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Originally published Friday, December 31, 2010 at 4:00 PM

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Guest columnist

'Israel right or wrong' crowd advocates censorship in Seattle

By rallying pressure to prevent the placement or ads critical to Israel's treatment of Palestinians, writes guest writer Ed Mast, the "Israel right or wrong" supporters advocated censorship in Seattle.

Special to The Times

I WAS part of a group that raised money for a series of Metro Transit bus ads that read, "ISRAELI WAR CRIMES: Your Tax Dollars At Work." We abided by King County guidelines and our ads were approved by King County Metro Transit.

With a signed contract, ads were printed and ready for Dec. 27, which marked two years to the day Israel dropped a bomb on a schoolyard in Gaza just as children were leaving class. Many were killed. For the next three weeks, Israel killed 1,400 people in Gaza, mostly noncombatants. More than 300 of the killed were children. Investigations by the United Nations and Amnesty International concluded that Israel committed war crimes.

We didn't announce the ad campaign, but news leaked out and some local groups that defend Israel from all criticism took action to convince King County that any discussion of Israeli war crimes is inappropriate for public speech.

"War crime" is a legal term referring to a grave violation of the Geneva Conventions. Such violations by Israel have been well-documented throughout its lengthy occupation of Palestinian lands, and have included thousands of Israeli rockets fired into Gaza before 2008 and continuing attacks today. But U.S. military, political and diplomatic support, including $3 billion per year in military funding, gives Israel virtual impunity, and this one-sided U.S. support makes us complicit in Israel's crimes.

Violations by Palestinians in their struggle for self-determination have also been documented, though violations by Israel are far more numerous and far less reported in this country. The bus ads were an attempt to correct that imbalance.

When the U.N. Fact-Finding Committee Report, known as the Goldstone Report, concluded that Israel's assault on Gaza was "a deliberately disproportionate attack designed to punish, humiliate and terrorize a civilian population," Israel tried to bury the report, not by bringing counter-evidence but by defaming committee chair Richard Goldstone as anti-Jewish, even though Goldstone is Jewish himself and is a self-declared Zionist with family in Israel.

Similarly, when we tried to raise awareness of Israeli war crimes this month in Seattle, groups trying to block the ad imitated Israel's approach. Rather than attempting to disprove that Israel commits war crimes, they demanded special treatment for Israel, using the reprehensible and increasingly discredited argument that any criticism of Israel is the same as criticizing Jewish people in Seattle.

Israel uses the Jewish people of the world as a shield for its own ongoing human-rights violations. An increasing number of Jews — including those who worked with us on our bus-ad campaign — are outraged that Israel uses them as its excuse for continuing crimes. They insist that Israel is a nation-state that should not be immune from criticism. But others still defend Israel, right or wrong, as a frightened parent might defend a spoiled child who is also a bully.

Those groups wanting to silence the ad mounted a phone and e-mail campaign to disrupt King County Metro, along with an implied threat of violence both toward Metro buses and toward others. In the short term, they were successful in preventing the ads from going up.

In doing so, they not only demonstrated fear of open debate, but made public the problem: Any hard truths about Israel must face silencing not only by those who defend Israeli impunity, but also by those elected officials who can be intimidated by them.

Many of those who take an "Israel right or wrong" stance consider themselves social-justice activists in other fields. On the subject of Israel, however, they become advocates of apartheid, ethnic dictatorship and outright racism.

In this case, they have advocated censorship in Seattle. It is a chilling spectacle to watch some of our neighbors demonstrating so clearly that support for oppression anywhere is a danger to freedom everywhere.

Edward Mast is a volunteer with Seattle Mideast Awareness Campaign, which sponsored the recently canceled bus ads.

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