Unraveling Antisemitism

A cultural organizing project and map for discussion, organizing, and struggle to win a world free from antisemitism

Starting in 2018 and into early 2021, more than 70 JFREJ members participated in a cultural organizing project to understand, struggle against, and imagine a world free from antisemitism. JFREJ members and artists Rachel Schragis and Rebecca Katz facilitated this process, which involved JFREJers of all ages and backgrounds, including members of our Mizrahi & Sephardi, Jews of Color, and Poor & Working Class Caucuses.

The result is Unraveling Antisemitism: a powerful work of art inspired by Jewish traditions; a visual representation of the way we twist ourselves into knots when we try to understand antisemitism, and; a tool to be used for continued discussion, organizing, and struggle.

BREAKING DOWN THE PIECE

What does it mean to unravel antisemitism? It means looking at the facts, the histories, and the questions. It means making connections, embracing the contradictions, and doing that work together in community.

THE DIFFERENT ELEMENTS TO "UNRAVEL”

  • Context: The triangle at the top of the chart answers the questions “who should read this?” and “why does this matter?”

  • Facts: The center of the chart is made up of four maps. The top map breaks down antisemitism; the building blocks that fuel it and the ways it shows up. Below this chart is another that attempts to map out who Jews are, making it abundantly clear that Jews are not a monolith; we’re a complicated, messy people! Two more sections just below break down Jews’ relationships to race and class in the context of the United States.

  • Contradictions: Bordering the charts about antisemitism and Jews are a series of contradicting assertions we wrestle with when talking about Jews, antisemitism, and racial capitalism. Each set of statements is illustrated as two overlapping circles, to represent that the two statements can seem opposing, but are both true.

  • Histories: The external border includes 14 historical moments with collages of imagery that highlight Jewish resistance and resilience through time. Moving from right to left, the direction in which Hebrew is written, the images are in chronological order. They are color coded to correspond with where the historic scene takes place: Yellow = Roman Empire and Europe; Orange= Middle East, North Africa, and Ottoman Empire; Red= United States.

  • Resistance: The collages on the top of the chart highlights Jewish movements throughout history and today, illustrating what it has meant — and will mean — to fight for dignity and collective liberation.

  • Acknowledgements: The upper right and left corners share information about who made this poster, and how.

  • Connection: throughout the piece are lines and arrows that draw connections between the facts, analysis, contradictions and histories.

VISUAL INFLUENCES

The way the piece looks draws inspiration from the Talmud (collection of rabbinic writings about law and theology), Ketubahs (marriage contracts), and Arks (cabinets that house sacred Torah scrolls) from across the Jewish diaspora. We used these archetypal forms to influence the kinds of patterns we created and the way we arranged information. What about this piece “looks Jewish” to you?

WHAT IS THIS FOR?

This piece of art is a conversation guide and discussion tool. You can donate a copy to your library, synagogue, or local Hebrew School! Put it up in your home! Send a copy to a family member! Gift one to an educator! Use it to learn about the history of Jewish struggle and resistance! Use it to ask questions about antisemitism, white supremacy, and racial capitalism! Use it to learn more about Jews!

THE COLLABORATIVE PROCESS: ART CREATION AS COMMUNITY ORGANIZING

In 2017, JFREJ released Understanding Antisemitism — a 44-page paper that catalyzed critical conversations about the Jewish community’s engagement in the collective fight against white supremacy and antisemitism. Initially, our hope was to create a simple poster summarizing the contents of the paper in order to provide a more accessible learning tool. Instead, we created a beautiful, complicated, deliberately crafted work of art and exploration. The 2017 text serves as the basis for this work of art. JFREJ’s analysis of antisemitism has and continues to evolve in the years since, even since the publishing of this print!

Rachel began in the Spring of 2018 by taking the paper, cutting it up into pieces, and mapping out every paragraph, sorting them into categories of historical anecdotes, facts about Jews, contradictions, and pieces of analysis. Rebecca came on board with the responsibility of creating imagery for the print, and landed on the idea of creating community-informed collages. (Read more about Rachel & Rebecca’s approach here).

Rachel and Rebecca approached the project thinking critically about being white Ashkenazi Jewish artists entrusted with creating a piece of art that wove together different Jewish histories from all over the world. To honor the full scope and complexity of Jewish cultural traditions and ethnic backgrounds with care and meaning, we began a collective process inviting JFREJ members from all backgrounds to participate and think about their relationship to antisemitism as part of this collaborative creation.

We drew on millennia of Jewish wisdom, art, religious ritual, history, and organizing. We engaged in countless discussions, workshops, community art builds, story-sharing, history lessons, and archival deep-dives.

SELECTING 14 HISTORICAL MOMENTS

At a joint meeting of all three of JFREJ’s caucuses — the Mizrahi & Sephardi Caucus, the Jews of Color Caucus, and the Poor and Working Class Caucus — we engaged in story-sharing about our parents, grandparents, great-grand-parents. We looked at family photos together and discussed our ancestors’ histories, identifying shared moments we wanted to highlight. We knew it would be impossible to choose the most significant moments in Jewish history and of Jewish resistance. What we ultimately chose were 14 meaningful moments that illustrate the complexity of Jewish history and struggle.

Three of the collages featured in the print

Download an image of the full piece to see all the collages.

