What I Learned From Talking To Both Sides Of An Activist-Zionist Conflict

I’m finally at the march.

It’s the March for Racial Justice, a march that here in New York City was created specifically because of a productive dialogue between the organizers of the Washington DC march that was scheduled for the day before, Yom Kippur, and between Jewish organizations who felt maligned for that reason.

And so today is very special, for me, for the Jews I’m with, for everyone there.  In fact, maybe something like half of the marchers are Jewish.

But it’s also special for another reason.  For more than a month now, I’ve been dreaming of this moment.  Until now, when I went to marches I went as a lone orthodox Jew.  People would ask me if I represented any organization and I would say, “I represent myself and my beliefs.”  And it broke my heart.

But today is different.  No longer alone, I’m standing with a group of orthodox Jews who have come together for their first public demonstration of unity.  Today was our coming out, and I had written about it effusively in anticipation of the joy I knew I would experience on this day.

There’s another group here, though.  One that is also having its coming out party, that has joined its first march publicly.  They are called Zioness Movement, and they are coming as proud Zionists marching as progressives for racial justice.

And I’m pissed off at them.

For the past month, our group had been working tirelessly to find the right way to join this march.  We wanted to come as proud orthodox Jews (and for all of us, that meant we were also Zionists: we believe that the state of Israel as a Jewish state deserves to exist), and we wanted to celebrate our first day, but we were determined to make sure that the world knew we weren’t there just for ourselves: we were truly committed to this cause.  To racial justice.

And so we discussed our wording before the march.  We discussed our signs, whether just having a logo would detract from the message of the march itself (we ultimately decided that the words Torah Trumps Hate fit both as our name and as our message at the march).  The leader of our group, Victoria Cook, posted in our group to discuss the kavanah (spiritual intention) that we had to come to the march with.

Especially as a group that has several Jews of color, and had already seen their pain when some of our members refused to truly empathize with their experiences, we knew that this determination to stick to the message of the march was absolutely essential.

And that is why I’m pissed off at Zioness now at the march.

Because it is clear to me, clear as day, that they are not here as allies.  They are here to say, “Zionists belong here too.”

And that’s it.

And I care about that message.  I am a Zionist.  I am angry at the demonization of Israel in the discourse of progressive activism.  I feel internally ostracized when people yell, “Justice for Palestine!” at the rallies I go to that have nothing to do with Israel or Palestine.

And maybe that’s part of why I’m so angry.  Zioness has come to this march with all the subtlety of a sledgehammer, and it’s immediately clear to me that this will backfire.  Because a part of their message, both in what they have said publicly to this point, and the defiant iconography of their signs, is that they are there to send a message to the march itself.

They may care about racial justice.  But they are also using this march opportunistically: to send a message about Israel.  Just like those people who yell about Palestine at marches that have nothing to do with it, they are injecting their politics about a foreign country into a march that is based around fighting for and with people of color.

All of these thoughts and this anger is really just a momentary flash, however.  I have more important business with the march itself.  I am in utter joy seeing all these orthodox faces, with their kippahs and sheitels (wigs) and tickles (head wraps) and tzitzis (garments with fringes coming from the corners).  I am busy talking to the press about why we’re here, how much we’ve had to go through to get to this point, and why marching for this cause is deeply connected to our religious identity.

And then Linda Sarsour speaks.

 

“Did she just speak about us?” a voice near me asks.

It’s one of our group.  A young orthodox woman who is one of the few orthodox Jews I’ve seen at past marches.

Linda Sarsour had just given a speech about how those who are coming to inject their politics here don’t belong.  How there are people at this march that don’t belong.  How if this is our first march, we better be ready to keep marching afterwards, otherwise we’re just opportunistic.

I look at this young woman, and I can see that for her, she didn’t feel the anger I felt at Zioness.  In fact, as I look around at our some of the people in our group, I can see the same look on their faces that I saw on the young woman.  Confusion mixed with fear, and some anger.  As far as they are aware, Sarsour was speaking about them just as much as Zioness.

None of us knew Linda Sarsour was even going to attend today.  And so this acrimony now threatens to overshadow the experience we are having.  And so I focus, gain my inner strength and I say, “Okay, the march is about to start!”

I want us to focus on what’s in front of us.  I didn’t need that anger about Zioness, and our group doesn’t need to wallow in anger about Linda Sarsour.  There was an earlier speaker who had almost said the exact opposite message: that all Jews are welcome in the movement, and that they were so glad to see every single one of us there.  So, in my mind, the focus now should be as it always was: on racial justice. Let’s go.

But then the press I had been speaking to comes up to me again.  Journalist after journalist comes.  They want to know: what did we think about Linda Sarsour’s speech?

