“This is nuts!” Assemblyman Dov Hikind told radio host John Catsimatidis. “She is someone who associates with and supports radical Islamists.”
The “she” in question is Linda Sarsour, who speaks of “Zionist trolls,” says “nothing is creepier than Zionism” and calls children who throw rocks “the picture of courage.” She is a BDS (Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions) proponent and vocal supporter of Sharia law. And she has also been invited to present the June 1 commencement address at the City University of New York School of Public Health & Health Policy by its dean, Ayman A.E. El-Mohandes. He describes her as “a leader who has been successful as a community organizer, recognized by national leaders and who has emphasized women’s health issues.”
At the commencement ceremony, Sarsour is set to join honorary-doctorate recipient Chirlane McCray, first lady of New York City; and Dr. Mary Bassett, commissioner of the New York Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, who will receive the CUNY School of Public Health (SPH) Champion of Public Health citation.
Dean El-Mohandes has defended the invitation of Sarsour, noting that former President Barack Obama nominated her as a “champion of change,” and pointing out that she supported efforts by Muslims in St. Louis to raise funds for a vandalized Jewish cemetery.
New York Jewish Life (NYJL) was given access to a letter sent from the dean to “SPH Faculty, Students, and Colleagues.” He defended his choice of Sarsour, saying his central focus in choosing commencement honorees was New York women who have provided leadership and inspiration.”
This has done little to quell the outrage expressed by many prominent Jews. In a recent interview, Abe Foxman, director emeritus of the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) and head of anti-Semitism education at New York’s Museum of Jewish Heritage, described Sarsour as the “champion of equal rights, except when it comes to Jewish rights.” He went on to say, “She plays that game, ‘I love Jews; I don’t like Zionists,’ what I would call a throwback to 1948.” Foxman called Sarsour “an enemy of Jewish sovereignty and Jewish liberation…a bigot.”
While Foxman opposes CUNY’s decision to invite Sarsour, he acknowledged that rescinding her invitation could engender more controversy by “turning Sarsour into a free-speech martyr….CUNY would be better off learning about her views and distancing itself appropriately.”
Foxman is also concerned about the politicization of anti-Semitism, which increased during the election and persists. “Stop blaming Trump for the increase [in anti-Semitism],” he said. “The increase is out there because of instability, hypernationalism, anxiety, because of the internet.”
Also upset with CUNY’s decision is Rabbi Meyer May, executive director of the Simon Wiesenthal Center. “For a champion of hate to be speaker at a commencement is intolerable—Sarsour is an outrageous choice,” he said, while suggesting that CUNY officials encourage students to use critical thinking when listening to her speech.
Sarsour does have many vocal supporters in this controversy. Assemblyman and former Obama staffer Michael Blake, currently a vice chair of the Democratic National Committee (DNC), has threatened “anyone who dares to expose Sarsour and criticize her hateful views,” effectively raising the Brooklyn-born activist above criticism by members of the Democratic party.
Blake tweeted, “Making it real clear. If you keep coming after [Linda Sarsour], we’re going to respond directly, consistently, and with all heart and soul.”
Republican assemblywoman and potential 2017 New York City mayoral candidate Nicole Malliotakis was not scared off by Blake’s tweet. In a statement to New York Jewish Life she said, “Linda Sarsour is not a suitable commencement speaker for the City University of New York’s Graduate School of Public Health and should be disinvited. CUNY is a publicly funded institution and as such should take greater care in choosing its speaker to ensure a platform is not given to someone divisive or inciting. Unfortunately, Linda Sarsour is both.”
In 2012, Sarsour was designated a “champion of change” by President Barack Obama for her strengths “in the areas of community development, youth empowerment, community organizing, civic engagement and immigrants’ rights advocacy.” Sarsour arrived on the national stage as an organizer of the Women’s March in January of this year. She shared the position with several co-organizers including convicted murderer and terrorist Rasmea Odeh.
Sarsour has been raised above criticism by many prominent media outlets as well. Time magazine called her a “suffragist of our time” in naming Sarsour one of the 100 Most Influential People of 2017. U.S. Senator Kirsten Gillibrand of New York wrote about the march, saying, “It was a joyful day of clarity and a lightning bolt of awakening for so many women and men who demanded to be heard…and it happened because four extraordinary women—Tamika Mallory, Bob Bland, Carmen Perez and Linda Sarsour [Gillibrand excluded Odeh from the statement]—had the courage to take on something big, important and urgent, and never gave up.”
