The University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill is hosting their Minority Health Conference (MHC) on February 22 featuring keynote speaker Linda Sarsour. Sarsour is known for her hostility towards Israel, having said “Northing is creepier than Zionism” and advising Muslims not to “humanize” Israelis. Sarsour once tweeted against the feminist Ayaan Hirsi Ali, a survivor of genital mutilation, by saying she wishes she could take Ali’s vagina away.
The MHC Planning Committee is composed of UNC students. Public records indicate that a co-chair, Afsaneh Mortazavi, and two other Planning Committee members – Teja Vemuganti and Karla Jiminez – signed an anti-Israel petition provided to the Durham, NC City Council in 2018. The petition led to Durham becoming the first city in the United States to ban police trainings specifically with Israel. A UNC faculty member told me, “Given that multiple Planning Committee members signed the anti-Israel petition, there is clearly pre-existing bias.”
Sarsour is a leading figure in the boycott, divestment, and sanctions (BDS) movement against Israel which many view as anti-Semitic since it singles out Israel. Having gained fame and power as a Women’s March organizer, Sarsour is using this position to promote BDS as a feminist cause and has alienated many Jewish women by declaring Zionists cannot be feminists. Many have also criticized Women’s March leaders for their association with the notorious anti-Semite Louis Farrakhan.
On January 29, North Carolina Hillel (the organization that represents Jewish life for students on 13 campuses across the state), publicly stated on its website, “While we appreciate the role Ms. Sarsour has played in highlighting gender and racial inequality in this country, her track record of supporting efforts to demonize and delegitimize Israel run counter to the goals and spirit of the conference…Ms. Sarsour’s presence has already made some Jewish students reconsider their participation in this conference. They fear they will be made to feel unwelcome and forced to choose between their commitment to the health of minorities and their support of Israel. This is a false choice, as Israel is a world leader in medical research and global humanitarian aid, and committed to improved health of all its populations.”
Amy Rosenthal, a Chapel-Hill resident and co-founder of the North Carolina Coalition for Israel told me, “Linda Sarsour is a master manipulator. She uses the suffering of disadvantaged communities to foment hate against Israel and with it the Jewish people – that is her true agenda.”
I contacted Dean Barbara K. Rimer of the UNC Gillings School of Global Public Health, the host sponsor, and then Khadija Jahfiya and Afsaneh Mortazavi, the two student Conference Co-Chairs, with questions for this article. They directed me to Layla Dowdy, the Gillings School’s Director of Communications and Marketing, who responded to me with a letter very similar to the Gillings School statement on the matter. While UNC states this is a student-run conference, the students ostensibly in charge directed me to their school’s communications director for further assistance.
A community member forwarded me a January 24 email in which Dean Rimer wrote, “As our statement shows, it is not the Gillings School that is hosting Linda Sarsour but the Minority Health Conference. Our school did not ask Sarsour to speak. Students plan and execute the conference. They invited her. I did not invite her, and the school did not invite her. They wanted a forum to showcase various advocates. As this has unfolded, it is not what any of us would have preferred. We are meeting with representatives of Hillel to arrive at a solution that will demonstrate our commitment to all populations and our recognition of how Jewish people may feel about the event. We cannot uninvite her based on the North Carolina Restore Free Speech Act” [House Bill 527].
Without responding directly to my questions, Dean Rimer sent me a brief statement on January 29 stating “members of her leadership team” have met with “leaders of NC Hillel” and “with other community members.” Rimer told me, “This has been a learning opportunity for us all — the student organizers, our student affairs and communications professionals and myself included. I look forward to continued listening and dialogue for greater understanding.”
UNC junior Ariel Freedman told me, “As a Jewish student, I would be hesitant to attend any conference in which the keynote speaker has used platforms unrelated to Israel to denounce the Jewish state. I agree with North Carolina Hillel’s statement that Linda Sarsour’s previous attacks on Israel and its supporters run counter to the goals of the School of Public Health’s Minority Student Caucus, which aims to bring people together. In this setting, Jewish students are having to choose between their passion for public health and their support for Israel. All students should feel welcome and safe at all campus events.”
On the UNC Gillings School of Global Public Health Facebook page, a UNC health care employee commented, “Evidently Ms. Sarsour is for minority health as long as it does not include a Jewish minority. Please boycott her talk.” A local resident, Deborah Friedman, commented: “Antisemitism isn’t a good look for UNC.”
Many members of the local Jewish community have contacted me regarding this issue. While some have asked UNC to cancel Sarsour’s speech, others are concerned about free speech issues and want UNC to insist upon an extensive question and answer period in which the community is allowed to challenge Sarsour.
Marcia Harris, a former UNC administrator with over 30 years of experience on campus, wrote a letter to the school newspaper expressing strong concerns about Sarsour and pointing out that when Sarsour spoke at Dartmouth College, she dismissed and mocked a student because he was a “young white man.” Harris asks, “Does our School of Public Health really want to taint its fine reputation by welcoming such a vile individual to UNC?”
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