At an historic time in our nation’s history, when women are running for political positions, being elected to office, advocating, speaking out and marching in the streets in record numbers, one of the most visible parts of this movement – the national Women’s March – is mired in controversy.

Some of the March’s leaders are accused of making anti-Semitic comments, associating with anti-Semitic people and initially not including Jewish women in the Unity Principles of the Women’s March.

Jmore asked me – as a Jewish woman, a member of Temple Oheb Shalom, a graduate of Baltimore City Public Schools and an activist with, among other organizations, Baltimore Women United – to write about why I am marching this year.

I am not just marching; I am planning our city’s march on Jan. 19 (which is unaffiliated with the national march) along with a diverse and inclusive group of women from around the city and county.

Questions, confusion and, yes, hurt have swirled around this controversy and the March. Should we march in Washington? Should we align ourselves with leaders who speak about us disparagingly? What does it mean to be a Jew and a feminist? Do we believe that our liberation is tied up with each other’s? How can we make a difference in this situation and make an impact on the direction of our city and nation? What do rabbis say? What do activists say?

The questions kept coming. So I read and reread many articles and position pieces, and spoke with dozens of people about this issue.

And I narrowed down my own critical questions to these:

Who benefits from division in the women’s movement?

We are in the midst of a powerful, unprecedented justice movement. Women, people of color, “minorities” in religion, sexuality and more are rising up to demand fair and equal, even equitable, treatment in our nation.

The people who want to silence our voices are those who benefit from our subjugation, including white nationalists and status-quo victors. Anti-Semitism has been used throughout history to break apart progressive movements.

We can’t let that happen now. We need to stay, to decry anti-Semitism and still stay to do the messy work of coalition building. And what about our sisters, Jewish women of color? Stepping out at this moment, decrying it as anti-Semitic or self-hating to stick with the movement puts them in the position of having to choose between essential elements of their identities.

We must stay in the movement, stay in the conversation, and not let ourselves be divided.

Do leaders have to be fully evolved when taking leadership or can they have flaws and learn?

It may not have looked exactly as we liked or come as swiftly as we wanted, but the Women’s March leaders have made clear that they are committed to fighting anti-Semitism and value the Jewish people. Jewish women have been added to the Unity Principles of the March, and three Jewish activists have joined the March steering committee.

Mistakes were made and learning happened. Changes are being made. Progress is happening. Every person exists in the world with biases and prejudices, conceptions and beliefs. The national March organizers are no different, and they are growing, just like the rest of us.

If every time a woman of color heard a racist comment and left the room, there would be no women of color in the room for tikkun olam, to repair the world.

I’m giving the March leadership the same grace that black and brown women have given me, probably more times than I even know.

What role do the leaders have?

What is happening in the United States right now now is an epic wave, an uprising, not of four women but of millions. The Women’s March is not just a march — it is far more than taking to the streets. The Women’s March is a movement, the likes of which we have never seen before, of women and those who identify as women and allies in vast, previously unimaginable numbers fighting for rights.

The power of those numbers scares some people, and those people want to divide us. Leaders are important, but they are not this movement. We are. On Tuesday evening, Jan. 15, at the Stevenson University speaker series, Gloria Steinem shared this wisdom, “Change – revolution – is like a tree. It doesn’t happen top down. It happens from the bottom up.”

Women's March

Baltimore activists were among the participants of the Women’s March in Washington, D.C., last year. (Photo by Xandra Ellin)

What do I want my role to be in the movement, in this moment in history? 

Since 2017, Baltimore has had a Women’s March of our own. The first year, I was in D.C. with thousands of humans, breathing in the infusion of love, solidarity and action like it would save my life. My 71-year-old mother and I walked for hours, running into friends, women from my college, and hundreds of kind strangers who became friends and allies in that moment. There was an informal march in Baltimore that year with thousands more  in attendance than estimated.

It was clear that in future years, Baltimore needed its own march.

As we who live and love here know, Baltimore is more than an offshoot of D.C. We are a strong, troubled, beautiful place of our own. The Baltimore Women’s March is separate from the national march, working with issues of our own, in our city.

There is no anti-Semitism in the Baltimore Women’s March, just as there is no Islamophobia, racism, homophobia or other biases. You can read our Unity Statement here.

Baltimore Women's March 2018

Approximately 5,000 people turned out for 2017’s Baltimore Women’s March.

In 2018 and 2019, Baltimore Women United and many other partnering organizations planned Women’s Marches in Baltimore because we deserve and need them. Last year, our focus was largely on civic engagement and elections. This year, it is on local issues and how to make a difference in our city. Planning our own march has allowed us to highlight local activists and causes. It has also allowed us to create our own distinct leadership in planning, a diverse, inclusive group focused on equity, liberty, justice, change and an understanding that our differences make us stronger and that we have to have safe spaces in which to discuss them.

In Lin-Manuel Miranda’s “Hamilton,” the character of Aaron Burr sings about wanting a role in critical conversations. “When you got skin in the game,” he sings, “you stay in the game. But you don’t get a win unless you play in the game. … I wanna build something that’s gonna outlive me. … I wanna be in the room where it happens.”

I feel exactly the same, and that’s why I will not remove myself from an enormous, powerful national conversation when I hear something that I don’t like. Instead, I will lean in to fight systemic oppression, and make a better city and nation for all.

If you want to know even more about why you too should stay in the movement, think about this:

  • Children are sitting and dying in cages, under the authority of the U.S. government;
  • Families are trying to survive on unlivable wages;
  • Communities are being destroyed as guns and violence take life after life;
  • Black people are having the police called on them for living their lives;
  • Women are subjected to sexual harassment and assault everywhere;
  • Jews – yes, us – and others are being murdered in houses of worship;
  • And so much more.

In Deuteronomy, we are given our calling as a people, “Justice, justice shall you pursue …” The word justice is used twice; it is that important. We are told to pursue it, not wait for it to come but to go after it and make it happen.

How we each pursue tzedek (justice) is our choice and our own path. I hope our paths will cross at the Baltimore Women’s March this weekend. If you choose to march in D.C., instead, thank you for doing this work. If your pursuit of justice is something different, know that you are part of more than a march, you are part of a movement.

Jessica Klaitman

Jessica Klaitman (Handout photo)

A yoga instructor, licensed social worker and mother of three, Jessica Klaitman lives in Baltimore and is a co-organizer of the Baltimore Women’s March, which will be held Jan. 19, from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. at War Memorial Park. For information, visit baltimorewomensmarch.org.