Here’s a bit of consolation: in the face of Pamela Geller’s latest hate-stunt, the forces of decency and justice have performed with vigor, condemning racism and denouncing incitement with speed and fervor. If societies were judged primarily by their response to extremists, our own might be deemed relatively OK.
The story began in August, when Geller’s American Freedom Defense Initiative splashed a series of crude, anti-Muslim advertisements across San Francisco buses. It has continued into September and October with Geller and AFDI splattering the ads across ten of New York City’s busiest subway stations as well as Metro stations in Washington, DC, and light-rail trains and busses in Portland, Oregon. In all four cities, the transit authorities expressed dismay at the ads, which feature Geller’s signature mix of Islamophobia and ultra-Zionism. And both the New York and DC transit authorities initially rejected them. But after Geller sued (with the help of anti-Muslim agitator and attorney, David Yerushalmi), federal judges gave Geller the go-ahead to offend. The ads went up. Their message: “In any war between the civilized man and the savage, support the civilized man.” And then, in smaller letters sandwiched between two Stars of David: “Support Israel. Defeat Jihad.”
Like any good arsonist, Geller has been intent on making the most of this moment, building it into the biggest bonfire she possibly can. She has mouthed-off, posed, agitated, offended and threatened more and worse in the future. (If she were a comic book super-villain, her name might be Fire Bug.) To her critics, she has been merciless, casting detractors such as Mona Eltahawy, who was arrested for trying to overhaul one of the New York ads with hot-pink spray-paint, as a “fascist savage Islamic supremacist writer.” To her supporters, by contrast, she has played the embattled warrior, fearlessly defending humanity against the hordes. In one recent photograph, taken next to the offending ad, she has rarely looked so happy.
“How often have I said that the individual can change the course of human events?” she crowed on her blog, Atlas Shrugs. “Always remember that. That is you and me. And we will, and we are.”
But human events (to say nothing of many humans) have so far refused to play along with Geller’s vision. In each city where the ads have appeared, individuals and organizations have denounced the placards, calling them out as the verbal cluster bombs they really are. In both San Francisco and New York, groups of bus and subway scribes garnished the ads with signs saying “racist” and “hate speech.” Interfaith groups have issued moving statements against them, and Sojourners, the Christian social justice organization, took out its own subway billboards, these ones saying, “Love Your Muslim Neighbor.” Even Fox News, which has been only too eager to shill for Geller in the past, deemed the ads “so inflammatory” that Happening Now, the network’s weekday news(ish) program, blocked out the word “savage” when showing viewers the ad.
Outrage has also erupted within the Jewish community, both within Zionist circles, for whom Geller often claims to speak, and without. As in the past, Jews Against Islamophobia, a coalition of three progressive Jewish groups, came out loud and bold against the bigotry, condemning the New York ads as “anti-Muslim” and “hate-mongering.” Rabbis for Human Rights stepped up with its own subway ads, moving declarations of human decency that say, “In the choice between love and hate, choose love. Help stop bigotry against our Muslim neighbors.” The group has joined a coalition of Muslim, Christian and Jewish organizations calling on the Washington Metro system to donate the profits from the ad to charity.