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Subway ads: A right to hate speech, a duty to condemn

By Rachel Kahn-Troster, Special to CNN
updated 3:19 PM EDT, Tue September 25, 2012
A member of the Muslim Congress protests hatred against Islam last week in Los Angeles.
A member of the Muslim Congress protests hatred against Islam last week in Los Angeles.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Group posts ads in New York subway stations with coded message Islam is "savage"
  • Anti-Islam blogger's group also put up ads calling "Islamophobia" "Islamorealism"
  • Rachel Kahn-Troster says unopposed messages of hatred stir acts of violence
  • She supports the right to free speech but believes we must stand against bigotry

Editor's note: Rabbi Rachel Kahn-Troster is director of North American Programs for Rabbis for Human Rights -- North America, where she directs campaigns against torture, religious discrimination, slavery and human trafficking.

(CNN) -- My daily trek to work is the last place I would expect to encounter a hateful message. But anti-Islam blogger Pamela Geller is determined to make that happen to me and my fellow commuters.

This week, at 10 subway stations around New York, commuters will encounter ads from the virulently anti-Islam group headed by Geller, the American Freedom Defense Initiative. Geller has been cited both by the Anti-Defamation League and the Southern Poverty Law Center for her anti-Muslim activity.

The subway ads say, "In Any War Between the Civilized Man and the Savage, Support the Civilized Man." Below that are the words: "Support Israel. Defeat Jihad," with a Star of David on either side of the phrases. The coded message makes clear who the savages are: those who support jihad, which in Geller's mind includes all Muslims. She has called Islam "an extreme ideology, the most radical and extreme ideology on the face of the Earth."

Rachel Kahn-Troster
Rachel Kahn-Troster
Anti-jihad ad to appear in NYC subways

As a rabbi, I find the ads deeply misguided and disturbing. The Jewish community is deep in the heart of our High Holidays, the Ten Days of Repentance that encompass the holy days of Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur. One of the most powerful moments in the holy days is when the community rises for a recitation of public confession, beginning Tuesday night.

I have always been struck by how many of the foibles of daily life have to do with speech. The words from our mouths have power: Once released, whether intentionally or by accident, what we say shapes reality. It can bring about healing or atonement, or it can unleash violence and hatred. Geller's ads, sharply dividing the world into civilized people and savages, are only intended to hurt and tear fragile relationships apart.

'Defeat Jihad' ad to appear in New York subway stations

At first, the Metropolitan Transportation Authority rejected the ads, but a district judge ruled the ads were protected under the First Amendment. The ads follow similar ads in San Francisco as well as posters at New York's Metro North train stations that made unsubstantiated claims about the number of people killed in terrorist attacks since 9/11. The Metro North ads denied their bigotry by stating, "It's not Islamophobia. It's Islamorealism," claiming the actions of a few represented the "reality" of Islam. But when did it become acceptable to spread bigotry against any American religious, racial or ethnic group in the name of "realism"?

As an American, I believe in the right to free speech, even when I detest the message or disagree vehemently with the messenger. But I can still raise my voice against words of hatred.

Moreover, freedom of speech does not absolve our elected officials from denouncing hateful rhetoric. A key part of their jobs as our representatives is to uphold core American values of pluralism and inclusion. Unfortunately, New York City's public officials have largely been silent about the message of hate that will confront all of us during our morning commutes.

In a recent radio broadcast, New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg explained the court's decision regarding the ads and affirmed the right of freedom of expression as an American value. He said that "as Americans, we tolerate things that we find despicable," but fell short of condemning the ads.

I have only to look at the news of the past several months to see how unchecked messages of hatred manifest themselves into acts of violence. The growing number of attacks against mosques in places such as Joplin, Missouri, and the killings in August at the Oak Creek, Wisconsin, Sikh temple are the extreme end of a growing domestic threat against religious minorities. Here in New York, hate crimes surrounding Muslim religious services and at a Holocaust memorial site have been committed. These acts of hatred are not individual tragedies but for all of us as Americans.

As a Jew, I know the extreme to which where baseless hatred can lead. And the Jewish community has been in the past a target of hatred in the United States. Geller's message ignores the positive contributions that our Muslim friends, neighbors and colleagues make to our country every single day.

It is also unfortunate that Geller chooses to frame her message of hatred as one of support for Israel. The complicated struggle for peace in the Middle East and against terrorism must not be reduced to a simplistic message of a war between good and evil. Although there is considerable debate within the Jewish community about how to best support Israel and achieve peace with her neighbors, it is clear that part of our contribution as Americans is to show the world that religious pluralism is both possible and beneficial for a thriving democracy.

In America, no one should have to live in fear for his or her safety because of faith. If there is a silver lining to the events of the past few months, including the subway ads, it is that Americans of all religions have the opportunity to come together and loudly reaffirm their commitments to religious pluralism. Together, we have and will continue to show that speech can also heal. This is our strength.

It is time for all of us, regardless of belief, or nonbelief, to stand together and reject stoking bigotry and hatred in our city with these ads. Our goal should be healing, not rupture, and laying the foundation for peace within our community and around the world.

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The opinions in this commentary are solely those of Rachel Kahn-Troster.

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