The Billboard Debate on the Middle East

“Be on our side,” the clutter-free advertisement reads. “We are the side of peace and justice.” It shows two men smiling. One is Palestinian, the other is Israeli, and each is accompanied by a smiling young girl. The ad, which first appeared in three Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) stations on Dec. 5, is not in the least bit edgy — until you get to the tag line: “End U.S. military aid to Israel.”

Paid for by Northern California Friends of Sabeel, American Muslims for Palestine and Jewish Voice for Peace, the ads made an earlier run on the platforms of the Chicago Transit Authority in October 2010, and they represent a new, cuddlier look for a familiar message.

“Visually, it felt like ads that you see for children’s hospitals,” Matthew G. Jarvis, assistant professor of political science at California State University, Fullerton, wrote in an e-mail after seeing the ad. Jarvis, who studies political behavior and public opinion, felt that the jump from families, peace and justice to the end of U.S. military aid to Israel was too abrupt. “It’s happy, then wrenching,” he wrote.

“It’s a deceptive advertisement,” Roz Rothstein, CEO of the Israel education and advocacy organization StandWithUs, said of the BART ads, which recently came down at the end of their four-week run. “The main impediment to peace is hate training.”

That’s the message that StandWithUs is trying to get across in its own counter-advertisement, which will hang in six BART stations around the Bay Area, including the three stations where the “Be on our side” advertisements ran.

The StandWithUs ad, which is set to start its four-week run Jan. 17, pairs a photo of hate-filled eyes framed by a red-and-white keffiyeh with a second image showing young boys in soccer uniforms running through a green field, laughing. “Stop Palestinian Terrorism,” the text reads, “Teach Peace.”

“The ad’s message is that all people of good will should urge the Palestinians to begin teaching peace to their children,” a spokesperson for StandWithUs explained in an e-mail.

Advertisements urging action against Israel aren’t new. They have been popping up in U.S. cities with increasing frequency of late — and they don’t usually include smiling Israelis alongside smiling Palestinians.

“End Israel’s Occupation of Palestine,” reads the mostly black billboard that went up last month on the north side of Milwaukee, Wis., courtesy of Friends of Palestine. In 2007, the U.S. Campaign to End the Israeli Occupation put up advertisements in the Washington, D.C., Metro featuring an image of a Palestinian child facing a large Israeli tank. At the time, StandWithUs responded with its own advertisements — posted right beside the anti-occupation ads — telling its side of the story. One with an image of Palestinian preteens holding automatic weapons read, “Teaching Children to Hate Will Never Lead to Peace.”

Mike Harris, spokesperson for the Bay Area chapter of StandWithUs, said that even if the tone of most “Be on our side” ads was different, the message was the same. “These are very misleading ads,” Harris said of the San Francisco campaign. “They’re not like the ones in Seattle that were extremely inflammatory. They look really nice, but the message that they’re promoting is just as anti-Israel as the Seattle ones were.”

Counter-ads from StandWithUs urge Palestinians to teach peace and will run in BART stations.

Harris was referring to an advertisement that was supposed to appear in late December on the sides of public buses in Seattle, Wash. Paid for by the Seattle Mideast Awareness Campaign, it featured a picture of a building in Gaza reduced to rubble as part of Operation Cast Lead. The text, in all-capital letters, read: “Israeli War Crimes: Your Tax Dollars at Work.”

The Seattle bus advertisement was made public in late December, just days before its run was to begin. Jewish community groups — including the local chapter of StandWithUs — argued that running the ad could cause anti-Jewish violence along the lines of the shooting that took place at the Jewish Federation of Greater Seattle in 2006. King County Metro Transit decided not to allow the ads to appear, due to fears that its content might either cause a disruption to the bus service or incite anti-Jewish violence, the Seattle Times reported. The transit agency has temporarily ceased accepting noncommercial advertising.

“That’s fundamentally wrongheaded,” professor Barbie Zelizer of the Annenberg School of Communication at the University of Pennsylvania said of the decision to limit what can and cannot be said in an ad on the side of a bus. “To cut down the opinions, to cut down the display out of fear — I don’t think that’s the right way to go,” Zelizer said. “It’s not as if these opinions are not out there. They’re not cut out from the Internet. They’re not cut out from letters to the editor or online news articles. Why would we cut them out of advertisements?”

The Seattle Mideast Awareness Campaign is also exploring its legal options with the help of the Washington Chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union, Rod Such, a spokesperson for the group, said.

He said his group was familiar with the “Be on our side” advertisements, but that they wanted to send a more unambiguous message. “We wanted to target Israeli war crimes,” Such said of the rejected advertisement, “and we feel that Israeli collective punishment is a war crime.”

BART chief spokesman Linton Johnson said that his agency had reviewed both the “Be on our side” and the StandWithUs advertisements and found that both fell within BART’s policy. “They did raise red flags,” Johnson said. “We reviewed them, they fell within our policies, and so we were required to accept them.”

So far, the advertisements have inspired media coverage, been met with complaints from members of local communities and have been rejected by one transit agency in a move that could lead to a constitutional fight. What’s unclear is whether any of these necessarily brief advertisements — no matter which side of this complicated story they try to tell — have convinced anyone (or will do so in the future) to change his opinion about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Rothstein of StandWithUs couldn’t say whether more people had visited the group’s Web site as a result of their advertising campaigns. “We saw an uptick in appreciation from people,” Rothstein said of the reactions to the 2007 counter-campaign in Washington, D.C. “We got notes from people.”

Jarvis, who called himself a “self-aware observer,” didn’t think that either of the ads appearing in San Francisco would cause people to reconsider their positions on this issue. “Those committed to one side or the other aren’t going to be swayed,” Jarvis wrote in an e-mail, “and chances are those in the middle aren’t going to be moved either.” l