A JewBelong sign in downtown San Francisco at Front Street and Market Street, July 2021. (Photo/Gabriel Greschler)
A JewBelong sign in downtown San Francisco at Front Street and Market Street, July 2021. (Photo/Gabriel Greschler)

Group floods S.F. with digital billboards to #EndJewHate

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An East Coast nonprofit whose stated mission is to “rebrand Judaism” with a hip, made-for-social-media bent is behind dozens of advertisements seeking to combat antisemitism that flooded San Francisco last week.

The ad campaign features 35 hot-pink digital billboards placed downtown, including a dozen on Market Street, bearing messages that may cause the average pedestrian to pause midstep. “We’re just 75 years since the gas chambers. So no, a billboard calling out Jew hate isn’t an overreaction,” reads one.

Other ads tap into social justice language and hot-button culture wars, saying “being woke and antisemitic is like being a vegan who eats veal.”

The ads are a brainchild of JewBelong, a New Jersey-based organization founded by Stacy Stuart and Archie Gottesman. The pair are longtime marketers who made their names with irreverent and often left-leaning advertisements for Manhattan Mini Storage, a company owned by Gottesman’s family.

Their San Francisco ad blitz is part of a nearly $450,000 national campaign taking place in Philadelphia, Washington, D.C., and Miami, and it’s already made waves with a massive billboard in New York’s Times Square last month. Stuart said the Schusterman Family Foundation is a significant donor to the campaign, but she declined to disclose other funders.

Stuart said the group is looking to mimic the Black Lives Matter movement for racial justice and the Stop Asian Hate campaign. The latest Israel-Hamas armed conflict, she said, uncovered deep-seated antisemitism that is not getting enough attention.

“We kind of want to take a page from [the Black Lives Matter] playbook. It’s insane they did such a great job of, like, rallying the troops, of just gaining so much attention and so much love,” Stuart said in an interview. “And so we’re not doing, like, Jewish Lives Matter … But yes, we are.”

As evidence that the issue of antisemitism needs wider representation, Stuart cited a lackluster showing at a July 11 rally outside the U.S. Capitol; around 2,000 people showed up to protest against rising antisemitism.

According to an Anti-Defamation League survey in June, 60 percent of American Jews say they witnessed antisemitic incidents or comments in the weeks surrounding the Israel-Hamas conflict.

Graffiti on the wall of Manny’s café in San Francisco's Mission District, June 6, 2021. (Photo/Steven Buss)
Graffiti on the wall of Manny’s café in San Francisco’s Mission District, June 6, 2021. (Photo/Steven Buss)

In the Bay Area during and after the May conflict, Chabad of Noe Valley and other Jewish organizations, and the Jewish-owned Manny’s Cafe in San Francisco’s Mission District, were the targets of anti-Zionist vandalism. In Boston this month, an Egyptian national faces hate crime charges for stabbing a rabbi outside a Jewish school.

Stuart said she is “heartbroken” that Jews are not seeing more support for combating antisemitism.

“Black Lives Matter, we all had the posters on our lawns — like, we are there,” she said. “That’s kind of what we do, right, as a people. And we just feel there’s been very little of that for the Jewish community.

“We’re just trying to ring the alarm bells. Where is everyone?”

JewBelong.com points to a core nonpartisan mission to bring “disengaged Jews” back into Jewish life. The organization hosted a huge Zoom Passover seder and provides handy online explainers on everything Jewish — from marriage to baby names and holidays.

When it comes to Israel, the organization has aligned itself with staunchly pro-Israel Twitter personalities on the front lines of internet skirmishes over the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and antisemitism.

A JewBelong sign in downtown San Francisco at First Street and Market Street. (Photo/Gabriel Greschler)
A JewBelong sign in downtown San Francisco at First Street and Market Street. (Photo/Gabriel Greschler)

Co-founder Gottesman is a prominent pro-Israel figure who has previously stirred controversy. In a 2018 Twitter post, she wrote “Gaza is full of monsters. Time to burn the whole place,” and has since apologized for the statement.

Joshua Leifer, a contributing editor to the left-wing Jewish Currents magazine, criticized JewBelong’s campaign as having little influence beyond assuaging concerns of donors behind the effort.

“Having a huge billboard in Times Square is a very good way to sell donors that you’re making an impact without necessarily having to prove anything tangible,” he said.

Older American Jews may take comfort in seeing a public affirmation of Jewish identity, Leifer said, and that includes his parents, who he said appreciated JewBelong’s billboard when they saw it in New York City. But Stuart’s attempt to lump antisemitism into other racial justice movements is likely to fall flat with young American Jews, Leifer added.

“If they look at this they say, well, we’ve just been in the street maybe protesting, maybe getting tear-gassed, maybe getting beat up by police for Black Lives Matter,” he said. “The relationship that we’ve observed between Black people, the state, and structural discrimination and inequality has no resemblance, essentially, to what American Jews experience.”

Meanwhile, Roz Rothstein, co-founder of StandWithUs, which has sponsored pro-Israel advertising campaigns in San Francisco and beyond, praised the JewBelong initiative as “one of many steps that can help fight the virus of hate.”

With graffiti and other recent Bay Area incidents in mind, Stuart said the decision to place digital billboards in San Francisco was a “no-brainer.” She added that San Francisco was one of the few places they succeeded in securing street-level ad space at bus stops and transit hubs after being denied by other transit authorities wary of the heated subject matter.

“We’re trying to be a voice out there for a community of Jewish people [that] doesn’t necessarily feel seen or supported,” Stuart said.

Eliyahu Kamisher

Eliyahu Kamisher is a freelancer and J. contributor who has written for SFGATE, Los Angeles Magazine and The Appeal. He previously covered police and criminal justice for The Jerusalem Post.