Manitoba

Social justice event forced to relocate after speaker accused of anti-Semitism

Numerous complaints about a speaker at a planned event on social justice have forced the organizers to find a new venue.

American activist Linda Sarsour scheduled to speak at Social Planning Council event in April

Linda Sarsour with Women's March calls out to other activists opposed to President Donald Trump's embattled Supreme Court nominee, Brett Kavanaugh, in front of the Supreme Court on Capitol Hill in Washington, Monday, Sept. 24, 2018. (The Associated Press)

Numerous complaints about a speaker at a planned event on social justice have forced the organizers to find a new venue.

The Social Planning Council of Winnipeg had booked American activist Linda Sarsour, one of the co-chairs of the Women's March, to speak at an event marking the council's 100th anniversary.

Sarsour has won numerous awards over the years, including a Champion of Change award from U.S. President Barack Obama's administration. She is also an outspoken critic of the state of Israel and supporter of Palestinian rights, and some have accused her of anti-Semitism.

As part of the event titled Sorry Not Sorry: Unapologetically Working for Social Justice, the social planning council partnered with the Canadian Muslim Women's Institute to hold a public discussion on April 26 at the Seven Oaks Performing Arts Centre, which is at Garden City Collegiate in the Seven Oaks School Division.

When news of Sarsour's booking spread, B'nai Brith called the organizers of the event, asking them to rescind its invitation to Sarsour, saying she's not welcome in Winnipeg.

"She's used her platform to promulgate views that are highly problematic, including charges of dual loyalty to Jews who are considered sufficiently too supportive of the state of Israel," said Ran Ukashi, national director of the League for Human Rights at B'nai Brith Canada.

Ran Ukashi, national director of the League for Human Rights at B'nai Brith Canada, said he's concerned about the Social Planning Council of Winnipeg inviting Linda Sarsour to speak at their event. (CBC)

Being a critic of Israel or supporter of a Palestinian homeland does not automatically make someone anti-Semitic, but some of Sarsour's past statements and associations raise concerns, Ukashi said.

"She even penned a piece saying that if you are a Zionist or you believe in Jewish self-determination in those ancestral lands, you cannot be a feminist," he said.

Seven Oaks School Division posted a statement on its website saying it cancelled the booking because of concerns raised about Sarsour.

"Seven Oaks School Division has received significant expressions of concern with respect to an event sponsored by the Social Planning Council of Winnipeg," the statement said.

"The division was never a sponsor of this event and has now taken the steps of cancelling the booking."

CBC News tried to reach Sarsour for comment but did not hear back from her on Thursday.

Voices of support

Kate Kehler, executive director of the social planning council, said she respects the decision of the Seven Oaks School Division to cancel the booking, although she wishes they could have had a conversation about it.

"We need to get past this, the black-and-white approach to these subjects, and we need to kind of get past — the term that's out there lately is cognitive dissonance. When something doesn't feed into somebody's established narrative, they automatically tend to decide to disregard it," she said.

Although Ukashi from B'nai Brith said the vast majority of Jewish people disagree with Sarsour's views, some members of the community have spoken out in support.

Harold Shuster with Independent Jewish Voices says voices like Linda Sarsour's are important. (CBC)

"We feel that there is a need for voices like hers and other people to be speaking out on what is going on in the state of Israel," said Harold Shuster, with Independent Jewish Voices, a national organization that aims to shift the boundaries of what is acceptable in the debate around Israel.

"We within Independent Jewish Voices feel that if Israel wants to claim to be a democracy, then it has to allow itself to be open to criticism. It should not be seen as being anti-Semitic to criticize a state or any government."

The social planning council is still looking for a new venue and has not withdrawn the invitation to Sarsour.

Corrections

  • We initially reported that B'nai Brith asked the Seven Oaks School Division to cancel the Social Planning Council's booking. In fact, B'nai Brith asked the Social Planning Council to rescind its invitation to Sarsour.
    Mar 22, 2019 11:02 AM CT

With files from Nelly Gonzalez