Seattle Metro Bus Ad Controversy: King County Suspends Free Speech

Like a good general, I have a rule I try to follow about blogging: I try to choose the terrain on which I will fight.  I like the terrain to favor me.  If my opponent chooses to fight on their terrain, I prefer not to engage unless I think it’s favorable to me.  That’s why I’ve declined to enter into the local fracas-become international cause celebre involving a series of Seattle Metro Bus ads which decry U.S. military aid to Israel and accuse it of committing war crimes during Operation Cast Lead.

Before entering this political swamp, let me make something clear: I have no problem with any of the issues raised in the ads, which is why I strongly attack King County executive Dow Constantine’s decision to pull the plug on them after an outcry from a local Israel lobby coalition.  I strongly support the right of the group which organized them to display them.  The issue of U.S. military aid to Israel is an important one as is the even more important issue of possible war crimes committed by the IDF in Gaza during the last war.

But I do have problem with both sides of this debate: both the advertisers and the pro-Israel baying chorus trying to take them down.  First, my problem with the ad.  If you want to make a political point AND influence people you make your argument coherent and plausible.  You don’t flaunt rhetoric.  You don’t score points.  You don’t shout when a calm voice will do.  There are thousands of different iterations of this ad which would’ve worked as effectively and made it harder for the pro-Israel crowd to get the ads taken down.

But the ad organizers went for the jugular.  They made their choice and undoubtedly are happy their ads were banned since it will play well to their constituency.  The other side will think it has won a victory and feel pleased with itself.  What it won’t realize is that any time you have to win a victory at the expense of fundamental constitutional principles of free speech and fairness, you’ve lost in the long run.  Meaning Israel has lost too.  And if your cause is Israel, then you’ve done your cause a disservice.

Now my much more serious problems with the smear campaign run by the local pro-Israel advocates including the Jewish federation, Aipac, American Jewish Committee and Stand With Us.  Here’s some of their rhetoric as mouthed by local King County Councilmember Jane Sprague, who’s dutifully repeating the Israel lobby talking points as all obedient U.S. politicians tend to do:

The ad reads “Israeli War Crimes Your tax dollars at work,” and has an image of a group of children staring at a destroyed building.  . Like many of you, I find the ad disturbing. Yesterday I sent a letter to the Executive and Metro officials demanding that they put a halt the ads…

We need to be mindful that inflammatory speech like this can affect many groups including our Jewish Community. I strongly believe in freedom of speech and our first amendment rights…Messages like these, that lack basic civility, can incite violence against minorities and various religious communities. We need to be able to protect those who can be hurt as a result.

What is “inflammatory” about this speech? That it accuses Israel of committing war crimes in Gaza? Major Israeli newspapers run stories virtually every day recounting stories of Israeli atrocities during the war and using terms like “war crimes” to describe them. Yes, I’d prefer to use terms like “alleged” or “possible” since the war crimes haven’t been proven in a court of law yet. But I find absolutely nothing wrong with putting forward a political argument in such ads claiming that Israel committed war crimes.

Now, as to whether U.S. taxpayers financed those atrocities with U.S. military aid: that seems incontrovertible. Israel’s military has used American weaponry liberally and even flagrantly in situations such as the mass firing of U.S. cluster bombs during the concluding hours of the 2006 Lebanon war, leaving Lebanese civilians to suffer the tragic consequences after the war ended as they unintentionally exploded the ordinance on their property and roads.

As to the ads “lacking basic civility,” well, excuse me but a cluster bomb in your backyard or an F-16 levelling your Gaza apartment building is a pretty uncivil message sent from the American people to Palestinians courtesy of the Israeli Air Force. Do the American people deserve the right to know about such things in bus ads? You bet.

But there is another deeply disturbing notion put forward by pro-Israel advocates in this message: that Israel=American Jews. That Americans somehow blame their fellow Jewish citizens for the acts of Israel. This is not only an offensive concept, it simply isn’t true.  America is not a place in which Jews will be blamed for Israel’s alleged crimes.  I reject this notion.

