It’s not unusual during this time of year for commencement speakers to make national headlines — and not always for their gleaming pearls of wisdom. Already this month, graduates booed Education Secretary Betsy DeVos at the historically black Bethune-Cookman University in Florida, and more than 100 students walked out of Vice President Pence’s commencement address at Notre Dame. But the most contentious speaker yet may be one addressing a relatively small, publicly funded graduate school.
On Thursday, Linda Sarsour will be the commencement speaker at the City University of New York Public School of Health graduation. And although I disagree with much of what she stands for, especially with regard to Israel, I support her right to speak just as strongly, and believe it would be a mistake for pro-Israel activists to interfere with her address.
Sarsour was one of the main leaders of the Women’s March, helping to mobilize millions of people worldwide in one of the largest displays of grass-roots activism. But she also has a record of anti-Zionist rhetoric. In 2012, she tweeted “nothing is creepier than Zionism,” referring to Jewish self-determination as “racism.” Sarsour told Haaretz in January that she does not believe in a two-state solution. As recently as April, she said “to those who pronounce themselves and call themselves Zionists … we will not change who we are to make anybody feel comfortable. If you ain’t all in, then this ain’t the movement for you.” Sarsour said these words while standing proudly alongside Rasmea Odeh, a woman who was convicted by an Israeli military court for her involvement in a 1969 bombing that killed two Hebrew University students.
Still, Sarsour’s most controversial comments aren’t limited to Zionism. In a since-deleted tweet, Sarsour threatened women’s rights activist and victim of female genital mutilation Ayaan Hirsi Ali, along with a controversial critic of Islam, Brigitte Gabriel. (She tweeted in 2011: “a$$ whippin’. I wish I could take their vaginas away- they don’t deserve to be women.”) When asked about this tweet at an event at Dartmouth in May, Sarsour dismissed the concern because the questioner was a “white male” but then acknowledged, “People say stupid s— sometimes, right?”
As a result of these and other comments, some have called for CUNY to rescind Sarsour’s invite. The office of Democratic New York State Assemblyman Dov Hikind sent a letter signed by 100 Holocaust survivors to Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo, asking him to keep Sarsour from speaking at the graduation ceremony.
However, those of us who have concerns about Sarsour should be the most committed to allowing her to speak.
For Zionists like myself, it is especially important to denounce efforts to silence Sarsour. There are myriad reasons to support her First Amendment right to express herself — essential for a true and healthy democracy. Too often, the willingness to even listen to opposing views is missing, especially on college campuses like the ones where Sarsour is invited. Perhaps most disturbingly, earlier this year, a scheduled speech by controversial author Charles Murray at Middlebury prompted protests and violence that resulted in Allison Stanger, the professor who was set to interview Murray, suffering a concussion. Scheduled speeches by Milo Yiannopoulos and Ann Coulter at the University of California at Berkeley also were shut down because of security concerns this past academic year. The fact that the free exchange of ideas is apparently imperiled on campuses nationwide is one more reason to support it.
There is another, somewhat ironic, reason to defend Sarsour’s speaking at CUNY: Respect for intellectual diversity is increasingly absent when it comes to Israel, and honoring Sarsour’s right to freedom of expression provides an essential lesson to anti-Zionist critics.
Sarsour has consistently voiced her support for the boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement against Israel, which effectively aims to dismantle the Jewish people’s right to self-determination in Israel. In doing so, she has effectively used her influence to obstruct the flow of ideas and potentially fruitful dialogue between people on all sides of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict that could lead to peace.
BDS tactics can differ from campus to campus or company to company, often through orchestrating boycotts of products made in Israel — a move that is deeply misguided, not least of which is because some financial experts argue that it ultimately hurts Palestinians’ economic growth. However, another strategy, especially in BDS resolutions passed on campuses and in professional academic groups, is to block professors, lecturers and scholars from Israel and/or those who receive funding from the Israeli government. They are discriminated against solely based on their nationality and without any regard for their political views or activism — in fact, often it is academics who are most critical of the current Israeli government and advocate for the rights of Palestinians who find themselves being boycotted.
These BDS activities hinder, if not all out impede, intellectual discourse. Regardless of whether one is a Zionist, on the grounds of respecting freedom of speech and intellectual diversity, one should oppose the BDS movement, especially its anti-intellectual strategies. Championing Sarsour’s right to freedom of expression may just be the best way to show how misguided BDS-style methodology is, and to open up the conversation about Israel, Palestine and Zionism to a new generation of thinkers.