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Elliot Leven


By Elliot Leven, September 15, 2013


A group calling itself the Palestine Awareness Coalition has started a hot debate by posting ads on 15 Vancouver buses and a Vancouver SkyTrain station. It says it will place similar ads in other cities. (Editor's note: To see the ads click here:

The ads are titled “Disappearing Palestine”. They feature four maps, labelled “1946”, “UN Plan 1947”, “1949-1967”, and “2012”.  The maps show Israel, the West Bank and Gaza. The maps purport to show how Israel has unjustly stolen more and more Palestinian land over the years. Under the maps is the caption “5 million Palestinians are classified as refugees by the United Nations.” Juxtaposing the caption with the maps implies that Israel’s theft of land is responsible for the creation of the refugees.

The ads cost $15,000 and will appear for four weeks.

A visit to the website of the Palestine Awareness Coalition sheds further light on the group’s beliefs.  For example, the website refers to the “65 year long Israeli occupation of Palestine”.  The number is crucial.  It shows that the Coalition believes that the occupation began in 1948 (when Israel was born), not in 1967 (when the West Bank and Gaza came under Israeli control). In other words, the Coalition does not merely want Israel to withdraw from the West Bank; it wants Israel to cease to exist. 

The ads have sparked outrage. B’nai Brith wants them removed. The transit authorities refuse to remove them, citing freedom of expression guarantees in the Charter of Rights and Freedoms.  The Charter applies to government entities, including the transit authorities.

The national media has given prominent coverage to the debate.  If the ads appear in other cities, much more media attention is inevitable. It is likely that the debate will evolve into one about free speech, allowing the Coalition to portray itself as a defender of free speech.

The mainstream media coverage has not included any analysis at all of the four maps. Too bad.  As I have written before, the Middle East conflict is extremely complex, and it is impossible to understand it without taking the time to learn something about history.  Unfortunately, the mainstream media does not care to educate the public about history. That is why so much Middle East coverage is superficial and sensationalist.

The “1946” map shows the Jewish communities that existed in British Mandate Palestine in 1946 in yellow, and the rest of the Mandate territory in green.  The communities (such as Tel Aviv) do not take up much land, so there is not much yellow. The rest of the territory includes lots of uninhabited desert, so there is lots of green. The ads do not explain this.

The “1947” map shows the United Nations 1947 partition plan, which Israel accepted and the Arab world (including the Arab leadership in Palestine) rejected. If the Arab world had accepted it, the Palestinian people would have received their own state in 1947; there would have been no Middle East war in 1948; and there would have been no war refugees. The ads don’t mention these facts.

The “1949-1967” map shows Israel in yellow and the West Bank and Gaza in green. It does not mention that Jordan occupied the West Bank, and Egypt occupied Gaza, and that neither country made any effort to create a Palestinian state in the territory they held.

The 2012 map shows Gaza and the Palestinian communities in the West Bank in green, and everything else in yellow.  Of course there is more yellow than green.  The ad does not mention why things changed in 1967 (i.e. Egypt and Syria began a war against Israel; Jordan foolishly joined in despite Israel’s plea that it stay out; and the Arab forces were completely routed). Nor does it mention that, when he was Prime Minister, Ehud Barak in 2000 offered to withdraw from over 90% of the West Bank as part of a peace treaty with the Palestinians, but Yasser Arafat rejected the offer.

To be fair, Israel should never have built settlements in the West Bank. If it had never built them, it is possible that there would still be no peace with the Palestinians, but a peace deal would be much easier to achieve.

Israel should never have built settlements in Gaza either, but at least it belatedly withdrew from them.

In short, unless you already know a lot about Middle East history, the ads will mislead you. Indeed, the coalition that designed the ads is probably counting on it. And the media coverage of the ad controversy will not do anything to educate you.

By the way, it is foolish to get into a fight about whether the ads are “anti-Semitic”.  It is possible to level unfair and misguided attacks against Israeli policies without being anti-Semitic.  Some Israeli Jews level foolish attacks against their own government. The ads are irrational, but not anti-Semitic.

Trying to ban the ads is playing right into the hands of the Coalition.  Their tactics are already clear: they don’t want this to be a fight about the nuances of Israeli settlement; they want this to be a fight about free speech. They want to be “pro-free-speech” while B’nai Brith and others are portrayed as “anti-free-speech”.  Given the superficial nature of the media, that is a fight which we can’t win.

Far better to fight misleading speech with educational speech.  B’nai Brith, or other groups, should shell out $15,000 to run catchy ads in response to the “Disappearing Palestine” ads.

I am no advertising guru, but I could see a punchy ad titled “Disappearing Logic”. It would feature, in bold print, three short, simple facts about Middle East history. The text might read: “1) In 1947, the U.N. proposed a State of Israel side by side with a Palestinian State. The Jewish World said “yes”. The Arab World said “no”.

2) In 1967, 3 Arab countries started a war against Israel and lost. That’s how the West Bank and Gaza ended up in Israeli hands.

3) In 2000, Israel offered to leave over 90% of the West Bank, in exchange for peace. The Palestinians said “no”.

I would like to see such ads on buses and transit stations.  They would be lacking in nuance, but for once, the shoe would be on the other foot. B’nai Brith could portray itself as the supporter of free speech.

What’s sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander.

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