Living Our Values: A Letter From JFREJ Executive Director Audrey Sasson

A core tenet driving our organizing at JFREJ is that none of us are free until all of us are free and that we all have a shared stake in building towards collective liberation. We are an intersectional, multi-racial, multi-ethnic, cross-class, multi-gendered, differently observant, and intergenerational community of Jews, engaged in interconnected struggles in service of justice for all people.

Voicing these values is one thing, and living them out is another — especially in a world that is still weighed down by the ugly forces of white supremacy, capitalism, and misogyny, among others. It is in this context that we are writing to you today, in the wake of the controversy surrounding the Women’s March and Louis Farrakhan.

A painful truth about working to build powerful movements for justice across many communities is that sometimes we disappoint and hurt one another, especially in times of great stress. The question in those moments is, “Will we let our larger movements buckle under that stress?”

When JFREJ began our Understanding Antisemitism project, it was partly because we knew that many of our allies working toward social justice  — including many Jews — have an incomplete grasp of antisemitism. This includes people who may still be learning about Jews and our histories, as well as about the danger antisemitism poses to us directly and to the effort to dismantle white supremacy more broadly. When this happens, we have an opportunity to reach for each other, and gently  — yet firmly — hold one another accountable as we work together to reclaim our future.

Our ability to do this was tested recently when one of the four co-chairs of the national Women’s March organization publicly attended a Nation of Islam event in which its leader, Louis Farrakhan, spewed hateful and indefensible rhetoric against Jews, women, trans and queer people.

Since the incident became public in a flurry of media coverage, JFREJ has worked  — often behind the scenes — to engage with the Women’s March and other stakeholders. In the process, we have wrestled with many questions that we imagine many of you may be wrestling with as well. We are unwilling to sacrifice our dignity as Jews, even for a moment.While we may have very real reasons to feel hurt, we also know that there are people all too eager to cynically capitalize on this moment to destroy one of the most powerful groups to rise up in resistance following the 2016 election. We don’t claim to have all the answers yet, but we know that the way forward can only emerge if we stay on the path, with our eyes fixed firmly on the prize. So in this moment, we are holding all of the following truths at once:

First, JFREJ adamantly condemns Louis Farrakhan’s antisemitic, homophobic, transphobic, and misogynistic statements and worldview. They are antithetical to any project of collective liberation — like ours — rooted in a conviction that solidarity across difference is key to our longtime safety and thriving.

At the same time, JFREJ believes that the Women’s March is a powerful force, and a valued partner, in the broader movement against the rise of the far-right. We are continually inspired by the bold, galvanizing leadership of women of color in this moment and we have no interest in helping tear down strong black women leaders who all too often bear the brunt of ruptures in our movement spaces. We wish the Women’s March had been quicker and firmer in rejecting Farrakhan’s bigotry and we have expressed that to the organization. But we are also cognizant of the distorting double standards applied to women leaders of color, and the constant scrutiny and relentless political attacks they face.

We as Jews — and women, queer and trans folks — have every right to expect that our allies not treat us as disposable in the march toward justice. Some of us feel hurt, outraged, or even betrayed that one of our allies sat through a profoundly antisemitic speech, amplified her participation on social media, and did not offer a public objection. We cannot and will not dismiss or minimize these feelings — they’re real and we honor them.

Which brings us back to the original question: do we let these moments of crisis undermine our movements? We believe that in moments like these we need to fight harder than ever before to remain united. Doing so takes courage and patience and a willingness to listen to one another, while not shying away from difficult conversations that we know are inevitable. We draw on our abundant resources, histories, and traditions in moving through these moments in order to strengthen our resilience for all that we face together for the long road ahead.

The path forward:

A key learning from our Understanding Antisemitism project is that there is no defeating white supremacy  — including anti-Black racism, Islamophobia, and xenophobia  — without also confronting antisemitism. We’re invested in sharing this analysis with our movement partners and developing a shared framework for accountability and solidarity between our communities so that we can all do better at having each others’ backs. We urge our partners to utilize the resources we have provided and join us in incorporating the fight against antisemitism into our collective work against white supremacy.

As part of that process, we believe there are conversations to have in person, in more intimate settings — outside the glare of traditional and social media, and at a slower pace — and others that we must have more publicly. We know that the biggest beneficiaries of the media firestorm surrounding the Women’s March are Farrakhan himself, as well as the political right, and the white nationalists in the White House, where antisemitism was on full display last week. And we believe that tackling antisemitism is in everyone’s self interest, as is the work we are doing to grow from this moment.

We have held one important, productive, first-start conversation between Women’s March leaders and members of our own Black, Jewish community. We promise to have more with our wider membership soon. And we are committed to exploring and considering new modes for public accountability that center teshuva — action toward repair.

As we approach Passover, we remember the grumblings of the Jews in the desert, as they wrestled with the challenges of getting free, and the temptation to give up and turn back to the arms of their oppressors. Getting free is hard, long-term work. Succumbing to the ways oppression pits us against each other and giving up as a result ultimately serves those in power. Our power is in our commitment to the hard work, and holding onto our biggest, boldest, most aspirational visions of liberation.

We are proud to move forward with all of you, building on a Jewish commitment to collective liberation that spans generations, and we will be in touch with updates soon on how we plan to continue this conversation, together. In the meantime we are sharing some resources below to help unpack and reflect on this moment.

In solidarity,
Audrey, on behalf of the JFREJ staff and board of directors

Further reading and resources:

Understanding Antisemitism – JFREJ
Lead authors: Leo Ferguson, Dove Kent, Keren Soffer Sharon

Skin in the Game – Political Research Associates
Eric Ward

Making Our Movements Stronger by Resisting Antisemitism – Everyday Feminism
Dania Rajendra and Jonah S. Boyarin

A Word About Louis Farrakhan and Tamika Mallory – The Root
Terrell Jermaine Starr

Farrakhan and the Cycle of Stupidity – Medium
Mik Moore

Why Tamika Mallory Won’t Condemn Farrakhan – The Atlantic
Adam Serwer

The Past Didn’t Go Anywhere: Making Resistance to Antisemitism Part of Our Movements
April Rosenblum