Sunday, July 15, 2012

Stifling free speech to help Israel

First published as an op-ed in LA Daily News Republished at Information Clearing House Shakeel Syed is a Muslim-American and a board member of American Muslims for Palestine Jeff Warner is a Jewish-American and a member of Los Angeles Jews for Peace Our message was simple: “Tell Congress: Spend Our Money at Home, Not on the Israeli Military.” We wanted people to understand how their tax dollars are spent. We contracted with CBS Outdoor for a 28-day campaign of 23 billboards. They erected them in Los Angeles and surrounding cities, and we thanked them for allowing free speech. However, a week later, CBS Outdoor took down all our billboards, telling us laughably that our applauding them for allowing free speech was tantamount to their endorsement of our message. They wanted us to take our money and go away quietly. But we decided otherwise. The truth is that CBS Outdoor likely buckled to pressure from pro-Israeli groups and their paid shills in Congress. Rep. Howard Berman wrote a memo (available on his website) to the Coalition to Stop $30 Billion to Israel, the sponsor of the billboard campaign, condemning the billboards and referring to alleged complaints from his San Fernando Valley constituents. In response, Berman received praise from pro-Israel groups such as the Simon Wiesenthal Center and the Anti-Defamation League, organizations who called the billboards “provocative.” So what if the billboards contained a message that Rep. Berman and these pro-Israel groups found provocative. Who are they to judge what political messages people in Los Angeles should be allowed to see? On the other hand, we believe that provocative discussions make democracy flourish and stifling discussion will kill democracy. By taking down the billboards and advocating against them, we charge CBS Outdoor and Rep. Berman with stifling discussion and undermining our democracy. As taxpayers, we care how Congress spends our money. As citizens, we want our country to be generous, but not reckless. Rep. Berman and vast majority of his Congressional colleagues continually demonstrate recklessness in wasting our treasure serving Israeli interests rather than fulfilling the needs of the American people. The money the United States is spending on the Israeli military this year, if used at home, would help tens of thousands of Americans recover from the ongoing recession with affordable housing, college loans, green job training, health care, and other support. Rep. Berman demands that America must keep aiding Israel although it was recently ranked by the Center for Public Integrity as one of the top ten human rights abusers in the world receiving U.S. weapons, and Israeli misuse of American-supplied weapons to dispossess and bombard Palestinians may violate the United States Arms Export Control Act, which limits the use of U.S. weapons to “internal security” and “legitimate self-defense.” We disagree. Why is Rep. Berman intentionally disregarding these laws in hawking more weapons to Israel at the expense of unmet domestic needs? Perhaps the answer lies in Rep. Berman being a beneficiary of pro-Israel political action committees, which are among his top five contributors, keeping him in Congress as their many strong advocates. Rep. Berman should stop pandering for military aid to Israel and instead start aiding Americans who are homeless and the jobless, children and the elderly, libraries and schools, police and fire departments. He can start with those right there in his district in the San Fernando Valley. For example, the money destined for the Israeli military under a $30 billion ten year agreement would provide primary health care to 23 million Americans. As for CBS Outdoor whose slogan is, “Always On,” apparently is on for some and off for others. Suppressing free speech, especially that which engenders a debate to mend the American economy, is not only un-American but anti-capitalist. As Jewish and Muslim Americans who devote our lives to seeking peace among peoples of all faiths, we hold CBS Outdoor and Rep. Berman responsible for suppressing an important conversation; the billboards called on our nation to revisit its misplaced spending priorities. We believe in a vibrant and provocative discussion through all lawful means, including by erecting billboards. This is an imperative and not an option. American leaders say they want to see genuine peace and stability in the Middle East. To achieve that America must first stop its financial and military aid to Israel and then use whatever integrity it has left to end the Israeli occupation of the Palestinian people. As long as America’s treasure is bled away to support the tyranny of the Israeli occupation and as long as corporations and Congressmen like Rep. Berman stifles debate and discussion, our country will continue to suffer. CBS Outdoor should not censor the billboards and Rep. Berman should not attempt to chill free speech. Americans deserve to debate the negative impact of U.S. military aid to Israel. Our billboard may have been removed but our spirits soar high with our message to Congress: “Spend Our Money at Home, Not on the Israeli Military.”