Lower East Side Rabbi Objects to Henry Street Settlement’s Invitation to Linda Sarsour

Photo via Democracy Now.
Photo via Democracy Now.
Photo via Democracy Now.

Controversy is brewing over an appearance at Henry Street Settlement next week by Palestinian activist Linda Sarsour. She’s one of the speakers at the Lillian Wald Symposium, which this year is titled, “Immigrant New York: The New Majority.” The CUNY School of Public Health has also faced criticism for inviting Sarsour to serve as commencement speaker this year.

There’s an open letter today in The Jewish Press from Rabbi Zvi Romm of the Bialystoker Synagogue to David Garza, executive director of Henry Street Settlement. The Lo-Down asked Henry Street for a response. This afternoon we’re publishing both statements in full. First, Rabbi Romm:

Dear Mr. Garza,

I hope you are well. I’m writing you with regard to the upcoming ‘Lilian Wald Symposium’ on ‘Immigrant New York: The New Majority,’ to be held at the Abrons Art Center on May 16th. The Henry Street Settlement is proudly promoting Linda Sarsour as a panelist at the symposium.

We, the members of the Bialystoker Synagogue, are happy to be next-door neighbors of the Henry Street Settlement. But we are profoundly disturbed by the fact that our neighbors have given Ms. Sarsour this platform.

Ms. Sarsour has been an outspoken supporter of the BDS movement, seeking to damage the State of Israel economically. She has declared that one cannot be a Zionist and a feminist, as Palestinian women are oppressed – ignoring the many, many abuses of women’s rights which are rampant in the Arab world surrounding Israel. She has tweeted that a young Palestinian boy going to throw stones at Israeli soldiers is the ‘definition of courage.’ She has stated that there is ‘nothing creepier than Zionism.’

We, who love and support the State of Israel, are appalled by these positions and statements. By giving Linda Sarsour such a prominent platform, we feel that the Henry Street Settlement is indirectly expressing its tolerance of these anti-Israel positions.

We feel that it is incredibly important that the Henry Street Settlement clearly and unambiguously state that it does not endorse Ms. Sarsour’s positions on Israel and Zionism. As Israel marks its sixty-ninth anniversary, we would greatly appreciate a statement from Henry Street Settlement celebrating the State of Israel, the only full democracy in the Middle East.

Rabbi Zvi Romm.

And Henry Street Settlement’s response:

Since its founding, Henry Street has been an institution characterized by its openness to all voices and a place where ideas, some considered controversial, are exchanged. We fervently believe that if we only speak to ourselves, without listening to other viewpoints, learning will not occur and progress will not be made. In fact, the opportunity to learn from diverse perspectives is one of the intentions of the Lillian Wald Symposium.

The decision to include Linda Sarsour as one of the panelists at our upcoming Symposium, Immigrant New York, the New Majority:  Policy, Politics and Programs is being challenged by some individuals and groups.  They are calling for us to rescind our invitation to Ms. Sarsour.  That would be anathema to our history as a champion of freedom of speech.

An invitation to participate in a program or forum at Henry Street is not an organizational endorsement of the views held by any of our guests.  Our panelists – Shanna Castillo, Director, Resident Economic Empowerment & Sustainability, NYCHA; Zeinab Eyega, Executive Director of Sauti Yetu Center for African Women & Families; Wayne Ho, President and CEO of the Chinese-American Planning Council; Philip Kasinitz, Ph.D., Presidential Professor of Sociology at CUNY; Baseera Khan, a 2017 Abrons Artist in Residence;; Bitta Mostofi, Assistant Commissioner, NYC Mayor’s Office of Immigrant Affairs; and Linda Sarsour, Racial Justice/Civil Rights Activist – were selected based on their experience with respect to one or more facets of immigration or immigrant communities.

The Symposium’s topic – Immigrant New York – will not include discussion of Israel, Zionism, the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions movement, and will be focused on the subject of immigration in New York City. 

The Lillian Wald Symposium, our second annual, is intended to create a forum for meaningful discussion on a topic that is relevant to our constituents and stakeholders.  We will also be providing immigration services resource material directly to the community at the event.

You can learn more about the Lillian Wald Symposium here.