Jewish groups decry message of intolerance on S.F. buses

A series of anti-Islamic advertisements that went up on the outside of 10 Muni buses on March 11 had San Francisco community leaders speaking out against racism and Islamophobia, with several Jewish organizations joining the outcry.

The advertisements feature pictures of Osama bin Laden, the Times Square car bomber and others alongside inflammatory language about Islam. In one of the five ads, the phrase “That’s my jihad. What’s yours?” accompanies images of bin Laden and the twin towers burning.

Another ad features a quote, attributed to “Hamas MTV,” that reads “Killing Jews is Worship that draws us close to Allah.”

One of the controversial ads on a bus in Chicago photo/pamela geller

The ads were paid for by the American Freedom Defense Initiative, which bills itself as a human rights organization. However, the Southern Poverty Law Center lists the AFDI, co-founded by New York–based activist-blogger Pamela Geller, as a hate group.

At a press conference March 11 on the steps of City Hall, city leaders including District Attorney George Gascon and several members of the Board of Supervisors condemned the ads.

“These offensive ads serve no purpose [other] than to denigrate our city’s Arab and Muslim communities,” Gascon was quoted as saying. “We’re standing here together; there is no place in San Francisco for bigotry and racism.”

Abby Porth, associate executive director of the S.F.-based Jewish Community Relations Council, echoed that statement in an interview.

“While we support free speech, this type of hate speech has the impact of creating division and raising tensions in our community,” Porth said. “As an organization representing over 70 Jewish institutions, we want to make it very clear that the Bay Area organized Jewish community does not support these ads at all … and we find the repeated appearance of both anti-Israeli and Islamophobic ads to be offensive and unnecessarily divisive.”

This is the second time AFDI has placed inflammatory ads on Muni buses. Last August the organization paid for bus posters referring to opponents of Israel as “savages.” Porth said the JCRC has been “in conversation” with San Francisco’s Municipal Transit Agency since that time about how best to handle such ads. The AFDI has placed similar ads — and caused similar uproar — in New York, Chicago and Seattle over the past year.

Muni officials have stated that a First Amendment court ruling prevents them from refusing to run the ads: In 2011, the AFDI sued the New York City transit system over attempts to block the ads from running, and won. The SFMTA has instead promised to donate the $5,000 in ad revenue to a Human Rights Commission study on the impact of discrimination on the Arab and Islamic community in San Francisco.

“Even though we disagree with the content of the ads, we don’t think it’s right to use taxpayer money to litigate over AFDI’s First Amendment rights,” SFMTA spokesperson Paul Rose told the San Francisco Chronicle.

Seth Brysk, the S.F.-based regional director of the Anti-Defamation League’s Central Pacific office, attended the March 11 press conference in part to “reject the [ads’] message of intolerance,” he said.

“We would like to see the community stand up and say ‘We reject this message as inflammatory,’” he added. “While we would certainly not support censorship … as an organization in the Jewish community, that’s standing up to promote justice and fair treatment for all, we would like to see the community exercise our free speech rights as well, to say ‘This is highly offensive.’ ”

Geller issued a press release the afternoon of March 11, denouncing San Francisco leaders’ condemnation of the ads. 

“Americans need to understand the threat they’re facing,” wrote Geller, the group’s executive director, in the release. “That is the point of our ads.”

At the press conference, San Francisco Board of Supervisors President David Chiu referred to AFDI as being made up of “well-known hate extremists.” He added that he planned to introduce a resolution at the next board meeting to officially denounce the ads.

Emma Silvers

Emma Silvers is a former J. staff writer.