February 21, 2020

Zioness Seeks to Create New Progressive Jewish Narrative

Graphic courtesy of Zioness

Barely two years after its founding, the progressive Jewish feminist movement Zioness has expanded its reach and has big plans in the works. 

At a briefing in Los Angeles on Sept. 20, Zioness founder and Executive Director Amanda Berman said hiring Carly Pildis as its director of grassroots organizing is just one of the many changes the organization is undertaking. 

Founded in 2017, the organization came to prominence that same year after the Chicago Dyke March initially refused to allow people to carry Jewish pride flags during the march (the March eventually reversed its decision in the wake of backlash). Zioness members participated in that march.

Today, Zioness has branched out to more than 30 cities including Los Angeles, New York and Washington, D.C., but is also working to provide resources to smaller cities. 

While Zioness promotes women’s equality, Black Lives Matter and LGBTQ  rights among others, the organization also tackles anti-Semitism in progressive spaces and has criticized former Women’s March, Inc. leaders Tamika Mallory and Linda Sarsour for their explicit forms of anti-Semitism, which include supporting the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement against Israel. 

Berman said when BDS and forms of anti-Semitism appear in places that have nothing to do with the social justice organization in question (including the aforementioned 2017 Dyke March and the 2019 Los Angeles Women’s March), many progressive Jews feel uncomfortable and turn away from fighting for causes they believe in. 

“Zioness is really about pushing anti-Semitism out of progressive spaces through a narrative shift. It’s hurtful when progressives who are running for office or hold office are perpetuating a narrative that is totally inconsistent with how American Jews feel.”
— Zioness Executive Director Amanda Berman 

“There’s been a real attempt to take over and really exploit a lot of progressive spaces and movements to talk exclusively about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict,” Berman said, “and it’s really hard for those movements because the conversation ends up being about anti-Semitism and Palestine and the conflict in the Middle East and foreign aid, and nothing to do with the domestic progressive agenda.” 

She added that if progressive Jews become “politically homeless,” they just won’t show up. The fear, Berman said, “is that if we don’t have a home on the left, we are done; we don’t have a voice and we are in big, big trouble.” 

Citing the recent decision by Mallory, Sarsour and Bob Bland to resign from the Women’s March, Inc. board, Berman said Zioness openly supported that decision. However, she said it became clear that it was too good to be true when Zahra Billoo was added to the board. Billoo has a history of tweets equating Israel to the Nazis and ISIS. 

“The things that [Billoo] tweets are truly some of the most vile things I’ve ever seen in an attack on the Jewish community,” Berman said. “It’s not even a question that if somebody spoke that way about any other community, nobody would give them one second to be a part of a progressive movement.”

Zioness immediately put out a statement condemning Billoo’s appointment. Within 12 hours, Women’s March, Inc. had removed Billoo from the board.

“We’re thrilled,” Berman said. “This is the first time the Women’s March has actually heard the Jewish community and seen the pain that we are trying to express and communicate. … I really hope that this will be a model for other progressive movements to see that it is possible to actually address anti-Semitism, even if it is masked as anti-Zionism.” 

Berman also noted that while it’s not possible to control what people say, anyone who wants to attend and support social justice causes should never be turned away because they are Jewish or identify as a Zionist. However, she added that the focus shouldn’t have to be on the Jewish community. “It’s about the advancement of the women’s movement and the women’s agenda, and if we are talking about anti-Semitism we aren’t talking about that.”

Zioness’ ultimate goal, Berman said, is to distribute its information to as many people as possible so they have the tools necessary to form marches and petitions in various communities. 

“It’s really important that we provide resources and direction to the lay leaders who have reached out and have said, ‘We need a Zioness chapter,’ ‘Zioness speaks for me,’ ‘Zioness is my natural ideological home but I know my community better than you do.’ ”

Berman cited the Twin Cities Zioness chapter in Minnesota as an example of this, which, she said, “has done amazing things,” including protesting outside a local bar where the owner used “Nazi-like” anti-Semitic rhetoric. Because the local chapter could target it quickly through the use of the Zioness’ materials, it was able to act on it. 

Of the 2020 Democratic presidential candidates, Berman said although Sens. Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren are popular among progressives, she was disappointed that Sanders and Warren appointed Sarsour and Max Berger (a former IfNotNow activist), respectively, to their campaigns. “It just doesn’t make sense,” Berman said. 

“Zioness is really about pushing anti-Semitism out of progressive spaces through a narrative shift,” she continued. “It’s hurtful when progressives who are running for office or hold office are perpetuating a narrative that is totally inconsistent with how American Jews feel. It makes our work really difficult. It makes Jewish life in America really difficult.”