“Can a billboard end antisemitism? No. But you’re not a billboard.” So reads a giant pink sign with white letters that drivers can see along the highway in Oakland, Calif. On Nov. 15 or Nov. 16, someone spray-painted a different sort of message on the sign: “Free Palestine.”
A vandal who threw a rock at a billboard truck on the George Washington University campus in downtown Washington on Nov. 14 yelled the same thing: “Free Palestine.” That truck had the same pink background and white lettering, which stated “Let’s be clear. Hamas is your problem too.”
Archie Gottesman founded the nonprofit JewBelong, which is behind the white-on-pink campaigns, in 2017. The goal initially was focused on helping Jews engage more with Judaism. But fighting antisemitism has become a larger part of its mission, Gottesman told JNS.
When her husband, Gary Gottesman, converted to Judaism, she was interested in how the religion looked to an outsider, Archie Gottesman told JNS. That vantage is important both to converts and “to people who are Jewish who were brought up with very little Jewish education,” she said.
Gottesman, who had worked in branding for nearly 30 years, and for Edison Properties and Manhattan Mini Storage, brought her expertise to bear on JewBelong’s often edgy messaging. Reaching disengaged Jews required a different approach since the people she wanted to reach by definition weren’t found on the mailing lists of synagogues, Federations or other Jewish nonprofit organizations.
JewBelong’s “Joyous Judaism” campaign sought to connect with both Jewish and non-Jewish audiences, Gottesman said. The aim was to “talk about Judaism that people can connect to.”
‘A target on your back’
When Hamas attacked Israel in May 2021—and when Israel responded with the 11-day “Operation Guardian of the Walls”—Gottesman saw a “real shift in online antisemitism.” JewBelong had to find a way to use its platform differently.
“You can’t talk about a great Passover with a target on your back,” she told JNS.
The nonprofit began outdoor billboards to test messages and see what resonated with non-Jewish audiences, but the signage quickly became a successful awareness campaign. JewBelong has dispatched about 500 of these billboards, reaching more than 250 million people, according to the nonprofit’s internal documentation.
To reach an audience that the billboards don’t—college students—JewBelong enlisted portable billboards on trucks.
Antisemitic vandals have come after both kinds of advertisements since Hamas’s Oct. 7 terror attacks on Israel.
“It was awful,” Gottesman said of the Oakland billboard, which had nothing to do with Israel or the region. “It was 100% about antisemitism, and for people to go and paint ‘Free Palestine’ over that, it is such a horrible example of where this conversation has gone in this country.”
It has become hard to call out antisemitism in America without someone bringing up Palestine, she said. She believes that means people aren’t open to listening or understanding.
“It’s frustrating. It’s angering,” she said. “But we’re not going to stop.”
She hopes that people will “get off the sidelines and fight more,” when it comes to antisemitism, stating: “I wish people would stop being silent.” JNS