This week’s U.S. District Court ruling forced the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority to place ads in the D.C. subway system reading: “In any war between the civilized man and the savage, support the civilized man. Support Israel. Defeat Jihad.” These ostensibly pro-Israel billboards that deem iihadists, and by implication Muslims, as “savages” do not serve the interests of anyone involved, and in fact inflict great harm.
Both Jews and Muslims lose when rhetoric like this is put out into the world. It is a dangerous conflation of two things that are not equivalent: that supporting Israel means hating Muslims, and that Israeli versus Arab equates with Jew versus Muslim.
These ads are an unfortunate case of enforcing the first article of the Bill of Rights to protect what is essentially hate speech. They are an abuse of rights we hold dear as Americans: freedom of speech and freedom of religion. It’s both offensive and ineffective. I, for one, will not tolerate such bigotry put out into the world in the name of my religion.
I am a committed Zionist with a deep love of Israel and a proud Jew, but it is clear to me that the messages conveyed by these billboards only serve to further factionalize an already deep divide and bolster dangerous stereotypes. As heirs to the Abrahamic tradition of welcoming strangers into their tents, American Jews and Muslims must serve as examples for civilized dialogue and coexistence between the two faiths. Together, both communities have a great potential to inspire hope and a responsibility to serve as role models of mutual respect. After all, if we as Americans can’t learn to be respectful of each other, what chance do our brothers and sisters have in the Middle East? We have an important opportunity to model democracy in action to the people who share our faiths throughout the world.
While we cherish free speech, we must also be vigilant about its potential harm. We are all Americans and our shared love of freedom should not be abused. In the case of these billboards, neither Jews nor Muslims should suffer from assumptions about their beliefs and loyalties. As a Jew, I can’t imagine that my desire for mutual respect and dialogue instead of inflammatory rhetoric is any different than a Muslim’s.
Having my faith associated with hate speech placed on billboards on subways, I feel as alienated and stereotyped as I imagine Muslims do by being branded as terrorists. Hate speech must not be accepted as civil discourse. We can make a more powerful statement against terrorism by showing the world how people of different faiths and political views can disagree peacefully and respectfully. Surely that is a better message to spread than one that perpetuates hate, disdain and distrust. That should be self-evident, but sadly it isn’t, and it is often further obscured by the political diatribes that are put forth in the name of religion.
Speaking out is a moral imperative for all of us, and fostering dialogue that is constructive is essential. I am inspired by the work being done at the Bronfman Center at New York University as a place where dialogue that encourages respect and understanding is being fostered between young Muslims and Jews. Currently, a rabbi and an imam co-teach a course entitled “Multifaith Leadership in the Twenty-first Century.” A group called Bridges: Muslim-Jewish Dialogue leads community service trips to disaster zones, working together to provide humanitarian relief to people who are suffering. The interfaith cooperation extends into the student dorms, where an entire floor in the residence hall was spearheaded by Jewish and Muslim students to live and study together, along with a rabbi and an imam.
I am inspired by these young Muslims and Jews coming together to learn more about each other, not just as representatives of their faiths, but as human beings. We would do well to follow their example and become models of mutual respect, engaging in the hard work of constructive dialogue and not resorting to hate speech.
Former chief executive officer of the Seagram Company Ltd., Edgar M. Bronfman is president of the Samuel Bronfman Foundation, which seeks to inspire a renaissance of Jewish life. He is the author the forthcoming, “The Bronfman Haggadah,” created in conjunction with his wife, artist Jan Aronson, which will be published by Rizzoli Press, Spring 2013.
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