Why Jewish Leaders Rally Behind a Palestinian-American Women's March Organizer

Linda Sarsour makes no secret of her opposition to Israel and support of BDS, the women's rights activist kept that rhetoric out of the event — to the relief of her Jewish allies.

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Linda Sarsour speaking during the Women's March on Washington on January 21, 2017 in Washington, D.C.
Linda Sarsour speaking during the Women's March on Washington on January 21, 2017 in Washington, D.C.Credit: Theo Wargo/Getty Images/AFP

NEW YORK — When online attacks against Women’s March co-chair Linda Sarsour started this week, progressive Jews were among the first people to back her on social media.

“Jews are some of my biggest supporters,” Sarsour told Haaretz in an interview. Sarsour, a born-and-bred Brooklynite whose parents are of Palestinian origin, directs the Arab American Association of New York, an advocacy and social services group, and is considered a rising star in city politics.

She has for several years worked closely with groups on the far-left edge of the Jewish community, like Jewish Voice for Peace and Jews for Racial & Economic Justice. Because Sarsour is an outspoken critic of Israel and backs boycotts, divestment and sanctions, mainstream Jewish groups have long held her at arms’ length.

But that is changing as mainstream players like Rabbi Sharon Brous of Los Angeles’ Ikar and the National Council of Jewish Women work with Sarsour on issues of shared concern, like the Women’s March in Washington, D.C., which attracted hundreds of thousands of participants on January 21. NCJW was one of dozens of partner organizations and helped ensure substantial Jewish involvement.

Sarsour was a Women’s March national co-chair. Early Monday, politically conservative publications and figures began publicly attacking her. Their charge? That she supports Hamas and favors sharia, or Islamic religious law, because she opposes municipalities and states banning it. That, say sources, is a dog-whistle way of suggesting that someone is an ISIS-type extremist, though in many respects sharia parallels halacha, the system of Jewish law.

First out was an article in online Front Page Mag, titled “The Anti-Semite Who Organized the ‘Women’s March on Washington,’ and the half-million lemmings who showed up in ‘solidarity.’” Front Page is part of hard-right conservative David Horowitz’s “Freedom Center School for Political Warfare,” a network that includes anti-Muslim websites “Jihad Watch” and “Truth Revolt.”

Backed by Sanders

That article’s allegations spurred others that quickly circulated online. But it also galvanized others to stand behind Sarsour.

From left: Carmen Perez, Gloria Steinem and Linda Sarsour onstage during the Women's March on Washington on January 21, 2017Credit: Theo Wargo/AFP

Among those tweeting their support for Sarsour are former Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders — for whom Sarsour spoke as a surrogate after his final debate with Hillary Clinton — and actor Mark Ruffalo.

So did Brous, who Sarsour invited to speak at the Women’s March in Washington D.C. They have known each other since starting as Senior Fellows at Auburn Seminary, an interfaith institution in New York, in 2015.

“She and I disagree vehemently on a lot of issues related to Israel-Palestine, and have engaged in a lot of really important and meaningful conversations about those disagreements,” Brous told Haaretz. “I’ve grown a lot from engaging with her and listening to her. And I don’t know that before we started meeting at Auburn that she had spent much time with people who hold my views. I have to believe that the more we’re in conversation, we’re growing and learning from one another.”

Sarsour told Brous that the march would not be anti-Israel.

She made the same commitment to NCJW, which opposes BDS, Kaufman said. “We worked closely with Linda specifically on the messaging for this march. The concern we had had to do with Israel. She could not have been more open and reassuring that there would be no Israel bashing, and she kept her word.

“I didn’t see one anti-Israel sign, not one BDS sign,” Kaufman told Haaretz. “I’ve been at many marches and nine times out of 10 there are anti-Israel people showing up, often from the Jewish community. With this march everything stayed on message.”

A smear campaign

Brous is one of the thousands who have tweeted #IMarchWithLinda in the past two days. The attack on Sarsour is “a deliberate smear campaign from the far right to delegitimize the march itself,” she said.

“It’s an attempt to demonize Linda Sarsour when she did and said nothing to deserve it, though she had the platform,” said NCJW’s Kaufman.

Sarsour told Haaretz she is being targeted because “I wear hijab, I represent the Muslim community. They saw me resonating with masses of people who came out in the millions” to march all over the world, she said. “The right wing can’t fathom seeing a Muslim-Palestinian-American organizing outside of her own community.

