saying. You saw this certainly in the civil rights movement. There were many, many Jews involved and at the forefront fighting on behalf of the black population. And all of that is something that I’m proud of. And I think that what likely happened in that conversation is that they took that to mean that I was equating Jewish struggles with the struggles of black and Latina communities in the U.S., which is really, really comparing apples to oranges.”

On anti-Semitic statements she heard at organizing meetings

Wruble: “It’s hard to remember the exact words of what were said. I don’t actually remember them saying, ‘Well, Jews need to confront their own privilege,’ because I certainly would have agreed with that statement. What I remember — and what I was taken aback by — was the idea that Jews were specifically involved, and predominantly involved, in the slave trade, and that Jews make a lot of money off of black and brown bodies. And those were the statements that I remember. And similar things were repeated sort of throughout our organizing together.”

On why she thinks she was pushed out of the Women’s March leadership

Wruble: “I think that there were certainly other conflicts. I think [that conversation] was one piece of it, and I think that probably that initial conversation set in motion a series of events in which they wanted to sideline and minimize truly my central role in organizing it. I mean I was the person who put together the team, was building out the departments, I was certainly behind much of the strategy. And I think that, for whatever reason, they really wanted to minimize my role.

“Now I will say that to a certain extent, I was OK with that. I do believe marginalized people should be centered, and I think that doesn’t happen often. So to a certain extent I was OK with being in the shadows. But I think that there’s a difference between making room for other people and being completely made invisible.”

On leader Tamika Mallory being criticized for attending a rally with Louis Farrakhan, and divisions that emerged among Women’s March organizers over the Nation of Islam and anti-Semitism

Wruble: “Let me start by saying that I do think the issues around the Nation of Islam are incredibly complex. I think that you can understand Farrakhan is hateful and very dangerous, and you can understand that the Nation of Islam has done very good work within the black community. And I think that that is very fraught. This stuff didn’t come up, the Farrakhan stuff really didn’t come up until after I’d already left. What I was concerned about during the march was the appearance of aligning ourselves with a group that was known to be anti-Semitic, and how that could you know shatter a very, very vulnerable coalition. My sense was that if the Nation of Islam were to provide security, the Jewish community could see that as highly problematic. I think [Women’s March board member] Linda [Sarsour] made the point that the Nation of Islam provides great security and they protect all lives, and I absolutely believe that. But nevertheless the optics of it were not good, were not OK. And that is what I warned them about.

“The Farrakhan stuff really emerged after I left and enraged a whole lot of people, and I was actually very shocked because I would have thought they would immediately distance themselves from that, and I just don’t think they did that in a way that was ever satisfactory to the people who were being maligned.”

On whether she’s concerned about perceptions that the Women’s March is focused on diversity and is led by women of color, and that March On is focused on anti-Semitism and largely white, and women feeling like they have to choose

Wruble: “I would just say that’s an absolutely false dichotomy. March On is an incredibly diverse coalition. The chairman of our board is a woman named Jaquie Algee, who has been a longtime organizer and the real matriarch of March On. We have an incredibly diverse board, and we’ve been very intentional about this, and we’ve been doing very, very hard work to be radically inclusive. And we’re not perfect, but I think we’ve really achieved the start of that. And so I think that the media painting this as one group for women of color and one group for white women is just incredibly false, and I think it’s also very dangerous.”

On whether a divide dating back to the 1960s women’s movement, when many women of color felt left out of organizing efforts, remains an issue that needs to be addressed in today’s organizing

Wruble: “That’s exactly why I specifically reached out to women of color to come help lead this movement. I knew that if this movement was led by a bunch of white women, and a bunch of white women only marched on Washington, it would be a disaster for our country. My original vision was, look, the men have really screwed up our country. Look where we are now. Can the women rise above — women of every, for lack of a better word, tribe, in this country — can we rise above and say, ‘Look, we’re not going to be best friends overnight, because there’s a lot of distrust. But can we work on this together, because we have a common enemy?’

“I don’t think [no is] the answer at all. I think that this work is really hard work, and I think this is part of the really hard work, and that’s what’s being done right now. We can’t come together as a coalition and learn about each other if we have these underlying feelings and misconceptions about groups of people, and if we can come to a better place, then this has been ultimately a good thing.”

