Who's afraid of a map? Palestine bus ads spark debate in Vancouver

| September 12, 2013
Who's afraid of a map? Palestine bus ads spark debate in Vancouver

Palestinians and supporters of Palestinian human rights are constantly frustrated by the near-monopoly of the Zionist perspective in the dominant media. Most people find it difficult to learn the consequences of illegal Israeli occupation of Palestine and to hear the stories of Palestinians.

Avenues explored to increase international awareness of the Palestine situation have included Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions, protests, conferences, teach-ins, web sites and alternative media. These efforts have contributed to the dramatic changes taking place in North American and European understanding of the occupation and the daily lives of Palestinians.

Using billboards and transit advertising space to present a public educational message about Palestine has been a recent tactic. Following the lead of other North American cities, Vancouver Palestine supporters bought advertising space on buses for maps depicting Disappearing Palestine. The Palestine Awareness Coalition (PAC), consisting of seven Vancouver solidarity organizations with a wide-range of political and activist orientations, purchased $15, 000 worth of advertising space in one Skytrain station and on the sides of 15 buses for one month.

Like ads displayed elsewhere, Vancouver transit ads consist of four panels graphically portraying the diminishing territory held by Palestinians from 1946 – 2012 while at the same time portraying the continued growth of Israel through settlement expansion. Simply noted is the existence of five million Palestinian refugees.

Even before the ads appeared in public, The Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs/Pacific Region and the Jewish Federation of Greater Vancouver (CIJA/JFGV) were applying "sustained public and private pressure" on Translink to reverse the decision to display the ads. Translink refused, citing a third-party legal opinion, approval by the Canada Advertising Standards office and a 2009 Supreme Court of Canada decision "that struck down the portion of Translink'ss Advertising Policy that prohibited advocacy ads" under Section 2 (b) of the Charter. Supreme Court Justice Marie Deschamps stated, "Citizens, including bus riders, are expected to put up with some controversy in a free and democratic society."

Responses by pro-Israel organizations to the ads were vigorous and exaggerated, familiar to anyone who has experienced their attempts to suppress debate on Palestine/Israel or criticism of Israel. 

They claimed the ads:

- incited hatred and contempt while peace negotiations are underway;

- violated Translink policies of a safe and welcoming environment for all racial, ethnic, religious and minority groups;

- make use of buses unwelcome and unsafe...noting that terrorist attacks in Israel often target buses;

- were deliberately placed on buses running through Jewish neighbourhoods and during Rosh Hashanah.

 The ads themselves, however:

- do not mention Jews even once;

- are clearly factually based;

- do not make provocative statements. It is the simple visual presentation encapsulating one dimension of the Palestinian experience which gives the ad its power;

- are intended to encourage viewers to question the illegal occupation of Palestine by the government of Israel;

- were placed on certain days and bus routes by the Translink contractor without input from the Palestine Awareness Coalition.

Arguing that Jews will be attacked because of criticism of Israel is based on the Zionist belief that Israel is the "collective Jew among nations." Equating individual Jews with Israel state policy makes every Jewish person responsible for the policies and practices of the Israeli state. It also ignores the 20 per cent of the Israeli population who are Palestinians and other minorities and the international Jewish diaspora, who hold a wide-range of social and political positions.

Criticism of Israel is directed against the State of Israel, not individual Jews. Who can believe that Jews in Vancouver are afraid to use the transit system because of a few maps? Who can believe that it incites hatred? People are able to distinguish between citizens of a country and the policies and actions of its government.

The Zionist strategy of crying 'fear' infantilizes both Jews and the argument. Robyn Urback argued in her Aug. 29 National Post article, "The suggestion that criticism of Israel necessarily amounts to hatred of its supporters is a ridiculous position."

A similar effort to create fear is used in the campus environment by arguing that any criticism of Israel makes the campus uncomfortable for Jewish students. Such arguments have been used extensively in Canada and U.S. to argue for the censorship of student Palestinian Solidarity organizations on campus. While these attempts sometimes succeed, there are recent examples of its failure. In the University of California system, three attempts at Berkley, Santa Cruz and Irvine, to use the Department of Education Office of Civil Rights to suppress Palestinian activists advocating for Palestinian human rights were found "not to violate the civil rights of Jewish students who find such criticism offensive."

