Daniel Denvir: Welcome to The Dig, a podcast from Jacobin Magazine. My name is Daniel Denvir and I’m temporarily broadcasting from Santiago de Chile. Two new left-wing Muslim women elected to Congress, Palestinian American Rashid Tlaib and Somali American Ilhan Omar, are resetting the congressional debate over Palestine. In response, they have been met with vociferous and slanderous attacks. On the one hand, this is exciting. We’ve never had people in Congress who not only criticize Israeli brutality but also support the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions movement. On the other hand, the current debate is a sobering reminder of how, amongst American elected officials, overwhelming bipartisan and nearly unconditional support for Israel remains the norm even as Democratic voters moved sharply to the left and sharply in opposition to the occupation.
Here’s Linda Sarsour, a Brooklyn-born Palestinian Muslim American activist and organizer. She’s the co-founder of Empower Change, the first Muslim founded and led online organizing platform, and is a national organizer with the Women’s March.
DD: Linda Sarsour. Welcome back to The Dig.
Linda Sarsour: Thank you for having me.
DD: What exactly have representatives Tlaib and Omar done to so infuriate Republican and Democratic supporters of Israel?
LS: Congresswoman Ilhan Omar and congresswoman Rashida Tlaib––their only crime has been existing and breathing. They are unapologetic Muslim American women. Rashida, as you know, is Palestinian American and very unapologetic about that, and Ilhan Omar is unapologetically pro-Palestinian and pro-Palestine and that’s really what it is. It’s for them being bold and articulate and being able to reach the masses in a way that members of Congress haven’t been able to do on this particular issue before. It is driving them nuts.
DD: There’s this remarkable opening to a recent New York Times article on the controversy that, for me, was revealing of the limits of mainstream American liberals. It reads, “Representatives Rashida Tlaib of Michigan and Ilhan Omar of Minnesota were hailed as symbols of diversity when they were sworn in last month as the first two Muslim women to serve in Congress, Ms. Tlaib in her mother’s hand-embroidered Palestinian thobe, Ms. Omar in tradition-shattering hijab. Four weeks later, their uncompromising views on Israel have made them perhaps the most embattled new members of the Democratic House majority.” It’s like Democrats love them when they were just passive symbols of diversity––sitting there looking Muslim and like women of color. But now that they have substantial views that differ from lockstep support for Israel, oh, now they’re a problem.
LS: Yeah, it’s not that their views are all so different. Their views are in line with the majority of Americans and particularly with a majority of progressives, and the Democratic Party is going to have to come to terms with that. And so for me what Rashida and Ilhan represent once and for all for the Democratic Party is a reckoning. It’s that this is your moment, and so Rashida and Ilhan are not bringing in some outrageous pie in the sky, they just made those things up as they went along. They’re bringing in sentiments of the progressives who put them in office and of the groups that put them in office, groups like Justice Democrats, the groups that are out here, like the Democratic Socialists of America, like the People for Bernie types. This sentiment of ending occupation in Palestine, of supporting Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions, or at least at the minimum, the right for people to engage in Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions, the idea that being a staunch critic of the state of Israel does not equal being anti-Semitic. This is just mainstream now. This is just normal. And watching young Jewish Americans who are going on these Birthright trips and every week we see a new story of young people walking off these trips so they can go explore Occupation and meet Palestinians and really see the real suffering that they unfortunately have never been exposed to because that’s not what Birthright is about, is really eye-opening for everyone and the Democratic Party has to make a choice, like whose side are you on here? Are you on the side of the majority of voters in the progressive community, are you on the side of young people, are you on the side of a large swath of Jewish Americans? I mean you know this Daniel, like in the pro-Palestinian movement, particularly in the United States of America, the people on the front lines oftentimes are Jewish Americans who are like, occupation should not be done in my name. The building of illegal settlements should not be done in my name. And they have been vocal about it for decades. So it’s really interesting just to watch the Democratic Party have to sit here and decide that it is––are Rashida and Ilhan the problem? Or are we the problem and we have to figure out how to move on this issue?
DD: According to a recent Pew poll, the percentage of liberal Democrats who sympathize more with Israel than Palestinians has fallen from 33% to 19% over just three years time, and as you mentioned, this is something that very much involves Jewish Americans, particularly young Jews who are far more attracted to the anti-occupation politics of groups like Jewish Voice for Peace and IfNotNow than they are to AIPAC. Do you think at least some Democratic politicians are beginning to realize that their voters’ attitudes towards the occupation are shifting left and that “progressive, except for Palestine” is no longer workable?
LS: Absolutely. Recently we saw it with the anti-BDS legislation in the Senate. Every single senator who either has announced to run for president or is going to announce that they’re running for president voted against it. And I know that for some of them they don’t––
DD: Though Booker and Harris didn’t vote. Which is something, too.
LS: Well it’s still something, but what ended up happening, Daniel, is that they did not vote during the––there was two votes; there was a procedural vote and then there was the “real” vote that happened. So when the real vote came up, both Booker and Harris actually voted against it.
LS: Now mind you, Booker has been longtime ally and friend of AIPAC; Harris has been to AIPAC and has probably gotten support from AIPAC in the past. And even they knew that in order to run and attract progressive swaths of voters from around the country and different groups of people, they knew that that anti-BDS legislation––if in fact they would have voted for it––would have hurt them in the primary race. And the fact that they are realizing that now tells me that the work that has been happening on the ground in the grassroots, making this issue of Palestine a mainstream issue, is working. And it is driving the very staunch pro-Israel groups crazy and I don’t know if you saw, there was a new group that has come out trying to paint themselves as liberal Democrats.
DD: Democratic Majority for Israel.
LS: Yes, the Democratic Majority for Israel. When I saw that I honestly chuckled, because I said to myself, wow, we must be really doing a good job, if some liberal Democrats think that they have to start a whole new organization to maintain Democratic support for Israel. My issue here is this: we know a lot of people who call themselves all kinds of things. You know, liberal Zionist; there’s a lot of people all across the spectrum. But there are some fundamentals here, Daniel. And this is what Democrats have to understand. There must be an end to occupation. This is an illegal military occupation being paid for by taxpayer dollars. We must be unequivocal when we stand against the murder, the assassinations, the sniping of peaceful protesters in Gaza. We have to be unequivocal when we say we have to break the siege on Gaza which has been called by all human rights organizations, not me, the world’s largest open air prison. I mean, 50% of the people who live in Gaza are under the age of 18. We have to be unequivocal in saying that the Palestinian people still deserve to have aid. I mean these are people who don’t have their own economy in the way that other nations do. And they need to have the support of the United States. We’ve seen what has happened with the cuts in aid to the Palestinian people. So there are just some fundamental things, I think, where people don’t agree on some things and where there’s still some things that are up for debate; for some, it’s whether you support a two state solution, whether you support one state, one binational state. Those are things that come later. But the fundamentals: end the occupation in Palestine. End the illegal settlements. And stop killing innocent protesters and end the siege on Gaza. And I think more Democrats are more willing to say those things and Bernie Sanders is one who has been quite vocal as a Jewish American senator and as someone who is bidding to be the next president of the United States of America, and he’s setting a standard and people are following. I mean, when I watch Dianne Feinstein in California write a letter to her colleagues telling them to vote against the anti-BDS legislation and she herself voting for it, she’s not exactly a progressive. So the fact that Dianne Feinstein voted against the anti-BDS legislation, I was like, okay, so we’re onto something here. There really is a shift in this country and I’m very proud of the work of the activists and organizers and people who’ve been doing this for decades.
