Contempt for SEPTA Bus Ads Brings Groups Together

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Mayor Michael Nutter called a news conference to counter anti-Muslim advertisements on SEPTA buses.

When Mayor Michael Nutter decided to call a news conference to counter anti-Muslim advertisements on SEPTA buses, an official of the public transport agency initially questioned whether it was a good idea to give more publicity to the group behind the ads.
 
But at the end of the gathering Tuesday at Love Park — in which  Nutter and Jewish, Muslim and Christian clergy spoke — SEPTA assistant general manager Francis Kelly said, “This actually could have a reverse effect” of “people coming together.”
 
The public officials and religious leaders organized the gathering after SEPTA decided not to appeal a federal court ruling that the American Freedom Defense Initiative could run advertisements on buses that state “Islamic Jew Hatred: It’s in the Quran” and show a picture of Hitler meeting with an Islamic leader in the 1940s.
 
The speakers emphasized the need to combat the incendiary advertisement in a peaceful manner and encouraged members of the various faith communities to reach out to one another. 
 
“We will not allow any misguided and opportunistic political tactics to undermine or obscure the shared respect among communities of faith, nor will we permit it to distract or disrupt our city as we prepare for a week in which we observe great religious traditions of Easter, Passover and other traditions that anyone else may enjoy,” said Nutter. 
 
A coalition of organizations brought together by the Interfaith Center of Philadelphia has also launched a Dare to Understand public messaging campaign, countering the advertisements on social media and with a billboard in the city. 
 
The American Freedom Defense Initiative purchased the advertisements — which were expected to go up this week — for $30,000 and they will run on the sides of 84 buses for one month, according to SEPTA. The group has won similar court battles and run its ads in Washington D.C., New York and San Francisco.
 
After the group initially tried to purchase the advertisements, SEPTA changed its policy to not allow political advertisements or those deemed political in nature, but the federal judge ruled last month that the agency still had to run the ads.
 
SEPTA spokeswoman Jerri Williams described the new standards, which are aimed at preventing such messages in the future, saying they would allow, for example, advertisements for your local drug store, but not ones from your local drug store saying that vaccines cause autism.
 
Tuesday’s gathering drew more than 100 people, including Jews from across the religious spectrum. Among those present were leaders of the Orthodox Congregation Mikveh Israel; Reform synagogues, Main Line Reform Temple and Congregation Rodeph Shalom; and Conservative synagogues Congregation Beth Am Israel and Temple Beth Zion-Beth Israel.
 
Representing the Muslim community — which also had a strong presence at the gathering — Imam Mikal Shabazz of the Masjidullah Center for Human Excellence in Germantown spoke out against the idea that Muslims hate Jews. He pointed to their connection as Abrahamic religions and to the Golden Age for Spanish Jewry, which occurred under Islamic rule in the Middle Ages.
 
“History bears witness to that fact, so for anyone to say that we hate Jews or anyone else of faith, doesn’t know what they are talking about,” said Shabazz. 
 
He also instructed Islamic people in Philadelphia not to let the message “cause you to act in a manner which is unbecoming of a Muslim. It’s the antithesis of Islam to go berserk and cause destruction, violence and vandalism against SEPTA.”
 
Pamela Geller, the founder of the organization behind the advertisement, stated in an email to the Jewish Exponent when the court ruling came down last month that the group was responding “to anti-Semitic, anti-Israel ads that ran in major cities across the country. Lies must be countered with truth.”
 
She also said that donations to the organization “are coming in record numbers” after winning the SEPTA case.
 
Morton Klein, president of the hawkish Zionist Organization of America, declined to say whether he supported the advertisements but said that “Pamela Geller’s advertisements are not as shocking” when people see the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria “following the Quran by beheading infidels.”
 
Still, Jewish leaders from many segments of the community have joined together to respond to the advertisement by speaking of solidarity with Muslims.
 
Both the Consulate General of Israel to the Mid-Atlantic Region and Rabbi David Straus of Main Line Reform Temple connected the need to counter such ads with Passover.
 
 “It’s the eve of Passover and we were liberated from Egypt, from the bondage of slavery, facing hatred against us; and throughout history we faced hatred, and we shouldn’t support any hatred towards any religious group, whether it’s Jewish, Christian or Muslim, and we should stand together as a community against that,” said Elad Strohmayer, Israel’s deputy consul general in Philadelphia, who attended the gathering on Tuesday.
 
“It’s a holiday when we remember what it means to feel like and to be the other,” said Straus. He cited Rabban Gamaliel’s words recited during the seder that “in every generation, each person must see him or herself as if he or she personally went forth from Egypt. That’s why its important for all people of faith and people of no faith to stand up and fight injustice, stereotyping and hatred against any people.”

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