Jewish Independent: Please don’t censor

Jewish Independent Editorial, Sept. 6, 2013

Fifteen buses and one transit station in Vancouver will be sporting geopolitical propaganda for the next few months. Paid for by the Palestine Awareness Coalition, the ad campaign features four maps – each showing a shrinking “Palestine” succumbing to an encroaching Israel – with the headline “Disappearing Palestine.” There is much deception in the ads, no historical context, a conflating of peoplehood with nationhood, etc., etc. But is deception/misinformation in advertising enough of a reason to ban said advertising?

The Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs, Pacific Region, and the Jewish Federation of Greater Vancouver were among those calling for TransLink to reject the ad campaign, as “these advertisements distort history, are malicious and essentially question the legitimacy of Israel’s right to exist as a Jewish state.” A legal opinion procured by CIJA-PR and Federation concludes that TransLink is permitted “to have a policy that provides for a safe and welcoming transit system and to exclude advertisements that objectively and reasonably interfere with that goal.” TransLink, however, contends (also based on a legal opinion) that it must run the ad because its advertising policy “cannot violate freedom of expression under the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms,” “except in accordance with Section 1 of the Charter, which makes all Charter rights subject to ‘such reasonable limits prescribed by law as can be demonstrably justified in a free and democratic society.’”

The issue seems to boil down to whether or not these ads create a dangerous environment for Jews. If they do, TransLink could refuse them, as such refusal would be a reasonable limitation on free speech. However, this would have to be determined by the courts because, if one thing is evident from the controversy, it is that there is a fundamental difference of opinion on the matter between organizations like CIJA-PR and Federation, and groups like PAC and TransLink.

Another point made obvious by the controversy is that the Jewish community at large has failed at even the most basic level. While most Canadians are aware of the visceral connections Jewish Canadians have with Israel – which is what makes the PAC ad potentially dangerous, that it will be read not only as a condemnation of Israel but of the entire Jewish community through our association with Israel – they have less understanding of the historical context. It is this lack of knowledge that the PAC ad exploits – and we, in attempting to ban the ad, did worse than nothing to educate Canadians about the region’s actual history.

We can launch campaigns to ban ideas we dislike every time they emerge, which is an incessant battle doomed to failure in a free society, or we can adopt an approach of educating the public by telling our story effectively. Done right, British Columbia Zionists could become known as advocates who engage intelligently and persuade thinking people with reason, instead of a community that seeks authoritarian responses to every expression we find disagreeable.

When it was clear that TransLink was not going to succumb to the campaign to censor the ads, community leaders urged us to contact TransLink executives and elected officials. Many of us did so – some of us in language that was overheated, abusive, even threatening. This too will do nothing to aid our strategy.

We need to tell our side of the story, correct the lies, share our passion for Israel. We need to engage.

The Zionist narrative is not simplistic, and cannot be reduced to images like those of the crude maps produced by PAC, but if we adopt a policy now of educating people, perhaps in future we will not be forced to put out brush-fires started by deceptions like the current one. Our story might even attract people who are moved to join our cause based on the facts.

This is a teaching moment. Instead of seizing it, our community leadership is sending the message that we do not have a response, that we cannot answer the historical case put forward by these deceptive maps, that we must obliterate the ads and never speak of such things again.

The lifeblood of the anti-Israel movement is the usually false idea that Jews use back channels and inordinate influence to “silence” any criticism of Israel. As a long-range strategy, censoring ideas is like drinking seawater. We may win this battle, but we will not quench the public’s thirst for facts that satisfy their legitimate questions about why “Palestine” seems to be disappearing.

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