DD: And before we move on, let’s talk briefly about that Senate anti-BDS bill. What would it do?
LS: This anti-BDS legislation, basically it wants to empower the states and give protections to states around the country who are engaging in also passing anti-BDS legislation on the state level. So what has happened right now is states that have been passing anti-BDS legislation have been sued immediately by organizations like the ACLU or the Council on American-Islamic Relations, including in a recent one in Texas, where an Arabic-speaking Palestinian speech pathologist in Houston––the only Arabic-speaking speech pathologist in Houston––was asked to renew her contract, and when she went to sign her contract, it asked her to pledge that she never engage in Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions of Israel––
DD: Good God––
LS: And she was like, hell no. Her name is Bahia Amawi and you will see many articles about her. So she, the Council on American-Islamic Relations, and the ACLU and others have been suing states and in fact have been winning in places like Arizona and Tennessee.
DD: On pretty obvious First Amendment grounds, I imagine.
LS: Obvious First Amendment rights. I mean, this is like Constitution 101. And what the federal piece of legislation wants to do, is it wants to give cover to those states to make these lawsuits even harder to win in these states. And it’s absolutely outrageous. So this is to people who are listening in, and obviously a lot of Jacobin supporters and people who listen to The Dig are usually our people, but even if you are not sure where you are on this particular issue, I don’t actually ask anyone nor do I force anyone to be a supporter of the Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions movement. That’s fine if you don’t support it, but you have to support our constitutional rights and the constitutional rights of Americans to engage in Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions, whether that be of Israel or Saudi Arabia or other nations that are engaging in human rights violations. It’s just very commonsense and also basic Constitution 101.
DD: One thing that I don’t get, is why is AIPAC and the Israel lobby pushing this bill now? Weirdly, it seems like the right is doing the left’s work for us by putting BDS in the spotlight and forcing a debate over it.
LS: This is what they call, Daniel, desperation. What you do when you are in a frantic state and you have no idea what to do, so you’re just throwing every tactic that you have on the table as fast as you can, hoping that something sticks. And to your point, what it’s doing is it’s alarming to a lot of Americans because they’re like, this is not the priority right now. We have babies at the border who are being separated from their parents. We just read another article saying that the government has and continues to have no intention of bringing these families together. We have the DACA kids who are out here without their DACA protection, still in court. We have outrageous issues of mass deportations in this country. We have a president who is engaging in all kinds of illegal behavior. And we’re waiting for something to stick somewhere on somebody. And hearing our complicit support in the war in Yemen and watching these videos every day of these kids that are literally dying of malnutrition and cholera. I mean, the videos on healthcare and people not having access to healthcare. I can sit here for days talking about the outrageousness. The bans on––even if you’re anti-war––but the bans on trans in the military tells you all you need to know about this administration, of what they’re capable of doing or what they can do to people that don’t align with evangelical Christian values and beliefs. So there’s a lot of outrageous things that are out here. And here we are focusing on silencing people’s right to free speech. I’ve spoken to people who are saying, well I support the state of Israel but I don’t support the silencing of free speech in America. And that’s why I need people to do it at the basic minimum. So these people are really doing, to your point, doing our job for us, because when people come to talk to me about it, I’m like, what’s the problem? And another question that gets asked to me, Daniel, all the time is, okay, there’s a lot of countries that engage in human rights violations, why is there this focus, this obsession with the state of Israel? And what I say to people all the time is that it’s not that there is an obsession with the state of Israel. Obviously Saudi Arabia is one of the bigger purveyors of violating human rights of people of their nation, including those that are not nationals of Saudi Arabia, maybe workers and others that reside in Saudi. But we all know that––violation of the rights of women in Saudi Arabia. That’s all very clear. But what we’re doing is we’re selling arms deals to Saudi Arabia, which we need to stop immediately, and making money off of Saudi Arabia. And when people bring up examples like North Korea, I say to people, look, North Korea is absolutely a violator of the human rights of the North Korean people. But guess what? It’s not my taxpayer dollars that pay for their oppression. But in Israel, the overwhelming majority of aid that goes to military aid goes to Israel and Egypt. So for me, as a person who fights for Medicare for All, and wants my fellow Americans to have access to healthcare, and I want people to have a debt free college and free college tuition and all these things that I know we can have as a country, here is a nation that’s taking our taxpayer dollars and using it to illegally occupy a people and engage in human rights violations and, in fact, pass nation state laws that create apartheid. And there is clear apartheid. There is clear superiority for some people in Israel over others and that’s not something that I made up on my own. This is enshrined in the nation state laws of Israel. So that’s why people focus on Israel as someone who takes our taxpayer dollars and we should be consistent Americans and believe in the human rights of all people, and when our taxpayer dollars are not being used in an appropriate matter or used to violate the human rights of other people, we should be able to say hey, hold on a second. This is not right. And we should be able to speak up about it. And that’s all we’re doing.
DD: And this argument that critics of Israel are unfairly singling out or obsessively focused on Israel is off base, if not entirely in many cases, disingenuous. Because it is precisely the same groups and people in the United States who have been critical of Israel who have been at the lead of criticizing regimes like Saudi Arabia’s.
LS: Absolutely. I’ve been one of them and they’ve pulled out some out of context tweets, and I remember one time a few years ago, if you remember, Daniel, in New York, we were working on a paid sick leave campaign and trying to get New York state to pass paid sick leave legislation. And I had one time made a very facetious, sarcastic tweet where I said that even in Saudi Arabia, they have paid maternity leave. I had a daughter in 2004. I worked for a major New York City hospital at the time in 2004. I had a daughter, I’m at the time very lower middle class, I was working check to check because that’s just how it is in New York with rent and other expenses. She was my third child, and I had to go on disability because my hospital––an actual hospital––didn’t have maternity leave policies. So I got really passionate about being part of the New York State paid sick leave campaign. And so one time I made a facetious tweet where I said “even Saudi Arabia.” What I really meant to say was, even Saudi Arabia, which is a country that violates the rights of women on a consistent basis and does a lot of other human rights violations against workers and other poor people in Saudi Arabia––that even they have maternity leave. Right. And so for me, recently, because of my staunch opposition to the Saudi-led war in Yemen and calling out the complicity of the United States and starting to zone in on what’s happening, I don’t know if you saw, but Ilhan Omar, Rashida, and myself were attacked by Saudi-owned media. So the Saudis were going after me, Ilhan, and Rashida, saying all kinds of outrageous things about us because of our vocal opposition to what Saudi Arabia is doing, but in particular what they’re doing in Yemen. So people have to really be talking about what’s happening in context. Like right now, I don’t know if you know, there’s a couple of performers, like Mariah Carey and a couple of others, who are going to perform in Saudi Arabia. The Yemenis and their supporters are like, hey Mariah Carey, don’t go perform in Saudi Arabia––which is what we do to entertainers we want to go perform in Israel, it’s very similar. Maybe people are not calling it BDS Saudi Arabia, but isn’t in fact calling on people to boycott going to Saudi Arabia, it’s the same thing.
DD: There was the same demand in the anti-Apartheid movement against the South African government.
LS: Exactly. We’re not doing anything new.
