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Pro-Palestine group unveils Metro-North ads to run during Passover

A southbound train pulls into the New Rochelle

A southbound train pulls into the New Rochelle Metro-North station. (March 27, 2012) Photo Credit: Angela Gaul

A pro-Palestine group used the Passover holiday and a presidential visit to the Middle East to unveil a series of ads at Metro-North stations urging the United States to cut off funding for Israel.

The ads, paid for by the American Muslims for Palestine, use a quote attributed to Nobel Peace Prize winner Desmond Tutu, the retired Anglican archbishop of South Africa, lamenting his recent visit to the Holy Land.

"It reminded me so much of what happened to us black people in South Africa," the ad quotes Tutu as having said.

It also claims Americans send $3 billion to Israel annually. "End Apartheid Now," it reads in bold letters. "Stop U.S. Aid to Israel."

"Allowing this foreign aid to go to Israel, the U.S. is essentially supporting the Israeli policy of expansion, of continued building of settlements, of human rights violations," the group's chairman, Hatem Bazian, said during a news conference outside Metro-North's Harlem station Tuesday.

The ads were posted last week and will run in 25 Metro-North stations during the next month and were timed to coincide with President Barack Obama's visit to the Middle East, Bazian said.

The group said it paid "in the thousands" for the ads but declined to be more specific.

The American Muslim group bills itself as a grassroots organization dedicated to educating the public about Palestine, the name Palestinians give to disputed territory controlled by Israel, and its history.

The billboards drew an angry response from a pro-Israel group, which likened the latest ads to propaganda campaigns of the Third Reich.

"I can assure you that this latest [Joseph] Goebbels-style demonization of the Jews will not go unanswered," said Pamela Geller of the American Freedom Defense Initiative. "We are working right now to get ads responding to these ready for submission."

The latest ads are part of a long-running exchange waged by pro-Israel and pro-Palestine groups, with Metro-North stations throughout the Hudson Valley serving as the backdrop.

They have placed Metro-North's parent agency, the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, squarely in the middle as it tries to strike a balance between curbing speech that might be offensive to its riders and ensuring advertisers' right to free speech.

Last summer, the MTA was rebuffed by a federal judge after it rejected an ad from a pro-Israel group that it believed discriminated against Muslims. The judge sided with Geller's organization, saying the MTA policy of rejecting ads it considered "demeaning to individuals or a group of individuals" was an infringement of the group's right to express its opinion.

The MTA was forced to reconsider its ad policies.

"The views expressed in these and other paid ads displayed on MTA property are those of the ad sponsor, not the MTA," said Aaron Donovan, an MTA spokesman. "MTA advertising spaces serve broadly as a vehicle for a wide variety of communications, including, at times, controversial ads that express viewpoints on matters of public concern.

"The First Amendment restricts the MTA's control over the content and timing of the messages expressed in paid advertisements," he added. "The MTA cannot pick and choose which viewpoint advertisements it will run based upon the viewpoint expressed."

Several of the pro-Israel groups that have expressed their views on Metro-North billboards in the past could not immediately be reached for comment because they were observing the Passover holiday.

Last year, the Anti-Defamation League denounced as "deliberately misleading and biased" ads placed by the American Committee for Peace in Israel and Palestine that included maps purporting to show how much land Palestinians had lost during conflicts dating back to 1948.

Last year, Geller's organization purchased pro-Israel ads with the tagline, "It's not Islamophobia. It's Islamorealism."

Geller said the ads were bought to counter the ad campaign waged by the Committee for Peace in Israel and Palestine.

"It's not surprising that Islamic supremacists would appropriate the propaganda methods of the Third Reich, as they partnered with [Adolf] Hitler and shared the same goal," she said.

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