Community Response

       The first contribution to the Community Response page comes from Shiri Raphaely, a Seattleite and 2009 graduate of Tufts University who now lives in Israel. She has been working on human rights advocacy in Israel for the last year, and is about to transition into the field of environmental justice with Friends of the Earth: Middle East, a trilateral environmental organization working to facilitate cooperative efforts and dialogue between Israel, Jordan, and the West Bank. This article originally appeared on the Web site, Seattle, which can be found at:

A (Missed) Opportunity for Dialogue 

By Shiri Raphaely 

This Tuesday, the Seattle Times began running a series of articles covering the response to The Seattle Mideast Awareness Campaign’s plan to place an ad criticizing US investment in “Israeli War Crimes” on Seattle Metro busses. Various groups from the Jewish community vehemently objected to the ad, including Richard Fruchter, president and CEO of the Jewish Federation of Greater Seattle who stated that he believes the ad is “designed to insult Israelis and the 50,000 members of the Jewish community, many of whom support Israel.” In response to the reaction against the ad, by Thursday, Metro announced that it would not be run, leading to a missed opportunity for dialogue and contributing to further isolation and separation within the Seattle community. 

As a young American-Israeli Jew, I want to say that I don’t feel insulted. I understand that the ad criticizes Israel, and, because Israel and Jews in general are often incorrectly seen as one and the same, could provide fodder for anti-Semitism against the Jewish community in Seattle. I recognize that the conflict has caused unspeakable pain for all those involved, and that there are reasons for the two-sided dichotomy that has risen as a result. Nevertheless, Israel’s current administration supports actions that threaten values of democracy that I, and other supporters of Israel, view as crucial elements of the state’s character. It is because of my personal connection to Israel that I strongly believe that the American Jewish community should encourage criticism on Israel’s policies that do not uphold the standards of human rights and democracy that we defend in our own country and abroad. 

Rather than reacting with a concerted effort to silence the Mideast Awareness Campaign, the Jewish Federation and other organizations should view the campaign as a catalyst for open dialogue within the Jewish community, the expat Israeli and Palestinian community and others who feel strongly about US involvement within the region. I believe a well-organized panel where diverse community leaders share their opinions and provide information on the conflict, could provide the information not offered by the ad, and decrease the defensiveness engendered by it. As a result, groups such as the Mideast Awareness Campaign will also have the arena to offer their information and perspective, and not rely only on eye-catching bus ads – ones that may risk being inflammatory rather than educational. We fear racism and anti-Semitism, however discouraging dialogue only increases isolation and ignorance. 

Akiva Eldar, the chief political editor of Ha’aretz, one of Israel’s largest newspapers, recently compared American Jews’ unfaltering backing of Israel’s policies to a parent handing cash to their drug-addicted child. It is undeniable that the situation in the Middle-East right now is far from ideal, and if the news from the last year has shown us anything, the Israeli administration seems to be addicted to a pattern of compulsive self-destructive behavior, and its closest ally continues to be the enabling parent. Living in Israel for the past year, has taught me that Israel needs the support of American Jews, but that turning a blind eye to the occupation, the blockade on Gaza, and illegal construction of settlements, even in the name of security, poses a dangerous threat to the future of Israel as a democratic state. 

As a citizen of Israel, an American-Jew and an activist, I know that an emotional or spiritual connection to Israel does not require unfaltering support of its policies; criticism does not imply a threat to Israel’s existence and illuminating the amount of US financial and military aid directed to Israel is not equivalent to anti-Semitism. Anger and isolation, may be natural responses in times of fear, but they do not address the problem. We still have the opportunity to engage proactively, and the right to freedom of speech protected in the United States allows for individuals with different perspectives to interact mindfully and together encourage a US policy that is pro-peace and promotes freedom from violence for both Israelis and Palestinians. 

Reply from the Seattle Mideast Awareness Campaign: 

     We oppose racism against Jews, Arabs, and any ethnic or minority group. We distinguish between the Jewish people and the Israeli government, and our ads target the policies of the Israeli government. As Raphaely notes, dialogue and discussion in Israel are often more open there than they are in this country, although recently the Israeli government has begun cracking down on Israeli human rights and political organizations. Israeli Jews involved in joint protests and demonstrations with Palestinians against the Separation Wall and the evictions of Palestinians from their homes in East Jerusalem are also becoming victims of political repression and right-wing terrorism. In this country, charges of anti-Jewish racism are routinely directed at supporters of justice for Palestinians, regardless of the content of their speech or the validity of their criticisms of the Israeli government. Many of those who support the Israeli government in this country also try to attack and intimidate Jewish-Americans who support equal rights for Palestinians with claims that they are self-hating Jews. We thank Raphaely for her contribution to the idea of open political discussion and furthering education on the issues raised by our ad campaign.