DD: One thing that’s really interesting about this moment of all the politics around Israel and Palestine being so in flux in the U.S. is that the group that we mentioned earlier, Democratic Majority for Israel, its president, Mark Mellman, actually opposes the anti-BDS bill, and I imagine that it is because he correctly believes that it will drive this process of partisan polarization on the issue that Democratic pro-Israel types fear, because ultimately if Israel-Palestine becomes a partisan issue, that’s good for Palestinian liberation and bad for the occupation. The pro-Israel establishment, Netanyahu, they’ve decided that Christian Zionists, rather than American Jews, are their real base of support in the U.S., and this is all part of this larger process of polarization where bipartisan consensus is fracturing. And that’s often a good thing. And Netanyahu has thrown himself fully behind Trump and Republicans and that no doubt serves his short term interests, but some Zionists and hardcore Israel advocates like Mellman I think are a bit smarter than Bibi, and they understand that the Republican Party is not the future governing party in the United States.
LS: Oh, absolutely. I saw that in the article and it’s very strategic on their part. And to just to give them a little bit of credit, the fact that they even believe that they have to exist was really what made me chuckle, because they understood that they were losing ground on their arguments and that the progressive movement in particular has really taken on this issue. I read an article recently in The Washington Post that was an analysis, and the woman was asking a question and saying how did the feminist movement include anywhere from environmentalism to Palestinian rights? And that was my indication that people are starting to realize that this new wave of organizers and activists at this moment, particularly those who are leading in the women’s rights movement, are actually not just preaching intersectionality, but in fact implementing it in the larger movements we’re a part of. And in order for us to say we stand up for the human rights of all people, we stand up for the dignity of all people, and looking at ourselves as Americans as part of a larger global community is something that Americans are not really used to doing. There have been factions of organizing and movements that have seen themselves as globalist and seen themselves as part of a larger kind of pan-African liberation movement and all other types of movements that include other–– if we’re free here in the States, if we’re not free here then people in other parts of the world are free. And that has been something that we have seen over the course of the past decades. But as a larger feminist movement in America, a women’s rights movement in the way that we’re trying to do it now, Palestinian rights are at the table because they’re part of a larger progressive agenda––environmentalism, criminal justice reform, immigrant rights. We’re not just the women’s movement that’s talking about access to reproductive rights and also equal pay, which has kind of been what traditional white feminism has really been about, it’s about equity, particularly equity to white men.
DD: Especially at the top.
LS: Especially at the top. For example, recently I saw this image of the head of the Department of Homeland Security, the head of the CIA, and the head of the Department of Defense are all women. And I was like that’s not what I’m fighting for. I’m not fighting for women to be at the top of the most oppressive government agencies. That’s not what I’m fighting for.
DD: Kate Aronoff tweeted, “what wave of feminism is this?”
LS: I was doing that whole, I’m not with them, they are not with me. So it’s been interesting to see how polarizing it’s been for people to hear Palestinian rights come up and you’ve known this, Daniel, from our controversy at the Women’s March, right.
LS: At the Women’s March, we’ve gotten into a lot of controversy. A lot of it was around this controversy about Tamika Mallory going to an event where Minister Farrakhan spoke. What people haven’t really realized, Daniel, and we’ve been very clear about unequivocally rejecting anti-Semitism and homophobia and transphobia and all forms of racism, and we’ve done it multiple times, we’ve been very unequivocal and clear that we do not agree with the statements of Minister Farrakhan, they do not align with our unity principles at the Women’s March, in fact Minister Farrakhan is not a member of the progressive left and he will tell you that himself. We do not answer for the Minister Farrakhan. We’ve been very clear about all of that. But what’s interesting is people don’t know, and you may know because you’re part of this kind of work and the circle, is that we were getting attacked way before we ever got into the situation. And in particular I was the focus of the attacks because of my support for Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions, and my specific positions on Israel-Palestine to the point where back in May of 2017, which is the same year as the Women’s March, every alt-right celebrity in America literally came out to do a rally against me in front of the CUNY administrative buildings, calling on CUNY to disinvite me from being a commencement speaker at a graduation for the CUNY Graduate School. And what was very interesting about that is that when I sent somebody to infiltrate the protest to get footage to see who the people were, like who were these people that were coming out to this particular rally?
DD: Who felt so passionately about you.
LS: Yeah. And mind you, these are proponents of free speech and ironically calling on me to be cancelled, which is very ironic and was very funny. But, for example, Aaron––remember the attorney, who stopped the two Spanish-speaking women in the restaurant and there was this whole big thing in New York––Schlossberg.
DD: Oh yeah.
LS: He was one of the organizers and he was there, I have him on videotape. You had former Assemblyman Dov Hikind, a very staunch right-wing Zionist in New York. You had Pamela Geller. You had Milo Yiannopoulos. You had Richard Spencer, you had Gavin McInnes. Basically, they had the celebrities of the alt-right. And some members of the audience, a very small number of men who were wearing yarmulkes, that were the color red––I have them on video––that said Jews for Trump.
DD: A group of very normal people.
LS: It was a very interesting group of people. But my point is, when I say to people in the pro-Israel movement, particularly those who say that they’re pro-Israel but they also want to end occupation, or they’re pro-Israel and want to see Palestinian human rights, your voices have to be louder than these voices. And these people are saying that they love Israel, they’re supporters of Israel, but they’re also oftentimes white nationalist and white supremacist and it’s very confusing to progressives and particularly young progressives. They’re like, I don’t understand how you could be against white nationalism in America and white supremacy in America and want equality and justice in America and you’re fighting the fight here against the Trump administration, but then you support a government like Israel’s, which is engaging in nation state laws that also are creating a hierarchy of people based on faith. And in fact have similar, separate bus lines for people based on ethnicity and religion, and the way in which there are laws that talk about people that can’t get married because of who they are––
DD: An explicitly racialized caste system.
LS: Absolutely. And so my question to people, and I think it’s important for them to think about what the answers are going to be, is that I understand there’s some sort of historical connection to the state of Israel that came after the Holocaust and safe homeland for Jews, and there’s a lot of that conversation that happens, but at the same time we have to be very unequivocal in saying this is not the Israel people imagined it to be, that we are going to create safety and security for one people at the expense of another people. And that is just not right any which way you try to explain it. And I think that’s the dilemma that people are getting into that the Trump administration has shined a light, in their partnership with the Netanyahu administration, and it’s putting our American Jewish family in a conundrum, and they really have to decide in the moment who they are, what they want to be, and also what was Israel supposed to be and what is it not? Because it’s not what they told us it was supposed to be. And for me, what’s been also happening, Daniel, you probably watched this video on a PBS show where Tamika Mallory was on the show. And she was supposed to be going to talk about Women’s March and the women’s agenda. And you know what happens, we go into these interviews and then people try to play a gotcha game with us. And the gotcha game is out of nowhere; the lady comes out of nowhere and says, does Israel have a right to exist? And here is a Black woman that comes out of traditional Black organizing, she’s part of the Women’s March, she’s not an expert on the region, she’s not an expert on Israel-Palestine. She knows what’s happening there to Palestinians is wrong, which is majority of people, that’s just the basics. And so the other thing that I’ve been seeing is that those old gotcha moments are not working, and people are a lot more sophisticated and also people are a lot bolder. Like people like Marc Lamont Hill, who are saying look, I believe in a binational state. Israelis have a right to exist, Palestinians have a right to exist. They all have should have access to the basic needs that every human being should have access to, they should have one man, one woman, one vote. We should all be able to have the same employment based on our qualifications, not based on our race or ethnicity or religion. And I think the majority of people in America believe that. That if Israel is to be a democratic state, that everybody deserves to feel like they are part and can participate fully in a democratic society. So that’s another place where the very staunch pro-Israel movement is struggling right now, not just with Palestinians and others who are not Palestinian who are part of the Palestinian rights movement, but really amongst American Jews who are like, wait a minute, how are we asking for equal rights under the law in America, but then we’re not supporting that in a place like Palestine-Israel?
