BOSTON – Most commuters enjoy a cup of coffee or the morning newspaper on their way to work, but Bostonians are being treated to something entirely different this month: a fresh dose of Israel-bashing in the dusty confines of America’s oldest subway system. Funded by a new group called Ads Against Apartheid, the three anti-Israel posters are displayed at the city’s downtown State Street subway station. The ads urge “an end to US support for Israeli apartheid,” and each includes a “fact” about alleged Israeli atrocities against Palestinians. Juxtaposing the word “Violence” across a pig-tailed Palestinian girl, one ad claims that Israeli soldiers murder a Palestinian child every four days — with the assistance of US tax dollars, of course. Two other posters, called “Stolen” and “Homeless,” condemn the Jewish state for allegedly stealing Palestinian land and bulldozing Arab homes. Co-founder and treasurer of Ads Against Apartheid Richard Colbath-Hess became incensed by “the level of despair” among Palestinians during a trip to Israel seven years ago for a one-week Holy Land tour to “rediscover” his Judaism. “That trip is what stirred me to movement,” said Colbath-Hess, a licensed social worker and professor of organizational development at Boston’s University of Massachusetts, during a phone interview with The Times of Israel.
“Our ads point to the reality on the ground in Palestine,” said the activist, whose father fled the Nazis in 1938. “You can’t arrest a population without charge for 40 years. We want the US to cut off its military aid to Israel immediately, and to put much more pressure on Israel for there to be peace,” he said. During his trip, Colbath-Hess said he witnessed Israeli soldiers taking aim at Palestinian children from sniper towers. The activist said he also witnessed “human rights abuses” including home demolitions and checkpoints. According to Colbath-Hess, “Israel’s human rights abuses are not justified by security measures.” In his view, it was a “Palestinian political process” that ended years of suicide bombings a decade ago, and not – said the professor – Israel’s “apartheid wall.” “The Palestinians have ladder and tunnel technology,” said Colbath-Hess. “I’ve been to the West Bank, and it’s very easy to get around that wall,” he said. Colbath-Hess said he is unfazed by criticism his “Apartheid” ads contain distortions and anti-Semitic tropes, such as Israelis killing a Palestinian child – almost ritualistically – every four days. “Such a high casualty rate of Palestinian children in Palestine is a striking example of how urgent the situation is there,” said Colbath-Hess.
‘It has come to a point where an occupying army killing the children of the native population in their home towns and villages is excused as self-defense’
“It has come to a point where an occupying army killing the children of the native population in their home towns and villages is excused as self-defense,” he added. As for allegations that he is a “self-hating” Jew or anti-Semitic, the professor begs to differ. “It’s not anti-French to criticize the government of France,” Colbath-Hess said. “And it’s not anti-Semitic to criticize the government of Israel. We are Jews, we love Jews, and we want dialogue,” he added. The “Apartheid” ads — which Colbath-Hess plans to bring to other cities — elicited an immediate reaction from the Boston-based Committee for Accuracy in Middle East Reporting (CAMERA), which said the ads are based on “flat-out lies and blatant distortions.” “People who run ads like these demonizing Israel should be seen for what they are,” wrote Alex Safian, CAMERA’s associate director, in an email to The Times of Israel.
“[The ad sponsors] are enemies of peace and reconciliation between the two peoples,” added Safian. Soon after the ads appeared, CAMERA wrote to MBTA officials to refute false ad claims about “US tax dollars funding Israeli settlements” for “Jews only.” CAMERA also blasted claims of rampant home demolitions and Israeli soldiers murdering a Palestinian child every four days. When contacted, an MBTA spokesperson referred to “an approved set of advertising guidelines that were applied to this ad.” In an email sent to The Times of Israel, the MBTA acknowledged receiving “a submission asking us to review new information and we are in that process at this time.” According to Israel’s top diplomat in New England, Yehuda Yaakov, the ads represent “a detachment from reality on the ground.” “[Palestinian Authority Chairman Mahmoud] Abbas and his advisors have made clear they oppose the boycott of Israel,” the consul-general said. “Here in Boston we have a few people with money and time on their hands, and a place to put up their posters. If it wasn’t so sad, perhaps it would be humorous,” said Yaakov.