Richard Silverstein is a well-known blogger based in Seattle. This post appeared on his Tikun Olam blog of December 23, 2010. Tikun Olam is Hebrew for “heal the world.” Silverstein’s valuable blog contains much-needed information about political developments within Israel that are seldom reported in the U.S. mainstream media: 

Seattle Metro Bus Ad Controversy: King County Suspends Free Speech 

Thursday, December 23rd, 2010 

Seattle’s anti-war bus ads 

Like a good general, I have a rule I try to follow about blogging: I try to choose the terrain on which I will fight. I like the terrain to favor me. If my opponent chooses to fight on their terrain, I prefer not to engage unless I think it’s favorable to me. That’s why I’ve declined to enter into the local fracas-become international cause celebre involving a series of Seattle Metro Bus ads which decry U.S. military aid to Israel and accuse it of committing war crimes during Operation Cast Lead. 

Before entering this political swamp, let me make something clear: I have no problem with any of the issues raised in the ads, which is why I strongly attack King County executive Dow Constantine’s decision to pull the plug on them after an outcry from a local Israel lobby coalition. I strongly support the right of the group which organized them to display them. The issue of U.S. military aid to Israel is an important one as is the even more important issue of possible war crimes committed by the IDF in Gaza during the last war. 

But I do have problem with both sides of this debate: both the advertisers and the pro-Israel baying chorus trying to take them down. First, my problem with the ad. If you want to make a political point AND influence people you make your argument coherent and plausible. You don’t flaunt rhetoric. You don’t score points. You don’t shout when a calm voice will do. There are thousands of different iterations of this ad which would’ve worked as effectively and made it harder for the pro-Israel crowd to get the ads taken down. 

But the ad organizers went for the jugular. They made their choice and undoubtedly are happy their ads were banned since it will play well to their constituency. The other side will think it has won a victory and feel pleased with itself. What it won’t realize is that any time you have to win a victory at the expense of fundamental constitutional principles of free speech and fairness, you’ve lost in the long run. Meaning Israel has lost too. And if your cause is Israel, then you’ve done your cause a disservice. 

Now my much more serious problems with the smear campaign run by the local pro-Israel advocates including the Jewish federation, Aipac, American Jewish Committee and Stand With Us. Here’s some of their rhetoric as mouthed by local King County Councilmember Jane Sprague, who’s dutifully repeating the Israel lobby talking points as all obedient U.S. politicians tend to do: 

The ad reads “Israeli War Crimes Your tax dollars at work,” and has an image of a group of children staring at a destroyed building. . Like many of you, I find the ad disturbing. Yesterday I sent a letter to the Executive and Metro officials demanding that they put a halt the ads… 

We need to be mindful that inflammatory speech like this can affect many groups including our Jewish Community. I strongly believe in freedom of speech and our first amendment rights…Messages like these, that lack basic civility, can incite violence against minorities and various religious communities. We need to be able to protect those who can be hurt as a result. 

What is “inflammatory” about this speech? That it accuses Israel of committing war crimes in Gaza? Major Israeli newspapers run stories virtually every day recounting stories of Israeli atrocities during the war and using terms like “war crimes” to describe them. Yes, I’d prefer to use terms like “alleged” or “possible” since the war crimes haven’t been proven in a court of law yet. But I find absolutely nothing wrong with putting forward a political argument in such ads claiming that Israel committed war crimes. 

Now, as to whether U.S. taxpayers financed those atrocities with U.S. military aid: that seems incontrovertible. Israel’s military has used American weaponry liberally and even flagrantly in situations such as the mass firing of U.S. cluster bombs during the concluding hours of the 2006 Lebanon war, leaving Lebanese civilians to suffer the tragic consequences after the war ended as they unintentionally exploded the ordinance on their property and roads. 

As to the ads “lacking basic civility,” well, excuse me but a cluster bomb in your backyard or an F-16 levelling your Gaza apartment building is a pretty uncivil message sent from the American people to Palestinians courtesy of the Israeli Air Force. Do the American people deserve the right to know about such things in bus ads? You bet. 

But there is another deeply disturbing notion put forward by pro-Israel advocates in this message: that Israel=American Jews. That Americans somehow blame their fellow Jewish citizens for the acts of Israel. This is not only an offensive concept, it simply isn’t true. America is not a place in which Jews will be blamed for Israel’s alleged crimes. I reject this notion. 

The anti-ad coalition views Israel and world Jewry as being inseparable, as being joined at the hip. But the vast majority of Jews in the world don’t accept this equation. I am a Jew, not an Israeli. Israel doesn’t speak for me, nor I for Israel. When Israel acts badly, I am not at fault nor do my fellow Americans see as such. 