Perceptive Israel supporters know that painting the environment as hostile to Jews flies in the face of the real-lived experience of most Jews. Burning Campus? Rethinking Israel Advocacy in American Universities and Colleges (2012) states that campuses are "largely not a hostile environment for Jewish students. There has probably never been a richer array of ways for students to engage in meaningful Jewish activities today than there has ever been, including at schools where anti-Israelism is widespread."

Initial commentary in the mainstream media, apart from the op-ed in The Vancouver Sun, focused on the free expression aspect of the debate. While often disagreeing with the content or its lack of detail and context, most of the media, including articles in the National Post and the Globe and Mail, supported the free speech rights of the Palestine Awareness Coalition and supported Translink's decision to keep the ads. Some articles even laughed at the idea that a brief advertisement could provide detail and context and questioned what would happen to the advertising industry if such standards were applied across the board.

The extent of support for the ads remaining on the transit system must have been unnerving for the Zionist campaign. More importantly, if Vancouver could successfully introduce the ads and win public support, what about bigger cities such as Toronto and Montreal.

Then the Vancouver Sun published an editorial (Sept. 4) so obviously awful it could have been mistaken for satire. Was it written by the Sun editorial board or by the CIJA? Was it even serious? The editorial is both disingenuous -- "Israel finds itself surrounded by conflict in which it played no part" -- and theological "Afternoon prayer on Rosh Hashanah ... says Israel must teach fundamental morality and ethical monotheism to the world."  Are we to believe the Sun has an editorial position on "ethical monotheism"!?

Inside this nonsensical editorial, the Sun unleashed the last weapon of those who cannot respond rationally to political debate, or to the content of the ads -- character assassination. The editorial viciously attacked one of the six Coalition spokespersons, claiming: "[she is] a self-professed Communist ... an ardent supporter of Hamas and has declared Israeli schoolchildren legitimate targets for suicide bombers. One needs to ask if Translink did its due diligence."

Indeed one needs to ask if The Vancouver Sun did its due diligence as the information seems to be drawn from a right-wing blog called "Discover the Networks" linked to a ten-year-old article written by a notorious blogger using information unattributed to any third party source. McCarthyite red-baiting is one thing but untruthfully accusing someone of being an ardent supporter of Hamas or viewing children as a legitimate target for suicide bombers is another.

The Sun went too far in its irrational attempt to suppress free speech on Palestine. The acting editorial page editor, Harvey Enchin, earlier turned down a letter from the Chair of the Palestine Awareness Coalition in response to an earlier OpEd. His reasoning was that a line in the letter stating that "'the radical expropriation of Palestinian territory' is not historically accurate." A request for retraction of the statements in the editorial has been made and the editorial is currently offline but a redacted version can be seen at www.seriouslyfreespeech.ca.

The response of the Coalition members to these slanderous charges has been gratifying. Members understand that it is an attempt to isolate one spokesperson and cause division and dissension while refusing to deal with the substantive issues raised by the Disappearing Palestine ads. This will not work. Some members are old enough to remember the 1950's red-baiting campaigns and will not let those terrible days be repeated.

Attacks once tolerated against critics of Israel and supporters of Palestinian human rights are harder to defend as public opinion becomes both more knowledgeable and skeptical. In any Palestine educational campaign, including purchasing Disappearing Palestine advertising space for public transit, Palestine supporters need to anticipate Israel supporters will use every technique available to suppress the Palestinian perspective. Activists must be prepared in advance to respond to these attacks and maintain unity in the face of attempts, such as The Vancouver Sun editorial, to slander and falsify both the historical record and individual personalities.

It has now been two weeks since the ads were displayed. Vancouver media have reported no subsequent hate crimes, no attacks on Jews on the Skytrain system and no outpouring of venom against Jews who celebrated their religious holiday as usual.

And the people of Vancouver are a little better informed about one of the great human rights injustices of the last 65 years. 

 

Brian Campbell is a retired librarian, long-time political activist and Palestinian solidarity supporter. He is a member of Seriously Free Speech Committee, Boycott Israeli Apartheid Campaign, Free Omar Khadr Now and the Vancouver EcoSocialist Group.

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