Battle of the Subway Ads

Sigal Samuel reports on the latest efforts to push back on anti-Muslim ads—not with vandalism but with more ads promoting tolerance.

Timothy A. Clary / AFP / Getty Images

“It was very clear that we had to respond,” Rabbi Jill Jacobs said Friday in reference to a new campaign designed to parry Pamela Geller’s subway ads. Speaking on behalf of Rabbis for Human Rights, Jacobs explained that her organization felt obliged to provide a counter-narrative to Geller’s anti-Muslim campaign. “We felt that there needed to be a specific Jewish response because the original ads purported to speak for the Jewish community.”

Geller’s ads read: “In any war between the civilized man and the savage, support the civilized man. Support Israel. Defeat Jihad.” The rabbis’ ads read: “In the choice between love and hate, choose love. Help stop bigotry against our Muslim neighbors.”

The rabbis’ ads went up yesterday in 20 New York subway stations: the original 10 that bore Geller’s ads, plus 10 more. There’s a nice message to the math here. It’s as if the rabbis are saying: Enjoy your freedom of speech, Pamela Geller, and we’ll enjoy ours—twice as loud.

According to Jacobs, it was important to the rabbis to respect the federal court’s decision to run Geller’s ad on First Amendment grounds. “I’m not going to second-guess the court,” she said, expressing disapproval toward those who defaced the ads soon after they were posted. “I don’t think that vandalism is the way to go. The response to this kind of speech is to have more legal free speech.”

Many Geller supporters, in the flap over the conservative blogger’s campaign, tried to argue that the ads aren’t actually anti-Muslim: they don’t mention Muslims, they mention jihad. Jacobs thinks this misses the point entirely, since it ignores both the ads’ subtext and the larger context of Geller’s work: “It’s very clear that she’s casting the Israel-Palestine conflict as an Israel-jihad conflict. And then, if you go to her website, you see that she’s fear-mongering about Islam in general. And Islam in general is not about jihad.”

A quick glance at Geller’s blog shows that Jacobs is undeniably, depressingly right. In a post dated October 5, Geller calls the rabbis “useless tools” before trying to one-up them by citing Maimonides, the preeminent medieval Torah scholar. Tellingly, she chooses a Maimonides quote that is virulently anti-Muslim:

Let Ye understand, my brothers, the Holy One Blessed He through the trap created by our iniquities cast us amongst this nation, the people of Ishmael [Muslims] whose oppressiveness is firmly upon us and they connive to do us wrong and despicably downgrade us […] There never came against Israel a more antagonistic nation. They oppress us with the most oppressive measures to lessen our number, reduce us, and make us as despicable as they themselves are [Psalms 120:5].

It’s hard to know what Geller expects this Maimonides prooftext to expose other than her own anti-Muslim bias. Far from singling out violent extremists for censure, the quote tars all Muslims with the same brush: they, as a “nation,” are “despicable.” And yet, in a statement to the Jewish Week which Geller pastes into the very same blog post, she insists: “I am all for choosing love. My own ad is not hate speech, it’s love speech.” New York subway riders will be forgiven if, in reading Geller’s ad, they still pick up a whiff of anti-Muslim subtext.

“For me, jihad should mean these groups of radicals, of protestors,” said Eliana Rey, 66, from Manhattan. “But this ad suggests that all Muslims are jihadists.” Standing in the Times Square station yesterday, Rey went on to read another response ad that was posted right beside Geller’s. The United Methodist Women, a Christian organization with 800,000 members, had released an ad that read: “Hate speech is not civilized. Support peace in word and deed.”

A writer, Rey approved of this message. “What produces war is language. Everything starts with words. Then come the deeds,” she explained. “If people are not clear on what jihad really refers to, then we have a misunderstanding, and that misunderstanding creates war.”

Last month, Geller told the press that she would “take a bullet” for other people’s right to disagree with her, because that’s “the beauty of America, the free exchange of ideas.” If she’s as good as her word, then she should approve of these Jewish and Christian responses to her ad—if not for the content of their messages, then at least for their method.