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May 30, 2017 1:34 pm

‘Public Health Leaders’ Must Condemn Terror

avatar by Eli Verschleiser


Linda Sarsour. Photo: Wikimedia Commons.

As the world recoils from yet another terrorist atrocity — offering platitudes of “standing with Manchester” while actually doing very little to fight terrorism — the City University of New York (CUNY)’s School of Public Health is getting ready to send the wrong message to its graduates.

Palestinian-American activist Linda Sarsour, who has a history of inflammatory behavior toward Israel and Jews — and has supported violent intifada — will be a keynote speaker at that school’s commencement on June 1. She’ll share the stage with New York’s first lady, Chirlane McCray, and Mary Bassett, the commissioner of the New York Department of Health and Mental Hygiene. All three women have been hailed by the school as “public health and social justice leaders.” This honor is ostensibly in recognition of Sarsour’s role in organizing the massive women’s march on Washington, and for allegedly supporting women’s rights.

The irony is stark: It’s hard to conceive of a bigger public health threat than terrorism, which has led to despicable acts in places like Jerusalem, San Bernardino, Orlando, Paris, Istanbul…and the list goes on.

Sarsour, who has forged alliances with some liberal Jewish leaders, condemned the May 22 attack on the Ariana Grande concert in Manchester, calling it “a whole different level of evil” for targeting children. She also called it “sickening.”

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But such statements are inconsistent with Sarsour’s stated support for the Palestinian intifada, violent jihad and the boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement against Israel. She has supported terrorists who have murdered Israeli children, often without any scruples. And BDS itself is a form of soft terrorism, as it aims to force Israel into making territorial concessions that are against its interests. Given Israel’s precarious geography, those concessions could ultimately cost lives on a scale bigger than that of any one suicide bomb.

Dozens of activists gathered outside CUNY headquarters on May 25 to demand that Sarsour’s speaking invitation be revoked, but that’s unlikely, given the fallout from a similar controversy in 2011, when Jewish Israel-critic Tony Kushner had his honorary degree yanked under pressure. Pro-Kushner forces prevailed, however, and the school did a 180, and gave Kushner the degree.

CUNY Chancellor James Milliken released a statement in April saying that “the fact that Ms. Sarsour might hold views that are controversial cannot be the basis for withdrawing an invitation to speak,” while noting that the university itself “sees BDS as anathema to the values of higher education.”

But where are those values when Sarsour declares that “you can’t be a Zionist and a feminist.” Is she kidding? Where in the Middle East are women’s rights protected better than in Israel? Maybe she would prefer the feminism of Saudi Arabia, where women can’t drive, much less have any semblance of equal rights, or of Jordan, where they need a husband’s permission to travel?

Israel’s leaders continuously cast aside politics in the name of humanity, allowing relatives of Hamas leaders who want to destroy them to be treated in Jewish hospitals. Israel often aids the Palestinians and Arab people in times of needs. And Arab citizens have full rights in Israel, and serve in the Knesset. And yet Sarsour calls Zionism “creepy,” and sees Israel as the enemy. Of course, in those other Arab states, Jews really are the enemy — and are treated as such.

And CUNY isn’t the only public institution that is sending mixed signals about terrorism and the Middle East conflict.

A PBS curriculum is now drawing fire from conservative critics for its effort to create understanding about the motivations of suicide bombers (who should more properly be called “homicide bombers.”)

The lesson plan, “Dying to be a Martyr,” is ten years old, and likely came to light now because of the fight over federal funding for public broadcasting. But that fact should not take away from a serious discussion about the PBS content.

Under the lesson plan, high school teachers are encouraged to show their students interviews with would-be Palestinian bombers. The lesson teaches students to empathize with violent Palestinian terrorists who are willing to murder Jews in Israel and beyond.

Perhaps there is a shred of a noble intention in this program’s origins, but it is — at best — a naive, bordering on biased, view of the conflict. There are many people in the world who collectively feel aggrieved and don’t resort to terrorism and violence, and they are better off as a result.

Page Fortna, an associate political science professor at Columbia University, wrote in a recent paper, highlighted in The Atlantic following the Manchester bombing, that “The disadvantages of terrorism generally outweigh its advantages.” She concluded, from a detailed study of 104 recent global conflicts, that terror historically hurts rather than helps a cause. “None of those that deliberately killed large numbers of civilians through terrorist attacks won its fight outright,” Fortna said.

So it is surely in no one’s interest to promote a mindset that terrorism is an inevitable (or effective) product of an uprising against a more powerful enemy.

In defending its content, PBS said in a statement that, “In no way does it condone the heinous actions of individuals who would target innocent civilians. PBS would strongly condemn any assertion that terrorism is ever appropriate.”

PBS’ ombudsman, Michael Getler noted in a column that “Dying to be a Martyr” contains “what I consider to be some legitimate questions about the content, or more precisely as I read it, a lack of more contextual content, within this lesson plan.” He concurs that what is missing from the curriculum is instructions for teachers students to denounce suicide bombing and “radical Islamic views in general,” something we might assume to be a given. Some teachers, however, might be too afraid of offending people to do that.

There’s nothing healthy about either supporting terrorism outright, or trying to understand it rationally. And the sooner that institutions like CUNY and PBS realize that, the better off we’ll all be.

Eli Verschleiser is a financier, real estate developer and investor in commercial real estate. In his philanthropy, Mr. Verschleiser is on the board of trustees for the American Jewish Congress, co-founder of, & president of OurPlace, a non-profit organization that provides support, shelter, and counseling for troubled Jewish youth. Mr. Verschleiser is a frequent commentator on political and social services matters. Twitter: @E_Verschleiser.

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