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Dialogue: Women’s March Leaders on Anti-Semitism, Islamophobia, Racism & More

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Thousands took to the streets for women’s marches across the country on January 19, exactly two years after Donald Trump’s inauguration sparked a burgeoning women’s movement. But some of this year’s marches were steeped in controversy. In November, Teresa Shook, one of the founders of the Women’s March movement, called for the removal of the four national co-chairs: Bob Bland, Tamika Mallory, Carmen Perez and Linda Sarsour. She accused them of allowing “anti-Semitism, anti-LBGTQIA sentiment and hateful, racist rhetoric to become a part of the platform.” Much of the criticism focused on links between some of the co-chairs and the Nation of Islam’s Minister Louis Farrakhan, who has been widely accused of being anti-Semitic. A new documentary premiering at the Sundance Film Festival captures how Mallory and the movement handled the crisis. It’s called “This Is Personal.” On Monday, Tamika Mallory and Linda Sarsour joined Rebecca Walker, author of the autobiography “Black, White, and Jewish,” and Nancy Kaufman, CEO of the National Council of Jewish Women, to discuss the controversy.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re broadcasting from the Sundance Film Festival in Park City, Utah, where a documentary about the Women’s March has just premiered. The film is titled This Is Personal. It’s directed by Amy Berg. The film’s premiere comes shortly after women’s marches were held across the country on January 19th. But some of this year’s marches were steeped in controversy, resulting in smaller turnouts, and, in the case of New York, two separate marches.

In November, Teresa Shook, one of the founders of the Women’s March movement, called for the removal of the four national co-chairs: Bob Bland, Tamika Mallory, Carmen Perez and Linda Sarsour. She accused them of allowing, quote, “anti-Semitism, anti-LBGTQIA sentiment and hateful, racist rhetoric to become a part of the platform,” unquote. In response, the co-chairs accused Shook of trying to fracture the network, denying her charges.

Much of the criticism focused on links between some of the co-chairs and the Nation of Islam’s Minister Louis Farrakhan, who’s been widely accused of being anti-Semitic. As an organization, the Women’s March released a statement saying Farrakhan’s statements were, quote, “not aligned with the Women’s March Unity Principles,” unquote. While Tamika Mallory and Linda Sarsour have repeatedly denounced anti-Semitism, they face some criticism for refusing to personally denounce Farrakan. The controversy erupted last February when Mallory attended an event where Farrakhan spoke.

The new documentary, This Is Personal, captures how Mallory and the movement handled the crisis. Part of the film chronicles an emotional meeting between Tamika Mallory and a rabbi in Brooklyn.

Well, on Monday, Tamika Mallory and Linda Sarsour took part in a discussion after a screening of This Is Personal here at the Sundance Film Festival. It was moderated by the writer Rebecca Walker, author of the autobiography Black, White, and Jewish. Linda Sarsour in Tamika Mallory responded to the criticism during a discussion which also included Nancy Kaufman, CEO of the National Council of Jewish Women. We begin with Nancy Kaufman.

NANCY KAUFMAN: Some of us were talking yesterday about the media. And the media has not been helpful on this issue. You know, these are—I’m someone who’s worked my entire professional career in activism at the grassroots level and in black-Jewish relations, Muslim-Jewish relations, anti-poverty. And so, I spent my life doing this work. And what I found from my experience is it’s all about relationships. And relationships can’t be sound-bited. And when you really are in relationship, like Amy and Tamika just described, you learn a lot more about each other and about what you each bring to it. And it’s very hard to do that when you have social media and print media and electronic media trying to tell your story for you. And this situation has been very powerful and very difficult.

It’s also very difficult when you’re communicating to a grassroots. I have a grassroots organization. I have 60 chapters across the country. And they’re reading about Louis Farrakhan, who, you know, hates Jews and is anti-Semitic, and why is the Women’s March supporting Louis Farrakhan. And you’re trying to message this and have conversations. It isn’t easy. And there’s just an enormous amount of work that has to go on, person by person, individual by individual. I give Tamika and Linda a great deal of credit, because rather than walking away from this or becoming defensive, they actually reached out to many of us in the Jewish community to have the conversation. Has that fixed it? No. Did many Jews not participate in the march? Yes. I was very sad to hear the bus from Brooklyn, that was three or four of them, two years ago, had 13 people on the bus. So, it had a ripple effect. I think Jews did show up all over the country. But there’s concerns.


