Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Is this offensive to Jews?

Gentle reader,

I've gotten a request in my official capacity to "speak out" against this mural in Harvard Square? Does this strike you as something that the Jewish community should be doing?

Please let me know your thoughts...



  1. Is this like the classic test for indecency, that I'll know it when I see it? If so, I don't see it, and perhaps folks shouldn't be looking quite so hard for ways to be offended.

  2. I'm on vacation this week and I haven't been to the Square to see the Shepard Fairey murals with my own eyes, but with what I see here and what I've read about the series of images of which this is a part, I would venture these thoughts:

    1) Getting at the meanings in Fairey's murals can be complicated. Many of the images he has created seem ironic or negative, such as his use of the command "Obey" with the face of Andre the Giant. Just what is the intent, or what are the intentions, of this picture and of the other murals in the series? To assume that everything in this image is being idealized or endorsed marks a failure to understand the sensibility of the work in general. (Fairey's famous Obama/Hope poster seems rather uncharacteristic most of his work in this respect.) So in these works you have a curious melding of positive and negative, violent and pacific (the flowers in the gun barrels), and familiar iconic themes that are both revolutionary and the conformist. It's perhaps anti-propaganda rather than propaganda, but also that description over-simplifies as well. There's much one might be provoked to think about here, and also much one might worry about less thoughtful people being provoked to think or feel, but simply to attack this one image on behalf of the Jewish community seems to me a rather reckless exercise. You risk embarrassing your own cause by seeming naïve and simplistically reactionary.

    I would also be concerned about conveying or reinforcing the notion that any militant image of an armed or militant Muslim is inevitably antisemitic. I’m not naïve about the issues and realities here, but since there are no references to Israel or to Jews in this mural, a strong protest against it would seem to suggest that no such images of Muslims are acceptable. Those of us who grew up with portrayals of armed and heroic Israelis, Americans, or whatever our favored identities— and who still see such heroization deployed for the instilling of communal pride and resolve are on pretty questionable ground categorically denying such imagery to others.

    2) On the other hand, it seems to me that, although the intended “message” of this mural is difficult to sort out, its imagery could easily be seen as injurious to Muslims. Is the veiled woman here going to be seen as an image of female oppression in Islam? Is the rifle, the flower in its barrel notwithstanding, here going to be taken as a symbol of an inherently violent religion? Is the word “obey” here a reference both to mindless submission to religious and patriarchal authority and to the very name and root concept of Islam, submission to God? It seems to me that Jews should have some concern about this mural, but not for their own sake. Our concern as Jews and Christians should in this instance rather be about what here may be hurtful in the portrayal of Muslims. I wouldn’t want to make an issue of Fairey’s work, but if members of the Muslim community should protest it I certainly think that sympathetic but also judicious statements from both Jews and gentiles could be very helpful.

    Just some quick thoughts.



About Me

Brookline, MA, United States
Thought provoking discussion or musings of a kid from the other side of the tracks...