Billboard wars

Soon after a pensive-looking cowboy popped up on a billboard alongside Interstate 90 between the Orange and Reserve street exits two months ago, the phones started ringing at the Har Shalom synagogue in Missoula.

"We got calls from people in the community, non-Jews as well," says Har Shalom Board of Directors President Bert Chessin.

It wasn't the cowboy that got the phones ringing. It was the message the middle-aged man wearing a 10-gallon hat appeared to be pondering: "$8 million a day to Israel just doesn't make sense!"

The Council for the National Interest, a Virginia-based nonprofit, paid for the billboard. Executive Director Phil Giraldi says the nonprofit takes issue with military aid provided by the United States to Israel and designed its campaign to start a conversation about this country's fiscal priorities. "It's essentially a question of Israel getting a large amount of money," he says.

The message, however, hit a nerve. Chessin, for one, says the billboard is one-sided and superficial, as well as anti-Israel. Aiming to reclaim the battlefield of public opinion, Har Shalom mobilized and joined forces with Stand With Us, an international nonprofit based out of Los Angeles, to promote its own message.

SWU educates about Israel and, according to its website, combats "the extremism and anti-Semitism that often distorts the issues." SWU's Gary Ratner says his organization commonly encounters messages like the one in Missoula. "It's called 'BDS'boycott, divestment and sanction," he says. "It's an attempt to undermine American support for Israel and the joint values that we hold."

When alerted to such efforts, SWU counters with its own themes, fueling a public relations war that's played out on buses, billboards and in train stations across the country. Typically the skirmishes occur in progressive strongholds such as San Francisco, Portland and New York, but now it's stretched to Missoula.

This week, after the Council for the National Interest's billboard contract expired, Har Shalom and SWU paid to erect a new billboard in the same location. For the next two months, rather than the pensive cowboy, commuters heading east on I-90 will see the following message: "Tell Congress Not to Support Palestinian Groups like Hamas, because they don't want peace."

"We felt that [the other billboard] shouldn't go unanswered," Chessin says.

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