This article was originally published on June 14, 2017, and is presented here for Campus Week 2017.
Linda Sarsour is a progressive-media darling. One of Essence magazine’s “Woke 100 Women,” Sarsour was named a leader of the Women’s March that followed President Donald Trump’s inauguration, despite declaring that “nothing is creepier than Zionism”—though her wish to “take away” the “vagina” of clitoridectomy victim and human-rights activist Ayaan Hirsi Ali, praise for Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan, upholding Saudi Arabia as a bastion of women’s lib, embrace of the terrorist murderer Rasmea Odeh, and claim that “Shariah law is reasonable” because “suddenly all your loans & credits cards become interest-free,” are all—at least in my humble estimation—definitely creepier.
Yet Sarsour’s ride on the media wonder-wheel continues—thanks in part to Jewish individuals and organizations who embrace the idea that haters like Sarsour can’t actually hate them. Recently, the “homegirl in a hijab,” as a fawning New York Times profile described her, delivered the commencement address at the City University of New York’s School of Public Health. It was a strange choice on the part of CUNY, not least because Sarsour has zero professional experience in the field. Prior to the event, critics, many of them Jewish, called upon CUNY to rescind its invitation in light of Sarsour’s rhetoric and associations. A group of progressive Jews released an open letter in defense of Sarsour. “In this time, when so many marginalized communities in our country are targeted on the streets and from the highest offices of government” the letter solemnly declared, “we are committed to bridging communal boundaries and standing in solidarity with one another.”
Also coming to Sarsour’s defense was the Anti-Defamation League, which presumably stands against the defamation of women, Jews, and the Jewish state. “Despite our deep opposition to Sarsour’s views on Israel,” its head Jonathan Greenblatt said, before offering the following non sequitur, “we believe that she has a First Amendment right to offer those views.”
No one, of course, disputes Sarsour’s legal right to spout whatever vicious nonsense she wants. But there is nothing in the First Amendment that says Sarsour has a “right” to speak at CUNY, or appear on CNN, or publish an op-ed in the New York Times. As an organization ostensibly committed to fighting anti-Semitism and other forms of prejudice, the ADL was under no obligation to defend a Jew-baiting, demagogic, foul-mouthed, sectarian bully—someone who, in fact, asserted that anti-Semitism is “different than anti-black racism or Islamophobia because it’s not systemic.” Not systemic? Tell that to the survivors of the most systematized effort at extermination in human history. If there is a more utterly mendacious claim that perverts the truth about humanity’s oldest, deadliest and very much “systemic” hatred, I’m not sure what it could be.
Still, Greenblatt—whose organization was once devoted to combating anti-Semitism—decided that it was better to side with his fellow progressives in public than risk his position on the team. Why?
This is an important question for Jewish Democrats, since the weird combination of communal masochism and personal arrogance that characterizes Sarsour’s self-appointed “Jewish allies” also makes for a particularly ineffective form of coalition politics—at least for the Jewish side of the equation. “Bridging communal boundaries,” as the open letter in defense of Sarsour declared, is apparently a one-way street; Sarsour has unequivocally insisted that Zionism is incompatible with feminism (this, from a woman in an arranged marriage). Jews and women are simply expected to put up with vituperative—and irrelevant—attacks on the Jewish State in exchange for the pleasure of being in the same room with a cry-bully.
Taken to its logical conclusion, Sarsour’s mode of thinking (whereby Zionism = Islamophobia, and anti-Zionism = feminism) renders anti-Semitism a political virtue: to be a good progressive, by her lights, one must stand four-square against Jewish self-assertion and national aspirations. Indeed, Sarsour and her ilk are engaged in nothing less than a concerted effort to redefine anti-Semitism. Her rise, and the celebration of her by progressives as one of their own, demonstrates how clearly and phenomenally Jews and Jewish concerns are being written out of the progressive movement.
