Dear Alicia Garza,
I thank you for initially accepting the award we offered you to salute your efforts in fighting racial injustice and prejudice, at our World Values Network Ninth Annual Champions of Jewish Values International Awards Gala.
The event, which as you know took place on 18 February in celebration of Black History Month and African-American and Jewish brotherhood, turned out to be one of the most moving of my life, as we honored African-American leaders such as civil rights legend Dr. Virgil Wood, who was imprisoned many times with Martin Luther King Jr., recording legend Dionne Warwick, and comedic and TV legend Steve Harvey.
A truly beautiful celebration, which responded to President Joe Biden’s call for renewed national unity, the gala honored the memory of philanthropist Sheldon Adelson, the world’s foremost supporter of Holocaust memory, through speeches given by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and former secretary of state Mike Pompeo, whom we honored with the a human rights award for his efforts at protecting Arab and Muslim life in Syria when the Trump administration fired missiles at Bashar Assad for using poison gas against children.
In the spirit of Biden’s call for national reconciliation, it was a true evening of bipartisan – and indeed nonpartisan – unity and brotherhood, where people put aside differences to celebrate the time-honored bonds between the African-American and Jewish communities.
The gala was cohosted by African-American mega-philanthropist Robert Smith, who has emerged as one of the greatest funders of African-American and general education in American history.
It was an evening that you especially would have enjoyed, Alicia, given your singular accomplishments in having co-founded the Black Lives Matter hashtag while being the stepdaughter of a Jewish father whose last name through her early twenties was Schwartz and who till today identifies as Jewish. We wanted you to participate. But you withdrew two weeks before the event with a public tweet to which I now wish to respond.
BEFORE I do, you should know some things about me.
African-American and Jewish brotherhood has been the passion of my life, ever since my mother worked alongside an African-American woman as fellow tellers at a Los Angeles bank as her marriage crumbled around her and I was a small child.
By the time I arrived as rabbi at Oxford University in 1988, having just turned 22, I set myself the goal of establishing an organization that celebrated the unity of the two communities.
In 1993 I appointed my closest friend, African-American Rhodes Scholar Cory Booker, as president of the Oxford University L’Chaim Society I had established, which grew to become the second-largest student organization in Oxford’s history.
Cory and I studied hundreds of hours of Torah together over nearly 25 years and gave countless public speeches together celebrating African-American and Jewish identity.
Right after the tragic attacks of September 11, 2001, I called the Rev. Al Sharpton – whom I had debated at a New York church a few months earlier and taken to a kosher steak house immediately after – and told him that the mass murder of our fellow citizens called for a moment of unity.
“Come with me on a solidarity mission in support of victims of terror to Israel.”
He immediately agreed, and his visit to Israel was cohosted by Israeli foreign minister Shimon Peres.
I was much criticized by members of my own community for hosting Sharpton in Israel, just as I was sharply criticized for giving you an award at this year’s gala. Financial funders withdrew support. In both instances the complaint was alleged support for antisemitism, with Sharpton over the events in Crown Heights in 1991, and with you and the BLM stance on Israel and support for BDS, something to which I will return.
But I didn’t care. I am dedicated to my mission of recreating the bonds of brotherhood that united Martin Luther King Jr., the greatest American of the 20th century, and Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, the 20th century’s most eloquent voice for Jewish spirituality in the English language.
Which is also what led to, among other things, my becoming the first white morning radio host on the legacy African-American radio station 1600 AM WWRL, with my close friend Peter Noel, as well as using my platform on a giant Utah radio station in September 2005 to passionately advocate for African-American families displaced from New Orleans by Hurricane Katrina, which led unbelievably to the cancellation of the show.
WHICH BRINGS us to our gala, your award, and how Linda Sarsour seems to have publicly and successfully pressured you to cancel.
On February 9 you tweeted that you were no longer a part of our event, after you were “made aware” of the “positions of this group.”
It seems that it may have been Sarsour who made you aware, as she publicly thanked you on the same day for withdrawing.
