A March for Black Women being held on Yom Kippur has sparked a bitter feud amongst members of one of the largest feminist organizations in the US in the latest round of racially charged infighting among progressives.
Members of the National Organization for Women (NOW) have recently engaged in a heated debate through emails and on social media posts about the organization's support for a march that is being held on the holiest day for the Jewish community.
The conflict and chaos within the ranks of the leading feminist group have led members to accuse one another of racism, white supremacy, and anti-Semitism.
The March for Black Women has been organized for Sept. 30 in Washington, DC, by the Black Women’s Blueprint group, with NOW listed as one of several partners supporting the event. NOW has also formally endorsed the march, with President Toni Van Pelt saying, "as feminists we support the march because white supremacy pushes us all downward."
Van Pelt did not immediately respond to a request for comment. However, in a private email seen by BuzzFeed News, NOW board member Jocelyn Morris praised staff for their handling of the complaints. "The members we lose over this we will replace with the ones we recruit at the March," she wrote.
Van Pelt also responded to the email chain, telling NOW members, "Carry on."
In a statement to BuzzFeed News, Morris said, "NOW had nothing to do with the date choice. Jews are only 10% of the USA population. The planners have apologized for overlooking the Jewish holiday, but will March for Black Women."
Marilyn Fitterman, a longstanding NOW member, quit the organization on Wednesday because of its endorsement of the March for Black Women being held on Yom Kippur. (Yom Kippur, which means the Day of Atonement, is the holiest day for the Jewish community, during which Jewish people fast and refrain from working).
In a Facebook post, Fitterman said, "NOW has ringingly endorsed the black womens March being held on Yom Kippur. I will no longer belong to NOW after having spent more than 40 years as an activist for NOW. DISTRESSED. NEVER AGAIN"
Her Facebook post generated a heated debate in the comments, with some NOW members accusing Fitterman of "racism and white supremacy."
"I'm really offended by the RACISM and WHITE Supremacy embedded in Ms Fettermans SMOKE SCREEN of a REASON for quitting NOW!," Desiree Jordan, a NOW member, wrote in the comments.
"I could 'flip the script' and INDICT the JEWISH FAITH as being RACIST and EXCLUSIONARY simply based on the fact that one has to BE JEWISH to celebrate YOM KIPPUR," Jordan continued. "As a WoC [woman of color] I am NOT *invited* to celebrate YOM KIPPUR. Sad thing is I must accept the FACT that NOW is PACKED with (both overt and covert Racists) 'Ms Fetterman's.' [sic.]"
Jordan told BuzzFeed News on Saturday that Fitterman was "using her religion as a reason to dehumanize women of color who are simply marching."
She said Fitterman's reasons for quitting NOW reeked of white supremacy.
"Despite seeing what happened in Charlottesville, where white supremacists marched saying, 'Jews will not replace us,' Ms. Fitterman would actually quit NOW after 40 years. That to me that is a slap in my face," Jordan said. "To me, she is a hypocrite."
China Fortson-Washington, a NOW member who had campaigned to be the organization's president, also criticized Fitterman's decision, calling it "white privilege."
In a lengthy Facebook comment on Fitterman's post, Fortson-Washington said, "AGAIN, the internal white privilege and racism in NOW rears its ugly head! How dare an event that is set for Black Women is scheduled on a holiday that is celebrated by less than 10% of the women in America (and rarely celebrated by Black Women) should be cancelled in its entirety! Now please tell me that isn't white privilege. Black Women are asked to take a back seat again."
She also noted that NOW had no input into the decision or the process of setting the date for the march. "This March for Black Women will not have any adverse affect or take anything from the Jewish holiday that is celebrated," Fortson-Washington said.
Perri Fitterman told BuzzFeed News on Saturday that she was privy to the internal emails between NOW board members and its president Toni Van Pelt, which she said "reveal their unbelievable, blatant anti-Semitism.
Perri Fitterman said the responses by Van Pelt and Morris, the NOW board member, showed "virulent anti-Semitism."
"We are being accused of exerting white privilege simply because we want to practice our religion," she said.
In another email seen by BuzzFeed Nws, one Jewish activist called NOW's decision to march on Yom Kippur "insensitive and inappropriate."
"Would you ever march on Christmas!" she wrote.
According to Perri Fitterman, several Jewish organizations expressed their support for the Sept. 30 march, but had said that since they could not march on Yom Kippur, they would organize sister marches on the following Tuesday.
"NOW did not do that. They said, 'Yom Kippur is fine with us," Perri Fitterman said.
"My mother, a past president of NOW in New York state, organized the very first women of color coalition during her term in the office. And they're calling her a racist," she said, adding that she, too, was considering quitting the organization.
But Jordan — who has been a NOW member for three years — was also considering quitting the group unless the organization used this as "an opportunity to address racism within its ranks."
Jordan said that NOW has had "its problems with racism" which is why the "Ms Fittermans of NOW are quite vocal about using their religion as a reason not to support the march."
A member of Black Women's Blueprint, who did not want to be identified, told BuzzFeed News that NOW was being blamed for something that they did not organize.
"We own that march," the source said. "They should not attack NOW."
She said that the organizers did not intentionally set the march for the day of Yom Kippur, but were determined to go ahead.
"We would march on any day. We would march on Christmas Day and Christmas Eve," she said.
"Oppression doesn't sleep, we don't sleep" she said, adding that many members of the Jewish community were actively participating in both the March for Racial Justice and the March for Black Women.
In a statement to BuzzFeed News on Monday, Black Women's Blueprint, said, "We have no quarrel with Jewish women, or persons who for various reasons believe there should be no march for Black women on September 30, 2017. Instead, our issue is with a social, economic and political system which bequeaths such privilege and special rights to one group of people or persons, to the point that this group or anyone from this group would presume to tell Black women what to do, when to march, what day is appropriate to fight for our safety, dignity and freedom—with no regard for Black women’s lives or the impetus for their march."
The organization appeared to distance itself from the conflict within NOW, reiterating that the march was not organized by NOW, and that had NOW only issued a statement of support for the march. Black Women's Blueprint also said that the date for the march was chosen "before any knowledge or realization that September 30, 2017 would be Yom Kippur, which falls on various dates each year."
"We have high regard for the history of collaboration and struggle for equality and justice by Jewish and Black peoples together," the statement said. "We profoundly respect our Jewish sisters as they observe their sacred holiday, and expect the same respect in return as we march to end oppression against us."
In August, the organizers of the March for Racial Justice, which is affiliated with the March for Black Women, issued a statement addressing the scheduling conflict.
"The organizers of the March for Racial Justice did not realize that September 30 was Yom Kippur when we were factoring in these and other considerations and applying for permits," the statement said. "Choosing this date, we now know, was a grave and hurtful oversight on our part. It was unintentional and we are sorry for this pain as well as for the time it has taken for us to respond."
Members of NOW who spoke to BuzzFeed News dismissed the idea that infighting within a prominent feminist organization fed into right-wing groups' criticism of liberals grappling with identity politics.
"The right wing has more dissension amongst themselves than the left wing does and we all know it," Perri Fitterman said. "There is no organization ever where everybody is going to agree 100% about everything."
Jordan said that this was not infighting but rather a historical fight "that goes back to the very beginning of feminism where white women thought they could attain freedom without working for the freedom of women of color."
China Fortson-Washington was a candidate for NOW's presidential election. A previous version of the post misstated this.
Tasneem Nashrulla is a reporter for BuzzFeed News and is based in New York.
Contact Tasneem Nashrulla at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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