With his rifle butt raised, an Israeli soldier appears prepared to strike one of three Palestinian women pictured cowering on the ground. “Israel Putting Your Tax Dollars to Work,” reads the headline above the photograph, which is part of a carefully planned advertising campaign by a Washington-based pro-Arab lobby.
At a cost of $10,250, the advertisement has been placed in more than 200 Washington-area subway cars during the peak tourist season. The ad, scheduled to run through Aug. 29, says, “Please ask your congressperson to ‘just say no’ to unconditional aid to Israel. Only Congress can stop this madness.”
A similar ad by an unrelated pro-Arab group appeared this spring in the Boston subway system. And the group that placed the Washington ads now says it intends to soon place more of the pointedly anti-Israeli advertisements throughout subway trains in New York and the San Francisco Bay area.
“We want to stimulate the debate,” said Faris Bouhafa, director of public relations of the American Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee. “Israel has censored press coverage over there, and the American public needs to know what’s going on.”
Since the ads were first posted two weeks ago, the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority says it has received plenty of heat--an estimated 15 complaints daily in the form of angry letters and phone calls. But they say that none of the provocative advertisements have been defaced, and no acts of violence have directly resulted.
Some pro-Israeli groups say the claims in the advertisements are false, and several have even demanded that the Washington subway system stop accepting them. A few pro-Israeli groups are even considering running their own ad campaigns in response, although so far they have held back.
Tom Neumann, executive vice president of B’nai B’rith International, complained: “This is doing nothing to bring about peace in the Middle East.”
Their Hands Are Tied
At issue, however, is more than a political debate on the Middle East. Those who run public transportation systems in both Washington and Boston say they do not like the ads, but they insist that their hands are tied. The freedom of speech guaranteed by the First Amendment to the Constitution, along with a U.S. Court of Appeals decision in 1984, forces them to accept the political advertisements regardless of their content, they say.
As a result, the Washington subway system, the nation’s second largest, now says it may soon consider eliminating advertising of all kinds. The move could eventually result in fare increases for the system’s 500,000 daily riders.
“If we eliminated all ads, we’d have to find another source to offset the costs of operations,” said Beverly Silverberg, director of public affairs for the transit system. “That could result in fares being increased.”
Even top Washington advertising executives are philosophically troubled by the advertisement.
“I think the ads are horrible,” said Earle Palmer Brown, head of the Earle Palmer Brown Cos. of Bethesda, Md., one of the largest ad agencies in the Washington area. “But you can’t just close off channels of communication. Keep in mind, the ads could just as easily have been pro-Israel.”
Officials in Washington are not the only ones facing tough decisions on these ads. In April, a nonprofit pro-Arab group, the Survival Education Fund, paid $1,700 to place similar anti-Israeli ads in 200 cars of the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority system. These ads showed six Israeli soldiers apparently beating an unarmed Palestinian youth.
“The ad resulted in a very charged atmosphere,” said Vicente Carbona, a spokesman for the system. “But we had our attorneys look at the ad, and they told us that according to the First Amendment, we had to run it.”
It is doubtful that many would have suspected these repercussions in 1984, when Michael Lebron, a Washington-area artist, sought to purchase space in the subway for a poster he made that satirized the Reagan Administration’s policies in Central America. “Are You Tired of the Jellybean Republic?” was the headline above two pictures, one depicting the homeless and the other showing Reagan and his Cabinet enjoying a good laugh.
Overturned on Appeal
When the transit system refused to accept his ad, Lebron sued. Although a lower court ruled in favor of the system, a federal appeals court ruling--written by since-rejected Supreme Court nominee Robert Bork--said: “Subject to a limited number of exceptions . . . political speech may not be constitutionally restricted in a public forum.”
Since that ruling, the Washington transit system has accepted all political advertising. “This has put us in a very difficult position. We’re here to help serve the transportation needs of commuters, not to make political statements,” Silverberg said.
Now, subway lines in New York and San Francisco may face these same sticky issues.
“If they’re willing to pay for the ads, we can’t stop them,” said John Cunningham, press secretary for the New York’s Metropolitan Transit Authority. And in Oakland, Mike Healy, director of public affairs for Bay Area Rapid Transit, said, “We haven’t really gotten into this kind of thing before, but I suspect we’d be in the same position as everyone else.”
Why are the pro-Arab groups approaching subway systems exclusively?
Besides the fact that the subways must accept the ads, “they’re very cost-effective,” said Bouhafa. What’s more, he said, the ads in Washington were timed to run during the busy tourist season. “That makes them doubly cost-effective,” he said.
Would the group also consider approaching bus systems to accept the ads--such as those in the Los Angeles area? “No,” said Bouhafa, “I never met anyone who took a bus.”