Any Jewish event featuring activist and Israel critic Linda Sarsour is bound to stir the pot in the Jewish community. But when the topic of discussion is “Antisemitism and the Struggle for Justice,” the pot boils over.
Organized by a number of organizations including the left-wing group Jewish Voice for Peace, the Tuesday night event at the New School was meant to celebrate JVP’s new book, “On Antisemitism.” The essay collection includes contributions from JVP’s executive director and panelist Rebecca Vilkomerson, Sarsour, and BDS (boycott, divestment and sanctions) activist Omar Barghouti, among others.
The panel focused on how to combat anti-Semitism through an intersectional lens, but as the discussion wore on it became clear that Sarsour was the story.
Sarsour, one of the panelists and an activist for the Palestinian cause as well as broader issues (she helped organize the post-inauguration Women’s March in Washington, for example), is a divisive figure in the Jewish community. Those on the right call her a bigot, often citing her 2012 tweet saying that “Nothing is creepier than Zionism.” Those on the left embrace her as an ally and defend her by pointing to her fundraising campaign earlier this year to repair Jewish cemeteries that were damaged in a series of attacks. Sarsour originally sought to raise $20,000 but quickly raised over $160,000.
Early in her remarks, Sarsour addressed some of the criticism leveled at her and the event organizers for including her on the panel. “Apparently, I’m the biggest problem for the Jewish community — I am like the existential threat,” she said to the amusement of the audience. “I am not as important as I’m made out to be.”
She added: “If what you’re reading all day long, morning and night, in the Jewish media is that Linda Sarsour and Minister Farrakhan are the existential threat to the Jewish community, something really bad is going to happen and we’re going to miss the mark on it,” referring to Nation of Islam’s Louis Farrakhan, whom the Anti-Defamation League calls “America’s leading anti-semite.”
In the weeks leading up to the event, a number of op-eds were published in the Jewish and non-Jewish press criticizing the organizers for including Sarsour. One New School donor threatened to pull his support, according to Tablet.
Jonathan Greenblatt, CEO of the Anti-Defamation League, joined the fray on Twitter a few weeks ago. “Having Linda Sarsour & head of JVP leading a panel on #antisemitism is like Oscar Meyer leading a panel on vegetarianism,” he wrote. “These panelists know the issue, but unfortunately, from perspective of fomenting it rather than fighting it.”
Sarsour attracted more than a few protesters. Jewish students at the New School rallied outside the auditorium, holding signs that read, “New School Funds Old School Hate,” and “Students Stand Strong For Israel” while singing Hebrew songs.
Right-wing political activist Laura Loomer stood outside supporting the student protesters and later tried to confront Sarsour after the panel discussion ended. She said she came to “broadcast on social media just how disgusting the New School is for allowing a woman to use the term social justice as a smoke screen for promoting her hateful message.”
“Out of all the people in this country, out of all the people in New York City who are doing great work on a daily basis to actually combat anti-Semitism and Jew hatred, why would they invite Linda Sarsour?” said Loomer, who was recently banned from the ride-sharing services Uber and Lyft after calling for a new service that would not employ Muslim drivers.
Hannah Schmelzer, a New School senior said she helped organize the protest “to represent the voices that were not being represented on this panel” and to let others know “that there is another side to this story.”
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“You can’t have a nuanced conversation when you’re leaving out other factions of Jews who have differing points of views,” she said.
“It kind of frustrates me that my voice is not being heard,” she added. “Being in a school that prides itself on diversity and freedom of speech, I feel a lot of times like that’s not really an option for me.”
Event attendees seemed nonplussed by the disruptions, even as an audience member stood up in the middle of the event. “How can you stand here laughing at bigotry like nothing is wrong?” he shouted, as organizers and security guards escorted him from the room.
Though the panel was set to discuss the issue of anti-Semitism in general, the conversation repeatedly came back to Sarsour, with most of the questions from the audience addressed to her. Comments on the Facebook live stream of the event largely came from her supporters.
“If the past year has taught us anything, it is that loving Israel does not mean you love Jews.”
“I think the volume is very high in terms of BDS stuff on campuses,” Shaul Magid, a professor of Jewish studies at Indiana University and a contributor to the book, told The Jewish Week at the event. “The American Jewish community has developed this kind of obsession with Linda Sarsour as if somehow she represents some kind of larger-than-life figure.”
During the discussion, panelists tried to distinguish between criticism of Israeli policy and outright anti-Semitism.
“Criticism of the Israeli state that is based on its past or present action is not anti-Semitism,” Vilkomerson said. She added, “If the past year has taught us anything, it is that loving Israel does not mean you love Jews.”
Lina Morales, a JVP youth coordinator and a Jew of Color, said, “Because I care about Jews, I am an anti-Zionist.”
Rabbi Alissa Wise, deputy director of Jewish Voice for Peace, noted that the event was meant to fete the release of JVP’s new book, “On Antisemitism,” and was not designed as a debate covering the spectrum of Jewish views on the topic of anti-Semitism.
“It’s a book talk, it’s not a debate, so I feel like the concerns about there being not a spectrum [of opinions on the panel], I think it’s true, but that’s not what this is,” said Rabbi Wise. “I don’t think there is the level of basic trust or respect or health in the Jewish communal dynamic right now for that to go well, but I would hope for that to be the next step.”
The rabbi added, “Just like Islamophobia is not just a Muslim issue … I want there to be cross-identity, cross-movement support for Jews in the event of more escalating anti-Semitism,” she said. “I think that’s the vision and the goal here: that we need more people talking about it.”