An ad campaign on SEPTA buses vilifying Muslims as Jew-haters exemplifies a misguided use of freedom.
Sometimes freedom is not enough.
Our ancestors learned that lesson when they were liberated from Egypt and were forced to wander in the desert for 40 years. It took that long, according to our tradition, for the Israelites to shake off the yoke of oppression and be free enough psychologically to enter the Promised Land.
We are still learning it today, as we prepare to celebrate Passover and recapture that ancient story. We were reminded that freedom is not enough —that it matters how we use that freedom — when we discovered that an ad campaign vilifying Muslims as Jew-haters is about to invade our city buses.
SEPTA, citing legal costs and knowing it had little chance of winning, has opted not to appeal a federal court ruling that the American Freedom Defense Initiative has the constitutional right to run advertisements on buses that state “Islamic Jew Hatred: It’s in the Quran.” The ads show a picture of Adolf Hitler meeting with a Muslim leader in the 1940s and urges an end to all U.S. aid to Islamic nations.
No one is suggesting that the organization — run by a Jewish woman named Pamela Geller, known for her extreme views — does not have the right to run the ads. But with freedom comes responsibility. Having the precious right to freedom of speech does not absolve us of the responsibility to use that freedom wisely and responsibly.
In announcing the company’s decision not to appeal the ruling last week, the agency’s board chair, Pat Deon, stated with utmost clarity: “Septa does not — and I repeat — does not endorse or support the views expressed in these ads.” He apologized to riders, saying “SEPTA sincerely regrets any discomfort that this may cause our ridership.” The ads are indeed likely to cause discomfort to many riders who would rather not see photos of Hitler staring at them, especially in this holiday season, and who will take offense at the effort to paint all adherents to Islam with the brush of radical extremism.
We Jews, of course, have plenty of reason to worry about the Islamic extremism that is gaining momentum throughout the world. It is incumbent upon all of us, American Muslims included, to denounce it. But we also must also speak out against those who promote hatred and divisiveness in our society.
Throughout the Haggadah that we will soon share at our family seders, we are urged to remember that we were strangers in Egypt, oppressed and hated. From Egypt through the Holocaust and until today, that anti-Jewish smear still exists.
It is this legacy that demands of us a sense of justice and tolerance. This, too, is part of our story. Chag Pesach Sameach!