Amid Protests From Jewish Community, New School Hosts Panel on Antisemitism With Speakers Accused of Antisemitism
The New School in New York City hosted a panel on antisemitism on Tuesday featuring an assortment of anti-Zionist speakers, despite intense backlash from antisemitism watchdogs and advocacy groups.
Titled “Antisemitism and the Struggle for Justice,” the forum featured a variety of speakers who have been highly critical of Jewish rights to self-determination — including activists from the anti-Zionist group Jewish Voice for Peace and, most controversially, Women’s March co-organizer Linda Sarsour, who has claimed that “nothing is creepier than Zionism.”
Speaking before a sold-out audience about the backlash she received for her participation on a panel about antisemitism — including from the Anti-Defamation League, Simon Wiesenthal Center, the editorial boards of the New York Post and Jerusalem Post, and a petition signed by over 20,000 people — Sarsour dryly remarked, “Apparently I am the biggest problem for the Jewish community. I am the existential threat, apparently. I am confused, literally, every day.”
Sarsour claimed that she has “always been an ally to Jewish communities” and urged audience members to recognize the importance of intersectionality in confronting antisemitism, saying, “we cannot dismantle anti-Black racism, Islamophobia, homophobia, transphobia, every phobia and -ism without also dismantling antisemitism.”
She then took the opportunity to emphasize her “unapologetically Palestinian-American” and “unapologetically Muslim-American” identity, and described herself as “a very staunch supporter of the boycott, divestment, sanctions movement” — whose top leaders have repeatedly asserted that Israel has no right to exist.
“What other positions do people expect me to have as a Palestinian-American who’s a daughter of immigrants who lived under military occupation and still has family in Palestine who live under military occupation?” she asked. “I should be expected to have the views that I hold.”
Sarsour also claimed that those who criticized her appearance on the panel “are denying my existence and my right to be an unapologetic Palestinian-American,” and asserted that she “is not only a critic of the state of Israel, but I’m sure damn well a critic of the United States of America and I always have been, even under the Obama administration.”
“The existential threat resides in the White House,” she said, “and if what you’re reading all day long, morning and night, in the Jewish media is that Linda Sarsour and Minister [Louis] Farrakhan are the existential threats to the Jewish community, something really bad is gonna happen and we’re going to miss the mark on it.”
Sarsour has in the past praised Farrakhan — the homophobic Nation of Islam preacher who often rails against “Satanic Jews” and blames them for various atrocities, including the 9/11 attacks and trans-Atlantic slave trade — and participated in a rally he organized in October 2015.
Susan Shapiro — a writing professor at The New School who spoke out against the panel in a New York Daily News op-ed earlier this week — told The Algemeiner on Wednesday that she watched the panel online and “thought it was a travesty.”
“Had Linda Sarsour been on a panel called ‘Palestinian self-determination’ or ‘Arab American Women’s Rights’ or even ‘Middle East Justice’ I wouldn’t have even noticed,” Shapiro said. “That’s her platform, I have no problem with it. She was only on a New School panel about antisemitism because these misguided leftwing radicals wanted to be incendiary and say ‘screw you’ to Jews and Israelis.”
“I still believe Sarsour is an antisemite and BDS is a ridiculously antisemitic movement on every level,” she continued. “Irrationally blaming Israel for Middle East problems is a way for Palestinians to perpetuate their own victimized propaganda and get nowhere.”
A senior at The New School who spoke to The Algemeiner on condition of anonymity said “the idea behind the panel was to undermine the right of Jews to exercise self-determination as a nation, which in my eyes is antisemitism.”
The student said that he overheard two peers discussing the panel on Wednesday, just hours before it took place.
“I started to hear some comments against Israel and against Zionism, and then of course, they made a joke about God’s chosen people, which is a very old-fashioned antisemitic remark,” said the student, who identified himself as a grandchild of Holocaust survivors.
He also said that he participated in a “peaceful” demonstration outside the event, and heard some audience members who passed nearby call protestors “racist” and “Zionist scum.”
“These are the kinds of people who came to see the panel,” he said pointedly.
Victor Muslin — a pro-Israel activist who also attended the protest — said it was comprised of “perhaps 30 adults and 20-30 kids from nearby schools.”
The auditorium where the event was hosted was much more crowded, he said. “The audience seemed enthusiastic, as if celebrities were about to speak,” Muslin recalled. “Many people in the JVP rows seem to know each other.”
Despite the “anti-Semitism espoused by the panelists” and “cult-like” atmosphere surrounding the gathering, Muslin said the “most annoying” portion of the talk were the introductory remarks from a New School dean.
“While we know what to expect from Sarsour and JVP, it is troublesome to see that an institution known for giving refuge to Jewish scholars escaping Nazi Germany provide a platform for antisemites redefining antisemitism to suit them [in a way] that would have made Goebbels proud,” Muslin observed.
These sentiments were shared by Kenneth Bialkin, a New School benefactor who serves as chairman of the America-Israel Friendship League.
“I am proud of the New School’s history as a refuge for scholars who fled Nazi Germany, including Jewish thinkers like Hannah Arendt and Leo Strauss,” Bialkin wrote in a letter obtained by Tablet Magazine last week. “However, I must question my commitment to continued investment in a university that has seemingly institutionalized the anti-Semitism of the radical left.”
The panel was also heavily criticized beyond the New School community. Rabbi Abraham Cooper, associate dean at the Simon Wiesenthal Center, wrote Friday that inviting Sarsour to a panel discussion on combating antisemitism “makes as much sense as inviting a Ku Klux Klan leader to head a discussion on combating racism, or inviting disgraced filmmaker Harvey Weinstein to head a discussion on combating sexual misconduct.”
His comparison echoed that of ADL chief Jonathan Greenblatt, head of the Anti-Defamation League, who tweeted earlier this month, “Having Linda Sarsour & head of JVP leading a panel on #antisemitism is like Oscar Meyer leading a panel on vegetarianism. These panelists know the issue, but unfortunately, from the perspective of fomenting it rather than fighting it.”
In an op-ed published Tuesday, Greenblatt addressed the anti-Zionism of groups including JVP, noting, “You can dress it up as political theory, but when an ideology is obsessed with denying one group of people the rights that are offered to all others around the world, that is intolerance, plain and simple.”
Muslin, however, argued that this pushback wasn’t sufficient. Speaking of the weeks leading up to the panel, he noted that it “was absolutely clear to almost everyone in the mainstream Jewish community — from the liberal ADL to conservative [Zionist Organization of America] (literally from A-Z) — that this was an anti-Semitic event. It was criticized and condemned widely in print and online media.”
“And yet, on a warm, clear evening in the heart of the most Jewish city in the US, less than 60 people, many of whom are the ‘usual suspects’ that I see repeatedly as similar protests, came out to protest it,” he observed. “Where are the representatives of major Jewish organizations? Where are the local politicians, many of whom are Jewish? Where are the people of good conscience?”