(New York Jewish Week) — The hundreds of flyers lining the walls of the Union Square subway station bore the faces of Israeli hostages, with the word “kidnapped” in bold letters above the photo and a plea to bring them home below.
“Entire Israeli family,” one of the pages said; “80-year-old Israeli grandfather,” read another. Others showed the faces of teenagers, a young couple or migrant workers, all missing and believed to be held by Hamas in Gaza.
But some of the posters were also hard to make out. Within minutes or hours of going up, many of them had been partially ripped off the subway station’s walls, tears obscuring the victims’ faces or details about their lives, while others were defaced with marker or surrounded by messages such as “Free Palestine.” Others were removed because of city regulations.
This week, the walls of New York City’s subway stations, campus buildings and other public spaces — along with those of other cities across the globe — have been plastered with the posters, a grassroots campaign to raise awareness of the roughly 200 hostages Hamas captured in its Oct. 7 attack on Israel. The fast-spreading initiative has given an outlet to supporters of Israel abroad who feel frustrated by their inability to aid the war effort, and isolated by their distance from the fighting.
But the posters have also become one more front in the battle for public opinion on the war — with opponents of Israel tearing down the posters, berating the activists and launching a counter-campaign highlighting Palestinian losses.
“We wanted to put the message out there. We wanted the world to know,” said one of the creators of the “Kidnapped From Israel” project, an Israeli street artist who goes by the nom de plume Dede Bandaid. “Every place they will tear them down, we will put up many, many more.”
Bandaid and his partner, Israeli artist Nitzan Mintz, were in New York on a three-month art residency when the war broke out. Within a day of Hamas’ attack, they decided to put their skills as street artists to use by designing and printing out the flyers. Initially, they printed 2,000 posters, taped them up around the city, and tried to enlist the help of passersby, most of whom dismissed the project.
“We felt that people don’t want to know the stories and it made us very sad,” Bandaid said. “We got home and we were very broken and we thought, ‘There’s no chance to make this project work.’”
They then posted a DropBox folder with the fliers on social media and collapsed into sleep. “When we woke up in the morning, our phones were just filled with photos and videos from people sharing what they were doing,” Bandaid said. “The whole city was filled with posters.”
The project spread online, overwhelming their DropBox capacity, so they set up a website where anyone could download the images, and began receiving requests for translations from abroad. There are now posters in more than a dozen languages, including Greek, Romanian, Finnish and Indonesian, and campaigners dispersing the posters in far-flung locations such as Paris, New Zealand and Prague. Bandaid estimates that around 1,000 activists took up the initiative in Berlin.
Celebrities including Gal Gadot have gotten on board, posting the images on social media, while other campaigners have adapted the flyers and projected them onto the sides of buildings, put them on billboards or on digital truck displays in New York City and elsewhere. WhatsApp groups created earlier this year by Israeli expatriates to coordinate protests against Israel’s judicial overhaul now feature callouts to put up the posters.
“I feel like for me to start with this campaign, I needed that, not just for my own people but also for myself to feel to be part of a community,” said Israel artist Ronit Levin Delgado, who connected with Mintz through mutual friends in the art world. “For me as an Israeli, with all my family in Israel, that’s the only thing I can do right now because I cannot be there.”
To obtain consent to use the photos, Bandaid and Mintz work with a designer in Israel, Tal Huber, who contacts the families of the hostages to obtain their pictures and identifying details. Around 100 of the 200 hostages are featured on the flyers. Some of the families have reached out to the artists, asking that their loved ones be included in the campaign. Others, after receiving notice that their loved ones were killed, have asked that their photos be removed.
“The idea of being kidnapped, the idea of wanting someone to have his freedom, I think it’s a very strong message and I think many people believe in that,” Bandaid said. “We just lit the match, but everyone took it to their own end.”
Levin Delgado, who lost a friend from the artist community in the massacre of 260 people at an outdoor party, assembled with several dozen other activists, mostly Israelis, at Union Square to post the images in and around the subway station on Monday night. She said the group put up 2,000 posters in four hours, and part of their goal was to interact with passersby, some of whom stopped to ask about the project.
One young woman stopped on her way down to the station platform to ask Levin Delgado about the flyers. “They’re taking everyone, no mercy for anyone. Women, children,” Levin Delgado told her. “We just want to raise awareness and bring them back.”
