The news that San Francisco supervisors are claiming that a bus ad opposing Israeli “apartheid” is hurtful to the Jewish community has really hit a nerve. The supervisors are just mouthing what rightwing Jewish organizations said about the American Muslims for Palestine(AMP) ad, and it turns out I’m not the only one who’s sick of gasbags conjuring ‘the Jewish community’ every time they want to shut down a conversation. The Supervisor’s letter claims the ad creates “a very real danger to constructive discussion and debate.”
As the National Lawyers Guild says, “While the position that Israel is an apartheid state may be controversial to some, it is an integral part of the global discussion concerning Israel’s treatment of Palestinians.”
Below are three responses to the ad. The first is a National Lawyers Guild Open Letter sent to the Municipal Transportation Agency defending the ad. Then a statement from Cecilie Surasky of Jewish Voice for Peace addressing both the “apartheid” issue and the “Jewish community” in support of the ad two weeks back. Finally a response by Shmuel from our comment board.
An Open Letter Regarding SF Muni Bus Ads:
May 24, 2013
Municipal Transportation Agency
1 South Van Ness Avenue, 7th Floor
San Francisco, CA 94103
Chairman, Board of Directors
Municipal Transportation Agency
1 South Van Ness Avenue, 7th Floor
San Francisco, CA 94103
Dear Mr. Reiskin and Chairman Nolan:
On behalf of the National Lawyers Guild San Francisco Bay Area Chapter, we are writing you to voice our support for the advertisements commissioned by American Muslims for Palestine and express our disagreement with the substance of a letter sent by some San Francisco supervisors, led by Scott Wiener.
The most deplorable aspect of the letter from Supervisor Wiener is its attempt to equate hateful ads targeting all Muslims and labeling them “savages” with ads criticizing a state of affairs in Israel, quoting Nobel Peace Laureate Desmond Tutu, and calling for a political solution – ending U.S. aid to Israel. The anti-Muslim ads were undeniably hate speech. The ads critical of Israeli policies are pure political speech targeting a nation-state not a class of persons.
While the position that Israel is an apartheid state may be controversial to some, it is an integral part of the global discussion concerning Israel’s treatment of Palestinians.
Former President Jimmy Carter has used the word “apartheid” to describe the situation in the Israeli-occupied West Bank, where Jewish-only settlements dot the landscape connected by Jewish-only roads and Palestinians are controlled by walls and checkpoints.
In October 2010 Richard A. Falk reported to the General Assembly Third Committee “It is the opinion of the current Special Rapporteur that the nature of the occupation as of 2010 substantiates earlier allegations of colonialism and apartheid in evidence and law to a greater extent than was the case even three years ago. The entrenching of colonialist and apartheid features of the Israeli occupation has been a cumulative process. The longer it continues, the more difficult it is to overcome and the more serious is the abridgement of fundamental Palestinian rights.”
Furthermore, the idea that Israel is, or is becoming an, apartheid state is openly discussed in Israel as well as among Jewish scholars and commentators. Supervisor Weiner’s letter claims to speak for “the Jewish community,” yet ignores the fact that the Israel apartheid ads are supported by Jewish Voice for Peace and that the position of the Jewish diaspora on Israel and its policies is immensely diverse. As Israeli writer, and former member of the Knesset, Uri Avnery said in 2012: “As it is today, it is an Apartheid state, a full apartheid in the occupied territories and a growing apartheid in Israel – and if this goes on, it will be full apartheid throughout the country, incontestably.”
Equating these two sets of advertisements, one from a recognized hate group defaming Muslims another supported by a range of community organizations criticizing the policies of a nation state, is, at best, irresponsible. We applaud your decision not to accept the funds from hate speech on Muni buses and we urge you to treat the ads critical of Israeli policies toward Palestinians as distinctly different and a critical part of the political discourse.
Cecilie Surasky wrote a “Backlash” article when the ad campaign was first going up and it was getting slammed by those right wing Jewish organizations. These are some of her remarks at AMP’s “End Apartheid Now” Muni ad campaign press conference in downtown San Francisco, addressing who speaks for the Bay Area Jewish community…and apartheid:
The Jewish community here in the Bay Area is stunningly rich and diverse. We disagree about politics, we disagree about God, and we disagree most passionately of all about Israel.
