The Kidnapped Posters and Me

November 10: Ripped posters of Israeli hostages on the Upper East Side and Upper West Side.
Photo: Thomas Prior

I saw someone ripping down one of those KIDNAPPED posters the other day. I live in a neighborhood where there are a lot of those posters. I have no idea whether the person ripping them down is Jewish, Muslim, Israeli, Palestinian, or none of the above. Honestly, their vibe was none of the above; their vibe was “college.” Their expression was blank and even and stony, the face people put on when someone asks them for money on the street and they are not going to make eye contact or break stride but they still want to manifest the plausible deniability of cruel intention that adds up to a performance of civility. This person was on a mission; part of the mission was that they were not going to engage about the mission. I wondered what the mission was. I don’t know. I flinched when I saw the tearing-down. It felt aggressive, though I am as sure as I am sure of anything that this person did not think of themselves as aggressive and would have taken offense at the word. The next day, the posters were back up, now entirely covered in clear tape; if someone wanted to get rid of them, they would have to use a box cutter.

Soon after that, they were box-cuttered down.

Soon after that, they were up again in new places.

This angry, silent, futile proxy war being fought by mostly anonymous combatants, lamppost by lamppost, feels like a perfect realization of the mistrust and noncommunication that has seized much of this city since October 7 — a city shared by huge numbers of Muslims and Jews, though the visibility of the two groups is certainly not equal.

Torn Up and Apart

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I think I understand the impulse to pull the posters down. I assume it’s a statement that for once, at least on this lamppost on this morning, the life of an imperiled Israeli civilian is not going to be privileged in public discourse over the life of a killed Palestinian civilian. I think it’s a way of saying, “Your suffering is not greater than their suffering,” in a city whose mightiest institutions have mostly treated Jews as an “us” and Muslims as a “them.” And perhaps those who believe the posters are propaganda intended not simply to make you look at them but to make you look away from something else are right. Yet ripping them down still carries a personal cost; even if unintentionally, it hardens one’s heart. Its effect is “I don’t want to see this person” or “This pain is inconvenient to my argument.” And for some people, it is clearly a way of saying, “I’m sick of being told to consider the suffering of Jews.” While old-fashioned heartland antisemitism is rising among the far right, as well as its celebrity strains (Marjorie Taylor Greene, Kanye West, an occasional Elon Musk tweet), it’s an action that requires Jews to decode the sentiment behind it, if there is in fact only one sentiment. How do you decode whether a gesture is antisemitic, anti-Israel, anti-propaganda, or none of the above?

Whatever the reason(s), the gesture, one of unflinching certainty, feels dangerous right now. If you rip down a picture of someone who is suffering, if you convince yourself that rendering that person just a little less real to other people is a means to a righteous end, you are, I think, doing something menacing — not menacing to the safety of Palestinians or Israelis, because, let’s be clear, the whole business of postering and unpostering is made thousands of miles away in a cocoon of relative safety, but menacing to your own humanity. It feels akin to the ugliness of saying, “There are no Palestinian civilians,” or any other glib slur used to reinforce the idea that Palestinians are less than people and that therefore killing them must be less than murder. I would like to see the posters stay up, but with posters of Gazans on every lamppost alongside them — not to mention on storefronts, at construction sites, and in subway ad spaces. A city in which nobody could walk a block without being confronted and discomfited by the horrific and, let’s acknowledge, wildly asymmetrical human cost of this war would be a better and perhaps more humane city.

Probably. I don’t know. I am not sure of much right now regarding October 7 and everything that has followed. I am not even sure where I stand with people — colleagues, friends, acquaintances, neighbors — whom
I have long regarded as kindred spirits. I am writing I a lot because we, with its assumption of shared experience, feels presumptuous these days, unearned, dangerous in itself. We has never been a word Jews can comfortably use about other Jews, certainly not in New York City. We are not just one thing. We are not just two things. We are a vast and divided populace united by one commonality that in practice is often no commonality at all. There are things about which we have disagreed for so long that we don’t speak to a lot of us anymore. We have nothing to say to one another.

But what if I narrow we down, way down, all the way from “we Jews” to “we largely secular, culturally Jewish, Diasporan, generally progressive, Netanyahu-rejecting, pro-two-state, pro-Palestinian-autonomy Jews”? There are a lot of us here; you’ve seen us at rallies and vigils and at the bottom of petitions and open letters and on MSNBC. We’re fluent in that blank and pleasant and stony expression, too — in fact, some of us are certainly the ones taking down the posters. We put on that face when we walk by Lubavitchers on the street asking us if we’re Jewish or by Jews who have nothing better to do than scream at us that we’re bad Jews because they think unquestioning solidarity with Israel is some sort of enforceable law. (A recent Jerusalem Post editorial simply announced that a lot of us are no longer Jews, which may represent, if nothing else, a touching belief in the power of the press.) You know us. You work with us. We’re your friends. We think you’re our friends. Some of you are. And some of you are but maybe only up to a point. Jews have long been used to being treated as a questionable minority by other minorities. But now, the number of people who think we’re part of the problem is rising. Perhaps you are among those people.

We’re used to taking shit from those to the right of us, and we’re used to giving it back in kind. What we’re not used to is the other stuff. The stuff from parts of the left. The person we lately hear casually say “Jews” when they mean “some Israelis,” the same person who then catches themself or doesn’t. We’re not used to any mention of lost Israeli lives being greeted with irritation, as if the mere act of acknowledgment constitutes straying off topic. People we know have come to resent the obligation to take in what Hamas did on October 7 as a kind of verbal toll they have to pay before they can talk about how bad it is to kill Palestinian civilians. Is it a toll? Is that what we’re asking for, what we feel we’re owed? Or are we just asking that all civilian dead be considered in the totality of horrific loss? Pressed on three sides — by old-guard antisemites, by right-wing AIPAC-loving American Jews for whom allegiance to Israeli policies is paramount, and by a subset of left-progressives for whom we are now a suspect category of people whose bona fides need to be proved — it’s little wonder that some Jews are retreating into silence.

We live in the age of trauma as an entry ticket to any argument, so since October 7, Jews have made a lot of mention of generational trauma, of feeling unsafe, of the choking anxiety of being hated because of who we are. That is the linguistic currency of the 2020s, an essential form of self-credentialing if you want to be admitted into a discussion of oppression as a victim rather than as a perpetrator. But it’s also the language of many decades ago, and it reflects one of the least talked-about divides among American Jews — the chasm between Jews raised in a tradition of the belief in justice for all people, of solidarity with the oppressed, of the essentiality of fighting for the rights of others, and Jews who were instead raised on warnings: It could happen again. It could happen here. It could happen to us. Never assume safety. Never assume an ally is an ally. They can always turn on you. The border between those two groups is porous, and there’s a lot of overlap, but for many on one side or the other, that gap is unbridgeable; those extremes of how we relate to Jewish identity are crystallized, even calcified, in childhood, rooted in parental psychology and often in irrefutable family history. Jews like me, Jews who tend to resist the idea of claiming trauma, who came of age in a culture in which spotting antisemitism around every corner was a joke about old-world fearfulness (see Alvy Singer’s “Jew eat?” in Annie Hall), are now paranoid about becoming paranoid Jews.

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