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.
Far more surprising, however, has been the response from mainstream Jewish outfits like the American Jewish Committee, the Union of Reform Judaism, the Jewish Council for Public Affairs and the aforementioned ADL, some of which have remained woefully silent in the face of past Islamophobic outrages. “We believe the ads are highly offensive and inflammatory,” said Ron Meier, New York regional director of the ADL.
In the war between the civilized man and Pamela Geller, the civilized man (and woman) has come out swinging.
And yet, jubilation is sadly premature. For all the outrage aroused by the ads, there has also been screeching silence, particularly from the far-right precincts of the Jewish community, where Geller-style Islamophobia often gets a warmer reception than many would care to admit. The lobbying behemoth, AIPAC, has remained notably mute about the subway campaign, as have the Orthodox Union and the Rabbinical Council of America, according to Open Zion’s Sigal Samuel. “We have no comment at this time,” an anonymous Orthodox Union spokesperson told Samuel. As for the Zionist Organization of America, it has also kept mum, though the president of its Los Angeles chapter, Paul Schnee, made his position pungently clear in August when he penned a piece praising Geller’s San Francisco bus ads.
“I’m sure I speak for many members of the public when I thank Ms. Geller for her efforts in courageously defying political correctness and speaking the truth about the nature of both Israel and America’s religiously inspired enemies,” he wrote.
Meanwhile, conservative pundits have gone full mic in support of the ad, spraying editorial pages with pro-Geller vitriol and bluster. At the English-language Jerusalem Post, Israel Kasnett published a hyperventilating piece titled “Support the civilized man,” in which he declared that Geller “has it right” and urged the West to “stop apologizing to the Muslim world, get behind Israel and defeat Jihad.” More recently, William McGurn published a piece in The Wall Street Journal in which he opined, “Whatever the agenda of those behind this ad might be, the question remains: What part of that statement is not true?”
If all of this neocon blather is predictable, it is also unforgivable. Out of the whole, overstuffed universe of bigots and haters, Geller should be an obvious pariah, a fringe figure whose role as the muse of Anders Breivik, if nothing else, should have made her an extremist non grata. The Southern Poverty Law Center has labeled her organizations, Stop Islamization of America and AFDI, hate-groups. So has the ADL. To denounce Geller’s bigotry poses almost as little political risk as denouncing David Duke’s. To applaud it is as inexcusable as complimenting his sheet.
Fortunately, many rational and decent people have risen to the moment, helping society pass (or, at least, not fail) one of its most basic tests: the test of how we respond to the extremists among us. But the same can’t be said for many of the other tests that recent history has thrown our way.
Though Geller and her crew are fringe elements, they are not random or spontaneous, idiopathic lesions on the healthier whole. They are, quite sadly, part of this country, outcroppings of something big and ugly that has been seeping and creeping through the body politic for years. In the decade since September 11, anti-Arab and anti-Muslim bigotry has become an entrenched feature of our political and social landscape. It lurks in the hidden corners of everyday life—in classrooms and offices and housing complexes—as well as in the ugly scenes that occasionally explode into public consciousness. In the special registration of Middle Eastern men after 9/11. In the vicious campaign against Debbie Almontaser, the American Muslim school teacher who tried to open the Arabic-language Khalil Gibran International Academy (KGIA) and was tarred as an extremist. In the attack on the Park51 Islamic center, more commonly (if less accurately) known as the Ground Zero mosque. In the New York Police Department’s selective surveillance of Muslim communities. And that’s just New York City. All of these instances should have called on our horror and outrage, and in all too many of them, society hasn’t lived up.
Consider the case of the Anti-Defamation League. The ADL has taken the right and just step of denouncing Geller’s “savage” subway ads, but when news broke of the NYPD’s secret anti-Muslim spying program, the ADL remained shamefully silent, and when Geller helped launch the crusade against Park51, it did worse: its leader, Abraham Foxman, came out against the Islamic center, offering the gutless suggestion that the center find a site “a mile away.”
The Jewish Community Relations Council is another example. While it has issued a firm statement against the Geller ads, its leadership went out of its way last winter to publish an elegiac letter supporting New York City Police Commissioner Raymond Kelly and his Muslim surveillance program, and it ultimately joined the wrong side in the Debbie Almontaser witch hunt.
And how about our local politicians—our mayor and city council speaker, for instance, who have spoken eloquently against Geller-style intolerance while supporting police intolerance toward a whole community? Or our national politicians, like Mitt Romney, who can spew Islamophobia—try putting Romney’s infamous comment about Palestinian “culture” on a subway ad and see how that goes over—and still be allowed to run for president? Or our TV shows? Or Fox news?
As Donna Nevel, a founding member of Jews Against Islamophobia, told me in an e-mail, “The Geller ads do not operate alone but take place in the context of the NYPD surveillance program and the ongoing targeting of the Muslim community and communities of color in this city.” The same goes for the country.
Pamela Geller has no intention of going away, and in the coming weeks, and perhaps years, she will continue to incite and ignite. In the wake of the New York MTA’s decision to require disclaimers on all political advertisements (a decision inspired by Geller’s ads), she has announced that she is buying eight more ads, which will soon greet New Yorkers from the back of city buses. And, after the Council on American-Islamic Relations decided to take out its own counter-ad in the DC Metro showing a smiling Muslim girl beside a quote from the Koran saying, “Show forgiveness, speak for justice and avoid the ignorant,” Geller decided to double-down on the hate: she is now cooking up a new ad campaign that will feature an image of the Twin Towers erupting in flames alongside various hand-picked quotes from the Koran. (Her current quote-of-choice: “Soon shall we cast terror into the hearts of believers.”)
“This will go on for years,” she gloated to her Atlas Shrugs readers.
As Geller continues to set fires, it’s incumbent on people of conscience to keep condemning, keep standing up to her particularly flagrant brand of racism and bias. But a society is not judged only by how it reacts to its bonfires. It’s judged by how it responds to the less spectacular offenses, the daily outrages where bigotry grows and festers. If we want to pass this test, we still have a long way to go.