Category Archives: Anti-Semitism

An Anthropologist at the Women’s March on Washington, Part 2: The Posters

 

Mass of Women, online photo by Noam GalliPhoto by Noam Galai

Women (and some men) with signs, as far as the eye could see.

In my first post about the Women’s March of January 21, 2017, I chronicled the social and emotional ties I saw created in this space of massive communitas, feminist style. Here, I offer a textual analysis of the posters I observed.

Mass of Demonstrators, Pink Hats, cropped

Photo by Alma Gottlieb

Above the sea of pink knit hats, thousands of posters claimed the sky. Their messages ranged from instructive to witty, from loving to outraged. Let’s browse through a small selection of some of the most creative and impassioned, and see what they can tell us about this extraordinary moment in America’s still-young democracy.

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Poster, Tell Us Why You Came, cropped

Photo by Linda Seligmann

 

At the entrance to the event, a team of independent filmmakers documented the day’s events. They didn’t need to pester people to beg them for interviews. Instead, they staked out a prominent spot and simply held up an appealing sign: “Tell us why you came.”

Everyone had her story, and these filmmakers wanted to document as many as they could.

Mine was simple. I told them: “I came as a feminist dedicated to the radical proposition that women are human.”Poster-Feminism is the Radical Notion that Women are People (Photo by Alanna Vaglanos, Huff Post), cropped

Photo by Alanna Vaglanos/The Huffington Post

Later, I was gratified to see a man bearing the same conviction. The strategy behind the motto works best when men are on board, too.

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Poster, Women Are Watching, cropped

Photo by Alma Gottlieb

 

I like the multiple layers of this poster.

The long lashes and bright blue eyes evoke women’s beauty—a classic subject of men’s gaze.

But the message below up-ends that practice and puts women in the active position of viewer rather than viewed.  That message challenges the gross misogyny of Donald Trump’s outrageous comments about women (the infamous “pussy-grabbing” remark being only one of many).

More broadly, this poster announces that women are paying attention to any gross misdeeds Trump may attempt. The women’s movement that re-birthed on January 21st, 2017 attests to this poster.

 

Poster, We Cant Unhear What Youve Said, cropped

Photo by Alma Gottlieb

This poster adds another sense modality to the sentiment of the last one. Not only are women watching the antics on the House and Senate floors, they are also listening to the outrageous speeches. And they are not forgetting. Trump’s bank account can’t buy amnesia for the rest of the world.

This poster implicitly evokes the power of the Internet. Pre-Digital Age, politicians could conceal their misdeeds, their offensive statements, and even the bills they introduced into the legislature, far more easily. Now, digital cameras and cell phones-turned-tape-recorders document politicians’ back-door dealings; investigative reporters “follow the money”; and any citizen can hold police accountable with a simple snap of the shutter.

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Poster, Trump Quote, Pussy Grab

Photo by Alma Gottlieb

Donald Trump’s infamous comment resonated everywhere that day in Washington. In case anyone had been living under a rock all fall and needed help decoding the pink knit caps with “cat ears,” this poster reminded everyone of the odious Say what?! statement that outraged even Republicans.

“Pussy” used to be an X-rated term used by men to refer insultingly to women’s genitals. With a president as an avowed, enthusiastic sexual harasser,  women have now re-appropriated the metaphor and turned it against would-be “pussy grabbers.”

Poster, Dont Grab on Me, croppedPoster, Keep Your Laws off My Pussy, cropped

Photo by Alma Gottlieb

Photo by Alma Gottlieb

Poster, Real Men Grab Patriarchy by the Balls, Photo by MC

Photo by Mina Cooper

“Pussy”-as-vagina and “pussy”-as-cat have now combined such that women are re-claiming their gendered identity as a space of agency rather than victimhood.  Effectively using the strategy of the gay rights movement, which re-appropriated “gay” and “queer” as terms of pride and self-identification, feminists have re-appropriated “pussy.”  Not only was “pussy” a degrading term for women’s genitals; “Don’t be a pussy” previously meant, “Don’t be a coward,” with the vagina standing in synecdochally for cowardice. The thousands of cat-pun-themed posters and -knit hats in view everywhere in D.C. signaled a powerful message: these women would not be bullied into submission. Rather, women own their genitals and feel empowered to push back against the sexist agenda of the Trump regime.

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Poster, Trump Grabs Crotch of Statue of Liberty

Photo by Alma Gottlieb

This poster distressed me more than all others I saw. I kept finding myself somehow compelled to look at it, then compelled to look away.

The idea of a sexually harassing president is odious enough. Taking that image as a metaphor for raping democracy, as symbolized by the feminized Statue of Liberty, is, if such a thing is possible, even more disturbing. Whether from direct experience or from hearing about it from friends and relatives, all women know what it is to be sexually assaulted. Imagining our collective polity and shared values assaulted in this symbolically resonant way is almost too painful to contemplate.

Yet Trump’s abhorrent statement from long ago, now immortalized, has spawned a new generation of feminists. The feminist artist who visualized this metaphor has created a powerful image that is bound to speak for months and years to come, for all who so much as glimpsed her horrifying poster.

