by Liz Jackson, senior staff attorney
Zahra Billoo, who was voted off the board of the Women’s March just days after joining the team, embodies what it means to challenge all systems of violence - fighting the patriarchy, resisting Islamophobia, and supporting Jewish people like me in a time of rising bigotry against Jewish people and all vulnerable populations.
Right-wing critics have relentlessly smeared Zahra for daring to include Palestinians in her vision of justice. An army of trolls attacked her as anti-Jewish for naming Israel as an apartheid state that maintains a system of laws privileging the rights of Jewish people over Palestinians.
The distorted accusations against Zahra are all too familiar to me. As a senior staff attorney for Palestine Legal, I support hundreds of people a year who are similarly accused of antisemitism, when in fact they are calling out the human rights abuses committed by a nation state, Israel.
Zahra is on the national stage, but I know her as a community partner, laboring in the daily grind of caring for each other.
Zahra zigzags across the Bay Area every day, through traffic congestion, from one community center to another. She is an essential know your rights educator for people facing persecution simply because they are Arab or Muslim and viewed as dangerous. She is on the mic at huge protests about immigrant rights, but she also sits on metal folding chairs listening to teenagers describe how they are routinely, and cruelly bullied at school, for example called “Taliban” by their teachers.
She counsels college students who are unsure how to talk to their parents about their political activism. She listens to mothers, to elders, to Jewish, Black, Asian and Latinx allies working to build thriving communities. She patiently explains to city councilors what it feels like when the FBI comes knocking at your door asking if you are loyal to the U.S. She reassures us – Jews and Muslims alike - when we are threatened with bombs and rape, and mass shootings.
She was the first to sue Trump for the Muslim Ban, and she wins landmark civil rights cases that protect all victims of religious discrimination. But she also bakes cupcakes, gives rides, makes agendas, takes notes.
She is vulnerable in her online voice –she speaks frankly about how Muslim women leaders are harassed and demeaned, and how badly it hurts. She tells us that she is scared, and tired.
Zahra seeks no glamor. She is deeply connected to many other people doing similar work to resist the terrifying takeover of white supremacy. This is why she was selected as a leader of the Women's March.
Zahra is clear that she opposes all forms of discrimination and has therefore publicly opposed Israel’s apartheid system because all states premised on privileging one group of people over another are wrong. Her clear principled stance against all kinds of oppression is the other reason she was selected for the Women’s March board.
These are the same qualities of leadership that spurred a right-wing campaign against her. The fact that the distorted accusations against Zahra successfully pressured the other members of the Women’s March to cut her out is sickening. It’s even worse that they were proud of their decision, having pinned it to the top of their twitter feed for 24 hours.
Zahra has been attacked and knocked off the mic in a manner that has become predictable for anyone who insists on including Palestinians in their demands for freedom. Over the past year Marc Lamont Hill was fired from CNN, Angela Davis was stripped of a lifetime civil rights honor in her home city of Birmingham, Alabama, Ilhan Omar became the favorite punching bag for both white supremacists and liberals alike. And most recently Kamila Shamshie, a British novelist, was stripped of a literary prize in Germany for the same reason.
There are thousands more who did not make big headlines when their lives were turned upside down for the same reasons. There are thousands of human rights defenders profiled by a right-wing blacklisting site that defames people who criticize Israel as antisemites and terrorists, unleashes trolls to their social media accounts, and tweets at their universities and potential employers. Palestine Legal responded to over 1200 instances of suppression of Palestinian rights advocacy over five years.
So Zahra is in good company with many other youth and community leaders: the censored, the bullied, the women of color, who stand up again and again to oppose all forms of racism together.
Zahra will be undeterred by the Women’s March decision. She will be back in the circle of folding chairs, back on the mic, taking notes and baking cakes, because her whole life is what the women’s march was supposed to be: the slow and steady work of undoing systems of violence that threaten me as a Jewish woman, and her as a Muslim woman.
Rather than cut her out, the Women’s March needs to take a long hard look at Zahra’s example of principled insistence that justice is not for some of us – but for all of us. Because white supremacists are coming for all of us – Jewish, Muslim, Black, Brown, Asian, LGBTQ – and we have to defend each other.