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MBTA restores ads critical of Israel

The Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority said Friday it would restore advertisements criticizing Israel that had been removed after a rash of complaints from the public.

The ads, which appeared throughout the transit system, depict four maps that purport to show “the Palestinian loss of land” to Israel between 1946 and 2010. Text alongside the maps says: “4.7 million Palestinians are Classified by the UN as Refugees.”

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The MBTA said Friday morning that all 80 posters had been taken down Wednesday and Thursday, just a few days after being posted. The transit agency said its advertising contractor, Titan, made the decision.

“The MBTA informed Titan of the complaints and Titan decided to remove the ad,” said Joe Pesaturo, spokesman for the agency.

But Friday afternoon, Pesaturo said the ads were going back up. He gave little explanation for the change, saying only that a miscommunication between the T and Titan prompted the ads’ removal.

“There was a breakdown in our established procedures for handling complaints about specific ads,” Pesaturo wrote in an e-mail.

The $40,000 ad campaign was paid for by a small group called the Committee for Peace in Israel and Palestine, whose chairman, Henry Clifford, lives in Connecticut. The group has sponsored similar transit system campaigns in New York and Washington, D.C., where the ads generated controversy but were not removed.

Clifford could not be reached for comment Friday.

But Philip Weiss, who Friday morning first reported the ad campaign’s cancellation on his blog, Mondoweiss, quoted Clifford as saying: “You’d think Boston is an intellectual center of the country, with all those universities, and that they’d be broad-minded and open-minded enough to see this.”

Robert Trestan, New England regional director of the Anti-Defamation League, said his group had informed the MBTA about the numerous complaints it had received about the ads. He said the ADL did not ask the T to remove the ads, but the agency told the ADL that the ads were coming down.

Trestan was sharply critical of the ads’ content.

“The billboards are intentionally designed to mislead the public, and they are part of an ongoing anti-Israel campaign that distorts the issues by oversimplifying the facts around the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.”

The maps, he said, appear to assert that all of Israel was owned by Palestine before 1948, even though much of it was “owned by non-Palestinian absentee landlords who lived in Cairo, Baghdad, Damascus and Beirut.” The refugee issue, he added, “is complicated and very controversial. To oversimplify it . . . I don’t think is very accurate.”

Jewish Voice for Peace Boston, which supports boycott and divestment campaigns that “directly target Israel’s occupation of the West Bank and East Jerusalem and its blockade of the Gaza Strip,” said it was glad the ads were going back up.

“These maps educated Boston T riders on the effects of Israeli policies, like the expansion of illegal settlements, on Palestinian society,” the group said in a statement. “As Palestinians lose land, they also lose their homes, villages, freedom of movement, and access to basic resources like farmland and water. We must acknowledge the reality in these maps in order to create justice, equality, and security for Palestinians and Israelis.”

Sarah Wunsch, a staff attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts who has worked on previous cases in which the ACLU has successfully sued the MBTA for blocking ads, said removing the ads amounted to “pure censorship of political speech.” She praised the transit system for changing course.

“I’m very glad they’ve seen the light,” she said. “We were very concerned that this violated the First Amendment.”

Federal courts, she said, have held that the MBTA is allowed to ban certain kinds of content, such as advertisements for alcohol or weapons, or messages that savagely attack individuals or groups. But the T cannot discriminate based on the viewpoint of the advertiser.

“Speech on controversial issues is generally protected,” she said. “Simply because somebody doesn’t like the idea that is expressed is not going to be grounds” for the T to ban it.

In July 2012, the Committee for Peace in Israel and Palestine’s ads debuted in New York’s Metro-North train stations, and in May and June of this year, they were posted in Washington, D.C., subway stations. In both cases, transit authority administrators decided to keep them up despite complaints.

In another case about a year ago, New York’s Metropolitan Transportation Authority denied a request from the pro-Israel group American Freedom Defense Initiative to post an ad that said, “In any war between the civilized man and the savage, support the civilized man. Support Israel; defeat Jihad.”

A court ruled that the New York City transit agency could not prevent the ad from appearing. So last September, the MTA changed its advertising policy. If an advertisement expresses a viewpoint that is predominantly political, moral, or religious, it must also state: “The display of this advertisement does not imply MTA’s endorsement of any views expressed.”

In a statement last September, the transit agency said it recognized that some advertisements would be distasteful to customers.

“When, as there inevitably will be, a very few sponsors of ads stray from civility,” the MTA said, “we have every confidence that our customers will understand that in our enlightened civil democracy, the answer to distasteful and uncivil speech is more, and more civilized, speech.”

Lisa Wansgness at lisa.wangsness@globe.com. Martine Powers can be reached at martine.powers@globe.com.
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