Part of the explanation for this phenomenon may be that the “Jewish values” or “Jewish communities” that many of Sarsour’s supporters claim to represent are of only secondary or tertiary importance to them. Consider New York City Councilman Brad Lander, Linda Sarsour’s chief Jewish “ally.” A reform Jew married to a non-Jewish woman, he uses a reform synagogue in Brooklyn as a progressive political-organizing platform. While now publicly identifying himself as a “Zionist” in his defense of Sarsour, it wasn’t long ago that he was doing weird things like reportedly using his son’s circumcision ceremony to denounce Israel. “We are thrilled to pronounce you a Jew without the right of return,” Lander pronounced to his 8-day-old child. “Your name contains our deep hope that you will explore and celebrate your Jewish identity without confusing it with nationalism.”
Last month, in an interview with The New York Times about the CUNY controversy, Lander remarked that, “One terrible feature of the Trump regime is that it threatens to tribalize all of us,” casting aspersions on his fellow Jews who had the temerity to speak out against a publicly funded institution’s decision to honor a bigot who targets Jews for opprobrium and exclusion.
The strategy is a familiar one. In left-wing milieus across the Western world, Jews are simultaneously told that the (often violent) bigotry directed against them is but a figment of their hysterical, oversensitive imaginations. The most recent attempt to exterminate them en masse, in the form of the Holocaust, was not a uniquely insidious event, as Jews were merely one among many victim groups. And today, because they are “white,” Jews cannot be victims of the “systemic” oppression endured by women, Muslims, ethnic minorities, queer people et cetera and ad infinitum. Paradoxically, the existence and nature of Jewish historical suffering is fully acknowledged only when it can be used to further other causes and concerns (“the African Holocaust,” “Syria’s Anne Frank,” etc.). As for when Jews mention actual Jewish suffering in defense of other Jews, they are painted as extremists who exploit the Shoah. Yet the people making these accusations are always willing to retail Jewish pain and victimhood whenever it suits them—namely, when the victims in question aren’t Jews.
Lander is absolutely right that one effect of the Trump “regime” has been the further balkanization of American civic life—but not only in the way that he thinks. For it isn’t merely Trump and his bigoted and delusional supporters on the right who “threaten to tribalize” our country with Manichean rhetoric about Mexicans, Muslims, and the “real America,” but progressives like Sarsour, whose ascendance is the lodestar of a conscious effort to disintegrate the Jewish community’s own interests and safety and subsume them within the progressive party line—an effort that is leading Jewish organizations to champion a Muslim anti-Israel activist who slams doors in their faces. “If what is being asked of me by those who pronounce themselves and call themselves Zionist is that I, as a Palestinian American, have to somehow leave out a part of my identity so you can be welcomed in a space to work on justice, then that’s not going to be the right space for you,” Sarsour proclaimed in April at an event supporting the boycott, sanctions, and divestment movement against Israel. “We, as Palestinian Americans, as Arab Americans, as Muslim Americans, we will not change who we are to make anybody feel comfortable.”
Sarsour has been nothing if not honest about who she is and what she’s doing. Either she leaves the progressive movement or the “Zionists” do. She is able to get away with her crude intolerance—against Jews, women, “whites” and anyone else who doesn’t embrace her hatreds—because in the victimhood Olympics that overdetermines so much of today’s left-wing politics, Muslims are agreed to rank highest. In their quest to locate “authentic” Muslim leaders, progressives all too often behave like the “Orientalists” they claim to despise, settling on individuals like Sarsour to the exclusion of genuinely progressive Muslims, that is, those who don’t call for ripping out the vaginas of people with whom they disagree. And like many a self-appointed community “spokesperson,” Sarsour is starting to behave like a huckster, recently using her social media platform to raise tens of thousands of dollars on behalf of a Muslim woman in Ohio who claims to be the victim of a hate crime, an assertion at variance with that of the police. Sarsour’s sketchy behavior, furiously casting aspersions on the cops while tweeting “no one knows exactly what happened,” earned her a Twitter rebuke from Courtney Love, who called Sarsour “a vile disgrace to women and all mankind” as well as an “anti-Semite, anti-American fraud.”
