Jewish Voice for Peace held a discussion on antisemitism recently at the New School in New York City and the panel included Linda Sarsour, whose associations and opinions, particularly about Israel and Jews, are controversial.
The school defended its choice by saying that there are “differing views on the issue of antisemitism,” a Trumpian formulation on par with the idea that there are good people on both sides of every issue.
Sarsour, a daughter of Palestinian-American immigrants, rose to national prominence as a co-chair of the Women’s March earlier this year and was dubbed by Politico as “the face of the resistance” to Donald Trump.
She is also highly controversial. When she got into a public spat with ex-Muslims Ayaan Hirsi Ali and Brigitte Gabriel, Sarsour tweeted, “I wish I could take their vaginas away – they don’t deserve to be women.” (Hirsi Ali was subjected to female genital mutilation at the age of 5 in her native Somalia.)
Sarsour is particularly opinionated about Israel. She claims that Israel has a right to exist, but does so in the context of a “one-state solution” that would eliminate Israel’s Jewish identity. She supports the boycott, divestment and sanction movement and has defended sharing a stage with Rasmea Odeh, a terrorist involved in murdering two Israelis and wounding nine others. She has tweeted that “nothing is creepier than Zionism” (nothing?!) and said it is not possible to be a Zionist and a feminist.
So it was a point of contention when Sarsour was invited to join a panel on the subject of antisemitism. Yet Sarsour has something to say that everyone should listen to closely.
She says that antisemitism is “different than anti-black racism or Islamophobia because it’s not systemic.” As one commentator noted, what was more “systemic” than the Holocaust? But Sarsour was making a legitimate case: Jews in 21st-century North America do not suffer systemic economic disadvantage due to their Jewishness. Jews are no longer precluded from housing, universities or any place in the public realm because of their identity. Jews are not randomly pulled over and shot by police. Jews do not experience lower wages or lesser positions of employment because of their identity.
Antisemitism isn’t routinely expressed in the same ways as most other common forms of prejudice and discrimination. However, this doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist or should be dismissed.
Whether left, right or centre, most of us now accept an economic definition of discrimination: lower standards of housing, employment, opportunity and outcome. But antisemitism doesn’t manifest in these ways. However, it can manifest in hate speech, attacks on synagogues and other Jewish institutions, and physical assault. It can lead to genocide, as it has within the memory of the living generation. It can result in the ethnic cleansing of Jews from almost every Muslim-majority country on earth over the course of a couple of decades.
So, antisemitism is not a benign force, even if it does not fit the parameters we now widely use to identify and measure discrimination. In fact, it is, in itself, a form of discrimination to ignore the uniqueness of antisemitism.
Antisemitism can also take the form of a movement to eradicate the national homeland of the Jewish people. There are reasons to criticize Israel, but to argue that Jewish people are the only people in the world not deserving of national self-determination is problematic.
At the heart of the anti-Zionist movement is an imagined firewall between antisemitism and even the most extreme condemnation of Israel, including calls for it to be eliminated. It is fair to make the case that criticism of Israel is not necessarily influenced by anti-Jewish animus. But this is not the case being made by people like Sarsour. Their position is that there is effectively no connection at all between anti-Zionism and antisemitism and that any suggestion of a connection is a strategy to “silence” or discredit criticism of Israel.
The idea that opinions, stereotypes or prejudices about Jews play no role in perceptions of the Jewish state is unreasonable. If there is anything that should cause skepticism toward Sarsour and those like her, it is the stalwart refusal to even consider the presence in their worldview of prejudice about Jews. If any other group of people in the world so much as suggested that they were affected by bigotry or discrimination, people like Sarsour would take these concerns seriously. When Jews make this suggestion, it is rejected outright and labeled a ploy to win a political argument. This, in itself, speaks volumes.