You could say our difference and diversity is our very essence. Which is why we don’t and will never have one spokesperson for the Jews of the Bay Area.
Suffice it to say, our members, and we have thousands of people on our mailing list just in the Bay Area, were shocked to see a statement from the Jewish Community Relations Council, and the local offices of the Anti-Defamation League and the American Jewish Committee, announcing that the “Bay Area Jewish Community” condemned these ads because they used the phrase Israeli apartheid.
None of these organizations have the right to claim to represent the Jews of the Bay Area. In fact, the Jewish Community Relations Council will not publicly release its list of members, we can only assume, because the number of groups they can claim to represent is so small. We know that none of the most vibrant and fastest growing progressive Jewish groups in the Bay Area are part of the JCRC. Neither are many synagogues we know.
And the Anti-Defamation League lost its moral standing to judge what is or isn’t “apartheid” when they famously spied on progressive political and anti-apartheid groups in the 80s and early 90s and, when Israel had close ties with South Africa’s apartheid regime, condemned Nelson Mandela’s African National Congress as “totalitarian, anti-humane, anti-democratic, anti-Israel and anti-American.”
I could go on, but you get the point.
Instead, let me explain why we fully defend American Muslims for Palestine’s right to use the term apartheid.
Apartheid is a legal term precisely defined under international law and refers to policies in any state, not just South Africa. The question is not whether the word is offensive, but whether Israel’s practices in the Occupied Palestinian Territory meet that definition. While people are free to have different opinions, the truth is that many high-ranking Israeli officials, journalists, and human rights experts have already concluded that the term apartheid does indeed accurately describe Israel’s regime.
In fact, the South African government funded an extensive study to answer the question—top legal experts from South Africa, Palestine and Israel spent 15 months looking at international law and Israel’s practices in the Occupied Territory and their 300 page report that stated “this study concludes that Israel has introduced a system of apartheid in the OPT.” (pdf)
So why is it OK when high ranking Israeli officials, and legal scholars use the term apartheid, but considered “morally reprehensible,” “extremist,” “inflammatory,” when Palestinians and American Muslims do exactly the same? At best, this is a double standard of the worst kind. At worst, this is pure bigotry.
Worse, how can critics claim the ad is “targeting one segment of our community.”
What segment? Israel is a state that should be treated like any other- no better and no worse– and as such, people should be able to criticize its policies just as we criticize US policies, or Iranian policies or Mexican policies without being called bigots. If it were any other country, the idea of calling criticism a form of bigotry would be laughable. We don’t think Israel should be singled out for exceptional treatment.
We at Jewish Voice for Peace believe the groups attacking these ads would better serve Jews, Israelis and Palestinians, and all Americans by using their considerable resources and expertise to display outrage not over ads on buses, but instead over the illegal and morally abhorrent Israeli government policy and practices that violate Palestinian human rights.
Palestinians and Jewish Israelis both have the right to live with dignity and opportunity: to go to school and better their lives, provide a home for their families without fear of demolition, travel safely to the hospital for care, and hold the people who have control over them accountable through fair elections.
But in Occupied Palestinian Territory– — over 4 million Palestinians don’t have those rights, while some 600,000 Jewish Israeli settlers do. That’s not fair. That’s called separate and unequal. That’s called Birmingham in the 1950’s –and by some of us, that’s called South Africa during apartheid.
And Shmuel, responding to “intolerance alienating the Jewish community” asks:
Why? Did someone suggest that the Jewish community in SF practises apartheid? Supports apartheid? Defends apartheid? The ad mentions Israel (not the Jewish community), Americans (not Jewish Americans) and the U.S. (not the San Francisco Jewish community).
Had someone called out the “Jewish community” (or at least its mainstream institutions and most vocal spokesmen) for its support and defence of apartheid, that would have been alienating – true, but alienating. If the “Jewish community” can’t take its political choices being challenged (even harshly), then it should stay out of politics.
It’s rather ironic that it is those claiming to defend the Jewish community — not the people behind the ad — who are blaming all Jews (by religious/ethnic association) for Israeli apartheid. Shame on them.
It’s not “dangerous” we’re having this long overdue discussion, in fact it’s quite the opposite.