One of my more vivid memories of childhood was my first encounter with blatant anti-Semitism. A previously mild-mannered friend came into school and said to me and a friend, “YOU KILLED JESUS!” I still remember the anger and hatred on her face, and the utter and complete confusion I felt after her sudden, inexplicable transformation from friend to accuser.
“But I couldn’t have,” I protested, confused and deeply hurt by her words. “I wasn’t even born then!”
Even at the age of eight, in all my innocence and naiveté, I was trying to combat irrational hatred and bigotry with logic and facts.
Growing up, my father often spoke of the fear he and his parents felt in the thirties because of Father Charles Coughlin’s anti-Semitic radio shows. At a 1938 rally in the Bronx (where Dad grew up) Coughlin, an avid supporter of Mussolini and Hitler, gave a Nazi salute and declared, “When we get through with the Jews in America, they’ll think the treatment they received in Germany was nothing.”
Perhaps it’s because of my family’s history and many more similar experiences that that I reacted so strongly when I drove into station in the Cos Cob section of Greenwich to pick up my niece and saw this billboard:
The ads are being paid for by the patriotic sounding American Freedom Defense Initiative, led by Pamela Geller (seen here with House Majority leader Eric Cantor) and Robert Spenser of JihadWatch.org.
Geller, Spenser and the perpetrators of such hate speech are 21st Century versions of Father Coughlin, and their extremist rhetoric has reaped the inevitable violent consequences. Anders Breivik, the Norwegian terrorist who killed 8 people in the bombing of a government building in Oslo and a further 69 people (mostly teenagers) at a Labor Party youth camp on the island of Utoya, quoted both Geller and Spenser in his 1,500-page manifesto. The Guardian has an interactive web of links to a web of “counter jihadists,” of whom Geller and Spenser are some of the more noted American contributors.
Yet Geller vehemently denies any link between her words and any violence. On July 27, 2011, although she told listeners that “Breivik had no direct contact,” a post from 2007, to which Geller responded sympathetically, is thought to have been from Breivik.
Still, she blames it all on the news media. It has nothing to do with her.
Yet just a few days later, on July 31, 2011, Geller writes:
“The camp was run by the Youth Movement of the Labour Party and used to indoctrinate teens and young adults.
Breivik was targeting the future leaders of the party responsible for flooding Norway with Muslims who refuse to assimilate, who commit major violence against Norwegian natives, including violent gang rapes, with impunity, and who live on the dole . . . all done without the consent of the Norwegians.”
So wait . . . we’re supposed to believe that makes shooting those poor teenagers okay then?
Is it any wonder that both the Southern Poverty Law Center and the Anti-Defamation League have listed Stop the Islamization of America, another organization run by Ms. Geller and Mr. Spencer, as a hate group?
Oh, but they’re wrong, Ms. Geller told Ken Borsuk of the Greenwich Post in a recent interview, accusing the Southern Poverty Law Center of being “the real hate group . . . intent on demonizing and destroying legitimate conservative voices by lumping them in with the likes of the KKK.”
Highly debatable. But what about the Anti-Defamation League? The ADL was set up in 1913 “to stop, by appeals to reason and conscience and, if necessary, by appeals to law, the defamation of the Jewish people. Its ultimate purpose is to secure justice and fair treatment to all citizens alike and to put an end forever to unjust and unfair discrimination against and ridicule of any sect or body of citizens.” (ADL Charter)
For most reasonable Jewish supporters of Israel, having the ADL deem your organization as a hate group would give one pause and be a reason to take a good hard look in the mirror. Not the case with zealots like Pamela Geller. The Anti Defamation League “. . . should stop attacking Jews and redirect their barbs at the enemies of Israel and the Jewish people,” she told Mr. Borsuk. Like the jihadist extremists she opposes, Geller’s counter-jihad extremism allows for no self-reflection. It’s people like members of the news media and even spiritual leaders like Rabbi Mitchell Hurvitz of Temple Sholom who are wrong, according to Geller, who suggests we “should be more thoughtful and less silly.”
I’m Jewish, but the first words that came to me when I saw Geller’s billboard were those of a Catholic, St. Francis of Assis: “Where there is hatred, let me sow love.”
It wasn’t long after I’d been accused of killing Jesus that my parents took us to visit the Anne Frank House in Amsterdam and I read Anne’s diary for the first of countless times. In 2003, I was fortunate to be a docent for an exhibition called Anne Frank – A History for Today at Greenwich High School. One of the most important themes we tried to convey to students who came through the exhibition was how important it is not to be a bystander.
After seeing the sign at Cos Cob station, I emailed Peter Tesei, the Greenwich First Selectman, our other two selectmen, Fred Camillo, my state Rep in the 151st, L. Scott Frantz, my state Senator, my Congressman Jim Himes, and all the Cos Cob delegates to our Representative Town Meeting. I filed a complaint with Metro-North and with the CT Rail Commuter Council. I also wrote to the President of Metro-North and the Commissioner of the CT DOT and copied those letters to my state and federal representatives and senators.
I’m pleased that everyone who has responded thus far has denounced the signs. My one concern was the response I got from state Sen. Frantz, who agreed that there is no room for hate speech in this country. But he followed up with this: “the most intelligent thing you and I can do is not respond to this specific campaign to avoid giving it more visibility than it has to date (absolutely no one else has brought this to my attention, nor have I noticed them at the train station I use in Cos Cob).”
Here’s the thing, Sen. Frantz: while I understand your rationale that ignoring people like Pam Geller denies them the publicity oxygen they crave, silence has been going on for too long in the GOP, and it’s when public figures such as yourself fail to take a public stand against it that it regenerates and becomes even more poisonous like the heads of the Hydra.
What’s more, Geller’s anti-Muslim crusade has been given a platform at CPAC. It’s not often you hear me agreeing with Grover Norquist, but he’s spot on here:
“Sometimes when you hear snide comments about Jews in the ’50s or Muslims today — we’ve been through this. The Republican party chased away the Catholic vote for over a hundred years,” said Grover Norquist, an ACU board member and a tax activist who has tried to bring Muslim voters in to the GOP for more than a decade. “You chase away people politically. The thing about the political effects of bigotry — it can last generations. It’s tough to fix.”
The American Freedom Defense Fund isn’t defending American values at all with these ads. In fact, it is claiming First Amendment protections to contravene the values elaborated by George Washington in his letter to the Hebrew Congregation of Newport:
It is now no more that toleration is spoken of as if it were the indulgence of one class of people that another enjoyed the exercise of their inherent natural rights, for, happily, the Government of the United States, which gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance, requires only that they who live under its protection should demean themselves as good citizens in giving it on all occasions their effectual support.
We must stand up loudly and clearly to those who would stir up hatred, so George Washington’s words remain true: “May the children of the stock of Abraham who dwell in this land continue to merit and enjoy the good will of the other inhabitants — while every one shall sit in safety under his own vine and fig tree and there shall be none to make him afraid.” Only then are can we consider ourselves patriotic Americans.