Adbusters, ghettoes and Shoppers: Anti-semitism or free speech?

(updated with clarifications November 10)

The Nov/Dec 2010 issue of Vancouver-based Adbusters magazine juxtaposes photos of the Warsaw Ghetto with photos of Gaza in a controversial photo essay. The Canadian Jewish Congress (CJC) has accused the magazine of anti-Semitism (which the Congress defines here) and urged its members to complain to stores that sold it. Now Shoppers Drug Mart has pulled Adbusters from its shelves.

Shoppers Drug Mart claims it dropped Adbusters as part of a regular review of what goes on its magazine racks, and only heard about the Canadian Jewish Congress’s complaints afterward. Adbusters co-founder Kalle Lasn disagrees — in an opinion piece in the National Post, he wrote that the drugstore chain dropped his magazine after the CJC “successfully lobbied senior management.”

The Globe and Mail quotes Lisa Gibson of Shoppers as saying the decision was routine. “We only have a certain amount of magazine shelf space allotted to us in each store. So we do a fairly regular review of the magazine assortment and look at sales and other things. So it was actually pulled as part of the review.” And she also said the offending issue will stay on the shelves — the cancellation is effective with the year-end issue.

Adbusters“Truthbombs on Israeli TV” photo essay used three photos obtained from the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington (which in the wake of the controversy has asked Adbusters to remove its photos from the magazine’s website) and paired them with photos of besieged Gaza. A similar photo essay ran in Adbusters in their May/June 2009 edition.

In another opinion piece in the National Post, Bernie Farber and Len Rudner of the CJC said Adbusters has “become infected with plain, old-fashioned bigotry.”

The essay demonizes Jews, they wrote, and minimizes the Holocaust.

Is comparing Gaza to the Warsaw Ghetto unfair? It’s hyberbole, certainly. The Canadian Jewish News notes that 400,000 Jews were crammed into the ghetto at its peak in October 1940, and 100,000 died from starvation, disease and random killings. Many more were eventually taken to death camps. As Farber told the Jewish News, “there are no death camps in Gaza.”

But surely some amount of hyberbole is an acceptable form of comment. The question is, at what point does it cross a line?

A few years ago I remember a friend, in private conversation, referring to use of tear gas against a few Canadian protesters as “Canada’s Tiananmen Square.” I must admit I snapped back rather crossly that that was quite a stretch. I felt the comparison minimized what happened in Beijing. So in a sense I can understand this comparison making some people angry.

But the last time I looked at the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, there was nothing there about a right not to be angered by what others say.

And of course there is that other troublesome line here — the line between criticism of current Israeli government policies and anti-Semitism. It stands to reason that some people who criticize Israel do so out of racist motives, but should criticism of a government be equated with hating its people? (Ask all those Tea Partiers who don’t like the Obama government whether they’re anti-American. Or maybe it would be safer not to.)

One thing I do know is that I know a little more now about the Warsaw Ghetto than before reading the coverage of this dispute. That’s a good thing. The CJC leaders did well to present their counter-arguments to Adbusters’ position. Whoever you agree with, open debate involving facts and reason is better than either censorship or name-calling.

It seems like quite a coincidence that Shoppers Drug Mart pulled Adbusters from its shelves just as the CJC was urging people to — to quote Farber and Rudner in the National Post –“take a moment to see if their local bookstore or newsstand sells the magazine, to show the clerk or owner the offensive material and to tell them that ‘this is anti-Semitic and shameful.’” They went on to say they weren’t asking for Adbusters to be forced off the shelves. That’s a bit puzzling. If you ask people to complain about a publication to stores that sell it, surely your aim is to get them to stop selling it. Such complaints will have that result or none at all.

If the goal is to get the magazine to take a different approach in future, complaining to the magazine itself seems like a better approach – and a letter to the editor could do that while also airing opposing views.

Freedom of expression must include the right to complain about things we don’t like, so if people want to tell store clerks they don’t like a magazine, that’s their right. Conversely, if you don’t think Adbusters went too far, this might be a good time to go buy a copy from your local newsstand – or if you think Adbusters made a bad call this time but still want to see it on the shelves, say so.

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