The woman appeared sympathetic. “I heard about what’s going on, but I wasn’t sure specifically. I didn’t know about the hostages,” she said. “I’ll definitely share it. I’ll take a picture.”
But almost as soon as they went up — in some cases, within minutes — many of the posters were torn down, leaving glue marks and tattered paper on the station walls.
Levin Delgado noticed pro-Palestinian activists pasting messages around hostage flyers posted outside the station. The pro-Palestinian posters featured the Palestinian flag, or a photo of a Palestinian captioned with the words “Murdered” and “Stop the oppression.” The posters appeared to be an imitation of the Israeli fliers.
In some cases, someone had written “Free Palestine” in black marker on the Israeli hostage posters. Other fliers bore the image of a Palestinian-American boy killed in Illinois on Monday.
Levin Delgado confronted the pro-Palestinian activists, concerned they were removing the Israeli posters, and got into a heated exchange about the conflict.
“We have almost 2,000 that got murdered,” Levin Delgado said.
“We have millions over the last many years,” one of the pro-Palestinian activists said, a significant exaggeration of the Palestinian death toll throughout the history of the conflict. The pro-Palestinian activists declined to be interviewed by the New York Jewish Week.
Tensions stayed high, but the two sides finally agreed to leave each other’s posters alone. The verbal sparring continued, however, and minutes later, another passerby tore another Israeli hostage poster down and threatened to punch Levin Delgado when she addressed the incident.
Not all posters were removed for ideological reasons. Some came off subway station walls due to Metropolitan Transportation Authority policy, which bars putting unauthorized signs up on MTA property. An MTA spokesperson said staff remove any posters they see while making their rounds, and added that the fliers were allowed elsewhere. Activists have posted them on street light poles, walls and other public spaces.
Union Square isn’t the only place where the posters have sparked debate. At New York University, just blocks away, the campus group Students Supporting Israel posted photos online of the posters being thrown in the trash, and of people holding bunches of the crumpled, torn posters in their arms.
Ari Axelrod, an American Jewish actor, director and singer, said police had politely removed some of the fliers he helped put up at Columbus Circle on Monday. Axelrod had been leaving the roundabout’s subway station when he came across a group of Israelis and offered to join them. A pro-Palestinian activist then barged into the group and started tearing down the flyers, Axelrod said.
“This guy just comes up and says, ‘Put up all the faces of the Palestinian hostages of the past 75 years,’” Axelrod said. “He kept talking, saying, ‘You’re supporting genocide. You’re supporting ethnic cleansing.’”
The pro-Palestinian activist left the scene to summon police, who told the Israelis that the signs were not allowed on MTA property. One of the Israelis, who had put up the posters, asked that only police or MTA officers remove the flyers so they would not be “desecrated” by others.
“The cops were very understanding. ‘We get why you’re doing it, we understand, but it has to come down,’” Axelrod said, quoting the police. “The police said, ‘We’ll stand guard, we’ll leave it up for a little bit and make sure nobody else takes it down.’”
Axelrod said he watched the police as they surveyed the posters, reading the names and looking at the pictures.
“One of the police officers says, ‘Four years old. Jesus,’” before he started removing the posters, Axelrod said.
The group of Israelis headed back up to the sidewalk, where the person who had directed the effort to hang the posters broke down in tears.
Back downtown, after clashing with rival activists, some of the Israelis kept hanging the posters. Levin Delgado, still toting a bag of flyers and glue, made a last lap around Union Square to check how many remained on the wall. At a staircase down to the subway, she was elated to find a row of posters nearly intact, but then noticed two freshly-drawn swastikas on the opposite white tile wall. She sprayed the hate symbols with glue and pasted an image of a kidnapped Israeli family on top.
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Anti-Israel Crybullies and the Free Speech Inversion
The term “crybully” rose to prominence over the last decade, and describes a phenomenon that has become increasingly common on campus.
As defined at Dictionary.com, a crybully is “a person who self-righteously harasses or intimidates others while playing the victim, especially of a perceived social injustice.”
This is a particularly accurate label for the crowd of anti-Israel activists who have spent decades working to silence and intimidate Jewish and Israeli voices on campuses, while also portraying themselves as victims of an attack on their free speech.