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Poster, Embarrasser in Chief

Photo by Alma Gottlieb

Donald Trump’s personal history as a proud sexual harasser may even include rape—several accusations have been neither fully proven nor discredited. As such, the individual representing our nation to the world is deeply problematic. How can such a person have been chosen as Time magazine’s “person of the year”? This poster mocks Time’s decision by applying a new, degrading title, along with an iconic image of evil–the horns of the devil in Christian iconography (inherited from the satyrs of Greek mythology)–to our commander-in-chief.

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Poster, Dr Seuss Rhyme, Alanna Vaglanos, Huff Post, cropped

Photo by Alanna Vaglanos/Huffington Post

Why does everyone like Dr. Seuss? Because he distills complex concepts into simple rhymes that even young children get.

This brilliant poster takes advantage of that strategy. Donald Trump’s disturbing history of sexual aggression towards women is protested via a child’s rhyme—not to belittle the seriousness of our president’s outrageous misogynist history, but to insist in the clearest and simplest possible terms on the basic fact of its unacceptability.

And, in case anyone missed the Dr. Seuss connection, the poster mad that inspiration explicit with a signature red-and-white-striped hat.

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Poster, My Body, My Choice, Photographing Crowd

Photo by Alma Gottlieb

This sign echoed hundreds of others referring to so many issues important to America’s women. Having a “pussy-grabbing” president terrifies young women, who keenly appreciate the battles their mothers and grandmothers fought to keep abortion legal and safe, breastfeed in public, name sexual harassment as a crime, and put rapists behind bars.  In other words, “My Body. My Choice” resonates across multiple registers.  It indexes the many struggles women have waged across multiple centuries and communities to assert somatic autonomy; the battles that have already been won to achieve this aim; and the precarity of those successes in the new U.S. administration.

This particular sign was silk-screened, along with hundreds of others, by members of an arts collective who donated their expertise and services at the Nasty Women Exhibition, a six-day art fair held in Queens, NY, the week before the Women’s Marches. All artwork at that exhibit sold out, and the entirety of the $42,000 raised was donated to Planned Parenthood. In this photo, my daughter, Hannah Gottlieb-Graham, doubled as sign-holder and photographer as she observed and marched.

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Poster, Never Again, Coat Hanger, cropped

Photo by Alma Gottlieb

Another devastating combination of 2 words + 1 image.

Roe v. Wade represents just one of many rights that people at the Women’s March aimed to defend. But it epitomizes the anger that women feel at the life-threatening medical risks they would incur if Roe V. Wade were reversed.

This poster speaks poignantly to my own family history.

My maternal grandmother had thirteen dangerous and illegal abortions.

Or so my mother once told me. Out of a combination of shock and embarrassment, I never asked my mother any details. And I certainly never queried my beloved grandmother about what must have been painful memories, as the topic was entirely taboo during the years when my grandmother was alive. But from what I know of my grandmother’s life, I find the claim entirely plausible.

As Jews living in extreme poverty in shtetls of Eastern Europe, both my maternal grandparents had only managed to attend grade school, through maybe the third or fourth grades, before they managed to flee religious persecution and make new lives for themselves in the U.S. Once here, they found religious freedom but continued to live in poverty: they rented the same three-floor-walk-up, one-bedroom apartment in the Bronx for 50 years. They both worked long, hard hours for decades—my grandfather, as a waiter; my grandmother, as a licensed practical nurse.

My grandmother had two daughters, but the second (my aunt) was born with a serious kidney disease, and the doctor wasn’t optimistic about her chances for survival. My grandmother devoted herself to her sickly daughter’s health, and through her love combined with her basic nursing training, she managed to keep her daughter alive.

According to my mother, this medical and emotional trauma, combined with the family’s poverty, convinced my grandmother to put an end to her childbearing years after my aunt was born in 1923. But reliable birth control methods were still decades away. My grandmother’s only recourse to thirteen more pregnancies was to have thirteen back-alley abortions. Here’s where my pre-anthropological days fail me. I don’t know the details of who did the work, where, and how much they charged, although I imagine that coat hangers might well have been involved.

Until Jan. 21, 2017, this old family story, while a part of my maternal lineage, seemed worlds away from the lives of modern American women. As we await the drama unfolding in the nomination of Neil Gorsuch to the Supreme Court, images of coat hangers sometimes invade my dreams.

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Poster-Decriminalize Womanhood, cropped

Photo by Alma Gottlieb

A personal favorite. This poster says so much with two words and one powerful image.

So many women–in the U.S. and elsewhere—are sexually assaulted. So few rapists are ever even tried, let alone convicted and jailed. And in recent years, so much legislation has been proposed by Republican politicians at both state and federal levels in the U.S. that aims to curtail women’s hard-won freedoms.

Moreover, in middle schools, girls across the U.S. and elsewhere view textbook drawings that make the inside of their bodies seem like alien territory.

The net effect of these efforts is that, to some young women, it feels that the simple state of being a woman is being criminalized.

The artistic creator of this poster has used warm colors to draw the uterus as an object of beauty. Along with the über-short and über-clear text, she declares that a woman’s genitals should be the source of pride, not fear, much less invasion–whether physical, symbolic, or legal.

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Poster, My Pussy Bites Back, cropped

Photo by Alma Gottlieb

And this poster individualizes the determination to protect women’s bodies by evoking a veritable vagina dentata motif. Here, we see an empowering response to Trump’s threats to women’s reproductive rights and sexual autonomy.