NANCY KAUFMAN: And I think, Amy, you did a very, very good job—I’m sure it was a big challenge—of trying to deal with this, particularly—and I want to say this—in the wake of Pittsburgh. Even though the 56 percent increase in anti-Semitic incidents since 2016—most of us who know this know that it’s been white nationalists who have been perpetrating those acts—it doesn’t really matter, because when 12 people are killed in a synagogue, that gives us enormous angst in the Jewish community. And that, I think, played into this in a very, very large way, and really and sincerely.

And I think we have to unpack what is anti-Semitism, who’s—you know, who are the spokesperson, who aren’t the spokespeople, who are we going to allow to be the spokespeople, how do we denounce. You know, I denounce all the time people—and you touched on this—in my community who I consider racist, all the time. I confront them. So, what do we do about that? And how do we, as leaders—because I think it changes when you become a leader than when you’re a common citizen. As leaders, we have a responsibility to really articulate an intersectional approach to the work we’re trying to do.

So, I think this is complicated. I don’t think it’s resolved yet, but I think—I think it’s a challenge. And I think that we will continue to do everything we can to try to navigate it. I also should put the Israel issue on the table, to say that is a very, very complicated issue for us as Jews. Those of us who consider ourselves progressive Zionists, who believe in a two-state solution and believe in the rights of Palestinians and are feminists and believe in—that women will make the difference, ultimately, hopefully, feel concerned about that. But that’s a much longer conversation.

REBECCA WALKER: I’m glad you raised it, though. Linda, do you have anything?

LINDA SARSOUR: Yeah. I think my comment is more kind of on a moving forward basis, and I think that’s important. I think people walking away from this film understanding, I think, for me, two things, that this movement is going to be messy, and everybody is going to have to make a decision whether they want to be on this table or not.

I personally don’t have the privilege of making a decision whether I want to be in the movement or not in the movement, because our communities are under attack and my community is under attack, and I have a responsibility to protect those that are closest to me. And so, when we have these conversations, it’s not just about relationship building, which is very important to me as an organizer. Accountability is also important, and also understanding what kind of ideologies people are rooted in.

So, for example, one of the most important things that people don’t know, and we haven’t had the opportunity, because no media cares about solutions or nuance—they just want clickbait and, in fact, have put the faces of two women of color, who are under attack, who walk around with private security detail, because someone’s upset because they don’t understand why we make certain decisions. We are rooted in Kingian nonviolence. We are taught to attack the forces of evil and not those doing evil. That is what we are trained in. This is how we show up in the movements when you see us on the front lines.

So, for us, we don’t attack Trump directly. And Tamika was in the video telling you that she didn’t show up to the Women’s March because of one man. Just like we don’t answer for Minister Farrakhan. We show up to fight racism, anti-black racism, xenophobia, homophobia, transphobia, Islamophobia, misogyny, patriarchy, anti-Semitism, because after Donald Trump is out of office, there will still be all those things here. And God forbid something happened to the Minister Farrakhan—anti-Semitism has been here way before there was ever a Minister Farrakhan. He was not here thousands of years ago, while Jews have been under oppression literally for centuries. And there will be anti-Semitism after Minister Farrakhan.

So, for me, the accountability is also on ourselves to our communities, to say how dare you, at a time when white nationalism is on the rise, where 11 innocent Jews got killed in sanctuary by a white supremacist, the day after another white supremacist was sending pipe bombs to people’s homes, the day after another white supremacist shot two black people in Kroger’s because he couldn’t get into the black church, that we made Tamika Mallory and Linda Sarsour and Minister Farrakhan literally the whole story instead of focusing on the real threats to our communities, which is white nationalism.

So, what I’m—we have been asked and demanded of many things. And we have came out and said we understand and we hear the pain. And I understand. I’ve been working with Jews for over 20 years. I understand historical trauma. And a lot of this comes from historical—the reasons why people backlash is because they respond from a place of trauma. Black people have historical trauma. Lots of people have historical trauma. But we have to sometimes go back to our communities and say, “Let’s heal. Let’s find ways to deal with this trauma so that we’re not imposing our trauma on others who are also traumatized, and focusing on the people that are causing the trauma to our communities.”

So I’m asking my Jewish family in the room to have those hard conversations that we have decided to have with Nancy and with Stosh and Reverend—excuse, Rabbi Rachel and another Rabbi Rachel and Rabbi Barat—


LINDA SARSOUR: —and Rabbi Joshua and a lot of other rabbis and leaders across the country.

TAMIKA MALLORY: Rabbi Barat, Rabbi Ellen.

