On May 4, five members of the Alliance for Israel and I attended an event at UMass that featured Linda Sarsour, Roger Waters, and Marc Lamont Hill. Despite being advertised as an academic panel, the event was a pro-BDS political rally, with Sarsour leading the troops with chants of "Free, free Palestine" and fists held high in the air.
Before attending the event, I knew that one of Sarsour's preferred platforms is Twitter, where she has made some disturbing remarks, including: "Only Jews in my notifications every night are ones that condone violence against Arabs and are cool with mosques being attacked"; "Nothing is creepier than Zionism"; and "I wish I could take their [Brigitte Gabriel and Ayaan Hirsi Ali] vaginas away — they don't deserve to be women," are just some examples.
I also knew that when confronted with criticism or questions about her offensive words and actions, Sarsour is notorious for skillfully and insidiously avoiding a response. She has a reputation of deflecting from the topic, launching into attacks against the individual posing the question, and portraying herself as a victimized Muslim woman.
As we sat and watched her speak in the Fine Arts Center in Amherst, my colleagues and I observed Sarsour's insidious tactics first-hand. For example, shortly after Lamont Hill refused to condemn the Hamas attacks on Israel, an Israeli member of the audience broke down in tears while shouting about the Hamas terrorism that was shattering the lives of his friends and family. Without missing a beat, Sarsour held the microphone to her mouth and drew the audience's attention to the fact that the outburst was directed at Lamont Hill, and suggested it was a racist act against "the only black man" on the panel. Her lack of empathy was chilling, as was her ability to manipulate and redirect the reactions of the audience.
For two hours, Sarsour skillfully exploited her oratory skills, her Brooklyn toughness, and her Islamic faith to elicit bursts of applause, cheers, and chants from the audience. They did not seem bothered by her endless comments about herself, her incomplete thoughts, her unsubstantiated claims, or her divisive message. In fact, they seemed to savor it all.
She proudly informed the crowd that, "I stand before you today as unequivocally and unapologetically Palestinian American"; insisted that she is "the daughter and granddaughter and great granddaughter of Palestinians"; and declared "the blood of a resilient people ... runs and pumps through my body." She further identified herself as "a social justice activist," "a human rights activist," and a person who is "on the right side of history."
Sarsour insisted that her support of the BDS movement is a response to a call from "Palestinian society," despite living as a successful and wealthy American who has given no indication that she helps Palestinians in the Middle East. Despite expressing concern for her "Palestinian brothers and sisters," she mentions no communities, no names, and no examples of her efforts to support them.
In contrast, Sarsour ostracized and dehumanized all those who do not support her efforts to destroy Israel, referring to us all as "immoral" and participants in the "crushing of a people."
But Sarsour did not stop there. As she commanded the audience of BDS supporters, she seamlessly shifted from a portrayal of Israel and its allies as people without morals, to condoning the Hamas missiles that were destroying innocent Israeli lives as she spoke.
"People say to me, 'the State of Israel was created for the self-determination and the safety and sanctuary for the Jewish people.' And I believe that all people including the Jewish people deserve safety and security and sanctuary. But what I will say is that there will be no state in this world that will have true safety and security at the expense of another people."
Her words were met with enthusiastic applause and cheers.
Despite my concerns about Sarsour's messages and the subtle ways that she condones violence, there are many Americans — like the ones sitting in the UMass auditorium — who will continue to be enthralled by her persuasive speeches, and be convinced to join her crusade against the "oppressors" both here and in Israel. There are many who will succumb to her skillful "love bombing," and who will feel honored to join her when she vilifies and ostracizes those who oppose her.
However, it is my hope that the individuals who find themselves seduced by Sarsour's theatrics can be encouraged to ignore her hand waving and posturing, and simply listen to what she is saying. When they do, I believe they will recognize her empty words and perhaps demand evidence of her bombastic claims. And eventually, I hope that they will recognize the danger lurking behind her divisive efforts.
Melissa Landa, PhD, has been addressing the pernicious tactics and goals of the BDS campaign for four years. Most recently, she founded and directs the new anti-BDS organization Alliance for Israel.