But it is convenient for Stand With Us and the rest of the Israel advocates to claim there is “no daylight” between Israel and us because then they can argue that hostility to Israeli policy=anti-Israelism and even anti=Semitism. Let me point out as clearly as I can: this notion is noxious. It is offensive. I utterly reject it as should all Americans and American Jews who care about Israel. 

Israel doesn’t need all Jews to identify with it unconditionally. Israel need to become a normal nation in the Middle East. To do so, it needs to come to terms with its Arab neighbors. Having world Jewry’s identity confused with Israel’s will not help this process. It will indeed poison it. If you want to be a friend to Israel tell it to make peace with its neighbors and not presume all the Jews in the world think everything it does is honky dory. 

King County’s executive has done a grave disservice to free speech in suspending these ads. Not only this, he has handed a victory to those sponsoring the ads. He has given them the high ground. I hope they sue the county and get a judge to rule on this situation. It is really a contract dispute. The County signed a contract and then violated it. Grounds for reneging are specious. Metro approved those ads then took the Mideast Awareness Campaign’s $3,000. After signing on the dotted line, they want to back out. I’d love to see this tested in court. 

Dow Constantine is a craven political coward. Read the bullshit that he’s published under the name of the King County government: 

“I have consulted with federal and local law enforcement authorities who have expressed concern, in the context of this international debate, that our public transportation system could be vulnerable to disruption.” 

…Given the dramatic escalation of debate in the past few days over these proposed ads, and the submission of inflammatory response ads, there is now an unacceptable risk of harm to or disruption of service to our customers should these ads run.” 

Yes, ads that are political speech and counter-speech will cause terrorism. That’s what he’s essentially claiming. Thank God, this is a view fully rejected by our nation’s Founders. Speech is speech. It is not an act and certainly not an illegal act. What utter nonsense. To retreat behind the skirts of a nameless federal bureaucrat who supposeldy told him to can an ad. I want to know: which federal official did he consult and what did he say? In fact, I’d like to file a Freedom of Information Act petition with Country government for every piece of internal information regarding this ad. So, Dow Constantine, I’d be careful what you say and make sure it’s the truth. You wouldn’t want to look awfully stupid if you mouthed nonsense like this, and were caught afterward doing so. 

In fact, I wouldn’t be surprised if David Horowitz’s counter ads were deliberately formulated in the most vitriolic terms possible, knowing that by doing so they would virtually force Metro to cancel the original ad, which was their real purpose. Really, who cares what the counter ads would say as long as they didn’t explicitly advocate illegality or violence? I’d like to see fools like Horowitz and his ilk voice anti-Muslim views on Seattle buses so the entire city can laugh them out of town. What’s the cure to bad speech? More speech. Not no speech. What Metro is doing is saying Seattleites are delicate flowers who can’t withstand the furor of political debate. Somehow they must be protected from opinions that are too hot. Otherwise, what? What would happen? Would the Seattle explode in WTO type riots merely because of a few bus ads? C’mon. Who’re they kidding. 

You’ve heard conservatives deride the “Nanny State.” Well, here in Seattle we have the “Nanny County” protecting residents from the bad, bad man saying bad, bad things. I say let 1,000 flowers bloom. So what if some are weeds? A weed here or there won’t kill us. It’s the garden of debate that is important. 

Reply from the Seattle Mideast Awareness Campaign: 

     Obviously, a political ad on a bus cannot present all the arguments and evidence behind the claim it makes. Nevertheless, it can spark awareness of an issue that will lead people to investigate and discuss the issues involved. That was the purpose of our ad campaign: to reach out to a wider audience and make them aware of how their tax dollars are being used. Could the slogan have been milder and softer? We decided to run the ads on the anniversary of Operation Cast Lead, Israel’s military offensive against the population of Gaza, and our language is factual and based on legal criteria. It was never meant to be rhetorical or sloganeering. As it was, King County Metro refused to allow us to show any of the brutal weaponry used by the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) in Gaza or to show the deaths that resulted from this attack on the world’s most densely populated region. Unlike the protests against the Vietnam War in the 1960s and 1970s, when billboards in New York City and other major cities consisted of photographs of the corpses of women, children, and yes, babies, lying in a ditch in the village of My Lai, major media outlets now seem to be aware of the power of these iconic images and routinely ban them. The U.S. military carefully controls the media in a war zone in an effort to ensure that these kind of images do not reach the American people, as does the IDF. Some of the images we would have liked to show King County residents can be found at Israeli-war and we encourage people to look at them and record the names. There can be no running away from the awful truth that so many children have been killed with weapons paid for by Americans.

