‘We’re not hiding’

‘We’re not hiding’

JewBelong’s billboards take the fight on antisemitism around the country

A JewBelong billboard.
A JewBelong billboard.

JewBelong’s website — logically enough, it’s jewbelong.com — is a kind of illustrated guide to the last decade of American Jewish social history.

When the site, and the organization behind it, was created about 10 years ago, its goal was straightforward. It wanted to demystify being Jewish, to take down some of the entry barriers to Jewish life, and to illuminate the joyous, spiritually engaging, and emotionally fulfilling parts of Jewish community and tradition.

That’s still clear on the site. It’s breezy, funny, resolutely informal. Parts of it are actively adorable — take a look at the “team” section, where you’ll find overwhelmingly cute pictures of the people who work on the site — activists, philanthropists, educators, rabbis, graphic artists — as fetching little kids. Who wouldn’t love it?

A few years ago, as antisemitism on the right started its rise from the sewers toward a kind of social acceptability, at least in some part of the world, JewBelong started a campaign pointing out antisemitism.

It used JewBelong’s signature color, hot pink, and its standard tone, light, to ask such questions as “Here’s an idea: Let’s ask everyone who’s wondering if antisemitism is real to wear a yarmulke for a week and then report back.”

Now, since October 7, antisemitism from the left has burgeoned, often curving toward the antisemitism of the right, as if proving the horseshoe theory of politics, which says that the far right and far left, each with fascistic tendencies, have more similarities to each other than to centrists and moderates.

These are some of JewBelong’s billboards. (jewbelong)

And JewBelong has responded by putting out another set of billboards, more confrontational than the earlier ones, in cities across the country.

It is necessary for Jews to recognize the urgency of action, JewBelong’s cofounder, Archie Gottesman, said. Ms. Gottesman recently moved out of Summit, where she lived for years until her recent move to Manhattan; her parents, Paula Gottesman of Morristown and Jerry Gottesman, z’l, were major philanthropists who created, among many other things, the innovative Greater MetroWest Day School Initiative, which makes day-school education affordable for everyone.

It would be lovely to be able to concentrate on the positive, but now’s not the time for that, Ms. Gottesman said.

“If people are Jewish and they are not doing anything and everything they can — and that means supporting groups that are actively fighting antisemitism or using whatever platform they have or literally just talking about it and being outraged by it — then they’re not doing enough.

“Unless you lived through World War II, you’ve never lived through a time like this. This is an existential moment for the Jewish community. If we continue to think of it as a side issue, as something that will solve itself, or as something that somebody else will take care of, then we will not leave a healthy Jewish community for our children and grandchildren.

“This is it. This is the moment.”

Ms. Gottesman is both puzzled and alarmed by the Jews who seem not to sense the urgency. “I am way too often surprised by the number of Jewish people who are still not engaged,” she said. “They’re not angry. They’re not on a college campus, and neither are their children and grandchildren, so it’s not happening to them.

“But I assume they watch the news and read the newspapers. And they should stop supporting any organization that is not supporting the Jewish community.

“I mean that about anything they support,” she continued. “If they give to a hospital, or to their alma mater, or to anything, they have to consider the effect on the Jewish community. We’re in a really dire situation, and we need everybody to show support.”

JewBelong has decided to react to it with giant, highly visible billboards, because “awareness is our way out of the echo chamber,” she said. If people talk only to likeminded others, the message will not leave the bubble.

“The other side has been really excellent at spreading their message,” Ms. Gottesman said. “The narrative is a lie, but you don’t have to be right to be popular. You just have to be really loud.

“They have spread vicious lies about Jews and about Israel, and it’s really poisoned a generation of young adults. We are in a messaging battle.

This one is a digital sign in Times Square.

“There are millions of people who certainly are not going to become experts in the Middle East conflict, but right now they think what the other side wants them to think. They think that Israel is an oppressor and that all Palestinians are innocent. There are a lot of people who are strongly vocal in their approval of Hamas. For the other side to be able to pull the wool over all those people’s eyes — that takes real skill.”