‘Warring’ ads target public transportation
Boston’s “Apartheid” transit ads are part of a war for public transportation ad space waged between Israel supporters and detractors. The struggle for commuters’ hearts and minds has forced local officials to arbitrate between competing narratives about the Middle East. In Boston, the MBTA sells ad space on thousands of buses, trains and station platforms. When compared to the cost of social media and traditional print buys, visibility on the so-called “T” is surprisingly cheap. By way of example, a pro-Israel ad placed on 100 MBTA buses for the duration of February cost $5,000, according to Alex Koifman of the Boston-based Russian Jewish Community Foundation, funder of the ad.
For its pro-Israel ad, Koifman’s group used a “zoom out” technique to show Israel’s size relative to the Arab world, as well as analogies familiar to Boston commuters. “The Arab world is the size of the US, and Israel is the size of Massachusetts,” ran ad text. “Will more land for the Arabs really bring peace?” In contrast to the Russian Jewish group’s “relative size” ad, other pro-Israel campaigns have been rejected by the MBTA for inciting against Arabs and Muslims. Most prominently, the T’s ad space has been the target of firebrand pro-Israel activist Pamela Geller and her American Freedom Defense Initiative (AFDI), a key player in the war for public ad space. In December, a federal judge rejected AFDI’s claim that its free speech rights were violated by the MBTA’s decision to reject its ads as “demeaning or disparaging.” The ads featured Ayn Rand-inspired text including the word “jihad” — content which the MBTA said “equates Muslims with savages.” As for the latest round of anti-Israel ads to hit Beantown, Geller did not mince words in a statement on AFDI’s website last week.
‘They allow vicious anti-Semitic libels but refuse a Jewish defense ad’
“The MBTA has accepted another vicious anti-Semitic campaign to run on Boston subway platforms,” said the jihad-fixated Geller. “This is not the first blood libel against the Jews that Boston authorities have run,” said Geller, whose organization has filed several lawsuits against the MBTA. “This is the same anti-Semitic authority that refused to run our pro-Israel ads after they ran a different Jew-hating campaign. They allow vicious anti-Semitic libels but refuse a Jewish defense ad,” said Geller. Last October, public outcry led the MBTA to take down 80 anti-Israel “land grab” posters just several days after their appearance. In a surprising turnaround, the ads were put back up again just days later, with the MBTA citing “a breakdown in established procedures for handling complaints about specific ads” as the cause.
Alleging the existence of “4.7 million Palestinian refugees,” the resurrected “land grab” ads appeared at subway and bus stops throughout Boston. Funded by the Committee for Peace in Israel and Palestine, they also made appearances in New York and Washington, DC. From Geller’s point of view, the MBTA has consistently supported the right of anti-Israel groups to post false accusations tinged with anti-Semitic libel. Simultaneously, Boston transportation officials have refused to accept ads – such as Geller’s – with content about human rights abuses in the rest of the Middle East. Stoked by national players like AFDI and an array of local interests, the warring ad campaigns are not likely to end soon. With free speech regularly invoked by both sides, the courts have generally ruled in favor of transportation authorities’ right to decline ad submissions. “Ads are often placed in communities where their authors feel they will be able to stoke tension,” said Abby Michelson Porth, associate executive director of the San Francisco Bay Area’s Jewish Community Relations Council. According to Porth, the “warring ads” started on the west coast in 2011, and like many political trends made their way east. Calling the Bay Area a “test market” for anti-Israel campaigns, Porth has been on the front lines of battling divestment from Israel for more than a decade, in both California and Massachusetts. From San Francisco to Boston, liberal Jewish groups provide much of the funding, manpower and “cover” for virulently anti-Israel ad campaigns. In Boston, the Jewish Voice for Peace chapter has endorsed anti-Israel transportation ads, especially when the ads “directly target Israel’s occupation of the West Bank and East Jerusalem and its blockade of the Gaza Strip,” the group explained in a statement last year. “The public is hostage to watching [the competing ads] play out in the public domain, and it gives the false impression that there is not a moderate majority,” said Porth in an interview with The Times of Israel. “There is in fact a moderate majority, and we need to make sure civil discourse and ideas prevail. Local leaders should not allow hate mongers to use the sides of buses as a bully pulpit,” added Porth.