Opinion articles by New York City Councilman Brad Lander and Rabbis Ellen Lippmann and Barat Ellman – Reform and Conservative, respectively – strongly supporting the invitation by NYU’s Graduate School of Public Health to Palestinian activist Linda Sarsour to deliver the school’s commencement address have added fuel to an already volatile situation.
The invitation, extended weeks ago by the school’s dean, Ayman El-Mohandes, had already drawn much criticism given Ms. Sarsour’s record of virulent public anti-Zionism.
But the pro-Sarsour articles by a Jewish elected official (who represents a significant number of Jewish New Yorkers) and Jewish religious figures served to shift the ground under the confrontation. They transformed what had been a debate over free speech and the identification of a pubic institution of higher learning with a woman who has praised violence and urged illegal boycotts against Israel into a public spectacle of Jewish guilt and self hate.
Readers will recall that not too long ago Ms. Sarsour was in the news over her row with Queens Councilman Rory Lancman after he criticized her for posting a picture of an Arab child walking toward Israeli soldiers and holding rocks in his hands, a scene Ms. Sarsour described as “the definition of courage.” Mr. Lancman criticized her and she tweeted back “The Zionist trolls are out to play. Bring it.” She also tweeted her support for the intifada as something “invaluable on many fronts.”
Ms. Sarsour also expressed regret when U.S. forces captured Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein, complaining that “my Arab pride was hurt.” And she pronounced herself “honored and privileged” to share a stage with Rasmea Odeh, who had been convicted of murdering two college students in a 1969 supermarket bombing in Israel. Ms. Odeh served 10 years in jail before Israel released her in a prisoner exchange in 1980.
Ms. Sarsour has been openly proud of her anti-Zionism, which she routinely distinguishes from anti-Semitism, claiming she has nothing against Jews per se – only those who steal Arab land. And that is the theme of the Lander and Lippmann/Barat pieces.
Thus Mr. Lander says Ms. Sarsour “has stood with the Jewish community against anti-Semitic hate crimes many times.” And, he says, Ms. Sarsour, “opposes anti-Semitism as part of her broader work for justice.” But even he concedes:
I do not agree with Linda on every issue. We both have strong, and divergent, views on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. I oppose the “Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions” (BDS) movement. She supports it. This does not make me an Islamophobe. And it does not make Linda an anti-Semite. (Indeed, while I disagree with them as well, there are active members of my synagogue who support BDS as well.)
This is hardly a ringing vote of confidence for Ms. Sarsour and, indeed, Mr. Lander doesn’t refute the charge that she is an advocate for the BDS movement (which runs afoul of several laws here and overseas).
And Lippmann/Barat wrote,
We are rabbis in Brooklyn who have worked with Sarsour for more than a decade and, even if at times we do not entirely agree with her, we stand as her friends and allies to support her and refute false claims against her…. Yes, Sarsour is an ardent critic of Zionism – which should come as no surprise for a Palestinian-American with relatives in Palestine. But she has been clear that it is right-wing Zionism – Zionism that dismisses Palestinian claims to a national identity or for statehood – that she vehemently opposes.
Again, hardly a ringing refutation of the claims by her critics that Ms. Sarsour has gone dangerously over the line and is not one we should want to see offering guidance to students as to their future endeavors.
And as we recently noted, the new UN secretary-general has said that “a modern form of anti-Zionism is the denial of the right of the state of Israel to exist.”
We are certainly not indifferent to the right of free speech. But we are also mindful of the plague of anti-Semitism and disruptions of speeches by Jewish personalities on several CUNY campuses. And a commencement speech is not an open forum for delivering one’s views but, rather, implies the representation of a school to its students. Ms. Sarsour’s views are plainly disqualifying.