The Miami Herald
Mar. 14, 2003

'JEWBAN' to state: Hands off my plate!


  Gilbert Tabares Gomer is proud of being a Cuban Jew. So proud that last year he got a personalized license plate bearing the word JEWBAN, a term commonly used among Cuban Jews in South Florida to identify themselves.

  But now the Florida Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles, which approved and issued the plate in August, has asked Tabares Gomer to remove it from his car and return it to the agency because it is ''obscene or objectionable.'' A complaint to the agency said the plate could be interpreted as 'ban Jews.' ''

  The demand has angered the driver, members of Miami's Cuban Jewish community and groups that protect civil liberties.

  To Tabares Gomer, who in Cuba was told by his parents to conceal his Jewishness, the plate is a way to proclaim his identity. For that reason, he refuses to get rid of the plate and says he will take his case to court.

  However, if Tabares Gomer does not return the plate within a certain period, his registration will expire and he will be driving with an invalid license plate, said Bob
  Sanchez, spokesman for the state's Department Highway Safety and Motor Vehicle.

  The plate at issue is one of many with explicit racial and sexual messages that have been removed or rejected in Florida, Sanchez said.


  On the department's blacklist are constructions such as 2DAGOS, considered offensive to people of Italian descent; IH8MYEX, which can be read as ''I hate my ex'' and variations of PIMP and the n-word, all of which fall in the category of ``obscene or objectionable.''

  As far as Tabares Gomer is concerned, there is nothing indecent or reprehensible in JEWBAN.

  ''I am a Cuban Jew and people call me Jewban. That's not offensive to anyone,'' said the 63-year-old driver, who lives in Miami Beach. ``If they take my plate away, they take away my identity.''

  The motor vehicle board that reviews personalized plates determined that JEWBAN is objectionable after another driver wrote a letter raising the issue.

  ''Most people will think the plate is objectionable because it provides a feeling or expression of disapproval or dislike toward a person or a group of persons,'' said a letter from the Bureau of Titles and Registration to Tabares Gomer.

  'Some may interpret the plate as `ban [the] Jews,' '' the letter said.


  The case is a clash between a person wanting to express his ethnic identity and a bureaucracy that seeks to protect the public from offensive language, said Arthur
  Teitelbaum, director of the Southern chapter of the Anti-Defamation League.

  Jewban is a word utilized in the oral language of a particular community, Teitelbaum said, a context it loses when thousands of people -- possibly uninformed -- see it and interpret its message erroneously.

  Lida Rodríguez-Tassef, president of the American Civil Liberties Union in Miami, called the motor vehicle department's reaction ``a classic case of trying to silence a person because the government doesn't like the content of the spoken words.''

  ''Ignorance is no excuse to limit a person's speech,'' Rodríguez-Tassef said. ``To say that a word cannot be used simply because some people won't understand is a
  ridiculous excuse.''

  The problem with ethnic references in license plates is that they can offend other people, said Sanchez, the motor vehicle department's spokesman. JEWBAN could be misconstrued as an expression of anti-Semitism, he said.


  The motor vehicle department issued the plate last year, before the review board was created. But as a result of another controversial incident in Florida -- involving a plate that said ATHEIST -- all applications for personalized plates had to be reviewed before approval, Sanchez said.

  While 2DAGOS and IH8MYEX are no longer in the hands of their previous owners, the owner of the ATHEIST plate appealed to the review board, which agreed to allow him to keep his plate.

  The origin of the word Jewban goes back to the late 1960s, when the Cuban Hebrew Congregation of Miami printed a monthly bulletin titled JEW-BAN.

  Tabares Gomer bought a convertible in 2001 just after he read an article that used the word Jewban and got the idea from it. His associates, who were unaware of his religion, used to crack jokes about Jews, he said, and the plate served to reveal to them his religious affiliation.

  Tabares Gomer is the son of a Jewish mother and a Catholic father. Judaism was suppressed at home and the boy's maternal surname was changed to Gómez to conceal his religion.

  ''I have light brown hair, so people don't see me as a Semite,'' Tabares Gomer said. ``I got the plate so everybody could see I'm Jewish. It's like a gay coming out of the closet.''