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Linda Sarsour Appearance at Harvard Arab Conference Sparks Hillel, McKinsey Criticism

Harvard Hillel Executive Director Rabbi Jonah C. Steinberg criticized Linda Sarsour's remarks at the Arab Conference at Harvard, which was hosted by Harvard student groups earlier this month.
Harvard Hillel Executive Director Rabbi Jonah C. Steinberg criticized Linda Sarsour's remarks at the Arab Conference at Harvard, which was hosted by Harvard student groups earlier this month. By Joey Huang
By Rahem D. Hamid, Miles J. Herszenhorn, and Makanaka Nyandoro, Crimson Staff Writers

UPDATED: March 18, 2023, at 8:37 p.m.

Consulting firm McKinsey & Company and Harvard Hillel’s executive director criticized the Arab Conference at Harvard’s decision to invite Linda Sarsour, a Palestinian rights activist and an activist for Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions, which advocates for institutions globally to sever ties with Israel.

The Arab Conference at Harvard, organized by the Harvard Arab Alumni Association and various student groups, was held virtually and in-person from March 3 to March 5. ACH is the “largest pan-Arab conference in North America,” hosting more than 1,300 students and professionals and 20,000 virtual attendees, according to its website.

McKinsey, one of the sponsors for the conference, wrote in a March 6 statement that it withdrew its sponsorship after learning that Sarsour would be speaking at the event.

“When we learned late last week that a speaker at an event our recruiting team was sponsoring at Harvard University had a history of anti-Semitic comments, we immediately stepped away from the conference, canceled our in-person recruiting meeting, and withdrew two speakers from the program,” the statement reads.

“We condemn anti-Semitism in all its forms and stand for inclusion and tolerance everywhere,” the statement continues.

In an interview, Sarsour described the conference as “absolutely wonderful.”

“I don’t even know who they are,” she said, referring to McKinsey. “I had a wonderful time. And I’m sure the people who attended had a wonderful time, regardless of whether McKinsey was there or not.”

The three-day conference featured an array of panels on topics ranging from politics and policymaking in Arab countries to healthcare advancements in the Middle East and North Africa region.

Conference Co-Chair Heba H. Mohamed ’23 praised the line-up of speakers during the opening ceremony on March 3 as a “powerful gathering”, which she said included “human rights defenders, lawyers, physicians, humanitarians, prime ministers, global leaders, and so many more.”

On March 6, Jewish Insider reported that Sarsour — whose views on Israel have drawn scrutiny and allegations of anti-Semitism — said during her talk at the conference that she was “not afraid of Zionists in America.”

“I’m not afraid of people trying to silence me, because nothing that I experience here in the United States — not cancelation, not a headline in this country — is ever going to be anything compared to what our people experience under siege and under military occupation,” Sarsour said, according to Jewish Insider.

In a March 7 email to Hillel affiliates, Harvard Hillel Executive Director Rabbi Jonah C. Steinberg criticized Sarsour’s appearance and remarks at the conference.

“Jewish community and its leaders, however, are faced with accusations — most recently by Linda Sarsour, in her appearance at the Arab Conference — that all of us who care about Israel somehow are ‘trying to silence’ our Arab peers and colleagues at Harvard and others who care for Palestinian rights and aspirations of self-determination,” Steinberg wrote.

“Jews at Harvard largely experience such allegations not only as painful and prejudiced but also as deeply ironic,” he added.

Sarsour said in an interview that she is “open to have a conversation instead of statements that are out of context” in response to Steinberg’s email.

Mohamed, who served as conference co-chair, wrote that the student groups co-organizing the conference “strongly condemn racial discrimination in all its forms” in a statement on behalf of the groups.

“Just like we uphold equality for all, we also uphold everyone’s fundamental right to speech and expression, within the confinements of law,” she wrote. “In light of this, ACH stands by its decision to invite all of its speakers, who are all ardent advocates for justice and freedom for all.”

Mohamed wrote that “no speaker on any panel” has “spread hate speech or otherwise made inflammatory statements towards any ethnic, racial or other minority.”

“We therefore regret that some individuals and media outlets have nevertheless chosen to denigrate ACH notwithstanding the lack of any legitimate ground to do so,” she wrote. “We regret that Mckinsey withdrew their decision to participate as sponsors the day of the conference, particularly when that decision had not been accompanied by adequate justification to our team.”

Steinberg’s statement attributed the line, “when we’re talking about this youth movement for Palestine, Harvard is a perfect example,” to Sarsour. According to Sarsour and Jewish Insider, the quotation was actually from conference speaker Mohamad Habehh, the director of development at American Muslims for Palestine.

After being asked for comment on the mistaken attribution, Steinberg issued a correction to Hillel affiliates on Saturday evening. Steinberg also personally apologized to Sarsour for the misattribution, according to an email obtained by The Crimson.

“I remain alarmed at Ms. Sarsour’s having encouraged antipathy toward Zionism and Israel on campus, and having presented her views in that regard as uniting her audience at the Harvard Arab Conference,” Steinberg wrote in his follow-up email to Hillel affiliates.

Shir Lovett-Graff, a master’s student at Harvard Divinity School and an organizer for HDS Jews for Liberation, said they found Hillel’s response to the conference disappointing.

“As a Jewish student, as a Jewish student organizational leader, it’s really disappointing to me, and it does not represent all Jewish students, nor Jewish voices at Harvard,” they said.

Nadine S. Bahour ’22, a former co-president of the Harvard College Palestine Solidarity Committee, wrote in an email that Steinberg “has abused his institutionally supported role and the power that comes with his position to target student-organized events, students, and myself personally.”

“Ultimately, however, the reaction is only a testament to the rising voices speaking out against apartheid, and the changing student body opinion,” she wrote. “People are starting to realize the reality on the ground in Palestine.”

Steinberg wrote in a statement that he was “not aware of having ‘targeted’ anyone in the PSC personally.”

Steinberg added that it is his responsibility to support the students affected by the event.

“As a Jewish chaplain at Harvard, it is my duty to call out in support of the many students here whom anti-Semitism threatens,” he wrote.

—Staff writer Rahem D. Hamid can be reached at rahem.hamid@thecrimson.com.

—Staff writer Miles J. Herszenhorn can be reached at miles.herszenhorn@thecrimson.com. Follow him on Twitter @MHerszenhorn.

—Staff writer Makanaka Nyandoro can be reached at makanaka.nyandoro@thecrimson.com.

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