WASHINGTON, D.C. — Progressive Palestinian-American Muslim activist Linda Sarsour is a lightning rod in American politics. She moved to Louisville in August with her organization Until Freedom and pledges to remain until justice is achieved for Breonna Taylor, a Black 26-year-old shot and killed by Louisville police in March. Recently Sarsour became the source of a chaotic political episode that brings into focus the fight within the Democratic Party over the Israel/Palestine conflict and the concern for maintaining support among Muslim Americans, a vital constituency of the party.
“Republicans and Democrats have been staunchly supportive of Israel unconditionally for decades and there’s a new generation of progressives, progressive young people of color that say 'Wait a minute, our taxpayer dollars are going to the state of Israel to occupy Palestine? Why not put that back into schools in Chicago,'” said Sarsour in an interview last week hours after being released from jail for blocking a street during a protest aimed at bringing attention to Taylor.
Shortly after, Sarsour appeared at a virtual Muslim Delegates and Allies Assembly event at the Democratic National Convention on Aug. 18. Joe Biden’s campaign spokesperson Andrew Bates put out a statement that read, “Joe Biden has been a strong supporter of Israel and a vehement opponent of anti-Semitism his entire life, and he obviously condemns her views and opposes BDS, as does the Democratic platform. She has no role in the Biden campaign whatsoever.”
Sarsour made no mention of the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement, aimed at financially crippling Israel, during her DNC appearance, though she does openly support the movement. Progressive allies like Jewish Voice for Peace Action (JVP) rushed to her support and asked the campaign for a public apology.
“I am a Palestinian. People need to expect me to hold these views and I am not going to allow there to be a political conversation that takes our positions on this issue and makes them anti-Semitic,” said Sarsour.
“The fact that the Biden campaign fell in line with that history of attacks against her has everything to do with them and the soul searching they need to do and nothing to do with her relentless work for justice for all people,” said Stefanie Fox, executive director for JVP.
JVP describes itself as seeking an end to the Israeli occupation of the West Bank, Gaza Strip, and East Jerusalem. The organization supports BDS.
“Conflating Jewish people with the state of Israel as if we are one in the same is itself anti-Semitic,” Fox added.
But Mark Mellman, who leads the Democratic Majority for Israel (DMFI), which works to maintain support for a strong U.S.-Israel relationship and a progressive policy agenda, thinks the Biden campaign made the right call. He maintains BDS is inherently anti-Semitic. Biden describes DMFI as “a powerful voice standing up for our party's principles.”
“When Linda Sarsour has a rally to protest police brutality, a cause with which we totally identify, she says, no cops or Zionists allowed. That’s the functional equivalent of saying no cops or Jews allowed. About 95% of Jews are supportive of the state of Israel according to many polls that have been done of the Jewish community. So it is functionally the same thing,” said Mellman, who is also a polling expert with The Mellman Group where he serves as president and CEO.
Zionism is defined as a worldwide Jewish movement that resulted in the establishment and development of the state of Israel and that now supports the state of Israel as a Jewish homeland.
Sarsour denies she made the no cops or Zionists comment.
The incident highlights the long-standing question of if there is space at the highest levels of the Democratic Party to fiercely critique Israel without being characterized as anti-Semitic. The criticism of Sarsour mirrors the charges often made against Muslim Congresswomen Rashida Talib (D-MI) and Ilhan Omar (D-MN).
“Unfortunately, I don’t think that space exists yet. Powerful women of color calling out the urgently needed human rights crisis in Palestine/Israel and saying Palestinians deserve human rights and Israel should abide by international law are going to be called out with false accusations of anti-Semitism in this current moment that we are in,” said Fox.
Mellman maintains Sarsour’s rhetoric blurs the lines. Some of the issues that have come under scrutiny include her association with Louis Farrakhan and the Nation of Islam, which has been deemed a hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center. She’s also come under fire for promoting what the American Jewish Committee has described as anti-Semitic dual loyalty tropes. The Anti-Defamation League has accused her of defaming and delegitimizing Zionism.
“There is nothing wrong with being pro-Palestinian. Our organization favors a Palestinian state, a two state solution. She does not favor a Palestinian state. She does not favor a two state solution. Bernie Sanders said himself that oftentimes criticism of Israel crosses the line into anti-Semitism. Linda Sarsour is a prime exemplar of that,” said Mellman.
“I am not going to speak to people’s accusations of me that are rooted in this vilification of who I am,” said Sarsour.
Ritchie Torres, an Afro-Latino openly gay man who won the Democratic primary in New York’s heavily blue 15th Congressional District and is expected to join the 117th Congress next year, made comments at a DMFI event last month that foreshadows the Israel/Palestine debates that will continue to intensify in the party.
“I worry about the normalization of anti-Semitism in progressive politics. I consider BDS the attempt to delegitimize Israel, to be anti-Semitic at its core and any movement that embraces anti-Semitism is destined to rot from within,” said Torres.
