'Public health leaders' must condemn terror
As the world recoils from yet another atrocity, offering platitudes of "standing with Manchester" while actually doing very little to challenge terrorism, the City University of New York's School of Public Health is getting ready to send the wrong message to its graduates.
Palestinian-American activist Linda Sarsour, who has a history of inflammatory behavior toward Israel and its supporters, and supports the violent intifada, will be a keynote speaker at that school's commencement. She'll share the stage with New York's first lady, Chirlane McCray, and Mary Bassett, commissioner of the New York Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, as a "public health and social justice leader." This honor is ostensibly in recognition of her role in organizing the massive women's march on Washington protesting Donald Trump, in which potential cuts to health services were decried.
The irony is stark. It's hard to conceive of a bigger public health threat than terrorism – the weaponization of disaffected young people around the world via online channels, recruited to commit despicable acts in places like Jerusalem, San Bernardino, Orlando, Paris, Istanbul...the list goes on.
Sarsour, who has forged alliances with many liberal Jewish leaders, condemned the 5/22 attack on the Ariana Grande concert in Manchester, calling it in a Facebook post "a whole different level of evil" for targeting children and "sickening."
But such statements are inconsistent with her stated support for the Palestinian intifada and the boycott-divest-sanction movement against Israel. BDS is a form of soft terrorism, as it is focused on one side of the conflict with the intention of forcing Israel into territorial concessions against its interests. Given Israel's precarious geography, those concessions could ultimately cost lives on a scale bigger than any one suicide bomb.
Activists gathered outside CUNY headquarters on May 25 to demand that the invitation be revoked, but that's unlikely, given the fallout from a similar controversy in 2011, when Jewish Israel critic Tony Kushner had his honorary degree yanked under pressure. Pro-Kushner forces prevailed, and the school did a 180.
Chancellor James Milliken released a statement in April saying, "[T]he fact that Ms. Sarsour might hold views that are controversial cannot be the basis for withdrawing an invitation to speak," while noting that the university itself "sees BDS as anathema to the values of higher education."
But where are those values when Sarsour declares that "you can't be a Zionist and a feminist"? Is she kidding? Where in the Middle East are women's rights protected better than in Israel, which had a female prime minister in 1969? Maybe she would prefer the feminism of Saudi Arabia, where women can't drive, much less run for office, or of Jordan, where they need a husband's permission to travel.
Israel's leaders continuously cast aside politics in the name of humanity, allowing relatives of Hamas leaders who want to destroy them to be treated in Jewish hospitals and sending aid around the world in times of need. Arab citizens have full rights in Israel and serve in the Knesset. And yet Linda Sarsour calls Zionism "creepy."
CUNY isn't the only public institution sending mixed signals about terrorism and the Middle East conflict.
A Public Broadcasting System curriculum is drawing fire from conservative critics for its effort to create understanding about the motivations of suicide bombers (who should more properly be called homicide bombers).
The lesson plan, "Dying to Be a Martyr," is ten years old and likely came to light now because of the fight over federal funding for public broadcasting, which is on President Trump's budget chopping block. That fact should not take away from serious discussion about the content.
High school teachers are encouraged to show their students interviews with would-be Palestinian bombers. The lesson teaches students to empathize with violent Palestinian terrorists who are willing to murder Jews in Israel and beyond.
Perhaps there is a shred of a noble intention in this program's origins, but it is at best naive, bordering on biased. There are many peoples in the world who collectively feel aggrieved and don't resort to terrorism and violence, and they are better off as a result.
Page Fortna, an associate political science professor at Columbia University, wrote in a recent paper, highlighted in The Atlantic following the Manchester bombing, that "the disadvantages of terrorism generally outweigh its advantages." She concluded from a detailed study of 104 recent global conflicts that terror historically hurts rather than helps a cause. "None of those that deliberately killed large numbers of civilians through terrorist attacks won its fight outright," Fortna said.
So it's surely in no one's interest to promote a mindset that terrorism is an inevitable (or effective) product of an uprising against a more powerful enemy.
In defending the programming, PBS in a statement said, "In no way does it condone the heinous actions of individuals who would target innocent civilians. PBS would strongly condemn any assertion that terrorism is ever appropriate."
But just watch the video, which features a sympathetic kid who ultimately decided that God told him not to carry out an attack in an Israeli town. Everything we know about these bombers, much of it from the videos they leave behind, is that they believe that God wants the exact opposite. So it's not so much frustration with lack of a peace diplomacy, but rather a twisted religious fervor (denounced by mainstream Islam) that guides these acts.
PBS's ombudsman, Michael Getler, noted in a column that "Dying to Be a Martyr" contains "what I consider to be some legitimate questions about the content, or more precisely as I read it, a lack of more contextual content, within this lesson plan." He concurs that what is missing from the curriculum is "instructions for teachers to denounce suicide bombing and radical Islamic views in general," something we might assume to be a given. Some teachers, however, might be too afraid of offending people to do that.
There's nothing healthy about either supporting terrorism outright or trying to understand it rationally. The sooner institutions like CUNY and PBS realize that, the better off we'll all be.
Eli Verschleiser is a financier, real estate developer, and investor in commercial real estate. In his philanthropy, Mr. Verschleiser is on the board of trustees for the American Jewish Congress, co-founder of Magenu.org, and president of OurPlace, a non-profit organization that provides support, shelter, and counseling for troubled Jewish youth. Mr. Verschleiser is a frequent commentator on political and social services matters. Twitter: @E_Verschleiser.