Outrage forces removal of pro-Hezbollah billboard
By RON STANG, Special to The CJN
Thursday, 23 August 2007
WINDSOR, Ont. — Many in Windsor are breathing a sigh of relief after a controversial billboard depicting Lebanese Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah, erected in the heart of the city’s Arab Middle Eastern community, came down within days of being put up.
The billboard showed Nasrallah alongside smaller images of four other Lebanese leaders. The sign had both English and Arabic text. In English, it read, “Lebanese and Arab communities in Windsor city congratulate the Lebanese people for their steadfastness and endeavour to establish peace in Lebanon.”

But the person who first brought the billboard to the public’s attention, Edy Haddad, a University of Windsor student and a Lebanese-born Canadian, said the Arabic wording contained a reference to “fight” in it.

“There are two different sayings,” Haddad, the former North American youth representative for Kataeb, a Lebanon-based, pro-democracy party, said of the sign. He said that in English the text stressed “the whole peace thing.” But in Arabic, “they were trying to say this is our army, but they did it in a very nonchalant way, but there is a… [phrase] that had the word ‘fight’ in it.”

Haddad, who lives two blocks from the billboard, put out a press release Aug. 10 and demanded that the “despicable” billboard, located along one of Windsor’s busiest streets, be taken down. The release said Hezbollah “is on the terror watch list by Canada” and “has murdered countless numbers of civilians.”

Since that time, Haddad said in an interview, he has received death threats and some people “were threatening to come to my house and beat me up.”

The billboard raised alarm in Windsor generally, chiefly among the city’s Jewish community, which made immediate efforts to contact elected politicans and the city’s mayor to seek the sign’s immediate removal.

Harvey Kessler, executive director of the Windsor Jewish Federation and Community Centre, said the “primary concern” was that the poster depicted an individual who “represents a terrorist organization that’s banned in Canada.” He said police, including the RCMP, were investigating.

By midday on Monday, Aug. 13 – three days after the billboard went up – the sign had been removed and replaced with an advertisement for a local auto dealership.

Kessler suggested that Windsor Mayor Eddie Francis, who is of Lebanese descent, was instrumental in having the poster taken down.

“He told me he was going to do everything in his power to make sure that billboard came down as quickly as possible,” Kessler said. “I assume someone put pressure on the billboard sign company to take it down.”

The billboard became a national news story. Kessler and the mayor’s office received phone calls from across the country, mostly condemning the sign.

The incident appears to be unprecedented in Canada.

“The only situation I can recall that is at all analogous to this is the Jews for Jesus billboard that was put up at the corner of Bathurst [Street] and Wilson [Avenue in Toronto] a few years ago,” said Len Rudner, national director of Community Relations for Canadian Jewish Congress (CJC). “The billboard, offensive in its presentation of a Holocaust survivor who had ‘found’ Jesus, was quickly taken down.”

Rudner added that since the Canadian government has deemed Hezbollah to be a terrorist organization, “it is entirely inappropriate that the leader of Hezbollah should be portrayed in such an adulatory fashion.” CJC commended the Windsor Jewish Federation and the mayor’s office for having “this material removed from the public square.”

Michele Erskine, marketing director for CBS Outdoor Canada, the company that owns the sign, called the entire incident “an honest mistake.”

She said an employee at the firm’s Windsor office “didn’t recognize the full content” of the sign or recognize the significance of the pictures before putting it up.

“Since we realized the mistake was made, we’ve taken it down as fast as we could.”

Attempts to reach the billboard’s supporters were unsuccessful. The Windsor Star quoted Hussein Dabaja, who said various members of the Lebanese community took up a collection to pay for the sign and had made their point.

“The Jewish are not the enemy,” Dabaja told the Star. “When Hezbollah fights the Israeli army, they fight the Israeli occupation to Lebanon.”

The billboard went up just before the Aug. 12 one-year anniversary of Israel and Hezbollah agreeing to a United Nations-brokered ceasefire following last summer’s war between the Jewish state and the Lebanese-based Shiite Muslim group.

Windsor’s Lebanese community, which Haddad estimated at between 15,000 and 20,000 people, is typical of many such communities in Canada, divided between Christians and Muslims.

He added that “it’s not all Muslims that support Hezbollah.”

Kessler said that while a sign such as the pro-Hezbollah billboard increases tensions generally, “I think it’s going to increase tensions most in the Arab and Lebanese communities, from what I’m hearing.”

He added “there are many different perspectives” within the Lebanese community “on the politics of the Middle East.”

Meanwhile, he said he will bring the matter to city hall’s race and ethnocultural relations committee, hoping “protocols” will be developed in the event another such incident occurs.

Kessler said that on this occasion “the community reacted.” But he said that in the event of a future incident, “we would have some proactive strategies or protocols in place.”