Minutes before Palestinian-American activist Linda Sarsour took the stage at The New School’s Alvin Johnson Auditorium as part of a panel on anti-Semitism, one of the organizers went up to deliver a number of key instructions to audience members in case protesters would try to shut down the event.
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But the fears that the event would be disrupted by right-wing protesters turned out to be for naught. Despite two weeks of a media frenzy, a petition signed by more than 21,000 people and loads of criticism from both left and right, the panel concluded with only two very minor interruptions.
>> American Jews, lay off Linda Sarsour | Opinion
“Apparently I am the biggest problem of the Jewish community? I am the existential threat, Apparently? I am confused, literally, every day,” said Sarsour, addressing the controversy that preceded the event.
Sarsour, a prominent advocate for Muslim Americans, criminal justice reform and civil rights, is the former executive director of the Arab American Association of New York and co-chaired last January’s National Women’s March. During the past year, particularly as her profile in progressive circles increased after the march, Sarsour has raised the ire of conservatives, Zionist activists and so-called alt-right figures who accuse her of supporting terrorists and promoting anti-Semitism – largely due to her support of the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement and her criticism of Israel.
“I am deeply honored and humbled to be here on this stage with people who have been some of the staunchest allies of the communities that I come from,” Sarsour said during the panel. “We cannot dismantle anti-Black racism, Islamophobia, homophobia, transphobia, every phobia and -ism without also dismantling anti-Semitism.”
“Intersectionality is not about black and white people organizing together or Jews and Muslims organizing together. It is all of us organizing at the intersections of oppression and seeing oppression [as] connected. Anti-Semitism is one branch on a larger tree of racism,” she added. “You can’t just address one branch, you need to address all branches together so we can get to the root of the problem.”
In her remarks, Sarsour spoke at length about her criticism of Zionism. “Just in case it’s not clear, I am unapologetically Palestinian-American and will always be unapologetically Palestinian-American. I am also unapologetically Muslim-American. And guess what? I am also a very staunch supporter of the BDS movement. What other way am I supposed to be, as a Palestinian-American who’s a daughter of immigrants who lived under military occupation and still has relatives in Palestine that live under military occupation? I should be expected to have the views that I hold,” she said.
Regardless of their feelings toward Israel, said Sarsour, Jews and non-Jews alike “must commit to dismantling anti-Semitism. The existential threat resides in the White House, and if what you’re reading all day long in the Jewish media is that Linda Sarsour and Minister [Louis] Farrakhan are the existential threats to the Jewish community, something really bad is going to happen and we are going to miss the mark on it.”
Apart from Sarsour, the panel also featured Rebecca Vilkomerson, the executive director of Jewish Voices for Peace, Leo Ferguson of Jews for Racial and Economic Justice and Lina Morales, a member of Jews of Color and Mizrahi/Sephardi Caucus of JVP. The event was moderated by journalist and author Amy Goodman, the host of the alternative news program “Democracy Now!”
The panel, organized by JVP, Haymarket Books, Jacobin magazine, Jews for Racial and Economic Justice and The New School’s Creative Publishing and Critical Journalism program, was preceded by great controversy over Sarsour’s participation. Jonathan Greenblatt, the CEO of the Anti-Defamation League, tweeted that “Having Linda Sarsour & head of JVP leading a panel on antisemitism is like Oscar Meyer leading a panel on vegetarianism.” Writing for Tablet Magazine, Phyllis Chesler, a New School alumni, wished that she could give back her diploma.
“Antisemitism is harmful and real. But when antisemitism is redefined as criticism of Israel, critics of Israeli policy become accused and targeted more than the growing far-right,” read the event’s description.
The other panelists were similarly critical of Israel and of the Jewish American community that rebukes activists like Sarsour yet embraces far-right figures like Steve Bannon and Sebastian Gorka. “I am angry at the profound hypocrisy of the institutional Jewish community, which has taught us that loving Israel does not mean that you love Jews,” said Vilkomerson. “Because I care about Jews, I am anti-Zionist,” said Morales. “Nothing can be more counterproductive or hurtful to Jews than to be intentionally confusing the issue of anti-Semitism by spreading false charges of anti-Semitism,” said Ferguson, in reference to the “smearing” of pro-Palestinian activists by Jewish-American organizations. Lobbing false accusations of anti-Semitism, he argued, “slowly erodes our ability to accurately assess threats.”
Two hours before the debate was scheduled to begin, over 15 policemen and security guards and multiple police cars were already surrounding the venue where it was to be held. A small protest took place across the street, with some demonstrators holding signs and chanting against Sarsour and JVP.
“This panel is spitting in the face of Jews – four anti-Semites talking about anti-Semitism,” Karen Lichtbraun, one of the demonstrators and head of the New York chapter of the Jewish Defense League told Haaretz. JVP, she charged, wanted to “drive a wedge between Jews” by inviting Sarsour. “[Sarsour] wants to bring Sharia law to America. She is brainwashing a lot of young Jews,” she claimed.
“Nobody has a monopoly on talking about anti-Semitism,” Rabbi Alissa Wise, deputy director of Jewish Voice for Peace and one of the event’s organizers, told Haaretz. “As a rabbi and a Jew, I feel safer in the world knowing that there are more people, non-Jewish allies, Muslims, Christians, people of no faith, who are taking up the question of anti-Semitism seriously.”
When asked about the commotion in the media that surrounded the event, Wise said: “There’s something particular about the role that Linda plays in the psyche of the American Jewish community. We’ve done these anti-Semitism events in Indianapolis, Chicago, the Bay Area, Philadelphia, and this is not the only one where a Muslim is speaking. Never before have we seen this kind of frenzy. It just seems like a witch hunt of sorts.”
Tuesday’s event was not the first time a planned appearance by Sarsour caused controversy: Her invitation to deliver the commencement address at the City University of New York School of Public Health in June raised the ire of pro-Israel activists. The uproar included a protest rally against her speech outside CUNY’s main office building, headed by far-right provocateur Milo Yiannopoulos, who called Sarsour a “Sharia-loving, terrorist-embracing, Jew-hating, ticking time bomb of progressive horror.”
“When I spoke at the CUNY graduate center back in June, something really disturbing happened,” said Sarsour during the panel. “I don’t care if people protest against me. What was confusing to me at that moment was, how is it that people that are Jewish are standing in a really against me with Milo Yiannopoulos, Richard Spencer, and Gavin McInnes? Why are they there with them? I hope the Jewish community stands up and says that’s wrong, that under no circumstance should Jewish people align with people like Milo or Pamela Geller or Richard Spencer or Gavin McInnes.”
When asked about her previous statement that feminism is “incompatible with Zionism,” Sarsour said: “I am not as important as I am made out to be. I am not the one that actually gets to say who gets to be in the movement and who doesn’t. Let’s stop talking about the civil rights movement that happened 50 years ago because there is a civil rights movement happening right now. We live under fascism, and we need all hands on deck.”