An Interview with Armen Chakerian and Susan Schuurman
Susan Schuurman and Armen Chakerian are two of the founders of the New Mexico-based Coalition to Stop $30 Billion to Israel, a group of activists who seek to raise public consciousness on Palestine by means of roadside billboard campaigns. The coalition was formed in fall of 2008, but it wasn’t until April of 2009, three months after Operation Cast Lead, that the group went public with its first advertisement—featuring a picture of a Palestinian girl with the words “Stop killing children. No more military aid to Israel.”
The ads appeared on 10 billboards throughout the city of Albuquerque. The message was designed to be “deliberately provocative” in hopes of generating some local media coverage. It worked. Maybe a little too well. On April 28, just three weeks into what had initially been a two-month contract period, Lamar Outdoor Advertising effectively censored the ad by taking every one of the signs down. “The advertising was removed due to numerous complaints questioning the facts,” said the company’s local manager.
Emails in support of the ads poured in, however, and Lamar, at least initially, announced it would allow the signs back up but with a somewhat watered-down message (same photo with the words “Stop giving weapons to Israel with our tax dollars!”). This offer, however, lasted a mere two weeks and came to an abrupt end when the corporate office in Baton Rouge, Louisiana ordered the Albuquerque office to cancel its contract with the Coalition. Lamar cited an intense telephone campaign directed at its home office in Louisiana by Israel supporters. Somewhat lamely, the Albuquerque office offered to erect a replacement sign consisting of the words “Tell Congress: Stop Giving Money to Israel”—without a photo—but this was rejected by the Coalition as “too severely compromised.” The Coalition had just fought its first battle with America’s Israeli Lobby, and seemingly the Lobby had come out on top.
Yet at the same time, what had taken place in Albuquerque helped to inspire similar efforts around the country, with ads on billboards as well as public buses and trains. In Seattle a group readied a bus ad campaign featuring the words “Israeli War Crimes. Your Tax Dollars at Work” alongside a picture of a Palestinian family standing next to their demolished house. Though timed to coincide with the second anniversary of Operation Cast Lead, the campaign was nixed by Seattle/King County officials. However, a separate transit ad campaign was successfully launched, in Chicago—with ads featuring the words “Be on our side” along with pictures of Israelis and Palestinians. Calling for an end to US military aid to Israel, the ads first appeared in late 2010 and have since spread to New York, San Francisco, Boston, Washington D.C., and other cities, with the message being expanded from small signs on buses and trains to large roadside billboards.
The year 2012 has seen the Coalition launching a new billboard campaign, not in Albuquerque this time, but in Denver. The ad features the American flag as a backdrop and the words, “Tell Congress: Spend our money at home, not on the Israeli military.”
The response to all this by Zionists has been varied. “The Jewish community of Seattle should respond with the full force and let the Hebrew hammer drop on these haters like never before,” wrote one Israel supporter in reaction to the King County bus ads. “This group has unwittingly provided an opportunity for the world to be taught the lesson that if you slander the people of the book, you may just get the book thrown at you.” The same writer also proposed a four-step plan of attack that included suing the bus company along with a campaign of civil disobedience by “courageous young Jews” who would locate the garages where the buses were kept and lay down in front of them so as to keep them from “circulating their hateful message.”
But sentiments like this seem to have opened Israel supporters to charges of attempting to stifle free speech, an accusation no doubt lent credence by the fact that the ACLU launched a civil suit against the Seattle bus system over cancellation of the ads—and now some Israel advocates seem to be taking a different tack, involving perhaps a tad bit less swinging of the hammer. In response to the new campaign in Denver, that city’s chapter of the pro-Israel group Stand With Us has countered by launching a billboard campaign of its own—and one member of Stand With Us, Dr. Shaul Gabbay, likens what have been referred to as the “dueling billboards” in his city to a spirited dinner conversation.
“Both perspectives are legitimate in terms of trying to influence the discourse here in the United States,” said Gabbay. “When you have just one voice, we make mistakes. When we have different and sometimes heated positions, then we can make better decisions.”
In fact, there seems to be an emerging consensus—at least if we go by a Denver Jewish newspaper’s recent coverage of issue. This new consensus presupposes that signs referring to war crimes or the killing of children constitute “incitement” (never mind that some 1400 Palestinians died in Operation Cast Lead, approximately 300 of whom were children), but that ads appealing strictly to the economic argument (US tax dollars are better spent at home, etc.) are permissible. Which in essence means that a call for ending aid to Israel will be regarded as tolerable as long as the ad is ambiguous on why the aid should be terminated.
The Coalition to Stop $30 Billion to Israel took its name from the ten year/$30 billion aid package to Israel agreed to by the Bush administration in 2007. Susan Schuurman and Armen Chakerian were interviewed by Richard Edmondson. The two Albuquerque activists responded to questions submitted by email.
Q: The story in the Intermountain Jewish News says there are two organizations with the words “stop$30 billion” in their names, one based in Denver, the other in Albuquerque, but asserts there is no affiliation between the two groups-even though one supposedly funded the billboard campaign in the other’s city. Can you clear up the confusion on this? Is there one organization, or two, or many? Basically give us a rundown on “who’s who” in the stop-aid-to-Israel billboard movement, and where are billboard ads running currently-in what cities?