And now the anger comes back.  Not just at Zioness, for being the source of what just occurred, not just at Linda Sarsour who decided to take their bait, but also at the press.  I know immediately that this will be the story of the march for many outlets.  They’ll veer from the message of racial justice and make it about the conflict between Zionists and anti-Zionists.

So I tell them all the same thing, and whisper to Victoria that I think this is how we should answer which she nods vigorously in agreement with: “We are not here to fight with Linda Sarsour.  We are here to march for racial justice.”

And it’s true.

And the rest of the day is beautiful.  As envisioned, we are an empowered group, marching in unity.  Leading chants, joining others.  Something about seeing a group of orthodox Jews scream “Black lives matter!” makes me want to cry.  Every single second of the rest of my day is a transcendent experience.

But in the back of my mind, I know what is coming.

 

I am at a bar.  It is after the march, and a small group has decided to celebrate the accomplishment while also discussing the issues still facing us.

I feel like an interloper.  In front of me are a few people involved in helping organize the march, others who partnered in it, and still others who have been activists for longer than I have been alive.

I am comforted, though, because I am sitting with my friend MaNishtana, a friend, fellow writer, and a black orthodox Jew who has been an activist for both communities for a long time.  He marched with Torah Trumps Hate during the march.

Because of the large Jewish presence of the march, there is a lot of discussion of the intersection of Jewish identity and social justice.  I am fascinated.

One of the main realizations I had had as I had begun writing about and against Trump was that he was not a one-off outlier.  Yes, he was an extreme, but he had come out of realities on the ground in America that had not been fully addressed and which had come out in an unhealthy, ugly way in this election.

Up until Trump, I had tried to be apolitical.  To not get too involved in the messiness of activism or even political writing because I knew that was the quickest way to turn people against each other.  I wanted people to come together, to see beyond their differences.

But Trump helped me realize that my quiet before was not true strength, and it wasn’t creating true unity.  If people can’t be united against things as ugly as a ban on Muslims or a man who publicly admits to sexually assaulting women, then what kind of unity really exists?  And, more and more, I had come to be aware that this desire for unity had caused me to be silent about things I cared deeply about like racial justice.

The march was the day after Yom Kippur, and so I suppose this was also a form of atonement: I would not let justice be sacrificed in the name of unity ever again.

But there are two sides to atonement: you can’t just ask God for forgiveness. It’s also about asking the people you’ve wronged.  So as I’m sitting there in the bar, I am trying to live that aspect.  I want to hear what they have to say.  And I want to learn.

But despite all I am learning, and despite all the listening I try to do, I can’t keep quiet about one thing.  Why, why on earth do these people associate themselves with Linda Sarsour who seems to only divide their movement, who made so many in my group today feel so ashamed despite only wanting to do good for the world, to fight for the cause of the march?

And so I ask them this.  And we go back and forth, but there is one line that sticks with me.

A woman looks at me seriously and says, “Something a lot of people who criticize Linda Sarsour don’t understand is that she fights for others.  Yes, she speaks up about Palestine, but she also speaks up for us.  She has repeatedly been on the front lines for us.  At Ferguson, she was there.”

And implicit in her comment is also an accusation: “Where were you?”

Where was I?  I was thinking that I was being an objective, thoughtful writer by condemning those who rioted while also quietly voicing my support for the cause.  Kind of.  Well, on Facebook posts, not in any articles, the places I as a writer truly make statements.

I was a slacktivist.  Linda Sarsour was an activist.  She had fought for others.

And for the first time, I am ashamed to admit, I was looking at Linda Sarsour beyond the lens of my own tribe.  I saw how to the woman in front of me, and to others, Sarsour represented a voice that they felt they desperately needed: one with a platform, a powerful voice, and a fierce commitment to not just fighting for her own people.

I still disagree with Sarsour, and with her decision to group “right wing Zionists” with white supremacists at the march, not to mention her words hurting people who had nothing to do with Zioness.  But I understand now why she was on that stage, and why she isn’t going away anytime soon.

And I understand on an even deeper level why Zioness’s approach was so counterproductive: instead of giving Zionists more of a voice, they had simply amplified Sarsour’s.  Because to the people sitting at the table, and to those who march, and to those who support the marchers, whatever Zioness’s true motives, they weren’t just marching for their own cause (problematic as that was), Zioness were also marching against a key ally who had made an enormous impact on the fight for racial justice.

I wanted to scream in frustration.

 

Instead, I wrote an article.

It was called, “No I Don’t Want To Talk About Linda Sarsour” and it was the message I had tried to share with the press at the march, but amplified: the press (and its audience) needs to stop obsessing over Linda Sarsour and start focusing on racial justice.  I had seen firsthand how much work, passion, and pain went into the march, and seeing the first article about the march come out be about Linda Sarsour’s harsh words instead of the march itself broke my heart and angered me deeply.

