Lessons From The Sarsour Controversy


Linda Sarsour, a Palestinian-American activist and community leader in New York, will deliver the commencement address this week at the public health branch of the City University of New York, an honor that placed her in the middle of a bitter controversy for the last few weeks. As a leader of the Women’s March on Washington in January who helped raise funds for the Jewish community of St. Louis after a local Jewish cemetery was desecrated, Sarsour is highly regarded by progressives, including some rabbis, as a symbol of new activism against discrimination. But as an outspoken critic of Israel and Zionism who supports BDS, insists women cannot be both feminists and Zionists, and has praised those who throw rocks at the IDF, she has been sharply criticized by a range of Jewish leaders. Some urged CUNY to withdraw the commencement invitation, asserting that a public university should not be honoring an enemy of Israel.

But as experience has shown in calling on a university to cancel a graduation speaker, the nature of the controversy shifts from the person’s controversial views to his or her right of free speech. And it’s a losing proposition, especially for American Jews, to take on the First Amendment.

In 2011, there was pressure from some segments of the Jewish community to have CUNY’s John Jay College disinvite graduation speaker Tony Kushner, a recipient of the Pulitzer Prize for his playwriting, because of his anti-Israel views. Instead, in that case as well as in the current one involving Sarsour, the invited speaker is perceived as the target of those who would deny them the right to speak — and there is the added burst of media coverage intensifying the sense of victimhood.

The Anti-Defamation League this week sought to thread the political needle, issuing a statement by its CEO, Jonathan Greenblatt, “profoundly” rejecting “Sarsour’s positions that delegitimize Israel” and support BDS, as well as her assertion that “one cannot be simultaneously a feminist and pro-Israel.” But it also upheld her right to present her views under the First Amendment.

Greenblatt commended CUNY Chancellor James Milliken for his “principled leadership in denouncing BDS and distancing the university” from Sarsour’s “problematic views” while recognizing that “defending one’s right to free speech does not equate to defending the content of that speech.”

Condemning Sarsour’s views but not her right to offer them will please neither side in this controversy, but it makes good sense. We would have much preferred that Sarsour not been given the CUNY honor, given her vigorously anti-Israel views. But once she was chosen, better to rebuff her views, and explain why, rather than demonize her and create a powerful backlash.