As is her wont, Sarsour accused Love of “veiled anti-Muslim rhetoric”—illustrating how the accusation of “Islamophobia,” veiled or not, has become a catchall term promiscuously deployed against anyone who raises concerns about hate and bigotry, no matter how vile, on the part of Muslims, or criticizes any of the regressive attitudes and behaviors toward Jews, women, gays and other minority groups that are prevalent in Muslim countries and communities. The point of the term “Islamophobia” as used by Sarsour and her sympathizers is very often a self-interested and dishonest one—namely, to delegitimize critics by lumping them in with fringe racists and bigots. “Feminist activist Linda Sarsour has become one of the far right’s favorite targets,” declares Newsweek. The Times, meanwhile, characterizes her “critics” as “a strange mix, including right-leaning Jews and Zionists, commentators like Pamela Geller, and some members of the alt-right.” All this is being done in an effort to excuse Sarsour’s own extremism.
Whatever her personal views or her level of historical ignorance, the consequence of Sarsour’s comments is political: leveraging minority resentment against Jews by depicting them as selfish grievance-mongers who hog the world’s sympathy from more deserving victims—namely, Muslims and people of color. For Sarsour and others of her ilk, it is crucial to claim that Jews can’t be real victims of discrimination because they are “white,” and in the world of “woke” progressive activists, there’s no such thing as anti-white racism. (With its cultish promise of enlightenment, the social-justice left’s fixation on “wokeness” pays eerie and unintentional tribute to Scientology’s “going clear.” Both distinguish between an elite few who have attained a transcendental state of being and the masses who wallow in ignorance.)
But to tribalist progressives like Sarsour, Jews are more than simply another flavor of “white.” The investiture of Jews, as a people, with moral authority derives from a sense that their long history of oppression has endowed them with an almost mystical power. Among those who believe in this power can grow a sense of victim or oppression envy. In his book The Future of a Negation, the French philosopher Alain Finkielkraut explores how this resentment led to the disturbing phenomenon of left-wing Holocaust minimization and denial—a species of pseudo-historical anti-Semitism usually propagated by the far right.
To Holocaust-minimizing leftists, the widespread, ritual acknowledgment of Jewish suffering obscured the miseries endured by workers at the hands of capitalists. The millennia-old story of anti-Jewish oppression, culminating in the Holocaust, overshadowed the real drivers of human history: class struggle and resistance to imperialism. The Jew, therefore, came to be seen as a marker of “value: as the gold standard of oppression,” Finkielkraut observed, one that needed to be devalued so that all the world’s worthier victims could garner the sympathy due to them. Anguish over the fate of the Jews is thus considered a parochial, bourgeois concern that unfairly competes with the proletariat for the sympathy of enlightened mankind. The fate of the Jews is an obnoxious, even perfidious diversion, particularly as it relates to Muslims—reigning champions in the progressive hierarchy of victimhood for reasons that are hard even for progressives to explain with any reference to liberal values like free speech, LGBT equality, or women’s rights.
For progressives of a more “anti-imperialist” stripe, Holocaust memory and the persistence of anti-Semitism distracts from the main event: first-world oppression of the “global south.” It also, annoyingly, justifies the continued existence of the Jewish State. Attacks against Jews qua Jews by Muslims, whether in Israel or increasingly in Europe, must, therefore, be construed as ultimately not being about anti-Semitism. Sure, on some surface level, individual Jews may be physically attacked or murdered because they are Jews, but it really all boils down to imperialism and its particular manifestations in the Middle East. Sarsour can lend her name to a fundraising effort on behalf of a vandalized Jewish cemetery in Missouri because it gives her Jewish supporters something to tweet about, and because Missouri is Trump country—so the public automatically assumes that the perpetrators were white neo-Nazis. But as for the anti-Semitism that expresses itself in Sarsour’s calling Zionism “creepy” or praising Louis Farrakhan or hugging an unrepentant murderer like Rasmea Odeh? That’s not anti-Semitism, according to her supporters. It’s a justified response to the stubborn failure of the Jews to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict—a conflict pitting Western settler-colonialists against an occupied, Third World subaltern.