Gillibrand continued, “The images of Jan. 21, 2017, show a diverse, dynamic America—striving for equality for all.” Fortune magazine also included Ms. Sarsour and her National Women’s March co-organizers on its list of 2017’s 50 World’s Greatest Leaders.
The New York Times said she “is loud, strident and inflected with both street smarts and the tropes of intersectionality, the trending term. That means Ms. Sarsour has sought to speak not only for those who share her religion, but also for others: women, gays, prison inmates, victims of racial profiling facing the problems that concern her.”
Not all media have been kind to Sarsour. The New York Post describes her as “NYC’s Queen of Hate.”
“Radical and leftist supporters may say the invitation is a freedom-of-speech issue. It is not,” said Jeff Wiesenfeld, a former trustee of the City University of New York. He said this is not the same as if a student or faculty member invited a speaker to campus. Commencement speakers and honorary degrees are used as a marketing tool, which makes the invitation to Sarsour worse. “It is despicable that CUNY would invite someone who…calls Zionists creepy.”
Asked to comment on the praise given to Sarsour by Sen. Gillibrand, Wiesenfeld said the senator is “generally absent in the Jewish community. Apparently, she has decided to make her mark with an endorsement for a vile, anti-Semitic individual.”
He went on to say he thinks Gillibrand and many other politicians tend to take the Jewish community for granted. Politicians “do things to us that would be unacceptable to any other ethnic group. It is an insult to our intelligence. Kirsten Gillibrand can no longer get a free ride,” he said.
Weisenfeld also said he was “deeply disappointed” by the lack of response from the Jewish community in this case. “If there were someone expressing an opinion similar to Sarsour’s against any other ethnic group, would there not be people protesting? Civility in the Jewish community is taken for granted,” he said.
Richard Allen, founder of JCC Watch, echoed this sentiment. It is “amazing that people are not strong enough to speak out against Sarsour. The fact that she “is speaking at the Henry Street Settlement is sad,” he said. “Good organizations are being used to ‘kosher’ someone who is anti-Israel and anti-Jewish.
“This is not a matter of freedom of speech. It is a question of what is proper. Would we give a platform to a member of the Klu Klux Klan?” Allen asked. “There must be a border that cannot be crossed. Being honored for what she represents is not appropriate at City College of New York, a public institution. We seem to have lost our moral compass.”
Some of the harshest criticism came from Kenneth Abramowitz, a leader in the healthcare industry. “It makes no sense to have speakers at universities who don’t believe in American values or goals. The job of a university is to teach American values to the students. Linda Sarsour doesn’t believe in the Constitution or the Bill of Rights. What is she doing here?” he said.
Abramowitz continued, “Every country has rules. If you don’t believe in the rules you should not be here.”
He said Sarsour seeks to use American rights to destroy American values. Acknowledging that “as an individual, she has a right to her ideas,” he asked, “Why would a taxpayer want to finance a speaker who doesn’t believe in American values at a publicly supported American university? If so, the university is operating under a false narrative, and those behind this event should be terminated.”
Abramowitz said he is alarmed by Sarsour’s support of the Muslim Brotherhood, a political organization he said is not unlike Communists or Nazis. “Would we invite an advocate of Communism or a Nazi to speak at a publicly funded university commencement?….Of course we should have speakers of different views—unless they are disloyal to America. Our enemies seek our destruction,” he emphasized. “We don’t want to finance in any setting that receives taxpayer funding or subsidies.
“She can claim she has the right to destroy America as we know it. But, she has no right to say it in front of an audience at a taxpayer-funded institution,” Abramowitz said, underlining that anti-Semitism and racism are illegal.
“She a racist. If the administration of CUNY will not stop her, it should be fired!”
Sarsour’s rise to prominence has become a political hot-button issue. Many elected officials have tried to steer clear of weighing in on this dispute. One who did speak with NYJL was Congresswoman Carolyn B. Maloney, who represents parts of Manhattan and Queens.
She told us that “while I support any effort to empower women and was delighted to see the massive crowds who turned out for the Women’s March, I am troubled by Linda Sarsour’s strong rejection of the state of Israel and the people who proudly identify as Zionists. She has testified before the New York City Council in support of the BDS movement; tweeted a picture of a Palestinian child with a rock in each hand that she captioned ‘The picture of courage. #Palestine’; and tweeted, ‘Nothing is creepier than Zionism.’ These positions do not build good will, friendship or peace in the world. Can’t [CUNY] do better?” the Congresswoman questioned.
Perhaps the Congresswoman’s calendar has an opening June 1?