A Palestinian-American activist whose controversial past statements on Zionism and Shariah law drew weeks of protests demanding that the City University of New York disinvite her as commencement speaker, dedicated the address Thursday to the men who defended a hijab-wearing Muslim teen from a white supremacist in Oregon.
Speaking at the inaugural commencement ceremony for CUNY’s new Graduate School of Public Health & Health Policy, the Brooklyn-based activist, Linda Sarsour, hailed the men for going “from bystanders to heroes.”
The three men had stepped in to defend two teenage girls being harassed by the white supremacist on a Portland train. Two of the men were slain when the white supremacist brandished a knife; the other was badly wounded.
“Their act of courage will live on forever and has restored a small, empty place in my heart with a sense of hope and recommitment to standing up against injustice no matter who it is against,” she said, on the stage of Harlem’s Apollo Theater.
CUNY’s refusal to withdraw the speaking invitation to Sarsour was the latest battle in America’s campus speech war over who may speak in classrooms, debates and as honored guests at ceremonies.
Last month, some Notre Dame students walked out of Vice President Mike Pence’s commencement address at Notre Dame. No one walked out of Sarsour’s speech.
In 2014, after protests, former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice pulled out of giving a graduation speech, as did the head of the International Monetary Fund, Christine Lagarde, at Massachusetts’ Smith College that year following protests.
Outside the Apollo Thursday, dozens of protesters, some supporting Sarsour, others opposing her, sang, chanted and shouted.
“I don’t think that an honor should be bestowed upon someone who supports terrorists and supports terrorism. It’s an honor. It’s not free speech. She speaks all the time,” said Karen Lichtbraun, 56, of Manhattan, holding a sign: “JEW HATER SARSOUR.”
Michael Feinberg, 57, of the borough’s Upper West Side, said that CUNY, not its critics, has the right to pick its commencement speakers.
“That’s called freedom of speech. If they don’t like it they should move to Russia and hang out with Donald Trump’s friends,” he said, wearing a pin that says “STAND UP . . . RESIST HATE.”
“You can always count on your Palestinian-Muslim-American sista from Brooklyn, New York, to keep her voice loud, to keep her feet on these streets, in the name of justice for all! It is we who make America great,” she said before pumping her fist in the air. “It is we who make America great.”
Sarsour’s critics point to her past statements, especially on Twitter, including the 2012 tweet in which she said there is “nothing creepier than Zionism” and one from 2011 saying “shariah law is reasonable.” In a since-deleted tweet, she said that critics of Islam such as Ayaan Hirsi Ali — an apostate who at 5 underwent female genital mutilation and escaped an arranged marriage — deserve a “whippin’,” adding: “they don’t deserve to be women.”
On Thursday, she urged the public health graduates to combat racism, xenophobia, homophobia, anti-Semitism, and police brutality.
“To create healthy communities, we must create a society where a young black man or woman can walk down the streets of their communities without fear of being killed by a police officer or gun violence,” she said.