Women’s March Jewish outreach director: ‘Anti-Semitism can be unlearned’

In her first interview since calls began for the Women’s March leadership to resign amid allegations of anti-Semitism, Jewish director of communications Sophie Ellman-Golan speaks about confronting anti-Jewish prejudice within the movement, the attempts to delegitimize the organizers, and how the March is putting forth a more inclusive vision.

The Women's March organizers at the annual march on January 21 in Washington DC (left to right): Bob Bland, Linda Sarsour, Tamika Mallory, Carmen Perez. (Kisha Bari)
The Women’s March organizers at the annual march on January 19 in Washington DC (left to right): Bob Bland, Linda Sarsour, Tamika Mallory, Carmen Perez. (Kisha Bari)

After the mass shooting of 11 American Jews in Pittsburgh’s Tree of Life synagogue on October 27, the first person who called Sophie Ellman-Golan — the communications director for the Women’s March — was Linda Sarsour, in tears. She asked Ellman-Golan, “What are we going to do?” and said her next call was going to be to the Islamic Center in Pittsburgh to talk to people there about ways to support the Jewish community.

In the days and weeks following the massacre, even as much of mainstream media was reporting on the disproportionally high levels of white nationalist violence in the U.S., attention pivoted back to the Women’s March’s failure to directly condemn Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan for his anti-Semitism, specifically referring to Jews as “termites” in a speech late last year.

Allegations of anti-Semitism within the leadership intensified after the Jewish American magazine Tablet published a report in which unnamed sources claim that co-presidents Tamika Mallory and Carmen Perez said Jews played a significant role in the African slave trade, and that they berated march co-founder Vanessa Wruble for her Jewish identity. Women’s March denied both allegations.

As a Palestinian-American and vocal supporter of BDS — which the Israeli government and its advocates equate with anti-Semitism — Sarsour has been targeted since joining the Women’s March. But as opposed to Mallory and Perez, Sarsour does not have a relationship with Farrakhan and has worked closely with Jewish communities for years.

Women’s March Communications Director Sophie Ellman-Golan. (Kisha Bari)
Women’s March Communications Director Sophie Ellman-Golan. (Kisha Bari)

The allegations against Mallory and Perez led to calls for the Women’s March leadership to resign, culminating in the withdrawal of partners ahead of the recent march, held on January 21, by the Democratic National Council and National Organization of Women, among others.

The only senior Jewish staff member on a small staff of about a dozen in Women’s March, Inc., Ellman-Golan, 26, is in a difficult position. She has in many ways taken upon herself the responsibility of serving as a go-between of sorts between the organization — which has become a symbol for all things left — and the Jewish community in the United States, which is diverse and increasingly polarized. On several occasions, Ellman-Golan expressed her desire for a firmer public condemnation of Farrakhan. “I was really struggling in the wake of Pittsburgh, as so many in the Jewish community were, and I felt a visceral need for Women’s March to see and speak to Jewish pain with compassion in a way I thought our community needed to hear.”

Ellman-Golan, who first became an organizer with Jews for Racial and Economic Justice in New York, said that Pittsburgh tore open a “barely scabbed-over wound” in the Jewish community, caused by Mallory’s refusal to denounce Farrakhan. She says she doesn’t always agree with decisions made and admits there were “unforced errors” in handling the issue since it first blew up a year ago. “We all know this: It’s not okay to say those things. It’s not okay to call people termites. I think that’s disgusting. When we fixate solely on that, there is a clear answer there. But when it comes to the question of who is actually a threat to our safety in this movement, there is a clear answer there too.”

Ellman-Golan is one of the first Jewish people Mallory has ever spoken to about anti-Semitism or has had a deep relationship with. In June 2017 — almost a year before the media backlash began in earnest — Ellman-Golan, who has known Sarsour, Mallory, and Perez since 2015 when they walked 250 miles together in the March2Justice to protest the killing of Eric Garner, heard Mallory tell a room full of colleagues that Jews were good with money, an incident Mallory mentioned in an interview with The Atlantic last year. Ellman-Golan later asked to speak with Mallory privately where she explained why the comments were upsetting and hurtful; she says Mallory had no idea.

In that two-hour conversation, she gave Mallory a copy of “The Past Didn’t Go Anywhere,” a widely-circulated 2007 pamphlet by Jewish American activist April Rosenblum on anti-Semitism in the left. It spawned a process over the last year that Ellman-Golan describes as “unlearning.”

Linda Sarsour speaks at a panel on Islamophobia at the Festival of Faiths, Louisville, United States, May 19, 2016. (Festival of Faiths/CC BY 2.0)
Linda Sarsour speaks at a panel on Islamophobia at the Festival of Faiths, Louisville, United States, May 19, 2016. (Festival of Faiths/CC BY 2.0)

“Anti-Semitism can be unlearned and addressed; it’s not an immutable characteristic to anyone. There is a better chance of addressing that on the left when you have Jewish leftists working closely with non-Jewish leftist leaders,” Ellman-Golan says.

