In a hyper-politicized world, it’s easy to forget that two things can be true at the same time.
The New York Times seemed to fall into that hole on Sept. 18 when it published an article that largely whitewashed anti-Semitic activist Linda Sarsour. In the article, Sarsour is portrayed as the victim of a Russian troll farm’s 2017 campaign to smear her due to her Muslim faith.
In 2017, Sarsour helped lead the original Women’s March protests, which drew hundreds of thousands of people across the country. However, the Times reported, “What she saw on Twitter that Monday was a torrent of focused grievance that targeted her. In 15 years as an activist, largely advocating for the rights of Muslims, she had faced pushback, but this was of a different magnitude. A question began to form in her mind: Do they really hate me that much?”
“It was like an avalanche,” Sarsour told the Times. “Like I was swimming in it every day. It was like I never got out of it.”
Wasting little time, the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) seized on the article and issued a statement saying Sarsour was subject to “hateful, dishonest attacks … about things Linda never said or did.”
And here’s where two things are true at once: There apparently was a Russian troll operation that aimed at exacerbating divisions within American society and attacked Sarsour in order to do so. At the same time, however, Sarsour has earned every word of legitimate criticism she has received. Indeed, the Russians likely chose to exploit her because she had long been a divisive voice, with an anti-Israel obsession that repeatedly crosses into anti-Semitism.
For example, long before the Russians targeted her, Sarsour went on the Russian-owned RT America television network in 2012. She blasted American law enforcement and claimed that “Islamophobia” is part of a continuum of American atrocities that includes slavery and the genocide of Native Americans.
That same year, she claimed that the “Underwear Bomber”—a Nigerian man who set his pants on fire trying to blow up a Detroit-bound passenger plane carrying 292 passengers and crew on Christmas day in 2009—was recruited not by Al-Qaeda, but by the CIA.
Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab’s father did warn the CIA about a month before the incident that his son had connections with Al-Qaeda terrorists, but the idea that the CIA “recruited” the bomber is pure fantasy. Remarkably, Sarsour’s defamatory post remains on her Twitter feed a decade later.
Sarsour was equally defamatory in her attacks on collaboration between Israeli and American law enforcement.
As writer John-Paul Pagano wrote Monday, “Russian trolls didn’t make Linda Sarsour and [former Women’s March leader] Tamika Mallory amplify the conspiracy theory that the [Anti-Defamation League] and Israel train U.S. law enforcement to brutalize people of color. That disinformation is their own initiative, designed to pit African-Americans against Jews.”
The Times story “dubiously rehabilitates the reputation of a person who was justly taken down for promoting the estrangement of blacks and Jews,” said Pagano.
Pagano is right. Well before any Russian troll operation, Sarsour blamed American police violence against black people on a program that takes American law enforcement leaders to Israel.
“The same people who justify the massacres of Palestinian people and call it collateral damage are the same people who justify the murder of black young men and women,” she said.
It’s a blood libel she has spread repeatedly.
“If you believe in the idea of ending police brutality and the misconduct of law enforcement officers across the country,” Sarsour told the Islamic Society of North America’s 2018 convention, “then you do not support an organization that takes police officers from America, funds their trips, takes them to Israel so they can be trained by the Israeli police and military and then they come back here and do what? Stop and frisk, killing unarmed black people across the country.”
There is no data and no participant’s account to support this claim, an Investigative Project on Terrorism investigation found. If anything, the program in question has led to policies that can reduce deaths in police confrontations.
In the same speech, Sarsour touched on another of her favorite tropes, calling herself “an unapologetic pro-BDS, one-state solution-supporting resistance supporter here in the U.S.” A one-state solution means, quite simply, the end of Israel as a Jewish state.
The Times article did acknowledge that Sarsour and the Women’s March had problems before any Russian interference. It cited, for example, the departure of founder Vanessa Wruble after a confrontation with anti-Semitic undertones. It also reported on progressive Jews who had deep concerns about whether their participation in the Women’s March was welcome, especially after “ultimately indefensible” statements by Sarsour.
In fact, months before the March, Sarsour made it clear that she didn’t want to work with anyone who didn’t share her views on Israel and the Palestinians.
“We have limits to the type of friendships that we’re looking for right now,” Sarsour told the 2016 American Muslims for Palestine conference. “And I want to be friends with those whom I know have been steadfast, courageous, have been standing up and protecting their own communities, those who have taken the risk to stand up and say—we are with the Palestinian people, we unequivocally support BDS when it comes to Palestinian human rights and have been attacked viciously by the very people who are telling you that they’re about to stand on the front line of the Muslim registry program. No thank you, sisters and brothers.”
Moreover, in a 2017 interview with The Nation, Sarsour claimed people cannot be both feminist and Zionist.
“It just doesn’t make any sense for someone to say, ‘Is there room for people who support the State of Israel and do not criticize it in the movement?’” she said. “There can’t be in feminism. You either stand up for the rights of all women, including Palestinians, or none. There’s just no way around it.”
No Russians were involved in crafting that message. It’s unfortunate that Sarsour was targeted by a foreign government. However, the notion that, if it were not for Russian trolls, progressive Jews wouldn’t have been concerned about her or she wouldn’t have acquired her reputation as an anti-Semite ignores reality.
Sometimes, bad things happen to bad people.
Steven Emerson is the executive director of the Investigative Project on Terrorism, author of eight books on national security and terrorism, producer of two documentaries and author of hundreds of articles in national and international publications.