Setting the bar for barring a speaker: Controversy follows Linda Sarsour to Winnipeg

Linda Sarsour has made a number of statements that can be characterized, fairly, as questionable, crude, intolerant and offensive. But is the U.S. activist an anti-Semite?
Linda Sarsour is slated to speak Friday evening in Winnipeg. Mayor Brian Bowman has called for her to be removed from the event. (The Associated Press)

In an era when demagogues flourish on social media, reason gives way to rhetoric and opinion masquerades as fact, it's easy to understand how ordinary, decent people have grown weary and wary of all sorts of political and cultural debates. 

The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is not a new source of debate. But dispassionate discussions about the complex political realities on the ground in the Middle East have been complicated by newer forms of ideological tribalism, where everyone on every side is both aggrieved party and victim, nuance is unappreciated and moral outrage trumps logic.

Into this morass wades Linda Sarsour, a Palestinian-American activist who is one of the leading figures in the annual U.S. Women's March

Sarsour has been praised as a positive force for social change and derided as a reactionary hatemonger. She is admired in some circles for motivating women to play a more active role in progressive politics. She is despised in other spheres for expressing anti-Israel sentiment that her critics characterize as anti-Semitic.

Several of Winnipeg's leading Jewish organizations, as well as this city's mayor, have requested Sarsour be removed from a social justice panel — Sorry Not Sorry, slated for Friday evening at the Ukrainian Labour Temple — on the basis she promotes hate.

To be clear, Sarsour has made a number of statements that can be characterized, fairly, as questionable, crude, intolerant and offensive. She has belittled fellow activists and chafed against legitimate criticism by attempting to characterize her censure as the work of extremists.

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

Yet Sarsour's track record of petty intolerance is not the primary reason Winnipeg Mayor Brian Bowman, the Jewish Federation of Winnipeg and B'Nai Brith Canada have called for her removal from Friday's panel.

Rather, the mayor and leading Jewish organizations argue the manner in which Sarsour has criticized the state of Israel amounts to the promotion of hate toward Jews.

Questionable statements

This argument is less easy to demonstrate. Opposition to Israel simply does not equal anti-Semitism, even though hatemongers on both the left and right frequently hide behind anti-Zionism as a front for their distaste of Jews.

First, it's necessary to examine some of the questionable statements Sarsour has made over the years.

In a single tweet in 2011, Sarsour stated Somali-born activist Ayaan Hirsi Ali was "asking 4 an a$$ whippin" and stated she wished she could take Ali's vagina away, while opining Ali did not deserve to be a woman. The context for this statement is disturbing: as a child growing up in Somalia, Ali was victimized by genital mutilation.

In 2017, Sarsour suggested women can't be feminists if they support Israel.

"It just doesn't make any sense for someone to say, 'Is there room for people who support the state of Israel and do not criticize it in the movement?' There can't be in feminism," Sarsour said in an interview with The Nation. 

"You either stand up for the rights of all women, including Palestinians, or none. There's just no way around it."

Then in 2018, Sarsour raised what some critics described as an old anti-Semitic trope by suggesting American Jews are too loyal to Israel to adequately defend Rep. Ilhan Omar's right to support the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement against Israel.

"This is not only coming from the right-wing but some folks who masquerade as progressives but always choose their allegiance to Israel over their commitment to democracy and free speech," Sarsour wrote at the time.

Intolerance, but also defence of American Jews

These statements illustrate a pattern of intolerance for left-of-centre activists who do not share her precise views. But again, this is not the chief source of the concerns raised by Winnipeg's mayor, the Jewish Federation or B'Nai Brith.

They claim Sarsour is an anti-Semite. Her critics may correctly note she apologized for failing to quickly condemn anti-Semitism within the U.S. progressive movement and was also slow to criticize Louis Farrakhan, who has a long track record of promoting hate toward Jews.

More significantly, Sarsour has been vilified for sharing a stage with Rasmea Odeh, a Palestinian Jordanian who was convicted in Israel of killing two civilians in 1969. Sarsour has opined there were questions about the basis for Odeh's conviction.

Muddying the waters, at least for Sarsour's critics, is a pattern of defending American Jews. Sarsour has helped raise money to repair vandalized Jewish cemeteries and once called out U.S. President Donald Trump for failing to note Jews were the primary victims of the Holocaust. 

U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders has embraced Sarsour. (Mark Kauzlarich/Reuters)

She has received words of support from a number of prominent U.S. Jews, including Bernie Sanders, even as she has been vilified as an anti-Semite.

Philosophically, the latter complaint could be distilled down to Sarsour's support for the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement, or BDS, as well as its more insidious implication: that Israel has no right to exist.

An argument could be made that efforts to levy sanctions against Israel are unfair when other nations commit human-rights violations on a large scale. For example, China has largely escaped world censure for its recent treatment of its Muslim Uighur minority.

But there is something highly problematic with the notion that criticizing Israel equals anti-Semitism. There are some Jews who do not support the state of Israel and many Jews, including a sizable number of Jewish Israelis, who do not support the actions of the Israeli government.

This is something the leaders of Jewish organizations sometimes ignore, City University of New York associate professor Peter Beinart noted in his widely read essay, Debunking The Myth That Anti-Zionism Is Anti-Semitic.

"It is an understandable impulse: let the people threatened by anti-Semitism define anti-Semitism," Beinart wrote in The Forward earlier this year. 

"The problem is that, in many countries, Jewish leaders serve both as defenders of local Jewish interests and defenders of the Israeli government. And the Israeli government wants to define anti-Zionism as bigotry because doing so helps Israel kill the two-state solution with impunity."

Similarly, Beinart noted, there are anti-Semites who support Israel's right to exist. These range from hatemongers who want all Jews to move to Israel to religious extremists who believe in prophecies about an apocalypse that would allow Christians, and only Christians, to ascend to heaven.

This calls into question the logical foundations for the mayor's desire to see Sansour removed from the Winnipeg panel.

Harold Shuster is with Independent Jewish Voices Winnipeg. The organization has argued painting Sarsour as anti-Semitic constitutes 'purposeful misrepresentation.' (CBC)

Primarily, this particular activist has demonstrated a pattern of disrespecting other activists. She has also proven adept at courting criticism.

The Social Planning Council of Winnipeg, one of the organizers of Friday's event, expressed surprise this week at the opposition to Sarsour's presence in Winnipeg.

That would fly if Winnipeg existed in a political vacuum, free of the rhetoric that has roiled America.

Is Linda Sarsour an anti-Semite? She did not respond to CBC News requests for comment.

Painting her as such constitutes "purposeful misrepresentation," claims the left-of-centre organization Independent Jewish Voices Winnipeg in a letter to Bowman.

The question of whether Sarsour is or is not hateful may be irrelevant in a cultural environment where oppressors and the oppressed jockey for the same territory, each as confident in the righteousness of their own cause as they are ignorant of other perspectives.

Meanwhile, ordinary, decent people can be justified in very slowly backing away.