NEW YORK — A Muslim-American activist whose role as a commencement speaker had come under protest from critics opposing her stance on Israel was given a standing ovation by graduating students Thursday after she told them they must commit to demanding change.
“We in this room together must commit to never being bystanders to poverty, lack of jobs and health care,” Linda Sarsour told graduates of the City University of New York’s Graduate School of Public Health and Health Policy.
Critics of Sarsour who don’t like her views on Israel had spoken out against her being the keynote, but the school administration stood behind the decision, with the dean saying it was important to listen respectfully to differing ideas.
“Freedom of speech is only relevant when you are respectfully listening to ideas that challenge your own,” Dean Ayman El-Mohandes said. “Otherwise, what’s the point?”
Sarsour, one of the lead organizers of the Women’s March on Washington, has been critical of Israel’s policies in the occupied territories and supports the movement to boycott, divest from and sanction the country. She got her start as an activist defending the civil rights of American Muslims after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks and in recent years, protesting against surveillance of Muslim communities.
The choice of the Brooklyn-born, hijab-wearing Sarsour as speaker has sparked opposition from pro-Israel critics, including some who have spread false internet reports claiming she supports Islamic State militants and Sharia law.
Sarsour also has put her activism toward other causes, including the Black Lives Matter movement, and she was one of four national chairs for the Women’s March that led to massive turnouts in Washington, D.C., and around the world.
But a higher profile has also brought more opposition. Her critics have sent around a photo of her with one finger up and saying it was her making a gesture in support of ISIS, when she has called it a global cancer.
Other false accusations include that she supports Islamic law being put in place of the U.S. legal system, based on a sarcastic tweet from 2015 that actually was about ridiculing conspiracy theories around Muslims and the Sharia system.
Sarsour says those accusations are ludicrous.
Before the event, a couple of demonstrators against Sarsour and about a dozen in favor gathered in front of the theater where it took place.
Karen Lichtbraun said it wasn’t a free-speech issue but Sarsour didn’t deserve the honor of a keynote address.
“That’s not a person I would want any of my loved ones to look up to,” she said.
Stacy Le Melle was there in support of Sarsour, whose work, she said, “creates space for women just to be, to speak out.”