In 2018, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill (UNC-CH) gained national attention when it was revealed that a required textbook for almost 19,000 students was found to blame Jews for not tapping into their inner strength to resist during the Holocaust.
Now, UNC-CH is in the news again for its insensitivity toward Jewish students. As I recently reported in The Tower, UNC-CH is hosting their Minority Health Conference on February 22, featuring keynote speaker Linda Sarsour. Sarsour is known for her hostility toward Israel, having said “Nothing is creepier than Zionism” and advising Muslims not to “humanize” Israelis.
One UNC graduate captured the public outrage by writing on Facebook, “I’m an alum of UNC. No more donations from me if you allow this Jew hater to speak.”
A university spokesperson told me that Sarsour is being paid $2,500 and will be reimbursed travel and expenses for her keynote address. University officials were quick to distance themselves from Sarsour’s invitation to speak with the excuse that it is a student- run conference; yet, Sarsour’s keynote is co-sponsored by both the UNC Gillings School of Public Health and the Center for Middle East and Islamic Studies. While University officials may be correct that a state free speech law prevents them from uninviting Sarsour, there is no state law requiring UNC departments to co-sponsor Sarsour’s speech. And there is no state law preventing UNC departments from revoking their sponsorships of Linda Sarsour’s speech.
Through prestigious department sponsorships, UNC is publicly embracing Sarsour’s keynote appearance. In fact, UNC’s Center for Middle East and Islamic Studies became a co-sponsor of Sarsour’s speech only about a week ago. The sponsorship came well after Hillel, many local residents and many UNC alumni expressed strong concerns to the university.
The Zionist Organization of America wrote to Dean Barabara Rimer of the Gillings school, “If you and the School truly lack the authority to rescind the invitation to Linda Sarsour to be the keynote speaker, then…Exercise your own First Amendment rights and issue a public statement condemning Linda Sarsour’s anti-Semitic bigotry and the decision to make her the keynote speaker at the conference.”
Sarsour’s abstract for her upcoming keynote indicates that her speech will focus on “intersectionality.” Sarsour uses intersectionality as a bludgeon to vilify Israel and Zionists. For example, Sarsour has used her position as a Woman’s March leader to promote boycott, divestment, and sanctions (BDS) against Israel.
Sarsour has alienated many Jewish women by declaring that feminists cannot be Zionists. When questioned about associations with the notorious anti-Semite Louis Farrakhan, Women’s March leaders hid behind the excuse of intersectional feminism. Sarsour misuses intersectionality to rationalize anti-Semitism.
A recent letter sent to the Dean of the Gillings School of Public Health in support of Sarsour, signed by 33 people who identify as members of the UNC community, refers to Sarsour as “brilliant” and stated that “Antisemitism is rooted in white supremacy.” In other words, the signatories put forth the troubling position that Sarsour isn’t anti-Semitic because she advocates for “marginalized people” and isn’t a white supremacist. This is as absurd as suggesting that a man can’t be a rapist because he is a feminist.
Signatories to the letter include Professor Pam Silberman, Professor Emeritus Trude Bennett, and Associate Professor Daniel Westreich – all of the Gillings School – and Elyse Crystall, UNC Associate Professor of Literature.
Elyse Crystall is no stranger to controversy. In 2004, the Carolina Alumni Review reported that UNC was monitoring Crystall after she “publicly criticized a student” in an email and The Office for Civil Rights found that Crystall’s e-mail violated Titles VI and IX of the Civil Rights Act.” In 2018, Crystall opposed a Jewish candidate for the Durham City Council because the candidate – a leader of the Hispanic community and an immigrant from Colombia – attends a local Jewish synagogue. As reported in the Tower, the candidate described Crystall’s email as “anti-Semitic.”
Also in 2018, Crystall sent a letter to the Durham Human Relations Commission, alleging that Israel is “Experimenting on the captive population under military occupation” and has “tested” weapons on Palestinians. I contacted Crystall for this column and asked about what some view as her thinly veiled comparison of Israelis to Nazis. Crystall did not respond.
Crystall is the UNC-CH faculty advisor to Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP). The Anti-Defamation League reports that SJP chapters “regularly demonize Jewish students who identify as Zionists.” At least six of the signatories to the letter in support of Sarsour are members of the anti-Zionist organization Jewish Voice for Peace (JVP). It comes as no surprise that those who object to Israel’s existence also embrace Linda Sarsour. University officials and the conference co-chairs would not directly respond to my question asking if JVP or SJP were involved in inviting Linda Sarsour to speak at UNC.
UNC-CH freshman and Board Member of Chabad at UNC, Sam Zahn told me that, “Anti-Semitism is a problem on both sides of the political spectrum. Yet, both sides attempt to spin it so as to cast it off as merely the problem of the other. This is exactly what Sarsour’s supporters are doing when they write ‘Anti-Semitism is rooted in white supremacy.’ There is no doubt that white supremacists spew anti-Semitism, but this is just another way of distracting from criticism of their own anti-Semitism. Sarsour’s refusal to condemn Farrakhan, a man who claims he isn’t anti-Semitic – just ‘anti-Termite’ – isn’t rooted in white supremacy, but it is undeniably anti-Semitic.”
A UNC-CH graduate student wrote to the university, saying, “I call into question the motivation for her [Sarsour’s] selection, especially in light of the fact that her professional and educational background really have nothing to do with public health or healthcare.”
A university spokesperson said, “The conference is led by a planning committee of 72 student volunteers…This committee, led by the student co-chairs, selected the keynote speakers.” However, a UNC-CH student told me that a university spokesperson conceded that one or more UNC faculty or administration members were responsible for vetting Linda Sarsour. In addition, as reported in The Tower, one of the student co-chairs and two other planning committee members recently signed an anti-Israel petition that was prepared for and given to the Durham City Council.
Numerous community members have contacted me to share that a peaceful protest during Sarsour’s speech is planned. Marcia Harris, a former UNC administrator with over 30 years of experience on campus, wrote, “Many of us are disturbed by the invitation extended to Linda Sarsour to speak at a conference hosted by UNC. She is on record as advocating BDS and closely associating with known anti-Semite Louis Farrakhan. She has made statements belittling women who are standing up against feminine genital mutilation. Please join us in protesting against [Sarsour’s] appearance at UNC.”
To begin the healing with the Jewish community, UNC should consider sponsoring a conference that looks at anti-Semitism from wherever it arises – including left wing and right wing extremist viewpoints. Clearly, there is a need for such education at UNC. In addition, the UNC Gillings School of Global Public Health should consider offering education on the incredible public health practices and initiatives in Israel, such as Israel’s impressive scientific achievements in facing the global water crisis. UNC should focus on programs that advocate for health, while bringing people together instead of dividing.
[Photo: Festival of Faiths / Flickr ]