It was just about two weeks ago that we woke to news stories on radio and television about anti-Israel ads that were posted in train stations along commuter routes to New York City. In a slow news week, many news stations covered the “outrage” over what the Anti-Defamation League referred to as the “deliberately misleading and biased” messages that graphically demonstrated how Israel has been consuming “Palestine” since 1948. These ads were the work of a wealthy ex-Wall Street financier, Henry Clifford, who is now the chairman of The Committee for Peace in Israel and Palestine.
During the broadcast reports, Jewish commuters were asked about the ads, and all of them expressed outrage. One, I recall, called the ads a form of terrorism and expressed the hope that the Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA) would take them down. A local Jewish weekly newspaper also called for the ads to be taken down, claiming that they were offensive, and that they painted Israel and Israelis in a bad light.
When asked, Aaron Donovan of the MTA said, “We do not decide to accept or reject a proposed ad based on the viewpoint that it expresses, or because the ad might be controversial.”
Now, only a few days ago, U.S. District Judge Paul Engelmayer in Manhattan ruled on another set of ads, this time on the other side of the Arab-Israel equation. (In the interest of full disclosure, neither of us have ever spoken to one another and it is yet uncertain how, if at all, we are related.) His finding was that a 15-year-old rule by the MTA that barred demeaning language in advertisements was a violation of free speech. Donovan may not have been aware of that rule when he commented on Clifford’s ads.
In the case Engelmayer decided, the advocacy group American Freedom Defense Initiative (AFDI) sought to run ads that stated, "In any war between the civilized man and the savage, support the civilized man. Support Israel/Defeat Jihad."
Last September, after the MTA denied the ads, the group sued the public authority for violating its right to free speech. The ads would have been posted on 318 city buses for four weeks.
In his ruling, Engelmayer said that the advertising space on public buses should be considered a public forum, and especially because the ad under discussion was political in nature, it was entitled to the "highest level of protection under the First Amendment.” Further, the ruling stated that "by differentiating between which people or groups can and cannot be demeaned on the exterior of a city bus, MTA's no-demeaning standard...discriminates based on content."
Here, too, just as the media looked for Jewish opinions on Clifford’s ads, the reporters sought out Muslims to comment on the AFDI set. Predictably, Muslims saw the ads as offensive and insisted they should not be allowed to run.
Americans — Muslims, Jews, whoever you are — we cannot have it both ways. Free speech must work for all, and if we do not want one set of messages, we cannot argue in support of the other.
Where we do have a complaint is with the MTA, which clearly had a double standard at work: The anti-Israel ads were permitted to run — after clearing whatever internal MTA hurdles may have been in their way — whereas the pro-Israel/anti-jihad ads were banned.
As for those person-on-the-street interviews on which the broadcast media thrives (“now that your family has died in that fire, how do you feel?”), these are usually done to grab ratings, not elicit legitimate news. They represent faux journalism at its worst. The media should focus attention on the organizations behind the ads and the ones that actually make the critical decisions about running them — in this case, the MTA. That would be real journalism, but I question whether many of today’s media outlets are actually prepared to tackle the real issues, believing as they do that viewers have short attention spans, preferring sound bites to sound reporting.
Similarly, the decision by the International Olympic Committee not to allow a moment of silence for the acts committed by Black September at the 1972 Olympics in Munich, at the opening ceremonies this year, in the face of worldwide calls to do so, is yet another group that did as the MTA did. It hid behind an arbitrarily enacted policy, and callously chalks up any talk that paints Israel with sympathy as “politics.”
Where today are the people with backbone? Where is the leadership? Where is the integrity in journalism today — the vehicle that was supposed to keep us informed as a tool for maintaining democracy, not entertain us with predictable comments from people who often do not even know what it is they actually are commenting on?
This Sunday, Jews around the world will hold their version of a moment of silence – a day actually, Tisha B’av, the ninth day of the month of Av, which falls out this year on July 29th – in memoriam of the fall of the Jewish Temples in 587 BCE and again in 70 CE, and other Jewish tragedies that occurred on that day, such as the expulsion of the Jews from Spain in 1492. However, as we live our lives today with relative success, immense freedoms, a rebuilt State of Israel and unprecedented Jewish worldwide contributions to so many areas of humanity such as medical progress, technological advancements, agricultural improvements and economical innovations, it is often hard to find the reasons to look back and mourn for a past that seems so distant.
The subtle specter of anti-Semitism is always skulking in the shadows, trying to find a way to inflict itself into the mainstream. When well-meaning committees such as the MTA panel can decide to reject a pro-Israel ad campaign and accept an anti-Israel one, that skulking specter is making its move.
When the IOC, fearing the backlash of Arab countries, or even committees of Jewish people who feel that they need to be so politically correct that they permit antagonists to march in what is meant to be the largest celebration of Israel – the annual New York Salute to Israel Parade, Jews must know that they are not yet truly safe from calamity.
As it is, many leaders of all levels, from government to corporate, yield to fear and make choices that seem to be the safest bets. Activities, messages, and speeches that are believed to offend Islam are generally prohibited or considered inappropriate, while negative comments about Jews and Israel are seen as fit for public consumption. Those safe bets do immense damage as it infuses the uneducated masses with often one-sided anti-Jewish messages and makes them common and acceptable.
If there is anyone who doubts the need to mark Tishah B’Av this Sunday, because it dwells in the past yet we live in a much different present, the MTA’s ruling offers an answer. When anti-Israel-ism is considered protected, but pro-Israel ideals are labeled “political” and are shot down, when our daily dose of instant news glosses over dark truths and turns serious issues into impromptu comic theater, the reason for continuing to mark Tishah B’av should be obvious.
We will mourn the fallen Temples, the end of the Bar Kochbah Revolt, the final day of the Spanish Inquisition — and we will remember those who did us harm. Most of all, we will remind ourselves of the need to be ever watchful for any future threats for as long as the need to do so exists.
Juda Engelmayer is a senior vice president of the New York public relations agency, 5WPR