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Review: Linda Sarsour’s ‘We Are Not Here to Be Bystanders’

Linda Sarsour / Getty Images

During crises, it can be important to look to the past for reminders of normalcy. Linda Sarsour's new memoir, We Are Not Here to Be Bystanders, offers such an escape, reminding readers of the pre-pandemic era when people still talked about things like "white privilege" and the "liberation of Palestine." Published shortly before the coronavirus outbreak evolved into a pandemic and much of the United States shut down to confront a global health emergency, Sarsour's book offers a message that is now alien to the current moment.

Sarsour describes her memoir as a "social justice manifesto," documenting anecdotes from her childhood and career as a professional activist to push her political worldview—namely, that through "intersectional organizing," "marginalized communities" can bring about political change for their respective interests. There are groups of people in the United States, Sarsour writes, that are connected through their oppression by our country's institutions, like law enforcement, national security agencies, and public school systems.

Whatever this sounds like in theory, in practice, Sarsour's intersectional organizing has served to mainstream anti-Zionism on the activist left. A vocal proponent of the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions movement, Sarsour worked to link her personal project—the "liberation of Palestine"—to the Women’s March she cochaired. While feminism and anti-Zionism are seemingly separate causes, Sarsour writes that intersectionality requires feminists to also "stand up" for "Palestinian women in the West Bank and Gaza."

The dense layers of intersectionality don't end there. Back in 2015, Sarsour, who also worked with the Black Lives Matter movement, tied the Palestinian cause to the experience of African Americans, arguing that the "people who justify the massacres of Palestinian people and call it collateral damage are the same people who justify the murder of young black men and women." Five years later, Sarsour opts for subtler language, writing that the Palestinian American experience is "inextricably interwoven with the everyday reality of [her] Black and brown brothers and sisters."

While many progressive activists espouse similar views, Sarsour has garnered notoriety for her adventures into anti-Semitism, like when she accused progressive Jews of harboring a dual loyalty to Israel or when she called Jewish nationhood a form of racial "supremacy." The activist’s comments, along with her controversial association with Hitler-praising clown Louis Farrakhan, ultimately precipitated her departure from the board of the Women's March last year.

Such a rebuke from her own organization could have prompted Sarsour to reflect on her past statements. We are not, however, here to be bystanders. Relying on her intersectional ethos, she writes that her critics are "far-right Islamophobes" who labeled her anti-Semitic because she "advocated for the human rights of Palestinians."

To explain her exit from the Women's March, Sarsour omits the words "Louis" and "Farrakhan," attributing her departure instead to a previously unreported white identitarian contingent of the organization:

"It turned out that some of the very same white women who had reached out to women of color for help in organizing the march now resented our being the faces associated with its resounding success…. I could not help but be reminded of how early white suffragists had similarly discounted the efforts of Black women, relegating their participation to a mere footnote in the history of feminism’s first popular campaign."

This is delusional, at least in part because Sarsour was replaced, along with former cochairs Tamika Mallory and Bob Bland, with a 17-person intersectional dream team—which, coincidentally, has its own issues of anti-Semitism. At one time, a sensible reader could have been frustrated by Sarsour's attempts to obfuscate her own bigotry by calling critics Islamophobic and creating a conspiracy theory about racial-group competition at the Women’s March, especially given the activist’s prominent platform as a surrogate for the Bernie Sanders campaign.

In the midst of a pandemic that has claimed the lives of 95,000 people, however, Sarsour’s advocacy of "intersectional organizing"—which transparently promotes her own self-interest—seems trivial. What is the intersectional response to an epidemic? How does "coalition building" stop the transmission of a deadly illness? Does it produce much-needed medical supplies and vaccines? Or put food on the table for millions of Americans forced out of work?

As we learn more about the coronavirus, data indicate that African Americans are experiencing the disease at disproportionate rates compared with the rest of the U.S. population. Are black Americans seriously to believe that addressing this disparity requires them to recognize how "inextricably bound" they are with "the struggles of all oppressed people" and support the political objectives of BDS, gay rights, and illegal immigrants, among others?

Sarsour's favorite cause—boycotting Israel—has already been shunted aside during the global health crisis. BDS cofounder Omar Barghouti has formally absolved supporters of the sin of accepting a potential vaccine from Israel. In her memoir, Sarsour reiterates her support for a one-state solution, writing that Israel's insistence on existing as a Jewish state has "stymied peace talks for decades." Given the demands of public health, it seems the dissolution of Israel will have to wait until after the availability of a coronavirus vaccine.

Toward the end of her book, Sarsour writes that "fifty years from now" people will call the anti-Israel Council on American Islamic Relations "one of the most effective civil rights organizations of all time."

"It's like how fifty years from now, people are going to be walking down Colin Kaepernick Boulevard. Sisters and brothers, this is how history in this country works."

It seems the ongoing crisis has put Sarsour's social justice Whig history on hold. At the very least, if people once again pick up the banner of intersectional organizing and call for the destruction of Israel, we'll know we aren't experiencing anything as serious as a deadly pandemic.