A recent ADL poll on anti-Semitism in Europe demonstrates the reluctance many progressives feel addressing the anti-Semitic views that now play an uncomfortably large role in Western societies and for which progressive movements are now acting as both midwife and nurse. The poll reports significant declines in the number of people holding anti-Semitic views in France and Germany and no statistical change in Britain. But as any cursory reading of newspaper headlines could tell you, these numbers are deceptive: Jews would not be leaving France in record numbers if they felt secure, nor would a figure like Jeremy Corbyn prove so successful were anti-Semitic attitudes not becoming normalized in the UK. More importantly, (and revealing of the ADL’s inhibitions), the poll does not break down respondents by their religion—so there is no way of knowing the degree to which anti-Semitic attitudes are held by Christians, Muslims, Buddhists, Zoroastrians, atheists etc. There are hints in this direction, such as the claim that anti-Semitism is “more common among the more religiously observant,” but the degree to which this assertion applies to devout German Lutherans or French Muslims is left unsaid.
Relatedly, while asking respondents about the prevalence of anti-Semitism on the political right and left, the ADL left out the third, and deadliest, form of Jew-hatred in Europe today: Muslim anti-Semitism. Instead, the ADL reverses the clear link between Muslim anti-Semitism and murderous violence against Jews in France and other European countries and claims instead that “not surprisingly, there are strong ties between anti-Semitism and prejudice against Muslim refugees.” The ADL comes to this benign conclusion by conflating agreement with the statement that countries have “let in too many immigrants” with “anti-Muslim prejudice.”
The anxiety most Europeans appear to have regarding Muslim immigration, however, is not predicated upon hostility to Muslims as individuals per se but rather unease over the broader social phenomena attendant with their settling in large numbers. For even among those Europeans who believe that their country has accepted “too many immigrants,” the poll finds that the vast majority has no problem living alongside Muslims as neighbors. Meanwhile, a majority of respondents in all three countries agreed with the statement that Muslims prefer to remain “distinct from our society as a whole” rather than “adopt our customs and ways of life.” In other words, what bothers these European “bigots” is not “Muslims” in the abstract or the individual case, but the formation of parallel societies and the importation and reinforcement of regressive social attitudes on matters ranging from female equality to acceptance of LGBT people. In fact, the ADL also found that majorities of Europeans in all three countries associate Muslim immigration with increased anti-Semitism, a not unreasonable conclusion given the ADL’s own public-opinion surveys in the countries from which these people are emigrating—74 percent of those living in the Middle East and North Africa, according to the ADL, hold anti-Semitic views. (As for migrants in Europe, it took a German organization to ask the question the ADL wouldn’t: A poll conducted by the Hanns Seidel Foundation discovered that “More than half of Muslim asylum seekers showed clear tendencies of an anti-Semitic attitude pattern.”) As one European Jewish journalist recently told me about her country’s social democratic party, “They embrace immigrants. We’re collateral damage.” (This same person also told me, “I’m very happy that I don’t have children.”)
For a specific example of what European Jews are worried about, consider a recent story in the London Times, which is hardly an isolated case. A 14-year-old Jewish boy—the grandson of Holocaust survivors—was “beaten and abused by Muslim classmates at a leading school in Berlin because he was Jewish.” Confronted by the boy’s parents to address this bullying, teachers replied that “his tormentors could not be blamed for their actions, which they said were the result of views expressed in their homes.” Rather than suspend the offending students, “teachers finally asked [the victim] not to enter the same classroom as one bully so as not to provoke him.”
Here we have a tragic example of how people who consider themselves to be progressives are downplaying if not ignoring violence against Jews so as not to offend the sensibilities of communities that proclaim themselves to be hostile both to Jews and the wider panoply of liberal values. It is indicative of a broader reluctance in many quarters to talk honestly about how Islam is changing Europe, a reluctance that stems in part from fear of being labeled “Islamophobic.”
One sees this mentality at play in the ADL’s skirting the question of Islam entirely in its poll on European anti-Semitism, in the Obama administration’s repeated insistence that the people murdered at a Paris kosher supermarket by an avowed Islamist in 2015 were victims of a “random” assault on “a bunch of folks in a deli,” in the French hesitation to acknowledge the anti-Semitic motives that animated the Muslim murderer of a 67-year-old Orthodox Jewish woman, in the 204 American writers who signed an open letter denouncing the murdered staff of Charlie Hebdo as racists. And it can also be seen now in the fact that so few on the left are willing to call out the people in their midst who are, unashamedly, bigots in progressive clothing.
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