The decision of the Seattle transport authority to cancel a contract to run a series of bus ads protesting Israel’s war crimes brings to mind a similar campaign in the San Francisco Bay Area, twenty years ago this month, which had a very different outcome.
On December 3, 1990, 15 large ads, 11 feet by 5 feet, began appearing in BART stations throughout the Bay Area. They displayed a picture of an Israeli soldier pointing his rifle at a group of seated Palestinian women accompanied by a text that described the situation in Occupied Palestine on the third anniversary of the First Intifada and called for stopping US aid to Israel. The ads were produced by the Middle East Peace Network, a coalition of organizations and individuals of which I was member, at a cost of $4800.
Scheduled to run a month, they were up for less than half of that when we learned they had been covered over or taken down because, we were told by Mike Collins, the vice-president of TDI, the advertising firm responsible for placing the ads, that vandals had defaced the ads with spray paint during a “one night hit.” We would, he told us, get our money refunded. None of us bought Collins’ story, particularly when he presented no evidence that the ads had actually been defaced, an act that would have involved the culprit(s) descending into the path of the subway cars and risking touching the hot third rail. Our suspicions were validated soon afterward when I and another member of the network discovered one of the ads, pristine and untouched, leaning against a back wall at one of the BART stations.
We demanded that the ads not only be replaced but be reprinted at the expense of the advertising agency with revised copy containing updated information. To add some muscle to our request, we sought help from the American Civil Liberties Union. And we got it.
Since BART was a public institution, although not responsible for the dispute, the ACLU was ready and willing to go to bat for our First Amendment rights and TDI soon acceded to our demands which not only included updating the ad, statistically, but giving us another full month of advertising without additional charges.
As a bonus, the controversy received terrific publicity in the local media with the Oakland Tribune putting the story on the top of its front page and running a reproduction of the ad over four columns on the back page of its first section. The San Francisco Weekly also reproduced the ad over three columns in its next issue.
This additional publicity is what some in the local Jewish community feared and consequently they made no public outcry with accompanying threats as was the case in Seattle. The Northern California Jewish Bulletin noted that the executive director of the regional office of the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) said that “protesting the ads could backfire on the Jewish community.” Their removal was, however, welcomed. Doug Kahn, the outspoken executive director of the SF Jewish Community Relations Council was quoted by the Jewish Bulletin, as saying: “Since the ads’ sponsors made outrageous, baseless claims about Israel, it’s not surprising that they would make outrageous, baseless, claims that the ads were taken down as the result of political pressure.”
What exactly did the ads say?
“For the past 23 years, our tax dollars have paid for the Israeli military occupation of the West Bank, Gaza Strip, and East Jerusalem.
“Hundreds of Palestinian civilians have been killed by Israeli soldiers in the last three years alone, and tens of thousands have been beaten, injured and imprisoned.
“Israel’s actions have been condemned by Amnesty International, the International Red Cross, and the United Nations. Nevertheless, in 1989, Congress again voted to give Israel $3 billion in aid–$10 million a day! “And they did it again this year.” [Italicized]/ “Remember, all [italicized] Americans are paying for the Occupation!”
Then, at the bottom, in gigantic type and italicized was the question:
“Isn’t it time we stopped?”
Across the bottom was the name of the Middle East Peace Network, and the principles of the network:
“STOP AID TO ISRAEL UNTIL IT AGREES TO END THE OCCUPATION—ISRAEL MUST NEGOTIATE WITH THE PLO – TWO STATES FOR TWO PEOPLES LIVING IN PEACE”
A few of the members, among them myself, who supported a secular democratic state, participated in the network because it was the only thing happening at the time. MEPN organizations supporting the ad included the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee, Middle East Children’s Alliance, United Muslims of America, International Jewish Peace Union, Presbyterian Church Middle East Task Force, and Jews Opposed to the Occupation.
The ad was unfortunately the last collective action of the MEPN. What was a genuine pleasure was to descend into one of the BART stations at rush hour and watch the people standing by the tracks, looking straight ahead, at our ads.