Battle over Mideast transit ads heating up across U.S.

Battle over Mideast transit ads heating up across U.S.

NEW YORK — With public bickering over the Israeli-Palestinian conflict already having spilled over into university student senates, corporate pension boards and even local farmers markets, the latest battlefield in the debate over the conflict is municipal transit systems.

In several major U.S. cities, advertisements on public buses and municipal rail stations are designed to galvanize public opinion to end U.S. military aid to Israel or to pressure Palestinians to end anti-Jewish incitement. In some cases, the ads have been deemed so inflammatory that local authorities have tried to restrict or ban them outright, leading to frustration on both sides and, in one case, a federal lawsuit.

A group calling itself the Seattle Mideast Awareness Campaign, with the help of the local American Civil Liberties Union chapter, filed a lawsuit in Seattle last month charging that the group’s First Amendment rights were violated when the local transit system reneged on an agreement to carry its ad opposing aid to Israel.

The ad, which featured a group of children looking at a demolished building under the heading “Israeli war crimes: Your tax dollars at work,” was slated to start running on Seattle buses in late December. But after local officials were besieged with complaints and at least two counter groups proposed ads of their own, the officials suspended all non-commercial bus advertisements.

One of those ads, sponsored by the American Freedom Defense Initiative, featured a digitally altered image of Hitler and a man in Arab headdress under the headline, “In any war between the civilized man and the savage, support the civilized man.”

A judge is due to rule on a temporary injunction that would restore the initial ad next week.

“Israel’s accountability for the ongoing conflict is a part of the story that gets silenced more in this country,” Ed Mast, a member of the Seattle Mideast Awareness Campaign, told JTA. “So our purpose is education.”

Across the country, public advertising is emerging as a new front in the public debate over the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The Committee for a Just Peace in Israel and Palestine launched a campaign on trains and platforms in Chicago in October in which Israeli and Palestinian faces were depicted under the banner, “Be on our side. We are on the side of peace and justice.”

Below the smiling faces, the tagline urged an end to U.S. military aid to Israel. The campaign already has run in San Francisco and is slated for expansion to other U.S. cities.

Caren Levy-Van Slyke, a member of the steering committee of the Committee for a Just Peace in Israel and Palestine, said the campaign was “inclusive” of both Israelis and Palestinians and was intended to draw taxpayer attention to the 2007 deal providing $30 billion in U.S. aid to Israel over 10 years.

“We are the side of peace and justice,” Levy-Van Slyke said, echoing the Chicago ads.

Pro-Israel activists contest that assertion. In San Francisco, the Committee for a Just Peace in Israel and Palestine ad triggered a response from the Los Angeles-based pro-Israel group Stand With Us, which is sponsoring ads beginning this week urging the Palestinian leadership to stop teaching hatred and to “Say Yes to Peace.”

An earlier version of the ad, which Stand With Us attempted to place in Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) stations, showed a masked terrorist under the headline, “Stop Palestinian Terrorism.” Transit officials reportedly rejected the ad after people complained. The new ad features only text.

“Right now, we’re watching and we’re asking our members to let us know when these kinds of things come up, and we will directly respond,” said Roz Rothstein, national director of Stand With Us.

Pamela Geller, who writes the conservative blog Atlas Shrugged and who is the executive director of the group that tried to run counter ads in Seattle, said she submitted a similar ad in San Francisco that BART officials rejected. She has vowed to pursue a lawsuit if the officials fail to approve her revision. On her website, Geller describes the Committee for a Just Peace in Israel and Palestine spots as “Jew hating” and “annihilationist ads supporting jihad.”

“If the ACLU prevails in their lawsuit, I expect my ads to run as well,” Geller wrote in an email to JTA. “If they refuse my ads, I will pursue legal recourse.”

Much of the inspiration for the ads appears to have originated with a billboard erected in early 2009 in Albuquerque, N.M. That ad, which called for an end to military aid to Israel, was sponsored by a group calling itself the Coalition to Stop $30 Billion to Israel.

In 2007, Rothstein’s group responded to a similar campaign in the Washington, D.C., Metro criticizing the Israeli occupation. The Stand With Us ad featured an armed man holding a child, with the tagline, “This Child Could Grow Up To Be A Terrorist.”

Rothstein said her group had no desire to be dragged into the ad wars, but would not allow material critical of Israel to go unanswered.

“This is not something that we’re interested in,” she said. “We are really only doing it as a reaction.”