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Poster, Grow a Vagina, Betty White Quote, photo by Alanna Vaglanos, Huff Post, cropped

Photo by Alanna Vaglanos/The Huffington Post

For many years, “Grow a pair” or (more explicitly) “Grow some balls” has served to urge men and boys to gain courage. In that idiom, testicles function as a metaphor for all that is stereotypically associated with masculinity — physical strength, emotional steadiness, tenacity.

This women’s march not only challenged the economics of patriarchy. With posters such as this, the protest challenged our deepest assumptions about gender.

“Grow a vagina” as an exhortation to be brave urges girls and women to think of their genitals as organs of strength. Any woman who has ever menstruated gets it. So does any woman who has lost her virginity to a man. And what about childbirth? There’s a reason Asante women of Ghana liken childbirth to going to war. And don’t even get me started about rape. As every woman knows, women’s genitals are the site of almost super-human strength.

 

Poster, Fight Like a Girl, Alanna Vaglanos, Huff Post, cropped

Photo by Alanna Vaglanos/Huffington Post

This poster expands the notion of female strength from the genitals. Here, women are depicted categorically as strong. The poster’s motto overturns two phrases commonly used to encourage boys to be strong: “Don’t cry like a girl” and “You fight like a girl.” Here, fighting like a girl is taken as a badge of honor, with girls depicted as a model to emulate, not avoid.

 

Poster, Resister, Alanna Vaglanos, Huff Post, cropped

Photo by Alanna Vaglanos/Huffington Post

In this poster, the beloved fictional character of Princess Leia stands dramatically for women’s ability to defend themselves. The double-entendre, single-word text packs a powerful punch. With those eight letters, women are at once offered Princess Leia as a role model for resistance, and a vision of sisterhood both with that fictional character, and with one another.

Montagu, The Natural Superiority of Women

Years ago, the renowned anthropologist Ashley Montagu argued that men are, intrinsically, the weaker sex. His book, The Natural Superiority of Women, first published in 1952, was an inspiration to the founders of the National Organization of Women in 1966.

The set of posters just analyzed suggests it might be time for Ashley Montagu’s book to become required reading in high school social studies classes across America.

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Poster, Womens Rights are Human Rights, Black, Worker, Immigrant, Trans, Poor, Alanna Vaglanos, Huff Post, cropped

Photo by Alma Gottlieb

If the hundreds of posters I saw shared an overarching theme, it was probably, “Intersectionality.”

Unlike the “second wave” of (largely white) feminists of the 1960s, feminists of the 21st century understand that the fates of the world’s women are interlinked, and, moreover, that our struggles are also interlinked with those of other marginalized and oppressed populations. At the Women’s March in Washington, everywhere, I saw religious minorities, immigrants, sexual minorities, racial and ethnic minorities, and the economically vulnerable—both in person, and represented on signs.

Poster, Build Bridges Not Walls, cropped

Photo by Alma Gottlieb

I took the “bridges” on this sign both in the literal sense, concerning the US/Mexican border—and as a metaphorical sign urging political alliances to link the many marginalized and vulnerable groups now targeted by the Trump administration.

 

Poster, I Want as Many Rights as Guns Have, cropped

Photo by Alanna Vaglanos /Huffington Post

This poster makes ironic ties to another bitter controversy in the contemporary era: the rights of gun owners vs. the need for public safety.

Are women really less valued than guns in American law and American society?

 

Latina Girls with Posters

Photo by Alma Gottlieb

These young Latina girls probably ranged from 13-16 years old, but their posters testified that they already identified as women. And their posters signaled their early understanding that in 21st century America, this identity comes with political baggage, and demands solidarity and pluck.

The energy and positivity of this cheerful but powerful young group felt infectious.

 

Muslim Woman Holding Poster, LS Photo, cropped

Photo by Alma Gottlieb

This young Muslim women displayed a dazzling understanding of intersectional issues. Islamophobia, reproductive rights, racism, misogyny, ignorance, hatred, climate change, the school-to-prison pipeline, the Black Lives Matter movement, and love all found a place on her packed poster. As such — and in contrast to her own headscarf-wearing body — her poster proclaimed a subliminal retort to the common American stereotyping of Muslims as “other.” Through her poster, this young woman asserted her common humanity with so many “others,” thereby deconstruction the “othering” impulse itself.

 

Poster, Republicans Will Protect Your Rights if You Are a Fetus, Photo by LS, cropped

Photo by Linda Seligmann

If the protesters understood acutely the ways in which seemingly disparate issues intersect, the same cannot be said for Republicans who see these issues as unrelated. This poster in effect offered a meta-critique of those conceptual blinders. The ironic result it pointed out: the unborn have more rights than many groups of people outside the womb.

 

Button, Dissent is Patriotic, ACLU

Photo by Alma Gottlieb

The movement began with women, and attracted over a half a million of them in Washington, D.C. alone. But men joined in as allies, often pointing out the intersections with other issues.

The legal right to protest Trump’s policies was on people’s minds early on. The button I spotted on this man’s hat proved prescient.

With a president who has declared that journalists are “the enemy of the people,” the ACLU — staunch defender of free speech — should become a major player in the next four years.

Thankfully, in the weeks following the inauguration, the American Civil Liberties Union attracted unprecedented donations by ordinary Americans. According to a report published by CNN on Jan. 31, 2017:

“The American Civil Liberties Union said it received $24.1 million in online donations over the weekend.