Anti-Israel activists have long engaged in conduct designed to suppress the ability of Jewish and Israeli voices to speak on campus. Through the so-called “Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions” (BDS) movement, these activists have openly called to silence an entire category of speakers — namely, Israelis and anyone who supports Israel.
For decades, BDS activists have disrupted events, even including Holocaust memorial events, and one can only guess as to how many Israelis and Zionists have been overtly or quietly denied opportunities or platforms because of their identity.
Jewish institutions on campuses became increasingly targeted for vandalism and threats. Overt expressions of antisemitism became increasingly normalized. And the effect has been palpable.
A recent survey found that 31.9% of Jewish students have “felt unable to speak out about campus antisemitism,” and 38.3% said they “would be uncomfortable with others on campus knowing about their views of Israel.” Less than half of Jewish students said they felt “very” or “extremely” physically safe on campus.
Another study found that among Jewish sorority and fraternity members, two-thirds had felt unsafe on campus at some point, and half had felt the need to hide their identity. Those students were not just withholding their speech; they felt afraid to even be identified as Jewish on campus.
Their fear is not unjustified.
Nationally, hate crimes against Jews are at shockingly high and disproportionate levels, with four times as many anti-Jewish crimes as anti-Muslim and anti-Arab crimes combined. One need only look at some of the recent scenes on campus, such as anti-Israel demonstrators besieging Jewish students locked in a room at Cooper Union, to understand why Jewish students are afraid.
It is the Jewish students who are being attacked at their own rallies or while putting up posters of innocent Israeli civilians taken hostage by Hamas. It is Jewish students who are being forced to reject a central part of their Jewish identity if they want to participate in university functions.
We know where much of this hate is coming from. As shown by one study, the presence of the major anti-Israel student organization, Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP), is one of the best predictors for the perception of a hostile climate for Jews on campuses.
As one New York appellate court ruling explained, a university’s conclusion that an SJP chapter would “work against, rather than enhance [a university’s] commitment [to] open dialogue” was “not without sound basis in reason” nor “taken without regard to the facts.”
Which brings us to the “cry” part of “crybully.”
Anti-Israel activists shriek and howl over alleged threats to their free speech. But the evidence is thin that there is any reason for anti-Israel students to feel that their freedom of expression is under any serious threat on campus.
Moves against various SJP chapters on universities have not been on the basis of their beliefs or expression, but rather their violations of legitimate university rules, and even plausible arguments that National SJP has run afoul of the Anti-Terrorism Act.
That a handful of students have lost out on job offers because they expressed support for a designated terrorist organization that had just murdered and raped its way through southern Israel is hardly a threat to free speech, either. Private actors are not restrained by the First Amendment, and as explained in Ilya Shapiro’s brilliant piece at The Free Press, one can hardly qualify these examples as “cancel culture.”
And while there has been a rise in hate crimes against Arabs and Muslims, the demographic typically associated with the Palestinian cause, the figures still pale in comparison to hate crimes against Jews, which have skyrocketed from their already disturbingly high levels. And those hate crimes are not being committed by Jews.
Unfortunately, some otherwise laudable free speech advocates are falling for the crybully trick, and adopting some perplexing positions. The Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression (FIRE), for example, has repeatedly opposed the use of the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance’s non-legally binding definition of antisemitism, incorrectly suggesting that it would limit speech. On the other hand, FIRE has curiously refused to take a position on BDS — which openly works to limit the speech of an entire category of people — and has even joined failed lawsuits against anti-BDS laws.
This is not to say that FIRE shouldn’t stand up for anti-Israel activists when their legitimate rights are infringed. To the contrary, I encourage FIRE to continue to do so. But free speech advocates, like those at FIRE, should rethink their role in protecting America’s sacred belief in free speech. When substantial numbers of Jews and Israelis are afraid to express themselves and are being pushed out of entire academic communities because of who they are, that is as big of a threat to free expression as any.
Just the other day, the concerned father of a Jewish student, who was personally facing intimidation on campus, shared with me his conversation with a senior university official. The official acknowledged that most Jewish students were afraid to even report the antisemitism they were facing, given the hostile climate. But, the father explained, the official wasn’t saying this because he had any intention of addressing the hostile environment he just acknowledged existed. Rather, it was a warning: make a fuss over this and it might get even worse for your son.
That is the disturbing reality Jews and Israelis are facing on campus: not just hostility, but apathy from those in a position of responsibility to address the situation. That is why I hope free speech advocates will find a constructive way to help address the situation before it gets even worse.