     Clearly, we reject the notion that our slogan about Israeli war crimes was too inflammatory. What we find inflammatory is the conduct of the IDF during Operation Cast Lead in December 2008 and January 2009. That offensive resulted in the deaths of more than 1,400 Palestinians, including more than 300 children, compared with 13 Israeli deaths. We carefully chose the date for our ads to run, beginning on the second anniversary of that Israeli offensive. Perhaps even more inflammatory was the calculated political campaign to suppress the findings of the United Nations Fact-Finding Mission on the Gaza Conflict. Why was the suppression of those findings an even greater crime in some ways? Because it sent a message to the Palestinian people that the international community refuses to recognize the value of their lives or their calls for justice and accountability. Without accountability, the Israeli Defense Forces will continue acting with impunity.

     We believe the evidence is overwhelming that Israel committed war crimes in Gaza. Despite many efforts to undermine the credibility of the UN Fact-Finding Mission, its findings, summarized in the Goldstone Report, hold up to scrutiny. The Goldstone Report’s findings are further supported by the independent investigations of Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, the Israeli human rights organization B’Tselem, and the testimony of Israeli soldiers gathered by the organization Breaking the Silence. We appreciate Silverstein’s defense of our right to free speech, and we stand firmly behind the content of our ad.

On January 7, 2011, about 40 members of Seattle’s Jewish community delivered the following Letter to King County Executive Dow Constantine: 

Dear Mr. Constantine, 

We are members of the Seattle Jewish community who have joined together to urge you to reconsider your decision to prevent the “Israeli War Crimes — Your Tax Dollars at Work” ads from being placed on Metro buses. Your statement that if the ads run there would be “an unacceptable risk of harm to or disruption of service” has baffled and alarmed us. We don’t understand the rationale for your claims of harm and disruption, and we are alarmed by the sudden abrogation of the contract for the ads. This sets a dangerous precedent that baseless threats and bullying can, in the absence of principled arguments, set public policy. 

We believe that a public airing of grievances is a requirement for a democracy to function. It leads to people feeling engaged and respected, thereby lowering, not raising, tensions and anger. It is when speech and facts are suppressed that people feel isolated and ignored. In this context your decision concerning the bus ads appears counter-productive to attaining your stated goals. 

Your claims that these ads might prove disruptive or costly to King County are particularly ironic in light of our county’s history. It took over 20 years to change the logo of King County from a crown to the face of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., over the repeated objections as to the cost and “disruptions” such a change would entail. We believe that as King County Executive it is your duty to do what is right and principled, not just what avoids “disruptions.” 

It is necessary to clarify what the bus ads are not. Since the ads state evidence-based claims (see below) they cannot, in and of themselves, be considered anti-Israeli (anymore than criticism of US policy is anti-American). Indeed, as outlined below, numerous Israeli organizations have made the same claims as regards war crimes. It certainly goes beyond reasonable discourse to label such ads as anything approximating “hate speech.” The claim of “Israeli War Crimes — Your Tax Dollars at Work” is evidence-based and is therefore far from being inherently inflammatory or inaccurate since: 

(1) Every internationally recognized non-governmental human rights organization (Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, and the UN Human Rights Council) that has investigated the 2008 Israeli assault on Gaza has come to the conclusion that there is abundant evidence of war crimes committed by Israel. So too have all the major Israeli human rights organizations (The Association for Civil Rights in Israel, B’Tselem, Committee Against Torture in Israel, Yesh Din, Rabbis for Human Rights, Physicians for Human Rights – Israel, and others). In fact, the most complete investigation to date (the 452 page September 2009 report from the UN Fact Finding Mission headed by the noted international Justice Richard Goldstone) goes further, stating that “From the facts available to it, the Mission is of the view that some of the actions of the Government of Israel might justify a competent court finding that crimes against humanity have been committed.” 

(2) The US provides Israel with F-16 fighter planes, Apache helicopters, tactical missiles, white phosphorus shells, GBU-39 guided bombs, controversial DIME (Dense Inert Metal Explosives) shells, and a variety of other armaments at US taxpayer expense. Many of these armaments were used in the commission of war crimes (noted above). Several organizations in the Seattle area (the Jewish Federation of Greater Seattle, along with the Seattle/Northwest chapters of the national groups the Anti-Defamation League, Stand With Us, and the American Jewish Committee) have exploited the fears of anti-Semitism and victimization to advance a very narrow agenda that has nothing to do with the safety and protection of the Jewish people and culture, but instead serves only to protect Israeli policies and practices that have denied basic human rights to Palestinians. These organizations do not speak for us, and in fact violate the long-standing Jewish traditions we hold most sacred, traditions that have guided us in our lives and careers: the values of justice and liberation. Labeling the bus ads as “anti-Israel,” “anti-Jewish,” or “hate speech” is an offensive tactic which should never be encouraged, and certainly not supported by echoing those claims or acting upon them. 