In a normal year, the activist group makes about $4 million in online donations. In one weekend, it raised six times as much money.”

The ACLU will doubtless put these funds to important use.

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Poster, So Mad, Blood Coming out of Wherever, cropped

Photo by Alma Gottlieb

Another personal favorite.

Back in Aug. 2015, Fox news journalist Megyn Kelly moderated a debate among Republican primary contenders. Kelly was especially tough on Trump for his anti-women agenda. After the interview, Trump dismissed Kelly’s challenging questions by referring to her genitals: he implied her questions lacked legitimacy because they must have been produced by menstrual processes — “You could see there was blood coming out of her eyes, blood coming out of her . . . wherever.” Reverting to an age-old patriarchal habit of delegitimizing women’s claims for equality by suggesting out-of-control hormonal processes signaled that Trump’s misogyny was unlimited.

This poster revisits that moment and turns it against Trump. The sign holder owns her anger, and even associates it with her menstrual cycle. As with the pink knit “pussy hats,” in so doing, she is, in effect, using the logic of the gay rights movement, once activists re-appropriated the previously insulting terms used against them–“gay” and “queer.” This sign-maker’s menstrual anger does not control her; rather, she controls it, and for a political purpose: to push back against the sexist agenda of Donald Trump and others of his ilk.

Note, too, the angry tampon in the upper-right corner. Animating that piece of menstrual technology gives life to an inanimate object that is an intimate part of many modern women’s monthly bodily regimes. As such, the angry tampon re-channels the anger of all women, everywhere, who were denigrated by Trump’s insulting dismissal of Megyn Kelly’s professional journalism.

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Poster, Legitimately President like a Ham Sandwich is Legitimately Kosher, cropped

Photo by Alma Gottlieb

Not all posters were grim or angry. Even through their outrage, some protesters found ways to make us laugh. This clever Miller analogy offered a bitter chuckle for Jewish protestors.

 

Poster, An Actual Ikea Cabinet, LS Photo, cropped

Photo by Linda Seligmann

Another punster targeted not Trump, but his Cabinet picks.

At the time of the Women’s March, Trump had already announced many outrageous choices for top Cabinet positions, including Betsy DeVos for Education, Rick Perry for Energy, Tom Price for Health and Human Services, and Ben Carson for Housing and Urban Development. Just a day after the inauguration, reasonable people educated about these picks were already furious.

Nevertheless, this protester’s play on words earned a smile wherever she went.

 

Poster, Girls Just Wanna Have Fundamental Rights

Photo by Alma Gottlieb

Another poster offered a different play on words. The time for Cyndi Lauper’s celebration of girls protesting against sexism via partying is over. With the assault on women’s bodies on many registers, today’s girls just wanna have fun-damental rights.

Even in the most urgent of political crises, a joke can keep us sane. As H. L. Mencken once said, “What restrains us from killing is partly fear of punishment, partly moral scruple, and partly what may be described as a sense of humor.”

 

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Poster, I Cant Believe I Still Have to Protest this Shit, Cropped

Photo by Alma Gottlieb

The last theme I want to signal is the set of inter-generational conversations that abounded on many posters.

Women who remember earlier women’s rights struggles displayed their frustration with old battles that they thought they had won, only to see them re-appear with new force and Hydra-like terror.

Poster, Hello 1955 Please Hold for the Republicans, cropped

Photo by Alma Gottlieb

In the U.S., Republicans often point to the 1950s as a Golden Age. Women, and minorities of all sorts, know better.

American schools were still segregated, and Jim Crow laws were still on the books and followed across the South. Gays were still either closeted or bullied. Women were still expected to marry, have children, and devote themselves exclusively to their families while abandoning all career aspirations. The “military-industrial complex” was just being born. The Cold War divided the world into “us” and “them” while starting to outsource military conflicts to the global South. No concept of rights for the disabled even existed. Public awareness of any religions beyond Christianity was nil. Industrial expansion produced unprecedented toxins polluting the water, air, and land, without nary a protest.

Today, our nation is far from utopian, yet the gains made over the past half-century in rights for women, for minorities of all sorts, and for the earth, are undeniable. The Trump administration’s efforts to turn back the clock and undo those significant gains reminds women old enough to remember the 1950s of a nightmare that, until now, seemed like it was just a distant memory.

 

Poster, We are the Granddaughters of the Witches You Could Not Burn, Photo by Alanna Vaglanos, Huff Post, cropped

Photo by Alanna Vaglanos/Huffington Post

This poster reminds us of a far longer timeline. Evoking the Massachusetts’ Salem witch trials of 1692-83, the women carrying this set of posters performed a sort of moving political theatre.

Feminist scholars such as Isaac Reed have argued that the Salem witch trials must be understood as a component of gendered history — rooted in patriarchal institutions and mindsets of colonial America. These contemporary protesters argued that the Puritan patriarchal mindset is still with us. They also saw the accused witches as early feminist rebel-heroes — and themselves, as their heiresses.

 

Poster, Now Youve Pissed off Grandma, cropped

Photo by Alma Gottlieb

 

As a feminist grandmother, I can relate to this one.

If women in general are supposed to demonstrate infinite patience, that gendered stereotype applies tenfold to grandmothers. They’re the ones kids turn to when parents are mad. If even Grandma is pissed off to the point of making a crude hand gesture, something is seriously amiss.

