Why Linda Sarsour courts controversy

Linda Sarsour speaks during a Women for Syria gathering at Union Square in New York City in April.
Photo by Drew Angerer/Getty Images

NEW YORK — One of the best symbols of the current Jewish political divide is a Muslim woman. To Jews on the left, Linda Sarsour is a courageous and effective activist who builds bridges and breaks stereotypes. To Jews on the right and some in the center, she’s an Israel-hating apologist for Islamic extremists.

Both sides point to evidence backing up their claims: Sarsour supports a boycott of Israel and favors a one-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. And earlier this year, she raised more than $100,000 to repair a vandalized Jewish cemetery in Missouri.

She’s also a rising star in the protest movement against President Donald Trump, with a record of success in organizing and advocating  for legislative change. As her profile rises in progressive circles, the tension over her attitude toward Israel keeps surfacing. Most recently, right-wing Jewish leaders condemned the choice of Sarsour to deliver the July commencement speech at City University of New York’s Graduate School of Public Health and Health Policy.

Here’s what the controversy is all about.

Sarsour has become a leading advocate for Muslim and women’s issues

Born in Brooklyn in 1980, Sarsour was married at age 17 and had three kids by the time she was 24, according to a profile on NY1, a local TV channel. She began her activism after the 9/11 attacks in 2001, volunteering at the Arab-American Association of New York. Four years later she was the group’s executive director.

In the years since, she has effected change for her community and drawn praise from liberal politicians and activists. She participated in the successful campaigns for New York City schools to close on Muslim holidays and for an independent review of racial profiling from the city’s police.

This year, Sarsour has seen her profile rise nationally as one of the co-organizers of the Women’s March on Washington, a historically large protest for women’s rights and against Trump. Time magazine included Sarsour and three other organizers on its list of 100 most influential people, and in the accompanying essay, New York Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand called the four “the suffragists of our time.”

Sarsour also was recognized by President Barack Obama, whose White House named her a “champion of change.” The accompanying biography said she “shatters stereotypes of Muslim women,” which Sarsour has attributed to her wearing a hijab.

“There are plenty of Muslim women who are backbones of the community, but they aren’t usually at the forefront,” she told The New York Times in 2015. “There just aren’t a lot of me out there — women in hijabs, doing what I do.”

She is an outspoken opponent of Israel and Zionism

Sarsour, who is of Palestinian descent, has also been a harsh critic of Israel. Soon after the Women’s March, she drew fire from Jewish leaders for telling The Nation that unabashed supporters of Israel cannot be feminists.

“It just doesn’t make any sense for someone to say, ‘Is there room for people who support the state of Israel and do not criticize it in the movement?’ There can’t be in feminism,” she told the magazine in March. “You either stand up for the rights of all women, including Palestinians, or none.”

Sarsour backs the movement to boycott, divest from and sanction Israel, known as BDS. She told NY1 that she supports a one-state solution that would create a shared country for Jews and Palestinians — a solution that many Jews consider a formula for the demise of Israel. And in 2012, she tweeted “Nothing is creepier than Zionism.”

Jews on the left emphasize her progressive bona fides. For right-wing Jews, her anti-Zionism is a red line.

These different aspects of Sarsour’s record have created a divide among Jewish leaders. Progressive Jews are willing to look past her anti-Zionism in light of her work on behalf of women and minorities — and her fundraising for the damaged cemetery. But right-wing and some centrist Jews can’t support her activist work in light of her anti-Zionism.

Criticizing CUNY’s decision to host Sarsour, Morton Klein, president of the Zionist Organization of America, called her “a bigot and divider” and “extremist.” Writing in the New York Post last month, Jerusalem Post reporter Lahav Harkov said her anti-Zionism made Sarsour “NYC’s queen of hate.” Harkov noted that Sarsour shared the stage last month at a conference, hosted by the far-left Jewish Voice for Peace, with Rasmea Odeh, a Palestinian woman who was imprisoned in Israel for her participation in two terror attacks. According to Harkov, Sarsour told the audience she was “honored and privileged to be here in this space, and honored to be on this stage with Rasmea.”

The criticism extends beyond the right. Both the current and former national directors of the Anti-Defamation League, a large mainstream group, have harshly criticized Sarsour’s positions on Israel. In a March interview with the St. Louis Jewish Light, the ADL’s national director, Jonathan Greenblatt, called the cemetery fundraising “great” but said Sarsour’s BDS advocacy “encourages and spreads anti-Semitism.”

In an interview, Greenblatt’s longtime predecessor at the ADL, Abraham Foxman, called Sarsour “bigoted.”

“She’s bigoted because she loves Jews but hates Zionism,” Foxman said. Her progressive activism, he added, “doesn’t excuse bigotry. If you’re an advocate for human rights, for human dignity, you should be more sensitive to the human rights and human dignity of the Jewish people.”

But progressive Jews believe she is a proven advocate for human rights. Amid the controversy over her views following the Women’s March, Los Angeles Rabbi Sharon Brous tweeted, “Thank you @lsarsour for building a movement that can hold all of us in our diversity with love. #IMarchWithLinda.” Sarsour also spoke as a surrogate for Sen. Bernie Sanders’ 2016 presidential campaign.

Jewish groups on the left have lavished praise on Sarsour.

Rebecca Vilkomerson, executive director of Jewish Voice for Peace, which backs the BDS movement, has described Sarsour as “passionate and compelling, very smart, committed and an impressive person.” And she has worked with Jews for Racial and Economic Justice, which focuses on domestic issues, including at the group’s recent “Seder in the Streets” on Passover.

“It is hard to think of a more appropriate speaker than Linda, who has done so much, both locally and nationally, to bring about a world in which everyone can thrive,” JFREJ said in a statement last week commending her upcoming CUNY speech. “She has stood with us against anti-Semitism, both in words and actions.”

Yehuda Kurtzer, president of the Shalom Hartman Institute of North America, cites Sarsour as the test of  “the choices we make about our alliances in the pursuit of our political causes.”

Kurtzer suggests that both the right and the left drop the “litmus tests” that prevent them from partnering with allies with whom they disagree on one or more key issues, like Israel.

Taking a cue from a quote by David Ben-Gurion, Kurtzer wrote in the Jewish Journal of Los Angeles, “We [should] fight for our moral values in American political life as though there was no disagreement with our allies on these issues on Israel, and we [should] fight on Israel with critics of Israel as though there was no domestic agenda.”

—JTA News and Features

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