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At Women’s History Month Speech, Linda Sarsour Tries – and Fails – to Present a Less Divisive Image

Palestinian-American and Women’s March leader Linda Sarsour was the keynote speaker on March 31 in Hillsborough, North Carolina. The event was sponsored by Orange County’s Department of Human Rights & Relations and The Orange County Human Relations Commission (HRC) of NC “in honor of Women’s History Month.” Sarsour was paid $5,000 plus expenses.

As she recently tried at NYU, Sarsour attempted to repackage herself as someone tolerant of different views. However, the divisive Linda Sarsour quickly emerged.

Speaking to about 110 people in a room with room for 200, Sarsour attacked Israel and applauded the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement against Israel.

Sarsour has been widely criticized for saying “nothing is creepier than Zionism” and advising Muslims not to “humanize” Israelis. Speaking in Hillsborough, Sarsour urged folks not to dehumanize others. Coming from Sarsour, this is a perfect example of do as I say, not as I do. 

Sarsour said her movement is feministic and tolerant of debate and different views, yet neglected to mention that she has alienated Jewish women and drawn widespread criticism for saying that Zionists cannot be feminists. The national Women’s March has been rocked in recent months by allegations of their leaders’ anti-Semitism, resulting in numerous organizations breaking away from the movement, including the Democratic National Committee, the Southern Poverty Law Center, Greenpeace, the National Council of Jewish Women, and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. It is no wonder that Sarsour, one of the Women’s March leaders largely responsible for its decline, is trying to rebrand herself as tolerant of people who hold different positions.

Sarsour attempted to characterize her views on Israel as simple criticism, saying, “Just because you and I don’t share the same positions on a foreign policy issue, it doesn’t make me a hateful person.” This gets to the heart of Sarsour’s anti-Semitism – she demonizes and delegitimizes Israel and treats Israel differently than all other countries. At this event, Sarsour expressed strong concerns about Syria, Saudi Arabia, and Israel, but applauded boycotting only one country on the planet – the Jewish majority country of Israel. And when she gets called out on this anti-Semitism, Sarsour claims this demonization of Israel is simply political criticism.

Sarsour complained that many people know the name of notorious anti-Semite Louis Farrakhan but do not know the name of the Pittsburgh synagogue killer. Sarsour stated that she understands that words are hurtful and people should be able to discuss that hurt, but concluded, “If we focus our attention on the people with the words and not the people with the power and the guns, we’re having a big problem here.”

The question that many audience members wondered is, why can’t we focus on objecting to mass murder and on objecting to anti-Semites such as Louis Farrakhan spreading their hate? Surely there must be room for standing up to both. Many have criticized Women’s March leaders for their association with Farrakhan and his Nation of Islam. Sarsour’s eagerness to divert attention away from Farrakhan appeared self-serving.

As she did a few weeks earlier at UNC-Chapel Hill, Sarsour said twice that during World War II, the United States placed Japanese Americans into “concentration camps.” The United States government was certainly correct to apologize and pay reparations for forcing Japanese Americans into internment camps. However, Sarsour’s use of the term “concentration camps” – a term with intense, personal, and solemn meaning to the Jewish people – was unnecessarily inflammatory and trivialized the Holocaust by inaccurately comparing the treatment of Japanese Americans by the United States during WWII to the treatment, indeed wholesale murder, of Jews by the Nazis of Germany’s Third Reich.

Sarsour stated that the United States “is complicit in the holocaust against Jews.” There were gasps of anger from many audience members because Sarsour did not mention the hundreds of thousands of brave Americans who died fighting Nazis and fascism in WWII. While American Jews are well aware of the Jewish refugees who were refused entry into our country during WWII, we are also thankful for the tremendous sacrifice that American soldiers and the allies made in both ending the holocaust and defeating the Nazis.

Discussing some of her fellow activists, Sarsour stated, “They believe in the abolition of police. That’s what they believe. I’m almost there.” This statement drew wide applause from what can broadly be called the “social justice” activists in the room which included attending officials and event organizers. Sarsour did not acknowledge or thank the many law enforcement officers in the room and outside who kept the event safe and kept about 70 demonstrators peacefully apart. Sarsour also said she was nearing the point where she could support abolishing prisons.

During the question and answer period, Sarsour identified racism and capitalism as equivalent problems. Sarsour explained that capitalism forces people to compete with each other and stated, “Racism and capitalism, you can’t talk about them separately.” She did not complain, however, about being paid $5,000 plus expenses to speak. Sarsour certainly never objected to that part of capitalism.

A few days before the event, Orange County sent out an email stating that Sarsour could not be recorded, filmed, or photographed by attendees. The taxpayers funding the speech could be removed for doing so. Oddly enough, the event organizers billed Sarsour’s speech as a “Courageous Conversation.” A number of audience members observed that courageous speakers have no problem being recorded.

During Sarsour’s talk, I saw a number of people recording and taking pictures using their phones. An event staff member repeatedly asked a pro-Israel audience member to stop filming, yet ignored others in the room. The pro-Israel woman who was filming told the staff member that this was a public meeting, which she said included a quorum of elected officials, and she would not stop recording. This neutralized the staff member who finally stopped approaching her.

As reported in the Tower, Orange County Commissioner Earl McKee told me, “I only know that I had no part of any of this and am sure that many other well-qualified women could have been asked to speak…This type of conduct will continue until folks rise up and put a stop to it, either through public pressure or at the polls.”

Before her speech, four local rabbis wrote to the Orange County HRC: “By inviting Ms. Sarsour, whose statements on Zionism and Israel alienate many in the Jewish community, the Human Relations Council is dividing rather than uniting us.” According to one of the local synagogues, the Orange County Department of Human Rights and Relations responded, “Thank you for letting us know of your concern about Women’s History Month – Courageous Conversations with Linda Sarsour. Please see the link with FAQs for more information.” Would Orange County have ever responded to a group of Christian or Muslim clergy in such a dismissive way by sending a form letter? Of course not.

Considering that Sarsour was paid $5,000 plus expenses, and the event had about ten uniformed officers working and other expenses, it is likely that each “free” ticket will end up costing the taxpayers $100 or more.

After Sarsour spoke, she sat down for a question and answer period with Deborah Stroman, who chairs the Orange County HRC. Audience members submitted written questions that were given to Stroman. The first three questions Stroman asked appeared to be her own questions. Stroman then chose several questions submitted by the audience. As one audience member observed – they were all softballs. Stroman concluded the event by thanking Sarsour for her “truth-telling.”

During her speech, Sarsour mentioned the protests outside and bragged that protesters help her fill rooms for speaking engagements. Toward the end of Sarsour’s speech, there were only about 75 people left in the room. It was striking that this national Women’s March leader drew a sparse crowd while bragging about filling rooms. Perhaps Sarsour’s divisiveness is not as popular as she thinks.

Sarsour discussed many issues that could and should unite people, such as health care, children killed in shootings, education, racism, and prison reform. However, Sarsour’s attempt to reinvent herself as a uniter quickly failed as she targeted Israel, the police, white liberals, capitalism, and even those who speak out against the hate speech of Louis Farrakhan.

[Photo: Quartz / YouTube ]