Linda Sarsour is one of the more prominent civil rights activists in America today. A proud Palestinian American advocate who helped organize the Women’s March and can be counted on to be an ally of just about any worthwhile progressive cause, Sarsour was invited to speak at the graduation ceremony for CUNY’s School of Public Health next month. Because she is a fierce critic of Israel’s occupation and a supporter of Palestinian rights, she has been denounced and condemned, and CUNY is currently facing sustained pressure to drop her as a speaker. Dan Donovan and Lee Zeldin, two Republican congressmen from New York, want her removed, as do two local Democrats, Brooklyn assemblyman Dov Hikind and Queens councilman Rory Lancman.
The arguments against Sarsour take a familiar and dispiriting tack, conflating critiquing Israel’s government with hating Jews. Former Anti-Defamation League president Abe Foxman said Sarsour is “bigoted because she loves Jews but hates Zionism.” Mort Klein, the president of the Zionist Organization of America, wants Governor Andrew Cuomo to force CUNY to cancel Sarsour’s speech.
The merits of Sarsour’s worldview are not necessarily the point here — an academic institution must defend free speech and the exchange of ideas at all costs — but are worth some exploration. She tweeted something pretty regrettable once. Saudi Arabia’s paid maternity leave can’t obviate its human rights abuses. For the secular left, reconciling devout Islam with liberalism will never be easy. (The same holds true for Orthodox Judaism and evangelical Christianity.)
Yet Sarsour, as many liberal Jews in America have recognized, is on the right side of history when it comes to Israel, a nation now dominated by a right-wing and possibly corrupt strong man in Benjamin Netanyahu. In a situation akin to South African apartheid, Palestinians live as second-class citizens in abject poverty, routinely the victims of asymmetrical warfare. At this rate, they will never have a homeland.
Increasingly, civil rights activists are recognizing the plight of Palestinians and searching for ways to pressure Israel’s military juggernaut to change course. The Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions movement, better known as BDS, is trying through economic boycotts. Despite the screaming from Israel hawks, including New York Governor Cuomo, this nonviolent movement does not call for the destruction of Jewish people. Sarsour, a BDS supporter, works closely with Jewish organizations and elected officials, and uses her perch to distinguish between excoriating a government’s wrongheaded policies and targeting an entire faith. No one who has seriously examined her work for more than a few seconds can come away believing that Sarsour, a Muslim, is anti-Semitic.
— Ross Barkan (@RossBarkan) May 8, 2017
At a City Hall press conference on Monday, the nation’s leading civil rights organizations, unions, and activists gathered to defend Sarsour, particularly from Lancman and Hikind, who once wore blackface at a Purim party but thinks Sarsour is a terrorist. The NAACP, New York Civil Liberties Union, Justice League NYC, National Action Network, 1199 SEIU, and the Communication Workers of America all showed up to celebrate Sarsour’s record and condemn her detractors.
Perhaps the most intriguing defense came from Councilman Brad Lander, a Jewish Democrat who represents brownstone Brooklyn and a slice of Orthodox Jewish Borough Park. As recently as 2013, Lander was one of several lawmakers (Hikind included) who asked Brooklyn College to cancel a BDS-related event. He said yesterday he does not agree with Sarsour’s contention that a Zionist can’t be a feminist.
“We don’t agree on every single issue,” Lander said on Monday. “She knows I oppose the BDS movement and I know she supports it, and that doesn’t make me an Islamophobe and it doesn’t make her an anti-Semite.”
The question for Lander and the rest of the activists will be if they’ll stand by their free speech principles once this controversy passes. Will they stand up when other speakers are silenced at academic institutions when their views are called into question? Principles can’t simply be shelved for certain individuals — to do so is to walk down the road of intellectual fascism. Sarsour should be allowed to speak. And so should everyone else.
Just as important, the cynicism of Republicans and Democrats on the issue of Israel needs to be scrutinized. While BDS is understandably off-putting to some, even ardent defenders of the Jewish State must understand there’s another side to the story. For the GOP, defending Israel at all costs makes some sense because it’s consistent with a party orthodoxy that has always been pro-war and often indifferent to the suffering of minorities.
But Democrats in New York — Hikind is barely one, to be fair — need to seriously rethink their politics. While a growing Orthodox Jewish population can influence men like Lancman and Cuomo to take an increasingly hard line on the Palestinian question, no one who counts themselves as part of the burgeoning progressive movement can blindly defend everything the Israeli government does, as Democrats have done for generations. The days of Ed Koch are gone. To think they’re still here is to live in the past — and find yourself on the wrong end of a fight that will be with us for a very long time.