DD: Which is what’s so misleading about the question, does Israel have a right to exist? Because if you are a supporter of a secular binational state, as you are and as I am, and as many on the pro-Palestinian left are, which is a very basic, humane, progressive position that everyone be able to share one country in a non-ethnostate, that’s a very basic progressive baseline. But yes, it does presume that Israel as a Jewish state will no longer exist. But yes, Israelis have a right to exist and yes, Palestinians have a right to exist. That’s a different thing.
LS: Absolutely, and I think that to conflate or to try to explain it, that’s not a position that progressives should hold because for some reason it means the destruction of Israel or Israeli people is misleading and it’s false. And that is not what anybody believes. I, as a person with a lineage to Palestinian people who are indigenous to the land, and there are some Jews who were indigenous to that land as well, Daniel. My grandmother was born in 1927 and was 21 years old when the state of Israel was created. And guess what? She said, Linda we lived with the Jews. We had Jews who were our neighbors. We lived peacefully with them, we would go to the market and they would be in the market with us selling whatever they grew in their gardens. She’s like, we always had a society where we lived together, where we respected each other and respected each other’s opportunity to exist in this land together. And at the time, I’m not clear if those Jews who lived at the time considered themselves to be Palestinian Jews and they may have, but the point is there has always been coexistence in Palestine. This is not a new thing that we’re asking for.
DD: Well, the Arab-Israeli conflict is an export of European anti-Semitism via European colonialism to the Middle East.
LS: Mhm. And in fact even on a religious perspective, there is so much that we share as Muslims with Jews, in fact––we’re the closest, in fact, when it comes to the way in which we practice our faith. So my grandmother, who is a woman who has never had formal education, has told me this previously. She said, Linda, we always lived in peace with the Jews. We know it’s possible because we’ve done it before. We’ve been here before we have been able to live. And as someone, Daniel, who in the United States I am at the forefront of every fight in America, I do not like to see injustice. It keeps me up at night and I am a person who has decided to want to do something about it. Why would I be fighting for justice and the dignity and the sanctity of life in America but not fight for the dignity and sanctity of life in another part of the world like an Israel-Palestine. I don’t want to see Jews killed. I don’t want to see people who are descendants of the Holocaust have to go through another moment in time or history where there is historical trauma, which is why in America I step up every time something happens to Jews. Because I’m not a person that’s just going to tweet “Never Again” and just think that my little social media tweet is going to somehow stop anti-semitism from escalating to a point where something horrible is going to happen. We have to have action. We have to do tangible things. So that’s why for me, Daniel, it’s been very disheartening and it really actually hurts my heart and it hurts the hearts of many people in the progressive movement, particularly Palestinians who are always being called anti-semitic, like we see being labeled on people like Rashida and Ilhan, because we are anything but that. We are people who stand up for the rights of all people. I am a person that has proved over and over again that I’m not only ready to put my words out there, I’m ready to put my life on the line. And I will be the first person to protect Jews in America if God forbid we were ever going to be in a situation where something bad was going to happen, because I’m not going to let that happen on my watch and I don’t want that to happen on my watch in a place like Israel-Palestine either. And Daniel, I’ve been to Palestine. I just came from Palestine last summer. There is nobody in Palestine that I know that I’ve spoken to that doesn’t say we just want to have peace. We just want to be able to go to school. We just want to be able to work. We just want to be able to live with dignity here. There has never been a person that I’ve come across in Palestine that has said to me, Linda, the only way for Palestinians to live in peace is to destroy the state of Israel. It never happened. No one has ever said that, because that’s not what the Palestinian people want. They just want basic human rights, basic dignity, and in fact, the other thing that is never told, Daniel, is that inside of Israel, the amount of human rights activists who are Jewish and Israeli who are standing up boldly and loudly, saying end the occupation, end the illegal settlements in Palestine, is actually a lot bigger than people think because the media does not always want to portray the the actual pro-Palestine movement within Israel because it doesn’t help the narrative. And what I want people to know is that there are many organizations, many of which are led by Israeli Jews––
DD: Like B’Tselem.
LS: Like B’Tselem, like groups that are like the refuseniks, and people that have decided not to serve in the Israeli military because they do not want to engage in in violation of human rights or don’t believe in the occupation. There are many organizations that bring Palestinians and Israelis together to work on peace projects, and so there is a lot of work that’s happened. There has been mass mobilization against the Netanyahu government and the way in which they have engaged in occupation of the Palestinian people. There have been mass protests against the nation state laws by all people across the spectrum in Israel. And I want people to know that exists, and this is not just an outside force telling Israel, stop violating the rights of Palestinians, but in fact there is a large movement within Israel asking the Israeli government to stop violating the rights of Palestinian people.
DD: But that said, the politics in Israel have gotten pretty bad in recent years. And I see some parallels between what’s happening in the US with the rise of Trump and in Israel with the rise of Netanyahu, and the Israeli right as a whole. You know there’s this liberal myth in the US that Trump, with his Muslim ban, child separations, calling Mexican rapists, is this sharp break, out of the blue, from American history. It’s contrary to “who we are as a country.” And you see the same in Israel with Netanyahu in the citizenship law, which officially designates Arab Israelis as second-class citizens. In both cases, these right-wing politics are really the direct outcome of establishment politics as normal. They aren’t so much betrayals of what either the US or Israel really are, but rather these extreme and inevitable expressions of what those countries’ politics have looked like for a very long time.
LS: What I want people to realize also is that while we’re having a conversation on Israel in the US and our relationships in Palestine, but the rise of the right is across the West and even in South America. I mean, when we saw the election in Brazil, people have to understand that this is becoming a worldwide phenomenon and crisis, and we have to really be consistent across the board––that Netanyahu is not right, Bolsanaro is not right, Trump is not right. We’re watching the rise of the right in places like Germany and other parts of Europe and we have to be able to stand across the board and say “absolutely not” and unite across country. This is why it’s important for us to understand as Americans that we cannot be American exceptionalists. We cannot just think that we live in this bubble called the United States of America and that things that happen outside of America do not impact us as a nation, particularly as a world power, that we have to pay attention to what’s happening. When Brexit was happening, people were like, well what does that have to do with me? When we watch the US relationship with Iran or with Turkey, people have to understand that these relationships and hopefully, we are people who are going to support diplomatic relationships because we have to also figure out how to pull ourselves away from this interventionist, let’s just get into wars everywhere we see some sort of crisis happening, and I think for me, people haven’t realized in America that what happened in Brazil, what’s happening in Europe, what’s happening in the rise of the right in Israel is all connected. These are not separate incidents. And if we don’t realize that now, something really bad is going to happen somewhere to a group of people and it’s going to happen on our watch and we’re going to say that we were aware of it but we were not prepared to do something because we were still having these petty political debates about partisanship and about who’s on what side. I just want people not to be on the side of white nationalism and I don’t want people to be on the side of extremist groups and people who want to create racialized caste systems and put some people over others. That’s what I want everybody to be against, and I think it’s something that everybody could agree on.
