New York means freedom of speech. With progressive groups defending a talk at Brooklyn College by two Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) activists in February, and right-wingers rallying around anti-Muslim demagogue Pamela Geller this week, it’d be hard to assume otherwise. Still,  the two episodes say a lot about discourse on Israel in the United States. 

Pamela Geller preaches venomous hatred of Muslims. She is one of the leading voices promoting the idea of “creeping Sharia” in the United States. This is a paranoid theory that Muslims are secretly injecting Islamic law into the laws of US states through litigation, eventually hoping to institute Muslim law throughout the United States. When you’ve either stopped laughing or gotten your gasping breath back, consider that this small piece of madness has had sufficient impact in the US that the state of Oklahoma actually passed legislation forbidding the use of Sharia in state courts.

Along with fellow fascist Robert Spencer, Geller founded the Freedom Defense Initiative and Stop the Islamization of America, which even Abe Foxman of the Anti-Defamation League, who expressed sympathy for anti-Muslim protesters in New York a few years ago, has condemned as hate groups. Geller’s right wing lunacy goes beyond Muslims, as she has fabricated stories that US President Barack Obama’s mother posed for pornographic pictures, that Obama had once been involved with a “crack whore” and posted a fake picture of Obama urinating on a US flag.

So, when this “pillar” of the Jewish community was scheduled to speak at a synagogue in the Manhattan suburb of Great Neck, one might have expected that there would be protest. And there was. Muslims protested, and so did Jews. Led by Jewish Voice for Peace (JVP,) Jews Say No, and Jews for Racial and Economic Justice (JFREJ,) the left wing Jewish community rallied against Geller, but word was, other members of the Jewish community in Great Neck were displeased by the invitation to Geller as well. In the end, the synagogue cancelled the event. However, other synagogues, one also in Great Neck and another in Edison, NJ, apparently proud to host an outright racist, scheduled replacement talks for her.

I asked Rebecca Vilkomerson, an old friend and JVP’s executive director, about her reaction to the Geller cancellation. She said: “Of course I’m pleased that Geller’s appearance at the Great Neck synagogue was cancelled. But the kind of hate speech we see regularly in New York, coupled with government violations of the rights of the Muslim community, makes it a very unsafe environment for the Muslim community. We need to continue to speak out unequivocally against it.  Our community needs to take seriously the need to continue to challenge the systems and practices that enable Islamophobia to flourish.”

But wait, say the critics, JVP is being hypocritical. The group was also a major player in the Brooklyn College controversy and, in that case, JVP was defending the right of two advocates of BDS to speak. They also worked hard to reverse a decision by New York City’s LGBT Community Center to prevent Sarah Schulman, a supporter of BDS and a member of JVP’s advisory board, from speaking at the Center. Why, they ask, is it ok for anti-Israel activists to speak at a university or community center, but it’s not acceptable for someone who is anti-Islam to speak at a synagogue?

Indeed, the Jewish Daily Forward, one of America’s best Jewish news outlets, framed its coverage of the controversy in just those terms, proposing the possibility of a double standard. The differences, however, are stark; so much so that the very argument betrays the pressures of rightwing smear campaigning.

Police guard bus with Gellar advert. San Francisco, October 2012.

Police guard bus with Gellar advert. San Francisco, October 2012.

The argument that JVP somehow employed a double standard must rest on equating pro-BDS speakers with Pamela Geller. I invite you to look at Geller’s web site and ask yourself if she is engaging in hate speech. I doubt that many people would come away thinking she wasn’t. Now, look up the three pro-BDS speakers, Omar Barghouti, Judith Butler, and the aforementioned Schulman. I could find nothing remotely comparable to the things Geller said.

The two sides are not equal. One might oppose BDS, consider it unfairly anti-Israel, or even consider it an unjust and threatening movement. But it is not hate speech, it is a political point of view. Claiming that Islam, as a religion, is dedicated to eradicating Jews and turning all others into Muslims, by whatever means necessary, in contrast, is the very definition of hate speech. Moreover, the BDS speakers will surely produce a long list of Israeli crimes and an analysis of Israel as an oppressive occupier. Maybe you disagree with that view, but unlike Geller, they are not putting out fake pictures, false stories and spreading unfounded rumors. (I’m sure there are BDS activists who have done such things, as there are in any reasonably large group of activists. But it is far from typical, as you can see from the response here of a contingent of leading BDS activists to anti-Semitism in their midst.)

Moreover, in only one case, Brooklyn College, was there an issue of government intervention. In that instance, pro-occupation activists rallied city officials around them and mounted a campaign to threaten the school’s funding if they didn’t cancel the talk. The school, quite correctly, held fast, on the principle of academic freedom and the fact that it was a student group, rather than a college event.

Free speech is limited in many contexts. One can lose their job due to speech, and can be thrown out of all sorts of venues for inappropriate or offensive speech. It doesn’t have to rise to the level of crying fire in a crowded movie house.

So what was JVP’s guiding principle in these different cases? It was not, as the Forward suggested, selective application of a principle. On the contrary, the principles used were consistent.

JVP supports open dialogue. They therefore defend Barghouti, Butler and Schulman. JVP oppose hate speech, so they protested and called on the synagogue to cancel Geller. Those are not only compatible principles, they are necessary compliments of each other. If a sober analyst, one who firmly opposes BDS, examines the words of Butler, Schulman and Barghouti, they may find a great deal that upsets them. But they will not find hate speech. No one can seriously come to the same conclusion about Geller’s outrageous and irrational ravings.

This is not about JVP, nor about BDS, or even hate speech and free speech. What this all reflects is the warped nature of discourse on Israel and Palestine in the United States. Despite holding millions of people without rights, hope or basic protection under the law for what will soon be 46 years, despite having appropriated homes, lands, entire towns and villages from people whose children and grandchildren have remained refugees, Israel is held as beyond criticism in the United States in a way no other country, including the US itself, is. Certainly within Israel such criticism may be vehemently disagreed with, but it is certainly quite open. Yet launching an ad campaign advocating a “Western” war against the “savage” Arabs, as Geller did, requires enormous effort to counter.

The cases of Geller, Barghouti, Butler and Schulman should be examined closely. Even more, the notion that a group should be forced to accept hate speech because they defended speakers expressing a political view, however controversial, bears serious examination. It isn’t difficult to differentiate between hate speech and political points of view with which one passionately disagrees. That is, unless your own point of view is indefensible by honest means. Geller is an extreme example, one who even most supporters of the occupation find reprehensible. What’s a liberal publication like The Forward’s excuse?


Photographs courtesy of  Steve Rhodes. Published under a Creative Commons license.