Cognitive dissonance. That best describes the reaction of many in our community who are deeply disturbed by CUNY’s School of Public Health’s choice of Linda Sarsour as its commencement speaker. Ms. Sarsour is a recognized national leader of progressive politics with social media and community-organizing skills (witness her campaign to restore the vandalized Jewish cemetery in St. Louis). But does that qualify her as – in the school’s own words — a woman who has “provided leadership and inspiration for those who want to make a difference in public health?” We think not.
Our core question is, when Israel contributes so much to public health, how can she both call for boycotts of Israel and simultaneously qualify as a leader in the field of public health?
Hundreds of Syrians injured in the civil war cross the border to be treated in Israeli hospitals, and Israel responds with medical and humanitarian aid. In this horrible war, the fact that the injured reject the validity of a boycott saves their lives.
Would Ms. Sarsour recommend that the disaster victims of the world scrap Israel’s offers of crucial, quality medical aid in their hours of dire need? Israel’s sophisticated, award-winning, mobile field hospital was the first on the scene aiding victims of the earthquakes in Haiti, Nepal and Turkey and the tsunamis in Japan and Thailand. All of those tragic victims would disagree with Ms. Sarsour.
In Africa alone, there are 71 major solar and agricultural projects using Israeli advances. Ethiopia, Tanzania, Malawi and Uganda use Israeli solar technology to provide medical clinics with solar power to offer evening study, adult education, well-lit nighttime medical care and refrigeration for lifesaving medicines and vaccines. Israeli solar powered water pumps provide over 20,000 liters of clean water a day, and their drip irrigation systems provide a source of food and income for farmers and their families. The U.S. Veteran’s Administration regularly uses Israeli prosthetics to restore mobility to our wounded warriors. Hundreds of thousands of beneficiaries around the world welcome, rather than boycott, such Israeli public health advancements that improve their quality of life.
When Israel contributes so much to public health, how can Sarsour both call for boycotts of Israel and qualify as a leader in the field of public health?
To be frank, what we find so deeply offensive are Ms. Sarsour’s ongoing activities as an advocate to delegitimize, and ultimately eliminate, the Jewish and democratic State of Israel. In a recent interview she did not mince her words, saying “My hope is that it will be one state, one man [sic] one vote, that everyone is treated equally.” In reality, this trope is code among those who seek to flood Israel with millions of Palestinian refugees, fundamentally changing the character of the Jewish state, forcing Jews to relinquish their right to be a free people in their ancestral homeland.
The founder of the Palestinian Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel, Omar Barghouti, outlines the ultimate goals of anti-Israel boycotts: When asked, “If the occupation ends, let’s say, would that end your call for BDS?” He replied, “No.” Or as Ahmed Moor explains, “Ending the occupation doesn’t mean anything if it doesn’t mean upending the Jewish state itself.”
We disagree with Ms. Sarsour on a myriad of other issues, yet defend her right to her own opinions. In a recent proclamation, she opined that it is impossible to be both a Zionist and a feminist, insulting and delegitimizing millions of women and men who are proud to be both, including many who were leaders of the feminist movement before Ms. Sarsour was born. Indeed, she is less tolerant of opinions that differ from hers, to wit, she glibly dismisses the Jewish people’s right to national self-determination, even tweeting, “There’s nothing creepier than Zionism.” We reject the notion that our movement for Jewish national liberation is creepy while the movement for Palestinian national liberation is honorable.
The right to free speech here in the United State is sacrosanct. The right to a particular pulpit is not. While a university should be a “marketplace of ideas,” a commencement is a singular occasion, reflecting the aspirations of the school, its faculty and its students. Those chosen as keynote speakers should broadly represent those qualities.
CUNY continues to be a beacon of diversity in New York. The juxtaposition of CUNY and its mission with Ms. Sarsour’s repeated statements advocating for the boycott of Israel and its academic institutions makes her choice as the commencement keynoter of the School of Public Health all the more perplexing and offensive. We call on public officials to speak out and condemn this selection as they would any other individual who so broadly offends any other national, religious, ethnic, racial or gender group.
Charles S. Temel is the president and Michael S. Miller is the executive vice president and CEO of the Jewish Community Relations Council of New York.