The organizer of our gala was my friend and colleague Gabrielle Bell. Like you, Gabe is an African-American, Jewish, and openly gay. I remember how happy he was when you accepted, and how disappointed he was when you succumbed to pressure and withdrew.
He saw me weather phenomenal condemnation for inviting you – including from friends who told me they might never speak to me again – but I held fast.
I was thrilled to recognize your efforts at protesting moral abominations like the shooting of Trayvon Martin, when you launched the #BlackLivesMatter hashtag.
At the time, I wrote in the Huffington Post: “A young African-American teenager, wearing a hoodie against the rain, died, seemingly, for carrying a can of iced tea and a bag of Skittles. If that isn’t a tragedy, then the word has no meaning.”
It’s one of the reasons that after the murder of George Floyd I wanted the Jewish community to join you to protest that despicable abomination.
You and I could have worked well together, Alicia, even as we would most likely have disagreed sharply on Israel, which is no doubt the “political positions” you are referring to and which Sarsour pressured you on. Such disagreement would have been fine with me.
One of the things I love about Israel is that it is an open democracy that tolerates dissent. At our 2014 gala we honored Academy Award-winner Sean Penn, who gave a memorable address that made world news, including referring to the West Bank as “undeclared territories.” He argued that the ranks of those unjustly imprisoned around the world include Palestinians in Israel and repeated that the label of antisemitism is “too often used to discredit dialogue.”
He was never censored or canceled at our gala for expressing his opinion. We would never think of doing that. We know that brotherhood does not mean agreement. It means love despite disagreement.
I would have thought that you, of all people, would have known that.
As for Sarsour, here’s the weird thing about her unprovoked attacks against me. In 2016 I met her on the Steve Harvey show, where I had a warm and extremely civilized dialogue about Jewish and Islamic relations with her. I praised her for her courage in wearing the hijab and proudly affirming her Islamic religious identity. I try and do the same with wearing my yarmulke and tzitzit.
I could therefore hardly believe how she had no issue becoming quickly radicalized against the Jewish community. In April of 2017, Sarsour spoke alongside Rasmea Odeh at a dinner and told the audience that she was “honored to be on this stage with Rasmea.”
Rasmea Odeh was a member of the PFLP convicted in 1969 for her involvement in the bombing of an Israeli supermarket on a Friday afternoon, when the shops are most crowded by Jews preparing for the Sabbath. One bomb, placed inside a can of instant coffee, took the lives of two young students and maimed nine more. A second bomb, set to detonate once emergency workers had arrived, would have killed many more, had it not been quickly defused by security forces.
At the start of her speech, Sarsour extended her gratitude to her “favorite person in this room, Imam Siraj Wahhaj,” whom she went on to call her “mentor, motivator and encourager.”
This is a man unfortunately known for extremely hateful views toward the LGBTQ community. With regard to homosexuality, the imam said “the prophet cursed, la’ana, cursed the feminine man and the masculine woman,” a phenomenon he went on to describe as “a disease of this society.”
In 1992, Wahhaj expressed his desire to burn down a gay-friendly mosque in Toronto, if only he could.
His admonition of “woe to the Muslims who pick kafirs [non-Muslims] for friends” implies that Wahhaj is no fan of peaceful coexistence either, a fact I find surprising, considering that Sarsour holds “radical love” to be a tenet of her faith.
It’s no wonder that in August 2020 President Biden condemned Linda Sarsour in the strongest terms. His campaign said, “Joe Biden has been a strong supporter of Israel and a vehement opponent of antisemitism his entire life, and he obviously condemns [Sarsour’s] views and opposes BDS, as does the Democratic platform. She has no role in the Biden campaign whatsoever.”
Alicia, my advice would be to take President Biden’s advice on both counts. Let’s together engage in a moment of unity, bringing together the black and Jewish communities. And let’s listen to President Biden and reject the hatred of Linda Sarsour.
The writer, “America’s Rabbi,” will release his new book, Holocaust Holiday: One Family’s Descent into Genocide Memory Hell, in April. Follow him on Instagram and Twitter @RabbiShmuley.