This poster highlights issues of special concern to the elderly — having enough money to live on after retiring, and a good enough medical insurance policy to cover the increasing costs of staying healthy.

And, yes, the poster also reminds us: old women are also vulnerable to sexual assault.

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Poster, This is Not a Moment, It Is a Movement, cropped

Photo by Alma Gottlieb

Finally, lurking at the back of all our minds that day was the unstated question: “Now what?”

Posters abounded proclaiming, in one way or another, that the sun would not set definitively on that day. The momentous event — with its global impact — will be hard to dismiss or forget.

Although the Washington protest was the largest and, because of its location, the most symbolically most potent, it inspired sister marches around the country, and across the globe. Crowd estimates by scholars tell us that something like 4.5 million people marched in 915 individual events around the world.

These extraordinary numbers suggest two striking facts: a great deal of passion, and a great deal of coordination. When passion and coordination are harnessed, a powerful cocktail is created.

Which brings me to the next poster.

 

Poster, Make Feminism Great Again, cropped

Photo by Alma Gottlieb

During the campaign season, Donald Trump’s campaign motto, “Make America great again,” resonated with many white voters who feared global flows. But others saw in that slogan an unrealistic effort to close our borders to the world, and a dangerous evocation of earlier nationalist moves that produced imperialist invasion/expansion in places ranging from Vietnam and the Philippines to Iraq and Afghanistan.

This poster bitterly mocks that motto. Here, “Feminism” substitutes for “America” — thereby, implicitly, challenging not only the nativist/xenophobic agenda of Trump, but his longstanding misogyny, as well. This especially subversive slogan is bound to irritate Trump (and his supporters) greatly.

 

Poster Display on Floor in Metro Station from Distance, cropped

Photo by Alma Gottlieb

What to do with all these posters at the end of the day?

Many marchers felt reluctant to ditch them in trash cans.

A spontaneous art exhibit formed at this metro station, as protesters donated their signs to thE subway floor-turned-impromptu art-gallery that expanded by the minute.

Only two days later, museums and libraries around the world, from the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History in Washington, D.C. to the Royal Alberta Museum in Vancouver, announced that they would start collecting the posters.

 

Poster, Mobilize for Midterms, cropped

Photo by Alma Gottlieb

While museum curators soon presented exhibits protesting President Trump’s executive order against Muslim immigrants and refugees either by removing (or covering over) all artwork by immigrants, or by featuring such works, political activists forged their own plans.

Across the US, a new organization has formed: “Indivisible.” Already, 7,000 chapters have been created. Members are busy protesting the Trump agenda, while mindful of the numbers necessary in Congress for Democrats to reclaim the national agenda. The most effective way is to “Mobilize for Midterms”—that is, the “mid-term” elections that will take place in 2018, in the middle of the current presidential term.

This poster featured the pragmatic side to the march, complementing the poetic and the artistic approaches featured in the posters highlighted above.

All approaches were in full force in Washington, and equally welcome.

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A, H w Matching Tshirts, Cropped

Photo by Linda Seligmann

The joy of raising a feminist.

My daughter, Hannah Gottlieb-Graham, had accompanied my husband and me to smaller protests over the years, but this massive scene made an impression like no other.

To plan for our trip to Washington, she’d bought us matching t-shirts. No offense meant to men, but given the past few millennia ruled by patriarchy, redressing the balance seems in order.

 

Tshirt, Im with HerPoster, Im with Her

                                           Photo by Alma Gottlieb

When Hillary Clinton was still running for president, people from Kim Kardashian and Oprah Winfrey to Barack Obama declared their allegiance by announcing, “I’m with her.” The un-referenced pronoun easily stood for Hillary Clinton because she was the first woman ever to win the nomination of one of the two major political parties of the United States. T-shirts supporting Hillary didn’t even have to mention her name—the “her” in question was obviously Hillary.

At the march in Washington, these simple three words took on a powerful new meaning when added to multiple arrows pointing in every possible direction. Once Hillary lost, “I’m with her” referred not to one woman, but to Every Woman. The power of a gendered political movement was born with those arrows.

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The official Women’s March on Washington has called for a national Women’s Strike on March 8th. Let’s join them!

 

It’s Never “Just a Symbol”

Symbolic anthropologists, take note.  What’s in a symbol?  Everything, when it comes to politics.  Especially, election-year politics.  And especially when a major political candidate claims ignorance of centuries-old symbolism used to discriminate against an oppressed minority.

Screen Shot 2016-07-08 at 9.33.50 PM

Was Trump being anti-Semitic, or was he being stupid, when he Tweeted an accusation that Hillary Clinton is “the most corrupt candidate ever”–with Clinton’s photo accompanied by a Star of David overlaying countless dollar bills?

For someone who is one of two candidates credibly vying for the planet’s most politically powerful position, either scenario is deeply troubling.

Rethinking BDS

A shorter version of this post has just appeared online as a podcast, in coordination with the motion put to a vote among the membership of the American Anthropological Association to boycott Israeli academic institutions.  Here’s the text . . .

 

The first thing I want to say is that I firmly support Palestinian rights and a Palestinian state; I firmly oppose the Israeli government’s occupation of Palestinian communities; and I strongly critique Israeli policies mistreating Palestinians in myriad ways.