“If the message to those who are both progressive and pro-Israel, especially people of Jewish descent, that in order for you to be part of the progressive community, you have to renounce your identity and your history and your ties to your own homeland and you have to be in the closet. That to me is profoundly evil. That is a perversion of progressivism,” he added.
Cori Bush, a Black nurse from St. Louis who pulled off an upset in Missouri's 1st Congressional District when she defeated 10-term incumbent Lacy Clay last month, is also expected to sail to victory in the general election, but unlike Torres, she’s sympathetic to the BDS movement. She tweeted a picture in support of Sarsour that read, “My Democratic opponent used this photo in an attack ad against me to stoke xenophobia…the Democratic establishment must stop using Sarsour as a pawn in a push to stoke division.”
Rep. John Yarmuth (D-KY), who represents Louisville in Congress, was unavailable to comment on Sarsour directly but when asked about this issue last year after Rep. Omar faced backlash for her tweet describing support for the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) as being “all about the Benjamins,” Yarmuth said, “I don’t think there’s any question that the fact that she’s a woman of color, a refugee from Somalia and a Muslim made her a target and she’s going to be subject to a lot different scrutiny particular about the Middle East and Jewish people than others might be.”
Yarmuth, who is White and Jewish, is also critical of Israel and the pro-Israel lobby.
“Sometimes AIPAC asks members of Congress to do things that are a violation of our oath of office because they are asking us to support the government of Israel against our judgment as to what is best for the United States,” he said last year.
“Chairman Yarmuth is an example of how you can be a strong supporter of the Israeli people and also a harsh critic of their current political leaders. In fact, the Chairman believes that it is important for all Jewish people to call out the corrupt Netanyahu government, which is damaging Israel’s position in the world and adding to the volatility in the Middle East,” said Christopher Schuler, Yarmuth’s communications director.
A subsequent statement from the Biden campaign indicates they have worked to smooth things over with prominent Muslim American Democrats who felt slighted by the attack on Sarsour.
"We met to affirm Vice President Biden's unshakeable commitment to working with Arab, Palestinian, and Muslim Americans and to standing up against anti-Muslim prejudice, and to make clear that we regretted any hurt that was caused to these communities. We continue to reject the views that Linda Sarsour has expressed,” said Symone Sanders, senior advisor to Biden, in the statement.
Muslim Americans are a vital segment of the Democratic Party. More than three out of four Muslims (76%) who cast ballots in the 2018 midterms voted for a Democrat, according to the Institute for Social Policy and Understanding.
“When Biden became the presumptive nominee, the campaign made very intentional moves to engage the Muslim American community, embrace it, listen to our concerns and include prominent folks from our community in the campaign,” said Wa’el Alzayat, CEO of Emgage, a group that seeks to empower Muslim Americans through civic engagement.
No one from the Biden campaign was available for comment for this story but campaign staff notes they’ve done nearly 100 events across the country with Muslim Americans in the past six months, most notably Biden’s address to the Million Muslim Votes Summit virtually in July.
Emgage, and the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), the nation’s largest Muslim American civil rights organization, both issued statements in support of Sarsour after the August episode.
“American politicians on both sides of the aisle need to do a better job of listening to the concerns of American Muslims and should they disagree with some of the aspirations of some of the Muslim community, it shouldn’t be handled in such a way,” said Robert McCaw, CAIR’s government affairs department director.
“It’s fair to disagree with Linda on some of the stuff she says but if it is everything that she stands for, if that’s the case, many people would find that problematic,” said Alzayat.
Alzayat says President Donald Trump’s travel ban, a series of executive actions that restricted travel to the United States for citizens of mostly Muslim countries, has been crushing.
“It’s a top priority issue for us. People now are separated from loved ones. We want it repealed and done away with,” said Alzayat.
Biden says he’ll rescind the ban.
According to Alzayat, Muslims are more civically engaged than ever before, and their vote matters.
“As voters, we happen to be located in important areas such as Michigan, Pennsylvania, Florida, and Ohio. These are battleground states. In a county like Wayne County, Michigan, there are according to our organization’s assessment, at least 70,000 registered Muslim voters. In south Florida as well, Miami-Dade and Broward, there are tens of thousands of registered Muslim voters. In the state of Florida, there might be as many as 200,000 registered Muslim voters in Florida. And I don’t know when the last time Florida was decided by 200,000 votes,” said Alzayat.
“Our top issues are education, health care, and our number one priority is supporting civil rights. Foreign policy issues came in fourth. The concerns of the Muslim American community are the concerns of every other American. Can my kids go to a good school? Is my job secure? And do we have health care,” said McCaw, citing the Muslims in America Policy Poll, an online survey of 1,500 people conducted by CAIR and other community organizations.
Sarsour is still organizing in Louisville and will cast her ballot for Biden and mobilize other Muslims to do the same. She views the struggle for justice for Breonna Taylor as parallel to the struggle of Palestinians.
“I believe when Black people are fully free in America that all people will fully be free and that means the Palestinian people. I am a Palestinian that is very determined and committed to Black liberation,” said Sarsour.