Anyone who’s been watching the recent round of pearl-clutching and political smears directed at Rep. Ilhan Omar might notice that the Congresswoman is under attack for saying things that it seems we all know. That lobbyists use money to influence politicians, that the U.S. has a uniquely intimate relationship with Israel, and that everyday folks are well within their rights to advocate for Palestinian human rights. And yet, she’s under attack from all sides. It’s a frustrating position to be in. At a time when real anti-Jewish rhetoric and violence is growing in the country, we all need to stand up, condemn it, and find ways to protect Jews and other threatened religious groups. There’s no questions of that. But disingenuous accusations of anti-Semitism that are hurled at Palestinians, or at human rights activists cause damage as well. I know this because I’ve been there.
Last November, my organization, the Palestine Advocacy Project, launched a billboard campaign in Boston, featuring the image of Razan al-Najjar, a 21 year old paramedic from the Gaza strip who was shot dead by Israeli snipers last June. She was killed while administering first aid to wounded protesters during the Great March of Return, in her capacity as a volunteer with the Palestinian Medical Relief Society. The text of the billboard read “Honoring the First Responders of Gaza; Saving Lives, Rescuing Hope.” We honestly didn’t think there could be a more positive message. After all, here was a young women who knowingly risked her life over and over to carry out a humanitarian mission in one of the most difficult places on Earth. In my own opinion, Razan al-Najjar should be held up alongside Emma Gonzalez, Malala Yousefzai, Greta Thunberg, and other young women who have recently been recognized for their strength, leadership, and moral courage in difficult times. Unfortunately, there are quite a few people who don’t agree, and our ad was taken down three weeks into its four-week contract. The reason? The billboard company received a series of complaints and threats, saying that the ad was “anti-Semitic” and “promoted terrorism.”
What could possibly be anti-Semitic about honoring the sacrifice of a courageous young humanitarian?
A few weeks ago, I had the chance to hear Ahmad Abu Artema, a Palestinian poet, peace activist, and one of the principal organizers of the Great March of Return speak at Harvard Law School. The most touching moment of his remarks was when he shared a story from Ms. Al-Najjar’s mother: one day, when her daughter was preparing to join her PMRS colleagues volunteering at one of the demonstrations, her mother asked what she would do if she encountered a wounded Israeli soldier. Razan replied that she would treat him, and offer him care, because she was called to comfort “all humanity”. It struck me not only as a beautiful story, but also a powerful call to peace, that a mother who saw her daughter live through three wars before she turned 18, who saw her family suffer under a poverty imposed by military siege, would still want to tell a message about kindness to those who were responsible for their suffering. It struck me as powerful that a mother would want to tell of her daughter’s compassion for the people who ended up killing her. The story of Razan, and the message sent by her family are not a promotion of anti-Semitism, of terrorism. Instead they are offering an antidote to hatred, and call to solving the long and painful history of Palestine and Israel by starting from an acknowledgement of common humanity, and the importance on equal rights.
Yet still, her image is considered by many to be a call to hatred and violence. It saddens us, and led one of my coworkers at PalAd, who is himself Jewish and the son of a holocaust refugee, to observe that “Apparently, there cannot be Palestinian heroes without some advocates of Israel feeling attacked.”
The billboard is back up, this time on route 95 in Bridgeport, Connecticut, and it’s still making some people feel threatened. We did change the wording initially, to read “Saving Lives Under Israeli Fire” (a very literal truth), but changed it back to the original wording after more complaints. The complaints have continued to roll in, including accusations that it is Hamas propaganda, that it is fundamentally untruthful since “there is no such thing as Palestine”, that it’s an insult to more deserving Israeli medics who have yet to get their billboard spot, and the suggestion that it is all being paid for with “Blood Money”.
This isn’t the first time we’ve been hit with outrage like this. I still remember when our “One Word” advertisements were pulled from public transit in Boston, over similar accusations. A year and a half lawsuit followed, our ads were put back up, but the complaints rolled in again, eventually causing the Massachusetts Bay Transit Authority to remove all political advertising from trains and buses. I remember addressing the MBTA board, as pro-Israel activists, those who had rallied to have our ads removed, screamed that I was a liar, and yelled slurs at my Jewish colleague. We were given a security detail as we left the building. I remember when the same colleague received menacing messages, including threats of physical harm against him and his family from people who viewed him as a traitor. I remember when a billboard went up across the street from my apartment with a large hammer, and the words “Smash anti-Semitism”, hardly a subtle message. I remember, most horrifically, when a billboard truck driver was running one of our ads in Los Angeles, and another motorist pulled alongside, pointed a handgun in the window, and cursed at him, before driving away again.
And quite frankly, after five years with the Palestine Advocacy Project, I’m done trying to calmly explain that no anti-Jewish sentiments are intended when we point out the Israeli military is committing atrocities. There has never been a single moment in the history of our organization where we have tolerated anti-Semitism, and we won’t allow ourselves to be trapped by baseless accusations. We need to move past this to have a real conversation in this country, and to have a clear-eyed look at the violence we are supporting at the hands of the Israeli military.
So I’m not going spend more time than I need to on how ridiculous it is to suggest a picture is pro-Hamas, when it clearly shows a young woman in the uniform of the Palestinian Medical Relief Society. I refuse to politely discuss whether or not our advertisements spread lies, when each and every one is meticulously cited with facts from the United Nations, or internationally recognized NGOs. Nor will I dignify anyone with a debate as to whether Palestine and Palestinians exist or not. I am sick of having to point out that, in a world that is full of violence, Islamophobia and genuine, disgusting, anti-Semitism, human rights defenders are not the enemy.
Instead, I’m going to keep telling the story of Razan al Najjar, who story contains an answer to all of these questions, and summary of all these debates. She can explain it better than any of the rest of us.
It’s wonderful to see a national conversation start to emerge around these complicated and overlapping issues – religiously motivated hate, the treatment of refugees, the U.S.-Israeli relationship and its far-reaching impacts. But in order to speak honestly, we have to come to grip with some ugly truths – there is a blockade of Gaza, and it is slowly starving a population of almost two and half million people. We have to take a deep breath and say that calling out soldiers who shoot medics, journalists, and children are in the wrong, no matter their nationality, ethnicity, or religion. We have to acknowledge the war crimes and human rights abuses that U.S. taxpayers’ money pays for every single day.
But take heart, because this conversation will also lead us to realize truths that are deeply beautiful, like the courage, compassion, and love for all humanity shown by Razan al Najjar. We can’t have a conversation if we can’t accept that there are true Palestinian heroes. We will be honoring Razan until folks in this country are ready to hear that message.