In his Forward column outlining “19 People Jews Should Worry About More Than Linda Sarsour,” Steven Davidson says that with so many other dangers lurking, he is confounded by the Jewish community’s seeming obsession with the controversial Palestinian-American feminist activist.
I share Davidson’s horror at the presence of figures such as Steve Bannon and Sebastian Gorka in the Oval Office. I worry deeply, too, about “alt-right” or “alt-lite” figures such as Richard Spencer.
And yet even with the increasing anti-Semitism, racism, xenophobia and other forms of hatred we are experiencing, I do worry more about Linda Sarsour than about most of the people on Davidson’s list — at least those involved in domestic American politics. After all, most of the list’s other individuals are known anti-Semites and bigots, fringe figures reviled by significant swaths of the American public.
The issue with Linda Sarsour is that she and many of her colleagues on the far left, including some in the LGBTQ community, are creating a false litmus test for progressive activism, one saying that if you are truly progressive you can’t be a Zionist. And, she is doing that with the aura of mainstream acceptability conferred by her Jewish allies and other prominent supporters for whom I generally have tremendous respect.
American Jews have been at the vanguard of progressive justice movements for more than a century. Being shunned by these movements because of their support for a Jewish state in Israel is devastating, particularly for those who have devoted countless time and energy to advocating for peace and self-determination for both Israelis and Palestinians. Sarsour and others present a false “either-or” choice for politically liberal Jews. When push comes to shove, many younger Jews could feel compelled to stifle their Jewish and Zionist identities in order to continue to be accepted in the social and activist circles they hold dear, whether advocating for LGBTQ rights, an end to police brutality and racial profiling, or preservation of reproductive choice. That is a much longer-term danger than any “alt-right” agitator is.
On a personal level, I was outraged and pained when Sarsour declared that it is impossible for a woman to be both a Zionist and a feminist. Really? How fortunate that I was unaware of this edict: From my college days organizing students to attend pro-choice rallies in Washington, D.C., to previously directing a Jewish women’s foundation that supports social change projects for Jewish and non-Jewish women and girls in Israel and the United States, my identities as a Jew, a progressive Zionist and a feminist have been seamlessly interwoven.
When did Linda Sarsour and other anti-Israel leftists become supreme gatekeepers, determining who may rightfully sit at the table of those who fight for justice and tolerance and equality? According to Sarsour, Zionism is never compatible with human decency, thereby ignoring that Israel itself was created out of the ashes of perhaps the worst genocidal crime in human history.
One just as easily could say that she is the one who should be dismissed from that table because of her willful denial that the essential human propensity toward anti-Semitism — a scourge that continues to flourish around the world and in our own backyards — created the urgent moral imperative to establish and sustain a Jewish state in our ancestral homeland in the first place. Jews have a rightful place at that table because of our identities as Zionist Jews, not despite it. We must raise our collective voice to stake this claim proudly and authentically. If we can’t get this message across, both to our own people and to our allies in the social justice arena, we will find ourselves ostracized from the very movements that we have so proudly championed and led for decades. In the process, we could potentially lose a chunk of younger generations of liberal American Jews. Hence, the “Sarsour hysteria” that Davidson finds so baffling.
Thankfully, we need not choose between combatting white supremacists and combatting those who deny Israel’s right to existence. We must do both, calling out hatred on both the far right and the far left. They are all equally deserving of our righteous anger.
Guila Franklin Siegel is the associate director of the Jewish Community Relations Council of Greater Washington.