The Anti-Defamation League is forming a coalition in opposition to two murals that recently appeared on walls of Biggie’s Foodmart and gas station at East 55th Street and Cedar Avenue in Cleveland.
Anita Gray, regional director of the ADL, described the paintings as “highly offensive and anti-Semitic.”
In one image, the words “Talmudic Priests in Church” and “$ex with Minors Permitted” appear above a drawing of what Gray described as “a stereotypical Orthodox Jew” with his lips apparently on the private parts of a naked baby. The other mural, labeled “The Faces of Jesus,” includes the statement, “To Jews he’s a bastard who's in hell.”
“We are appalled by the intolerance and bigotry these signs convey,” Gray said in a statement on behalf of the ADL and the coalition. “The owner of this establishment has the right to have it decorated as he chooses, but we urge fellow members of the community to join us in saying, loudly and clearly, that such hate is not welcome here, and we categorically reject it.”
Gray said her office in Cleveland received a call May 28 from a neighborhood resident who was “mortified” by the images. The following morning, Gray notified Cleveland Mayor Frank Jackson’s office and Blaine Griffin, executive director of the city’s Community Relations Board, about them.
“We immediately started putting together a coalition of people and organizations who were outraged about the virulent, hateful displays on this gas station,” Gray said.
Cheryl Davis, chair of the Jewish Federation of Cleveland’s Community Relations Committee, released this statement on behalf of the Federation May 30:
“We, as a community, need to stand firm against this kind of hatred. This outrageous and deeply offensive anti-Semitic mural has no place in our city, (which) embraces ethnic, cultural and religious diversity. We implore all members of the Cleveland community to stand against hatred and intolerance.”
Also on May 30, Jackson issued a statement in which he said “the graphic painting” is “totally unacceptable and is offensive to the city of Cleveland and its residents.”
Referring in particular to the mural with the heading, “Talmudic Priests in Church,” Jackson said many residents, commuters and visitors have expressed outrage over the image and that the city shares in that outrage.
“There is no place in Cleveland for this inappropriate image, and I am urging the owners of this establishment to remove it immediately,” he said, adding the city will “explore all legal avenues” to have it removed.
Jackson also indicated in the statement that he would send Griffin to Biggie’s “to express his extreme displeasure” and demand that it be removed immediately.
In a telephone interview June 2, Griffin said he had met with Brahim “Abe” Ayad, the owner of the grocery/gas station, “a couple times.”
“The owner is non-cooperative, and we are now looking at other avenues to address this situation,” Griffin said. “I told the owner there are many children in the area, and to allow this image to continue to exist is inexcusable and abominable.”
Griffin noted Cleveland schools are out of session for the summer, so many children will be outdoors during the day.
“No child should be exposed to what he has on the side of that building,” he said. “We have made visits to him in the past because he has put up racially and ethnically intolerable images on his building, and we have tried to work with him on an amicable solution. But with this one, we made it clear he has crossed the line completely.”
Biggie’s was also the topic of controversy in 2009, when one of its walls was adorned with a mural that decried the “Palestinian Holocaust” and criticized Jews for “killing the innocent.” Michael Watson, a former lawyer and a friend of Ayad’s, told the Cleveland Jewish News at that time that the mural was protesting Israel’s “using American-made weapons to bomb children.”
Ayad was also under fire earlier in the decade when a series of murals that were deemed anti-Semitic and anti-Zionist appeared on the walls of two of his former businesses, according to the 2009 CJN report.
When reached by telephone at Biggie’s June 3, Ayad at first said he had no comment about the murals, expressing concern that he may be misquoted. But then he said, “I’m more Jewish than all of these people calling me an anti-Semite put together. That’s my bloodline.”
Asked what his nationality is, Ayad said he’s “international.”
“It’s my right (to put up the images), as my father paid his dues in blood in World War II for you guys,” he said. “Get off my back.”
The 2009 CJN article indicated Ayad was born in the United States but is of Palestinian descent.
Griffin said the city is looking into what it can do, within its legal parameters, to get the image removed.
“We’re looking at best practices across the country to see what we may be able to do,” he said. “We are exploring ordinances to prevent him from doing this in the future.
“We also have made law enforcement aware of it, because of some concerns we have about unrest (the image) may have caused.”
The Rev. Kenneth Chalker, senior pastor of University Circle United Methodist Church in Cleveland, said the city is “absolutely correct in exploring every legal opportunity to take action to have those images removed.”
“These images are offensive, demeaning and stereotypically false,” he said. “While (Ayad) has the right to paint on his building, it’s important for those of us who disagree to stand up and say so.”
The Rev. Joseph Hilinski, a Catholic priest who is director of the Catholic Diocese of Cleveland’s Interfaith Commission, said the images are “very discouraging” and he hopes Ayad will remove them. He said the one labeled “Talmudic Priests in Church” is offensive to both Catholics and Jews.
“It’s like propaganda,” he said. “You have the freedom to do what you want, but it doesn’t do (Ayad) any good to attack or besmirch Catholics and Jews.”
Terry Gilbert, a Cleveland lawyer whose specialties are civil rights and criminal defense, said Ayad’s right to post the images is protected by the First Amendment.
“Offensive speech cannot be curtailed by government unless that speech incites violence or disruption in the community,” he said. “There’s a long line of cases going back 50 to 70 years that have proclaimed in a free society, we have to learn to tolerate offensive speech because the alternative is to have a police state.
“People may not like it; they may be angry and upset and disturbed, and this is understandable. The creators of those signs should be urged to discontinue it, but it’s their right on their property to express their outrageous views.”
By the same token, Gilbert, a University Heights resident who belongs to Suburban Temple-Kol Ami in Beachwood, said the action the ADL is taking is appropriate.
“People can attack these things by education, organizing and political action,” he said. “That is what the ADL should be doing; it is the right thing to do.”
Anyone who would like to sign on to the coalition should contact the ADL’s Cleveland office at 216-579-9600.
The Anti-Defamation League is organizing a coalition in opposition of murals painted on Biggie’s Foodmart and gas station at East 55th Street and Cedar Avenue in Cleveland.
The coalition’s initial list also included:
• American Jewish Committee
• Jewish Federation of Cleveland
• Rabbi Richard Block, senior rabbi of The Temple-Tifereth Israel in Beachwood and Cleveland
• Rabbi Stephen Weiss, senior rabbi of B’nai Jeshurun Congregation in Pepper Pike.
• The Rev. Kenneth Chalker, senior pastor of University Circle United Methodist Church in Cleveland
• Cleveland Councilwoman Phyllis Cleveland, who represents Ward 5
• The Rev. Joseph Hilinski, director of the Catholic Diocese of Cleveland’s Interfaith Commission and pastor of St. Barbara Catholic Church in Cleveland
• The Very Rev. Tracey Lind, dean of Trinity Cathedral in Cleveland
• Bishop Tony Minor, senior pastor of Community of Faith Assembly in Cleveland
• National Association for the Advancement of Colored People