Today, the Brown chapters of Students for Justice in Palestine and Jewish Voice for Peace will be hosting a panel entitled “BDS: The Palestinian Right to Resist.” They have invited, among others, Linda Sarsour, who is described on the Facebook event as “an award winning racial justice and civil rights activist” as well as “one of the national co-chairs of the largest single day protest in U.S. history, the Women’s March on Washington.”
But the Facebook event fails to mention that Sarsour stepped down from her position on the Women’s March board in January 2019 over accusations of anti-Semitism and homophobia, among others.
Before I make my argument against the decision to invite Linda Sarsour to speak at Brown, I would like to be clear: this op-ed is in no way a reflection of my stance regarding Israeli/Palestinian relations, the conflict or the Boycott Divest Sanction movement at Brown or anywhere else. This piece is purely my stance on SJP’s and JVP’s decision to bring Sarsour to campus: Students should be aware that these groups are giving a platform to an anti-Semitic individual.
The majority of accusations of anti-Semitism surrounding Sarsour are rooted in her connection to Louis Farrakhan, the head of the Nation of Islam, which is a Black religious and political movement. Farrakhan, whom the Anti-Defamation League describes as “America’s Leading Anti-Semite,” is known for his inflammatory remarks and speeches. In March 2015, Farrakhan stated that Zionist Jews were responsible for the September 11th attacks; that October, Farrakhan compared Jews to termites in a tweet.
Sarsour became embroiled in controversy when Tamika Mallory, one of the leading organizers of the D.C. Women’s March, attended one of Farrakhan’s speeches in February 2018. In that speech, Farrakhan claimed that “the powerful Jews are my enemy” and that Jews are responsible for “degenerate behavior that Hollywood is putting out turning men into women and women into men.” Mallory faced considerable backlash for attending Farrakhan’s rally.
Sarsour took it upon herself to defend Mallory. In March 2018, she wrote the following on Facebook: “I will not sit back while a strong, bold, unapologetic, committed Black woman who risks her life every day … is questioned, berated and abused.” She continued, writing “I stand with Tamika Mallory every day, with every fiber of my being.” In response to an accusatory comment on the post, Sarsour further wrote: “What work are we willing to do and are we willing to be open to the true idea that members of the NOI (Nation of Islam) are not all anti-semites? Are we cool with broad brushing a whole group?”
Are all of the members of the NOI anti-Semitic? Maybe not. Is Sarsour effectively making excuses for a man who, six days earlier, said he “has pulled the cover off of that Satanic Jew”? Yes.
Sarsour and the Women’s March later put out a statement condemning anti-Semitism: “Every member of our movement matters to us — including our incredible Jewish and LGBTQ members. We are deeply sorry for the harm we have caused.” The statement does not mention Farrakhan’s speech, Mallory’s attendance or Sarsour’s response. The statement does not say how the Women’s March is going to do better next time, or even what they did wrong that time.
But how can Sarsour’s condemnation of anti-Semitism be legitimate when she refuses to acknowledge her association with Farrakhan? In December 2018, Sarsour denied ever meeting Farrakhan. This is incorrect; Sarsour herself spoke at Farrakhan’s “Justice or Else” rally in 2015.
Since the 2018 controversy, Sarsour’s attempts to respond to charges of anti-Semitism have managed to trivialize the real harm that it causes. For example, she shared an article on Facebook, written by Jodi Jacobson for Rewire.News, that attempts to defend the Women’s March from accusations of anti-Semitism. The article states: “White anti-Semites are motivated by a hatred of Jews and a desire for power. Black anti-Semites are motivated by anger over gentrification, police brutality and slavery.” The article then says “the entire conversation has been turned from focusing on the most vulnerable, i.e. communities of color, to focusing on the angst of white Jews.” Have Jews, including white Jews, not been vulnerable? Anti-Semitic attacks worldwide have risen 13 percent from 2018 to 2019. A few months before Jacobson published the article, a man murdered 11 people at Tree of Life Synagogue in the most deadly anti-Semitic attack in United States history. Are we not a “vulnerable” enough community?
The article that Sarsour proudly shared suggests that calling the leaders of the Women’s March out for their anti-Semitism is racist. Further, during the New School panel on anti-Semitism, Sarsour stated, addressing Zionist Jews: “What if you just showed up to the movement … and say, ‘You know what, this is not about me. Let me show up and work for Black lives or undocumented immigrants. Let me roll up my sleeves for folks who are being impacted right now.’”
These comments trivialize anti-Semitism as not as harmful as other prejudices and ignores historical and modern evidence of Jews “rolling up (their) sleeves” and effecting major change in social movements. Only months before the New School panel, twenty Rabbis were arrested for protesting Donald Trump’s Muslim travel ban. In June 2019, Never Again Action, a Jewish grassroots organization, rallied together 30,000 people to protest an ICE detention facility. Anti-Semitism should be fought without Jews having to “prove themselves” worthy of being fought for.
While her anti-Semitism is the reason I was compelled to write, it is important that students also know about her association with homophobia. She wished Talbert Swan II a “Happy birthday Bishop!” this April and posed for photos with him —Swan is the editor of “Closing the Closet: Testimonies of Deliverance from Homosexuality,” a book advocating religious conversion therapy. Sarsour also spoke alongside Imam Siraj Wahhaj at a Toronto conference in September 2018. Wahhaj, whom Sarsour has called her “mentor, motivator and encourager,” stated that “The prophet cursed, la’ana, cursed the feminine man and the masculine woman.” Why isn’t this bigotry a deal-breaker for Sarsour? Why, even after writing as part of the Women’s March board’s statement that she is “deeply sorry for the harm we have caused” to the Jewish and LGBTQ communities, does Sarsour continue to associate with homophobes and anti-Semites?
When Sarsour is accused of anti-Semitism, she seems to perceive it as intended to undermine her views, instead of as legitimate criticism. In a letter addressing acccusations of anti-Semitism, Sarsour wrote, “They have tried every tactic at their disposal to undermine me, discredit me, vilify me but my roots are too deep and my work is too clear and they have not succeeded.’’ Instead of apologizing for her statements or even saying “oh, I see how my statements could have been misconstrued as anti-Semitic, I’ll do better,” Sarsour just repeatedly claims that she is not anti-Semitic. Instead of taking Jewish voices seriously, she sweeps us under the rug.
All anti-Semitism is motivated by a hatred of Jews; anti-Semitism is not progressive. What is being touted by these “progressives” like Sarsour is the same rhetoric that has been touted by the alt-right: That Jews are only loyal to themselves and we’re to blame for larger issues like violence and economic inequality.
I am a Jew. Linda Sarsour is anti-Semitic. You cannot tell me that I’m “taking her statements out of context” or “that’s not what she really meant” — what Sarsour said has hurt me. I am not expecting Sarsour to be uninvited from this event, but I am hoping to bring awareness to her problematic and anti-Semitic remarks and point out that she is not as progressive as the Monday event claims.
Min Tunkel ’19 can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Please send responses to this opinion to email@example.com and op-eds to firstname.lastname@example.org.