The bus ads are not about singling out Israel, but rather about taking responsibility for our government enabling Israeli human rights abuses, through the supply of money, arms, and diplomatic cover. Indeed, Amnesty International has called for the international community to “act immediately” at the level of individual states “to suspend all transfers of military equipment, assistance and munitions, as well as those which may be diverted, to Israel, Hamas and other Palestinian armed groups until there is no longer a substantial risk that such equipment will be used for serious violations of international human rights and humanitarian law” (AI, July 2009 report). 

In 2003, and again in 2005, ads were placed on Metro buses that protested the Iraq war. In the 2005 ads there was a graphic picture of an Iraqi child severely injured by an American cluster bomb. There were people who labeled those bus ads as anti-American, yet Metro ran those ads without incident. If we can question the use of US armaments by Americans, why can we not question the use of US armaments by the Israelis? 

Finally, we note that if there are fears that ads addressing Palestinian war crimes, proposed by other organizations, might incite hatred or violence, then you should consider those ads on a case-by-case basis according to long-standing policy. It violates the most basic conditions for free speech to allow one person’s speech to suppress another’s. 

We therefore request that you, as King County Executive, act in a manner consistent with supporting free speech, the legacy of the man King County is named for, and the highest ideals of Jewish culture: allow the bus ads to run, thereby allowing the public to question the human rights abuses committed in our name and with our tax dollars. 

Reply from the Seattle Mideast Awareness Campaign: 

     We greatly appreciate this excellent statement and defense of running the bus ads. We would only add that the Goldstone Report took evidence from all sides, even though the Israeli government prohibited the fact-finding mission from entering Israel. Israeli soldiers through the organization Breaking the Silence have come forward to testify about using Palestinians as human shields, about disregarding care for the wounded, and other war crimes. Recently, an Israeli tank commander told a Jewish documentary filmmaker that he was told “to cleanse” a Gaza neighborhood by firing tank shells at every house in the neighborhood, regardless of whether his unit came under attack. “Every house gets a shell,” the tank commander says he was told. The decision to destroy the houses resulted not from any attacks directed at the IDF from those homes. Instead, it was predetermined that the houses would be destroyed. This is the very definition of collective punishment, which is identified as a war crime in Article 33 of the Fourth Geneva Convention. Perhaps the most damning evidence of collective punishment is the finding, substantiated by satellite photography, that the great majority of housing destroyed by the IDF came in the final days of the campaign, well after it became obvious that Israeli forces were encountering little to no resistance.

The article below was written by the Reverend Sanford Brown, pastor of the First United Methodist Church of Seattle for, a local online Seattle newspaper. Brown was executive director of the Church Council of Greater Seattle when he led a group of 17 local religious leaders on a tour of Israel and the West Bank in January 2008. The article elicited a useful exchange of views in the form of comments, which can be found here: 

December 23, 2010 

Metro bus ads on Middle East: Yes, but what about our own war crimes? 

By Rev. Sanford Brown 

(Editor’s note: King County Executive Dow Constantine announced Tuesday afternoon that Metro Transit will not accept ads on aid to Israel or planned counter ads. The executive said an interim policy will halt acceptance of most new noncommercial advertising until a permanent policy can be worked out with the King County Council. In a statement, Constantine said, “We cannot and would not favor one point of view over another, so the entire category of non-commercial advertising will be eliminated until a permanent policy can be completed that I can propose to the King County Council for adoption.”) 

I still remember the advice given to my group of Holy Land pilgrims some 25 years ago by our grizzled, elderly Israeli tour guide: “Don’t talk politics to either an Israeli or a Palestinian — you’ll get in an argument.” In three successive trips to the Holy Land, I took his advice, but in my fifth trip, in January 2008, I toured Israel and the West Bank with a group of Seattle-area religious leaders expressly looking to engage community leaders in conversations about their political situation. We had plenty of arguments, but we came away with a much deeper appreciation for the intractable issues behind the Middle East conflict. 

In a small way the current Metro bus ad controversy brings the Israeli-Palestinian issue home to Seattle. In case you missed it, the Seattle Middle East Awareness Campaign purchased 12 bus ads for $2,760 with the text, “Israeli War Crimes, Your Tax Dollars At Work,” Soon a tempest flared in our local media teapot. King County Councilmember Peter von Reichbauer asked that the ads be pulled. Dow Constantine cagily criticized the ads while pointing out First Amendment guarantees of free speech. Online comment forums bubbled over with passion, Joel Connelly blustered and two new outside groups are apparently planning ads with an opposing message. 

Although my Israeli tour guide would cringe at conversation on this topic, I have to say that the Middle East Awareness Campaign’s bus ads have an inescapable logic and a blunt, uncomfortable truth. Our tax dollars have supported the Israeli military, and when the Israeli military makes a mistake, as it did in Gaza, American financial contributors bear some responsibility. 

