In her latest attempt to fan the flames of Islamaphobia, anti-Arab sentiments, and blind allegiance to Israel across America, Pamela Geller launched an ad campaign imploring Americans, “In any war between the civilized man and the savage, support the civilized man. Support Israel, defeat Jihad”. Published in August on buses and subway cars in San Francisco, the ad made its debut in New York City subway stations this week and is due to speckle the nation’s capital in the near future.
Geller’s vulgar and hateful ad campaign has rightfully received much resistance and heat from local populations, as well as the public transportation authorities whose vehicles it smuts. Local anti-hate activists’ creative and artistic responses have branded these ads as racist and hate speech. Her violent and distasteful language has been slammed for reeking of colonial racism and white supremacy. The San Francisco MTA refused to run the ad as it contradicts their stance against defamatory language, until Geller went to court and, winning the case, protected the ad under the First Amendment (much to their credit, in a refreshing reaction to being forced to post the ad, the SFMTA donated its proceeds from the ad to the San Francisco Human Rights Commission).
The language Geller employs in her ad is shocking, hurtful, divisive, violent, hateful, racist, and vulgar. But it is out there, and potentially spreading. The question now remains: what to do with it?
Activists’ artistic editorials to the ad are a just and pithy response to its denigrating message. To those who cite activists’ actions as public defamation, I would counter that anyone who has seen the free-hand, Sharpie scrawlings that run rampant on New York City subway ads knows that public responses to ads are an ongoing occurrence in public transportation systems; to single this incident out above often-grotesque scribbled commentaries belies a prejudice against anti-hate activism and not a wider concern for respect of public ads. Written and published responses are also appropriate resistance to the spread of its hate-inciting message. But the specific language used in the ads has given us an opportunity to again push for the reframing of the ‘Israeli-Palestinian conflict’ (a banal label) as one of colonization.
As Dr. Hamid Dabashi writes, Geller’s antiquated language harks back to that used by white supremacists against any number of colonized people of color who were seen as ‘uncivilized’, and today Muslims, Palestinians, Arabs—they are the savages du jour. Geller has succeeded in resurrecting the colonial call for defense against the ‘savages’; her language has squarely placed Israel in the position of colonizer. Activists have jumped on this opportunity amending some ads to read, “In any war between the colonizer and the colonized, support the oppressed. Support the Palestinian Right of Return, defeat racism.” Indeed, Geller’s ad campaign is born out of a response to a public ad campaign illustrating Israeli colonization of Palestinian land from 1946-2010. In retaliating against an ad that depicts Israeli colonization, Geller created an ad whose language echoes that of white colonizers of Native American land, African land, and Asian land—reaffirming Israel’s role as colonizer. The conceptualization and understanding of Israel as a colonial force is crucial to reframing the Palestinian struggle as just that—a struggle against colonialism, oppression, and violations.
Those who support Palestinian rights have, in recent years, gained ground in changing the language used around Israel and Palestine. Words and phrases like ‘ethnic cleansing’, ‘colonization’, and ‘apartheid’ are increasingly finding their way into mainstream discussions and writings about Israel and Palestine. Reappropriating the language used to depict the power-structure between Israel and Palestine is an important step in elucidating the inequality which lies between them: one is a nation state, the other a dispossessed people. Reframing ‘the conflict’ from a power struggle between two seemingly equal entities, to the struggle of an oppressed people against their oppressor, situates Palestinians’ struggle alongside those of other formerly-colonized people. When the Palestinian struggle is conceptualized and understood from this vantage point, it can begin to be viewed through the lens of human rights violations and as a struggle for the rectification of mass injustices and violations.
Geller’s ads are unjustifiably atrocious. However, her vulgarity, violence, and baseness may serve to remind us once again that the Israeli occupation is just that—a vulgar, violent, and base colonization of Palestinian land and people.