Of course, the argument did not accomplish much.  The press still obsessed.  The usual talking points were brought out, as they always are.  The left blamed Zioness.  The right made it seem like the entire march was a march for Palestine.  Zioness refused to take any responsibility for their part in the conflict.  Neither did Linda Sarsour.

Meanwhile, the march, and its message, was further overshadowed.  In the Jewish press especially, it almost seemed like those five minutes were the entirety of what occurred.

 

“I’m going to write about Zioness,” I tell my wife.

“Oh?” she says, looking up at me in surprise.  “Why?”

“Because I left out half the story, and now that the press has run with it, and the sides are up in arms, the argument has become binary.  I think it’s important that I don’t just leave my side of the story focused on Linda Sarsour.  Zioness is responsible for what happened.”

“Hm,” she says thoughtfully.  We sit there quietly for a moment.

“What?” I ask.

“It’s just… do you really want to demonize them like that?  I mean, you agree with their cause, don’t you?”

I nod apprehensively.

“And isn’t your problem that all of this has been just an excuse for anger and division within the activist community?  You really want to add fuel to the fire?”

I think, but I can’t help it: I need to write about this.  I’m not sure how to address this issue.

“And aren’t you friends with Chloe?” she asks me.

And that is what changes something in me.  Chloe Valdary, an outspoken advocate for Israel, and I had been friends for a while, but recently had developed a strong bond over our belief in spiritually-centered activism.  I recall her telling me that she was marching with Zioness, and how deeply that disappointed me at the time.  She seemed too nuanced for that approach.

I also remembered another line I heard at the bar the other day: “See, isn’t there something powerful about actually sitting down and talking face to face?”

This from another person, one whom I had used to bitterly disagree with but whom had become a friend and ally as Torah Trumps Hate began to form, despite our deep disagreements.

I was willing to sit down and talk with her, but not with Chloe?  Not with Amanda Berman, the founder of Zioness?

This makes no sense, I realize.  I can’t go forward without at least talking with Chloe, if not Berman.  I doubt, truly doubt, I am missing anything.  But I can’t go forward without getting their input.

Otherwise, it’s true, I am just another one of the people spouting talking points instead of focusing on genuine understanding and progress.

Later that night, I call Chloe.

 

As all of this is happening, I am beginning to get pressured.  People in the group want me to respond to Linda Sarsour, who has trashed my article.  I do not see the point, besides to literally give into the same temptations I argued against in my original article.  I still want my, our, message to be about racial justice, not public brawls.  So, I refuse.

The person who is most vocal in challenging me says he understands, but then presents me with a challenge: when will be the right time to talk about the issue of the demonization of Zionists in the social justice world?  When will we stand up for who we are, not just stand up for others?  Isn’t that the problem we sometimes see with other Jewish progressive groups, that they have to essentially hide their belief in Zionism if they want to be part of the conversation?

These are good questions, and I don’t feel like I have a proper answer.  When is the right time?

If not the march, and not after the march, then when?

It’s a question Emily Shire brings up in a piece that is deeply critical of Linda Sarsour’s speech: “Ignoring or expunging from memory what she said is not an option”.

True, I feel that all of them miss the point: that while this is not the time, there will be time.  But when?  And how?

I have no idea.  I’m not in a rush, because I believe we’ve let our fears of others so turn us inwards that we’ve lost all balance.  But it does trouble me that I can’t even imagine how this is going to be addressed.

 

I’m sitting with Chloe at lunch the day after the phone call.  We’ve been debating each other for a while now.  An hour or so.  Much of what she says still causes me to feel that Zioness was there partly to provoke.  Lines like, “Well, it did result in conversation,” are the kind that make me bristle: the implication that “conversation” is somehow an end worth achieving despite the costs to others.

It is this perspective that so deeply bothers me about the pro-Israel support of Trump: that the ends always justify the means.  In fact, this seems to go beyond Trump and into much of what the pro-Israel world does: the fear of Israel’s eradication is so profound that very often it seems worth sacrificing almost all ideals in order to preserve its safety.

But Chloe to me represents someone who sees beyond this, so I keep pushing.  As we keep going back and forth, she again brings up the question I cannot answer: if not the march, then when?

I don’t have an answer.  But I still know the march was not the time.  A march that worked so hard to keep Israel out of its platform.  A march that worked so deeply with Zionist organizations like T’ruah to make sure it was sensitive to the Jews participating in it.  A march whose focus on the innocent lives of people of color being sacrificed at the altar of American unity needed so desperately to be heard by the world.

