New York ad campaign signals change in the Palestinian debate

The conversation about Palestine is changing in the United States. Ordinary Americans are beginning to reject occupation and apartheid, and they're beginning to make their views known.

Pep Montserrat for The National
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The conversation about Palestine is changing in the United States. Ordinary Americans are beginning to reject occupation and apartheid, and they're beginning to make their views known. A series of ads in New York and Los Angeles illustrate the point.

The New York-based Committee for Peace in Israel and Palestine bought a series of ads showing the steady fragmentation and dissolution of Palestine from 1946 to 2010. They made their point through the use of simple, effective maps which were deployed on 50 commuter platforms in the New York metropolitan area.

The four images show what Palestine looked like in 1946 - before the formation of the state of Israel - then in 1949, 1967, and 2010 - when the territory had been almost completely swallowed by Israeli settlements.

Today, about 600,000 Jewish colonists live in the occupied West Bank and East Jerusalem, and their numbers are burgeoning. The settlements spread with an unyielding persistence.

The Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu, like every previous prime minister including those who held the office between 1948 and 1967, has worked to produce a Jewish majority on as much Palestinian land as possible. What David Ben Gurion started in 1947 continues in 2012; the eviction of Palestine proceeds apace.

It was that reality that members of an American group with an interest in justice sought to portray to the US public.

The Committee's chairman, Henry Clifford, a retired financier, paid US$25,000 (Dh92,000) for the privilege. In his words: "The Palestinian people have lost most of their homeland and the map shows exactly what has happened to them." His stated goal was to "educate" others about the reality of Israeli colonisation.

The reaction to the adverts came quickly. Zionist groups in America condemned his effort to illuminate the reality on the ground in Palestine and requested that the ads be removed. Some called Mr Clifford anti-Semitic and others accused him of deliberately propagating misinformation.

Ron Meier, regional director of the Anti-Defamation League - a pro-Israel watchdog organisation - claimed that: "This ad campaign completely ignores the facts, including the history of land ownership prior to 1948, Israel's repeated efforts to exchange land for peace, and the commitment of successive Israeli governments to achieving a two-state solution with the Palestinians."

The pressure didn't stop there. A member of the New York Assembly added his voice to the cacophonous condemnations directed at Mr Clifford and his group. Assemblyman Robert Castelli wrote a letter to the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, the party responsible for the platforms hosting the ads, calling for them to be taken down.

He claimed he was acting after being contacted by numerous Jewish groups that took offence at the image.

"I think the implication is kind of a subliminal one that is very anti-Israel," he said. "If you look at the message, it's promoting peace and harmony in Israel and Palestine, but seems to disturb harmony in our community."

At the time of writing, the ads are still up despite the pressure placed on the MTA.

Alan Donovan, a spokesman for the authority, issued a statement saying: "We do not decide whether to accept or reject a proposed ad based on the viewpoint that it expresses or because the ad might be controversial. The MTA does not endorse the viewpoint expressed in this ad, or any of the ads that it accepts for display."

But only one month ago CBS Outdoor, the company contracted to place the maps in New York, succumbed to similar pressure in Los Angeles.

In that case, Stop$ purchased outdoor billboard ad space before becoming the target of the same kinds of smears and pressure tactics now directed at Mr Clifford and his organisation.

The billboards called for an end to the $3 billion in annual military aid pledged to Israel for a decade from 2007. After persistent pressure, they were removed after only two weeks.

At this point it is worth contextualising the ads in New York and Los Angeles. The conversation about Palestine in the United States has moved a great deal in recent years, although it is still too early to gauge impacts on policy.

Early on in my undergraduate career, I was active with an on-campus Palestine group. Other students and I would spend our time organising discussions and distributing pamphlets in the main student walkway.

Confrontations with adversarial students were a regular occurrence. I remember being told on several occasions that Palestine didn't exist - and once, that Palestinians are "terrorists" who should "get out of America". These sentiments were broadly held at the time.

In 2006, President Jimmy Carter published his book Palestine: Peace not Apartheid to widespread criticism and condemnation. Much of the discussion around the president's message focused on his use of the word apartheid, which many considered inappropriate.

Mr Carter stressed that his use of the word applied only to the Occupied Territories but the fierceness of the invective only increased. Despite that, some Americans began to reconsider their long-held views of Israel.

The following year was more calamitous for the Israel lobby crowd. That was when the sometimes-coordinated activities of many Zionist organisations - such as silencing dissent and distorting foreign policy - were identified and decried by two international relations professors.

John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt of the University of Chicago and Harvard University, respectively, published The Israel Lobby and US Foreign Policy to acerbic criticism and allegations of anti-Semitism. They withstood the attacks and have seen their ideas vindicated in the intervening years.

The book worked to enlarge the scope of the conversation about Israel in America, and proved that legitimate criticism of Zionism and its state in the Middle East does not amount to anti-Semitism.

Today, the Israel lobby is spoken about as an established fact. Policymakers and others recognise the disastrous policies it has supported, such as the Iraq war, and its encouragement of an attack on Iran.

Of course, the Israelis themselves did a lot to delegitimise their state - not only through their interminable colonial enterprise in Palestine, but through the inhumane treatment of Palestinians in Gaza. Shamefully, that has attained a scandalous degree of normality in capitals around the world.

In time, greater scrutiny worked to highlight the fundamental logic of Zionism - force in service of demographic supremacy. In other words, the "Jewish character" of the state must be protected against equal rights and Palestinian babies.

So today, things are changing. For the first time, large sections of the American public are learning about the strangulation of Palestine and the Palestinians, and private American citizens are organising to end the occupation and apartheid.

While humanitarianism drives much of their interest, many also recognise the harm that Israel does to American national security. Billions of dollars a year in wealth transfers and the disapprobation of the entire Islamic world are a high price to pay for the maintenance of apartheid. And why should they have to pay it?

Now as never before there is meaningful dissent within American ranks. The ads in New York are an early sign that change may be on the way. And judging by the public spasms of members of the Israel lobby, I'm not the only one who holds this view.

Ahmed Moor is a Palestinian-American writer who was born in the Gaza Strip. He is a Soros Fellow, a graduate student at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government and co-editor of After Zionism. On Twitter: @ahmedmoor