Aired September 29, 2012 on Dave’s Gone By. Youtube: http://youtu.be/5EnyHNhpAwA
Shalom Dammit! This is Rabbi Sol Solomon with a Rabbinical Reflection for the week of September 30th, 2012.
When was the last time you gave a rat’s tuchas about a subway advertisement? You’re walking on the platform at 42nd Street or 14th Street, and what do you pass? There’s an ad for a new horror movie that looks horrible. There’s an ad for a new Kevin James film that looks even more horrible than the horror movie. Then you get those ads from the MTA warning you to watch the gap or if you see something, say something. Which is ridiculous, because if you spoke out every time you saw something weird or scary on the subway, you’d never shut up!
But this past week has put the New York subways in the news in a way they haven’t been since those flash mobs had people climbing aboard wearing no pants. How I missed that, I do not know. I keep hoping I’ll see women with no pants on the M-4 bus, but no luck. I’ve seen one or two pantsless men, but that was not a political statement, those were homeless guys getting too friendly with my leg.
Anyhoo, this week, an organization called the American Freedom Defense Initiative won the legal right to put up posters in the New York subway system. In big white letters on a black background, they have this quote: “In any war between the civilized man and the savage, support the civilized man,” unquote. Underneath, in blue letters, it says, “Support Israel.” Under that, in red letters, “Defeat Jihad.”
As you might expect, a firestorm of controversy has greeted this ad campaign, with Arabs freaking out, and Jews who are afraid of Arabs freaking out even more. Now, it’s hard to argue with the basic message: When you have one country that is a friend to the United States and is the only democracy in the middle east, you have to support it. When you have an ideology that is bent on destroying Western civilization through fear, violence and torture, it’s probably a good idea to oppose it.
First, let’s put the quote in context. It originally comes from novelist Ayn Rand, a Jewish Russian who wrote two great and very, very, very, very, very, very long books called “Atlas Shrugged” and “The Fountainhead.” In 1973, Rand was upset about the Yom Kippur War – you know, the one where the Arabs attacked Israel on the holiest day of the year? And she made some seriously anti-Arab remarks that went a lot farther than the 18 words paraphrased in the subway ad. Still, considering the circumstances, her anger and racism were, if not excusable, certainly understandable in context.
And it’s hard to argue with the text of the ad. “Jihad” means religious war. It is the struggle of Muslims against anything remotely threatening to their way of life. Unfortunately, that could be anything from defending the ancient Byzantine Empire to putting a price on Salman Rushdie’s head. Or worse, cutting off Theo Van Gogh’s head.
And let’s not forget that happy little day in September 2001 when Al Qaida decided to teach America a lesson in religious tolerance and brotherhood.
But okay, I am not immune to the subtleties of language. If you call one group savages, and then you say “support Israel,” there is a coded message that over-generalizes. Even though the advertisement doesn’t say all Muslims are savages, there’s still a nasty undertone. It’s like when people say Midwesterners won’t get a joke because it’s too New York – we know what they really mean.
And so, the call has gone out to take the posters down, Arab-American protesters have been arrested for spray-painting over them, twats are tweeting on their twitters that the ad is just throwing gasoline on the fires of racial intolerance from both sides.
How do I feel about the whole thing? Thank you for asking. First of all, I agree with the message of the poster 100 percent, but only IF we take Jihad to mean the darkest, worst part of the Muslim credo. Others have pointed out that “holy war” does not have to be violent, and that an Arab rejecting a ham sandwich is obeying Jihad, just the way a Jew rejecting bacon is obeying Kashrut. Except the Jew has it harder because bacon is soooo good.
The wording of the sign is inflammatory, or at least uncomfortable, especially in the subway. It’s an underground, closed-in space, and if I were standing next to a Muslim next to that sign, I’d feel ooky – just as ooky as I do when I’m on the train and some asshole bellows a verse of “Amazing Grace” hoping people will give him money so he won’t sing the second verse.
There are better places and better ways to make the case for defending Israel, and for keeping our guard up against the Ahmadinejads and the Mullahs – and the Bin Ladens and the Arafats and the small number of Arab Muslims who force us to hate and fear the millions of Muslims who are not savages. Well, except when they’re watching soccer.
If only they would change the sign to read, “Support Israel. Stop Terrorism.” Or, “Support Peace, Ban the Taliban.” Something we can all get behind. In any war between the subtext and the urtext, be careful with both.
This has been a Rabbinical Reflection from Rabbi Sol Solomon, Temple Sons of Bitches in Great Neck, New York.
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