Sometimes a newsworthy event takes place when nothing unusual occurs.
After months of campaigning to disinvite civil rights activist and co-organizer of the Women’s March, Linda Sarsour, from giving a graduation speech at the City University of New York (CUNY), Sarsour’s keynote went off without a hitch Thursday night.
No one booed as they did Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, the commencement speaker at a historically black university in Florida last month. No one stormed out of the auditorium, like the 100 students who turned their backs and walked to the door while VP Mike Pence spoke at a Notre Dame podium last week.
By contrast, when Sarsour threw her fist into the air during her talk, the room applauded.
In her speech, Sarsour underscored how oppressed communities can get an advantage if they organize under a united banner.
“You too understand that only way to do this is to organize intersectionally and holistically,” she said.
“We in this room together must commit to never being bystanders to poverty, lack of jobs and healthcare, sexism and violence, discrimination, racism, xenophobia, Islamophobia, anti-Semitism and homophobia,” Sarsour said, “We will stand up we will seek truth to power no matter the consequences.”
She praised three train riders who were stabbed in Portland last week while protecting two Muslim-appearing from harassment. Two of the men, Taliesin Myrddin Namkai Meche and Rick Best, were killed in the attack.
And Sarsour paid tribute to her family, a common theme in her speeches over the years, where she notes her Palestinian heritage in relation to her dedication as an activist.
“Look, I love my country, it gave my Palestinian-immigrant parents who lived under military occupation the opportunity to give me and my siblings a better life, and I am forever grateful,” she said.
It would be short-sighted to say Sarsour did not have detractors leading up to this non-event speech.
Indeed a motley crew of critics and conspiracy theorists that ranged from right-of-center Democrats to anti-Muslim extremists banned in certain Western countries for their inciting language, coalesced to try and shut down Sarsour. They mentioned much more often than Sarsour herself does, that she is both Muslim and Palestinian.
Accusations of anti-Semitism were a frequent charge.
New York State Assemblyman Dov Hikind penned an op-ed in April in the New York Daily News asking CUNY to cancel Sarsour’s speaking engagement. Chief among his complaints, he alleged when she does contribute to efforts benefiting Jewish institutions (as she regularly does), her motivation was not to be trusted. Commenting on her fundraising of more than $100,000 to benefit a wave of Jewish cemeteries earlier this year, Hikind chided, “Sarsour has no lack of affection for dead Jews.”
“Linda Sarsour is a sharia loving, terrorist embracing, Jew-hating, ticking time bomb of progressive horror,” former Breitbart reporter Milo Yiannopoulos said in a recording of a May 25 rally organized to cancel the Sarsour event, employing his tongue-in-cheek brand of anti-Muslim extremism.
“Linda is obsessed with convincing American women that they are better off in Saudi Arabia,” he said.
Yiannopoulos added the suicide bomber responsible for killing 22 in Manchester at an Ariana Grande concert last month was “a friend of Linda’s probably.”
A Facebook page for the demonstration at which Yiannopoulos spoke further sought to smear Sarsour as being “pro-terror” and an “a vicious, pro-sharia, Jew hater.” A poster for the event took a picture of her and superimposed it next to ISIS supporters.
The event page is maintained by Pamela Geller, a birther and video blogger who circulated similar images of Supreme Court Justice Elena Kagan in SS attire weeks after her nomination to the bench was announced.
Geller rose to national attention after she lobbied against the construction of the Park 51 mosque in New York City in 2010. That same year Geller was the subject of a New York Times profile that noted she went from “internet obscurity,” days spent uploading images of herself in a bikini protesting the coming reign of Islamic law over the U.S., to influencing political discourse on Islam among Republicans.
Also protesting Sarsour’s CUNY talk at Geller’s rally was John Guandolo, a former FBI agent who stepped down from the bureau in 2008 after he compromised an investigation by having a sexual relationship with a source. Alex Kane recently published a piece disproving Guandolo’s claims about Islam for the Intercept.
Weeks before both the talk and the protest, Guandolo promoted the event on the Blaze, speaking to former correspondent Tomi Lahren and firing off baseless theories. He said Sarsour is tied to Hamas.
“She is the face of a movement,” Lahren said, and questioned whether Sarsour was also “going to be the new face of feminism now?”
Yet for all those who sought to persuade CUNY that Sarsour is an “emissary” of Islam and by extension, its most austere and radical forms, others came to her defense.
Earlier this week a group of Jewish leaders published an open letter supporting Sarsour. It was signed by J Street’s Jeremy Ben-Ami, journalist Naomi Klein, playwright and Tony Kushner, along with more than a dozen faith leaders and officials from progressive Jewish organizations.
“We may not agree with Sarsour on all matters. We do not offer our stamp of approval to every tweet or message she has ever posted,” the group wrote, but it pledged a defense of Sarsour on the grounds that she “is falsely maligned, harassed and smeared, as she, her organization and her family suffer vicious public threats and intimidation.”
“These attacks are dangerous, disingenuous and counterproductive, undermining core Jewish values of compassion, humility and human dignity,” the letter stated.
Back at the CUNY speech yesterday, Sarsour subtly referenced the weeks of attempts to ban her talk.
“You made it, and I made it here,” she told the graduates. “And you already know it’s been a more than memorable and eventful experience for me and I’m still standing and still unapologetically Muslim-American, and Palestinian-American and from Brooklyn, New York.”