Before going any further, I want the reader to be clear that I understand the difference between Jews as a people and Israel as a state, and I know the diversity of opinion among Jews both inside and outside Israel. Many Jews and Israelis support and many disagree with policies of the Israeli government. Israelis inhabit many places on the political spectrum. For instance in our 2008 visit we met Arik Ascherman, founder of Rabbis for Human Rights, who has protested seizure of Palestinian land by Israeli forces. We also met Israeli settlers whose religious ideology attempts to justify expulsion of all non-Jews from the West Bank and Gaza. 

Israel is a complex society that defies stereotypes. We learned that criticism of Israel is not the same as a desire to see Israel’s destruction and that a person can support Israel while recognizing its flaws. 

Palestinians are equally diverse. We met leaders of Fatah, as well as Palestinian presidential candidate Mustafa Barghouti who is an advocate of nonviolent resistance to Israeli occupation in the West Bank. We met Bedouin tribesmen who are displaced by Israeli development in the desert. We met Palestinian Christians — Catholic, Orthodox, Anglican, Quaker, and Lutheran — who are trying to retain their identity in an increasingly Muslim-dominated culture. Our grim stay at the Bethlehem Hotel, which overlooks the zigzag West Bank wall, was a bleak reminder that the center of the West Bank Palestinian Christian community and birthplace of Jesus is a victim of the ongoing conflict. 

But even in the diverse and ever-changing Middle East there are certain facts that are indisputable. 

First, the United States does indeed supply vast military assistance to the Israeli armed forces. The Congressional Research Service in 2009 put the annual figure at something around $2.5 billion, which bought training, missile systems, radar, and military hardware. After Iraq and Afghanistan, Israel is the largest recipient of American foreign aid. The $30 billion cited in the bus ads is part of a 10-year plan for American subsidy of the Israeli military. 

Second, war crimes occurred in the 2008-2009 Gaza action, in which 13 Israelis died but over 1,000 Palestinians lost their lives. South African judge Richard Gladstone, who led the U.N. investigation, found evidence “indicating serious violations of international human rights and humanitarian law … committed by Israel during the Gaza conflict.” It’s a hard truth, but denials of war crimes don’t jibe with the facts. 

Third, although Palestinians in Gaza undoubtedly committed war crimes before and during the Gaza conflict, their Hamas organization does not receive military assistance from the United States. Palestinian terrorism is wrong, but it doesn’t have an American subsidy. 

So it’s a straightforward and logical conclusion: our local bus ads are technically correct. Our military aid at least in part has funded war crimes by Israelis. 

But what does this really mean? 

In April of this year Wikileaks woke us up with a painful reminder that Americans are directly responsible for war crimes of our own in Iraq and Afghanistan. Our annual defense expenditures are roughly $700 billion per year, and there’s no foreign middleman-ally responsible for these atrocities — they are a product of America and the American taxpayer. 

So why target Israeli war crimes and a mere $30 billion in military aid? 

I can’t speak for the Seattle Middle East Awareness Campaign, but I confess that events of the last years have made me increasingly disillusioned with Israeli leadership and increasingly convinced of its culpability in prolonging the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. I’m frustrated to watch Israelis elect ever more conservative leaders who are beholden to internal groups that insist on more settlement building in the West Bank and less investment in peacemaking. 

It’s not just non-Jews like me who are disillusioned. As Toronto rabbi Chaim Strauchler wrote in Jewish Info News in March, “Many North Americans are finding it more and more difficult to support Israel. This is not merely a function of accusations of racism in the media and on campus but a growing discomfort and fatigue for the state and its persistent conflicts.” 

One of our most surprising and disturbing visits in 2008 was with the director of Public Relations for the Israeli State Department. In his view, Israel primarily suffers from a P.R. problem brought on by shrewd Palestinians who’ve manipulated public opinion in their favor. 

No, the problem clearly is the inability or unwillingness of leadership among Israelis and Palestinians to pull together their respective peoples, make and sell difficult choices, and forge a peace agreement that is in each side’s long term best interests. When the stalemate flares into armed conflict, war crimes by both sides are the sad and painful result. But the more common results of the tense impasse are Israeli lives filled with insecurity and foreboding and Palestinian lives stifled by disenfranchisement and plagued by deep poverty. 

Again this year, my Christmas wish is for a two-state solution, roughly along the pre-1967 borders, with prosperity and peace for Jews, Muslims, and Christians. I’d like to see war crimes by anyone become a distant memory, and the homeland of our Judeo-Christian religious tradition be a model of peace and cooperation for all people. 

As financial supporters of Israel, we do have culpability in its mistakes and it’s our job to advocate for human rights for both Israelis and Palestinians. If there’s an unfairness to the Metro bus ads, it’s not that they inaccurately target Israel, it’s that they attack Israel while ignoring our own sorry history of war atrocities. To paraphrase the words of a Jewish sage from generations before my grizzled Israeli tour guide: they do have a mite in their eye, but we have a log in ours. 

