WASHINGTON – Linda Sarsour briefly mentioned her Palestinian roots as she spoke before her largest audience yet this weekend, when hundreds of thousands marched on Washington and ground the capital to a halt.
The executive director of the Arab American Association of New York served as a national co-chair for the historic Women’s March – a protest against freshly sworn-in President Donald Trump that spread worldwide, with massive sister marches from Los Angeles to Berlin.
Women’s rights were core to the event, cast as a response to lewd and degrading comments made by the president about women throughout his campaign.
The march was intended to energize American women to protect a policy agenda centered on reproductive rights.
Half million people join Women's March in Washington DC
But women of all stripes – those who identify as gay or transgender, undocumented, black, Muslim – incorporated their own fears and policy priorities into the march, and the event quickly became a pan-progressive movement against Trump’s looming presidency.
That was the goal of its leadership, including Sarsour, who has campaigned around the country to link civil rights battles with her cardinal cause: Palestinian freedom.
“I grew up in an activist family – my parents are Palestinian, and obviously the blood that runs through my veins is the blood of a very oppressed people,” Sarsour explained to the web show Brooklyn Savvy in a 2015 interview.
“I’m outraged by our government,” she said. “We fund military aid that’s being used to basically kill my people right now. That’s like, straight up what’s happening right now.”
Born in Brooklyn, Sarsour began her work with the Arab American Association of New York after September 11th, 2001, when she was 21 years old. The organization’s founding purpose was to help Arab Americans find housing and schooling for their children as they settled in the city. But advocacy became a top organization priority as New York City’s police department began monitoring the community more invasively in light of the attacks.
Sarsour’s seminal policy battle in New York was her fight with the city to recognize Muslim holidays in public schools, as Christian and Jewish high holidays are observed. The Arab American Association worked with the help of New York Jewish groups to make it happen, she told the Vox website in an interview this month. Sarsour was honored by the Obama administration as a “champion of change” in 2011 for improving the lives of others through her charitable work.
Growing in her activist role, Sarsour has increasingly linked her Palestinian cause with struggles facing the wider Arab American community since September 11th, with the concerns of the Black Lives Matter movement, and with the responsibility to protect undocumented immigrants, LGBTQ citizens, women and girls.
“The same people who justify the massacres of Palestinian people and call it collateral damage are the same people who justify the murder of black young men and women,” she told the 20th anniversary Million Man March on Washington, an event held on the National Mall for African American civil rights, organized by Louis Farrakhan in 2015.
“The same people who want to deport millions of undocumented immigrants are the same people who hate Muslims and who want to take our right to worship freely in this country. That common enemy, sisters and brothers, is white supremacy,” Sarsour said. “Let’s call it what it is.”
Her political philosophy places all of these groups, with all of their unique challenges, within the same category of oppressed peoples – and the oppressors, the opposition, are large corporations, white Islamophobes and Zionists.
Nothing in Sarsour’s record offers evidence that she respects Zionism as a cause, and on the contrary, she has repeatedly used the term Zionist as an epithet.
She wrote in 2015 on Twitter that “Zionist trolls” were out to get her, and in 2012 that “nothing is creepier than Zionism.”
In 2013, Sarsour wrote that she believes the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is the primary issue dividing the American Jewish and Muslim communities. She repeated this claim in 2016, noting that she does not believe all American Jews are anti-Palestinian.
Several commonalities – “kosher/halal, issues around circumcision, family values” – join the two communities together, she wrote.
The US, UK and nearly three dozen other nations have adopted a definition of antisemitism that would likely condemn Sarsour’s rhetoric, as her advocacy suggests she believes the Jewish state is intrinsically racist and unjust.
She does not acknowledge Israel’s right to exist.
Yet she appears to view anti-Zionism as separate from antisemitism. At an event in Los Angeles held on November 30 by the Council on American- Islamic Relations, Sarsour characterized the leadership of the incoming Trump administration as antisemitic, and linked that problem for American Jews to her own battle against Islamophobia.
It is unclear whether she supports a two-state solution as an end to all claims in the conflict, or whether she believes such a peace deal would be one step in a long series of steps toward the restoration of ‘historic Palestine.’ In response to former US secretary of state John Kerry’s final speech on Middle East peace – an address that harshly criticized the Israeli government for its settlement enterprise – Sarsour told MSNBC that Israel must first end its military occupation of Palestinian territories as a precondition for the resumption of peace talks.
Regardless of her vision for Palestinian statehood, Sarsour is not optimistic that negotiations will succeed in achieving peace in any form in the Trump era: “David Friedman makes Benjamin Netanyahu look like a walk in the park,” she said of the president’s choice for Israel ambassador.
Sarsour enthusiastically endorsed Bernie Sanders for president in 2016, thanking him on the campaign trail in Wisconsin for allowing her to embrace her identity as a Muslim while stumping for him.
“When I started supporting Bernie Sanders no one told me, ‘Look, you can’t be too Muslim up there. Don’t bring up those Palestinians,’” she said. “They welcomed all of me. They have welcomed my community in a way that no other campaign has.”
In light of her public role in the Women’s March, Sarsour has come under fire from groups on the right that have called her position on women’s rights hypocritical and her brand of Islam radical. One online news outlet, the rightwing Daily Caller, published a photo of her at a conference standing next to someone they claim had ties to Hamas.
Sarsour responded to this backlash with a statement on Facebook: “The opposition cannot fathom to see a Palestinian Muslim American woman that resonates with the masses – someone whose track record is clear and has always stood up for the most marginalized,” she wrote. “They have a coordinated attack campaign against me and it’s vicious and ugly. It’s not the first time, but it’s definitely more intense.”
But “they will not succeed,” she continued. “I have helped build a movement, I am ready for what’s to come so they can spew alternative facts and piece a twisted narrative together if they want – I and we will still rise.”