On Wruble’s claims that Mallory and Women’s March board member Carmen Perez said Jews predominantly were involved in the slave trade

Tamika Mallory: “Absolutely not. That conversation did not happen. I didn’t say that at all. We’ve heard from the trans community, when they have had issues with not feeling included in the Women’s March. We’ve heard from black women who have had a continual sort of struggle with the Women’s March, and we have continued to step up to that and … try to find ways for each community to feel included in the work that we’re doing.”

On why Women’s March leadership decided they didn’t want Wruble as a leader anymore

Mallory: “It’s very interesting that what is asked of us all the time is, why did Carmen Perez and Tamika Mallory, the women of color, decide that the leadership of Women’s March needed to be different, or needed to look different? And the question really should be, why did Tamika Mallory, Carmen Perez, [Women’s March co-president] Bob Bland and a number of other women decide this? These are women of all different backgrounds. So, you know, it is just very interesting to us that this issue is as if it was just between the women of color and a Jewish woman, rather than understanding that there are a number of women — including white women — who … are a part of the leadership. So it’s not just that the ‘villains,’ if you will, have attacked the others. No, actually that’s not what happened.”

On whether she’s reached out to Wruble after the New York Times story published

Mallory: “Yeah, in fact, I mean, just to speak to that, we’ve asked for a public discussion between us and some of the folks who have made these particular charges against us, and we’ve actually seen where they have said that they do not feel that they should speak to us publicly. We are ready at any time. But we’d like for it to happen in public so that there can be no more misinformation put out.”

On Wruble saying that her Jewish heritage inspired her to dedicate her life to working for marginalized people

Mallory: “I mean, that’s wonderful. I hope that she is doing that and finds her way to, you know, be part of the resistance. I mean I just, I don’t know exactly what to say to that. That’s great.”

On telling other Women’s March members she does not trust white women activists, according to the Times’ reporting

Mallory: “Actually what I think I said was that I didn’t trust particular individuals. I don’t think I’ve ever said that I don’t trust white women in general. Yes, I have challenged white women to do better. I have no issue talking about privilege and white privilege, and what I believe about it and how it has impacted people of color. But this notion that we somehow have zeroed in on the Jewish community is false, and I have not said that I don’t trust white women as a group of people.”

On criticism she faced for attending a rally with Louis Farrakhan, who has made anti-Semitic remarks and whose Nation of Islam backed a 1991 paper that claimed Jews were more involved in the slave trade than they were

Mallory: “What I would hope is that people would look at my track record, 20 years of work that I’ve been doing, fighting for justice for all marginalized people, and not to hold me accountable for the words of any other individual. I follow a set of principles, and those principles say that we must fight systems of oppression, that we cannot be effective as leaders or organizers fighting individuals, but rather that we must look at the systems of oppression and do the work to resist that, and that’s who I am and that’s what I’m committed to, and that’s what the Women’s March is also committed to.

“What I can say is that my 20-year track record shows that he and I do not agree on a number of issues, and I believe that anyone who wants to take him up on his issues, his words, should direct those questions and concerns directly to him.”

On how different groups of women have a common enemy in white supremacists

Mallory: “Absolutely, and I believe that historically oppressed communities should not be fighting against one another. We ought to be working together. I believe that anti-Semitism, and anti-black racism, and Islamophobia and all forms of hate need to be challenged.

“You had mentioned earlier that people are being forced to choose. And I hope that people won’t feel that they are being forced to choose at all. I think that what people need to choose in this moment is to stand up for the most marginalized communities. We hope that people will look at the work that the Women’s March has done. We have not always done things properly, because that is what growing pains are all about. But I think that our intention of being here to support the most vulnerable and to resist in a time where so many communities are feeling the pain, is so important, and we hope that people will turn out in large numbers. Just do what makes you feel good in your local community.”

On Women’s March organizers in Eureka, California, postponing a recent march over a lack of diversity in leadership, and concerns about creating more division

Mallory: “I haven’t had a direct conversation with those folks in that particular community. I would suggest that if people want to march, that they organize. Also, Washington, D.C., will still be happening. We will be there, we will be marching on Jan. 19, and it will be all over the country. So I suggest that people who are looking for leadership look in the mirror, and know that the leadership is within you.”


Ashley Bailey produced these interviews and edited them for broadcast with Robin Young. Jack Mitchell adapted them for the web.

Copyright 2019 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.