In North America, the mainstream media is not exactly sympathetic to the Palestinian cause. This presents a huge obstacle for solidarity activists who want to change the hegemonic discourse of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict to reflect the reality on the ground: that Israel is an occupying power systematically cleansing Palestinians from their land.
As a result, activists are forced to adopt more creative approaches to campaign for Palestinian rights. One option that has been popular in recent years is organising poster and billboard campaigns, for example on subways, train lines or buses. The aim is to educate ordinary people in Canada and the US about the situation in Palestine, while at the same time reclaiming our public transit as an inclusive space.
This tactic has raised the ire of many pro-Zionist groups, who understand that their monopoly over the narrative of the conflict is key to maintaining Western support for Israel's occupation of Palestine. Thus they have done everything in their power to challenge these ad campaigns, which have so far appeared in US cities including New York, Portland, San Francisco and Seattle, and are currently on display in Vancouver. This autumn the ads will also appear in Toronto and other Canadian cities as well.
Unsurprisingly, every time a new ad campaign is launched, pro-Zionist groups raise a public outcry. However the ensuing "controversy" often generates mainstream media attention, extending the reach of the ad campaigns. This has especially been the case in Vancouver, where a group of seven solidarity organisations known as the Palestine Awareness Coalition has recently orchestrated a $15,000 ad campaign featuring "Disappearing Palestine" posters running on 15 buses and displayed as a large mural in a central Vancouver SkyTrain station. The posters and mural all feature four maps depicting how Palestinian land is being swallowed by Israel, while also pointing out that the UN classifies five million Palestinians as refugees.
Pro-Zionist groups were quick to respond.
Mitchell Gropper, chair of the Jewish Federation of Greater Vancouver, told Canadian news site The Province that the ads are "a provocative attack on Jewish people that will incite hatred," conflating the Jewish people with the State of Israel.
Anita Bromberg, the national director of legal affairs for B'nai Brith, the oldest Jewish service organization in the world that is committed to the State of Israel, claimed that the ads are contrary to the "rules and regulations" of the transit authority, adding that supporters of Israel "could be the target of hate, of violence or other acts of mischief" as a result of the ads.
But as columnist Robyn Urback observes in Canada's National Post newspaper, "The suggestion that criticism of Israel necessarily amounts to hatred of its supporters is a ridiculous position."
Nevertheless, The Province reports that Jewish groups in Vancouver are so upset that they are even threatening to sue the transit authorities for running advertisements showing the "disappearance of Palestine due to Israeli occupation over the past 66 years."
Any such lawsuit, if it were ever to be filed, would likely go nowhere. Not only is free speech protected in Canada, but back in 2009 Canada's Supreme Court also decided in Greater Vancouver Transportation Authority v. Canadian Federation of Students that transit authorities could not block "political" advertisements.
This has led at least one pro-Zionist to commit an act of desperation: last week, the "Disappearing Palestine" mural was stolen from the Vancouver SkyTrain station.
The criminality of this act is not in question. According to the National Post, the coalition had "received permission from Vancouver's local transit authority to install the poster in August," and the transit authorities say that the posters "comply with Canadian advertising standards and do not violate any human rights."
Furthermore the newspaper confirms that, "the stolen mural will be replaced."
Charlotte Kates, a spokesperson for the Palestine Awareness Coalition, revealed that while most of the media coverage was helpful, the coalition has also been subjected to media attacks. However in the end these attacks actually gained the coalition a donation specifically allocated for keeping the SkyTrain ad up for an additional month.
When the ads were first launched, Kates told the National Post that the coalition got the idea for the "Disappearing Palestine" campaign from similar ads that have run in American cities. She described how the coalition "wanted to draw attention to and shed light on the ongoing human rights violations… against Palestinians."
Since the Canadian government is such a strong supporter of Israel, Kates said that the coalition thinks it is particularly important for people in Vancouver and other Canadian cities to "learn about what's happening in Palestine now and what's happened there historically."
And according to The Province, most passengers approve of the transit authority's right to display the ads. The news site reports that, "One woman, who declined to give her name, stopped to examine the ad and said while she wasn't well versed in the issue, she believes the ad should fall under the category of free speech."
Another passenger, Mohammed Hamid, said that he does not believe the ad was meant in a malicious way and he is pleased to see people in Vancouver paying attention to what is happening in Palestine. "Especially in Canada where, understandably, a lot of people aren't familiar with the issue," he remarked.
But while the "Disappearing Palestine" ads will remain on view in Vancouver despite the public outcry, pro-Zionist groups have been working behind the scenes to derail the next ad campaign from ever seeing the light of day in Toronto.
Last month, Canadians for Justice and Peace in the Middle East (CJPME) announced in a newsletter that their own campaign to run the "Disappearing Palestine" posters has been actively targeted from the very start: "Sadly, through various strategies over two months, the transit companies and ad agencies have tried to prevent the ads from being posted. Designs have been lost, employees told to ‘drop the ads', emails and calls ignored."
Now, even Canadian politicians are getting involved, perhaps ignoring the lesson learned by New York City lawmakers after they were publicly lambasted by Mayor Michael Bloomberg for unsuccessfully trying to prevent a lecture about the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement at Brooklyn College last February, scoring an "own goal". According to Now magazine, Toronto City Councillor James Pasternak has said that he will "vigorously oppose" any attempt to put the ads on city transit, histrionically claiming that "the signage is the latest attempt by pro-Palestinian groups to ‘hijack' public institutions in order to unfairly attack Israel."
Avi Benlolo, CEO of the Friends of Simon Wiesenthal Centre for Holocaust Studies, has also threatened that, "If the ads go up, we will post ours, and we'll go bigger than a bus. We'll go much bigger than they would even think."
To pre-empt any possible legal challenge, CJPME says that its legal counsel has already "sent a letter demanding that the transit authorities in question respect its constitutional rights to post these ads." The organizations continues that, "Despite the stonewalling, CJPME has an extremely strong case to pursue the ads," citing the 2009 Supreme Court ruling.
Toronto's transport authorities apparently agree. According to Communications Director Brad Ross, "Not liking an ad, or an ad being controversial, isn't grounds for removing an ad. The Supreme Court of Canada's been very clear on that."
The ads are clearly legal, and any attempt to censor them or steal them is indeed a violation of constitutional rights, whether in the US or Canada, which is why they have successfully appeared in so many cities across North America. This raises an important question: if the US and Canada are refusing to violate rights in the name of Zionism inside their own territories, then why are they actively financing the violation of Palestinian rights in occupied Palestine?