On February 21, the cemetery in St. Louis where several members of my family are buried was desecrated by cowardly, anti-Semitic vandals. Minutes after I posted about it on social media, I got a text from Linda Sarsour expressing sympathy and offering to help. One day later, she had organized thousands of Muslims across the United States to raise over $80,000.
This was not a surprise to me. Linda has stood with the Jewish community against anti-Semitic hate crimes many times. She has visited our synagogue (Congregation Kolot Chayeinu, in Brooklyn) and worked closely with my rabbi, with fellow congregants, with Jews for Racial and Economic Justice, and with many other Jews. Including Zionists, like me.
Linda opposes anti-Semitism as part of her broader work for justice. Through the years that I have served in the City Council, I have had the honor of working closely with her in many campaigns. We worked together to pass the Community Safety Act — to reduce discriminatory stop-and-frisk, prohibit bias-based profiling or surveillance and create an Inspector General for the NYPD. She helped create a truly diverse coalition of African-Americans, Latinos, Muslims, Christians and Jews. We worked together in the effort to make Eid days into NYC public school holidays, among other efforts.
Most recently, I was proud to travel with my wife and daughter to be among the 4+ million people around the world that Linda and her colleagues organized to come together in the Women’s March, one of the most remarkable acts of protest and civic engagement in our nation’s history (with room for people of beautifully diverse views and identities, including hundreds of thousands of Jews). My daughter Rosa sees Linda as a role model, someone who has the courage to speak up for her people, but also to build bridges across lines of difference.
I do not agree with Linda on every issue. We both have strong, and divergent, views on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. I oppose the “Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions” (BDS) movement. She supports it. This does not make me an Islamophobe. And it does not make Linda an anti-Semite. (Indeed, while I disagree with them as well, there are active members of my synagogue who support BDS as well.)
Most recently, I disagreed with the headline of an interview with her in The Nation magazine, “Can You Be a Zionist Feminist? Linda Sarsour Says No”. I consider myself both a Zionist and a feminist. So what do you think I did? I reached out to let her know, and we had a conversation. In her experience, a Zionist is often someone who opposes the self-determination of her people, and justifies their living for 50 years without equal rights as citizens. To me, a Zionist is someone who believes in the right of Israel to exist as a Jewish, democratic state, at peace with her neighbors. I pray fervently that, someday soon, our self-determination can be mutual.
Linda and I have both tweeted intemperate things in moments of anger and passion. I’ve even deleted some things I’ve tweeted. My sense is that her accusers have also done some things they might wish they could take back.
But this much is very clear: Linda is not an anti-Semite. And she is certainly not a supporter of terrorism.
Linda expresses her opinions strongly and eloquently, and I can understand why people who don’t agree with her might find her intimidating. But the campaign against her — the mother of three kids, a Brooklyn neighbor, someone with a big heart — has become ugly. You only have to check her Twitter-stream to see that she is the subject of a vicious campaign of hate — something that is not about her actions, or even her views.
When I wrote to CUNY’s Chancellor Milliken a few weeks ago, to thank him for supporting Linda in the face of the campaign against her commencement speech, I noted that CUNY has a great history of teaching, welcoming and encouraging free speech. One of the few stains on that tradition was when CUNY 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 am glad to see that CUNY has learned from that history and stands strong in welcoming Linda as the commencement speaker at the CUNY School of Public Health.
Not every student at the commencement speech will agree with every word she says. Wouldn’t it be an insipid speech — or a monochrome student body — if they did? But I am confident that those with open minds will learn from, and be inspired, by her.
I know I have been.
Brad Lander is a member of the New York City Council from Brooklyn.
Look forward to an opposing viewpoint in the coming days.