Op-Ed by Steph Black
Last Tuesday, I was one of the 70 protesters to get arrested at the Kavanaugh hearings. That night, I slept outside the Hart building, a Senate office building adjacent to the Capitol building, to guarantee a spot in line to access the hearing, yelled for thirty seconds, and spent the afternoon in zip ties.
I don’t tell you this to rehash what I’ve already had to say on the topic. I tell you this because the most bizarre part of my ordeal was a meaningful, productive conversation I had with Linda Sarsour.
Yup. That recoil you just felt? I felt that too.
Some background: The Center for Popular Democracy Action are professional resisters in the best sense. They cover the costs of getting activists to DC and to various parts of the country, so they can participate in direct action like the one during the Kavanaugh hearings. They also give trainings, cover the cost of and provide free legal aid, and are all around incredible people.
They also partner with key organizations, such as the Women’s March. And believe me, I share your feelings on the Women’s March as well, as I’ve written about before for this blog.
So even though I knew that this direct action was being cosponsored by the Women’s March, I had no idea that two of the chairs, Bob Bland and Linda Sarsour, would be there and running part of the training.
I was shocked when Sarsour began speaking. Truthfully, part of me wanted to walk out. This was a woman who would have no hesitation in kicking me out. But what glued me to my seat was what she began with: progressives needing to stop using litmus tests on other progressives.
Huh. Not what I would have expected coming from the woman who has very clear litmus tests for Jews.
So, I stayed and listened. And was blown away. Linda perfectly summarized almost everything I have felt against the Women’s March: progressives won’t survive if we continue to focus our energy on tearing down fellow progressives for not being progressive enough. We simply don’t have the manpower and the energy. There are bigger fish to fry. We must, must work together, unified, to fix this country. And we can’t do that by systematically excluding progressives whose beliefs don’t perfectly align with ours.
I sat in the audience through this, simultaneously agreeing with every word she spoke and deeply distrusting her message. I wanted to shout, “As a Jew, as a Zionist, am I welcome here?”
After all, I was risking arrest for the same reasons she was.
I approached her later in the evening. I introduced myself as a Jewish student and an activist. I mentioned that by speaking with her, I would likely be burning a lot of bridges. What she did next is still a shock to me: she hugged me. She looked me in the eye and thanked me for being there.
She told me that there would always be those who want to keep us apart, keep us as enemies. by showing up and holding hands we were committing a radical act. she thanked me and hugged me again.
I didn’t see her again until the next morning, when I sat six or seven seats down from her. I watched as she stood in the hearing and as the Capitol Hill Police dragged her out of the room.
The same thing happened to me ten minutes later.
For a golden moment, I thought she had finally, finally, earned my respect. I was deeply conflicted but leaned into that discomfort. Could Linda Sarsour have changed her mind about Jews? About Israelis?
I have long held the belief that as a progressive, far left-wing Zionist, that by simply showing up and doing the work, I could show the world that not every Zionist was a right-wing war-mongering hateful human. I have told people, point blank, here is my activist resume. And I am a Zionist. How are YOU going to contend with that?
I am a progressive. And I am a Zionist. For me, not only are those two things not mutually exclusive, they are beautifully complementary. They are, in some respects, one and the same. The same values I fight for in this country, I support in Israel. I hold Israel to a high, progressive standard precisely because I love it. Precisely because, as a Jew in 2018, I need it.
And yet it feels futile to be these two things in this country. I have been blacklisted from student organizations on this campus and I am afraid that my being a proud Zionist will affect the jobs I want to do. I worry that it is affecting my relationships.
For a brief, shining moment, I thought that message had finally been communicated to Sarsour. But not two days after I got arrested alongside her, she makes headlines, warning against ‘humanizing Israelis,’ phrasing straight out of the history books. Israelis sounds an awful lot like Jews, no?
So where is the hope for someone like me? Can there ever be a Progressive movement small enough to exclude Zionists but big enough to make a difference in a world that desperately needs progressivism?
I don’t know. I don’t have the answers. But I know that my love of Israel will always remain. I will always push for Israel to be the best that it can be. And I will always be progressive.
And should the opportunity present itself for me to reconnect with Linda, I would tell her that this Zionist was proud to get arrested next to her.
Steph is a Women's Studies major at American University in DC, a city she loves. Steph can be found reading next to her cat Goose, writing about feminism and Judaism, or protesting around the city for basic human rights.
Follow her on Twitter at @stephreflects, Instagram @stephrose1620, or check out her website at stephblack.blog.