Based upon respect for a highly accomplished activist friend, I decided to attend the meeting at a local independent bookstore about participating in the upcoming Women’s March. My hope was that Jewish women attending would fully express grievances and reservations about the controversial march, sort through the facts, and emerge united about what participating could accomplish. Maybe there might be specific demands regarding the government shutdown, impeachment, and resignation?
The setting was warm and welcoming despite an undertow of anxiety in the room. I found a seat, filled out a name tag, and listened closely to the women who had chosen to attend. Facilitators informed us that if something made us uncomfortable, we could say “OUCH!” and that would flag concerns for further sensitized discussion. To my surprise, the meeting began with an ice-breaking exercise involving exploration and acknowledgement of “privilege.” For me, that was an “OUCH!” as , in my view, this intersectional construct cannot substitute for “class” as an analytic variable and explanatory framework. The concept of “privilege” describes what some people may have more of than others (access to health care, transportation, being treated with a modicum of respect) while “class” encapsulates and depicts dynamic, structured relations within capitalism, as a fundamental conflict unfolds between ruling elites and the rest of us.
A focus on “privilege” divides people who really should be united. None of us in that bookstore owned “the means of production”, even if some might find themselves on the periphery of “the one-percent.” Why on earth should a gathering focused on the concerns that Jewish women have about their place in the feminist movement be filtered through this particular lens? Was the specter of the “JAP” stereotype haunting this gathering? Given our relative “privileges” as compared with other vulnerable women, perhaps Jewish women could feel safe enough to tolerate the anti-semitic sensibility that has become increasingly visible on the left-wing of the political spectrum?
In terms of Jewish history, “privilege” has a very different meaning that the one expressed by the intersectional paradigm. Jews were granted privileges by a variety of rulers: being allowed to leave a ghetto, attend university, travel, enter certain professions, and perform unpleasant, risky tasks such as tax collection. Jews have been expelled from, and murdered within, almost every country in Europe, the privileges extended to them morphing from oppression to liberation to oppression as powerful leaders rose and fell. Given thousands of years of history, the recent Tree of Life Massacre, as well as the dramatic escalation in hate crimes against Jews in America, it struck me as peculiar and mildly offensive that, when coming forward with fears and grievances, Jewish women were asked to reflect on differing gradations of relative “privilege.” To me, what matters are the common experiences of oppression, the distinct gendered vulnerability women confront in capitalism that’s bound up with our economic, social, and reproductive experiences. That’s an issue of “class” and the attendant accumulation of social capital.
For much of the meeting, conversation flowed between an awareness of shared oppression and a sense of genuine sisterhood, punctuated by moments of guilt teetering on the brink of noblesse oblige. There was a desire that the shared alliance forged during the early days of the civil rights and women’s movements, be resuscitated , and an awareness of the unhealed wounds generated by ideological splits. While the anti-Jewish comments in question by some Women’s March leaders were reduced to a matter of “She Said, She Said”, the sustained ties between some movement leaders and Louis Farrakhan were conveyed as something that needed to be understood because of crucial assistance provided to certain individuals and communities of color. Lost in the shuffle were the facts that a previous women’s march was scheduled on Yom Kippur and that such gatherings are routinely scheduled for Saturdays when religious Jewish feminists cannot attend. What also went unmentioned: the incendiary ideological provocation from many on the Left that if one is a Zionist, one cannot be a Feminist.
When I shared my intention to write about this experience, a Jewish friend forwarded me a statement issued by a group of New York City progressive rabbis. These rabbis did not paper over the unresolved issues and differences, but conveyed limited improvements that had been made (recognition that the words of Louis Farrakhan constitute an anathema, expansion of the Unity Principles underlying the march) and voiced their continued commitment to constructively engage with the Women’s March leadership about confronting anti-semitism, broading the participation of the LGBTQ community, and supporting inclusion of religious Jewish feminists. While the statement is positive and heartening, it seems that several different feminist marches will be held in New York City on Saturday, the Women’s Alliance marching along the Upper West Side while another (affiliated with the Washington D.C. March) culminates with a gathering in Foley Square.
To their credit, the caring facilitators of this courageous meeting sought to weave the disparate threads of our complex group together. As the gathering concluded, a skein of yellow yarn was tossed gently from speaker to speaker, with the intent of knitting us into a web of connection despite the fact that we barely knew one another. As the canary-colored ball of yarn traveled around the room, I thought of “Yellow Stars”, “The Midas Touch”, as well as “The Golden Rule” and how the latter is necessary to sustain ties of sisterhood. People need to have a sense of basic trust and belonging when part of a feminist political movement. How do we make that happen? In trying to transform capitalism, how do we create and sustain spaces that more women can call home?
In conclusion: It’s unsettling to march as part of a coalition with folks who have never questioned the neoliberal status quo, would have been perfectly content to have Hillary ($12 an hour minimum wage is good enough, making foreign policy with Henry Kissinger is fine, and universal health care is a pipe dream) Clinton as president, and never protested against the U.S. invasion of Iraq. The prospect of marching with people tied to Louis Farrakhan remains highly distasteful. It’s exceedingly uncomfortable to march with those who believe that Zionism negates Feminism. Perhaps the need to defeat domestic fascism demands such an elasticity of coalition-building. In this case, maybe what matters most are the collective policy demands women make about our lives – grounded in past suffering, cognizant of present challenges, and building towards a progressive future. If the march will foster such political coherence, it may be worth attending. If the march calls for the immediate resignation of the current White House occupant, I’d be down with that. Maybe that might be something we could all agree on?