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The Real Message Behind Linda Sarsour’s Apology

There are two Linda Sarsours. At least, that’s how it often seems to me.

There’s the Linda who her Jewish allies know, a fearless woman fighting for the most vulnerable, powerful in her willingness to speak truth to power and constantly beset by horrific threats and disgusting insults, who wages war on those who seek to harm us and raises money for those of us who have been harmed.

And there’s the Linda who other Jews see, a woman who refuses to fully condemn a rabid anti-Semite; a woman who carelessly insults and gaslights Jews, or seems even callously uninterested in their well-being; a woman who insists on seeing herself as a victim in her relations with the Jews she has offended when she actually represents a national movement with the power to exclude them.

Powerful in some senses yet vulnerable in others, fighting for justice on the one hand but with problematic associations and a commitment to the Middle East on the other, Sarsour is a lot like the community she has offended.

American Jews have never had as much power as we currently do – nor been as afraid of violent anti-Semitism. American Jews routinely defend a country that denies civil rights to millions, but it’s also a country that in living memory has been existentially threatened and faces horrifying terrorism. And we have our share of “Louis Farrakhans”, too, who are not only not denounced but welcomed into Jewish spaces, even elected to office in the Jewish State.

I wrote on Monday that Sarsour — and the Women’s March more generally — have not yet come to terms with the power they have, despite coming from marginalized communities.

But in a way, neither have we.

American Jews have failed to understand the amount of influence we have — even over the left. For despite the fears of many that the left is no longer hospitable to Jews, our concerns are, in fact, being addressed.

The Women’s March is a case in point.

In the past few weeks, the Women’s March has come under vociferous attack. Celebrities Alyssa Milano and Debra Messing joined their voices to the chorus demanding that the leaders of the Women’s March denounce Louis Farrakhan, a man they had previously praised though he proudly hates Jews, gay, trans people and women – all the people the Women’s March vows to represent. The mounting campaign culminated in calls that Sarsour and Tamika Mallory, another Women’s March leader who has close ties to Nation of Islam – resign.

On Sunday night, Sarsour broke her silence about Farrakhan. In a statement circulated on a listserv and then published online, she wrote that “Minister Farrakhan has said hateful and hurtful things and that he does not align with our Unity Principles of the Women’s March.”

And on Tuesday night, she went one step further. In a statement put out by the Women’s March in her name, Sarsour apologized.

“We should have been faster and clearer in helping people understand our values and our commitment to fighting anti-Semitism,” she wrote. “We regret that.”

“Every member of our movement matters to us — including our incredible Jewish and LGBTQ members,” she went on. “We are deeply sorry for the harm we have caused, but we see you, we love you, and we are fighting with you.”

The statement was a complete reversal of the Women’s March’s approach to calls to denounce Farrakhan or other criticisms. These were previously cast as attempts to undermine the work of Women of Color, because the world is not ready to let a black woman and a Muslim woman lead.

In fact, adjacent to the statement, Sarsour wrote on her own Facebook wall a post that was much more in line with previous statements:

Others pointed out that in her apology, Sarsour still had not denounced Farrakhan, the one thing Jews had asked for. And still others pointed out that the apology was more of a “Sorry you were offended” than a true taking account, seeing as it was missing any plans for the future to avoid a similar fate from happening again.

These factors, coupled with the fact that it took a famous non-Jewish actress to make it happen, may result in the Jewish community rejecting Sarsour’s apology. There may simply be too much bad faith to heal this relationship.

But as someone who also gets a lot of ugly criticism mixed in with valid criticism, I recognized in Sarsour’s statement a reluctance to sanction all the criticism directed at her.

Sarsour is of course right that a lot of the criticism comes from a place of bad faith, racism and bigotry. Many are disgusted by the sight of a proud Muslim woman helming a movement.

And the Jewish community has participated in this. A significant contingent of right wing Jews — many of them men, many living in Israel — have attacked Sarsour on the most specious grounds. Some of the attacks are disgustingly Islamophobic. Some of them are simply dehumanizing. And some of them attack her for not being a Zionist, or for opposing Zionism, or for supporting the boycott of Israel.

Sarsour is Palestinian. To criticize her for opposing Zionism — the very movement that led to her family’s dispossession — is ludicrous. Palestinians should not have to be Zionists. Yet they are constantly smeared as anti-Semites by right wing Jews for the “crime” of opposing the very state the resulted in their dispossession.

I can see why Sarsour would blanch at the idea of apologizing to people whose offense was at her race or religion, or to those who would object to her support of a legitimate, and personally meaningful, political movement. She shouldn’t have to.

Sarsour had the impossible task of separating out and acknowledging legitimate, good faith criticism from the illegitimate, of convincing Jews that she means them no ill will while not betraying her own identity or other communities who rely on her.

She did not execute this task perfectly. But then, it was an impossible one.

Certainly, there is more work to be done. There are reasonable requests from Jews anxious to be part of the Women’s March and active in lefty spaces that I hope will be heard. Just as Sarsour should not be expected to support Zionism or Israel, American Jews should not be made to feel uncomfortable if they do. Likewise, the denunciation of an anti-Semite who has been previously praised is certainly a reasonable request. And many — myself included — viewed a recent Facebook post by Sarsour as containing a dual loyalty canard, which must be addressed.

Meanwhile, we American Jews must recognize that like Sarsour, we have a powerful voice, in addition to being beset by anti-Semitism. Instead of competing for who has less power, we have an opportunity to understand the duality at our core.

We are endangered but enfranchised. We have extremely well-organized political lobbyists and institutions, but we are also the most targeted minority for hate. And when we raise our voices, we are gaslighted – but ultimately obeyed.

We have a lot more in common with Linda Sarsour than we might think.

Batya Ungar-Sargon is the opinion editor of the Forward.

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