Demonstrators took to the streets in New York City on Tuesday night to protest a panel debate on antisemitism which featured a prominent Palestinian-American activist.
Linda Sarsour, former executive director of the Arab-American Association of New York, stoked controversy earlier this year by asserting that Zionists cannot simultaneously be feminists because the Israeli occupation of the West Bank was oppressive to women.
Organisers warned the audience and participants to expect disruption, but the panel event – hosted by Amy Goodman, the host of television news programme Democracy Now – went ahead as planned. It was hosted by the New School in Manhattan, a university that made its name by offering positions to academics and intellectuals including political theorists Hannah Arendt and Leo Strauss fleeing Nazi Germany and fascist Italy in the 1930s.
More than 21,000 signatures had been collected on an online petition against Ms Sarsour’s participation.
Ms Sarsour said: “Apparently I am the biggest problem of the Jewish community. I am the existential threat, apparently. I am confused, literally, every day.”
Tens of thousands watched footage of the debate on Facebook, with angry debate flaring up on social media.
“Having Linda Sarsour & head of JVP leading a panel on antisemitism is like Oscar Meyer leading a panel on vegetarianism,” tweeted Jonathan Greenblatt, chief executive of the Anti-Defamation League, referring to the US meat company known for its hot dogs and bacon.
Event organisers were criticised for not inviting any scholars of antisemitism.
The journalist Liel Leibovitz wrote in the Jewish magazine Tablet: “In supporting this pathetic farce, then, the New School betrays its mission and its heritage twice: First by inviting some of the leading purveyors of anti-Jewish prejudice to discuss anti-Semitism, and second by failing to invite to the panel anyone who might disrupt the torrent of invective with dispassionate facts and real expertise.”
Other participants included Rebecca Vilkomerson, head of the left-wing Jewish Voice for Peace group that is critical of Israel; and Jewish activists Leo Ferguson and Lina Morales.
Ms Sarsour declared in her remarks that antisemitism is part of the wider social justice movement and should not be the concern of Jewish people alone.
“We cannot dismantle anti-black racism, Islamophobia, homophobia, transphobia, every phobia and –ism, without also dismantling antisemitism,” she said.
Critics were angered by her participation because of her vocal support for the BDS, the movement that calls for a boycott of Israel – but Ms Sarsour responded with characteristic defiance.
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 perspective of fomenting it rather than fighting it. https://t.co/s4tvBrvjBj 1/2— Jonathan Greenblatt (@JGreenblattADL) November 13, 2017
“Just in case it’s not clear, I am unapologetically Palestinian-American and will always be unapologetically Palestinian-American. I am also unapologetically Muslim-American. And guess what? I am also a very staunch supporter of the BDS movement.
“What other way am I supposed to be, as a Palestinian-American who’s a daughter of immigrants who lived under military occupation and still has relatives in Palestine that live under military occupation? I should be expected to have the views that I hold.”