After petitions and protests and Mayor Brian Bowman’s plea that she not be allowed to speak in Winnipeg, many wondered how Palestinian American activist Linda Sarsour would address the situation.
She chose humour, in her first words to a packed house at the Ukrainian Labour Temple on Friday night.
"It is I," Sarsour said to the crowd of 300 people, waving one arm out theatrically as if pretending to be some great ruler or spiritual leader.
"I am the drama you heard about," she said innocently. Her words were greeted with robust applause.
If Bowman’s aim was to silence Sarsour, it clearly backfired. The event sold out thanks to a rush of sales, the final week. "Everything helps," replied one organizer, when asked if the controversy was good for ticket sales.
Sarsour was one of three panellists at Sorry Not Sorry: Unapologetically Working for Social Justice, a public discussion on building community and communicating across cultural lines. The event was held by the Social Planning Council of Winnipeg, marking its 100th anniversary, as well as the Canadian Muslim Women’s Institute.
'I have every right to speak so I was quite disappointed and dismayed by Mayor Bowman's comments, a man who does not know me'— Activist Linda Sarsour, saying she's simply a critic of Israeli policy, not an anti-Semite
Organizers didn’t back down despite Bowman’s plea and petitions against her by some Jewish groups.
About 20 protesters waving placards and Israeli flags protested outside the Labour Temple.
"They shouldn’t bring in Israel haters," said Ron East, a member of the Jewish community who said he started the petition against Sarsour. East, saying he represented a group called Stop Israel Hatred, called Sarsour "a Jew hater" and said many politicians have told him they privately support his position.
But not all Jews at the event were on the outside protesting. Some Jews were in the audience and supported Sarsour’s right to speak.
"There’s nothing conflictual at all about respecting the rights of Palestine and respecting Israel," said one man, who identified himself as Jewish.
Bowman described her as anti-Zionist and anti-Semitic. In an interview 30 minutes before she spoke, Sarsour said she was shocked that a mayor would make a public appeal to disinvite her to a city.
It’s the first time an elected official anywhere in the world, including the United States, has ever tried to stop her from speaking, she said.
"This is a democratic nation, just as the United States is. I have every right to speak so I was quite disappointed and dismayed by Mayor Bowman’s comments, a man who does not know me," she said.
She said those people protesting have the wrong opinion about her, "rooted in Islamophobia and anti-Palestinian sentiment."
Sarsour gained a high profile for helping plan the Women’s March on Washington following U.S. President Donald Trump’s inauguration in January 2017. She has attracted controversy for her criticism of Israel, which some believe crossed the line into anti-Jewish sentiment.
Asked in an interview if she was anti-Semite, Sarsour responded that she has had a long relationship with Jewish organizations in the U.S. "I have raised hundreds of thousands of dollars to help vandalized Jewish synagogues and cemeteries," she said.
She said people take issue with her criticism of Israel but she said that does not equate to anti-Semitism.
"I am a critic of the state of Israel. I, as a Palestinian, have every right to be a critic of the state of Israel, just as I am a critic of the government of Saudi Arabia, and the government of the United States where I live," she said.
Sarsour also stressed that she was not in Winnipeg to talk about the Middle East but to discuss social justice and organizing coalitions to that end.
In her opening remarks to the audience, Sarsour thanked members of the social planning council for "standing their ground" and attributed that largely to its being "women-led."
The event took place at the Ukrainian Labour Temple after the original venue at the Seven Oaks School Division Performing Arts Centre on Jefferson Avenue was cancelled by division officials in the face of a petition with more than 1,250 signatures opposed to Sarsour’s participation.
Shannon Sampert, University of Winnipeg political science professor and the former Free Press editorial page editor from 2014-17, moderated Friday night’s event.
Sampert called it "a historical night in this historical place," and called the three panellists "very bright and brilliant women."
Sampert said she went to dinner with Sarsour on Friday and it was like being with a "rock star."
Also on the panel was Chantell Barker, a First Nation woman from Sapotoweyak Cree Nation with a background in restorative justice and conflict resolution.
The third panellist was Nora Loreto, a Quebec City-based writer and activist, particularly in the labour movement, who has penned a book and contributed to the Washington Post.
Tickets ranged from $35 to $60. However, low-income tickets could be had from the SPCW office for only $15.
Bill Redekop has been covering rural issues since 2001.
Updated on Saturday, April 27, 2019 at 1:50 PM CDT: final