Op-Ed: But Why Linda Sarsour?

Robert B Geller, MD

With significant public health related issues facing the world, such as obesity, opioid addiction, escalating healthcare costs, it seems bewildering why Dean Ayman El-Mohandes, CUNY Graduate School of Public Health, would invite Linda Sarsour as their commencement keynote speaker.  She is neither an expert nor leader on any issue related to healthcare policy.  Usually, keynote speakers at commencements for graduate schools will have scholarship in the field designated by the program; how often is an immunologist invited to be the keynote speaker at a business school convocation or an architect at a medical school?

Sarsour has recently become a new face of feminism due to her participation in the Women’s March.  But she has also become increasingly more controversial due to comments regarding Zionism, her vocal support of the BDS movement, her support of violence against Israeli citizens, and her very belligerent comments against feminist and activist Ayaan Hirsi Ali, due to her vocal opposition to specific practices associated with Islam and genitalia mutilation.

Should someone who believes in Sharia law and its potential negative impact on woman’s rights, and supports violence against innocent civilians, and who has never published a single article related to healthcare have such a visible spot on this particular podium?  And now, due to this invitation, she has become the darling of those who claim this is an issue of free speech, with the support of leading politicians such as New York Senator Kirsten Gillibrand.

Those who support this invitation have emphasized her Constitutional right to speak.  In response, a commencement keynote speech is not simply a speaker invited to a university to engage in dialogue, and where individuals have an option to attend.  For graduating students and their families, commencement is an event about accomplishments and sacrifice, and should not be a forum for a controversial figure to discuss a political agenda. We now live in a world on college campuses, where environments are no longer tolerated which may subject individuals, especially minority students to hateful speech.

Why does this concern not apply to the 25% of CUNY students and their families who are Jewish?  How they will feel if Sarsour chooses to exhibit her First Amendment rights by once again proclaiming that “Zionists are pigs,” or that you cannot be a feminist and a Zionist.  When confronted by those opposed to his decision to have Sarsour speak, Dean  El-Mohandes responded by saying that the majority of comments have been positive; however, is it not the responsibility of the university to assure that the concerns of a minority are not overshadowed by the majority voice?

I am sure that CUNY would never consider inviting David Duke or Ann Coulter to speak at their commencement. Many of those present would have difficulty with either of their opinions; besides, neither has any scholarship which would be appreciated by a healthcare community.  In comparison, Sarsour’s positions are considered hateful by those who support Israel as well as many moderate Muslims who support Hirsi Ali.  According to both the US State Department and remarks by the UN Secretary General, Sarsour’s comments questioning Israel’s right to exist, would define her as being anti-Semitic.  So why is someone who is an anti-Semite and who has never had a significant opinion on healthcare policy invited as the keynote speaker?

In particular, American Jews need to be concerned by this invitation, and the support that she seems to have received by the CUNY administration and Senator Gillibrand, and the silence by both Mayor de Blasio and Governor Cuomo.  Women would be offended if Bill O’Reilly was a commencement speaker, and the Muslim community if Pamela Geller was chosen as the keynote speaker.  Sarsour is no less offensive to those individuals to whom she has focused her tweets, speeches, and interviews.  Given her views, she does not deserve a position at a commencement where her presence will offend many who are there to simply reflect on their years of academic devotion.  This is not an issue of free speech; it is an issue about inviting an appropriate speaker at an event which should be relished by all in attendance, and not a forum to highlight a particular political agenda.

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