A scheduled speaking appearance by Muslim political activist Linda Sarsour at the upcoming Web Summit has some Jewish human rights groups calling for event sponsors like Google and Amazon to pull out.
Billed as the largest tech event in the world, the Web Summit, where Sarsour is set to speak along with about 500 others, will take place in Lisbon, Portugal, from November 1 to 4. Topics to be addressed at the four-day conference run the gamut, from emerging technologies, sustainability and venture capitalism to news, advertising and investing. Besides Google and Amazon, partnering sponsors include Siemens, Cisco Systems, the European Commission and the WebOps platform Pantheon.
Sarsour, a Palestinian-American activist who has allegedly promoted anti-Israel policies and been accused of making anti-Semitic statements, rose to prominence in 2017 as co-chair of the national Women's March before a controversial departure. She is known for her support of the Palestinian-led Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement, which promotes boycotts, divestment and economic sanctions against Israel.
Currently, she is the co-founder of Until Freedom, described as "a social justice organization with diverse people of color addressing systemic and racial injustice."
Newsweek reached out to Sarsour through both her social media platforms and her Until Freedom's email for a response but did not hear back before publishing.
Founded by Paddy Cosgrave, David Kelly and Daire Hickey, Web Summit is a Dublin company that mounts programs worldwide. This year's event speakers will include actress Amy Poehler (representing her Amy Poehler's Smart Girls website), Representative Stacey Plaskett (who represents the U.S. Virgin Islands), Microsoft President Brad Smith and Amazon Chief Technology Officer Werner Vogels. Frances Haugen, the Facebook whistleblower who has been in the news lately, recently signed on as a speaker. The sessions will mostly last 20 minutes.
But it's Sarsour's scheduled appearance that has Jewish and pro-Israel advocacy organization leaders indignant.
"That Linda Sarsour, who has made a career out of lying about Israel, vilifying the Jewish people and seeking to make anti-Semitism politically correct, is expected to be a speaker at the Web Summit raises profound questions about the sponsors' judgment and agenda," Jason Isaacson, the American Jewish Committee's chief policy and political affairs officer, told Newsweek.
In July, Sarsour retweeted a post by Rafael Shimunov, a board member of Jews for Racial and Economic Justice, a group that described Sarsour as a friend and colleague. Shimunov's tweet criticized the Israel Defense Forces' (IDF) efforts to help rescue the victims of the Seaside, Florida, condominium collapse.
"I really don't understand the IDF's involvement in rescue attempts of people tragically crushed under buildings in Miami. Their expertise is crushing buildings with people in them, not rescuing them," the tweet read.
Sarsour added two-finger emojis pointing downward as she quote-tweeted Shimunov's tweet. While the retweet has since been deleted, her suggested affirmation led to condemnation from Israeli Ambassador to the United Nations Danny Danon and StandWithUs Executive Director Michael Dickson, among others.
Dickson described Sarsour's action as "heartless" and "evil" and reprimanded Sarsour for "compounding the victims' pain at a time when many Jewish people are still buried under rubble in #surfside, and while Israeli & American first responders work side by side to help them and their neighbors from all backgrounds."
The incident led Sarsour to take a five-day break from the social media platform, tweeting that Twitter was "a place where those with no morals or values can take someone's tweet & claim higher ground with no reflection or retrospection on the atrocities and injustice they support on a daily basis."
Sarsour previously used the platform to berate Lebanese-American author and anti-Islam activist Brigitte Gabriel and Somali-born activist/feminist Ayaan Hirsi Ali, two prominent women who favor reforming the tenets of Islam. A tweet by Sarsour from 2011, which resurfaced six years later, read: "Brigitte Gabriel=Ayaan Hirsi Ali. She's asking 4 an A$$ whippin'. I wish I could take their vaginas away - they don't deserve to be women."
At the upcoming Web Summit, Sarsour, who will be joined by Siyabulela Mandela, a South Sudan team leader at Journalists for Human Rights, is set to speak on "Why we should not be bystanders."
The session is described as follows: "In 1999, Elie Wiesel warned against the perils of indifference, against being bystanders in the face of evil. In this session, we're joined by two individuals who have heeded that warning and through their efforts, have made the world a better place." Sarsour is also scheduled to conduct a Q&A the following day.
"It is disheartening to see who has been invited to a panel that references Elie Wiesel—and, by implication, the Holocaust—to talk about the perils of indifference, against being bystanders in the face of evil," Alyza Lewin, president of the Louis D. Brandeis Center for Human Rights Under Law, told Newsweek.
Roz Rothstein, CEO and co-founder of StandWithUs, an international pro-Israel nonprofit, questioned why a technology summit would give a platform to "someone with a long record of promoting hate."