Reply from the Seattle Mideast Awareness Campaign: 

     We want to thank Reverend Brown for affirming that the Israeli government has committed war crimes. The U.S. government provides Israel with nearly $3 billion in military aid each year, and when that weaponry is used to commit war crimes, we are complicit in those crimes. We condemn all war crimes, including those carried out by our government in Afghanistan and Iraq, but even if U.S. forces were not directly involved in Gaza, that does not mean that Israel’s crimes are not also our crimes.

     Our ads were also meant to remind people that it is no longer possible to go through everyday life, to get on a bus to go to work or to shop, without being made aware that we are part of a larger global community. We may have our weekly errands to run, but somewhere in Gaza children like those depicted in our ads are homeless or parentless, the victims of awful violence, because we helped fund the destruction of their homes, because we helped make them orphans.

J Street Seattle is part of the J Street Lobby that seeks to be the pro-peace, pro-Israel lobby. J Street Seattle co-chairs Rainer Waldman Adkins and Michelle Mentzer issued the following: 

Statement in response to the Seattle Mideast Awareness Campaign’s bus advertisements: 

J Street Seattle calls on the Seattle Mideast Awareness Campaign to reconsider its advertising campaign that will run later this month. The ads accuse Israel of utilizing U.S. aid to commit war crimes. This only serves to inflame tensions and promote division and confusion, rather than to point the way towards a productive resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. 

As the viability of a two-state solution hangs in the balance, we believe that those who seek peace must focus their energies on supporting the bold, assertive American leadership necessary to end the conflict, rather than perpetuating the cycle of mutual accusation. 

We urge those committed to a resolution of the conflict to concentrate their activism on building a broad, diverse and effective movement for Mideast peace, based on support for the state of Israel and a Palestinian state living side-by-side in safety and security, offering a future of hope for both peoples. 

J Street Seattle is the local grassroots arm of J Street, the political home for pro-Israel, pro-peace Americans. J Street’s mission is two-fold: first, to advocate for urgent American diplomatic leadership to achieve a two-state solution and a broader regional, comprehensive peace and, second, to ensure a broad debate on Israel and the Middle East in national politics and the American Jewish community. 

Reply from the Seattle Mideast Awareness Campaign: 

     We disagree that our ad about Israel’s war crimes “only serves to inflame tensions and promote division and confusion, rather than to point the way towards a productive resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.” Our concern is accountability. One of our goals is to help ensure that a military offensive like the one the Israeli Defense Forces waged during Operation Cast Lead never occurs again. Because the IDF has not been held accountable for its use of collective punishment and disproportionate force, it is likely that the IDF will once again act with impunity when it comes to disregarding the rights and humanity of Palestinian civilians. We believe this behavior will do far more to damage a productive resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict than our insistence that both the U.S. and Israeli governments uphold international law and cease violating the Fourth Geneva Convention. We believe there can be no hope for a peaceful and just settlement unless it is based on human rights and international humanitarian law.

     We are disturbed by J Street’s apparent effort to avoid the issue of Israel’s war crimes, even to the point of denial. We wish J Street had played a more active role in supporting an open hearing in this country on the findings of the United Nations Fact-Finding Mission on the Gaza Conflict, headed by the eminent jurist Richard Goldstone. We were glad to see that J Street opposed House Resolution 867, which rushed to condemn the Goldstone Report. However, J Street’s critique of our ad campaign raises several questions: Where does J Street stand on the findings of the Goldstone report? If accountability for war crimes and human rights violations inflames tensions and promotes division and confusion, then does this mean that peace- and justice-loving people have to avoid any discussion of them? Who is protected by the failure to probe these issues and who is left unprotected? How can anyone believe a just resolution of the conflict will ensue if these issues are left unsettled?

The following letter from the Episcopal Bishop’s Committee for Israel/Palestine of the diocese of Olympia, Washington, was sent to the Seattle Times on January 14, 2011, for publication as an 

op-ed. The Times rejected it.. 

Transit Billboards–Human rights and US tax dollars 

It is sad that it takes a shockwave to generate dialogue, and nowhere is a public airing more needed than in the case of the 40 year illegal Israeli occupation of the Palestinian Territories. For many years, members of Jewish and non-Jewish advocacy groups, including the Bishop’s Committee for Israel/Palestine of the Episcopal Diocese of Olympia, have been attempting to create awareness and open discussion of the issues and the role of America in promoting justice and peace in this troubled place. 

