As Jews across the globe were wrapping up this year’s High Holy Day season last month, many New Yorkers, and now many Washingtonians too, walked out of the synagogue and into the subway on their way home. There, they were assaulted with what I’ve come to think of as blogger Pamela Geller’s subway speech, which comes in the form of ads from the virulently anti-Islam group she heads up, the American Freedom Defense Initiative.
Crudely juxtaposing the star of David and support for Israel, with a war on savages, or those who support jihad (which in Geller’s mind includes all Muslims), Geller’s words perpetrate their own acrostic of wrongs including bigotry, hate, and ignorance; they are divisive, misleading, and xenophobic. These words belong underground because they are way beneath us as Jews and as human beings. They do not speak for the Jewish community, and we, and our elected officials, must protest them.
As we know, at first, the Metropolitan Transportation Authority rejected the ads, but a district judge ruled the ads were protected under the First Amendment. A federal judge ordered the D.C. Metro to post them and the ads started running last week.
These are important decisions. As an American, I insist on the right to free speech, even when I deplore the message. As a rabbi, I insist on the responsibility to speak out against hateful speech, particularly when it comes at least in part from one of our own. Judaism teaches anyone who has the ability to intervene but does not is held responsible [by God] for those sins because they had the ability to intervene against them.
But we don’t counter evil speech with good speech just so we won’t bear sin. We do so in the name of all we hold true and good. We do so because we care about the targets of the evil speech, because we want to heal hurts, restore wounded reputations in this case both ours, and that of our Muslim friends. We want to restore relationships and righteousness too.
If we don’t speak out, sin multiplies. We only have to look at the news of the past several months in Oak Creek, Wis., and Joplin, Mo., to see how unchecked messages of hatred lead to acts of violence. Yet, when we do speak out against sinful speech, good things multiply. An example from my own experience: Georgetown’s Jewish student groups have joined other protesters in D.C. in disseminating the Rabbis for Human Rights-North America Choose Love posters, which have run in New York City subways and will be running in D.C. in the weeks ahead. The outpouring of gratitude and goodwill from the Muslim student community has been tremendous and profound. Bridges are being built where a deep rift might have taken hold. Students from both communities are refusing to let the bigotry of the few obliterate the mutual respect and friendship so many have taken such care to cultivate for so long.
In the global era of social media, healing encounters like these can and do have a positive impact both locally and globally. News of the Rabbis posters is being tweeted around the world.
To my great pride and deep satisfaction, the Jewish community has taken up the responsibility for good speech in large numbers and with a great energy. Our elected officials should follow suit. Freedom of speech does not absolve our elected officials from denouncing hateful rhetoric. Rather, it compels them to do so.
A key part of our officials’ jobs is to uphold core American values of pluralism and inclusion. Unfortunately, New York City’s public officials have largely been silent about the message of hate written on their subway walls. Let’s not see the same shameful silence here in Washington. Because as Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel taught: indifference to evil is worse than evil itself, and in a free society, some are guilty, but all are responsible. If we are silent when speech is clearly called for, we too bear some responsibility for whatever ensues.
Rabbi Rachel Gartner is the rabbi and director of Jewish chaplaincy at Georgetown University. She is a co-author of the Moving Traditions’ “Rosh Hodesh: Its A Girl Thing Sourcebook” and serves on the board of the Reconstructonist Rabbinical Association.