A speech by Palestinian-American civil rights advocate Linda Sarsour at the graduation ceremony of the City University of New York’s Graduate School of Public Health & Health Policy was largely uneventful, despite the controversy that had surrounded Sarsour’s selection as speaker.
“I’m from Brooklyn, and I came here to tell it like it is,” Sarsour stated at the beginning of her June 1 speech, and she proceeded to exhort the graduating students to be “righteously outraged” and to act against all forms of injustice, rather than be bystanders.
“The only way to do this is to organize intersectionally and holistically,” Sarsour argued, mentioning racism, poverty, police brutality, Islamophobia, anti-Semitism, homophobia and other social ills that must be confronted. She quoted the writer and activist Audre Lorde: “There is no such thing as a single-issue struggle because we do not live single-issue lives.”
Sarsour was one of the leaders of the Women’s March on Washington in January, and she helped raise tens of thousands of dollars to repair a vandalized Jewish cemetery in Missouri. She also is a proponent of the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement against Israel; she once tweeted that “nothing is creepier than Zionism,” and she argued that Zionists could not also be feminists.
Sarsour largely stayed away from Middle East geopolitics, but she did mention her love of, and gratitude toward, America, the country that took in her “Palestinian immigrant parents who lived under military occupation.” It is because of her love of the United States, Sarsour said, that she feels compelled to speak out against American society’s injustices. “Wrong is wrong, no matter who does it or says it,” she said, quoting Malcolm X. She added that she believed “that dissent is the highest form of patriotism [and] that silence is an endorsement of the status quo and makes us complicit in the suffering of the most marginalized among us.”
Some in the Jewish community criticized the decision to have Sarsour speak at the commencement; Zionist Organization of America President Morton Klein called Sarsour “a bigot and divider,” and asked New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo to block her invitation to speak. In response, more than 100 Jewish leaders, including prominent New York City rabbis and the heads of the left-wing groups J Street and Bend the Arc, signed an open letter defending Sarsour.
Sarsour was also defended at the beginning of the ceremony, by the school dean Ayman El-Mohandes. “Some dissenting voices from outside our community attempted to interfere with our celebration today,” El-Mohandes said, “and to those I say, freedom of speech is only relevant when you are respectfully listening to ideas that challenge your own. Otherwise, what’s the point?”
More than 150 students graduated in the ceremony, held at the historic Apollo Theater in New York City’s Harlem. It was the first commencement ceremony in the history of the school, which was constituted in its current form in 2015. Also in attendance was honorary degree recipient and New York City first lady Chirlane McCray, whom Sarsour hugged at the end of her speech. McCray’s husband, Mayor Bill de Blasio, was also in attendance.