by Josh Ruebner, National Advocacy Director
Bravo to the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Washington State for suing King County after it censored bus ads, sponsored by US Campaign member group Seattle Mideast Awareness Campaign, spotlighting how U.S. military aid to Israel enables its war crimes against Palestinians. We’ve been working with member groups of our coalition throughout the country to initiate advertising campaigns to educate people about our complicity in Israel’s human rights violations against Palestinians through U.S. military and diplomatic support. Check out some previous ad campaigns, download how-to guides for running these kind of ads, and find out how much your community provides in military aid to Israel at our interactive website: aidtoisrael.org Unfortunately, we’re no strangers to acts of censorship ourselves. CBS, which has a monopoly on advertising in the DC Metro system, tried to prevent us from advertising our 2007 protest marking 40 years of Israel’s occupation of the West Bank, East Jerusalem, and Gaza Strip, until the ACLU went to bat for us as well. And, in the aftermath of Israel’s murderous “Operation Cast Lead,” DIRECTV reneged on a deal with us and refused to air this commercial that we produced: Why so much censorship when trying to present the facts about our complicity in Israeli occupation and apartheid? In the case of the “bus ad battle in Seattle,” the Seattle Times cites Metropolitan King County Councilmember Pete von Reichbauer, who played a pivotal role to ensure the censorship, provides this novel explanation: censorship was necessary to serve passengers “without inadvertently making them become the targets of deranged individuals incited by messages.” Wow. Is von Reichbauer saying that supporters of Israeli occupation and apartheid would be so upset by these ads as to become “deranged” and pose a danger to bus riders? Who else would be so “incited” by these ads?
With our collective sensitivity toward political violence heightened by the Tucson shooting, such a scenario cannot be discounted. But do Israel’s supporters seriously want to have to rely on public officials worrying about their “derangement” every time their beloved country is publicly criticized? It seems that public discourse towards Palestine/Israel is nearing a tipping point if elected officials are now expressing concerns about violent reactions from Israel’s supporters. In many respects, von Reichbauer is correct to worry about the potential public safety impact of these ads from “deranged individuals.” We’ve seen acts of violence—physical and verbal—up close and personal in previous ads campaigns that we’ve run. In 2008, we crashed Israel’s 60th birthday party on the National Mall and the AIPAC annual policy conference with a moving billboard mounted on a truck marking 60 years of the Nakba. Here’s the video:While sitting in the passenger seat of the truck, I witnessed a knife-wielding individual attack it in an attempt to tear down the ad. Our African-American driver was repeatedly subjected to the most vile, racist slurs imaginable. He told us that after driving hundreds of moving billboards campaigns, he had never seen such a heated reaction. Yet potential violent reactions to free speech are not grounds for censorship. ACLU Washington Executive Director Kathleen Taylor got it exactly right. “The purpose of the First Amendment,” Taylor stated, “is to protect speech that is difficult to hear and that makes people uncomfortable. Mild speech doesn't need our protection.” We’ll continue doing our work to educate our fellow citizens about Israel’s war crimes and our complicity in them. We always do so factually and rationally. If Israel’s apologists need to rely on their potential “derangement” to suppress this conversation, then it seems that we are on the right track.