Opinion

American Jews, Lay Off Linda Sarsour

Sarsour is a flawed figure. She shouldn’t be leading a discussion on anti-Semitism. But the political pile-on she's enduring - branding her as Jewish Public Enemy #1 - is hysterical and vicious, and we Jews shouldn’t be participating in it

Activist Linda Sarsour speaks ahead of the March for Racial Justice in the Brooklyn borough of New York, U.S., on Sunday, Oct. 1, 2017. The March for Racial Justice is a multi-community movement organized to protest against systemic racism and promote civil rights for all. Photographer: Yana Paskova/Bloomberg
Activist Linda Sarsour speaks ahead of the March for Racial Justice in the Brooklyn borough of New York, U.S., on Sunday, Oct. 1, 2017. Yana Paskova/Bloomberg

Another day, another intra-Jewish fight over Linda Sarsour.

Today it centers around her participation in a panel discussion on anti-Semitism at the New School. (By way of context, five years ago prominent liberal Zionist Ralph Seliger wrote about a New School panel on Israel where "Norman Finkelstein was the Moderate." I suppose a panel where Jews for Racial and Economic Justice's Leo Ferguson holds down the 'right' flank alongside Sarsour and two Jewish Voice for Peace representatives is a marginal move toward the center).

ADL chief Jonathan Greenblatt compared the panel to “Oscar Meyer leading a panel on vegetarianism.” He noted the participants could claim expertise on anti-Semitism from the "perspective of fomenting it rather than fighting it."

Yesterday and tomorrow, it will no doubt be something else.

Do I think Linda Sarsour should be leading a discussion on anti-Semitism? Not really.

But isn’t it long past time to ask ourselves what’s really driving our obsession - and it’s fair to call it an obsession - with one Palestinian-American feminist activist? Why does she inspire such vitriol? What has she done to justify her status as, not just a flawed figure, but the Jewish Public Enemy #1?

 Linda Sarsour first hit my radar screen in mid-2016, when The Forward’s Sigal Samuel reported on her remarks to Mizrahi Jews at a conference devoted to Jews of Color. She promised them that they had an equal place in the Arab world and that she and her organization "will welcome you and embrace you in your full complexity." 

Activist Linda Sarsour (in blue headscarf) hugging a friend at a demonstration and Iftar celebration outside of Trump Tower in New York, June 1, 2017. Earlier Sarsour delivered the keynote speech to CUNY public health students at the Apollo Theater in Harlem.
LUCAS JACKSON/REUTERS

Shortly thereafter, I saw Jews Indigenous to the Middle East and North Africa (JIMENA) deciding to take Sarsour up on her offer – messaging her to ask if she would be interested in partnering, even though they, like most Sephardic and Mizrahi Jews, were Zionist. It was a politically brave gesture by JIMENA to cross serious ideological and cultural boundaries to work with a woman whose reputation amongst JIMENA’s constituency was decidedly unfavorable, in the hope and faith her promise to engage with Middle Eastern Jews in their "full complexity" was a genuine one.

Sarsour ignored the invitation. Not off to a great start.

Over the next year, Linda Sarsour has become a mainstream figure and, in the process, one of the Jewish community’s favorite bogey(wo)men. She stands in for each and every liberal depravity, she is the icon of left-wing anti-Semitism, she personifies how and why Jews are excluded from progressive spaces.

The heat of the attacks has been matched only by the passion of her defenders. They cast the critics as wholly out-of-bounds, pure Islamophobes, functional members of the alt-right.

I fall in neither camp. Linda Sarsour is not perfect. There is plenty she has said and done that is the valid subject of critique, and on anti-Semitism, in particular, she has much to learn. But she is not the monster she is made out to be, and the level of vitriol directed her way rings eerily familiar. To wit:

Linda Sarsour is a lot like Israel.

No doubt neither would appreciate the comparison. But it fits. Both have done genuinely objectionable things, ones which it is perfectly proper to call out. But in both cases, there is something about them that causes people on the internet to go absolutely wild and lose all sense of perspective and proportion.

And in both cases, there is not a lot of mystery about what that "something" is.

Anybody who follows online discourse about Israel is familiar with a pattern. Legitimate critiques of the occupation metastasize into far-ranging conspiracies of Zionists' dominative lust. Fair expressions of concern over civilian casualties turn into flat declarations that Jews thirst for Palestinian blood. Jewish desire for self-determination is dismissed as simple European colonialism. A flawed state in difficult circumstances becomes a demonic state whose very existence is an affront to man and God. And of course, if one objects to any aspect of the frenzy, then one has outed oneself as a hasbara shill.

Hundreds of thousands march down Pennsylvania Avenue during the Women's March in Washington D.C., January 21, 2017.
BRYAN WOOLSTON/REUTERS

The problem is not that "all criticism of Israel is anti-Semitic" - a strawman position held by no one. The problem is that the legitimate criticisms are swamped by an orgy of hysterics designed to demonize, delegitimize, and ultimately destroy Israel outright. The result is that even the fair points of critique are overwhelmed because the broader discourse has become so poisonous.

If one is being honest, the pattern applies to Linda Sarsour as well.

We can start with the legitimately objectionable. Her comment about removing Ayaan Hirsi Ali’s vagina was horrifying, not the least because it was directed at a prominent victim of female genital mutilation. "Nothing is creepier than Zionism" is gross. The BDS program she embraces lands hardest on those Middle Eastern Jews she claims she wishes to "welcome", further suggesting that her invitation to that community was meant to extend only to a narrow slice of ideological compatriots whose "complexity" doesn’t challenge her political priors. And her declaration that anti-Semitism in America cannot take a systemic form was both wrong and arrogant in its confident dismissal of Jewish history and experience.

