The politics of division and diversion

January 26, 2017
Demonstrators take part in Women’s March D.C. on Jan. 21. Photo by Lucas Jackson/Reuters

On Saturday, millions of people around the world took to the streets in Women’s Marches, proclaiming fidelity to basic fundamental rights for women, people with disabilities, religious minority groups, immigrants and all vulnerable populations.

In the days following the marches, relentless attacks have been leveled against one of the organizers, a Palestinian-American-Muslim activist from Brooklyn named Linda Sarsour. Character assassinations and attempts at guilt-by-association have been disseminated by white supremacists and fake news outlets.

What’s driving these attacks? Why Linda and why now? This smear campaign comes on the heels of what may be the largest mass mobilization in recent history. Marches took place not only in DC, Los Angeles, New York and Chicago; large groups also gathered in Phoenix, Knoxville and Wichita, and folks braved the 15-degree cold to protest in Anchorage. Across the world, in Paris, Tel Aviv, London, Bangalore, women and men stood together for justice and equality. Look at the photos from Antarctica. There’s something happening here.

Clearly, this march struck a nerve. I spoke at the march in DC, where I said that sometimes it happens—maybe once in a generation—that a spirit of resistance is awakened at the intersection of love, faith and holy outrage. This is one of those moments: voices of moral clarity are echoing from the far reaches of the planet calling for love over hate, progress over regress, and inclusion over exclusion.

That would be enough to make some strident traditionalists shake in their boots. But there’s more. This was not only a mass mobilization, it was organized by women. Young women of color to be exact. The leaders were unapologetically feminist. The participants were women and men, LGBTQ and heterosexual, Black, Brown and white, Jews, Muslims, Christians, Catholics, Sikhs, people of all faiths and none. In a country still propelled by the rule of powerful white men, this was deeply threatening. The language was one of love and moral courage, reflecting a significant shift in both consciousness and power, signaling the emergence of a new kind of leadership and driven by a new set of priorities.

What to do when the ground begins to shake? Distract, disrupt and discredit. Paint a young activist and mother as a fundamentalist Muslim who wants a Sharia takeover of America. No matter that that’s not who Linda Sarsour is, what’s important is that the seed of suspicion is planted in the minds of otherwise thoughtful and discerning people, who quickly begin to worry that this new movement is tinged by violent extremism.

These attacks are clearly an attempt to undermine the legitimacy and importance of what happened on Saturday, to divert attention from the unprecedented grass-roots protests against a dangerous and retrograde agenda that threatens the very democratic core of our nation.

Of course, apart from the fake news and outright lies, many will still disagree with Linda’s views on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. As a rabbi and progressive Zionist, I, too, disagree with Linda on many of these views, and she and I have had fruitful and respectful conversations where our perspectives diverge. That we disagree does not disqualify her as a serious activist and leader, nor does it tarnish or diminish the outstanding work she is doing as an organizer fighting racial and gender injustice.

The Women’s March organizers achieved something extraordinary last weekend. It was a massive peaceful, positive and hopeful demonstration, and I was honored to be part of it. It was, in fact, Linda who invited me to have a voice at the podium. And when the hour grew late, it was Linda who insisted that we not end the program until I had a chance to speak.

In this time of rising demagoguery and vicious personal attacks, we have to carefully discern between real news and fake, between actual facts and “alternative facts,” between guilt and guilt-by-association.

And we must recognize that in multi-faith and coalitional politics, we won’t agree on all issues all the time. As I said at the march, I believe our nation is suffering from a soul crisis, rooted in a cynical politics that pits vulnerable populations against each other. The antidote to this toxic new reality is spiritual resistance, a reawakening to our shared humanity. One nation, indivisible. It is our job to stop shouting and start listening long enough to find the humanity and shared purpose even in people who hold perspectives that differ from our own.

We are living now in dangerous times, and we’ll see more campaigns of diversion. Remember that resistance is a muscle. We are going to have to get very good at distinguishing between the real story and the obfuscation. In this case, we can start by going back to the real story: the radiant display of faith, hope and solidarity on the streets this past Saturday.

Sharon Brous is rabbi and founder of IKAR Los Angeles.

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