Ellman-Golan says the left’s struggle to confront anti-Semitism makes Jews really vulnerable. But she is also frustrated by the inability of many in the Jewish community to see the work being done on the ground on the intersection of anti-black racism and anti-Semitism – and specifically her work as a Jewish activist and staff member inside the Women’s March. “The refusal to see the intentional efforts is infuriating. Yes, of course we should be held accountable for ways we’ve erred. But the constant erasure of the effort made – and of my very existence — is such a punch to the gut.”

One of her biggest fears this last year has been that the Jewish community will feel increasingly isolated from the Women’s March, while non-Jews would read the situation as powerful Jews taking down the movement – thereby reinforcing anti-Semitic tropes that exist on the left. “We are at a crisis point of such tension where things that happen now could really determine the narrative of relationships between black-Jewish communities for the next 20 years,” Ellman-Golan says.

During my phone interview with her, which spanned nearly four hours in two sittings, Ellman-Golan talked about the challenging and painful balance she tries to strike between paying heed to real and valid Jewish pain — which she herself has felt — and what appear to be concerted efforts by groups on the right to incessantly shift the focus to Farrakhan.

Tamika Mallory delivers a speech at the 2017 Tax March, Washington, D.C. (S L O W K I N G/CC BY-NC 3.0)
Tamika Mallory delivers a speech at the 2017 Tax March, Washington, D.C. (S L O W K I N G/CC BY-NC 3.0)

“The problem is when people only address the campaign that is clearly being levied against the Women’s March, they can perpetuate the anti-Semitic trope of ‘look how powerful the Jews are.’ But when people only talk about the [Jewish] pain, they ignore the fact that some people have really destructive motivations for keeping this narrative going…We have to be able to hold at once that people and movements are imperfect and that people can be really racist in their reactions to those imperfections. I am trying to hold that all the time.”

For Ellman-Golan, it would be much easier to just walk away. One of her concerns is that doing so would be weaponized by the right. There is, after all, a solid basis for those concerns. Nisi Jacobs, the founder of Women For All — which presents itself as an inclusive alternative to the Women’s March — has attacked Ellman-Golan, claiming she is not really Jewish because her mother, Barat Ellman, a rabbi and professor of religion, is a convert from Catholicism.

Rabbi Ellman was further accused of being a Jewish imposter promoting anti-Semitism in a recent Times of Israel blog post delegitimizing the identity of Jews of color. “Ellman has raised her daughter with the same twisted values,” the author, Debbie Hall wrote. Hall was recently, and quietly, removed from the Women For All team, an affiliate of March On, the organization Vanessa Wruble founded after claiming to be pushed out of the Women’s March.

“People want to organize, that’s fine,” Ellman-Golan says. “But don’t pretend to be a Jewish-friendly alternative when you are literally attacking Jews.”

Ellman-Golan believes there has been a fundamental shift, and that it was on display at the recent march when a contingent of Jewish women of color were invited to deliver speeches and walk at the front of the protest while holding Torah scrolls, along with march leaders Perez, Mallory, Sarsour and Bob Bland. Over the last year, Mallory and Ellman-Golan have had several joint dinners with their mothers.

The Friday night before the march, Women’s March leaders and partners held a Shabbat candle lighting ceremony led by Yavilah McCoy and Abby Stein — two of the three Jewish additions to the Women’s March’ Steering Committee. Ellman-Golan said it was the first time she felt so intentionally included as a Jew. “So much starts by internal inclusion and intentional welcoming,” she says. 

Asked if the optics of Jewish women of color carrying a Torah at the march could be seen as overcompensation for the controversy, Ellman-Golan said, “Sometimes things might be performative and overcompensating, but that is how things begin; correcting mistakes and putting forth a new vision or version of what something should look like. This is the first step.”

The night before her recent appearance on the Breakfast Club radio show, Mallory approached Ellman-Golan and told her she wanted to use the opportunity, speaking to a predominantly black audience, ahead of the march to talk about Jewish stereotypes and how harmful they are. This past Sunday, International Holocaust Day, Mallory tweeted “As I’m on my journey to learn more about my Jewish siblings and their history, I have been moved deep in my core. I am committed more than ever to standing up and protecting all people.”

Ellman-Golan says that is precisely the kind of cross-cultural and intersectional community building that makes her feel confident in her work. “This is the viable opposition movement whether people like it or not. This is it. It must include Jews because it must include Jews, but also because it won’t work if it doesn’t. The left needs Jews as much as Jews need the left.”