October 3, 2012
Let’s pretend, for a moment, that those pro-Israel, anti-Muslim subway ads are a good idea.
You know the ones I mean — the controversial ads proclaiming “In any war between the civilized man and the savage, support the civilized man. Defeat jihad. Support Israel.” The ads were placed by the blogger and full-time anti-Muslim activist Pamela Geller and her organization, the American Freedom Defense Initiative, which insists that America is minutes away from succumbing to sharia law. New York’s Metropolitan Transit Authority had originally rejected the ads as too incendiary, before a court ruled in favor of AFDI. I would say that decision was a strong affirmation of the kind of First Amendment rights that are currently under attack in much of the Muslim world; Geller describes it as victory over “dhimmi officials anxious to comply with Shariah restrictions on free speech.” You say tomato….
In order to regard the ads as a useful tool in the effort to defend Israel — instead of a needless and gratuitously insulting attack on the world’s Muslims — you have to accept some of Geller’s arguments.
By not running the ads, she writes, transit systems are surrendering to the “threat of jihad terrorism.” The ads, she writes, do not refer to all Muslims, or all opponents of Israel. Rather they refer to “those who rejoice in the murders of innocent civilians.”
I am almost inclined to agree with her first point. Although the law does put restrictions on the kind of speech that could lead to imminent violence or danger, it’s becoming hard to predict what messages will or won’t set off a violent response, especially in the streets of Egypt or Pakistan. That stupid anti-Mohammad video sat around on YouTube for months before it was noticed by the Arab “street” or whoever plucked it out of obscurity to scare up the anti-American mobs in Benghazi. And broadly interpreting an attack on Muslims — however harsh — as a spur to violence both underestimates Muslims in this country and hands a veto on free speech to the extremists. (Although I hope Geller never has to confront the mother of a child killed or injured in an attack provoked by her ads and explain, as she does on her blog, “I refuse to sacrifice my freedom so as not to offend savages.”)
As for her second point — that the ads do not refer to all Muslims — that’s a stretch. According to the logic of the ad, you can either support Israel — or support “savages.” Of course, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is not just between Israelis and bus bombers, Hamas rocketeers, Sinai desert infiltrators, and cross-border kidnappers. The conflict also involves millions of Palestinians guilty of nothing but wanting the freedoms and self-determination that come with running their own affairs. This isn’t crazy dhimmi talk — this is the official aspiration of the Israeli government.
When Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks, as he did in his speech last week to the General Assembly, of a “demilitarized Palestinian state [that] recognizes the one and only Jewish State,” is he on the side of Israel or the “savages”? It is not only possible but positively mainstream to support Israel with all your heart and still support a Palestinian state.
But let’s return to my original premise: treating these ads as a coup in the pro-Israel propaganda war. To call them a success, you’d have to imagine that they will spark either a thoughtful discussion of the dangers facing Israel, or a visceral distaste for its enemies. However, the kind of people who would read an ad like this and declare “Damn right!” probably didn’t need much convincing in the first place. As for nearly everyone else — polls suggest the average subway rider is inclined to sympathize with Israel and hold a number of negative stereotypes concerning Muslims. But are they so naive as to accept that the decades of conflict boil down to a clash between civilization and its opposite?
It doesn’t help that the word “savages” seems lifted out of a Victorian boys’ adventure book, the kind that pitted British soldiers in knee socks against spear-handling “natives.” Probably the last thing Israel needs is to be associated with language that is itself associated with “colonialism,” one of the toxic charges flung against it by the BDS crowd.
Geller also doesn’t seem to recognize how the demonization of one religion can end up backfiring on the Jews. You get a taste of this in parts of Europe, where municipalities have been busy trying to criminalize circumcision. The original lower court decision in Cologne that inspired the anti-circumcision drive was aimed at circumcision among Muslims, not Jews. First they came for the imam, and I said nothing….
(By the way, an article on circumcision for the cable channel TLC asks, “Simply put, is circumcision a savage act or good preventive care?”)
The bigger question is whether Israel needs AFDI’s combination of shariaphobia, anti-Muslim bigotry, and conspiracy theorizing. The subway ads don’t present Israel in a good light. Rather, they suggest its supporters are at best Manichean, at worst racist. Under the guise or illusion of defending the Jewish state, the ads paint its supporters as wackos.
Andrew Silow-Carroll is Editor-in-Chief of the New Jersey Jewish News. Between columns you can read his writing at the JustASC blog.