LINDA SARSOUR: Everybody. So, we’re calling you in to have the same kind of conversations that we’re having, within the Jewish community, just like I have to have conversations about anti-black racism within the Arab-American Muslim community, just like I have to have conversations as a progressive leader about homophobia in the Muslim community. I take those platforms all the time in my community, and I challenge my people every single day. And sometimes we’ve got to challenge our own people. And I’m asking you to—I’m welcoming you to challenge yourselves and your community, the same way that we are challenging each other right now in the movement, because, guess what, we’re all in this together. We either rise together, or we’re all going to fall together.

And I’m telling you right now, in 2020, I’ll talk to you about anything that you want, but anybody but Trump. I don’t want to hear anything else. I’ll talk to you, have the conversations, but all of us are in one boat, and the boat is called anybody but Trump. You either let the boat float, or the boat is going to sink and we’re all going down with it. I’ll be in Canada. But I want to stay on that boat and stay with you all here.

REBECCA WALKER: Thank you. Thank you. Tamika?

TAMIKA MALLORY: I think the issue that comes up in the movie is more about our communities than it is about Minister Farrakhan. He is being held as a proxy for a lot. And, you know, I’ve watched that happen over time. I’m not going to say that he doesn’t help it. Trust me, he knows exactly what to say and when to say it, in order to get the type of attention that he wants to bring to him for his particular reason. And so, I’m not sitting here to be an apologist for or an explainer for Minister Farrakhan.

The bottom line is that the work that we’re doing, the work that is being shown in this film, is work that if we don’t all lean into it really, really, really quickly and figure out like where is our place, even when we don’t agree on issues, as has been said, we’re going to go down together.

Whenever we can see our children screaming, “I want my aunt or anyone to please come and be with me,” a baby, that is locked up in a cage, laying on the floor with no blanket, nothing, people dying, children, 7-year-olds dying from dehydration—when we see 7-year-olds dying from a gunfight—that happened to a young woman by the name of Jazmine Barnes. A few weeks ago, she was shot in a car, 7 years old. I don’t know how many of you actually saw this, but two people were shooting. She was shot and killed. It was in the news for about two days. And the story is over. And the question that I am often asking people, people who love to critique, is: Do you know Jazmine’s name? Do you even know the name of the person who killed people in the synagogue? Do you know their name? Or do you know the name of Minister Farrakhan? And if that’s the only name you know, there’s a problem. There’s a problem when we don’t know the names of those who are really, really, really brutally harming our communities. There’s a problem.

And whatever you think about me, you know, after watching this film, is completely fine, because I know who I am. And thank God I have parents who have helped to root me in—I want to just—I don’t want to cry, but I want to say that, you know, my parents have rooted me in such a realness about who I am, that even when it was difficult going through this process, my mom and dad kept looking at me, saying, “You didn’t come here for those people. You came here for Ray Ray and them, who are still on street corners in this country, and nobody is going to save them. These conversations, these headlines, these folks are not willing to go to those street corners to save those individuals. They will not meet you there. They will not be there. You have to find a way to help them soften their hearts to come with you, but they are not there. You are there. And that’s who you have to go back and get.” And every time I put that in the front of my face and in the front of—just in my thoughts, every minute that I had clarity enough to understand why I’m in this work, all the noise just kind of went away, because I realized that the more I focus on that noise, there is an actual apparatus that is working behind the scenes to ensure that we all focus on the noise and that we don’t focus on the real issues that are tearing our communities apart.

And I think that the thing that I want to say on behalf of black folks who agree with me, because not all black folks agree, but on behalf of those who do agree, it’s very difficult for us, because what we realize is there is never—you know, Stosh was saying in the film that just at the moment that Jewish folks, especially white Jewish folks, feel safe, that’s when, actually, you all, whoever may be in the room—let’s be, you know, personal about it—are not safe. And the thing that I want people to know about my community is that we are never safe. There’s never a moment when we feel like we’re safe and then something happens. Excuse me, mom, [bleep] is happening to us every single moment of the day. So we don’t ever have a moment of safety. We don’t ever have a moment of comfort. We never have that. And it’s very difficult for us when people come with trauma, that we understand, and say, “Well, you know, we’re upset with someone in your community who was helped to lift these people who are in unsafe moments every single day of their lives.” It’s very difficult.

But what we learned is that the pain that our communities are suffering together is one that’s going to make us have to address these issues, because if we don’t, we’re not going to be able to build a movement that is big enough to fight all of these different forms of oppression. So that’s why I keep saying that I have grown so much, because even though I know that the challenge that black people are dealing with is constant, I also understand that anti-Semitism and all the other issues, the isms that we talked about, are issues that just really are replacing—I’m going to be quiet—they’re really just replacing moments, and therefore we’re in a burning fire and the whole house is actually burning down, and therefore all of us are going to have to become firemen and women.