But other "critiques" are on shakier footing.

Consider Sarsour’s alleged declaration that one cannot be a feminist and a Zionist. That would assuredly fall under the "legitimate objections" category -except that Sarsour never said it. It stems rather from the headline that editors of The Nation attached to her interview.

Sarsour made the subtler argument that a feminist must be willing to criticize Israel insofar as it wrongs Palestinian women - a narrower claim, and one that invites the extension that a feminist must also be willing to criticize Palestinian and Arab actors insofar as they wrong Jewish and Israeli women, but not the position attributed to her in the headline. A provocative but deeply misleading headline has perhaps done more damage to Sarsour’s reputation than anything from her own voice.

Other angles of attack on Sarsour are even more histrionic. The Forward covered efforts to have her brother fired from a kosher restaurant. Another example: the assumption that the Women’s March’s controversial birthday greetings to Assata Shakur must have been Sarsour’s handiwork, even though Sophie Ellman-Golan was the actual author. Ellman-Golan herself observed that the presumption was that if something radical or objectionable or discomforting came out of the Women’s March, the immediate conclusion was that Sarsour was to blame. Having curated a 37-part series titled "Things People Blame the Jews For", I’m quite familiar with the dynamics at play when Sarsour is the automatic culprit for anything controversial that occurs within a mile of her political space.

Women at Washington Square park before rally organized by International Women's Strike NYC, Wednesday, March 8, 2017, in New York
Kathy Willens/AP

But by far the worst offender is the constant harping on Sarsour as a "defender of Sharia Law." Indeed, a good rule of thumb to distinguish legitimate critics from rabble-rousing trolls is the proportion of time they devote to this issue.

Sharia simply refers to Islamic Law, and is most closely analogous to Jewish Halakhah. As with Halakhah, Sharia has a diverse and variegated corpus containing both progressive and regressive elements; an ongoing project of the liberal Muslim communities is to elevate and refine the progressive aspects while minimizing or casting away retrograde portions.

But most Sharia "critics" refuse to allow for this diversity. They instead pull out the most extreme and regressive elements present in the canon, ossify them as the true or authentic Sharia, and then insist those are the principles defended by anyone seeking to portray Sharia positively.

If that maneuver sounds familiar, it should: it is the same tactic long favored by anti-Semites to cast Judaism - through Halakhah - as innately regressive, barbaric, tribalistic, and pre-modern. It denies both Jewish plurality and Jewish growth because fundamentally these critics want Judaism to be irretrievably backwards and condemnable. And so it’s not surprising that even us Jews who are not traditionally Halakhically observant, and find much to object to in the tradition, will nonetheless rise to its defense against "critics" who try to essentialize it into an intrinsically reactionary and malignant force.

Consider in this light Sarsour’s notorious defense of certain elements of Saudi law - paid maternity leave and interest-free loans. Her critics reacted as if she was defending Saudi gender policies tout court - but that strikes me as a spectacularly uncharitable way of reading her position.

As against those who portray Sharia as offering nothing but repression and poison (what in a different context we Zionists might call "demonization"), Sarsour’s point was that even in a place like Saudi Arabia, Sharia law contains positive aspects that can be built upon as against the negative aspects to be reformed or jettisoned, a characteristic that renders it identical to any other legal system developing across history.

Sarsour's stance was familiar to me because it is precisely how I might respond to persons demonizing ultra-Orthodox gender practices - even as I find the way the ultra-Orthodox treat Jewish women to be fundamentally illiberal.

Linda Sarsour and other protesters demonstrating at New York City's City Hall, April 13, 2017.
Gili Getz

To be clear, I’m not particularly impressed by Sarsour’s instincts on anti-Semitism. She still has much work to do on this front, and it is remains to be seen if she’s interested in putting in that work in circumstances more politically difficult for her than toppled Jewish headstones. But the class of persons whose instincts on anti-Semitism I’m "not particularly impressed by" is large, and few of them receive or deserve the constant barrage of vicious invective Sarsour endures daily.

So what’s really going on here?

One thing that stands out about the critics of both Sarsour and Israel is their tone. Frequently, it is not sad or even angry. It’s satisfied. It’s gleeful. They’re excited to conclude that things are exactly as they thought - that the Jewish state really is monstrous and cruel, that the Muslim feminist really is an apologist for repression and regression. They are delighted to see their biases confirmed; and so will read the evidence so as to best provide for their own ecstatic condemnation.

It is a stance that gains momentum from currents of prejudice and oppression that make these biases attractive and these partialities politically legitimate. But it does not lend itself to fair, nuanced readings, nor to useful, constructive critique. It instead yields the politics of the pile-on, and I simply have no interest in participating in that.

So I call for a moratorium on the attack campaign on Linda Sarsour. It’s not because she’s beyond criticism. She most certainly is not. And it’s not because there’s no reasonable linkage to be made between her politics and anti- Semitism. There is.

But the vitriol directed towards her has so wildly blown past any reasonable accounting of her missteps that it is doing more to obliterate the space for a useful critique than it is to provide one. It is no longer a productive conversation, and, until it becomes one, there’s no good reason to throw oneself onto the pile.

David Schraub is a lecturer in law and senior research fellow at the California Constitution Center, UC Berkeley School of Law. He blogs regularly at The Debate Link. Twitter: @schraubd