Bernie Sanders, center, with Linda Sarsour, right, at a social justice panel talk in April, 2016.Credit: Mike Flatto

“But we do have a love army that’s going to protect our own. I’m proud of my allies for coming forward,” she said.

A MoveOn petition proclaiming that people stand with Sarsour had amassed nearly 20,000 signatures in just over a day.

So many people, some identifying as Christian or Muslim or Jewish, posted #IMarchWithLinda that Tuesday it was one of Twitter’s top trending hashtags.

Yonit Friedman was one Jew who tweeted her support. “@lsarsour is a brave, brilliant fighter for justice. She has my respect, my solidarity, and my gratitude, always. #IMarchWithLinda,” she wrote.

“I don’t know her personally,” said Friedman, a playwright and theater director in New York and a member of IfNotNow. “But I have seen her work alongside Jews for Racial & Economic Justice. If she’s good enough for JFREJ, she’s good enough for me,” said Friedman of the progressive local social activist group.

JFREJ asked its social media subscribers to voice their support for Sarsour. She “has been a partner and an inspiration to JFREJ and an unwavering ally to New York’s Jewish community for years,” said JFREJ organizer Leo Ferguson via email.

“As a featured speaker at last year’s Jews of Color National Convening, she told the assembled Jewish audience that for too long people have attempted to divide our two communities and promised that the Arab-American Association of New York would always be a home to us and would always have our backs. The recent attacks on Linda’s character are a pathetic attempt to use Islamophobia and bigotry to divide a family,” said JFREJ’s statement. “JFREJ marches with Linda always.”

Sarsour’s history of criticizing Israel and Muslims who cooperate with Israel-related organizations dates back years. In 2015, shortly after the Shalom Hartman Institute created the Muslim Leadership Initiative, in which it takes emerging leaders of that community to Israel, Sarsour tweeted her opposition. Using hashtags #BDS and #FreePalestine she tweeted a statement by the Muslim Anti-Racism Collaborative opposing the program because of Palestinian leaders’ call to BDS.

Unapologetic supporter of BDS

In her interview with Haaretz Sarsour acknowledged, “I am a critic of the State of Israel. I always will be. I have come out in full support of BDS.”

Pressed by Haaretz to detail her views, Sarsour said that she believes in a one-state solution that, experts agree, will not be a Jewish state because the larger population will be Palestinian. “I don’t think a two-state solution is viable, is logistically possible, with the illegal building going on” in the West Bank, Sarsour said. “My hope is that it will be one state, one man one vote, that everyone is treated equally. Then you can say that part of the world is a true democracy.”

Sarsour is careful to distinguish between her antipathy toward Israel and her support of Jews. “Because I am a critic of the State of Israel people say I’m anti-Semitic, but that isn’t true,” she said.

During 2014’s Gaza conflict, she posted on Facebook a demand that her fans and followers not write anything anti-Semitic. She wrote: “PLEASE refrain from using anti-Semitic language when expressing support for Palestine and Palestinians. It is ABSOLUTELY unacceptable.”

Despite the sharp differences on Israel-Palestine issues, both Brous and NCJW’s Kaufman say that it is important to work in a coalition with others on issues of common concern.

“There are groups that we disagree with on certain issues but work with on others. I have a difference with the Catholic hierarchy about abortion, but it doesn’t mean that I don’t work with them on issues of poverty and inequality,” said Kaufman. “That’s where the problem is. If you eliminate a whole group of people then you can’t dialogue about anything.”

“We are standing on the cusp of what may be an authoritarian takeover of the United States of America” by President Donald Trump, said Brous Tuesday night, shortly after he issued executive orders gutting the Environmental Protection Agency, repealing the Affordable Care Act and ending immigration from Muslim-majority countries. Those, coupled with “outright lies to members of the press repeated by the highest offices are really dangerous signs,” she said.

“This is a time for serious coalition building, for standing beside other minority populations that are targeted. It is time for people to stand for and with each other. There will be in the mix a number of different perspectives. I don’t feel at all uncomfortable about that,” said Brous. “A much greater problem would be if the Jewish community stepped out of activism because we’re afraid that someone on the stage has a position on BDS different than our own.”

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