A few months ago, I participated in an important synagogue program on Long Island about the victories and failures in our struggle against the global campaign to boycott and demonize Israel (BDS). During the question-and-answer period, one participant dismissed Palestinian activist Linda Sarsour and her ideological supporters as “stupid.” Their accusations, this individual claimed, were ridiculous, baseless, anti-Semitic rhetoric and nothing more.
But Linda Sarsour, the former executive director of the Arab American Association of New York who CUNY invited to speak at its June 1 graduation ceremony, is anything but stupid. She is a brilliant tactician who manipulates the media to gain attention and sympathy for her cause. She labels herself a progressive, perpetuating the disturbing idea that being a progressive and supporting Israel are somehow mutually exclusive, a notion which only muddles the label for those who truly seek to constructively advocate on behalf of legitimate and necessary issues. She is presiding over an ever-expanding effort to project an anti-Israel message within the context of human and civil rights causes. She has thrown down the gauntlet, challenging Jews and the world at large to choose between either a “criminal and illegitimate” Israel or the “righteous and wholly innocent” Palestinian underdog.
Last September, I stood along with many of my colleagues at a New York City Council Public Hearing on that body’s resolution to officially condemn the BDS movement — a hearing at which all those in favor, including myself, were shouted down as “Jewish pigs” and “Zionist filth” from provocateurs strategically placed in the audience. It was Linda Sarsour who was at the forefront — manipulating the camera shots and sound bites. It was Linda Sarsour who sat for hours listening with great satisfaction to the libelous rants and screamed obscenities alleging that Israelis murder Palestinian babies. It was Sarsour who nodded approvingly and congratulated individuals who were kicked out of the hearing room for being out of order, for walking in front of individuals providing testimony in support of the resolution, and for shouting down our supporters with anti-Semitic slurs — all in the name of protecting free speech.
I know what CUNY has stood for in the New York Jewish world as I, myself, am a graduate of its undergraduate and graduate schools. My father, my sister and my wife as well are CUNY graduates. CUNY has long been a bastion for the world’s largest Jewish community in the diaspora to feel safe in their pursuit of a higher education.
However, we look to the many anti-Semitic and anti-Israel acts in a number of its treasured schools over the past year, including Medgar Evers College and Brooklyn College and wonder how much longer proud Jews and supporters of Israel will feel safe on campus. To its credit, CUNY has taken some steps to combat these incidents and at schools specifically, such as Brooklyn College, we have seen progress.
However, inviting an obvious antagonist of the world’s largest Jewish community outside of Israel, an individual who doesn’t shirk from using controversial tactics against Israel’s supporters, to speak at CUNY is a bewildering act by its leadership sure to inspire only more hate, harassment and confrontations perpetrated against the Jewish student body. CUNY’s invitation to such an individual, an invitation I remind you not requested by students but rather by the administration itself, will provide cover to those seeking to legitimize her message. Her commencement speech belies CUNY’s stated commitment to fighting anti-Semitism.
Free speech is not the issue. For unlike Linda Sarsour, we believe in her right to be heard. We do not oppose her appearing at student-based events if she is so invited. But it is the Simon Wiesenthal Center’s responsibility to ensure that the situational truth is loudly heard and our message of peace, fairness and justice wins the day. We do, however, abhor the notion that our local flagship institution of higher learning would honor someone whose vitriol is unleashed when a Jewish speaker or intellectual is involved on CUNY campuses.
Don’t discount the damage Linda Sarsour has already done and may yet do. It is up to us to win over our neighbors to understand the calumny of CUNY’s actions and demonstrate that she is not the firefighter she claims, but rather an arsonist in our midst.
Michael D. Cohen is the Eastern Director for the Simon Wiesenthal Center.