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Palestinian-American activist Linda Sarsour deserves to speak in Winnipeg

Photo: Festival of Faiths/Wikimedia Commons

I am alarmed by Winnipeg Mayor Brian Bowman's call to stop Palestinian-American activist Linda Sarsour from speaking in his community. I am a rabbi. I have been involved with Jewish communal life and with Israel for 50 years. At this moment I am writing from Israel, where I lived for four years. I arrived here this morning to participate in a Jewish project of solidarity next week with Palestinians in the West Bank who struggle daily for their very existence.

B'nai Brith Canada and the Jewish Federation of Winnipeg have not been honest with the people of Winnipeg.

Linda Sarsour is not an antisemite. She has a warm, strong positive relationship with many Jewish people and with Jewish organizations. She was the keynote speaker at the 2017 national members meeting of Jewish Voice for Peace, which has over 200,000 Jewish members and supporters in the U.S. I serve on its rabbinic council with over 60 other rabbis. Linda Sarsour is a vital and courageous ally in our work for freedom, equality and justice. 

The controversy in Winnipeg is a political fight that has nothing whatsoever to do with real antisemitism. It has been manufactured by organizations whose intention is to deflect and distract from what Israel has done to Palestinians for more than 70 years. It is a way to silence those -- like Independent Jewish Voices Canada and many others -- who work for justice, equality and freedom for everyone living in Israel and Palestine. Accusations of antisemitism are a "weapon of mass distraction," a favourite tactic of the organizations provoking this conflict in Winnipeg. Historian and son of Holocaust survivors Dr. Norman Finkelstein said it well when he wrote that their aim is "not to fight [real] antisemitism but to exploit the historical suffering of Jews in order to immunize Israel from criticism."

B'nai Brith made five specific claims. Let me briefly respond to each of them, quoting directly from B'nai Brith's own material:

  • "She considered it an 'honour' to share a stage with Rasmea Odeh, a convicted terrorist who bombed a Jerusalem supermarket in 1969 as a member of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP), a listed terrorist organization in Canada, the United States, and elsewhere, resulting in the murder of two young college students."

Rasmea Odeh was convicted on a confession obtained after 25 days of torture and violent sexual abuse including her father being brought to her prison cell and threatened with being forced to rape her. She renounced the confession in the military court that convicted her. Rasmea Odeh is honoured by many Jews who stand with Palestinians in their struggle for freedom, justice and equality. She was also a key speaker at the Jewish Voice for Peace conference in 2017.

  • "She rejects the legitimacy of Zionism, a belief by the vast majority of Jews that simply entitles them self-determination on their indigenous and ancestral lands, and said Zionist women should be excluded by feminist movements."

Many Jews reject Zionism. No, we are not entitled to self-determination accomplished by dispossessing, expelling and subjugating another people who have lived there for centuries. And, many of us agree that women who support the oppression of Palestinians, which is the tragic outcome of Zionism, are not really feminists.  

  • "She has promoted age-old antisemitic tropes such as accusing U.S. Jews of dual loyalty to Israel and U.S. politicians of being more loyal to Israel than to their own country."

Many Jews in the U.S., Canada and elsewhere have dual loyalties and are proud of it. As just  one example among many, U.S. Senator Charles Schumer (D-NY), has proudly said that he is the "Guardian of Israel" in the U.S. Senate. Is this antisemitic when he says it himself?

  • "She has downplayed the prevalence of antisemitism as a phenomenon compared to other forms of prejudice."

Antisemitism still exists in the U.S., Canada, and elsewhere. However, its prevalence is far less than other forms of prejudice. In our society today, fortunately, Jews are not routinely denied employment, housing, and access to education because we are Jews. We are not watched carefully by security in stores because we are Jews. We are not shot dead for minor traffic violations by police or treated as less capable by school teachers. Linda Sarsour is simply right that other forms of prejudice are far more prevalent than antisemitism. 

  • "She is a huge supporter of Louis Farrakhan, who routinely accuses Jews of manipulating the U.S. government and controlling the levers of world power."

Linda Sarsour has repeatedly, pointedly and publicly rejected Louis Farrakhan's antisemitic statements.

None of us can know everything about every issue in our communities. I know that the people of Winnipeg want only to do what's right. It's good that so many want to defend Jewish neighbours. However, in the past month, Winnipeg has experienced what refugee from Nazism and political philosopher Hannah Arendt described in her 1971 essay "Lying in Politics" as a process of "deception, self-deception, image-making, ideologizing, and defactualization." I urge you take a step back, take a deep breath and go listen when Linda Sarsour speaks at the Ukrainian Labour Temple on Friday night.

Rabbi David Mivasair is an active member of Independent Jewish Voices Canada and lives in Hamilton, ON. He wrote for rabble.ca from Tel Aviv, where he has gone for a project with the Center for Jewish Nonviolence.

This article appeared in the online edition of The Jewish Post & News, Winnipeg, April 25, 2019.

Photo: Festival of Faiths/Wikimedia Commons

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