Staying at the Table: The Women’s March and Anti-Semitism

This week’s Torah portion, Bo, includes a text from the Passover seder.  Through my family’s seder table ruckus, I always hear the special emphasis my family reads in this part.

“And you shall explain it to your child on that day: ‘It is because of what the Eternal did for me when I went free from Egypt.’

They always emphasize Me. I.  “It is because of what the Eternal did for me when I went free from Egypt” (Ex 13:8). What is the point of the emphasis—me, I?  It’s personal! Our story of redemption, and the redemption we bring into this world with social justice—it’s personal.

This Shabbat brings the 3rd Women’s March, another step on the road to redemption—a road that for me, feels personal.  The ongoing and heightened dilemmas surrounding the March also feel personal.

The Women’s March — an international experience that shines a light on gender injustice and inspires work for equality– is important.  For, in the words of the godmother of Title IX, Bernice Sandler, who died this week at the age of 90: “Women and men are far closer to equal, than they have ever been in the history of the world, but we have only taken the very first steps, of what will be a very long journey.”  The Women’s March is important, and it has attracted controversy in recent months and even years.

Some of the March leaders are involved in anti-Israel Boycott-Divestment-Sanctions movements, and some have aligned themselves with Jew-hating Americans.  The leaders eventually issued a statement of commitment, to stand against anti-Semitism, but it did not come as promptly or as detailed as some of us might have preferred.

The Jewish response, or responses, have involved calling out anti-Semitism, which is critical.  And the Jewish community needs to ask: Should the Anti-Semitic ties of some Women’s March leaders, be reason to walk away from the March?  And, what are the best strategies for how to stand as strong feminists and Jews against sexism and anti-semitism?

For us in Philadelphia, the question may be a little easier, because the Philadelphia March is independent from the DC March, and Philly Women’s Rally has issued the following statement:

“The Women’s March on Philadelphia… (is) not now, nor have we ever been, affiliated with the national Women’s March organization… We are a group of proud women and femmes who are Jewish, Muslim, LGBTQ, African-American, Latina, and many other things. We stand against and denounce hate and bigotry in all their forms, including the recent increases in anti-Semitism, racism against people of color, and attacks on LGBTQ people.”

Now, even knowing the Philadelphia independence and statement, there is still a clear connection with the national movement.  We all march on the same day.  It’s messy.  And so, to those who choose to walk away from even an independent March, I understand.

But I choose to support the Women’s March.  As others have voiced: I support the Women’s March because I want the Jewish community to be present in our nation’s most significant efforts for women’s equality. As others have voiced: I support the Women’s March because social change partnerships are imperfect.  And I support the Women’s March because, and this I have not been hearing from others—I support the Women’s March because I believe it is good for the Jews.

Here is my frustration about the recent Jewish community debates: Instead of asking the questions: Should the Anti-Semitic ties of some Women’s March leaders be reason to walk away from the March? And, what are the best strategies for how to stand, as strong feminists and Jews, against sexism and anti-semitism?… instead of asking these questions in open conversation, too many Jewish leaders have attempted, to define the meaning, of other people’s choices.  Those leaders have taken it upon themselves to decide that caring about anti-semitism demands boycotting the March.  But I see it differently.

Here’s why.  Last year, when I had the privilege of speaking at the Philadelphia Women’s March, I was aware of the accusations of anti-Semitism, at least in the national movement.  Even here in Philadelphia, although the tone was not anti-Semitic, there were very few Jews among the organizers and speakers. So when I spent my time backstage, engaging with the other speakers, I felt a bit like a stranger.  But that meant my Jewish presence, in those conversations and on the stage, was all the more important.

When we are sitting at a table where we are the stranger, or the minority, or even where we are not welcome, what does it mean when we stay at the table?  Too many Jewish leaders have endeavored to answer this for the community by insisting Jews are never to sit at the table, with people who do not like us.

When we stay at the table, it does not indicate that we abandon our Judaism, and it does not indicate that we tolerate anti-Semitism.  My colleague Rabbi Seth Limmer teaches an illustration from the Book of Genesis. In a story of division, our patriarch sits at the table with the stranger, a potential adversary.  In Genesis 26, “Vayashev Yitzchak” / Isaac sits at the table with Abimelech.  The 2 shared a difficult relationship: Isaac profited by lying to Abimelech, and Abimelech’s people –the Philistines– stopped up Isaac’s family’s well. Still, when the Phillistines approach him for the common good of ratifying a treaty, Isaac is open to the invitation, comes to an agreement with them, and then shares a meal.

In the last decades, one of the most powerful ways Jews have combatted anti-Semitism, is not by disengaging, but by staying at the table, helping people who don’t know Jews, to know us.  Especially when we want to invest in important relationships.

And so, when some mainstream Jewish leaders are practically calling for loyalty oaths—an approach that, for this issue and for other issues will not inspire future generations of Jews—when some leaders expect me to choose between my Jewish loyalty and my feminist loyalty, I reject the false choice.  No one gets to decide, the meaning of my action, my words, my support. No one can tell me, I can’t be both a Zionist and a feminist, or that I can’t care about both Jewish Israelis and Palestinians.  And no one can tell me, that if I support the March, I am indicating my Judaism comes second.  Judaism is on my lips, in the words of Torah every day; it is in my mouth in the food choices I make; it is in my feet in my observance of Shabbat; it is in my soul in my daily struggles with God and mitzvot.  No one can tell me my Judaism comes second.  No one gets to decide for me, what my choices mean.  No one can tell you, your Judaism comes second.  No one gets to decide for you, what your choices mean.

No one gets to decide there is only one way to be a loyal Jew—as if the only way to combat anti-semitism—is to walk away from the march, the table, the conversation!

Each of us needs to determine: what is our mitzvah, and what is the meaning of that action.  It is what God did for me when I went free from Egypt.  Justice work is personal.

I will suggest this: whether you support the Women’s March, or you walk away from it, find a way to lift up with intention, both feminism and Judaism.  If you choose to walk away from the March, find a way, in something you do this week, to advance women’s equality.  If you choose to attend the March, bring your Jewish presence in a sign, a t-shirt or a kippah—talk to other marchers of all backgrounds. For those who choose to march, I am proud that a Rodeph Shalom group will meet up; we encourage you to come here to Torah study first, that, in the words of this week’s Torah portion, “the Eternal’s teachings may be on your mouth” when you walk for gender justice.

It is so personal!  The Eternal did this for me, when I went free.  This is my relationship with God, my people, my story, my redemption.

May we do God’s work in furthering that redemption, for the Jewish people, and for all people.