Editor’s note: This has been updated from the print version.
King County Executive Dow Constantine’s office announced Thursday that it would not allow ads by a group called the Seattle Mideast Awareness Campaign, which stated that U.S. taxpayers money was being put toward “Israeli war crimes.” Another series of ads that had been proposed by the Los Angeles-based David Horowitz Freedom Center and the American Freedom Defense Initiative was also rejected.
Constantine said the issue had the potential to disrupt service, and put in place an interim policy that rejects all non-commercial advertisements. Advertisements currently in place will not be affected.
“The escalation of this issue from one of 12 local bus placards to a widespread and often vitriolic international debate introduces new and significant security concerns that compel reassessment,” Constantine said in a statement.
County officials said the transit and executive offices had received thousands of comments. Many, if not most, of those comments came from outside of the county. On Thursday afternoon, the San Antonio, Texas-based Christians United for Israel said more than 2,500 of its supporters had contacted the county.
Local Jewish organizations had roundly criticized the decision to allow the ads, though some, but not all, stopped short of calling for their removal.
Wendy Rosen, director of the Seattle chapter of the American Jewish Committee, wrote in an analysis Wednesday that “While AJC is not asking Metro Transit to pull these provocative ads…we do see the current situation as an opportunity to deepen understanding about Israel and sensitize our local, state and national elected officials, along with leaders in the non-Jewish community about issues of deep concern to AJC and the Seattle Jewish community.”
Earlier on Thursday, the Pacific Northwest chapter of the Anti-Defamation League released a statement that said, “Using city-run buses to propagate dangerous anti-Israel propaganda is an abuse of the free speech rights we all hold so dear. Calling the state of Israel war criminals is not mere criticism of Israel but, as demonstrated around the world in recent years, it is incitement against the Jewish community.”
Upon news of the cancellation of the ad campaign, Richard Fruchter, CEO of the Jewish Federation of Greater Seattle expressed thanks to supporters who had called the county to express their opinions on the matter.
The progressive pro-Israel group J Street called on the Seattle Mideast Awareness Campaign to reconsider placing the ads, and synagogues from all denominations blasted the campaign.
News of the ad campaign first broke on Dec. 17 with a report about the ad by Seattle’s KING-5 TV station. By Monday, Constantine released a statement that he had asked Metro Transit to review its non-commercial advertising policies.
“From time to time, interest groups have exercised their right to free speech by making a small transit ad buy and leveraging that purchase to provoke news coverage worth many times their investment,” Constantine said in the statement. “These provocative ads bring in a negligible amount of revenue, but cost hundreds of hours of staff time to address the intended controversy.”
The campaign had been planned to begin on Mon., Dec. 27, the second anniversary of the outbreak of the war in Gaza.
Fruchter said the ad bordered on hate speech.
“It’s slanderous to the community, it’s very one-sided, it doesn’t represent a fair and balanced view, and is something that could be very negative for our Jewish community,” he said.
A statement sent out to local Jewish organizations by the Federation said “this type of campaign is destructive to the peace process and undermines efforts to Leaders from the Federation, the American Jewish Committee, the Anti-Defamation League and StandWithUs met with the deputy county executive on Wednesday to express their concerns.
“We’re not interested in creating an environment that gets people riled up and gives them only a very negative view of Israel, and not talking about the real context of the peace process,” Fruchter told JTNews.
Ed Mast of the newly formed Seattle Mideast Awareness Campaign, the group that created the ads, said he didn’t see them as provocative.
“The intention is not to inflame, the intention is to educate and raise awareness,” he told KING-5.
The group’s Web site calls for full equality of Israelis and Palestinians, a move most pro-Israel Jews would likely stand behind, but frames the statement as “the inevitable solution,” suggesting such an outcome would be a single, bi-national state, which runs counter to the two-state solution supported by most governments around the world.
Wendy Somerson of Jewish Voice for Peace, which supported the ad campaign, said via e-mail, “they are perfectly legitimate messages that are asking U.S. citizens to think about where their tax dollars are going.” She suggested that council member Peter von Reichbauer, one of three members that sent a letter to Constantine stating such language can create a dangerous environment, was “buying into the logic of groups like the Anti-Defamation League who are desperately trying to silence the growing criticism of the Israeli government by suggesting that any criticism (or critic) of Israel is anti-Semitic and out to ‘delegitimize’ Israel.”
But Hilary Bernstein, community director of the ADL’s Seattle office said her organization is committed to free speech.
“Our message is not that Metro must pull these ads, because that is Metro’s decision to make,” Bernstein said. But, she added, “they need to take a look at their rules and regulations and think about how they can best serve the interests of King County.”
She called the ad “propaganda, straight out” and said the Web site listed is “a whole plethora of misinformation and untruth about Israel.”
Despite the many complaints and expressions of offense, the transit department was initially unsure that it could reject the ads.
“Because we’re government, we are more constrained in what we can reject than, say, a television station or newspaper,” Linda Thielke, spokesperson for the county Department of Transportation said Monday. “We have to be very mindful of the state and government protections of freedom of speech.”
Though the interim policy is now in place, county attorneys will work through January to create a new policy to determine how any future, similar ads wil lbe handled. The interim ruling affects all non-commercial advertising, including organizations that provide community services such as United Way, Puget Sound Blood Center and the Boys and Girls Club.
“We cannot and would not favor one point of view over another, so the entire category of non-commercial advertising will be eliminated until a permanent policy can be completed that I can propose to the King County Council for adoption,” Constantine said. “Further work during the coming weeks will help determine what constitutionally-valid policy is best for the safety and well-being of the transit-riding public, our drivers and personnel, and the community at large.
Of the $2,760 Seattle Mideast Awareness Campaign paid for its ads, $1,794 would have gone to the county. Bus ads bring in approximately $4 million in revenue to the county.