The MTA’s ad judgment as a reason for Tishah B’Av

The MTA’s ad judgment as a reason for Tishah B’Av

It was just about two weeks ago that we woke to news stories on radio and television about anti-Israel ads that were posted in train stations along commuter routes to New York City. In a slow news week, many news stations covered the “outrage” over what the Anti-Defamation League referred to as the “deliberately misleading and biased” messages that graphically demonstrated how Israel has been consuming “Palestine” since 1948. These ads were the work of a wealthy ex-Wall Street financier, Henry Clifford, who is now the chairman of the Committee for Peace in Israel and Palestine.

During the broadcast reports, Jewish commuters were asked about the ads, and all of them expressed outrage. One, I recall, called the ads a form of terrorism and expressed the hope that the Metropolitan Transportation Authority would take them down. A local Jewish weekly newspaper also called for the ads to be taken down, claiming that they were offensive, and that they painted Israel and Israelis in a bad light.

When asked, Aaron Donovan of the MTA said, “We do not decide to accept or reject a proposed ad based on the viewpoint that it expresses, or because the ad might be controversial.”

Now, only a few days ago, U.S. District Judge Paul Engelmayer in Manhattan ruled on another set of ads, this time on the other side of the Arab-Israel equation. (In the interests of full disclosure, the judge is my cousin but we have never met.) His finding was that a 15-year-old rule by the MTA that barred demeaning language in advertisements was a violation of free speech. Donovan may not have been aware of that when he commented on Clifford’s ads.

In the case Engelmayer decided, the advocacy group American Freedom Defense Initiative sought to run ads that read, “In any war between the civilized man and the savage, support the civilized man. Support Israel/Defeat Jihad.”

Last September, after the MTA denied the ads, the group sued the public authority for violating its right to free speech. The ads would have been posted on 318 city buses for four weeks.

In his ruling, Engelmayer said that the advertising space on public buses should be considered a public forum, and especially because the ad under discussion was political in nature, it was entitled to the “highest level of protection under the First Amendment.” Further, the ruling said that “by differentiating between which people or groups can and cannot be demeaned on the exterior of a city bus, MTA’s no-demeaning standard … discriminates based on content.”

Here, too, just as the media looked for Jewish opinions on Clifford’s ads, reporters sought out Muslims to comment on the AFDI set. Predictably, Muslims saw the ads as offensive and insisted they should not be allowed to run.

Americans – Muslims, Jews, whoever you are – we cannot have it both ways. Free speech must work for all, and if we do not want one set of messages, we cannot argue in support of the other.

Our complaint is not with the Constitution, but with the MTA, which clearly had a double standard at work: The anti-Israel ads were permitted to run – after clearing whatever internal MTA hurdles may have been in their way – whereas the pro-Israel/anti-jihad ads were banned.

As for those person-on-the-street interviews on which the broadcast media thrives (“Now that your family has died in that fire, how do you feel?”), these are usually done to grab ratings, not to elicit legitimate news. They represent faux journalism. The media should focus attention on the organizations behind the ads and those that actually make the critical decisions about running them – in this case, the MTA. That would be real journalism. But I question whether many of today’s media outlets are actually prepared to tackle the real issues, believing as they do that viewers have short attention spans, preferring sound bytes to sound reporting.

Where today are the people with backbone? Where is the leadership? Where is the integrity in journalism today – the press made free so it could keep us informed, thereby serving as a tool for maintaining democracy, rather than entertain us with predictable comments from people who often do not even know what it is they are commenting on?

The subtle specter of anti-Semitism is always skulking in the shadows, trying to find a way to inflict itself into the mainstream. When well-meaning committees such as the MTA panel can decide to reject a pro-Israel ad campaign and accept an anti-Israel one, that creeping apparition is making its move.

As it is, many leaders of all levels, from government to corporate, yield to fear and make choices that seem to be the safest bets. Activities, messages, and speeches that are believed to offend Islam generally are considered taboo, while formerly forbidden negative comments about Jews and Israel are once again seen as allowable discourse.

If there is anyone who questions the need to mark Tishah B’Av this Sunday, because the fast dwells in the past whereas we live in a much different present, the MTA’s ruling offers an answer. When anti-Israel-ism is considered protected, but pro-Israel ideals are shot down as “political,” when our daily dose of instant news glosses over dark truths and turns serious issues into impromptu comic theater, the reason for continuing to mark Tishah B’av should be obvious.

Let us mourn the fallen Temples, the end of the Bar Kochba Revolt, the final day of the Spanish Inquisition – and let us remember those who did us harm. Most of all, let Tishah B’Av remind us of the need to be ever watchful for any future threats for as long as the need to do so exists.