by Mitchell Plitnick
Palestinian-American activist Linda Sarsour has been in the spotlight quite a bit in recent weeks. Her role in organizing the anti-Trump Women’s March, which drew larger crowds than Donald Trump’s inauguration and mightily rankled the incoming president, put her name on the map in a way it had not been before. One of the first ways she used her prominence was to start a Muslim campaign to raise funds to repair a Jewish cemetery in Missouri that had been vandalized. She and her allies had a goal of $20,000 and ended up raising over $160,000.
But some in the Jewish community want to hear nothing more from Sarsour. You see, she is a supporter of the tactic of boycott, divestment, and sanctions (BDS) and believes that the best solution to the Israel-Palestine conflict is a single democratic state in all of Israel, the West Bank, and Gaza. Many consider this stance to be conclusive proof that she is not just a supporter of the Palestinian cause but an extreme anti-Zionist and even an anti-Semite.
I happen to disagree with Linda Sarsour on these points. Although I very strongly support boycotting products and services that come from Israel’s settlements, I believe that cultural, academic, and broad boycotts of Israel as a whole are a counter-productive and inappropriate tactic. I also believe (and have written extensively about why) that a one-state reality will be no solution, although the two-state vision needs to be significantly revised from its Oslo form.
Some Palestinians and supporters of the Palestinian cause have called me a “Zionist” in the most pejorative sense of that word for my views. (I identify as neither Zionist nor anti-Zionist. I think nationalism of all kinds is sometimes useful but ultimately destructive, but I also believe the Jewish people have as much right to self-determination as any other people, including the Palestinians). Similarly, Sarsour’s views have drawn labels to her that simply don’t fit either her words or her actions.
Enter The Nation
Most recently, and sadly, The Nation inadvertently helped reinforce this narrow-minded view of Sarsour’s stances.
On March 13, the long-running left-wing US magazine published an interview with Linda Sarsour by Collier Myerson. The headline of the interview was, “ Can You Be a Zionist Feminist? Linda Sarsour Says No.” The trouble is, at least in the printed interview, Sarsour didn’t say that.
In the interview, Sarsour speaks of women’s suffering under the occupation. She talks about “right-wing Zionists” and of how groups and individuals have stifled debate on the issue here in the US. She sums up her argument this way:
It just doesn’t make any sense for someone to say, “Is there room for people who support the state of Israel and do not criticize it in the movement?” There can’t be in feminism. You either stand up for the rights of all women, including Palestinians, or none. There’s just no way around it.
Why, if Sarsour intended to exclude anyone who holds pro-Israel views—i.e., anyone who might be described as a Zionist—did she add the clause about not criticizing Israel? It’s very clear, from this and from the entire interview, that Sarsour said that anyone who cannot stand up against the oppression of Palestinian women was too hypocritical to be called a feminist.
Whether one supports or criticizes Sarsour, it’s crucial that we deal with what she actually said. The Nation did a disservice to Sarsour and to the larger debate over the Israeli occupation in the United States by distorting Sarsour’s words for a provocative headline. The mistake got magnified when many of Sarsour’s allies and supporters, as well as her critics, tweeted the article directly, meaning the tweet consisted entirely of the headline, perhaps with a brief editorial comment attached.
The result is that Sarsour became the focus of a simplistic debate about whether one can be a Zionist and a feminist at the same time. The Jewish Telegraphic Agency characterized Sarsour’s stance as: “Sarsour said those who identify as Zionist cannot be feminist because they are ignoring the rights of Palestinian women,” despite then quoting the very same paragraph I used above, where Sarsour clearly delineates what she is objecting and, crucially, never says she is referring to anyone who might self-identify as Zionist.
I cannot say where Sarsour comes down on the question of whether an anti-occupation Zionist can also be a feminist. I think the answer is obviously yes, but it’s going to depend on how you’re defining the term “Zionist.” But if we ask whether one can be a feminist while defending Israel’s occupation, its policy of withholding basic rights from Palestinians, its siege on Gaza, and its creeping annexation of the West Bank, that is a different and challenging question.
From the earliest days of the women’s liberation movement, feminism has struggled with a tension between itself and other social justice movements. The domination of the movement by white women has been a vexing problem, and the insufficient attention to the particular problems women of color face has been discussed and worked on for years. The intersection of feminism with homophobia, Islamophobia, class, and pretty much any other form of social inequity is unavoidable because women are present in every category and class of humanity.
That is the issue that Sarsour raised in her interview. She wondered how a feminist could worry about the lack of access to proper medical care for a woman in a rural US area, in Asia, Africa, Latin America, or anywhere else, but not in Palestine. It’s a valid question, and one that has been raised any time feminism intersects with another form of oppression. Yet, when the question is raised by a Palestinian woman about Palestinians it becomes a toxic issue.
That toxicity was, sadly, raised to a much higher level by The Nation’s clumsy headline writing. Sarsour was already being attacked for her support of BDS and her advocacy of a single-state solution. Yet, it’s worth asking why, with the current Israeli government working every day to thwart a two-state solution and with that government also banning people from entry and even detaining its own citizens based on nothing other than their political views, only the Palestinian one-stater is deemed to be such a threat.
Zionism and Feminism
Sarsour’s interview was a response to an op-ed in The New York Times by Emily Shire. Shire finds it problematic that the women’s march included a plank that called for the “de-colonization of Palestine.” She felt that the movement was saying that support for BDS was almost a requirement.
Does Linda Sarsour believe that Shire, who describes herself as “critical of certain Israeli government policies… (but) a Zionist because I support Israel’s right to exist as a Jewish state” could be a feminist if her opposition to those Israeli policies meant that she opposed the occupation and supported equal rights and freedom for Palestinians. I don’t know if that’s an accurate depiction of Shire’s views, but there are many such people, Jewish and otherwise, men, women and intersex, all over the world. I do know that Sarsour did not answer that question in her interview, yet both supporters of Israeli policies and supporters of Palestinian rights have seized on a headline to debate what Sarsour did not say.
Sarsour is too important a figure right now to allow this sort of nonsense to get in her way. Progressives need to be smarter than this. A Palestinian-American woman has led the way in opposing the most dangerous president the United States has ever elected, at a time when right-wing, reactionary forces have control over all the branches of the US government. She has done this also at a time when the future for Palestinians living in the West Bank, Gaza, East Jerusalem, and Israel, as well as in refugee camps in surrounding countries looks as bleak as it ever has.
Right now, we need Linda Sarsour. We don’t have to agree with her on everything. I don’t. But her skill and wisdom as a leader, her ability to raise a wide range of important issues must be valued by progressives because they open up discussion, not stifled because we might not agree with every one of her views. Sarsour is an American leader. She is also an uncompromising Palestinian Muslim woman whose views need to be heard and discussed fairly and rationally, based on what she actually says, not on a headline. If progressives, and, yes, feminists, can’t do that much, how can we expect anyone else to?
Photo of Linda Sarsour from the Festival of Faiths courtesy of Wikimedia Commons