DD: Well yeah, I mean I think it’s clearly an international issue. Look at Netanyahu cozying up to Viktor Orbán in Hungary, who is a brazen anti-Semite. But what they share is something more important, which is right-wing racism. The fact that Orbán is stoking anti-Semitism in Hungary doesn’t seem to bother Netanyahu.
LS: And those are the things that should be raising red flags for people.
DD: You think.
LS: Right now, when we’re watching, for example, Congressman Lee Zeldin, who’s going after Ilhan Omar on Twitter, Lee Zeldin needs to go to a town hall with his constituencies in upstate New York. Leave a Muslim woman in a hijab who has… number one, she also has apologized for some tweet that she did in 2012, and she has a lot of staunch support from Jewish allies in Minnesota, she’s been great on policies and where she has stood on issues, and here you have a right-wing, Zionist member of Congress who’s engaging in harassment of a Muslim woman. I mean, our Jewish American family needs to say to him, this is not correct. This is not right. We have to hold everybody accountable, not just calling out people who may be engaging in anti-Semitism or anti-Semitic tropes but also those who are attacking and harassing women and women of color who may be from those camps. And so the thing that’s happening right now is there’s a lot of, anyone who supports Palestine or supports BDS is anti-Semitic, and there’s a lot of focus on “anti-Semitism in the left,” versus the powerful, influential anti-Semitism that is in the right. I saw somebody post something, Daniel, that I thought was really important and I thought was really profound. They said that the difference between anti-Semitism in the left and in the right is that in the left, when we have anti-Semitism it weakens us and it weakens our movements. But in fact in the right, it actually strengthens them. And I’m not going to lie to you, the left is not exclusive when it comes to issues of Islamophobia and anti-Semitism and transphobia. These are conversations that have to be held often in the left. And it’s not across the left. It is particular individuals sometimes, maybe a group or two. Sometimes people have to get called in, because sometimes somebody may say something that they may not in fact realize could be seen as anti-Semitic or maybe an anti-Semitic trope. It’s sometimes, it’s really a lack of information or just misguidance.
DD: But what you’re saying is that this is contrary to our values on the left, where on the right––
DD:––when this happens, this bolsters and reaffirms their values.
LS: Absolutely. And in our movements, on the left, the Jewish community needs the left and the left needs the Jewish community. So there is no, “we can do this without our Jewish American family.” And I think what people are starting to realize now, and I think the question that lingers for a lot of Jewish Americans is, can you come and organize in a progressive movement that is a staunch critic of the state of Israel? And that’s really a dilemma for some people. And I tell people all the time, it’s not about coming to the movement and changing views of people who support Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions. It’s about finding common places that we can work together on issues of immigrant rights, on the issues of Black Lives Matter, criminal justice reform. And there may be a particular issue, Daniel, that we’re never going to agree on. And what I say to people all the time, and I say to this Democratic Majority for Israel, is that the progressive left has to understand this very important point: unity is not uniformity. I am in a movement and you are in a movement, Daniel, where we don’t agree with everybody. We have prison abolitionists, then people who want to do reform of the prisons. It doesn’t make anyone more or less than anybody else.
DD: As long as we’re rowing in the right direction together, or the left direction as it were.
LS: Exactly. As long as we’re all rowing the right direction, some of us might want to get somewhere a little faster than others. But as long as we are all rooted in the same principles and values, we have to find ways to work together. So what I say to people is, don’t come to the table with any preconditions. And I say this to people all the time. When I go as a Palestinian American, as a light skinned Arab-American, Daniel, I do not go to tables that work on criminal justice reform and anti-police brutality and say to people, hey before I organize with you, before I share with you my resources and talents and skills, raise your hand if you believe in a free Palestine. That’s not how the movement works. You have to go build relationships. You have to put your skills up the table, you organize, you meet people. People start asking you, what’s your story, why are you here. You tell them who you are, where you come from. And then people start learning about who you are. They learn about what you care about, they start learning about and wanting to absorb information from you and potentially you’re able to win them to your side.
DD: Because if politics was all about starting with everyone starting out on the same page together, we wouldn’t have to do politics.
LS: Exactly. And that’s the thing that’s crazy. And the other thing that I always say to people, and I think one of the things that people are realizing right now in the progressive movement, particularly new progressive and new activists, is bullying doesn’t work, Daniel. If you have an argument to make about an issue, win me to that. Win me to your cause. And the way you’re going to win me to the cause is by appealing to my morals, my principles, and my convictions. And bringing me to that higher moral ground. If the way in which you’re going to try to win people to your cause is by silencing and stomping on and vilifying and dehumanizing your opposition, that’s not going to win people to your cause. People don’t respond well to bullying and that’s what’s been happening from the staunch pro-Israel side, is that they’ve been engaging in bullying tactics instead of trying to win people. If you want people to support the state of Israel, you go about and do that. If you have the arguments for it, if you have the talking points for it, you do what you gotta do. Go over there and try to bring as many people to your camp as possible. But if the only tactic you have is to silence pro-Palestinian voices and to dehumanize them, to threaten them, to try to get them fired from their jobs, to go after college kids on college campuses, to defame people in the media, it’s just not going to work. And it’s not working in the way that it worked 10 years ago, and that’s something that I think they’re realizing as well. And I’m proud of some elements of the progressive movement who have become a lot more vocal, including people like Dr. Michelle Alexander. I mean that was a big moment––
DD: That op-ed was powerful. On the front of the Sunday Review.
LS: And you know when you have a woman like a scholar, a world-renowned author and activist and a Black woman who says, look I’ve been silent too long. And actually admitted and recognized that one of the reasons why she felt like she couldn’t have spoken up earlier is in fact because of the ramifications of what happens to people when they become pro––when they are publicly or visibly pro Palestine––was really the sentiment that is shared across many people who have been afraid to speak up. I mean, the rescinding of the award to Angela Davis in Birmingham, Alabama, and obviously now they reinstated the award, because the progressive movement was like, no more. No more. And the reason why Angela Davis got her award rescinded was because she’s pro Boycott Divestment Sanction, and has been very clear about her support for the Palestinian people and ending the occupation and a binational state. And so this is not working anymore, Daniel. And I think I’m very proud to say that the progressive movement is building a really strong backbone that they hadn’t necessarily had in the same way maybe even five years ago.
DD: Though we still have a long way to go. Look what happened to Marc Lamont Hill.
