A JewBelong billboard in San Carlos that originally said "Hamas is your problem too" was rewritten and defaced by activists to say "Zionism is your problem too." (Photo/Courtesy anonymous activists)
A JewBelong billboard in San Carlos that originally said "Hamas is your problem too" was rewritten and defaced by activists to say "Zionism is your problem too." (Photo/Courtesy anonymous activists)

Bay Area billboards become another front in Israel-Hamas war

Updated at 9:20 a.m. Dec. 13

The war of opinions over Israel and Gaza has hit the road in the Bay Area, with billboards as the latest place to cast blame and raise awareness about victims.

The ideological battle is a messy one, involving strong statements and acts of vandalism.

JewBelong’s hot-pink billboards have become a familiar sight in the Bay Area. The New Jersey-based nonprofit often addresses apolitical topics in its large-scale public service announcements, such as encouraging nonobservant Jews to participate in Jewish life. But it has also waded into international politics with a new billboard campaign.

“Let’s be clear,” the billboards state. “Hamas is your problem too.”

Six of 15 billboards across the Bay Area were defaced Sunday night with one of two messages: “Let’s be clear: Zionism is your problem too” or “Free Palestine” spray-painted with large, graffiti-style lettering.

An anonymous group claimed responsibility in an email describing its members as “anti-Zionist Jews” who believe “to oppose Zionism is to oppose racism.” The group said it “redecorated” six billboards in San Francisco, South San Francisco, Emeryville, East Palo Alto, and San Carlos/Redwood City.

Rio Scharf, an activist with the International Jewish Anti-Zionist Network, is acting as spokesperson for the group.

“Jews have long been involved in anti-war civil disobedience in this region,” said Scharf, who said he did not take part in the action. He added that it was not an official IJAN action but that IJAN was “uplifting” the graffiti.

JewBelong was targeted, he said, because it exploits Jewish fear and anxiety to push Jews to support Israel.

“We think it is a really critical intervention,” he said of the graffiti.

Shari Samuel saw one of the defaced billboards in South San Francisco when she was driving to work Tuesday. It took her a minute to realize what she was seeing. When she did, she was shaken up.

“It was upsetting,” said Samuel. “It’s always upsetting when antisemitism closes in on you, and it doesn’t feel safe.”

Scharf said he understands that the graffiti can be upsetting for some people. “That’s absolutely not the intention behind the campaign,” he said.

He doesn’t see the defacement as antisemitic and blames what he calls a false conflation of Judaism with Zionism.

“The language of this billboard is meant to call attention to a political idea, not to a group of people,” he said.

Both political and apolitical JewBelong billboards have been defaced in the Bay Area by vandals in recent months.

JewBelong co-founder Archie Gottesman had strong words in response to the defacement.

“The vandals who defaced the billboards have made it crystal clear that they are pro-terrorist and that should outrage and alarm Americans,” Gottesman said in an email to J. “The billboards merely stated that Hamas is a problem for all Americans, as Hamas wants to destroy the Western way of life and American values. JewBelong believes in the goal of peace for Palestinian and Israeli people and is deeply troubled that terrorists are standing in the way of that peace.”

According to the nonprofit, JewBelong billboard vandalism is a Bay Area issue. According to JewBelong, prior to this latest incident, of the over 220 billboards that JewBelong has put up across the country in the past year, only 10 billboard vandalism incidents have occurred and six of those have been in the Bay Area.

Samuel said she was concerned that the billboard defacement had been up for several days on a major highway.

“That’s a lot of people who’ve seen it,” she said.

A JewBelong representative told J. that the length of time a defaced billboard stays up depends on many factors, including the type and extent of the damage, if the police are involved, the availability of a replacement billboard and choices made by the property owner. The representative said the defaced billboards will be taken down in the coming days but could not specify when.

JewBelong isn’t the only organization using billboards to raise awareness about Hamas terrorism. The Israeli government has also entered the fray.

The S.F.-based Consulate General of Israel to the Pacific Northwest has kicked off a wide-reaching campaign of digital billboards along major highways in the Bay Area showing the names and faces of hostages held by Hamas. More than 240 people in Israel were taken hostage on Oct. 7. During the weeklong cease-fire in late November, Hamas released 105 people.

On Tuesday, Israel announced that the bodies of two more hostages have been recovered. On Friday Israeli forces mistakenly killed three hostages. An estimated 130 hostages remain in Gaza, though not all of them are believed to be alive.

Forty-five billboards will be up until Dec. 21 and then again from Jan. 8 to 28, the consulate said. They’ll be located from Petaluma to San Jose, from San Francisco to the East Bay.

“This campaign will keep the remaining hostages in the public eye, and continue to raise awareness until they are all brought home,” Consul General Marco Sermoneta said in an email to J. “Billboards provide as much exposure as possible, which is our priority. We have not forgotten the hostages, and we are working to ensure the world does not forget them either.”

Updated: The total number of new billboards across the Bay Area is 15, according to JewBelong.

Maya Mirsky
Maya Mirsky

Maya Mirsky is a J. Staff Writer based in Oakland.