 

In fact, I grew up in a household in which Palestinian rights was, literally, a nightly dinner-table conversation because my father worked as a public relations director of the only Jewish, anti-Zionist organization in the US, through my childhood in the 1960s.

 

The second thing I want to say is that I’m also deeply troubled by the prospect of boycotting any scholarly colleagues, whether Israeli or anyone else, because of the abuses of their government.

 

I get the logic of economic boycotts. These involve refraining from buying products that have ethical issues deeply implicated in the social conditions of their manufacture. Damaging a corporation or government where it most hurts—their bottom line—is also pragmatic. That produces an optimal fit between means and end.

Nestle Boycott

Academic boycotts are another creature. I’m convinced that the boycott of Israeli academic institutions, like all academic boycotts, takes aim at the wrong target. I oppose academic boycotts on philosophical and ethical grounds for four reasons:

 

First: The claim by supporters of this boycott that the boycott targets “institutions and not individuals” is disingenuous. As anthropologists, we’re trained to pay attention to the human effects of institutional processes. Indeed, that’s our stock-in-trade.

 

Boycotting an institution means, by definition, boycotting the people who work for the institution.

 

In the case at hand, if a majority of AAA members vote to support the proposed boycott, faculty and students at Israeli academic institutions, for example, would no longer have access to journals published by the AAA that are supplied to their institutions by the AAA’s distribution network, AnthroSource.

AnthroSourcepng

They wouldn’t be permitted to participate in the AAA’s Career Center or Graduate School Fair—if, say, they wanted to leave Israel for a US institution, either as a student or a professor.

AAA Career Center

They wouldn’t be listed in the AAA’s Guide to Departments. In short, they would be considered non-persons as far as our social universe is concerned. What sense does this make as a way to engage with our scholarly colleagues?

AnthroGuide 2015-16

Assuming all these effects would actually be upheld legally (and some of them might not–already, the American Studies Association is being sued by four scholars for its BDS vote), how would they possibly further the cause of Palestinian rights?

 

Secondly: By tarring a group of scholars with the same brush, we essentialize people by reference to their nationality. Surely, that’s a move we anthropologists have been in the forefront of opposing in so many other contexts.

 

In the case of a boycott of Israeli academic institutions, we would target precisely—indeed, perversely–many scholars who are among the most vocal opponents of the Israeli occupation of Palestinian lands—the very occupation that supporters of the boycott themselves oppose.

 

This is upside-down logic.

 

Thirdly: Beyond the specifics of this boycott lies an even more important issue: the broader political question of global ethics. If we decide to hold scholars and their scholarly institutions responsible for the misguided, unethical and brutal policies of their governments, why stop at Israel? Why not include all scholars based in China? All scholars based in Myanmar? All scholars based in Saudi Arabia? Sudan? Russia? N. Korea? When we start voting against our favorite repressive regime, the candidates start multiplying alarmingly.

 

Will we have any colleagues left in the world with whom to engage?

 

What about those of us in the US? Should we not boycott academic institutions of higher learning in the US for being complicit, both in the past and present, with objectionable policies?

 

Take your pick—racist “stop-and-frisk” practices, Iraq and Afghanistan bombing, ROTC recruitment on campuses to our unethical military, TSA over-reach, campus investment in environmentally polluting corporations, university hiring policies that promote exploitation of part-time/adjunct faculty—there’s plenty to hold American scholars accountable for, if our tactic is to equate scholars and their institutions with their governments’ (or campuses’) policies.

 

If we want to be consistent—and, surely, that’s one of the central aims of strong scholarship–where should an academic boycott end?

In designing any sort of political action, it’s crucial to keep the goal front and center. Losing track of the goal risks imitating the behavior we wish to condemn.

 

Fourth, and finally: we need to be mindful of the precise target of this proposed boycott. The vast majority of scholars who would be affected are Jews.

 

Deciding to target Jews for the abuses of their government, when we are not similarly targeting members of other religions and nations for the abuses of their governments, starts moving implicitly—if not unintentionally–toward anti-Semitism.

 

Given the history of anti-Semitism, which has produced brutal forms of oppression across over 2,000 years, including the Inquisition and the Holocaust, I think were ethically bound to be sensitive to the historical overtones and symbolic resonance of this boycott. To Jews, this academic boycott—targeting only residents of one of the many governments that has disturbing policies oppressing minority populations–is starting to feel all too familiar.

 

As a body of thoughtful scholars, the AAA should indeed forge means to oppose Israeli occupation of Palestinian communities and support the creation of a Palestinian state—means that will actually be consistent with, and promote, our goal.

 

How BDS Risks Going over to the Dark Side; or, Why I am Ashamed of My Association

I get the logic of economic boycotts for political reasons.

In high school, I stopped buying grapes to support Cesar Chavez’ protest of the slave-like working conditions of Mexican farm workers in grape vineyards.

I also stopped buying Saran Wrap, to protest Dow Chemical’s manufacture of napalm for killing civilians in Vietnam.

Dow Chemicals Boycott

When I became engaged, I informed my fiancé that I was disinterested in a diamond ring, to avoid supporting the apartheid regime that produced much of the world’s diamonds.

