After Pamela Geller is Silenced, Who’s Next?
In early May, I was on a New York subway speaking to a friend of mine that I had not seen in three decades. I spoke to him about my work and the distant prospects for peace between Israel and the Palestinians. Peace with the Palestinians is simply not in the offing, I told him. Israel has done everything it could to achieve peace with the Palestinians, only to be met with continued terrorism and violence.
“What did you say?” another passenger asked, with a mixture of incredulity and hostility. He spoke with a slight accent, but not too strong. I looked the young man over and concluded that he was from the Middle East, maybe even from the West Bank.
I looked him dead in the eye and said, “Israel has done all it can to make peace with the Palestinians.”
“That is so not true,” he said.
Logically, he had a point because Israel can always “do more” to make peace with the Palestinians, but on a practical level, I had the better case. The dream of land for peace has become a nightmare of land for rockets.
“We’ll just have to agree to disagree,” I said.
He moved his way angrily through the crowd to get away from me, but remained within earshot. I kept talking. I talked about the Islamist assertion of supremacy toward non-Muslims and about how this tradition had fueled anti-Jewish and anti-Christian violence for the past several decades (centuries, actually) in the Middle East.
I told my friend that at one time there was a tradition of interpreting the Koran in light of current circumstances, but the door of interpretation (bab al ijtihad) been closed in the 11th century. Principled Muslims are struggling to reopen it and non-Muslims are learning about the impact of Sharia, so there is hope, but also a lot of work to be done.
My viewpoint was clearly offensive to the hostile young man who was still listening to me a few feet away, but I kept talking. If I went silent, I’d be granting my antagonistic listener veto power over my free speech.
When he walked past me to get off the subway, he looked me in the eye and said, “I’ll see you later.” The menace in his demeanor and tone was unmistakable.
The next day, two Muslim jihadists were killed in Garland, Texas, as they tried to murder attendees at a “Draw Mohammad” cartoon contest organized by Pamela Geller, a well-known anti-jihad activist.
In the days and weeks after the attack, a number of commentators argued that Geller was somehow culpable for the attack. A prominent Arab-American journalist stated that Geller, who has been the target of death threats for years, was “worse than ISIS.”
To its everlasting shame, the New York Times directed more of its ire at Geller than the people who wanted her dead. People condemned Geller – not her would-be murderers – for failing to exercise restraint. The underlying message was that Geller was too vulgar to participate in public life in America.
The very segment of the body politic that was pointing the finger of blame at Geller had either remained silent or had watched in glee as Christian and Jewish sensibilities had been offended on a regular basis over the past few decades.
When confronted with this double standard, the people who condemned Geller responded with lame assertions that they found attacks on Christian and Jewish sensibilities to be rude and contrary to the ethic of civil society.
But the fact remains that they waited until two Muslim gunmen died in an attempt to kill dozens of people in Garland, Texas, before expressing their concerns over anti-Christian and anti-Jewish polemics. If they found these provocations so rude and offensive, why hadn’t they said so before?
The criticism against Geller was not rooted in principle, but in fear.
The fear is justified. Commentators and artists who offend Catholic sensibilities might get a letter from the Catholic League. Offend Jews and you get a letter from the ADL or the local Board of Rabbis.
Offend Muslim sensibilities and you might get shot. Just ask Theo Van Gogh and the staffers at Charlie Hebdo magazine in France. If you’re lucky, you won’t be killed but merely driven underground like Salman Rushdie or Molly Norris, a cartoonist who is still in hiding for years after organizing an “Everybody Draw Mohammed Day” in Seattle a few years back.
In the days after the botched jihadist attack in Garland, Texas, I thought back to the young man on the subway in New York City who told me, “I’ll see you later.”
I had been seeing young men like him for years.
The first time was outside the Israel Consulate in Boston in late 2008. I was part of a group of pro-Israel activists who had come to stand across the street from a crowd of “pro-Palestinian” (read anti-Israel) activists who had gathered to protest Israel’s attacks on Hamas, which had launched rockets into Israel. During the first part of the rally, the anti-Israel crowd was made up of mostly far-left peace activists from nearby Cambridge and Somerville.
The Israeli Consulate had become a regular gathering point for them in recent years, serving as a symbol of everything they rebelled against – the nation state, the military, the use of force in the international system, and the right of national self-defense. They were loud, but not frightening. They weren’t trying to intimidate anyone, but merely draw attention to themselves.
Then a dozen or so young men showed up all wearing a similar uniform of dark clothes and leather boots. They took up a position at the front of the rally and started chanting “Down Down Israel!” There were at most 20 of these young men, but they generated as much noise and energy as the rest of the crowd put together. They moved in unison, chanted in unison and projected an aura of hate, hostility, and a threat of violence.
I observed more protesters like this at rallies during yet another confrontation between Israel and Hamas, this time in 2014. Early on in the summer, the protests were mostly attended by college students and hippy leftists. But as the summer progressed, a growing number of women in hijabs and men in keffiyehs started to show up at the rallies, which were organized and publicized in part by the local school bus driver’s union and the Boston chapter of Jewish Voice for Peace.
At all of the rallies, people chanted “Intifada, Intifada, Long Live the Intifada!” There have been two intifadas in Israel and the disputed territories; both were marked by shocking acts of violence. Calling for an intifada in a city that one year previously had endured the Marathon Bombing perpetrated by two jihadists from overseas seemed bad form, to say the least.
The culmination came on July 25, when protesters gathered to demonize Israel in honor of Al Quds Day, a worldwide celebration of anti-Israel and anti-Western hate organized by Iran. People here carried signs that equated Zionism with Nazism.
By carrying signs like this and chanting for an intifada, the people who participated in this rally declared themselves enemies of the very civilization that allowed them to gather and protest.
Local media outlets portrayed the protests as “peace” rallies when in fact, they were part of a propaganda war designed to promote hate and hostility toward Israel and its supporters, Jews especially, in the U.S.
I took pictures of the protesters and their signs to document what local newspapers and television stations would not cover – a reservoir of anti-Americanism, anti-Zionism, and naked anti-Semitism in Boston, the cradle of freedom.
Fortunately, pro-Israel activists showed up to counter the anti-Israel rallies. Most of the time, they were outnumbered. At one rally, the crowd of anti-Israel zealots physically surrounded and shouted at the smaller crowd of pro-Israel activists that had shown up to counter them. (It was at this rally that pro-Israel activist Chloe Valdary was assaulted.)
The radicals who hate on Israel in America’s public square are motivated by an anti-democratic agenda. Israel is not the only democracy they seek to harm.
What is most troubling is that a number of people who should know better seem intent on making it easier for jihadists to destroy our public square with their threats and intimidation.
One way they do this is to point the finger of condemnation at Pamela Geller and not at those who are intent on murdering her.
In the headline to a Reuters article about the planned attack, Business Insider described Geller as the “Head of anti-Muslim hate group.” Whoever wrote this headline is legitimizing jihadist hate and violence against Geller by portraying Geller, and not those who would kill her, as the problem.
It didn’t start with Pamela Geller and it won’t end with her.
Now it’s Pamela Geller’s turn.