The pro-Israel group StandWithUs announced it is paying to put posters in Metro-North train stations in suburban New York to rebut anti-Israel advertisements, creating a new battleground in the broader Israeli-Palestinian fight over American public opinion.
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The man behind the anti-Israel advertisements is Henry Clifford, a retired investment banker who formed The Committee for a Just Peace in Israel and Palestine. Through the group, Clifford spent $25,000 to place posters –purporting to show Israel's seizure of Palestinian territory through a series of maps – in 50 Metro-North stations for a month, ending August 5. He is running the same advertisement in two local newspapers near his Connecticut home and says he plans to expand the campaign to posters in transit stations in Boston and possibly Providence, Rhode Island.
An enforced ceasefire?
But the advertising duel over Israel may come to an end in New York City if the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, which operates buses, subways and the Metro-North trains, decides to revamp its policy and stop accepting political, or “viewpoint,” advertisements – a shift currently under consideration, according to agency sources.
The MTA is considering changing its policy after losing a case in federal court for rejecting an anti-Muslim, pro-Israel advertisement. The judge ruled on July 20 that the MTA violated the First Amendment rights of Pamela Geller and her group, the American Freedom Defense Initiative, when it rejected its advertisement reading, “In Any War between the Civilized Man and the Savage, Support the Civilized Man.” Lower down it says, "Support Israel; Defeat Jihad," with Stars of David on either side.
The Southern Poverty Law Center has deemed Geller's group and her blog, Atlas Shrugs, hate groups. The MTA formally rejects an advertisement about once a year for not meeting its advertising guidelines, said spokesman Aaron Donovan, but this was the first time in 15 years it rejected one for being demeaning.
In a statement, the MTA said it “is evaluating its existing advertising standards in light of the court’s ruling.”
Charles Moerdler, a member of the MTA board, said the organization has “been carefully studying this for the past week or more to come up with some explanation for where we are and where we ought to be going” on accepting advertisements.
Moerdler, a Holocaust survivor and partner in the law firm Stroock & Stroock & Lavan, has prepared a 14-page memorandum related to political advertising and said he is waiting for the right time to present it to the MTA board.
The Anti-Defamation League called Geller’s advertisement “highly offensive and inflammatory” but agreed with the judge that the MTA was wrong to reject it. “We support the court’s conclusion that this is a form of protected speech under the First Amendment, yet we still strongly object to both the message and the messenger,” said Ron Meier, the ADL's New York regional director.
Geller, who gained widespread attention for zealously opposing the mosque near Ground Zero, vowed to move forward with her advertisements.
“My ads will be up, whether they’re up in September 2012 or September 2013," she said. "I will pursue that case to the Supreme Court."
That is exactly where Geller's case, or one like it, it bound to end up, according to Marc Stern, associate general counsel for the American Jewish Committee and an expert in Constitutional law. The issue of advertising and public transportation “will eventually have to be resolved by the Supreme Court because the [lower courts'] rulings are all over the map,” he said.
A national battle
New York is not the only city where the Israel-Palestine conflict is being fought in public spaces.
In Los Angeles, a group called Stop30billion.org paid to put an advertisement on 23 billboards in highly trafficked locations for the month of June. Referring to the amount the United States provides in military aid to Israel, the advertisement said, “Tell Congress: Spend Our Money at Home, Not on the Israeli Military.” A week into the contract the billboards were taken down.
The billboards were similar to those erected by Henry Clifford last fall in Connecticut, which said, “Can We Afford $30 Billion to Israel?” They stayed up for a month on two major Connecticut roads but prompted little response, Clifford told Haaretz.
Clifford, who describes himself as a "born again agnostic" with a longstanding interest in the Middle East, has caused a much bigger stir with his recent campaign – attracting press attention and controversy. The posters include four maps of Israel and the Palestinian territories supposedly showing the dramatic loss of Palestinian-owned land between 1946 and 2010, saying, “4.7 Million Palestinians Are Classified as Refugees by the U.N.”
"My goal is to inform people, he said."If the American people were fully and properly informed of this matter, they would then deliver a strong message to their elected officials, which would be, 'We do not want to continue the policies of our government.' In supporting Israel to the extent we are, we are enabling their brutalizing the Palestinian people and the theft of Palestinian land."
But others say the campaign is misleading.
“These ads are so distorted. There weren’t 4.7 million people thrown out [of Israel] in 1948, the UN has a policy of counting descendants through all time. There’s no mention of the 1948 attacks by seven Arab armies, the Six Day War is made to look like it was Israeli aggression,” said AJC’s Stern. “People feel offended that this out-of-context stuff gets portrayed as serious.”
Stern opposes the tit-for-tat billboard approach, advocating instead for opinion pieces in the press: “Unfortunately it’s not so easy to persuade people that a slower, more cautious, less high-visibility approach is sometimes a better response.”