A: We were the first organization to coin that name. The Coalition to Stop $30 Billion to Israel, with a website called www.stop30billion.org. We are based in Albuquerque and are a grassroots group of volunteers. There have been two offshoots completely independent of our work, inspired by our work certainly, who borrowed elements of our name for their organization without frankly consulting us. The first one was based in Seattle, the Seattle Mideast Awareness Campaign (SeaMAC) which used part of our name in their web domain (www.stop30billion-Seattle.org). Sometimes we get inquiries to our site that we can tell are in response to the Seattle group’s work. Recently we learned that a group in Colorado also borrowed words from our name, the Colorado Campaign to Stop $30 Billion to Israel, and has put up transit ads in Boulder and Denver. Their work was completely independent of ours and coincidental. To be honest, there are so many campaigns around the country calling for an end to military aid to Israel that is it challenging to keep up with them all. Our initiative to expand our campaign out of state was because a former member of our group moved up to the Denver area and found a billboard company willing to put up our message.
The only other multi-location billboard campaign is the Be On Our Side campaign, launched originally from Chicago but now maintained by the U.S. Campaign to End the Israeli Occupation (http://www.twopeoplesonefuture.org/). They started in Chicago and spread to the Bay Area; Washington, D.C.; New York City; Portland, Ore.; Boston; Tempe, Ariz.; and Albuquerque.
Q: How long have you been doing this, how did you get started, and can you talk about some of the difficulties you’ve had getting your ads placed?
A: We started our billboard campaign in April 2009. The Coalition was an offshoot of the Middle East Peace and Justice Alliance. Many of us were frustrated with devoting much of our energy to hosting events and potlucks for visiting speakers. We felt that American aid to Israel made us as taxpayers complicit in war crimes and violations of international law. In the Fall of 2008, three of us (Armen Chakerian, Lori Rudolph and Susan Schuurman) decided to form a separate coalition of groups dedicated to working solely on this aspect of Middle East peace and justice work. We got a great response, especially after Operation Cast Lead; more than a dozen social justice groups joined the coalition.
We put up ten billboards that said “Stop Killing Children” (see www.stop30billion.org homepage). Three weeks into the two-month contract the billboards were taken down by the billboard company because they got a lot of phone calls complaining about the content. Then we toned down the message to “Spend Our Money at Home, Not on the Israeli Military” and were able to put up a full-sized billboard at two different locations for several months each. We did not have any problems putting up the “Be On Our Side” messaged billboards. However, when we attempted to put up the flag design out of state we did encounter some resistance, claiming it was too controversial. We were successful in putting the flag design up on I-40 in New Mexico for six months last year without any problems, and we were also successful recently putting up 20 billboards with the same design in Denver. We hope to have this design up in another out-of-state city in a month or two.
Q: I understand the billboard featuring the picture of the Palestinian child with the words “Stop killing children-No more military aid to Israel” got censored. And of course the bus ads in Seattle that highlighted Israeli war crimes also were prevented from running. Why do you think these ads prompted such angry, emotional responses from pro-Israel groups, and what does it say about the state of free speech in America when public officials, such as those in Seattle, cave into their pressure?
A: “Pro-Israel” groups like Stand With Us and Christians United for Israel (CUFI) respond to our message of human rights for all people with a knee-jerk, emotional reaction that is based in fear. They often mistakenly interpret our call for equality as a call for Israel’s destruction. Nothing could be further from the truth. Many politicians and media outlets are in turn afraid of the power wielded by the “pro-Israel” lobby. We put “pro-Israel” in quotation marks because we believe the lobby does not act in the best interests of the Israeli people. Our objective in these advertising campaigns is to change public opinion so that an open discussion can be held about whether carte blanche American support for Israel is in our country’s national interest.
Q: Tell us about your new ad campaign and how it differs from previous ones.
A: Our new ad campaign features an American flag. We wanted to emphasize that our message is indeed a patriotic one in that domestic needs are being short-changed by sending billions of dollars per year to support the Israeli war machine. This message seems to be resonating even more during this current economic down-turn. We also feel that more and more Americans want politicians to focus greater attention on infrastructure, education, and healthcare needs at home.
Q: There seems to be a feeling among Israel supporters that ads that refer to Israeli war crimes, or to the deaths of children in Gaza, constitute “incitement” or “hate speech”, while those focusing solely on the economic argument (America should spend its tax dollars at home, etc.) fall within acceptable boundaries. In the Intermountain Jewish News, an ADL official, speaking of the Seattle bus ads, is quoted as saying, “The ads that were on those buses were truly inciteful speech with regard to making allegations of Israel committing war crimes and other atrocities.” However, he says the new ads-presumably he means the ones in Denver-don’t appear to “cross the same lines.” Would you care to comment on that?
A: Israel has committed war crimes in Gaza, as documented in the UN Goldstone Report. After our billboards were taken down prematurely, however, we purposefully tried to find less provocative phrasing that would have a better chance of not being suppressed by opposition pressure.
Q: Your ads seem to have caused considerable consternation within the ranks of pro-Israel groups, but of course the real question is how much of an impact are they having with the public? Do you have any sense of public opinion about the ads and to what degree they may be influencing the way people think about the Middle East?
A: Combined with other communities’ campaigns, we feel that our messaging has created a safer space within which to criticize Israeli policy without being called “anti-Semitic.” In addition to being seen directly by tens of thousands of passers-by, the billboards led to media coverage both in Denver’s local Jewish community newspaper and on Denver channel 7.
Q: If people want to make donations to your coming ad campaign, how do they do so? Also anything else you’d care to add?
A: People can mail a check to Coalition to Stop $30 Billion to Israel, P.O. Box 10856, Albuquerque, NM 87184-0856, or they can donate using PayPal on our website www.stop30billion.org. We urge everyone who cares about human rights for Israelis as well as Palestinians to join us in our work. America’s unconditional support for Israel in spite of its grave human rights record isolates us in the world and mocks our calls for freedom and democracy. Donations are tax-deductible and encouraged. Join our growing movement to end American military aid to Israel now.