David M. Litman is a Senior Analyst at the Committee for Accuracy in Middle East Reporting and Analysis (CAMERA).
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Tree of Life Synagogue Unveils Preliminary Design of New Memorial Honoring Victims of 2018 Shooting
Organizers have unveiled the first design for a new outdoor memorial at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh that will pay tribute to the 11 people killed in the antisemitic mass shooting at the Jewish center in 2018.
The “10/27 Memorial” is being designed in collaboration with a group of the victims’ family members, communal leaders, and congregational representatives. The design includes a walkway leading visitors into a garden memorial with 11 sculpted forms of open books, each representing one of the victims killed in the attack. The books represent the “Book of Life.”
“To be inscribed in the Book of Life is to be inscribed in eternity, to be inscribed in memory,” architect Daniel Libeskind said of the memorial. “It’s not a cemetery. It has to be an affirmation of life.”
Libeskind developed the preliminary design for the memorial in partnership with the Memorialization Working Group. He also serves as the lead architect for rebuilding the Tree of Life synagogue following the attack.
“Creating a meaningful memorial is a highly emotional and personal process, while at the same time, it must communicate to a broader audience,” Libeskind explained. “For the 10/27 Memorial, we worked closely with the families and the congregations throughout the design process. It was through this collaboration that we created a memorial that celebrates those we lost and brings the families and the community together in healing.”
Eleven Jewish worshipers were murdered and six others were injured in the shooting on Oct. 27, 2018, during Shabbat morning services at the Tree of Life synagogue, in the Squirrel Hill neighborhood of Pittsburgh. The massacre is considered the deadliest antisemitic attack in United States history, and the perpetrator, 46-year-old truck driver Robert Gregory Bowers, was arrested at the scene and charged with 63 federal crimes and 36 state charges. He was convicted and given the death penalty in August, but a date for his execution has not been scheduled.
“The journey to unveiling the preliminary memorial designs has been a long and emotional one, but I am grateful for a process that prioritized our hopes that our loved ones are remembered for how they lived, not solely for how they were murdered,” said Diane Rosenthal, a member of the Memorialization Working Group whose two brothers, Cecil and David Rosenthal, were killed in the attack.
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CNN’s Nima Elbagir Parachutes Into Israel to Whitewash Palestinian Prisoners
Over the past couple of weeks, CNN’s chief international investigative correspondent, Nima Elbagir, has been reporting from Israel, focusing on the Palestinian prisoners who were released as part of the hostage deal between Israel and Hamas.
However, rather than providing an objective look at the subject, Elbagir’s seven written and video reports are overly sympathetic to these prisoners, whitewashing them and their crimes while simultaneously deriding Israel’s justice system.
In separate reports, Elbagir spotlighted four different female Palestinian prisoners, all of whom were released as part of the deal: Hanan al-Barghouti, Marah Bkeer, Malak Silman, and Fatima Shahin.
Hanan al-Barghouti’s story is told by her sister-in-law, Iman al-Barghouti, who claims that “neither she nor Hanan is involved in the politics of this war, yet they suffer its consequences.”
Aside from the fact that Hanan al-Barghouti’s arrest was unrelated to the current war between Israel and Hamas (she was arrested in September 2023), it is inaccurate to portray Hanan as apolitical, as she was arrested on allegations of supporting terrorism.
In her first interview after release from Israeli jails with Palestinian TV, Hanan Barghouti called ‘mother’ of the Palestinian prisoners describes the joy in the female wards on October 7th:
“We cheered at the top of our lungs ‘We are all men of Muhamad Dief!’” pic.twitter.com/WMTMmEk2mE
— Gaza Report – اخبار غزة (@gaza_report) November 27, 2023
Elbagir also referred to al-Barghouti’s brother, Nael al-Barghouti, the longest-serving Palestinian prisoner in Israeli jail, describing him as a “political prisoner.”
In a written report that Elbagir published alongside other journalists, Nael al-Barghouti is also described as having first been arrested in 1978 for “engaging in attacks against the Israeli military.”
What the terms “political prisoner” and “attacks against the Israeli military” don’t tell us is that Nael al-Barghouti was originally incarcerated in 1978 for the murder of an Israeli bus driver, Mordechai Yekuel.