DeBeers Boycott

Since the 1970s, I haven’t bought gas at Shell stations—to protest the corporation that was supplying oil to the apartheid regime of South Africa, as well as polluting the Niger Delta region of Nigeria, where it has destroyed the livelihood of Ogoni fishers and impoverished surrounding communities.

Shell Boycott

In the 1980s, I stopped buying all products manufactured by Nestlé, to protest the aggressive marketing of infant formula to impoverished women in the global South, sold by saleswomen wearing white uniforms that made them look like nurses.

Nestle Boycott

Until 1989, I avoided buying cars made by Ford, which supplied military and police vehicles to the apartheid regime of South Africa.

All these economic boycotts make sense to me.  In every case, they involve refraining from buying products that have ethical issues deeply implicated in their manufacture.  Damaging a corporation where it most hurts—their bottom line—is also pragmatic.  Corporations make decisions based on profits.  Punishing the source of the ethical quagmire in the way that hurts that source the most seems an optimal fit between means and end.

There are boycotts . . . and then there are boycotts. 

The boycott of Israeli academic institutions that a majority of members of the American Anthropological Association present at the AAA Business Meeting in Denver recently voted to submit to the full AAA membership, for consideration of a AAA-sponsored statement, is a boycott of a different sort.  This is the right boycott of the wrong target.

In this boycott, we would target those who are among the most vocal opponents of the Israeli occupation of Palestinian lands—the very occupation that supporters of the boycott likewise oppose.

This upside-down logic is reminiscent of the “death penalty.”  Killing killers–to make a public statement that killing is wrong–makes as much sense as does boycotting opponents of the Israeli occupation of the West Bank, in order to oppose Israeli occupation of the West Bank.

The claim that the boycott targets “institutions and not individuals” is disingenuous at best.  As anthropologists, we are trained better than just about anyone else to pay attention to the human effects of institutional processes.  Indeed, that’s our stock-in-trade.  Unless an institution is devoid of humans, boycotting an institution means, by definition, boycotting those humans who work with and for the institution.

In the case at hand, if a majority of AAA members votes to support the proposed boycott, faculty and students at Israeli academic institutions, for example, would no longer have access to journals published by the American Anthropological Association that are supplied by AnthroSource.  They would not be permitted to participate in the AAA’s Career Center or Graduate School Fair.  They would not be listed in the AAA’s guide to departments of anthropology.

What next steps would individual scholars take, in solidarity with the spirit of the boycott? Shout down Israeli LGBT activists at a gay rights conference and then block them from existing the room?  Refuse to debate Israeli students in campus debates?  Prevent pro-Israel student groups from being allowed to exist on campuses?  Vote down Jewish students from joining student councils because of their religious affiliation?  In fact, all these troubling occurrences are already documented, with a recent report chronicling “54 percent reported instances of anti-Semitism on [US] campus[es] during the first six months of the 2013-2014 academic year.”  The AAA resolution would legitimate such actions, and hence expand the trend.

The AAA’s full membership will begin voting on the BDS resolution on April 15, 2016.  The resolution directs the American Anthropological Association to “refrain from any formal collaborations or other relationships with Israeli academic institutions, including the Israeli Anthropological Association.”  If it is passed by a majority of AAA members, will we see refusals by US universities to admit Israeli graduate students to their doctoral programs?  Will US scholars feel motivated, or pressured, to sever ties with Israeli co-authors and collaborators?  Will we see invitations to Israeli researchers to speak on US campuses or at US conference sessions rescinded?

In short, anthropologists who are affiliated with Israeli institutions would be considered non-persons as far as our scholarly universe is concerned.  The slope toward out-and-out anti-Semitism begins to appear ever more slippery.

Assuming all these effects would actually be upheld legally (and some might not, given, for example, the AAA journals’ publication by Wiley publishing company, which has its own legal requirements), how would they possibly further the cause of Palestinian rights?

Beyond the specifics of this misguided boycott lies an even more important issue: the broader political question of global ethics.

If we are to hold scholars responsible for the unethical and brutal policies of their governments, why stop at Israel?  Why not include all scholars based in, say, China?  All scholars based in Myanmar?  All scholars based in Saudi Arabia?  Syria?  Sudan?  Russia?  When we start voting for our favorite repressive regime on the basis of human rights violations, the candidates start multiplying alarmingly.

If we really take this imperative seriously, will we have any colleagues left in the world with whom to engage?

Hell, what about those of us in the US?  Should we not boycott our own academic institutions of higher learning for being complicit, both in the past and present, with objectionable policies?  Take your pick—racist “stop-and-frisk” practices,Human Rights Abuse-Ferguson

Iraq/Afghanistan bombing, TSA over-reach, (nutritious/fresh) “food deserts,” shameful incarceration rate of black men, below-poverty minimum wage,

 

WAGE nws kg 1ÑBrian Verdin, of Milwaukke holds up a sign as part of a protest of the lack of a minimum wage increase in the last three years. Low-wage workers joined with government officials, along with hundreds of supporters launch the campaign to raise minimum wage. PHOTO BY KYLE GRILLOT/ KGRILLOT@JOURNALSENTINEL.COM

WAGE nws kg 1ÑBrian Verdin, of Milwaukke holds up a sign as part of a protest of the lack of a minimum wage increase in the last three years. Low-wage workers joined with government officials, along with hundreds of supporters launch the campaign to raise minimum wage. PHOTO BY KYLE GRILLOT/ KGRILLOT@JOURNALSENTINEL.COM

health care system still in crisis, absence of sane and enforced gun ownership laws, ever-widening racial achievement gaps in education, unacceptable lack of meaningful jobs in inner cities—there’s plenty to hold American scholars accountable for, if our tactic is to equate scholars and scholarly institutions with their governments’ failed and abusive policies and practices.  But wasn’t anthropology the first discipline to point out that condemning abusive policies and practices in other societies is hypocritical when we don’t first protest our own societies’ abusive policies and practices?

