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Metro bus ads on Middle East: Yes, but what about our own war crimes?

Metro Transit accepts ads but decided against controversial ones criticizing Israel. Credit: Joe Copeland/Crosscut

(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,” 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.

Second, war crimes occurred in the 2008-2009 Gaza action, in which 13 Israelis died but over 1,000 Palestinians lost their lives. South African judge Richard Gladstone, who led the U.N. investigation, found evidence “indicating serious violations of international human rights and humanitarian law … committed by Israel during the Gaza conflict.” It’s a hard truth, but denials of war crimes don’t jibe with the facts.

Third, although Palestinians in Gaza undoubtedly committed war crimes before and during the Gaza conflict, their Hamas organization does not receive military assistance from the United States. Palestinian terrorism is wrong, but it doesn’t have an American subsidy.

So it’s a straightforward and logical conclusion: our local bus ads are technically correct. Our military aid at least in part has funded war crimes by Israelis.

But what does this really mean?

In April of this year Wikileaks woke us up with a painful reminder that Americans are directly responsible for war crimes of our own in Iraq and Afghanistan. Our annual defense expenditures are roughly $700 billion per year, and there’s no foreign middleman-ally responsible for these atrocities — they are a product of America and the American taxpayer.

So why target Israeli war crimes and a mere $30 billion in military aid?

I can’t speak for the Seattle Middle East Awareness Campaign, but I confess that events of the last years have made me increasingly disillusioned with Israeli leadership and increasingly convinced of its culpability in prolonging the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. I’m frustrated to watch Israelis elect ever more conservative leaders who are beholden to internal groups that insist on more settlement building in the West Bank and less investment in peacemaking.

It’s not just non-Jews like me who are disillusioned. As Toronto rabbi Chaim Strauchler wrote in Jewish Info News in March, “Many North Americans are finding it more and more difficult to support Israel. This is not merely a function of accusations of racism in the media and on campus but a growing discomfort and fatigue for the state and its persistent conflicts.”

One of our most surprising and disturbing visits in 2008 was with the director of Public Relations for the Israeli State Department. In his view, Israel primarily suffers from a P.R. problem brought on by shrewd Palestinians who’ve manipulated public opinion in their favor. 

No, the problem clearly is the inability or unwillingness of leadership among Israelis and Palestinians to pull together their respective peoples, make and sell difficult choices, and forge a peace agreement that is in each side’s long term best interests. When the stalemate flares into armed conflict, war crimes by both sides are the sad and painful result. But the more common results of the tense impasse are Israeli lives filled with insecurity and foreboding and Palestinian lives stifled by disenfranchisement and plagued by deep poverty.

Again this year, my Christmas wish is for a two-state solution, roughly along the pre-1967 borders, with prosperity and peace for Jews, Muslims, and Christians. I’d like to see war crimes by anyone become a distant memory, and the homeland of our Judeo-Christian religious tradition be a model of peace and cooperation for all people.

As financial supporters of Israel, we do have culpability in its mistakes and it’s our job to advocate for human rights for both Israelis and Palestinians. If there’s an unfairness to the Metro bus ads, it’s not that they inaccurately target Israel, it’s that they attack Israel while ignoring our own sorry history of war atrocities. To paraphrase the words of a Jewish sage from generations before my grizzled Israeli tour guide: they do have a mite in their eye, but we have a log in ours.

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