LS: Oh, absolutely. I mean absolutely. I think we do have a long way to go but I think even the type of conversations that the Marc Lamont Hill moment created was in of itself important. I always tell people look at the blessings of the dark moments, so when the Marc Lamont Hill happened, the amount of op-eds and people who came out in his defense, and the fact that he was able to maintain his position at Temple––obviously he was tenured––was important. And it really caused more people––like you have no idea how many people over the course of the last few weeks have reached out to me directly, saying to me, Linda, you’ve been right all along. You were absolutely right. Like I’d never even realized this and look what happened, why is this happening to Marc Lamont Hill, and then watching what’s been happening to Tamika Mallory as a Black woman, and then you watched what happened to Angela Davis, and then also the staunch opposition to Michelle Alexander. She was one of the untouchables; nobody touches Michelle Alexander. And a lot of the more liberal organizations, or at least the ones that are “liberal,” started basically criticizing Michelle Alexander. Which really has awoken in lot of our Black allies to say, wait a minute, something’s not right here and I want to read into this more, I want to understand this more, and if Michelle and Angela and Marc Lamont Hill, and Tamika and some other Black folks are on this issue, we really have to understand what’s going on here. And to be clear, there’s been a long legacy of Black solidarity with Palestine. In fact, Mama Ruby Sales, who was a civil rights icon, shared with me a statement written by SNCC in 1967, during the Arab-Israeli War, which almost destroyed their organization literally to smithereens, because of their support for the Palestinian people during their Arab-Israeli war. So we’re talking 55, more than 55 years ago. So Michelle Alexander and Tamika and Marc Lamont Hill are just part of a long legacy of Black allies and Black solidarity with the Palestinian people. And you’re going to see a lot more of that coming up soon.
DD: Let’s talk about some of the specific attacks on Tlaib and Omar. When the Senate took up the anti-BDS bill recently, Tlaib tweeted, “they forgot what country they represent.” And in response, Marco Rubio, the lead sponsor of the bill, accused her of anti-Semitic bigotry. He wrote, “this dual loyalty canard is a typical anti-Semitic line.” Democratic Representative Ted Deutch said that this was “classic anti-Semitism.” That all, of course, was absurd, because neither Rubio nor the other author of the bill, Joe Manchin, is Jewish.
LS: Exactly. My thing Daniel is like, when you feel like something is anti-Semitic or something is offensive, people should speak up about it. We’re not telling people not to speak up. But when you’re going to make an argument that you’re offended by something and call it anti-Semitic, it has to be in fact anti-Semitic. So how could how could two people who are not Jewish, who are not Israeli citizens, how can we be talking about dual loyalty when they are not in fact Jews or Israelis? It doesn’t even make any sense. So that’s not the argument. That argument is used very often. It’s been used against me before, and I think what Rashida was really trying to say is that when you are a member of the US Senate, you are representing constituencies and you are representing the American people. So when you are supporting an anti-BDS legislation which is anti the Constitution of the United States of America, which you swore to uphold as a member of the US Senate, then Rashida has every right to question, who are you for? Who do you stand for? Who do you represent? And again, they are not Jews to claim that. Now, if someone who is Jewish said that I still don’t think that was the intent of Rashida anyway. But then that would have been a different conversation to have.
DD: And what’s more, it is a fact that US politicians’ support for Israel is in no way aligned with the real interests of the American people. The only thing I would quibble with with Tlaib’s tweet is that the actions of the Israeli government aren’t in the real interests of the Israeli people either. Peace and justice for everyone is in everyone’s interests.
LS: Absolutely. And that’s what Rashida––that’s been her main point. She’s been saying this over and over and over again. She wants to see peace in the Middle East. I mean, her grandmother still lives there. The thing about it, Daniel, is our families still live there in the West Bank. And my family still lives out there. I was just with them this past summer. These are people who sometimes have water, sometimes they don’t. I mean, when I opened the shower in my grandmother’s house, if you just watch how the water comes down, it’s like literally dribble dribble. You can barely take a normal shower when you’re there. When we hear about sometimes the electricity goes off in some of the refugee camps; I live in a village called Al Bida there, or my family lives in a village called Al Bida There’s a refugee camp literally in our backyard. And so what people have to understand is that these people just want to live in basic decency, basic security, just have basic dignity and be able to go to work, be able to take a shower, let their kids go to school continuously, not two weeks go to school and then three weeks you can’t go to school. And Rashida knows that and she has family members that she talks to often. They actually did a watch party for her when she was doing the swearing in ceremony. And Rashida is known, well-known, and the thing that happens here, Daniel, is they take us out of context of who we are. Rashida has been an activist for at least the past 17 years. She’s a woman that has jumped fences so she can get samples from local power plants to show that people in her community were being poisoned. This is a woman who stood up during Trump coming to Detroit and literally got dragged out by seven security guards, calling Trump a liar and all other kinds of things that he––
DD: I interviewed her like a decade ago in southwest Detroit, when she was a state legislator, and had the same no nonsense, ass-kicking, left-wing community organizing thing going on.
LS: Yeah, she has literally been the same person. And when you go to her district, Daniel, what a lot of people don’t know about Rashida is that, obviously everyone knows she’s Palestinian American, but do people know that she won in a district that’s 70% Black? That’s the demographic of the district that she won in. So she’s not a Palestinian Muslim woman who got her seat because of the Palestinians and the Muslims. She won a seat with a diverse electorate that has seen her dedicated work, particularly on environmental issues. So no one ever connects the dots that there could be a Palestinian Muslim American woman who just happens to be Palestinian, cares about Palestine-Israel, but her number one top priority issue is the environment. That’s really what she cares about.
DD: And environmental justice.
LS: Environmental justice and immigrant rights. Those been her two main issues for the last 17 years that I’ve known her. Right, so that’s who she is. Same thing with Ilhan. If you look at Ilhan’s record both as an activist and also as someone in the state legislature, it is very clear who they are. They are pro-women, pro-LGBTQ, pro-immigrant. They are pro-unions. They are progressive in every sense of the word “progressive.” But what the media is trying to do to them, what other members of Congress who don’t agree with them, particularly on Palestine-Israel, is they’re trying to do what they do to us all the time. They want us to be in a box, so they don’t want us to be these intersectional whole human beings. She’s Palestinian. The only thing that we want to talk about when it comes to Rashida is Palestine and what her views are on Palestine. She in fact––just because we’re Palestinians, Daniel, doesn’t mean that we’re the most sophisticated when it comes to the political analysis of Palestine. Just because someone is of a particular nationality doesn’t make you an expert on Sudan, or if you’re Somali, on the state of affairs in the country.
DD: I could point to some white Americans who are not precisely experts on American politics.
LS: Exactly. And so that’s the other thing that they’re trying to do to them. They’re putting them in these boxes and taking them away from what they’re really experts in and what they are the most sophisticated on, on issues that they’ve been working on when they were in the state legislature, like you said, environmental justice and immigrant rights is really what she’s very passionate about. But of course she’s passionate about Palestine. And Ilhan’s attacks have escalated because now Ilhan happens to be on the Foreign Relations Committee. And when she went on the Foreign Relations Committee, believe it or not, I really didn’t see Israel getting worried per se, but Saudi Arabia was probably like, oh no, here we go. Here we go. Ilhan Omar… because she said it, clearly. She said we got to stop arms deal sales to Saudi Arabia. So for me, it’s coming to terms with two women who are absolutely the most committed women you’ve ever met in your life. I know them both very personally and they get really hurt by these false accusations of anti-Semitism, which, fortunately, Daniel, haven’t really stuck for them, because I think people are really starting to see through the smoke screens and they see them for who they are. And these are women who are passionate and want to do the right thing and I think also, let’s remember they’ve only been there for a month for God sakes. Give the ladies a chance to breathe and a chance to actually vote on some things till we start saying whether they’re good, whether they’re bad, whether they’re good politicians or not good politicians. But I will say something about them. I won’t say if they’re good politicians or not but they are absolutely good, whole, wonderful women and we are very lucky to have them in Congress.