REBECCA WALKER: So, we have some questions from the audience, and we don’t have a lot of time, but I think these are very important. One, how do you balance the emotional trauma experience from your personal lives with the political attacks that try to smear your motives?

LINDA SARSOUR: It’s a part of the movement that people don’t see. And I think it’s important for people to understand, at least for me and Tamika, we have children. I have three. And it’s also the conversations that we have to have with our own children. Why does someone hate their mother? You know, why—”Mom, why do they hate you? Why do they hate us?” And these are—my kids are—two are in college, one is in high school. So I’m not running around toddlers. These are people that are not—these are young people who are not sheltered from the world around us.

So, and for me personally, like people will say, “Oh, I’ll go out with my family, and I’ll go on vacation, or I’ll go”—I don’t get to do that. I don’t get to be in public spaces with my children like other people get to go to restaurants and have a dinner out with the family, because I’m very easily recognizable everywhere I go. And I’ve had many moments where people have recognized me and engaged in behavior that I do not want around my children, that could escalate. For me, a lot of the times, like after, you know, we went to Vegas for the launch of Power to the Polls, which started our voter program at the Women’s March, Tamika and I—a friend of Tamika’s was like, “Get a flight. But I got the rest.” And a friend of hers actually sent us to Jamaica. Like we went to some secluded part of the world, because we couldn’t—we just can’t be acting regular and going to places where people recognize who we are.

But, for me, sisterhood. My solace goes in my sisterhood with Tamika. That is why I will unequivocally stand with Tamika. I will fight for her. I will take a bullet for her. And this is the kind of solidarity that we have built in the relationship that we have, including Carmen Perez, who many of you know. We are three. We will rise together; we will go down together. And that’s the kind of relationship that gives me solace, because as I walk into the world, I know that I have people who will unequivocally stand with me, whose relationship with me is not, you know, equivocal, or, I mean, conditional. And also my family. I mean, you know, my family has been my rock. And for me, finding solace in a family who has understood oppression and came to America because of oppression, and being able to be my Palestinian grandmothers while this dream manifested in the States is something that holds me and centers me and keeps me sane, in a movement that is crazy and wants us to be crazy.

And just to be—and just to say to folks here, I want you to know that we’re cool with the headlines. Like, people can write from here to tomorrow about us, because we know that we are part of a legacy of leaders that came before us that were also smeared and vilified and dehumanized, including the greats that people were just talking about last week, like Dr. Martin Luther King. So that also gives me solace, that I am just a continuation of a struggle in America where those who are the most effective, the most powerful and the most intersectional, that are able to bring a lot of people together that usually don’t get together, become very dangerous in America and are going to be always attacked. And not just attacked, but there’s a—just to be clear, there is almost like a—there’s like a formula for it. They start with certain things: dehumanization, vilification, make you into public enemy number one. They try to break down your movement. When they see that they’re not winning, the last thing that they do, and they’ve done it to many before us, is an assassination. And I think that we in this country are not immune to seeing the potential assassination of our leaders, especially under an administration like this one.

So what I call people to do is disagree, challenge, critique, but you never want to be part of a story where one of our leaders in this movement is assassinated based on the type of conversation that has been started, that we sometimes participate in, or sometimes we just sit back and stay silent, because silence is violence.

REBECCA WALKER: Fantastic. Nancy, do you want to take—

NANCY KAUFMAN: Yeah, I want to jump in, because I don’t want to lose sight of the common enemy we have up here, which is, the white nationalist movement is delighting in the divisions that they’re really, you know, promoting within this movement. And don’t—I really don’t want—I want to really be clear that particularly as a women’s movement, as a movement led by women of color, that there’s a playbook here. And that’s what I think we need to rise above, because—Linda mentioned 2020. Every day that goes by, everything we have fought for and that I have fought for and my organization has fought for, for over a hundred years, is going down to the tubes. The next will be Roe v. Wade, something that is, you know, really, really critical. There’s the border, the DACA. I mean, think about it. Every single thing that we care about. So, I just want to try to—and I’m working to get my community to look much bigger. And I think, you know, way beyond the day-to-day, we’ve got to look at the larger scale. And that’s what this movement has done and begun to done, which is to pull everyone up. So, I really—I have to be optimistic.


AMY GOODMAN: Nancy Kaufman, CEO of the National Council of Jewish Women, along with Linda Sarsour and Tamika Mallory, co-chairs of the Women’s March. This was part of a discussion with others, moderated by the author Rebecca Walker, after the premiere of the new documentary This Is Personal, directed by Amy Berg.

This is Democracy Now! When we come back, Tessa Thompson. Stay with us.

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