In an interview with Elbagir, Marah’s mother describes her as “a child and she’s so innocent.”
The impression one gets from this report is that Marah Bkeer was an innocent Palestinian teen who was unjustly incarcerated by Israel.
It’s only at the end of the report that CNN notes that following its initial publication, the news organization was made aware that Bkeer was in jail for “stabbing an Israeli police officer.”
The fact that Nima Elbagir could initially publish such a sympathetic portrayal of a prisoner without informing the viewer that she’s imprisoned for committing a violent crime is the height of journalistic negligence, especially for someone considered to be the “chief international investigative correspondent.”
The child is Marah Bakir. On Oct 12, 2015, age 15, she left school, took a knife and stabbed two Israelis in Jerusalem’s Sheikh Jarrah quarter. Shot by police before she could finish off her victims, she was saved by an Israeli medic whose father was murdered some weeks earlier. pic.twitter.com/ZYfnCs5vE5
— This Ongoing War (@ThisOngoingWar) November 24, 2023
The third Palestinian prisoner who is profiled by Nima Elbagir is Malak Silman, whose boisterous reunion with her mother was highlighted by CNN in two separate reports.
While Elbagir does acknowledge the reason for Silman’s imprisonment (she attempted to stab an Israeli police officer), she almost immediately downplays this by claiming in one report that her family, lawyers, and some human rights organizations have described her imprisonment as a “miscarriage of justice” and by noting in another report that she was imprisoned for attempted murder even though no one was injured (which is not the legal threshold for attempted murder).
Are you saying that membership of the Islamic Jihad terrorist organization is not grounds to call Malak Salman a terrorist, @nimaelbagir?!
All of these people were in prison for a reason. Most of them for committing violent acts of terror.
— HonestReporting (@HonestReporting) November 25, 2023
The last Palestinian prisoner featured in Nima Elbagir’s reports was Fatima Shahin, who was arrested after stabbing an Israeli outside Gush Etzion in April 2023.
In her piece, Elbagir reports that Shahin was accused of “attempted murder” but then allows her to deny this and accuse Israeli forces of recklessly shooting at her.
At no point does Elbagir alert the viewer that, unlike Malak Silman, Shahin is accused of actually stabbing someone and wounding them.
In the report, Elbagir claims that Shahin was “only detained, not charged. She didn’t go to trial. She wasn’t given any opportunity to defend herself.”
However, in acting as a passionate advocate for Fatima Shahin rather than as an objective journalist, Nima Elbagir is disregarding the fact that her incarceration is fairly recent and that, like in many other democratic countries, it can be a while before cases go to trial.
In addition, a report from June 2023 shows that Fatima Shahin had appeared at least once in a hearing before a judge.
Alongside her sympathetic portraits of these four Palestinian prisoners, Nima Elbagir’s bias against Israel is further evident in several of these reports.
Elbagir refers to the Israeli government’s prohibition of public celebrations for these released prisoners in eastern Jerusalem as the demonization of “Palestinian joy.”
In these reports, the testimonies of Palestinian prisoners and their families (including blatant falsehoods) are published without criticism and comment, but Israeli claims are investigated and denigrated.
In her report on the first batch of released Palestinian prisoners, Elbagir claims that “there is no grounds to call them terrorists” even though this group included Malak Silman (who is also a member of Islamic Jihad) and Fatima Shahin (who stabbed a civilian).
The Israeli military justice system is described as being “murky” and a report alleges that the administrative detention system allows “Palestinian prisoners to be detained indefinitely, without trial or stated charge.” This ignores the fact that Jews can also be subjected to administrative detention, that there are a wide variety of safeguards in place, and that the detention has to be renewed by a judge every six months.
Lastly, Elbagir’s reporting equates the families of Palestinian prisoners and Israeli hostages, with such statements as “Families on both sides … are dealing with the reality of those who won’t be coming home,” and “This week’s diplomatic breakthrough offers a glimmer of hope for the families of Palestinian prisoners, as well as those of Israeli hostages.”
This false moral equivalency between prisoners detained for violence and terrorism and hostages kidnapped from their homes is emblematic of Nima Elbagir’s recent reporting from Israel — a sympathetic portrayal of Palestinian prisoners that depicts them as innocent victims of a malicious justice system, an empathetic eye to the families of these prisoners, and total disregard for the severity of their violent pasts.
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