Linda Sarsour is wrong, and she’s wrong in the way that people with a blind spot in their politics are often wrong. In a recent piece in The Nation, Sarsour argues that there is no room in Women’s Movement for those who see themselves as Zionists. Her basic premise is that feminists must support the rights of all women in the international struggle for greater equality and rights, and Zionism in and of itself, is a negation of Palestinian Women’s rights- ergo, Zionists cannot be feminists. In her own words from The Nation article “You either stand up for the rights of all women, including Palestinians, or none. There’s just no way around it.” This statement about honoring the rights of all women appears, at a plain reading, just. However, like so much that Linda Sarsour says, her words unfold to reveal and reflect a more deeply held conviction. She crafts her statement to reflect a reality in which Zionism is categorically in opposition to the rights of Palestinian women. Implicit in her statement is her own criticism of, and attempt to define, Zionism. Reality disagrees with Linda Sarsour. In fact, a great many Zionists view their beliefs through the same prism of social justice with which she sees her own struggle- they too believe Palestinian women’s rights are a priority, as are those of Jewish women, but they disagree with her on how those rights should be achieved in the context of the ongoing Israel-Palestine conflict.
But in Sarsour’s narrative there is only one Zionism, and she gets to define its terms. She goes to great lengths in The Nation piece to call out “Right Wing Zionists” at least twice. In her description Zionism is a simple equation with “people under siege at checkpoints…women who have babies on checkpoints because they’re not able to get to hospitals”. And yet, Zionism, like most beliefs, like feminism itself, comes in varying iterations and contains a diversity of opinion- from progressive Zionists who oppose settlements to religious Zionists living in them. Linda Sarsour wishes to paint Zionism with a broad brush because it suits her narrative. If she is able to define who a Zionist is and what they believe, she can readily excommunicate those she presents as dissenters to her vision.
The vision Sarsour articulates in The Nation seems inclusive. In her view, “I would say that anyone who wants to call themselves an activist cannot be selective…It’s all connected. Whether you’re talking about Palestinian women, Mexican women, women in Brazil, China, or women in Saudi Arabia—this feminist movement is an international global movement”. Given this, it would seem disingenuous not to discuss Sarours’ own view of the Israel-Palestine conflict. She publicly supports a “One-State” solution, which if followed to its logical conclusion, results in an Arab majority state with a Jewish minority. What this means, for those unfamiliar, is the destruction of Israel as a Jewish democratic state and its replacement with something else. In the state of Israel, as it stands, both Jewish and Arab Israeli women full access to healthcare, work, and education, freedom of religion and the freedom to protest. While the state is imperfect and not above reproach it is worth mentioning that, in contrast, the UN has documented deeply concerning findings, including institutionalized economic discrimination, honor killings and vulnerability to gender based violence, regarding the protection of rights of women living under the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank and Hamas in Gaza. The point is not that Israel has achieved greater rights for women than the institutional authorities of Palestine, but rather that it is reasonable for a Zionist feminist to believe that the rights of both Jewish and Palestinian women will be best served by the Jewish state continuing to remain intact. This view is not actually in conflict with Sarsour’s articulated feminism. Indeed, it includes within it a desire for the rights of all women to be preserved, including both Jewish and Palestinian women. But a conflict occurs with Sarsours’ faulty and rigid definition of Zionism which necessarily precludes any progressive elements, or allowance that Zioinsts may share a desire for the rights of both peoples.
While it is far beyond the scope of this article to manufacture all the arguments about feminism and the Israel-Palestine conflict, what is clear is that it is possible to have diverging views and yet still build a coalition towards a larger goal. Yet It appears that Linda Sarsour cannot brook is dissent as she maps out her vision of feminism and decides who may be excluded. She speaks of standing up for the women of Saudi Arabia, but tweets that women there have “10 weeks of paid maternity leave, yes PAID. And ur worried about women driving. Puts us to shame”. A tweet that has been widely criticized for it’s blank refusal to acknowledge the well-established human rights situation of women in Saudi Arabia- a country in which women only began voting in 2011 and still require a male guardian’s permission to travel or conduct any civic or business affairs. She seems unable or unwillingly to play by the rulebook she herself has created. Her online interactions with women who are challenging to her worldview are telling. The writer and controversial critic of Islam Ayaan Hirsi Ali has come up for particular ire. In one tweet Sarsour blurts of Ali and another woman “I wish I could take their vaginas away – they don’t deserve to be women.” While it may be understandable that Sarsour would be angry, confrontational even, over Ali’s abrasive rhetoric regarding Islam, it reads as an ugly wish towards violence. When one takes into account, that Sarsour no doubt knows Ali’s personal story- that she was subjected to female genital mutilation as a young child- the tweet takes an unmistakably cruel, personal, edge. Instead of tackling another writer on issues with which she disagrees, she quite literally goes for the other woman’s vulnerabilities and then wishes to deny her access to womanhood at all.
Recently she tweeted a congratulations to social media darling Mia Khalifa, in response to a meme of Khalifa wearing hijab. The congratulations read, “Congratulations to sister Mia Khalifa for spreading the the beautiful message of wearing Hijab in western countries.” The tweet was taken down shortly thereafter, probably when Sarsour realized that much of Mia’s hijab wearing occurred while simultaneously posing nude or appearing in porn. To be sure, Khalifa presents a complex incarnation the sisterhood. As a woman of Lebanese descent is she transgressively enacting both her own faith and her own sexuality? Or is she fetishizing Hijab for a western male audience? I am unqualified to know. What is interesting is Sarsour’s withdrawal of praise, when Khalifa is sticking to the rules and “spreading the beautiful message of hijab in western countries” she is a sister, when she becomes awkward and problematic she is not even acknowledged. I can understand Sarsour’s confusion over whether the initial meme of Khalifa wearing hijab was an authentic expression of religio-ethnic pride, but what seems notable is how Sarsour just erases the interaction- Khalifa’s a “sister” until she doesn’t meet Sarsour’s standards, and then she’s erased.
Linda Sarsour espouses a feminist movement which empowers all women, but she appears to struggle in own conduct and actions to embody that belief. When she dismisses the real concerns of human rights violations in Saudi Arabia in the service of making a point, or rigidly excludes women whose politics disagree with hers, or mishandles her online interactions with other women, she shows her hand. For her, Zionism is incompatible with her vison of an international feminist movement because it is in conflict with her core Palestinian activism. In her movement there is not room for actual coalition building if that coalition transgresses her internal conviction about the evils of Zionism (“nothing is creepier than Zionism” she has tweeted).
The well-worn quote From Golda Meir about peace coming when Arabs “Love their children more than they hate us” seems outdated at best in modern reading. Despite its flaws, the quote has an enduringingly symmetrical formula, which asks for a solution of love rather than hate. Perhaps if Linda Sarsour loved her sisters more than she hated Zionism the Women’s Movement would better reflect the beautiful diversity of feminism and be that little bit stronger and more diverse.
Meyerson, C. (2017). Can Zionists Be Feminists, Linda Sarsour Say No. Retrieved from The Nation: https://www.thenation.com/article/can-you-be-a-zionist-feminist-linda-sarsour-says-no/