Disputed ads are protected speech

The ad we placed on city buses quoting Nobel Peace Prize Laureate Archbishop Desmond Tutu comparing what Palestinians endure to South African apartheid was meant to educate the public about Israeli and U.S. policies. Instead, thanks to efforts by effectively pro-occupation organizations, controversy that could end in the prohibition of political speech ads has erupted at City Hall and within the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency.

In response to the 13 ads American Muslims for Palestine placed on buses at the beginning of May, the Jewish Community Relations Council, the Anti-Defamation League and the American Jewish Committee, purporting to speak with one voice for the entire Jewish community, issued a scorching statement that mischaracterized our message as “deceptive” and “morally reprehensible” and accused American Muslims for Palestine of sowing dissension among Bay Area residents.

Nothing could be further from the truth. In fact, our group is heartened by the diverse coalition of organizations and individuals who rallied behind the issue of free speech and supported political speech when groups, including the Anti-Defamation League — irony of ironies after its spying years ago on anti-apartheid activists — tried to conflate it with hate speech.

Jewish Voice for Peace, the Council on American-Islamic Relations-San Francisco Bay Area and other groups worked alongside American Muslims for Palestine to push back against this gross erosion of truth to ensure that political speech remains free and viable in San Francisco. Jewish Voice for Peace issued at least two statements supporting American Muslims for Palestine's ad and proclaiming the Jewish Community Relations Council does not speak for all Jews. The National Lawyers Guild and the Palestinian Christian organization, Friends of Sabeel North America, also lent support.

To be sure, the term “Israeli apartheid” sparks vigorous debate. But the important issue here is the right to air political speech in the public arena. Whether one agrees on Israeli apartheid or not, our ability to debate this in a public forum must be protected.

The Jewish Community Relations Council has called on the transit agency to ban political speech ads, it has issued an action alert asking the public to do the same, and it has pressured Supervisor Scott Wiener and six others to sign a letter condemning American Muslims for Palestine's political speech and urging Muni to ban such ads in the future. Wiener's letter said American Muslims for Palestine's ads “posed a very real danger to constructive discussion and debate.” But the true danger here is the pressure to shut down this debate completely.

Clearly, the Jewish Community Relations Council is not concerned about the well-being of San Franciscans because if it were, it would not be advocating for Muni to remove one avenue for open discussion from the free marketplace of ideas.

Our group's ad does not attack Judaism or Jews. It critiques Israeli policies that contravene international law and that meet the legal definition of apartheid, according to the Human Sciences Research Council of South Africa. Even Israeli officials such as former Defense Minister Ehud Barak have used the term apartheid to describe Israel's occupation policies.

Peace will not be achieved in the Middle East until Americans are made more aware of what their $3 billion in tax dollars support there. Discussing uncomfortable topics in the public arena is one way to help raise awareness. American Muslims for Palestine's ads are not divisive, and we have a diverse coalition of support to prove it. On the contrary, it is pressure to shut down constitutionally protected political speech from organizations, like the Jewish Community Relations Council, which is dividing the San Francisco community.

Kristin Szremski is the director of media and communications for American Muslims for Palestine, a national education and advocacy organization.

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