Vancouver Courier: TransLink ads spark controversy

Allan Garr, Vancouver Courier, Sept 5, 2013

While much of the world is watching the tragedy unfold in Syria and waiting for the United States to make its “no boots on the ground” move against the Assad regime, we have our own little Middle East related drama going on right here in Vancouver. That is all thanks to a decision by TransLink to run ads on buses and rapid transit stations entitled “Disappearing Palestine.”

If you haven’t seen the ads, it is no wonder. The $15,000 dollar purchase gave the Vancouver-based groups calling themselves the Palestine Awareness Coalition a modest presence: The material appears on 15 of TransLink’s 1,600 buses and at two transit stations, one downtown and one at Oakridge (which incidentally is about as close as you can get to the heart of Vancouver’s Jewish community.)

It is composed of four maps of what is now the state of Israel and shows a shift it claims has taken place since 1946 in terms of Palestinian presence when the territory was known as Palestine. The only text states that five million Palestinians are classified by the UN as refugees.

But as modest as that ad buy may be, the reaction primarily from Jewish organizations and others including the Laurier Institute, a multicultural watchdog, has been explosive. They condemn the ads, the coalition of organizations which placed them and are demanding TransLink remove them.

Even before the ads went up, six weeks before in fact, when Jewish organizations learned TransLink was considering a plan to place the ads, they began their lobbying in earnest. But they failed.
TransLink says it was compelled to run the ads because of a relatively recent Supreme Court of Canada decision based on its earlier refusal to carry ads by the B.C. Teachers’ Federation and a B.C. student organization that were critical of the provincial government of the day because they were “political.”

The court ruled that TransLink, a publicly owned entity, was in violation of the Charter of Rights which guarantees freedom of speech.

When TransLink staff was faced with running these provocative ads, they sought legal advice and were told they had no choice based on that court ruling. The appointed TransLink Board spent some 10 days considering what to do and sought its own legal opinion, which also said they had no choice.

And indeed, an organization I have a lot of time for, the B.C. Civil Liberties Association, concurred. It was all about free speech.

But what is lacking in all of this is context. Here is B’Nai Brith Canada’s take: “The true intent of the ad campaign becomes clear if the groups behind the ad are examined.” Then it defines them as “rabid anti-Israel groups” which it says are fundamentally anti-Semitic and which have in the past hosted terrorists here in B.C.

But don’t just take their word for it. Google the spokesperson for the ad campaign, Charlotte Kates. While many Jews, me included, may question the continued expansion of Jewish settlements into the West Bank, Kates would have the whole state of Israel obliterated. She’s quite specific in her view Israel has no “right to exist.” And she supports any tactics including terrorism to accomplish that, as her organization’s literature puts it, “by any means necessary.”

This all comes midst a rising wave of anti-Semitism in Europe. And these ads have been placed, and this is no coincidence, during the holiest days in the Jewish calendar: Rosh Hashanah — New Years — and Yom Kippur — the Day of Atonement. It is a time when even Jews, like me, who would rarely set foot in a synagogue feel the need to “return again” and join their community in prayer.
In other words, no timing could have been more provocative.

One could say that, if protests against the ads stopped when the initial lobbying failed and the ads went up, Kates and her pals would not have received as much public attention as they have.
But one could also say that TransLink did not do the due diligence required to understand just who they were dealing with. You can only wonder if the transit companies in Toronto and Montreal which have been in contact with TransLink over this issue will make the same mistake.

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