A scheduled discussion on anti-Semitism featuring Palestinian-American activist Linda Sarsour has infuriated many Jewish students and professors at the New School, a university in New York City.
The panel on Tuesday, which is also scheduled to include Jewish Voice for Peace executive director Rebecca Vilkomerson and members of the groups Jews of Color and Jews for Racial & Economic Justice, is titled “Antisemitism and the Struggle for Justice.” It’s designed to examine the phenomenon of critics of Israel being labeled anti-Semites to silence their concerns, and co-sponsored by the university, JVP and Jacobin Magazine.
“Antisemitism is harmful and real,” the event description states. “But when antisemitism is redefined as criticism of Israel, critics of Israeli policy become accused and targeted more than the growing far-right.”
Sarsour, an organizer of the Women’s March, has been criticized for comments claiming that “nothing is creepier than Zionism” and that Zionists could not be true feminists, and for her praise of convicted Palestinian terrorist Rasmeah Odeh.
“Having an anti-Semite on a panel to discuss anti-Semitism is ridiculous,” Susan Shapiro, a professor who has taught at the New School since 1993, told the Forward.
Sarsour supports the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) campaign against Israel, which proponents claim is a non-violent way to protest Israel’s occupation of Palestinian territories. Detractors say BDS is anti-Semitic.
Shapiro said that she would not have even noticed if Sarsour had been asked to speak on any other topic — indeed, Sarsour previously spoke at the New School about “Race in the United States” in September without incident — but giving her a platform to opine on anti-Semitism was a step too far.
The New School, which has a history of hosting discussions of contemporary issues, is the perfect place to hold such a panel, Ujju Aggarwal, a professor of anthropology and experiential learning, told the Forward.
“I think having this discussion — which locates anti-Semitism in relationship to racism and Islamophobia, and separates it out from criticism of the Israeli state — is so crucial,” she said.
History professor Natalia Mehlman Petrzela agreed that discussing the exploitation of anti-Semitism as a means to squelch legitimate criticism of Israel is appropriate, but that the panel didn’t offer the right people to address it.
“When I found out…that it was composed without scholars of anti-Semitism, that to me was outrageous,” she told the Forward. “You need to have a panel with a different composition to have that conversation in a nuanced way.”
But in the meantime, more than 20,000 people have signed a petition criticizing the panel discussion for hosting Sarsour and Vilkomerson and “conflat[ing] legitimate criticism of Israel—like legitimate criticism of any other state—with the belief that Israel should not exist as a state and should be replaced.” The petition, which was signed by many New School students and faculty, was organized by “Zioness,” a Zionist feminist group that has been criticized for lacking liberal bona fides.
A separate letter to the university’s leadership was organized by members of the school’s Jewish culture club.
“As a result of inviting Sarsour and the JVP to this panel and co-sponsoring this event, The New School is lending cover and credence to an anti Israel agenda and thereby causing great distress to The New School Jewish and Israeli community,” the letter stated. They insisted that the school both sponsor a new panel on anti-Semitism and apologize for its “mistake in judgment” in approving the original one.
“We know what this platform is really going to be about, based on the speakers,” sophomore Alexi Rosenfeld, who helped organize the letter, told the Forward. “It will most likely be a conversation about Israel and anti-Zionist rhetoric,” not anti-Semitism.
The upside to the way that the event upset Jewish students, he said, is that it “brought together a lot of the Jewish, pro-Israel community to speak up against the New School co-sponsoring it.”
Aiden Pink is the Deputy News Editor for the Forward.