In an exclusive interview with PNN English, co-founder of Ads Against Apartheid, Richard Colbath-Hess describes the goals and importance of his work, as it calls US public attention to the true suffering and discrimination of the Palestinian people. It is through paid advertising (in subways, billboards, newpapers and tv) that Ads Against Apartheid brings Israel’s human rights abuses against Palestine and its people to the attention of the American public, the Palestinian News Network (PNN) reports…

Following the success of the ‘One Word’ campaign in the Boston subway, using the impact of a simple message and powerful statistics, Ads Against Apartheid is currently raising funds through Indiegogo to take their message nationwide.

Richard Colbath-Hess is co-founder and treasurer of Ads Against Apartheid, and also faculty adjunct at the University of Massachusetts, in Boston.

His father was made a refugee, having fled Austria following the Nazi uprising of 1938. He founded the first state-wide living wage campaign for human services in the USA and was awarded the Peace and Justice award by the City of Cambridge.

PNN: Could you tell us a little about the origins of Ads Against Apartheid (AAA)?

RCH: I started Ads Against Apartheid with Chadi Salamoun. We started talking about how the narrative that talks about Palestinian human rights did not get a lot of play in the United States and how it was mostly the Israeli narrative and the Israelis saying we have security concerns. As we know, a lot of Israeli behavior – stealing of land, killing of children, arresting of children, bulldozing of houses – has nothing to do with security. That doesn’t get a lot of play in the United States and so we were trying to figure out a way for Americans to understand what’s really going on on the ground. What we do is we basically go through UN reports and other credible human rights organizations and so we find facts on the ground and put them out to the public so they know the facts. Americans get a distorted view of what’s going on because they primarily get the Israeli Government narrative but we want them to have another narrative and it’s very hard to get that information out, so public advertising is one way to do that.

PNN: What are AAA’s goals?

RCH: We want the American public and others – I mean the One Word campaign we put out went worldwide – but we want people to understand and be aware of what’s really happening to Palestinians. We want them to really understand how much suffering Palestinians go through, how much violence is put towards them on a daily basis, so our goals are to create awareness among the American population about facts on the ground and human rights abuses by the Israeli government.

PNN: Is the aim for that awareness to change US policy?

RCH: We hope so. We feel like the policy makers and politicians will be the last to change, because there’s such a strong lobby in this country. AIPAC for example has a $70 million budget to influence policy and they’re just part of the lobby. And we have to change awareness among the grass roots, the people, in order for policy members to get the true picture of what’s going on and to push them. We do want to change policy, but we feel like they’re the last to actually change.

PNN: Talking of awareness, how would you describe the average American knowledge of Palestine?

RCH: I would say that a lots of Americans really don’t understand the conflict at all. They just hear bits and pieces and that leaves them ripe for a distorted view. What’s going on in the mainstream media is that they give the wrong bits and pieces, they give the bits and pieces of Israelis being victimized by terrorists, and it’s true that Israel may have some security concerns but Israel’s behavior is not in line with security concerns, their behavior is about the stealing of land, and controlling the land and occupation and I don’t think many Americans actually know at that level what’s going on.

PNN: Referring to the Boston ‘One Word’ campaign, their impact was their simple message. Is there a risk of being too reductive?

RCH: The purpose of the ads is to give a view that’s very easily understood and that’s what advertising is about. It’s giving a view that’s easily understood through images but I wouldn’t call them simplistic. I think that when we talk about 25,000 Palestinian homes destroyed by the Israeli government, that’s not a simplistic fact, that’s a very deep fact. And we link to more information on our website. So people get to know the basic facts, I don’t think they’re simple facts and they start to get deeper into the information. 1,400 children being killed since 2000, and 240 I think more added since the Gaza bombing, that’s not a simple fact. What Israel is perpetrating on the Palestinian people is horrific amounts of violence.

PNN: As you mentioned, the Boston campaign had worldwide media coverage. What feedback did you receive?

RCH: We had very positive feedback, we had messages from all over the world – Paris, London, Seattle, LA, New York, Washington D.C. – asking us to bring the ads to their cities. People are really, really hungry for the information. They want the general public to know more about what’s going on and they’ve encouraged us to spread the word to other cities and that’s what the Indiegogo campaign’s about. We’re trying to raise enough money to make the ads go national in at least 5 cities in the US.

PNN: In Boston, what major obstacles did you encounter?

RCH: One of the obstacles was the MBTA and not wanting to put them up. The major obstacles were getting the ads up, it took a long time to go through the Subway Transit Authority Committee but they were approved. The committee said they met their criteria and then as happens to so many campaigns in the US, there was an organized campaign against us where people called in and complained and suddenly they changed their policy because they got so many complaints. And that is kind of what the environment is like in the United States, it’s very hostile to different views about Palestine. And if you have different views your organization or you’re individually attacked. The SJP (Students for Justice in Palestine) at Northeastern University was suspended for handing out flyers. I think at the University of Illinois there’s a professor that has spoken out about Palestinian human rights and was fired. It’s a very difficult environment to get your message spread in the US. But we’re very connected to lawyers, we work with the ACLU which advocates free speech in the US and in a very sophisticated way are pushing back at those forces

PNN: AAA is fundraising through its Indiegogo crowdfunding campaign. Is the target set at $100,000 calculated on specific aims?

RCH: We hope to get more. We hope to get some other money from some other people after the Indiegogo campaign. But $100,000 is a beginning but we hope to bring the ads to New York, Washington, LA at least and some other cities. $100,000 isn’t enough to do a whole national campaign, it’s enough to start. We have some commitments from other fundraisers to do some other cities. The $100,000 is just a piece of the puzzle. Other funding is from likeminded organizations and individuals.

PNN: Looking towards the future, what can expect to see from AAA?

RCH: Today in a local paper, the Metro, we have an ad going out that talks about the stealing of 988 acres, the biggest theft of land in 30 years, so that ad is going out today. We’re planning a Gaza ad to go up in the Boston Subway. We have a picture of the devastation in Gaza and statistics about how many homes were destroyed. One quarter of the Gaza population remains homeless. So as we speak we have two more ads coming out. We’re working with an organization to put out an ad in LA with a quote by Nelson Mandela so we actually have three other campaigns at the moment as well as the national ‘One Word’ campaign. There’s a lot going on, we’re trying to push out a lot of material.

PNN: More than one campaign uses imagery of Nelson Mandela and South African apartheid. Why do you feel that’s especially effective?

RCH: Apartheid is a very powerful word, and it has entered into the discourse since South Africa. Thousands of credible people and organizations say that what’s going on in Israel-Palestine is apartheid. The parallel with South Africa is good but we feel it’s apartheid under the Rome Statute’s definition; treating two people differently and one negatively in the same land according to ethnic groups. And it’s also similar to the Jim Crow south. You have two sets of laws, one for one group of people and one for another group of people and one has less rights than the other group.

Find out more about Ads Against Apartheid here.

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