Sharp Debate Over CUNY Graduation Speaker


Linda Sarsour, a Palestinian-American activist who helped organize the Women’s March last January and was praised by former President Barack Obama as “a champion of change,” will be the commencement speaker at a branch of the City University of New York — a move that has fueled a sharp debate in the Jewish community that touches on free speech and reveals the deep divide between left and right.

“She’s a terrible choice,” said Rabbi Joseph Potasnik, executive vice president of the New York Board of Rabbis. “I don’t understand the selection of someone who is consistently anti-Israel. Her dislike for Zionism and the Jewish people is very clear.”

Malcolm Hoenlein, executive vice chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, said he was “troubled” by her selection.

“She has lauded those who throw rocks at Israelis, she favors Sharia law and has tweeted, ‘Nothing is creepier than Zionism,’” he said. “There is no reason she should be given recognition. It never would be permitted if someone had made similar comments about another ethnic or religious group.”

“There is no reason she should be given recognition. It never would be permitted if someone had made similar comments about another ethnic or religious group.”

Sarsour, 37, will deliver the unpaid commencement address at CUNY’s Graduate School of Public Health and Health Policy on June 1.

The free speech battle over Sarsour mirrors one now playing out at the University of California, Berkeley, which earlier this month canceled a scheduled speech by conservative pundit Ann Coulter citing security concerns. She responded by filing a free-speech lawsuit this week against school administrators.

Councilman David Greenfield (D-Borough Park) said in a statement to The Jewish Week that regardless of Sarsour’s involvement in some elements of social justice, she also “opposes the national self-determination of the Jewish people and promotes violent attacks against citizens of the only Jewish state.

“At a time when anti-Semitism is up over 200 percent in New York City, we should be using our tax-payer funded institutions to unite our city not further divide it,” he added.

Sarsour did not respond to an email nor to a phone message left at her office.

But Sarsour has her share of Jewish supporters, among them Rabbi Justus Baird, dean of Auburn Theological Seminary in Manhattan, where he oversees education programs that help build multifaith movements for social justice and has worked with Sarsour “on a range of justice issues.”

“Anyone who has worked closely with Linda knows that she has a deep love for and appreciation for Judaism and Jews,” he said. “Linda and I don’t agree on everything about Israel, Palestine or about other issues, and that is OK with me. I fully support CUNY giving a pubic platform to Linda Sarsour, and I think its graduates have a lot to learn from her voice.”

Rabbi Alissa Wise, founding co-chair of the Jewish Voice for Peace Rabbinical Council, hailed Sarsour as “a beloved and trusted partner to us … and to many in the progressive Jewish world.”

“Linda is consistently outspoken in her opposition to anti-Semitism as she leads the Muslim community resistance to Islamophobia in authentic partnership with black, indigenous, immigrant, women and queer communities,” she said in an email. “For example, in the wake of Jewish cemetery desecration in St. Louis she immediately started a fundraiser in support of the Jewish community. When it comes to who understands how to build communities of mutual support, shared concern and real safety and security, Linda Sarsour is the obvious choice to speak to a new generation of public health leaders.”

Another Jewish member of the City Council, Brad Lander (D-Park Slope), wrote a letter to university officials thanking them for their support of Sarsour “in the face of cowardly and baseless attacks on her.”

“I have also had the great honor of working closely with Linda for the past eight years,” Lander wrote. “We worked together to pass the Community Safety Act, to create an Inspector General for the NYPD and prohibit bias-based profiling by law-enforcement officers in NYC. She helped create a truly diverse coalition of African-Americans, Latinos, Muslims, Christians, and Jews. …

“I can assure you she is no anti-Semite.”

Lander acknowledged that he and Sarsour have different views on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict — such as her support of the BDS movement. But he said the “campaign of hate against her — accusing her, without evidence, of being anti-Semitic, or even connected to terrorism — is just that, a campaign of hate.” He noted that while CUNY “has a great history” of encouraging free speech, it erred when it “moved to rescind an award offered to the playwright Tony Kushner, also over his views on Israel. That decision was quickly — and appropriately — reversed. I trust you will learn from history, and welcome Linda with open arms and open minds.”

One of those in the forefront of the move to rescind the award to Kushner, Jeffrey Wiesenfeld, who until three years ago was a CUNY trustee, is also among those in the forefront of the movement to rescind Sarsour’s invitation to deliver the commencement address. He said he sees no difference between a university awarding someone an honorary degree and asking him or her to be the commencement speaker.

“Is this how CUNY wants to be identified — with a woman who supports the stoning of Israelis, who supports Sharia law and the BDS [boycott, divestment and sanctions] movement against Israel?” he asked.

Wiesenfeld said that when he and others testified before the City Council last year in support of a resolution to condemn the BDS movement, Sarsour arrived with a large crowd of opponents.

“When she was asked whether she supported a two-state solution [to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict], she said they take no position,” he added. “But elsewhere she has said Israel should not exist and she has called for the destruction of Israel.”

But Dr. Ayman El-Mohandes, dean of CUNY’s public health school, sung Sarsour’s praises in a statement on the school’s website this week as one who has been “successful as a community organizer, [been] recognized by national leaders, and who has emphasized women’s health issues in the New York area.”

He pointed out that the White House website cited Sarsour, who lives in Bay Ridge, Brooklyn, for her “strengths in the areas of community development, youth empowerment, community organizing, civic engagement and immigrants’ rights advocacy,” and that she was recently named by Time magazine as one of the 100 most influential people of 2017.

Mohandes concluded by writing that a “diversity of viewpoints and an open exchange of ideas is at the heart of our country’s strength, and our university’s strength. It is why we at CUNY are so committed to academic freedom, a bedrock principle of our university.”

Nevertheless, Assemblyman Dov Hikind (D-Borough Park) said there is ample evidence of Sarsour’s “support for terrorism.”

He cited in particular a picture she posted on Twitter on Oct. 11, 2015, showing a small boy with rocks in both hands as he approached Israeli soldiers in riot gear. She posted the following caption: “The definition of courage.”

“My office is putting out releases about Israelis who have been murdered by rocks,” Hikind said, noting that they include at least one child.

Several CUNY trustees have already expressed their opposition to Sarsour’s selection, among them one who wrote in an email, “Sarsour is an issue we all should be outraged about. No way should she be honored and certainly not from a university of the City of New York.”