"The Women's March was undermined by anti-Semitism under Sarsour's leadership. Like her colleague Tamika Mallory, she refused to denounce the vile bigotry of Louis Farrakhan and has paid members of his hate group to act as her security detail," said Rothstein, noting Sarsour's recent endorsement of Shimunov's tweet.
"Knowing Linda's reputation, it's unfathomable that she would contribute anything but toxicity to a conference like this by her mere affiliation," Rothstein said.
Christians United for Israel founder and Chairman John Hagee said, "No organization of conscience should provide Linda Sarsour a platform. She has a long history of anti-Semitism and should be shunned by all who abhor such bigotry. Adding insult to injury, the organizers of Web Summit sought fit to cite the late Elie Wiesel in their description of Sarsour's session."
Rob Babos, a communications associate for the annual conference, said that while he couldn't speak about the choice of specific speakers, the Web Summit's guiding principle from the start has been "to bring people together from different backgrounds and different beliefs."
"Put them on a stage together and you'd be surprised what will happen," said Babos, noting that the pros and cons are weighed when it comes to the participation of conference speakers. "There's a bar that's used—if the person does more good by being there, then they're in," he explained.
"We are a forum for debate and discussion for many points of view.... We bring people together, and we expect them to be challenged," Babos said.
In 2018, former far-right French presidential candidate Marine Le Pen was set to speak until Cosgrave rescinded her invitation after facing an online backlash over her scheduled appearance. The Web Summit CEO had previously defended giving Le Pen, the leader of the National Rally political party, a platform.
"Based on advice we have received and the large reaction online overnight, her presence is disrespectful in particular to our host country. It is also disrespectful to some of the many tens of thousands of attendees who join us from around the world," tweeted Cosgrave 24 hours after he had defended her appearance.
"The issue of hate, freedom of expression and platform technologies is one of the defining questions of 2018. We will redouble our efforts to approach this difficult issue at Web Summit with more care," he also said at the time.
Newsweek also reached out to several of the conference's speakers (some of whose companies are sponsors) through their public relations representatives. Those included Amazon's Vogels and its senior vice president of Alexa, Tom Taylor; Microsoft's Smith; and Reddit Chief Operating Officer Jen Wong. Other than a comment from a Vogels representative, who said he had nothing further to share beyond Vogels' session description posted online, none responded.
Congresswoman Plaskett's director of communications, Mike McQuerry, was contacted by Newsweek but did not respond before publication.
While the Anti-Defamation League declined to comment to Newsweek, a statement was issued by its CEO, Jonathan Greenblatt, in 2017 regarding the controversy over Sarsour as the City University of New York's commencement speaker. He rejected her positions delegitimizing Israel and condemned anti-Muslim bigotry by those demonstrating against her. The ADL's mission is "to stop the defamation of the Jewish people, and to secure justice and fair treatment to all."
An August 2020 National Review article said then-Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden condemned Sarsour's alleged anti-Semitic views, according to his spokesman at the time, Andrew Bates. The comment was made in response to Sarsour speaking at the Democratic National Committees Muslim Delegates and Allies Assembly.
"Joe Biden has been a strong supporter of Israel and a vehement opponent of anti-Semitism his entire life, and he obviously condemns her views and opposed BDS, as does the Democratic platform," Bates told CNN, as reported by National Review. "She has no role in the Biden campaign whatsoever."
Later, during a call with prominent Arab and Muslims, the Biden campaign expressed remorse over how the statement denouncing the former Women's March leader was construed, according to the Jewish News Syndicate. Following that, the campaign clarified that the call was not intended as an apology.
Meanwhile, Babos said planning and setup for the upcoming summit at the Altice Arena, which includes the use of four airplane hangars and a 15,000-seat stadium, has gone smoothly. Tickets range in price from 900 euros as a general attendee to 24,900 at the "chairperson" level. Organizers expect 40,000 attendees.
"We believe some of what they speak about backstage and outside of the conference is just as important," said Babos, noting the creation of the Web Summit's app that uses algorithms to help guide attendees to those most beneficial for them to network with. "The bottom line is that people try to meet other people, and we try to make that easy and fun as possible."
Christians United for Israel's Hagee, however, said the organizers of the event "are either indifferent to anti-Semitism or have had the wool pulled over their eyes. Either way, they need to rectify this abomination immediately."
Lewin, of the Brandeis Center for Human Rights Under Law, said, "I am deeply dismayed that a major conference like this one appears to adopt this inverted and dangerous definition of evil. It means that the world is turning a blind eye to the genuine evil that targets Jews."
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