Jewish Women of Colour Leading the Way

“I am not free while any woman is unfree, even when her shackles are very different from my own.”

-Audre Lorde. African American feminist, womanist and poet

The recent National Women’s March in DC and in cities around the US was a powerful mobilization of activism and unity – fighting for all women, fighting for all peoples, fighting for justice and celebrating female leadership. And on that Shabbat morning, it was an historic, moving moment for Jews. Jews in DC marched together, led by Jewish women of colour, all chanting together, “Tell me what Jews look like. This is what Jews look like!”  Then, on the podium, stood a group of Jewish women of colour – one woman with a Torah in her arms, others wearing tallitot (prayershawls), as Yavilah McCoy and April Baskin, both Jewish women of colour serving on the 2019 Women’s March Steering Committee, addressed the crowd.

The lead up to this March was complicated for Jews. There has been a whirlwind of controversy around March founders Tamika Mallory and Linda Sarsour for their associations with Louis Farrakhan, the Nation of Islam leader known for his history of virulent anti-Semitic comments. Mallory was particularly criticized by segments of the Jewish community for not publicly denouncing Farrakhan. The issues of anti-Semitism being seen and recognized among activist circles on the left are felt with heightened sensitivity as anti-Semitism was left off of the 2017 March’s list of systemic oppressions to stand against in solidarity. There are also voices supporting Palestinian liberation that overlap with anti-Semitism. Jews differed on how best to respond and whether to join or boycott the March.

Building coalitions is complicated and messy work. Some hold the view that sharing a podium or joining a coalition with those whose views or actions you disagree with or even find odious is giving them license or even tacit approval. Others hold that activist work has to build alliances, joining together on focused issues and leaving other differences on the sidelines. And still others hold the view that the work to build real unity around common cause can only be done in relationship, in conversation, and as part of an ongoing process that includes being visible to one another in our various peoples’ hurt and struggle, our shared aims and our differences, and working our way toward deeper understanding and partnership. There may be right times for each of these approaches.

McCoy and Baskin spoke directly to the third model for the work and aims of the March. Their words are brave, brilliant and a clear call to action. McCoy talked about lifting up a new Jewish reality, with women of colour in the leadership, and she extended an invitation to all women to stand in solidarity with them, to help them be fully seen. She invited the crowd “to help us to join movement work. To acknowledge that the pain of anti-Semitism is real and it cannot be condoned, equivocated or excused but must be dealt with – face to face, heart to heart, eyeball to eyeball as family. Jewish women of colour are here to do this work together and we’re to do it in the context of liberation because the fight for justice means being intersectional. It means that there is no other movement for us to be a part of. It means that we’re doing this work because we love our people, all of them.”

You can hear their words –

Friends, we have been doing important learning, thinking and speaking out about anti-Semitism, committed to a form of engagement that does not hunker down in fear, in isolation or in defensiveness, but that reaches toward solidarity with others. I am excited for us, Jews and non-Jews, to explore what this all means in our own lives and hearts, in our connections within the broader Jewish community and with various other communities. I invite you to be part of the conversation in the upcoming “Jews and Allies United to End Anti-Semitism”series I am teaching over the coming weeks.

In tandem with this work, let’s talk as a community about issues of racism and their intersection with being a Jewish community – what is the work for us to do within the DJC, lifting up the experiences, voices and leadership of Jews of colour and other underrepresented voices? For those of us who are white, what does our process look like to get us ‘in shape’ to be part of the work to end racism? What is the work we want to engage in as a Jewish community, addressing anti-Semitism in wise, relational new ways among intersectional liberatory movements, and how can we ensure that the presence of anti-Semitism, when it comes up, does not distract us or scare us away from showing up as allies and partners to other targeted groups? Can we take up McCoy’s charge to step into this work, face to face, heart to heart, eyeball to eyeball, as family?

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