Inevitably, our attempts have been quashed by those who claim that legitimate criticisms of the policies of Israel are “anti-Semitic or “self-hating”. These accusations, inviolably defending “Israel, right or wrong,” have been effective because the majority of Americans are not well informed on the issues. While sympathetic to Israel’s right to a secure state in historic Palestine (partitioned in 1947 into separate Jewish and Arab states by the United Nations), most would not support Israel’s ongoing colonization of Palestinian lands or the establishment of an exclusive Jewish state. (About one quarter of the citizens of Israel are ethnic Arab Palestinians, both Christian and Muslim.) 

The Six-Day War of 1967 that began the Israeli occupation of the West Bank and Gaza set the stage for an endless and often bloody struggle over ownership and control of land and water resources. Since then, nearly all of the members of our committee, whose mission is to support the many Palestinian churches and educational and medical ministries of our companion Episcopal Diocese of Jerusalem, have personally witnessed the tragic effects on the lives of the Palestinian people. 

Since 1948, Israel has indeed engaged in the killing of innocent non-combatants, including children. While it is true that during the same period, Palestinians have committed equally immoral crimes against innocent civilians, the numerical and technological superiority of the Israeli military forces has resulted in significantly higher human costs for Palestinians. 

Between 2000 and 2007, the respected Israeli human rights organization B’Tselem recorded over 2000 civilian Palestinian deaths. In January 2009, B’Tselem documented nearly 1400 Palestinian deaths in Gaza alone; nearly 800 were civilians (over a third of these under the age of 17) while 5000 were injured and 21,000 homes were destroyed. The number of civilian Israeli deaths was 13. Israel is not a helpless victim, but a modern military, nuclear super-power. 

The American people absolutely do need to know how our tax dollars are being used by Israel. From 1976-2004, Israel was the largest annual recipient of U.S. foreign assistance, supplanted since then only by Iraq. Since 1985, the United States has provided nearly $3 billion in annual grants to Israel. There can be little doubt that some of this money has gone to the expansion and protection of illegal settlements and the building of a 450 mile separation barrier, thereby severely restricting land, water, and economic resources for Palestinians. Just this year, over 30 billion dollars in military aid over the next 10 years was authorized by Congress. Since the construction moratorium ended in September, the Israeli organization Peace Now estimates settlement expansion to be the most rapid in a decade. (New York Times, 12.23.10) The transfer of the population of the occupier into the territory it occupies is in violation of the Fourth Geneva Convention and all accepted standards of international human rights law. 

Jews, Christians and Muslims who want to create open public forums for honest questions and answers are neither anti-Semitic nor anti-Israel. We share concerns that the military occupation and economic oppression imposed on the Palestinian people by the government of Israel is putting the welfare of Israel (along with the rest of us) at increasing, if not flashpoint, risk while we dither and delay. 

While we believe the billboard ad sponsored by the Mideast Awareness campaign was meant to shock us into awareness and dialogue, not hatred, the poster seemed to enflame passion, rather than reason and created a backlash that polarized, rather than enlightened. What is clearly needed is access to information and an open examination of the issues. When free speech and dissent are stifled and there are so few avenues for public discourse in questioning the wisdom of US policies, especially those that directly or indirectly support injustice and apartheid, shock treatment may be necessary to begin a conversation. It is high time for serious debate. Our democracy depends on it. 

Let’s start talking. 

Reply from the Seattle Mideast Awareness Campaign: 

     We appreciate the Bishop’s Committee support of our rights to free speech , and of course, we join them in opposing Israel’s illegal occupation of the Palestinian territories. However, we think any discussion of Israel’s war crimes is bound to enflame passions among those who support Israel uncritically and who cannot see beyond their own prejudices and biases. Our ads were not aimed at those individuals who support Israel right or wrong. Nor were the ads meant to shock, except perhaps in the sense of the shock of recognition that occurs when people witness an injustice and realize that it resembles past outrages, such as the My Lai Massacre in Vietnam or the Sharpeville Massacre in South Africa. Rather the ads were a reminder that as we go through the routine of daily life, taking a bus to work or to shop, we can’t escape the implications of what is done to other people as a result of a U.S. foreign policy that backs oppression, racism, and militarism. The recent events in the Middle East, in which millions of people in Egypt, Tunisia, and elsewhere have demanded basic democratic rights and freedom from dictatorship, should be a reminder that our nation has little standing with those seeking freedom when it has consistently supported—diplomatically, militarily, and with substantial aid—those very dictatorships.

     We want to reach those who are unaware of what is being done in their name. We want to encourage them to learn more and to raise their voice against the use of our tax dollars to support war crimes. The $30 billion pledged to Israel is not only morally wrong and politically bankrupt, but it also comes at a time of economic crisis in this country when tens of thousands are without work and many more still face imminent layoffs, particularly in the public sector among teachers and state and local government employees. Taxpayers in King County will send $271 million to the Israeli military over a 10-year period, money that could be better spent to create jobs or improve social services.