Flags, Billboards, and Free Speech

By David Cohen

The Saturday before New Year’s, our community experienced another unprecedented reaction to the ongoing war in Gaza.  After a protest from local activists, thousands of Palestinian flags were placed along Front Street near the Susquehanna River, at other public areas, and most significantly for our community – at and around our Holocaust Memorial.

Many Jewish community members rightly contacted community leadership – myself, Rabbis, people they thought would have some answers in this very confusing moment.  Many were upset at signs that asked to “Hold Israel Accountable.” Others were upset at the placement at the Holocaust Memorial and others were upset at the flags in general.

And here is where I want to focus on this issue that the Jewish community is sadly very familiar with.  What is the balance of free speech and political expression, and public space?  Earlier in the fall, a billboard campaign began in Harrisburg sponsored by the organization If Americans Knew.  Many contacted the Federation and local authorities saying the sign, which read “We Stand with Palestine” was menacing, instilling of fear, and disturbing to say the least.  This was the same terminology that many used during this latest episode.  

Now, is there justification to our fears?  I think the answer is yes - and here is why.

The Jewish community, over centuries, has been at the forefront of conversations around separation of church and state.  And this includes what “the state” will allow to be said on their public grounds whether it is religious speech or political speech.  This includes issues ranging from reproductive rights to wars to current issues of diversity and inclusion in our society.  And what we have had to grapple with is that while the public space can be used for political or religious speech – if it is not vetted by local officials for intimidation or even the sheer size of the requested undertaking – it could actually be a very troubling proposition for any number of communities.

What I often have a hard time explaining to more recent participants in the “use of public space conversations” is that the Jewish community has been here before and often has to be that “canary in the coalmine.”  We do this because we are trying to protect both our own community and others.  For example, we wouldn’t want any group to be able to literally cover our coveted public spaces with ANY political message.  That is not what public spaces are used for.  That is why our signs are on our private property and why our events are held at our institutions.  We want our message out there – and on the news and in other media.  But we don’t always want to throw our views in the face of the entire community and definitely not right in front of a cherished monument that memorializes one of the most traumatic moments in a group’s history.

It is an ongoing issue in the public discourse over the Israeli-Palestinian conflict to have US activists want to hold their events at or near Holocaust events or Holocaust memorials.  It is despicable and not justified by any comparison of Palestinian suffering to the Holocaust.  If there is one argument we can all be making right now, it is that while we certainly have empathy for the loss of life in Gaza right now, to compare this attempt to rid Gaza of Hamas – a group who has promised to cleanse Israel of Jews and who has now followed through in attempting that – is a grotesque and insulting comparison.  As I say in my own writing on this wider topic – just because something may “look like” something does not mean it is that thing.  Death caused by war may seem like a genocide to some, but it is not.  Full stop.  Daily life in Gaza and the West Bank may “look like” apartheid to some.  But it simply is not that.  Plain and simple.  

And while many may disagree with me, this is the public position of the organized Jewish communal leadership and a position I stand behind fully.

So, when I read that some residents of Harrisburg are confused by the city taking down these flags and signs – saying it is “just speech,” I say that we don’t all get to say what we want, wherever we want.  The public spaces should be used for things that the entire community can rally around.  The message of the Holocaust is a universal message.  It is why the city agreed to have that spot memorialize that trauma of all those communities impacted by that horrific event.  It is not just for one community, and it is not just about one community. 

When community members raised concerns about the billboards mentioned above, the Federation and community members pooled resources to put up our own positive messages about standing with Israel and bringing the hostages home.  Would we have done that proactively had another group not made a play on the lawn signs that lined our private agencies? Likely not. 

The use of public and private spaces for political speech is not a simple one – nor is it one that does not cause concern on both sides of an issue.  But as a minority group in a majority Christian society, we have been vigilant about how the public space is used.  We will continue to do that because we believe our efforts protect all minority groups from being intimidated or marginalized.  There are plenty of ways to get a view across in today’s world without taking over public spaces without permits and without vetting.  No matter the cause or the way you feel your cause is just – the slippery slope were these policies not in place is just too great a risk.  We believe the right to rally and protest should always be protected.  Leaving your mark like the activists did along Front Street – and at our beloved memorial – is not the way to raise awareness without trampling on the rights and sensibilities of other communities.