NEW YORK — Political ads posted in 10 New York City subway stations that equate criticism of Israel with Islamic terrorism have aroused little response from busy commuters, but a war of words between the group that paid for the ads and activist Muslim and other faith groups.
Depending on your point of view, the message is either provocative or inflammatory. It says, “In any war between the civilized man and the savage, support the civilized man. Support Israel, defeat Jihad.”
The signs were paid for by the American Freedom Defense Initiative, a group that decries what it views as the growing threat of Islamic fundamentalism. The group’s head, Pamela Geller, said the ads are a response to what she called anti-Jewish political signs that appeared in New York transit stations last year and last month.
“One of the ads called for the end of U.S. aid to Israel, implying that U.S. aid to Israel was an impediment to peace, when in fact, U.S. aid to Israel is an impediment to the annihilation of Israel,” Geller said. “Another anti-Israel campaign, 100 kiosks on New York City metro transit, was this fake, false map of this aggressive Israel quote unquote, ‘eating up’ all of Palestinian land.”
Geller said her ads are not anti-Islamic, and she insists the word “jihad” means to wage war for Islam, even though many modern Muslims use it to refer to an internal struggle for spiritual growth. “The fact of the matter is that close to 20,000 deadly Islamic attacks since 9/11 have all called it jihad, have all called it holy war, have all cited Quranic chapter and verse, and jihadic doctrine. And we have to be able to talk about this,” Geller said.
But to Muslims and members of other established religions, including prominent Jewish groups, such as the Anti-Defamation League, the ads are hate speech, even if constitutionally protected.
“We are civil rights advocates, so we absolutely defend Pamela Geller’s right to be a racist and a bigot,” said Cyrus McGoldrick, an official with the Council on American-Islamic Relations. “I think, though, that it’s our American duty to repudiate such disgusting language, such racist language as this opposition between the civilized and the savage.”
Subway travelers who saw the signs had varying reactions, both principled and pragmatic. “I think it’s terrible to use such horrible offensive language to tell lies about other people,” said one woman.
A male commuter was concerned the signs would provoke violence. “I think just sensitivities around the subways, considering that was one of the targets considered by other terror groups in the past here, in the city it’s probably a bad idea,” he said. But another commuter disagreed, saying, “I don’t think it’s hurtful. It’s just a matter of opinion and it is freedom of speech. If they want to take [offense], then they can start a riot, for no reason at all,” she said.
McGoldrick said that most subway travelers he observed did not even notice the signs, and that troubling as they are to him, the issue ranks low among the other serious concerns of American Muslims.
“However, we need to be conscious that this is propaganda,” he said, “and that this propaganda feeds war, that war depends on Islamophobia. When it’s so easy to demonize Muslims here, to dehumanize Muslims here, it’s much easier to justify wars abroad.”
For her part, Pamela Geller says the ads have succeeded in increasing awareness and opening up a dialogue about an anti-Israeli bias that she feels is suppressed in most news reports. She is pressing a court case now to force the Washington, D.C. transit system to run the same ads.