On Aug. 24, 2011, I moderated a debate among mayoral hopefuls at the Jewish Community Center of San Francisco. The event was sponsored by the Raoul Wallenberg Jewish Democratic Club and I wasted no time asking candidate John Avalos to address his 2010 resolution “condemning the Israeli Defense Forces’ military attack on the Freedom Flotilla on May 31, 2010.” Israel’s position was that the flotilla violated a legal blockade. The resolution never passed, but in an auditorium full of Jewish people, he apologized and was suddenly philosophical.
“I learned from that experience that the Board of Supervisors was not the place to engage in that discussion,” Avalos said. “I do have concerns about the conflict in Israel and in the occupied territories, but I also support the Jewish homeland and the Jewish faith. That resolution didn’t move forward because I realized I was dividing people and not bringing them together.”
Fast-forward to Tuesday’s Board of Supervisors meeting, where Supervisor Scott Wiener spoke out about anti-Israel messages on The City’s buses, and Avalos’ support for the Jewish homeland seems to have waned.
It all started back in March when a group called American Freedom Defense Initiative paid to put disgusting messages on Muni buses. “In any war between the civilized man and the savage, support the civilized man,” was one of the messages. Beneath it: “Support Israel, Defeat Jihad.”
In an effort not to violate the free-speech rights of the hateful nutters behind the ads, Muni had to put them up, but the agency included a statement disavowing the sentiment in the ads and gave the profits from the campaign — about $5,000, Wiener said — to the Human Rights Commission. Local Jewish groups like Wallenberg and the Jewish Community Relations Council immediately denounced the ads and the Board of Supervisors supported Muni’s measures with a resolution endorsed by every member of the board except supervisors Mark Farrell and Norman Yee, who were absent on the day of the vote.
After calling the ads “anti-Palestinian” and unsuccessfully petitioning the transit agency to take them down, the group American Muslims for Palestine is now running its own ads on buses that say “End Apartheid Now! Stop U.S. Aid to Israel.”
Seven of the 11 members of the Board of Supervisors have not called for the ads to be taken down, but have asked that the ads be treated the same as the anti-Muslim signs. The ultimate decision will be made by the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency’s board of directors, but so far, agency spokesman Paul Rose has said the agency will run a statement of repudiation but is not inclined to donate the proceeds — again, about $5,000 — to the Human Rights Commission. Incidentally, in the time it took you to read this column, the transit agency spent $5,000.
Wiener brought up the issue of the bus ads and asked that the agency review its policies. Chicago and Seattle have recently changed their rules to prevent public transit from being used to wage a proxy war over the Middle East.
Then Avalos declared he would not support the effort to treat the two series of ads similarly because, “I think there really needs to be a distinction between ads that are hate speech and ads that are political speech.” In Avalosland, speech can only be one or the other. Also in that magical place, “anti-Palestinian” ads that say “Support Israel” are not political. And the ads put up in response to those anti-Palestinian signs comparing Israel (which he totally supports, remember) to segregated South Africa is totally different not at all hateful.
Even Supervisor David Campos agreed that the two sets of ads should be treated the same because “there are subject matters where we have a responsibility to promote dialogue” and dialogue promotion is the job of the commission, so give them the money. Note that Eric Mar and Jane Kim have yet to sign the letter condemning the anti-Israel ads or to otherwise explain themselves on this issue.
Still, Avalos (because he’s all about bringing people together, remember) maintained, “I will be putting out a statement and perhaps my colleagues may join me on that, stating that these ads do not constitute hate speech.” I’ll save a copy because it will be one more thing he will have to apologize for next time he runs for higher office.
Melissa Griffin’s column runs each Thursday and Sunday. She also appears Mondays in “Mornings with Melissa” at 6:45 a.m. on KPIX (Ch. 5). Email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.