There are always dramas on the margins of the annual United Nations General Assembly. While battles over Libyan ruler Muammar Gadhafi's travel tent are now history, there are still the annual protests of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's visit. This week, the Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesperson was harassed in the street by Iranian refugees.
But the biggest drama so far this year surrounds a controversial advertising campaign in New York Metro stations. The campaign features posters, purchased by anti-Islam blogger Pamela Geller's American Freedom Defense Initiative, which say "In any war between the civilized man and the savage, support the civilized man," and lower down, "Support Israel; Defeat jihad."
The media has been all over the story, with pundits lining up to condemn the advertisement. Most of the posters have now been defaced by activists, who plastered them with stickers saying, "Racism" and "Hate speech."
Egyptian-American journalist and blogger Mona Eltahawy was arrested by New York Police Department officers after being confronted by activist Pamela Hall while spray painting a poster. Hall questioned the legality of Eltahawy's actions and tried to protect the poster with her body.
The Jewish Council for Public Affairs called the advertisement "bigoted, divisive, and unhelpful." In a statement, JCPA President Rabbi Steve Gutow said, "Effective discourse is never served by one statement of incivility being answered by another. The remedy for bad speech is good speech, not more bad speech."
Rabbi Rick Jacobs, president of the Union for Reform Judaism, slammed the campaign in a New York Times op-ed, saying the posters "not only offend Muslims and those of us who value religious diversity and liberty for all; they pollute America’s own public square at a time when our society is desperate for civility and respectful discourse."
Ron Meier, New York Regional Director of the Anti-Defamation League, said, “We believe the ads are highly offensive and inflammatory. Pro-Israel doesn’t mean anti-Muslim. It is possible to support Israel without engaging in bigoted anti-Muslim and anti-Arab stereotypes. The basic premise of the ad is illegitimate and continuing to run it is irresponsible.”
The New York Metropolitan Transit Authority, which initially rejected the ads, was forced to allow them to run after Geller's group won a lawsuit in federal court in July.
This week, Geller said that Jewish officials who denounced her campaign "either don't understand the reality and magnitude of jihad, or hope that by dissembling about the problem they will be able to mitigate it, or both."
"My ad doesn't "target" anyone," said Geller. "It calls for support of Israel against the jihadis who have vowed to destroy her. Reactions have been overwhelmingly positive, except for the media feeding frenzy."
Geller rejected the argument that people have a right to deface the posters.
"Vandalism and thuggery are not freedom of expression. If she [Eltahawy] had bought her own ad, that would be freedom of expression. Destroying mine is just a fascist attempt to deny my freedom of speech," she said. "We plan to roll out these ads everywhere we can."
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