DD: Turning to another first-year member of the House who has gotten more attention than anyone else. Ocasio-Cortez last year frustrated many when during an interview she seemed unable to clarify her position on the occupation. How did that incident play out with her many supporters, who are also strong supporters of Palestine, including you?
LS: I think the other thing we have to also realize, Daniel, is that we in the progressive left have this issue sometimes where we do a lot of call out culture and not a lot of calling in. And I don’t like to engage in call out culture. I like to call people in and oftentimes a lot of the most transformative conversations happen privately. A lot of her supporters called her in and I think at that moment we have to remember, you know, she’s 28 years old at the time. She’s not exactly an expert on Palestine-Israel or any Middle Eastern politics. Let’s just be clear, that’s just the facts, right. She knows the fundamentals, that there’s human rights violations that are happening there. She was very clear in a tweet about what was happening during the Great Return March and the massacres happening against protesters, and she similarly for me was in the same boat as Tamika Mallory, in the sense that a lot of great passion and commitment and conviction, but not a lot of details and information. Because that’s just not their issue. So for me, my role is to really have those conversations with her and have other pro-Palestine, Palestinian activists and organizers, including members of Justice Democrats and the Democratic Socialists of America, and people just having conversations, people sending her articles to read, different kind of takes from different groups that we deem to be fair and just on this issue. And so for me it’s all about education, and I think the frustration comes because we expect so much from these women. And that’s another thing that we have to be really careful about, Daniel, is that we have such a minimal number of progressives that went into Congress and we are really sitting back with very high, high, high expectations.
DD: For a very small number of people.
LS: For a very small number of people. And even though we’re like, yeah we got all these progressives in there, but when you look at 137 members of Congress and actually counting who the true progressives are, we’re still in a very, very small minority. And so what I say to people all the time is when you see some of these women in particular who may sometimes say things maybe not in the way that you would say them or where you feel uncomfortable with something that they said, I highly recommend that you drop them an email. And I believe wholeheartedly that Ilhan, Rashida, and Alex’s campaign are reading these emails, and in fact, they are responding to thoughtful people and people who are really seeking answers or seeking clarifications. And so what I also say to people is let’s wait for people to vote, and see how people are going to legislate their work. I believe in my heart that Alex knows that there’s an occupation in Palestine. I believe in my heart that Alex believes that there are human rights violations that are happening to the Palestinian people. I believe that she’s against illegal settlements in Palestine. And I also believe that she will uphold the rights of all Americans to engage in BDS. I don’t know if she’s a supporter of BDS, but I do know that she will be someone that will never legislate against the constitutional rights of Americans. So I say to people, let’s lower our expectations a little bit. Not too much, because I don’t want to be too low in my expectations, but I think when we put our expectations so high in these very few number of women, we’re gonna be disappointed and we’re gonna be disappointed a lot. And I don’t like to be disappointed, but I think we should be calling people and emailing and calling people when we feel like they’ve said something that makes us uncomfortable. Versus the harassing people on Twitter and calling people sellouts before you’ve gotten all the information. Because the other thing that I think, Daniel, is they’re already being harassed. I’m sure you watch the timelines of Ilhan, Rashida, and Alex. I mean they are absolutely––
DD: It’s vicious.
LS: Vicious. And I also welcome people on the progressive left to also thank people when they do the right thing. When you see Ilhan or Rashida or anybody, Ayanna Pressley, or Jahana, or any of these women saying something that you agree with, I want you to go on their social media and say, “thank you so much for speaking out. I agree with you. Thank you so much. Great. Lucky to have you.” Because they need to have their morale boosted too. They’re still human beings that went in there. I mean, these are women––Ilhan has children, Rashida has children. Recently Rashida’s sister was being harassed; she had posted something about that. And so we have to understand there is a toll that’s being taken on these women and that we need to continue to hold them, as an extension of the progressive movement. Give them some expectations, but also not put our expectations so high that they will eventually disappoint us.
DD: This is something that the left needs to learn. We’re so used to being out of power in this country that now that we have some real champions in Congress, we, as you say, need to distinguish between calling out and calling in.
LS: Absolutely. I mean, it’s even happened to me before. The other thing also, Daniel, is we’re all flawed human beings. We’re all going to mess up along the way, we’re all going to say something sometimes, or hopefully it’s one time and one time only and you never make the same mistake again.
DD: Have a bad take on something.
LS: Yeah, have a bad take, have a bad position on something. Or sometimes people really believe that they have a…like for example, I’ve been watching people talking about Venezuela. Some people have really problematic views on it but at the same time I know it’s coming from a good place. So you have to sometimes call people in and say, hey, I see what you’re trying to say but let’s have a bigger conversation. Let me connect you to some Venezuelan activists and you can kind of see what’s going on here. So I always say to people all the time is that let’s not have too much high expectations of each other in the kind of progressive left, and that we call each other in in those moments. And more specifically on this issue that we’ve been talking about, Daniel, particularly on Israel-Palestine, one of the things that I ask across the progressive left is something that we can all agree on is that we have to defend people who are victims of false accusations of anti-Semitism and say to people, look, you don’t have to agree on this issue but I’m not going to stand for it, for you calling Ilhan or Rashida anti-Semites. It is unacceptable to call Linda anti-Semitic for her views on Palestine, or for Marc Lamont Hill, or for Angela Davis. The more that we on the progressive left start standing up for each other and build a kind of network of support it really will deter folks in the opposition to go against us in the same way that they are. The reason why there’s such vitriolic hate and consistent hate against these women is because the progressive left doesn’t have the same apparatus, right. We don’t hit back as hard as they hate us and so they see a lot of these women of color as very vulnerable, and the last thing that we need is vulnerable women of color leaders in the progressive left. And I call on our friends and our allies and our supporters, particularly on this issue, to really stand up and say, look, we can discuss the details and the politics and the different views, but we’re not going to stand for people being called anti-Semitic. Because what it does is it actually is a disservice to our Jewish family, because we need to be able to to distinguish real anti-Semitism from critiquing the state of Israel because people’s lives actually depend on us understanding real anti-Semitism, so that we’re ready to respond when real anti-Semitism is either coming within our movement, or it’s being manifested in the society around us.
DD: As we saw last year in Pittsburgh. But we’re certainly not seeing that sort of defense of just the basic dignity of these two members from some people in the Democratic establishment. Majority Leader Steny Hoyer said, “I don’t know that I draw the conclusion that these two members are anti-Semitic.” What a statement.
LS: Yeah. It’s like what? What are you talking about? It should be an unequivocal, I don’t agree with them sometimes, but they are absolutely not anti-Semitic, is really the kind of response. These tepid responses actually sometimes could be dangerous because it leaves things up for question. It may mean that someone actually might have had a doubt in their heart, you know what I mean, and I think we need to be able to say, these women are unequivocally not anti-Semitic. There is nothing in their records that indicates that and we want to make sure that we do not equivocate critique of the state of Israel, support of the Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions movements with anti-Semitism, because it absolutely is not. And we have to also distinguish from saying that there may be one or two or a few people in the left that may be in fact anti-Semitic, right. But we as the progressive left are not an anti-Semitic group or a movement, because that’s just inaccurate and false. And I am committed to, and many people in the progressive left are committed to, I am committed to calling out anti-Semitism in the progressive left. And I’ve done it many times before. I did a speech at the Left Forum in 2017 and I said to people, hey hey, we are not exclusive of the ills we claim to fight against in the opposition. We also got to clean our house too, and sometimes our house has anti-Semitism, sometimes it has anti-Black racism and homophobia and transphobia and Islamophobia. And we have to be able to stand up to that and I’m willing to do that and I know a lot of people on the progressive left are too.
