Trial by Billboard


There was a skirmish last week in the Bay Area between the forces of Zionism and anti-Zionism. It took the form of messaging and, interestingly, the chosen platform was not social media but billboards.

The warring parties are JewBelong and Jews4FreePalestine. JewBelong is a nonprofit organization that began as a sassy and inviting voice promoting Jewish life and Jewish festivals to all Jews, including children of mixed marriages, secular Jews and converts. Its edgy yet inviting holiday themes grabbed attention and developed a following. More recently, its focus shifted to advocacy for Israel and calling out antisemitism. It uses signature hot-pink signs and provocative phrasing to attract readers and promote its message. Jews4FreePalestine is an ad hoc group of self-described “anti-Zionist” Jews (who won’t identify themselves) who oppose what they call Israel’s “apartheid and occupation.”

Following the recent controversy at the University of California-Berkeley Law School over pro-Zionists being banned by some groups on campus, JewBelong posted the following message on billboards in the area: “You don’t need to go to law school to know that anti-Zionism is antisemitism.” In response, Jews4FreePalestine papered over three of JewBelong’s billboards so they read, “You don’t need to go to law school to know that anti-Zionism is anti-racism.”

Jews4FreePalestine’s vandalism is unacceptable. The vandals should be punished. But the Bay Area billboard war has made us think about billboard debate. There is limited space for a message on a billboard. Competing efforts to turn a catchy phrase and attract reader attention forces proponents to find ways to advance arguments in concise yet impactful ways that sometimes ignore nuance and maybe even common decency. In this case, the two sides are fighting over the meaning of “Zionism” and “antisemitism” — two commonly understood concepts that are powerful and heavily meaningful.

Zionism has been the banner under which Diaspora Jews have made aliyah, fulfilling the movement’s highest goal: the ingathering of the exiles. For Zionists, Israel is the righting of a historical wrong; a proud declaration of Jewish sovereignty; and a shining example of democracy in an otherwise repressive neighborhood. For them, Israel’s existence is a hard-fought and enduring fact. Those hostile to the state of Israel are less accepting of its right to exist and see the Israel-Palestinian conflict as a simple matter of obtaining justice for the underdog.

Lately, “antisemitism” has been introduced into the debate. Antisemites are haters. They are racists. They act against Jews not because of anything Jews do, but simply for the fact that they are Jewish. Still, how does one define an antisemite on a billboard? At a time of rising antisemitic incidents and a growing sensitivity to the deeply corrosive threat that antisemitism poses for our society, we need to be careful how that particularly sensitive phrase and accusation are used.

Not everyone who disagrees with Israel is an antisemite. Nor is every criticism of activity in one of our Jewish communities antisemitic. There are far too many hateful antisemites who plague our society, and they need to be stopped. We encourage vigilance. We support actively exposing the haters. But we urge care in being too quick to label all Jewish-related disagreement or criticism as antisemitic.

The bottom line, however, is that all of this is far too complicated to be battled on a billboard. ■

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