Finally, we get deeper: I ask her, “What is the difference between you and a person bringing a Palestinian flag to a march like that?  You’re marching against people who do that, and yet you are employing the same strategy. Please tell me why you aren’t just reactionaries.”

She thinks for a moment and then says, “Because the March for Racial Justice was formed because of Charlottesville.  And in Charlottesville, they didn’t just yell for death to blacks and Jews.  They also yelled for death to Zionists.  Zionists are the targets of white supremacists in America, just as are people of color.  And so, Zionists belonged at that march.  Not because of Israel. Because of white supremacy.”

[UPDATE: The March For Racial Justice left this comment in response to this assertion: "We would like to clarify that the March for Racial Justice was created in reaction to the acquittal of the police officer that killed Philando Castile. While the horrific events in Charlottesville certainly drew attention to the need for racial justice on a national level, planning for the #M4RJ began in June.”]

In every piece of writing, every sign I had seen, every official word given by the Zioness movement, I had not heard this logic.  And that breaks my heart: because it is the first thing that she has said to me today that truly gives me pause. If that was the message of Zioness, I don’t believe anyone knew it.

And for the first time since the march, my anger over Zioness transforms from anger to sadness.  There was a good message in there, and an important one.  But it was so lost in all the arguments over the demonization of Zionists that no one heard it.

Now I feel even more than ever that Zioness had gone about it all wrong.  But at least now I don’t think they were all only trying to inject the left with pro-Israel-ism or to “march against the march” as I had said to others until then.  Yes, I believe some of them were still trying to do all that.  Yes, I think going to the march the way they did was wrong.  But this one message, at least, needed to be heard.

The tragedy was that, if anything, it was totally lost.

“You’re still meeting with Amanda tomorrow, right?” Chloe asks me.

I nod.

“Great.  Just remember, she’s feeling a bit raw right now.  Kind of getting it from all sides.”

“Okay.”

 

I’m sitting with Amanda Berman at a cafe in Manhattan, and she has tears in her eyes.

It’s for the briefest of moments, and she winks them back into oblivion, but it’s an image I know won’t leave me for some time.

Why? Why is there never a time for us?  We need to have this conversation. And what gives them the right to tell us that just by showing up as Zionists we’re being provocative?”

It’s the kind of refusal to take responsibility that bothered me when I had seen Chloe’s letter responding to critiques of Zioness in the Forward.  Both saying that the conversation needs to happen while also claiming that their intention wasn’t to provoke.

I had been pushing her on that point, which is why I think the tears appeared.

And again, she said exasperatedly, “This is what’s been happening for all this time. People keep telling us to find a different time.  A different time, a different time.  It’s never the right time.  Well, we made the right time.  And now we’re talking about it.”

It’s no longer the words that are penetrating me, however, but the very clear, very true, very real pain she is expressing.

This is the pain I see everywhere in my world.  Many of the people in Torah Trumps Hate are just as afraid of the activist world as they are of their communities.  They had overcome their fear of their communities, but the fear of never being able to truly be themselves even with the people they want to fight beside is one that is expressed in the constant debates our group has about how open we should be about our simple belief that the state of Israel should exist.

I see it in my friends, who wonder how I could betray my own people by allying myself with people who they think will never be open to discussing Israel with people like me, whatever our shared ideals are.

And I see it in myself.  It’s been hiding since the election, but it’s there.  And no matter what I think about the methods Berman’s group employed at the march, I share her tears of frustration.

And I understand my anger with her and Zioness much better now.  I was angry because of how much I identified with her struggle.  I was angry because I was afraid: afraid she had hurt that struggle.  Frustrated that I felt she had perverted it to do the opposite of what we both believed: that Zionist Jews have a responsibility and deep connection to things like racial justice because of our identities being so deeply connected both to the hate of white supremacists and to our belief in the rights of all peoples to determine their destinies (from Jews to people of color to Palestinians).

 

As we walked out, and she gives me a hug and asked me to stay in touch, I am grateful I had waited to write this article because I can now finally articulate both my disagreement and my kinship with movements like Zioness.

Like a person who holds in their anger for too long and lashes out, these movements often become counterproductive, feeding off the exaltation of finally speaking out rather than the true depth of addressing issues head on without that baggage.

And so, it’s not right to demonize them.  Not right for me, at least.

In the end, I am glad I met with both those who love Linda Sarsour and those who see her as a deep threat.  Because there are deep truths in both their worlds, and it is these deep truths that have caused these sort of public, unhealthy clashes.

But I am also sad.  Because I know that no matter what, I am committed to showing up to these marches, to these events, as a Torah-loving orthodox Jew.  But I also know that this part of me that is Zionist must be patient.  And sympathetic.  And understanding.

And, like Amanda Berman, like Chloe Valdary, like the people in my own community, I can’t help but ask the same question: when will be the right time?