Councillor, Jewish organizations hope to block controversial campaign about Middle East
By Ben Spurr, Now Toronto, Sept. 3, 2013
New maps could soon appear on TTC vehicles, and they won’t depict the subway line.
A pro-Palestinian group has approached the transit commission about buying space to put up ads similar to ones that incited controversy last week when they appeared on Vancouver’s TransLink system.
The Vancouver ads, created by the Palestinian Awareness Coalition, are running under the title “Disappearing Palestine,” and depict four maps showing how, in the opinion of the group, Palestinian territory has been subsumed by Israel over the past 65 years.
The Jewish Federation of Greater Vancouver has threatened to sue TransLink, claiming the signs are promoting hatred. They are appearing on 15 buses and a Skytrain station for the next four weeks.
A separate Montreal-based group called Canadians for Justice and Peace in the Middle East is attempting to bring them to other Canadian cities.
A CJPME spokesperson would not comment on whether they plan to launch the campaign in Toronto, but a TTC spokesperson confirms that the group is attempting to buy ad space with the commission.
“They’ve approached us, but we have not seen final artwork yet,” says the TTC’s Jessica Martin.
CJPME president Thomas Woodley says that his group has raised $35,000 from private donations to run the ads in several cities. Their versions will be similar to the PAC’s in that they will portray the same four maps, but will include different text that focuses on international law the group believes Israel is violating.
Woodley says the goal of the ads is to educate Canadians about what he perceives as a major injustice in the Middle East.
“The key thing with the question of Israel-Palestine is to help people understand what’s happening,” he says. “[B]y just putting those four maps up there, it really communicates – and I think very effectively and cogently – the realities on the ground for the Palestinians, and how the land is being taken from them literally from under their feet.”
Woodley sees nothing controversial about the ads.
“Everything in the ads is historically accurate, verified. There’s no question that what the maps depict is true,” he says. “It is true that some people don’t like them, because some people don’t like the reality on the ground being depicted so accurately.”
Councillor James Pasternak says he will “vigorously oppose” any attempt to put the ads on city transit. The councillor, who has led council’s fight this term to bar Queers Against Israeli Apartheid from the Pride parade, believes the signage is the latest attempt by pro-Palestinian groups to “hijack” public institutions in order to unfairly attack Israel.
“This is just an attempt to make people feel uncomfortable, to harass people, to demonize Israel and its supporters. And it’s something we don’t need in Toronto,” Pasternak says.
“Toronto’s transit system has no responsibility whatsoever to carry these ads and certainly it is not keeping with the philosophy that the city holds as a respectful and tolerant space.”
The councillor believes the ads run afoul of the TTC’s Customer Charter, which commits to ensuring passengers will “feel safe and secure” on commission property. He hopes to enlist other councillors, including TTC chair Karen Stintz, in calling on the commission and the company that handles its advertising, Pattison Outdoor, to reject CJPME’s approach.
Stintz’s office said she was not available to answer questions for this story, and a representative for Pattison did not immediately return a request for comment.
A spokesperson for B’nai Brith believes that because the ads target Israel’s supporters, they could be prohibited by the TTC’s own advertising rules. Those guidelines dictate ads on the transit system must abide by the Code of Advertising Standards and the Ontario Human Rights Code.
“It targets a specific group which is very likely in violation of [TTC policy],” says Sam Eskenasi, communications officer for B’nai Brith. “The ads are misleading and erroneous. It really gives you a false sense of what transpired.”
Avi Benlolo, CEO of the Friends of Simon Wiesenthal Center for Holocaust Studies, says that if the TTC approves the ads, his group will erect their own.
“We already have plans in place,” he says. “We will respond in kind. 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.”
“We have the resources, we have the means, and we won’t be shy doing that,” he adds.
But Benlolo says he hopes it doesn’t come to that. He would prefer that the TTC block the ads, which he says are “factually incorrect” because they don’t reflect Jews’ historic ties to the land and suggest that Israel is solely to blame for the complex conflict that has taken root in the Middle East.
“It’s offensive to most Jews, and to many non-Jews who really understand the complexity of the Middle East [and the] fact that most Jews want the Palestinian people to have their land,” he says.
If the ads are approved, once they’re posted it would take only five public complaints to automatically trigger a review by a panel made up of three commission board members.
But the panel can only reject ads on the grounds that they violate the commission’s advertising policy or the law, according to the TTC’s Brad Ross. He says the commission must follow a 2009 Supreme Court decision that struck down some of TransLink’s prohibitions against political advertising.
“Not liking an ad, or an ad being controversial, isn’t grounds for removing an ad,” he says. “The Supreme Court of Canada’s been very clear on that.”