(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, www.stop30billion-Seattle.org." 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.
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