Controversy can create change.
The decision of a university committee to invite Tamika Mallory to give the keynote address at UNC Asheville’s event honoring Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., was undeniably controversial.
Ms. Mallory, one of the four co-leaders of the national Women’s March, has long been associated with, and has praised, Louis Farrakhan of the Nation of Islam, and Farrakhan is unquestionably an anti-Semite. She has been critical of the ADL (but only as a suitable racial equity training organization), and she was accused of helping oust a Jewish woman from a leadership role in the Women’s March (a charge she denies).
As a result, some of Asheville’s Jewish community loudly protested the decision to invite her, concluding that these acts and associations were sufficient to establish that Ms. Mallory is an anti-Semite. A petition denouncing the invitation was circulated nationally by a California organization, and the university administration was inundated with an orchestrated e-mail and telephone campaign demanding that the invitation be rescinded.
The reaction represented a rush to judgment. We in Carolina Jews for Justice were not so easily convinced. We are as committed as anyone to combatting anti-Semitism, realizing its genuine dangers as tragically evidenced all too often in our history. But while we abhor prejudice, we resist the temptation to prejudge. We examined Ms. Mallory’s own words, not assumptions about her or statements taken out of context.
Tamika Mallory has written that she believes that “as historically oppressed people, Blacks, Jews, Muslims and all people must stand together to fight racism, anti-Semitism and Islamophobia.”
Her statement expresses our own approach as Jews committed to the struggle for racial and religious justice. The Women’s March explicitly includes Jewish women in its Steering Committee and lists Jewish women among the victimized categories listed in its Unity Principles. Its leaders—who include Ms. Mallory—have stated that “emphatically we do not support or endorse statements made by Minister Louis Farrakhan about women, Jewish and LGBTQ communities.”
We welcome this clear statement. Moreover, in a recent interview, Ms. Mallory personally said that she does not agree with Farrakhan’s demeaning remarks.
Most importantly, we were provided with the opportunity to meet personally with Ms. Mallory in a small group setting and have a frank dialogue with her. She was candid, direct, and reassuring in her appreciation of the need for all who suffer discrimination, specifically including Jews, to join together in opposing white supremacy and systems of oppression. Her message was one of love and unity, not divisiveness. No one who attended that meeting could have come away from it believing that Tamika Mallory is an anti-Semite.
That evening, in her speech, she again sounded the theme that Dr. King’s legacy requires unity in fighting oppression. She again denounced anti-Semitism. There was nothing in her talk that was objectionable to anyone concerned with social justice.
And yet sadly, a small group of protestors from Asheville’s Jewish community stood in the cold outside Lipinsky Hall, where the talk was held, holding signs condemning Tamika Mallory and refusing the Chancellor’s warm invitation to come inside and listen to what she had to say. Their minds were made up based on what they had heard about her from others.
We have to wonder about the effect of this Jewish demonstration on the people of color who filed past the protesters holding their posters disparaging this strong woman of color, a national leader committed to fighting for justice for all. It cannot have helped Black-Jewish relations. We want to assure our African American colleagues that the protestors represented a small fraction of Asheville’s Jewish community, and that they do not speak for all of us.
And how do we reach our Jewish brothers and sisters who share our opposition to anti-Semitism but who sometimes hurl that serious accusation too quickly and without sufficient basis? This controversy has created an opportunity for education, for peacemaking, for engaging in reasoned dialogue about what is real anti-Semitism and what is illusory. Tamika Mallory candidly admitted to us that she has learned from the controversy; we must help our Jewish community learn as well.
Frank Goldsmith is a Steering Committee Member of Carolina Jews for Justice West