The anti-ad coalition views Israel and world Jewry as being inseparable, as being joined at the hip. But the vast majority of Jews in the world don’t accept this equation. I am a Jew, not an Israeli. Israel doesn’t speak for me, nor I for Israel. When Israel acts badly, I am not at fault nor do my fellow Americans see as such.

But it is convenient for Stand With Us and the rest of the Israel advocates to claim there is “no daylight” between Israel and us because then they can argue that hostility to Israeli policy=anti-Israelism and even anti=Semitism. Let me point out as clearly as I can: this notion is noxious. It is offensive. I utterly reject it as should all Americans and American Jews who care about Israel.

Israel doesn’t need all Jews to identify with it unconditionally. Israel need to become a normal nation in the Middle East. To do so, it needs to come to terms with its Arab neighbors. Having world Jewry’s identity confused with Israel’s will not help this process. It will indeed poison it. If you want to be a friend to Israel tell it to make peace with its neighbors and not presume all the Jews in the world think everything it does is honky dory.

King County’s executive has done a grave disservice to free speech in suspending these ads. Not only this, he has handed a victory to those sponsoring the ads.  He has given them the high ground. I hope they sue the county and get a judge to rule on this situation. It is really a contract dispute. The County signed a contract and then violated it. Grounds for reneging are specious. Metro approved those ads then took the Mideast Awareness Campaign’s $3,000.  After signing on the dotted line, they want to back out.  I’d love to see this tested in court.

Dow Constantine is a craven political coward.  Read the bullshit that he’s published under the name of the King County government:

“I have consulted with federal and local law enforcement authorities who have expressed concern, in the context of this international debate, that our public transportation system could be vulnerable to disruption.”

…Given the dramatic escalation of debate in the past few days over these proposed ads, and the submission of inflammatory response ads, there is now an unacceptable risk of harm to or disruption of service to our customers should these ads run.”

Yes, ads that are political speech and counter-speech will cause terrorism.  That’s what he’s essentially claiming.  Thank God, this is a view fully rejected by our nation’s Founders.  Speech is speech.  It is not an act and certainly not an illegal act.  What utter nonsense.  To retreat behind the skirts of a nameless federal bureaucrat who supposeldy told him to can an ad.  I want to know: which federal official did he consult and what did he say?  In fact, I’d like to file a Freedom of Information Act petition with Country government for every piece of internal information regarding this ad.  So, Dow Constantine, I’d be careful what you say and make sure it’s the truth.  You wouldn’t want to look awfully stupid if you mouthed nonsense like this, and were caught afterward doing so.

In fact, I wouldn’t be surprised if David Horowitz’s counter ads were deliberately formulated in the most vitriolic terms possible, knowing that by doing so they would virtually force Metro to cancel the original ad, which was their real purpose.  Really, who cares what the counter ads would say as long as they didn’t explicitly advocate illegality or violence?  I’d like to see fools like Horowitz and his ilk voice anti-Muslim views on Seattle buses so the entire city can laugh them out of town.  What’s the cure to bad speech?  More speech.  Not no speech.  What Metro is doing is saying Seattleites are delicate flowers who can’t withstand the furor of political debate.  Somehow they must be protected from opinions that are too hot.  Otherwise, what?  What would happen?  Would the Seattle explode in WTO type riots merely because of a few bus ads?  C’mon.  Who’re they kidding.

You’ve heard conservatives deride the “Nanny State.”  Well, here in Seattle we have the “Nanny County” protecting residents from the bad, bad man saying bad, bad things.  I say let 1,000 flowers bloom.  So what if some are weeds?  A weed here or there won’t kill us.  It’s the garden of debate that is important.

This article was originally published at Tikun Olam and is reprinted with the author’s permission.


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Richard Silverstein

Richard Silverstein

Richard Silverstein is an author, journalist and blogger, with articles appearing in Haaretz, the Jewish Forward, Los Angeles Times, the Guardian’s Comment Is Free, Al Jazeera English, and Alternet. His work has also been in the Seattle Times, American Conservative Magazine, Beliefnet and Tikkun Magazine, where he is on the advisory board. Check out Silverstein's blog at Tikun Olam, one of the earliest liberal Jewish blogs, which he has maintained since February, 2003.

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