Interfaith Coalition Poised to Counter Anti-Islamic Ads on SEPTA

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The organziation behind the ad has won similar court battles in other cities.

A large coalition of civic and faith organizations is poised to counter an ad campaign on SEPTA buses that declares that hatred of Jews is an inherent part of the Islamic faith.

The ads could be plastered on SEPTA buses after a federal judge ruled on Wednesday that SEPTA's efforts to block the ads are unconstitutional.

The advertisments state, "Islamic Jew Hatred: It's in the Quran" and show a picture of Hitler meeting with an Islamic leader in the 1940s. The judge ruled that the public transport agency preventing the American Freedom Defense Initiative from running the advertisements violates First Amendment rights.

"I conclude that SEPTA’s anti-disparagement standard violates the First Amendment," District Judge Mitchell S. Goldberg stated in the ruling. "I reach this conclusion because I am compelled to do so under established First Amendment precedent. That said, based on the evidence presented at the preliminary injunction hearing, it is clear that the anti-disparagement standard promulgated by SEPTA was a principled attempt to limit hurtful, disparaging advertisements. While certainly laudable, such aspirations do not, unfortunately, cure First Amendment violations."

The organization behind the advertisement, American Freedom Defense Initiative, tried to run the advertisements in Philadelphia last year but SEPTA blocked it with legal action. The American Freedom group has won court battles and run its ads in Washington D.C., New York and San Francisco. 

The ad includes a photo of Hitler meeting with Haj Amin al-Husseini, the Palestinian leader and Grand Mufti of Jerusalem, in 1941 in Berlin.

"We were responding to anti-Semitic, anti-Israel ads that ran in major cities across the country," Pamela Geller, the founder of the organization, said in an email to the Exponent. "Lies must be countered with the truth."

Geller spoke at a 2012 event sponsored by the Zionist Organization of America at the Jewish Community Services Building in Philadelphia. "The existence of Israel is an insult to practicing and devout Muslims. Whether you like that or not, that is the way it is," Geller said at the event. 

SEPTA is considering whether to appeal this week's ruling. It has 30 days to do so.

The Anti-Defamation League has been critical of the organization behind the ads, but has stated that government censorship is not the right response to hate speech.

"ADL believes that the ads are highly offensive and inflammatory but also believes that the speech" is allowed under the First Amendment, said Nancy Baron-Baer, regional ADL director. "We believe the best way to combat hate speech is with good speech and we hope that the citizens of Philadelphia will speak out."

A broad coalition of organizations that objects to the ads has been planning for months how to respond if they end up on the buses, according to Abby Stamelman Hocky, director of the Interfaith Center of Greater Philadelphia, which is coordinating the effort.  They are first waiting to see if SEPTA appeals.

"If these hurtful and bigoted messages get into the streets of Philadelphia, we want to be sure that we're on the ground working with school kids, churches and congregations and mosques and synagogues to respond with education and a presence," said Hocky. She said her organziation has heard from faith communities, law enforcement and human relations organizations.

"There has not been one group that has not been horrified by the proposal that this would come into our town; it doesn't feel like Philadelphia," she said.

The Interfaith Center's Religious Leaders Council issued a statement after the ruling, saying: "We affirm the constitutional protection of free speech.  That does not diminish our condemnation of irresponsible speech.  The language used in these proposed advertisements is distorted, prejudicial, and inflames hatred.

It is our hope as religious leaders that hate-filled messages will not be carried throughout the neighborhoods of Philadelphia on the sides of SEPTA buses, trolleys and subways," said the council, which represents 30 religious traditions. " We condemn inflammatory messages that serve to divide, stigmatize and incite prejudice.  We will continue to reject attempts to stereotype any tradition or community. 

"Working as spiritual leaders and working with the members of the diverse faith and ethnic communities within Philadelphia, our challenge and our hope is to strengthen the ties among all communities to improve the quality of life," said the council, whose leaders include Archbishop Charles J. Chaput, Rabbi David Straus, Imam Anwar Muhaimin and Bishop Claire Schenot Burkat.

Meanwhile, it appears that Geller and her organization has moved on to other targets, launched an advertising campaign on the side of New York city buses naming supporters of the New Israel Fund and linking the organization to the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement. 

New Israel Fund spokeswoman Naomi Paiss told Haaretz that the organization opposes BDS.

“Not only do things like this not damage NIF, we just had our two best fundraising years ever,” she said.

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