Racism as Terrorism

In short, if we want to be consistent—and, surely, that’s one of the scion aims of strong scholarship in general, and a hallmark of social science in particular–where should an academic boycott end?

*

I get the feelings of frustration that impelled my anthropology colleagues to vote for this motion to boycott our Israeli colleagues.  But frustration over the lack of progress in ending Israeli occupation of Palestinian lands does not justify targeting colleagues who have nothing to do with that policy and, in many cases, strongly oppose it.  As an association, we need to go back to the drawing board and design measures that will have appropriate effects relevant to our goal: ending Israeli occupation of Palestinian lands.

And we need to remember the basics of Social Protest 101.  In designing any sort of political action, it’s crucial to keep the goal front and center.  Losing track of the goal risks imitating the behavior we aim to condemn.

 

Why Not “Je Suis Lassana”?

Much of the Western world has expressed solidarity with the right to publish offensive cartoons by identifying with the cartoonists at the iconoclastic weekly, Charlie Hebdo, who were killed by Islamicist fundamentalists.

To date, the Je Suis Charlie Facebook page has garnered some 315,000 “Likes.”

Multilingual “I am Charlie” mottos abound.

I am Charlie-Multilingual

“I am Charlie” bumper stickers and buttons flood the global online market.

I am Charlie Bumper Stickers

I am Charlie Buttons

Meanwhile, another living Parisian hero has received far less attention.

Two days after the attacks against the Charlie Hebdo journalists, a young immigrant named Lassana Bathily saved the lives of fifteen people trapped inside a Kosher supermarket, Hyper Cacher, after another armed Islamicist militant, Amedy Coulibaly, invaded the shop in which Lassana worked.

A practicing Muslim from an overwhelmingly Muslim nation, a teenage Lassana had left Mali in 2006 to join his father in Paris. Completing high school and qualifying as a trained tile worker, Lassina had overstayed his tourist visa to live as a working but undocumented immigrant until 2011, when he finally received working papers, but not citizenship.

Lassana Bathily

After gunfire rang out while he was working in the supermarket, Lassana immediately led five adults and a three-year-old down to a walk-in freezer in the basement. Lassana turned off the lights and raised the temperature. Cold and scared, the group nevertheless remained safe from the gunman (who had already killed four other customers).

Then, while the supermarket’s attacker remained at large inside the store, Lassana fearlessly used his knowledge of the building to exit (at high risk) through an elevator shaft and a fire escape, the goal being to help police free those still captive inside.

As soon as Lassana emerged onto the street, police immediately held, handcuffed, and questioned him for an hour-and-a-half under the mistaken impression that he was another attacker. (Dare we allege unconscious racism?)

Finally convincing them that he was, instead, a supermarket employee trying to help save the lives of his customers, Lassana effectively sketched the layout of the supermarket and gave the police a door key.

With the building design and key supplied by Lassana, the police were able to surreptitiously enter the supermarket (rather than storming the edifice, which would have alerted the attacker to their presence and further endangered the lives of the hostages). This quiet entry allowed the police to kill the gunman and free every one of the 15 live customers who had remained as terrified hostages.

Supermarket Hostages Released

In a television interview, Lassana later explained, “Yes, I helped Jews get out. We’re brothers. It’s not a question of being Jews or Christians or Muslims. We’re all in the same boat. You have to help each other to get through this crisis.”

In his home country of Mali, Lassana was recently welcomed by the nation’s president, foreign minister, and population at large as a national hero.

Lassana Bathily Arives in Mali
And in France, after having had several previous petitions for citizenship rejected (most recently in 2011), Lassana has finally received French citizenship.

Lassana Bathily with French Passport

Two lessons to take away from Lassana Bathily’s acts of courage:

1. Labeling someone a “Muslim” says nothing about the likelihood that s/he will kill–or save–a non-Muslim.

2. In an “othering”-crazy world enamored by the tendency to bifurcate everything and everyone into simple good/evil dualities, it’s still possible to raise human beings to transcend stereotypes and see the common humanity in species-mates.

And two questions:

1. Currently, immigrants in France wait an average of 14 years to be naturalized. Will all future undocumented migrants living peacefully in France, and contributing productively to the nation’s economy, have to undertake similar life-and-death acts of heroism to attain French citizenship in under 14 years?

2. As a small group of scholars who specialize in the study of Mali and surrounding populations have recently suggested in an online conversation, instead of “Je Suis Charlie,” why hasn’t the global meme been “Je Suis Lassana”?

 

P.S.  On March 24, 2015, Lassana Bathily was awarded a Medal of Valor from the Simon Wiesenthal Center, an “international Jewish human rights organization that fights anti-Semitism worldwide.”   If only this micro Jewish-Muslim collaboration could serve as a model for the Mid-East . . .