New S.F. Muni ads go high-brow with Palestinian poetry

Transit users in San Francisco this month will bear witness to a fresh tactic in the long-running advertising campaigns that alternately have sought to attack and defend Israel. The new ads, according to their promoters, seek to highlight Palestinian culture and nationhood rather than the conflict presented in past campaigns.

The Palestine Advocacy Project, in its second campaign in the Bay Area, has spent $10,000 to place a series of 183 posters on Muni lightrail and buses that feature images of life in the West Bank and Gaza along with poetry from Mahmoud Darwish. Darwish, who died in 2008, is widely considered the Palestinian national poet.

Mahmoud Darwish

“We wanted to show a little snippet of what Palestinian identity consists of,” said Clare Maxwell, a Palestine Advocacy Project board member. The website of the Massachusetts-based organization says it “creates public media and education campaigns that expose Americans to the Palestinian struggle and advocate for an end to Israeli human rights abuses.”

The campaign, which runs through March, features seven posters with different poems and excerpts of poems by Darwish. Some could be interpreted as critiques of Israel. For example, an excerpt from “To My Mother” appears with a photograph of a middle-age woman:

“I am old / Give me back the stars of childhood / That I may chart the homeward quest/ Back with the migrant birds, / Back to your awaiting nest.”

Others have a more direct message, such as an excerpt from “Passport,” which addresses the Israeli government’s efforts to revoke Darwish’s Israeli citizenship while he was studying abroad during the 1970s.

For those unfamiliar with the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, the poems do not impart an explicitly political message. Yet Bay Area advocates for Israel who know of the Palestine Advocacy Project and its campaigns in Dallas, Boston and other cities — where ads have accused Israel of stealing land and called for ending U.S. military aid to Israel — say the delivery has changed but the underlying message has not.

“It’s nothing new,” said Andy David, Israeli consul general for the Pacific Northwest in San Francisco. David added that “the use of soft language, the use of art, the poems and a well-known, respected Palestinian poet [is] poisonous.”

One of the campaign posters on San Francisco Muni lightrail

David said the content of the advertisements was irrelevant because the broader goal of the Palestine Advocacy Project is “the destruction of Israel.”

Maxwell disputed that perception, saying the organization supports yet does not actively participate in the boycott, divestment and sanctions campaign against Israel.

The website does, however, take official positions against “apartheid” and “ethnic cleansing” perpetrated by Israel.

“They’re trying to enter through the door, through the window, through the chimney. They’re trying to dig under the floor,” David said. “The goal is not to publish poetry on buses — that’s a means to a goal.”

David did not have a comment on the poetry itself. “I’m not a critic giving grades to Mahmoud Darwish,” he said, while acknowledging that Darwish is a celebrity among his people. “If somebody’s respected, he’s respected.”

Darwish was born in 1942 in the Palestinian Arab village of al-Birweh, east of Haifa. After its residents fled or were expelled during Israel’s 1948 War of Independence, Darwish went to Lebanon with his family before returning to Israel and gaining citizenship in the mid-1990s.

He was a political activist as a young poet, joining the Israeli Communist Party after high school. In 1970 he left to study in the Soviet Union before moving to Cairo. Darwish also was active in the Palestine Liberation Organization, directing the PLO research center, serving as an editor of the group’s monthly journal and serving on its executive committee before resigning his position in opposition to the Oslo accord.

Mahmoud Darwish’s “To My Mother” on Muni car

But despite his affiliations with the Palestinian nationalist and militant group that went on to become the Palestinian Authority, Darwish’s politics were more nuanced and pragmatic. In an interview with the Israeli daily Haaretz a year before his death, Darwish criticized Hamas’ control as a “catastrophe” and emphasized the willingness of Palestinians to accept a two-state solution.

“The Palestinian people is not seeking to liberate Palestine,” he told Haaretz. “The Palestinians want to lead a normal life on 22 percent of what they think is their homeland.”

The Palestine Advocacy Project’s long-term goal, according to Maxwell, is an end to U.S. military aid to Israel. Cities including New York, Los Angeles, Chicago and Philadelphia ban political advertising on their public transit systems, and the organization has been looking for alternative ways to express its message, she said.

“We’re trying to do things that can get around the ban,” Maxwell said. “As a young organization, we’re still figuring out what people will respond to.”

The group changed its name last year from Ads Against Apartheid “as a way to, you know, brand ourselves with a more positive name,” Maxwell explained.

The nonprofit organization is funded by Itisapartheid Inc., another Massachusetts nonprofit critical of Israel whose website features posters with such messages as “Killing (children) is not self-defense” and encourages people to spray-paint their messages in public places.

“These ads may not be as overtly political as the other campaigns, but the end goal is the same,” said Johanna Wilder, associate director of StandWithUs Northern California, a pro-Israel advocacy group, commenting on the poetry campaign. “This is part of the boycott movement against Israel, whose goal is to isolate the only Jewish state and deny the Jewish connection to the State of Israel.”

StandWithUs, a national group that has run its own transit and billboard campaigns in the Bay Area and around the country, announced in a press release that it would respond to the ads with its own campaign on San Francisco transit in the coming weeks, focusing on “Israel’s craving for and rejected offers for peace,” according to the statement. It will be the group’s eighth such campaign since 2011.

Arno Rosenfeld
Arno Rosenfeld

Arno Rosenfeld is a reporter at the Forward. He is a former J. intern and has worked as a correspondent for JTA and The Times of Israel.