The Sisterhood of Salaam Shalom is a North American grassroots organization bringing Muslim and Jewish women together to get to know one other and together stand up to hatred. Yet despite its mission, the organization is not getting involved with the competing Women’s Marches being held in New York (two of dozens of marches around the country) this Saturday, January 19.
Not shying away from inflammatory issues, back in November, SOSS members at their 5th annual national conference got the challenge from co-founder and sister-in-chief Sheryl Olitzky, just after the murder of 11 Jews at the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh: “America is on fire. Are you ready to be the firefighters?”
In the all-is-right-in-America autumn splendor of a college campus, some 600 women, some in hijab, a few in yarmulkas, had come together at the conference of the only American organization of Jewish and Muslim women and teenage girls. Galvanized by Trump’s incendiary pandering to racism, SOSS membership has more than tripled since the 2016 election. After the Pittsburgh killings, SOSS provided some comfort. Black paper strips for all were the conference equivalent of the cut black ribbon worn by Jewish mourners. We mourned the 11 Jews murdered at Tree of Life synagogue and the two African Americans gunned down six days later at a Kentucky supermarket when the white killer couldn’t get into a black church.
Edina Lekovic, a founder of NewGround: A Muslim-Jewish Partnership for Change, based in L.A., told the assembled groups, “I’ve been here too many times – Muslim, Latino, LGBTQ, African American. Too many times, we’ve come together to grieve.” Quoting the Quran: “Surely with hardship comes ease.” But then this woman with the elaborately braided head covering put a new spin on it: “I used to think it meant, ‘First hardship, then ease.’” But then the subtler understanding: “It’s not sequential. Surely with the hardship, within the hardship is the ease.” Her message: “It’s time to go deeper. Neither fight nor flight but reconciliation and justice.”
What does that mean for Lekovic as an American Muslim? “Not just by marching in the streets but sharing the hard stuff, sitting together in living rooms, going deeper.”
That’s a bedrock principle of the Sisterhood of Salaam Shalom. For instance, the group has a directive: don’t try to solve the Israel-Palestine conflict till you’ve known each other for at least a year and built friendships that, hopefully, will humanize seemingly intractable political positions.
And now, a new test case: the dangers for Muslim and Jewish women of taking positions on the competing women’s marches with all their attendant drama.
At least in New York City, there will be two simultaneous events:
1 ) Women’s March Alliance, with a march organized by the same group that did the first two New York City marches, is assembling at Central Park West and 72nd Street at 10 AM, stepping off after a rally at 11 AM. Their home page states: “We do not support any organization or person that is anti-Semitic, anti-gay, anti-woman, or does not support equal rights for every human. We welcome any and all people who want to raise women’s voices through education and activism.”
2) Women’s March Inc. NYC, an offshoot of the 2017 national march in D.C., will join with the New York Immigration Coalition for a rally at Foley Square, across from the federal courthouse, from 10 to 2 on Saturday. Their home page states: “The Women’s Unity Rally in NYC will highlight the leadership of Black women, immigrant women and women of color as part of the national #WomensWave, and in response to the Trump Administration’s continued assault on immigrant communities and communities of color.”
Reading about these dueling events, I feel I’ve just sustained a punch to the gut. I wonder: is a mass movement of women of all religious beliefs, colors, ages, sexuality and classes, standing up against our racist, misogynist administration, being threatened by corrosive politics? Why come to a city that already has a locally organized women’s march and start your own instead of working to bring more women of all colors and beliefs into the local march?
At least for this New York Jew, the locally organized march rallying at Columbus Circle then marching down Sixth Avenue is the one I’m going with. I’m gritting my teeth at the idea of women’s unity being threatened when we’re perilously close to losing our rights, including our rights to our own bodies. I don’t think boycotting the Women’s March or the competing rally is the answer. Judging by online comments, most women seem unaware of the competing marches or are frustrated and confused.
I’m making this choice in part because of the D.C. march’s problematic leadership that reportedly excluded Jews from the early organizing two years ago and still seems to wobble on whether it supports outspoken anti-Semite Louis Farrakhan. (As of January 14, the march’s leadership has expanded to include at least three Jewish women of color among the 23 women on the steering committee.)
My pre-Sisterhood self would have jumped in, criticizing the D.C. march leaders for excluding Jews from the original leadership then reportedly trying to move in on the local New York leadership.
But wait. I have decided to tread carefully. Jews and Muslims from our Sisterhood of Salaam Shalom Civil Rights Bus Trip are coming to New York City for the Women’s March and Martin Luther King Jr. Day. Some of my Muslim sisters may support the D.C. march, its local presence, and its leaders, including co-president Tamika Mallory and national march co-chair Linda Sarsour, an American Muslim of Palestinian descent. The D.C. leadership has publicly reaffirmed a welcoming stance towards Jews. Personally? I’m feeling different strokes for different folks.
And now, a new coalition of Jewish Women of Color is weighing in. The group, led by Yavilah McCoy, among others, is asking all Jewish women to march (wherever we are, including in the “official” Washington, D.C. march). We are being called to join as allies under the banner and hashtag #JWOCMarching, signifying that Jewish women of color are living their lives at the intersection of racism and anti-Semitism. McCoy and longtime feminist and social justice activist Shifra Bronznick, writing in the Forward, encouraged all Jewish women to join the official Women’s March to stand up for our rights.
Back to the Sisterhood of Salaam Shalom. Fortunately the organizer of our New York Sisterhood gathering is, literally, a rocket scientist. She’s laid out our personal options with precision: 1) Participate in the locally organized New York march. 2) Participate in the D.C.-linked New York rally. 3) Feel free not to participate in either.
Returning to Edina Lekovic’s “Neither fight nor flight,” all of us – Muslims and Jews – will be sitting down together after the march to talk about the tough issues we’ve restrained ourselves from struggling with online.
But wait – there’s more. Rev. Cathy Bristow, an interfaith minister whose mission is “relanguaging” the conversation around race and gender, came to my aid. Her advice: “Don’t say ‘competing marches’. The two marches are not competing. Women are not one concentric circle. There’s racism within that circle.” And then, her additional insight: “If there are two competing marches and you think there should be one, go with the other march.” In other words, lean in to your discomfort.
I am shaken out of my position. To my amazement, I think I’ll go to the Foley Square rally. And then, another breakthrough: I’ll go to both.
Wish all of us luck. Or maybe even pray for us.
- Women’s March Inc. NYC- Action Network rally with NYC Immigration Coalition (DC-affiliated group)
- Women’s March Alliance route info (separate group)
- #JWOCMarching press release
- RSVP and information for Jewish Women marching in Washington, DC.