There are few international issues that incite as much global anger as the Palestinian-Israel conflict.
And yet, despite our government’s political and financial support of Israel that relies on American tax dollars ($30 billion in the last ten years alone), it is the one issue that I would argue is impossible for Americans to discuss openly in the public sphere.
This past summer, the Church of Reconciliation in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, decided to challenge this stifling of the conversation when they bought advertising space inside the public bus system that read, ““Join with us. Build peace with justice and equality. End U.S. military aid to Israel.”
The advertisement links to a website, BuildPeace.org, that pictures both Israelis and Palestinians posing with their children and grandchildren. The campaign, which was launched in Chicago just two years ago, promotes a “genuine, lasting peace based on dignity, security, and equality for both Israelis and Palestinians.” Their central argument is clear: U.S. military aid to Israel is only exacerbating this conflict. Whether you agree with this controversial statement or not is not the central concern of this post. What I am most concerned about is the issue of freedom of speech in this country.
It is important to emphasize that the group does not attack Israel; in fact, it highlights the harm that the country has endured as a result of an occupation that has created a militarist culture. And it does not advocate for aid to go to Palestine. It just argues for a change in policy, since the one that the American government has followed for the last few decades does not seem to be working. The Church of the Reconciliation argues that they have studied the issue for three years and collected documents from not just the United Nations, but from Muslim, Christian, and Jewish groups before deciding to join the movement.
Chapel Hill is an unusually progressive town nestled within the conservative South. It has long had a reputation for being the intellectual epicenter of North Carolina, and is generally considered to be a safe haven for alternative voices and lifestyles. Advertisements that have supported same-sex marriage and a ban against the death penalty have run on the bus system with barely a whisper of protest. Yet controversy erupted after the above poster was placed within the bus system, and Chapel Hill was forced to remove the ad. A town meeting was called that aired on public television, and a variety of different voices were heard, most centering on the issue of free speech and whether buses counted as public spaces.
One comment from a Jewish woman, whose name I can not remember, really resonated with me:
“I don’t like these ads, but they have incited discourse in a way that I find to be powerful and valuable. The reason why the Holocaust happened was because there wasn’t an open dialogue about issues and events that everyone knew was happening. To live in a democracy, you have to have open dialogue, and the fact that people are talking about an issue in their homes that most people wouldn’t even think about, provides a wonderful forum for public discussion.“
The point of this post is not to take a side on this deeply complex conflict. My main point is one of objection, that such an important issue, one that has cost countless lives and billions of dollars, has not been given a space in the public discourse. To that end, I applaud the Church of the Reconciliation for using its poster as a means for inciting this much-needed dialogue, and I resent that activists who believe to be working towards peace are unable to do so because they are crippled by claims of anti-Semitism. Chapel Hill has already been targeted by Pamela Geller’s anti-Islam campaign, whose ad was posted on the New York public transit system earlier this summer, and is rumored to be posted on the Chapel Hill bus system.
This poster has inescapable racist connotations. It attributes, without question, civilized behavior to an entire group of people, and borrows from colonialist discourse a degrading term – ‘savages’ – reserved for indigenous people considered so low on the ladder of civilization that they were deemed inhuman.
What is sorely needed now is for these topics, controversial as they are, to be brought into the public space in a manner that allows for respectful and critical discourse. A couple of years ago, the online magazine Racialicious, which looks at current events through a critical race lens, responded to the critique that they did not write enough about the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. They gave a compelling answer, which was simply that most of their readers knew little about the issue and were intimidated to voice their opinions, leaving “those with the longest memories to dominate the conversation.” They proposed more education and open dialogue, and that is what I am advocating for too. If Chapel Hill changes its current policy that allows for the bus system to be considered a public forum, then that will not just make it harder for these minority voices to be heard, it will disable an important conversation that needs to be had.
As I documented in my latest post, the mainstream media does little to educate us on this topic, which is why we need to seek out alternative media sources. We can’t afford to be ‘neutral’ anymore, because let’s face it, when it comes to this issue, neutrality is just a guise for ignorance, and ultimately, complicity. And in a conflict that has cost thousands upon thousands of lives, doesn’t our complicity implicate us all?
To watch a truly informative and multi-dimensional debate on the issue, check out this interview by Amy Goodman of Democracy Now! with Ali Abunimah, senior online editor of Electronic Intifada magazine, and Jonathan Tobin, co-founder of Commentary magazine.