Her billboards, which are in 32 cities, are not aimed at those people who already believe that Israel is committing genocide and Hamas is an embattled social service agency. They’re pointed instead at what Ms. Gottesman calls “the mushy middle. It’s people who are not that interested in the issue. It’s not their number-one issue.

“Jews are not my audience.” Most likely they already have an opinion. “There are some fringe Jews who are antisemitic, but they’re a real small number. Only a small number of Jews are anti-Zionist, and their minds are not going to be changed.” And when you consider that only about 2 percent of the United States is Jewish, you realize that it’s a very small group.

JewBelong’s billboards often attract hateful graffiti too, Ms. Gottesman said. “There are regional differences. There is a lot more graffiti in northern California, in the Bay area. We had a campaign there, and a lot of the billboards were graffitied really quickly.” When that happens, the befouled vinyl is replaced with a clear version that carries the same message. “We had to file hate crime reports. It really makes some people so mad that Jews are speaking up that they climb up — remember, these are very high billboards — to paint messages on them.”

In a way, that means the billboards are successful. “Getting under their skin is important,” she said.

Meanwhile, on the other side, the pro-Palestinians, the anti-Zionists, the antisemites who are protesting “are not a grassroots movement,” Ms. Gottesman said. “It’s not being planned by some kid in his dorm room in Oberlin.

This JewBelong sign was vandalized. (jewbelong)

“There are rules of engagement — when they say that, you say this.” The “this” usually has to do with the Zionist oppressors. There seems to be money funding much of the protests, although it’s not clear where it’s coming from. And then there are the billboards. They’re not like JewBelong’s signs, which are clearly labeled as coming from the organization. Instead, they seem grassroots, but they have similar messages.

To fight that, “JewBelong is putting up billboards to fight antisemitism,” Ms. Gottesman said. “We’re putting them up in 31 states.” When the billboards go up, “they get talked about in the local mainstream news, and then a reporter goes out and interviews people about antisemitism — not Jews, just local people — and that gets the discussion going.”

And that’s the point, she continued. “They’re hard conversations. People would rather not talk about antisemitism. It’s a stain on the country right now. But JewBelong forces the subject.

“We get a strong response, often from a lot of non-Jews who say, ‘It took you long enough! Why weren’t you Jews talking about this before?’

“But I think that to a large extent, Jews were scared to talk about it, and a lot of the time people don’t know how to bring it up. There are many Jewish organizations, but a lot of them are in an echo chamber.

“I think that now it’s time to get out of the echo chamber and go to where the conversation has to be. They want us to hide, but we’re not hiding.”

This is a pro-Palestinian sign; the group that signed it is hard to find, so its funding is unclear. (jewbelong)

Recently, she gave a talk at the Joseph Kushner Hebrew Academy in Livingston, Ms. Gottesman reported. Later, she met with the head of school, Rabbi Eliezer Rubin. When seniors graduate from Kushner, often they take a gap year, but then, for the first time in their lives, they go on to places outside the Jewish bubble. “I said I feel so bad, because your kids are going to schools like Princeton and Harvard and Yale, and it’s so hard to be there now.

“And he said he doesn’t feel that. He said that they need to go to those places, because the outside world is the world, and you can’t have your kids live in an isolation chamber. They have to be able to be out in the world. They have to be educated, and brave, and ready to speak.

“It was poignant, and it made me think that he’s right. Yes, it’s scary, but yes, this is where life is.”

She wishes that Jews who are bothered by the antisemitism out in the world now would do what they can. Most people cannot put up massive billboards, but they can “make a phone call or send an email to their senator or member of Congress.

JewBelong is a nonprofit, and it has to raise funds to afford the billboards, as well as all the resources it posts and the programs it fosters. “I wish that people would sign up for our emails” — there’s a link on the home-page at jewbelong.com — “and follow us on Facebook and Instagram.

“We need people to follow us,” she said. Learn what you can do on JewBelong’s website. Meanwhile, “we just do what we are meant to be doing,” Ms. Gottesman said.

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