Linda Sarsour is a progressive-media darling. One of Essence magazine’s “Woke 100 Women,” Sarsour was named a leader of the Women’s March that followed President Donald Trump’s inauguration, despite declaring that “nothing is creepier than Zionism”—though her wish to “take away” the “vagina” of clitoridectomy victim and human-rights activist Ayaan Hirsi Ali, praise for Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan, upholding Saudi Arabia as a bastion of women’s lib, embrace of the terrorist murderer Rasmea Odeh, and claim that “Shariah law is reasonable” because “suddenly all your loans & credits cards become interest-free,” are all—at least in my humble estimation—definitely creepier.
Yet Sarsour’s ride on the media wonder-wheel continues—thanks in part to Jewish individuals and organizations who embrace the idea that haters like Sarsour can’t actually hate them. Recently, the “homegirl in a hijab,” as a fawning New York Timesprofile described her, delivered the commencement address at the City University of New York’s School of Public Health. It was a strange choice on the part of CUNY, not least because Sarsour has zero professional experience in the field. Prior to the event, critics, many of them Jewish, called upon CUNY to rescind its invitation in light of Sarsour’s rhetoric and associations. A group of progressive Jews released an open letter in defense of Sarsour. “In this time, when so many marginalized communities in our country are targeted on the streets and from the highest offices of government” the letter solemnly declared, “we are committed to bridging communal boundaries and standing in solidarity with one another.”
Also coming to Sarsour’s defense was the Anti-Defamation League, which presumably stands against the defamation of women, Jews, and the Jewish state. “Despite our deep opposition to Sarsour’s views on Israel,” its head Jonathan Greenblatt said, before offering the following non sequitur, “we believe that she has a First Amendment right to offer those views.”
No one, of course, disputes Sarsour’s legal right to spout whatever vicious nonsense she wants. But there is nothing in the First Amendment that says Sarsour has a “right” to speak at CUNY, or appear on CNN, or publish an op-ed in the New York Times. As an organization ostensibly committed to fighting anti-Semitism and other forms of prejudice, the ADL was under no obligation to defend a Jew-baiting, demagogic, foul-mouthed, sectarian bully—someone who, in fact, asserted that anti-Semitism is “different than anti-black racism or Islamophobia because it’s not systemic.” Not systemic? Tell that to the survivors of the most systematized effort at extermination in human history. If there is a more utterly mendacious claim that perverts the truth about humanity’s oldest, deadliest and very much “systemic” hatred, I’m not sure what it could be.
Still, Greenblatt—whose organization was once devoted to combating anti-Semitism—decided that it was better to side with his fellow progressives in public than risk his position on the team. Why?
This is an important question for Jewish Democrats, since the weird combination of communal masochism and personal arrogance that characterizes Sarsour’s self-appointed “Jewish allies” also makes for a particularly ineffective form of coalition politics—at least for the Jewish side of the equation. “Bridging communal boundaries,” as the open letter in defense of Sarsour declared, is apparently a one-way street; Sarsour has unequivocally insisted that Zionism is incompatible with feminism (this, from a woman in an arranged marriage). Jews and women are simply expected to put up with vituperative—and irrelevant—attacks on the Jewish State in exchange for the pleasure of being in the same room with a cry-bully.
Taken to its logical conclusion, Sarsour’s mode of thinking (whereby Zionism = Islamophobia, and anti-Zionism = feminism) renders anti-Semitism a political virtue: to be a good progressive, by her lights, one must stand four-square against Jewish self-assertion and national aspirations. Indeed, Sarsour and her ilk are engaged in nothing less than a concerted effort to redefine anti-Semitism. Her rise, and the celebration of her by progressives as one of their own, demonstrates how clearly and phenomenally Jews and Jewish concerns are being written out of the progressive movement.
Part of the explanation for this phenomenon may be that the “Jewish values” or “Jewish communities” that many of Sarsour’s supporters claim to represent are of only secondary or tertiary importance to them. Consider New York City Councilman Brad Lander, Linda Sarsour’s chief Jewish “ally.” A reform Jew married to a non-Jewish woman, he uses a reform synagogue in Brooklyn as a progressive political-organizing platform. While now publicly identifying himself as a “Zionist” in his defense of Sarsour, it wasn’t long ago that he was doing weird things like reportedly using his son’s circumcision ceremony to denounce Israel. “We are thrilled to pronounce you a Jew without the right of return,” Lander pronounced to his 8-day-old child. “Your name contains our deep hope that you will explore and celebrate your Jewish identity without confusing it with nationalism.”
Last month, in an interview with The New York Times about the CUNY controversy, Lander remarked that, “One terrible feature of the Trump regime is that it threatens to tribalize all of us,” casting aspersions on his fellow Jews who had the temerity to speak out against a publicly funded institution’s decision to honor a bigot who targets Jews for opprobrium and exclusion.
The strategy is a familiar one. In left-wing milieus across the Western world, Jews are simultaneously told that the (often violent) bigotry directed against them is but a figment of their hysterical, oversensitive imaginations. The most recent attempt to exterminate them en masse, in the form of the Holocaust, was not a uniquely insidious event, as Jews were merely one among many victim groups. And today, because they are “white,” Jews cannot be victims of the “systemic” oppression endured by women, Muslims, ethnic minorities, queer people et cetera and ad infinitum. Paradoxically, the existence and nature of Jewish historical suffering is fully acknowledged only when it can be used to further other causes and concerns (“the African Holocaust,” “Syria’s Anne Frank,” etc.). As for when Jews mention actual Jewish suffering in defense of other Jews, they are painted as extremists who exploit the Shoah. Yet the people making these accusations are always willing to retail Jewish pain and victimhood whenever it suits them—namely, when the victims in question aren’t Jews.
Lander is absolutely right that one effect of the Trump “regime” has been the further balkanization of American civic life—but not only in the way that he thinks. For it isn’t merely Trump and his bigoted and delusional supporters on the right who “threaten to tribalize” our country with Manichean rhetoric about Mexicans, Muslims, and the “real America,” but progressives like Sarsour, whose ascendance is the lodestar of a conscious effort to disintegrate the Jewish community’s own interests and safety and subsume them within the progressive party line—an effort that is leading Jewish organizations to champion a Muslim anti-Israel activist who slams doors in their faces. “If what is being asked of me by those who pronounce themselves and call themselves Zionist is that I, as a Palestinian American, have to somehow leave out a part of my identity so you can be welcomed in a space to work on justice, then that’s not going to be the right space for you,” Sarsour proclaimed in April at an event supporting the boycott, sanctions, and divestment movement against Israel. “We, as Palestinian Americans, as Arab Americans, as Muslim Americans, we will not change who we are to make anybody feel comfortable.”
Some people are equal opportunity useful idiots.