Pamela Geller is no hero


Lest there be any doubt, the recent attempt by two extremists to commit violence against participants in a so-called “Mohamed art contest” was entirely condemnable.  No amount of provocation justifies such acts.

The First Amendment protects the most offensive of language and those who use it. But Pamela Geller, the organizer of this tragic farce, is no hero.

The contest she promoted was not designed to stir debate, to educate or to make a statement about free speech.  It was designed to mock and to reward blatant disrespect for the beliefs and values of Muslims. I cannot know if she hoped to generate the kind of response that catapulted this event into the limelight, but if she did, it is even more reason that Pamela Geller is no hero.

The First Amendment to our Constitution contains remarkable protections for personal expression and beliefs.  Robust exchanges of ideas in the marketplace seemed to be at the heart of what our founders intended, and protection from the establishment or suppression of any particular viewpoint is built in as well.  The Constitution is silent on the subject of the responsibility of individual citizens in exercising those rights.  If there is a role for faith communities, it is to advocate with equal vigor for an ethic that does not allow for prejudice and malice toward some to hide behind the Bill of Rights. A weaponized First Amendment allows for free speech to victimize other Americans while wrapped in a cloak of false piety.

The Jewish experience I share with Pamela Geller is a history filled with attempts to disenfranchise us. From Gen. Ulysses S. Grant to Father Coughlin to David Duke, in the military, the media and politics, rabble rousing against us has been met with strident protest and demands for all people of good conscience to reject the stereotypes and bigotry protected by the First Amendment.  Jews have taken great satisfaction when presidents, priests and politicians have spoken out against their own for betraying the values they have sworn to uphold. Simultaneously, our community’s leadership has risen to the defense of others who have been denigrated by the exercise of First Amendment rights.

Our community has joined with others in the uncompromising defense of personal expression that stops millimeters short of crying “fire” in a crowded theater.  Speech need not be popular to be protected.  But federal, state and local statutes recognize the difference between what is outrageous and what is hateful.

So I am distressed to see that there are people – many from within my own community –  rising to defend Pamela Geller on the basis of her First Amendment rights.  Those rights are not in question.  They are the same rights that protect Westboro Baptist Church, the Ku Klux Klan and the publishers of the Protocols of the Learned Elders of Zion.  The purpose of all that free speech is to bring harm to others by representing them as collectively guilty of irredeemable crimes.  When the defenders of Pamela Geller’s rights stand up with equal vigor for other hate-mongers, only then will I consider that their motive is grounded in the Constitution.

It should not be up to Muslims alone to respond to this offense.  Americans of good conscience should protest or ignore Pamela Geller, exercising the same First Amendment rights with the same passion.  It should not escape notice that of 319 million American citizens, including millions of Muslims, all but two did exactly that. That makes We the People the heroes for invoking our First Amendment right to tell Pamela Geller how very wrong she is.

Rabbi Jack Moline is the executive director of Interfaith Alliance.

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  1. The cowards are the people attacking Geller more than they attacked the people who tried to kill her for drawing a picture of a person. Nobody’s been murdered for Piss Christ or Book of Mormon.


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