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SEPTA ad campaign a spectacular failure

To begin with, the text was factually inaccurate. More important was the hostile response it provoked.

Did a controversial, austere, black-and-white advertisement that ran for one month on Philadelphia buses achieve its goal of winning sympathy for Jewish victims of Muslims?

The ad was sponsored by the American Freedom Defense Initiative and placed on buses operated by SEPTA, the regional-and state-run authority. The ad read: "Islamic Jew-Hatred: It's in the Quran. Two thirds of all U.S. aid goes to Islamic countries. Stop the hate. End all aid to Islamic countries." A November 1941 photograph ran with the caption, "Adolf Hitler and his staunch ally, the leader of the Muslim world, Haj Amin al-Husseini." SEPTA received $30,000 to run the 30-by-80-inch ad on 84 buses out of SEPTA's 1,400 buses during April.

No, the ad failed to achieve its goal, and spectacularly so. Count the ways:

To begin with, the text is factually inaccurate. Husseini was never "leader of the Muslim world." He was a British appointee in the Mandate for Palestine, where Muslims constituted less than 1 percent of the total world Muslim population.

Second, Husseini's meeting with Hitler did not represent a permanent or universal alliance between Muslims and Nazis; it was a one-time, opportunistic consultation between a fugitive Palestinian figure and his patron.

Third, the ad's demand makes no sense: How does ending $10 billion in U.S. military assistance to Afghanistan "stop the hate" against Jews? How does continuing it encourage "Islamic Jew-hatred"?

But more important to the ad's failure was the hostile response it provoked. Rather than win support for Jews as victims of Muslims, it instead rallied the Philadelphia establishment to support Muslims as victims of Jews. A Jewish Exponent headline summed up the reaction: "Contempt for SEPTA Bus Ads Brings Groups Together." Mayor Nutter convened an outdoor meeting under the city's famous LOVE sculpture that brought together activists, clergy, journalists, and intellectuals, where he denounced the "misguided and opportunistic political tactics" behind the bus ad.

The Interfaith Center of Greater Philadelphia denounced the ad as "hurtful and bigoted." It reported that every group contacted was "horrified" by the ad, and posted a prominent billboard to counter it. An interfaith group of leaders, which included the city's Archbishop Charles Chaput, condemned "inflammatory messages that serve to divide, stigmatize, and incite prejudice." The ad also offered a platform for Muslim leaders to make statements like "for anyone to say that we hate Jews or anyone else of faith, doesn't know what they are talking about."

Reform, Conservative, and Orthodox rabbis unloaded on the ad. One rabbi, Linda Holtzman, went further and led a campaign to deface the picture with stickers. The Anti-Defamation League called the ad "inflammatory and highly offensive." Even Israel's deputy consul general in Philadelphia, Elad Strohmayer, condemned the ad: "We shouldn't support any hatred toward any religious group … and we should stand together as a community against that."

SEPTA itself strenuously objected to the ad, saying that it "put every single Muslim in the same category \[of\] being a Jew hater," and immediately changed its policy to reject all future political advertisements. Worse, SEPTA sent a long valentine to the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) — an Islamist organization outlawed as a terrorist group in the United Arab Emirates — commending CAIR's efforts "in negating the impact of the ads and fostering greater religious understanding and civil discourse." SEPTA also lauded "CAIR's message of inclusion and tolerance" and its stand "against these ads," thereby bestowing mountains of undeserved prestige on CAIR — while tacitly slamming those valiant Muslims fighting CAIR's oppressive ways.

If the first rule of advertising is to make sure to convey your message effectively, this inaccurate, strange, and aggressive bus advertisement must rank as an all-time disaster, damaging the cause it meant to serve while helping those it intended to harm. It's like a Coke ad that sends customers flocking to Pepsi.

How might have the ad been more effectively composed? Simple: by distinguishing between the religion of Islam and the totalitarian ideology of Islamism, as in, "Radical Islam is the problem, moderate Islam is the solution. Non-Muslims and patriotic Muslims must band together to fight ISIS, Boku Haram, CAIR, and ISNA." The picture might have featured novelist Salman Rushdie talking to television host Bill Maher, a liberal who criticizes radical Islam.

That would have been a useful message, leaving the city leadership unperturbed while recruiting new cadres for the battle against our common foe, the Islamists.

Daniel Pipes is president of the Philadelphia-based Middle East Forum (  @DanielPipes