DD: Now returning to our discussion of AOC, she’s now being attacked for having had a friendly phone call with Jeremy Corbyn, which should have not come as a big shock given that she’s one of the most famous leftists the United States right now and Jeremy Corbyn is the left-wing leader of the UK’s opposition party.
LS: Yeah, and I was watching some of the responses to her particular tweet about that. I mean, listen, this is a woman who’s a member of Congress and is having diplomatic discussions with another very important leader in another country. I mean, Jeremy Corbyn is a flawed leader, but he’s a great leader. And is there anti-Semitism, like we talked about earlier in the West, absolutely in Europe? Absolutely. In the UK? Absolutely. But you know what, Jeremy Corbyn has been clear and unequivocal. He’s made statements, he’s put out videos, and he’s also not responsible for everybody that is part of the Labour Party. And not to say that there aren’t people who have been quite problematic and have said very problematic things. But this general attack on someone like AOC to speak to Jeremy Corbyn, is like, really people? Like you never spoke to a leader somewhere that may have said something or you may think is something that we maybe don’t agree with or don’t align with? This double standard that we are putting on these women of color is absolutely outrageous. We do not do it to anybody else. I never heard anybody questioning any white man member of Congress about a phone call that they had with somebody out of nowhere. I mean, Jeremy Corbyn is a progressive leader. Many of the policy issues that the Labour Party stands for are very aligned with the things that we are fighting for here in this country. Now, some members may be problematic, but their platform unequivocally rejects anti-Semitism and homophobia and Islamophobia and all these types of things. And so for me, I was just like, I hope that AOC doesn’t go down that route, where she feels like she’s gonna be bullied into not speaking to certain people because it makes some people feel uncomfortable.
DD: There was a response that she and her chief of staff had on Twitter that I think worried some people, reaching out to a pro-Israel activist who had complained, but my presumption is that they are just being diplomatic to a constituent, and not that they’re about to capitulate and say we’re never gonna talk to Jeremy Corbyn again. But we’ll see.
LS: No. Yeah, no, absolutely. And I think it’s fair to say that, as a member of Congress, you should speak to everyone. I don’t think that members of Congress would just speak to the people who voted for them, or speak to just the constituents that they think that agree with them. We should be speaking to all of our constituents, everyone from the left to the right, and should be able to have those hard conversations. But you know, you got to stand your ground, maintain your principles and conviction, but I absolutely support AOC speaking to anyone who is her constituent. And that was my thing when I saw that it was a constituent I was like, that’s cool with me. But when you’re not a constituent and you want to try to influence someone, there’s a slippery slope there for me, and I think that AOC is a very brilliant young woman, I think she has a brilliant team, and I think that they know what they’re doing.
DD: Looking ahead at 2020, the Democratic presidential primary, it seems to me that foreign policy in general and Palestine in particular could be big sleeper issues. There are so many establishment types who are rushing to present themselves as progressives who, on a policy level, are indistinguishable from Bernie Sanders. They’re not indistinguishable but that is going to be how they attempt to present themselves. And I think it will be key for Bernie, if he runs, for both political and obviously moral reasons, to heighten and emphasize his criticisms of the US foreign policy establishment. It seems, given his recent strong criticisms of Israel in the last few years, and his taking a lead role in the push to end support for the Saudi war on Yemen, that he might be thinking just that. What do you think?
LS: Yeah, it’s one of the reasons I support Bernie Sanders, it’s why I supported him back in 2016. It’s because I need him in the race to push everybody else to the left, and really to have people reckon with questions that they may not otherwise have to reckon with. If we did not have a person with the type of ideological leanings that Bernie Sanders has––Bernie Sanders is an anti-interventionist. He is very vocally anti-war, and specifically recently, when it came to the war in Yemen. It really has pushed a lot of his colleagues, some of whom may not have ever went down that route, to vocally oppose with the resolution to end our support for a Saudi-led war in Yemen. And also when it comes to Palestine, if you have watched him over the time when the Great Return March was in the media and was kind of at the height of it, he put out multiple videos, like his people were on it. It wasn’t just a one time thing; he was centering voices of people from Gaza in these videos. He’s been very critical of the policies of the state of Israel and it’s very important for a voice like his, and I’ll say, also, because he is a Jewish American senator, his voice is even more critical in this moment. And it allows for Jewish Americans to be empowered to say that I am not a self-hating Jew because I stand up for the human rights of all people, including the Palestinian people, in fact, that is in fact what my Judaism centers and tells me to do, is to stand up for justice for all people. So for me, Bernie Sanders is a very critical voice in this next election and I hope he does decide to run because on this particular issue, foreign policy, he brings a very important voice to the table in a way. And to your point, Daniel, let’s be clear: everyone’s running around here talking about Medicare for All and debt-free college and all these other different policy platforms, and environmental justice, the bottom line is, just a few years ago, when we were all on the Bernie Sanders campaign, everyone said we were naive. And everyone said that we were politically naive, that we were idealistic, and we were running with some pie in the sky, and here we are, just a few years later, two years later, where we as a movement, not Bernie by himself, but we as a movement have been able to mainstream ideas like Medicare for All, like debt-free and free college tuition, like issues around environmental justice, like issues like Palestine-Israel, mainstream them in a political way because of having a man who decided to give his platform to the most progressive of the progressive in this country. So I’m hoping that he runs. Bernie Sanders’ participation in the primary is necessary because of his views on foreign policy.
DD: My other thought in that is that having a Jewish president, who is the first Jewish president of the United States, who is also staunchly pro-Palestinian would transform not only American politics but also global politics, including by striking a huge blow against anti-Semitism, because it would send a strong message that Netanyahu does not speak for the world’s Jews.
LS: Bernie Sanders is a Brooklyn-born, Jewish American. I grew up with people like Bernie, and I love Bernie, and I think in a time of rising anti-Semitism in America it would be poetic justice for us to put the first Jewish American president in the White House. But not only will he be the first Jewish American president who is pro-Palestine and truly progressive, he will be bringing the movement with him to the White House. I know that for a fact, Daniel, and that’s what I want people to think about as they go in to 2020. And I want people in the primary to support whomever they want in the primary and once we get out of that primary, I need everybody to get in line. And I know that people don’t like to hear that, but really right now we’re in a fight against fascism. This is not lesser of two evils. This is fascism. “Are we going to take out fascism or are we not?” is the question for me. But when it comes to Bernie Sanders, I always dream of what a Bernie Sanders administration or a very progressive, liberal left administration looks like. And it actually brings tears to my eyes. And I would love as a Muslim American activist and one of the most visible Muslim American activists in this country to say that I was alive at the time when we put in the first Jewish American president in the White House and I want to have everything to do with that. And really for me it gives me chills that that could be a possibility at a time, in the darkest moments that we’ve seen, at least in my generation, of rising anti-Semitism across the world.
DD: Well, Linda Sarsour, thank you so much.
LS: Thank you so much, Daniel.
DD: Linda Sarsour saw is a Brooklyn-born, Palestinian Muslim American activist and organizer. She’s the co-founder of Empower Change, the first Muslim-founded and led online organizing platform and a national organizer with the Women’s March. Thank you for listening to The Dig from Jacobin Magazine.