Watchdog bans ‘Jews for Jesus’ adverts

Johannesburg, South Africa - An advertisement suggesting that “10 out of 10 Jewish doctors recommend Jesus” is “offensive” to orthodox Jews, South Africa’s advertising regulator ruled this week.

The decision by the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) ends a bitter battle between the Union of Orthodox Synagogues (UOS) and an evangelical missionary group, Jews for Jesus.

The controversial group, which aims to convert Jews to Christianity, is known for its provocative adverts and — contrary to Judaism — its acceptance of Jesus as the Messiah.

Last year it targeted traditionally Jewish suburbs with adverts. One, on a bus shelter in the suburb of Greenside, Johannesburg, depicted a masked surgeon and the words: “Ten out of ten Jewish doctors recommend Jesus?”

The advert is based on the promotional blurb for a book distributed by the group, entitled Jewish Doctors Meet the Great Physician. According to the book’s blurb: “Ten out of ten Jewish doctors recommend Jesus … and we have the stories to prove it! You will love these ten first-person accounts of Jewish doctors who came to know Jesus as their personal Messiah and are excited for other Jews to hear the Gospel as well.”

A second advert appeared on a bus shelter in Sandton. Using the Hebrew name for Jesus, it asked: “Y’shua. Who do you think he is?”

A third, which stated “The only hope for peace was born in the Middle East”, did not attract any complaints.

Johannesburg resident Raymond Isarow was the first to complain to the ASA, saying that the advert was “misleading as it implies 100% of Jewish doctors recommend Jesus”.

Jews for Jesus countered that he did not give a reason why the poster was misleading.

The group added that the advertising slogan was an “invitation to dialogue” and ended with a question mark “which is appropriately positioned because it is intended to cause people to engage with and question the preceding statement”.

Michael Sischy is a Jewish doctor who believes in Jesus. He is also the director of Jews for Jesus in South Africa.

Accepting the ASA ruling, he says the advertisements were not meant to cause offence.

“We feel they are light-hearted hyperbole aimed at stimulating the kind of dialogue and debate you want to stimulate in an open and democratic society.

“We want people to think for themselves. We seriously can’t make anyone believe something they don’t want to believe anyway.”

And he says the decision will not stop the organisation from spreading its message.

“I believe our ads are stimulating and creative and we will continue to communicate creatively. It is important for us to use humour.

“We live in a world that has such serious issues and humour helps us break that edge and engage with people.”

Isarow’s complaint was dismissed by the ASA in December last year after it found that because the statement ended in a question mark it “clearly indicates that the sentence is not stated as fact”.

The ASA went on: “If anything, it is an attempt to get readers [to] probe the juxtaposition of Judaism and a clearly Christian belief statement.

“It is unlikely that consumers would be misled into believing that all Jewish doctors ‘recommend Jesus’.”

But the matter didn’t stop there. The Union of Orthodox Synagogues joined the fray after receiving more than a dozen complaints.

The UOS argued that the question mark did not detract from the “false claims” that Jews for Jesus were making. It argued that the use of the Star of David in the ads was “highly offensive” and evoked “outrage” as Jews for Jesus was bent on converting Jews away from Judaism, and the word Y’shua was written in a “font only used in the sacred Torah scrolls”.

But Jews for Jesus contended it was acting “within the bounds of religious freedom and freedom of expression”, that the ads were not deceptive, that it could use the Star of David as the “organisation is Jewish” and its “advertising does not force anyone to believe in anything they do not want to”.

The ASA ruled in favour of the UOS.

Jews for Jesus lodged an appeal against the ruling but the ASA rejected it, saying it was “indisputable that the advertisement attacks, or is aimed at, the central tenet of the Jewish faith … that Jesus is not the Messiah…

“[It] is reasonable to expect people of the Jewish faith to be offended by the suggestion that 10 out of 10 Jewish doctors recommend Jesus. They are likely to see the advertisement as ridiculing a basic and fundamental principle of faith.”

UOS executive director Darren Sevitz welcomed the ruling on Friday, saying that while the union was “in no way opposed to Christians or Christianity”, it did take issue with a campaign that “unapologetically targeted Jews for conversion”.

“Outside our office there is a huge billboard saying: ‘Jesus Christ is lord and saviour of the universe’. I don’t care about it because it’s not targeting me. I don’t have a problem with Pick ’n Pay advertising a pork chop because they are not targeting me,” Sevitz said.

“But, for instance, if SAB were to advertise beer with a picture of a Muslim drinking beer, they would have crossed the line. That’s where we are coming from.”