Barry Newman

Reckless Symbolism

Large scale demonstrations and protests do not, for the most part, provide too much that is vividly compelling. Aerial views of thousands of participants results in the visual equivalent of noise; what is seen is little more than a mass of figures that are virtually indistinguishable. Here and there placards rise above the crowds, but there’s no real way to discern who is holding them. What is generally in focus are police on horseback or manning oversize water cannons to control unruly crowds or to ensure that vehicular or pedestrian traffic is unhindered; the protesters themselves are basically featureless.

Some color and controversy were, though, made a part of the protests that took place here over the last three months. In an effort to dramatize the consequences that judicial reform would have on the rights and freedom of women, hundreds of ladies donned the red robes and white bonnets worn by the concubines that are the subjects of Margaret Atwood’s dystopian novel The Handmaid’s Tale and the popular though disturbing television series of that same name. Parading somberly through the streets of Tel Aviv amidst the chaos of the protests and disruptions undoubtedly provided the intended results; considerable attention and commentary has been given to the symbolic representation of a repressed society in which civil liberties have been curtailed if not made entirely ineffective. They gave the faceless protests a visible perspective and became the object of considerable curiosity. But simply because the concept worked does not mean that it should be regarded as a successful strategy. On the contrary, the ladies may have inadvertently done more harm than good.

The use of costumes as a means of making a statement during demonstrations is by no means novel or innovative. Where false or exaggerated accusations are the objective of a protest, participants not infrequently don black, pointed hats and carry broomsticks as a reminder of the witch hunts in seventeenth century Salem, Massachusetts.  During demonstrations against the rising prices of a specific object or commodity, there will likely be those who remove from storage their Purim or Halloween disguises and join the marches as wedges of cheese, fuel pumps or roofless houses. And, of course, the grisly images that accompany anti-war protests require no elaboration. Those, though, are descriptive images that complement the point of the protests taking place. Bonot Alternative, the organization behind the demonstrating handmaids, went a step or two too far. What is being televised throughout Israel and the world is a false and potentially destructive message.

I’ll not dispute that gender separation at public events or on government operated modes of mass transportation should not be condoned, and readily agree that women should have the right to determine what is or is not done to their bodies. And, yes, it is not at all inconceivable that without the protection of judicial checks on repressive legislation, additional restraints might very well be expected. But the distinctively costumed ladies parading on the sidelines are playing havoc with symbolism.

Conjuring up the mournful image of The Handmaid’s Tale’s sex slaves to augment the protest of the threat faced by the currently suspended judicial reforms to women’s right to self-determination is misleading at best and unnecessarily provocative at worst. Atwood’s vision was that of a society in which enslavement and enforced intimacy were deemed acceptable as a means of ensuring that procreation of the existing population will not come to an end, which is hardly what is going on here.

Symbolically representing the indentured ladies of Gilead – a place described by the prophet Hosea as a city of evil, sinful men – is both reckless and irresponsible and suggests to those whose appreciation of current events is no more than minimal that something demonic is taking place in Israel. Anti-Israel sentiment is already overwhelming throughout the print, broadcast, and digital media. Drawing comparisons between Atwood’s frightening vision of a totalitarian state and the vile charges of apartheid that this country has to regularly fend off is too irresistible to ignore.

Israel has, unfortunately, become the center of international attention due, in part, to the challenge – whether the news be real or fake – facing democracy. While Bonot Alternative may be entirely justified in expressing their concerns over what may wind up happening to the concept of civil liberties in this country, the theme they’ve adapted can very easily be misconstrued. Any suggestion that Israel is even remotely analogous to the Republic of Gilead is both offensive and repulsive.

The author herself has, I see, given her nod of approval to the use of her imagined characters, which, of course, is not at all surprising. Free publicity, after all, is always appreciated, particularly when the association has generated headlines, talk show chatter, and Facebook debates. Those who have not yet read her book or watched the television series will no doubt be wondering what the fuss is all about.

The right to engage in nonviolent protest is an inherent feature of any democracy, including Israel. That right, though, is not entirely open-ended; there is an obligation to act responsibly, both in terms of the activities that are part of the protest as well as in the verbal and nonverbal content conveyed by the protesters. There is no room for lies and exaggerations when policies or legislation is the target of protest. While the coalition may have run – and won – on a platform that promised a tightening of the values typically associated with liberal democracies, Israel is in no imminent danger of becoming a repressed society. Creating the false impression that we are violates the rules of fair play in the theater of protests. So please, ladies, hang up those robes and bonnets before the damage becomes irreversible.

About the Author
Born and raised on New York’s Lower East Side, Barry's family made aliya in 1985. He worked as a Technical Writer for most of his professional life (with a brief respite for a venture in catering) and currently provides ad hoc assistance to amutot in the preparation of requests for grants. And not inconsequently, he is a survivor of stage 4 bladder cancer, and though he doesn't wake up each day smelling the roses, he has an appreciation of what it means to be alive.
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