NEW YORK – Dozens of Jews rallied in support of Palestinian-American activist Linda Sarsour as she delivered the keynote speech at City University of New York School of Public Health at the Apollo Theater in Harlem on Thursday.
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The choice of Sarsour to deliver the commencement address had proved controversial. New York State Assemblyman Dov Hinkind, who is Jewish, the Zionist Organization of American, and far-right bloggers such as Pamela Geller and Milo Yiannopoulos demanding that CUNY drop her.
But the speech was greeted by a standing ovation from public health students, and outside of the historic theater, dozens of Jewish protesters held signs in support of Sarsour.
The #JewsforLinda group, led by Jews for Racial and Economic Justice, defended Sarsour. “I believe deeply that public health involves social justice, and Linda Sarsour is an American social justice hero,” said Jennifer Hirsh, a public health professor at Columbia University. “She has worked in solidarity with us progressive Jews for years and years,” said Hirsh, adding, “She was among the first to raise money when the St. Louis Jewish cemetery was desecrated.”
More than 100 leading Jewish figures signed a letter in support of Sarsour this week, including author Naomi Klein, playwright Tony Kushner, feminist activist Gloria Steinem, and many leaders of Jewish organizations and synagogues.
“We may not agree with Sarsour on all matters. We do not offer our stamp of approval to every tweet or message she has ever posted,” read the letter. “But in this time, when so many marginalized communities in our country are targeted on the streets and from the highest offices of government, we are committed to bridging communal boundaries and standing in solidarity with one another. We will not stand by as Sarsour is falsely maligned, harassed and smeared as she, her organization and her family suffer vicious public threats and intimidation.”
A similar statement was issued last week by the Anti-Defamation League, which stated its opposition to the BDS movement but insisted that “Despite our deep opposition to Sarsour’s views on Israel, we believe that she has a First Amendment right to offer those views,” and denounced “anti-Muslim bigotry” in demonstrations against her.
In her speech during the ceremony, Sarsour called on Americans not to be bystanders when minorities are attacked.
“I made it and you made it. And as you already know, it has been a memorable and eventful experience for me, and I’m still standing, and still unapologetically Muslim American, Palestinian American and from Brooklyn N.Y.,” Sarsour told students at the beginning of her speech.
She then honored Taliesin Myrddin Namkai Meche, Ricky Best and Micah Fletcher, the three men who intervened to help a Muslim teenager and her friend when a white supremacist man was harassing them on a MAX train in Portland last week.
“Taliesin, Ricky and Micah were strangers to one another. In a matter of mere minutes, they made separate decisions to go from bystanders to heroes, to defend one African-American student and her Muslim friend wearing [a] hijab as they were being aggressively harassed by a man on a train in Portland. Taliesin and Ricky lost their lives, but their courage will live on forever.
“Are we all ready to embody the selflessness and courage of Taliesin and Ricky and Micah?” she asked. “We in this room must commit to never being a bystander to poverty, lack of jobs and health care, sexism and violence, discrimination, racism, xenophobia, Islamophobia, anti-Semitism and homophobia.”
Sarsour is executive director of the Arab American Association of New York. She rose to prominence earlier this year as one of the organizers of the Women’s March on Washington, and is slowly becoming one of the leading Muslim political figures in the United States.
She was subsequently attacked after the march by the right-wing media and conservative pundits, who accused her of anti-Semitism and being a supporter of Sharia (citing Sarsour’s comments on paid maternity leave in Saudi Arabia).
Sarsour has been vocal in her criticism of Israel and support for the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement. Hirsh, like other Jews who showed up to support Sarsour, dismissed the accusations of anti-Semitism as “people who can not tell the difference between anti-Semitism and criticism of Israel."
“There doesn’t need to be perfect agreement among allies about every detail that people say,” said Hirsh. Sarsour “has worked with us against anti-Semitism, Islamophobia, police brutality. Since it was right-wing zealots who started this recent wave of attacks [against her], it is our responsibility as Jews to counter it, and build a bigger coalition of Muslims, Jews and Christians.”
Leo Ferguson, also of Jews for Racial and Economic Justice, said that knowing Sarsour personally would make anyone dismiss the anti-Semitism accusations. “I think it is terribly sad that a group of fringe extremists is making these accusations against Linda. I know her, half of the Jewish community in New York, anyone who has been involved in social justice, knows her. These accusations bear no semblance to the thoughtful and caring human being that she is.”