“In any war between the civilized man and the savage, support the civilized man. Support Israel; defeat Jihad.”
So reads an advertisement from the American Freedom Defense Initiative, an organization that spews equally racist rhetoric across the country. After the MBTA rejected the proposed advertisement because it violated rules that ads could not be “demeaning or disparaging,” the AFDI filed a lawsuit against the transit agency.
They claim that the MBTA applied a double standard because it had allowed an ad that shows four maps of “the Palestinian loss of land” from 1946 to 2010 accompanied by the text “4.7 million Palestinians are Classified by the UN as Refugees.” The decision to block the AFDI’s ad, the logic goes, can only be explained by the MBTA’s “discriminatory animus against those who support Israel.”
The AFDI is wrong. The pro-Palestine ad is surely controversial, but it is not racist. It does not make its point by dehumanizing its political opponents to the level of savages. The AFDI’s ad is incontestably “demeaning and disparaging” of Palestinians and Muslims, and the MBTA was right to deny it.
The AFDI won a legal challenge last year against the New York Metro Transit Authority, which had decided not to run the same ad, on First Amendment grounds that the “[MTA] non-demeaning standard as currently drafted is impermissibly content-based” because it proscribed specific discrimination on the basis of race, gender, and sexuality among other categories. But that district court decision does not seem to apply to the MBTA guidelines, which make no similar content-based judgments.
Of course, we are skeptical of attempts by government to decide which kinds of political speech are valid and which can be prohibited. The constitutional question of free speech rights on public forums is complex and best left to the courts.
But the answer to the ethical question is abundantly clear: Depictions of people as subhuman, whether Muslim, Jewish, white, or black, is repulsive in its similarity to historical rhetoric that incited centuries of discrimination and oppression. The ad’s racist content is unsurprising though, given that the AFDI’s cofounders, Pamela Geller and Robert Spencer, both maintain popular, virulently Islamophobic blogs.
Reducing a decades-long conflict between Israel and Palestine to a Manichaean struggle between “civilized men” and “savages” is also ahistorical in its implicit attempt to absolve Israel of serious allegations of human rights abuses. The pro-Palestine ad may well be considered ahistorical too—though it does not sink to the level of the AFDI. The group could certainly present its pro-Israel position powerfully without resorting to unconscionable disparagement of Palestinians.
We hope that the court sides with the MBTA in its decision to reject the outrightly racist ad.
In any battle between discrimination and non-discrimination, we support non-discrimination.
This staff editorial has been revised to reflect the following correction:
CORRECTION: November 20, 2013
An earlier version of this editorial erroneously stated that the MBTA printed an ad that read, "4.7 Palestinians are Classified by the UN as Refugees.” In fact, the text of the ad reads, “4.7 million Palestinians are Classified by the UN as Refugees.”