CHAPEL HILL — More than 100 people packed Wednesday night’s Town Council meeting to debate advertisements on town buses calling for an end of U.S. military aid to Israel.
The ad shows a pair of Palestinian and Israeli grandfathers holding their grandchildren and reads: “Join with us. Build peace with justice and equality. End U.S. military aid to Israel.”
The Church of Reconciliation, a Presbyterian USA church in Chapel Hill, paid for 98 ads, which were taken down 10 days after being posted because they did not include the church’s contact information. The ads were revised and returned to the buses a few days later.
Speakers on Wednesday were divided between those who oppose the ads and those who said they support the church’s First Amendment right to free expression. The Town Council plans to hold a future public hearing.
The ads were posted to spark conversation about U.S. policies, not to advocate for the destruction of Israel, said the Rev. Mark Davidson, pastor of the church and one of roughly a dozen people who spoke.
The ads have led to “thoughtful and productive conversations” with the Jewish community and support from many people who want to see an open, honest dialogue, he said.
While the ads are part of a nationwide campaign, Chapel Hill is the only place where they have been challenged, he said.
“To my mind that amounts to sterilizing Chapel Hill’s public spaces, and if accepted would turn our community into a sanitized enclave that only allows officially approved opinions,” Davidson said.
But residents Adam Goldstein and Michael Ross said the ads are offensive to Jews and a barrier to dialogue.
Goldstein said he and other bus riders are being held captive to a political message. He asked the council to consider removing all political ads, because they could chase away riders and inspire others to react in a dangerous way.
“We’re open to sincere efforts to bring people together rather than push them apart, discussion rather than political rhetoric,” Goldstein said.
Ross, with the Triangle group, Voice 4 Israel, said the U.S. Campaign to End the Israeli Occupation organized the ad campaign and has a goal of ending Israel as the Jewish homeland.
“If the instigators of these ads cared more about the welfare of the Palestinian people and less about delegitimizing the Jewish homeland, we could find common ground,” Ross said.
The town’s policy requires ads of a political or religious nature to include contact information. It also refuses false, misleading, deceptive or disrespectful ads; ads that imply the town endorses the message; and obscene ads.
Resident Fred Shectman said the policy puts the council in the position of deciding what religious and political ads are appropriate and dealing with potential lawsuits. But civil rights attorney Mark Dorosin said the town runs the risk of violating First Amendment free speech rights if it only accepts commercial ads.
“Even in a limited public forum, content-based restrictions on speech are subject to the highest level of judicial review. … any restrictions must be narrowly tailored to serve a compelling government interest,” Dorosin said.