Through collaging, we sought to create images that are not simply literal representations of these 14 moments, but that also highlight Jewish resistance and resilience; images highlighting the people who continue to fight to keep Jewish tradition and culture and peoplehood alive, and do so in solidarity with their neighbors.

Three JFREJers looking through piles of print-outs of photocopied images

Once the 14 moments were selected, we embarked on a collective researching project to gather source images for the collages. Over the course of two evenings in October of 2019, roughly a dozen JFREJ members gathered at the Brooklyn Public Library’s main branch literally turning the pages of Jewish history to deepen our understanding of Jewish oppression and resistance. We collected images (photographs, paintings, illustrated manuscripts, artifacts) and primary texts that ultimately served as the foundation for the poster’s collages. Rebecca created multiple versions of each collage in an ongoing conversation with the historical moment’s text — tearing, cutting, layering, covering, and revealing using the source images, tissue paper, ink, watercolor, and cray-pas.

EXPLORING CONTRADICTIONS: THE VENTS

In order to capture and reckon with the contradictory elements of the paper, we used Vent Diagrams — a social media and art project Rachel Schragis started in collaboration with educator and fellow JFREJ member E.M./Elana Eisen-Markowitz. They describe a “vent diagram” on their website as “a diagram of the overlap of two statements that appear to be true and appear to be contradictory.”

We used vents in this piece as a way to capture the complexity of the multiple truths we want people who look at, study, and discuss the print to explore; the intersections and overlaps; “tiny windows for building unity and power, emotional releases of stale binary thinking in order to open up a trickle of fresh ideas and air.”

Three of the vents featured in the print

Download an image of the full piece to see all the vents.

The vents in the piece were made out of translucent plastic. They almost look like stained glass, alluding to the holy and spiritual nature of the work. Vents with similar content have similar colors, encouraging people engaging with the piece to move around and pull out themes.

GETTING FEEDBACK FROM OUR BROADER COMMUNITY

In December of 2019, after smaller feedback sessions with individuals and members of JFREJ’s identity-based caucuses, we held a workshop to bring even more people into the process and get additional feedback on what we had created so far. Roughly 50 people attended — new and long-time JFREJ members alike. At the workshop, participants created their own collages and vents, studied and engaged with the piece, offered notes via post-its on a gallery wall, and heard directly from the artists as well as two of the lead authors of the Understanding Antisemitism paper, Leo Ferguson and Keren Soffer-Sharon.

Photos from the December 2019 workshop

Several months later, in January of 2020, JFREJ gathered at the Harlem JCC for an afternoon of discussion and study about the spirituality of organizing. The day was structured as a Beit Midrash, the Hebrew term for a house of study, and included a workshop about art and activism. (Read more about it here). We again had the opportunity to discuss the piece with our community and hear reactions and feedback:

Photos from the January 2020 Beit Midrash

BIBLIOGRAPHY & ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS

JFREJ's Understanding Antisemitism paper was groundbreaking. It surfaced a deep communal desire to wrestle for clarity about antisemitism as we steer toward the North Star of collective liberation for us all. Changing the conversation about antisemitism requires listening to new voices, which is why the resource was authored by a multi-racial, multi-ethnic, intergenerational team, with editorial review and support by Jews with ethnic and national identities from many countries including Puerto Rico, India, Iraq, Syria, as well as non-Jewish allies from many racial and ethnic backgrounds.

Download a text-only PDF of the bibliography.

Every photo in Unraveling Antisemitism was painstakingly selected and incorporated with the consent of the photographer and individuals pictured in these photos whenever possible — some historical images are of, or were photographed by, people who are deceased, or people who were unable to be identified. The still-active groups that organized the collective actions pictured also gave permission to use these photos.

Thank you to Middle East scholars such as Ella Shohat, Yali Hashash, and Orit Bashkin whose critical teachings greatly informed the analysis in the paper and this piece, and helped shape so much of how members of JFREJ’s Mizrahi & Sephardi Caucus have come to understand our complex histories.

We are humbled by the study and learning we have gotten to do through this process, by the deep knowledge and personal storytelling that went into this work, and by the beautifully collaborative process that created this piece. It is another offering — to our people, to our movement. We invite you to unravel it.

CONTRIBUTORS

Lead Artists: Rachel Schragis and Rebecca Katz

Writers & Editors: Audrey Sasson, Aurora Levins Morales, Barnaby Raine, Ben Lorber, Dania Rajendra, Deb Lolai, Dove Kent, Emma Alabaster, Hannah Goldman, Jonah Boyarin, Keren Soffer Sharon, Laynie Soloman, Leo Ferguson, Maya Edery, Megan Madison, Natasha Roth, Ora Batashvili, Sam Brody, Shirly Bahar, Sivan Battat, Sonia Alexander, Sophie Ellman Golan, Tom Haviv, Yasmin Safdie, Yehudah Webster, Zahara Zahav

Research Action Night Participants: Erin Brownstein Mcelroy, Erin R Santana, Helen Strom, Ilana Lerman, Jonathan Shapiro, Luz Schreiber, Megan Martenyi, Nancy Mills, Rachel Glicksman, Rachel Jensen, Riki Robinson, Sasha Raskin-Yin, Talia Warmflash

And many more JFREJ members who attended workshops, offered feedback, and were part of the creation process.