Art and Activism: Visual Responses to Antisemitism

Liba Vaynberg

Last week in the U.S., we saw a lot of antisemitic violence — synagogues vandalized and Jews threatened and attacked. After personal safety, the question for American Jews is how to persevere and process. What effect do these incidents have on our Jewish identities? What do we want to communicate about being a target? And how can we combine our artistic impulses with activism?

These three recent visual responses explore the overlap between art and activism, suggesting that we can engage with the complicated nature of being an American Jew in the face of past and current trauma.

Venting with diagrams. Rachel Schragis is a New York-based artist and cultural organizer who makes “mind maps” that visually grapple with the questions of social movements. The first mind map was born in 2011 at the Occupy Wall Street movement: “I went to Zuccotti Park and someone handed me a list of grievances. It was one of those moments where I realized this is the flow chart I was born to make. I saw how visual synthesis was more powerful than the list.” 

With antisemitism rising, the practice of mind-mapping has morphed into what Schragis calls Vent Diagrams combining, Venn diagrams with venting. The diagrams help Schragis answer a big question she has faced in recent years: what do we do with contradiction, especially in activism? 

Her answer is to embrace it: “contradiction is more robust and true than any definitive statement.” And the diagrams have brought her back to her own Jewish identity: “A flow chart is a Jewish form, a kind of Talmud. The idea of non-linear text is a core of the tradition. Commentary on commentary.”

Looking Backward to Make Something New. Rebecca Katz is another visual artist who finds inspiration in activism. Her most recent work was prompted by Understanding Anti-Semitism: An Offering to Our Movement, a 2017 paper from Jews For Racial & Economic Justice (JFREJ). 

When JFREJ hired Katz to create an artistic response to the paper, she invited members of the organization to join in her research at the Brooklyn Public Library. Katz is working the photographs they found into fourteen collages.  

One image that haunted Katz was that of Ethel Rosenberg (see Katz’s collage above). Rosenberg and her husband were American citizens convicted of spying on behalf of the Soviet Union. In 1953, she was executed.

“We found a book that explained McCarthyism to children with a haunting picture of Ethel Rosenberg, staring out the window of a law enforcement van. [Rosenberg lost her life] because of this fear of Communism, but also a narrative and belief around Jews always having two loyalties, of never really being loyal to the US.”

For Katz, collage is a way of processing these complications: “Collaging has been a healing process for me. Something about the physicality of finding images, tearing them out, and making something new with them feels very powerful.” 

Sharpening the tools. Yosi Sergant is an LA-based cultural strategist who runs TaskForce, a creative agency focused on social change. 

“There has never been a social movement built without artists at the tip,” he said. “They’re the first to the table, ringing the alarm. And they’re well-prepared to help us process complex ideas, to put images to things we can’t yet imagine or explain.” 

Sergant does not identify as an artist — he describes himself as “a facilitator of creativity in social movements.” A famous example is when, as a consultant for Barack Obama’s 2008 presidential campaign, Sergant commissioned street artist Shepard Fairey to design the Hope poster.

“We, as people who want to empower people, need to give people the tools that they need in order to be their own best advocate,” Sergant said. 

Sergant sees antisemitism as one aspect of white supremacy. He identified the GIF button as one way he could amplify a message against white supremacy. 

“My mother won’t share the same thing my punk rock cousin will. My knitting next-door neighbor will endorse something different from my bike messenger co-worker.” 

So TaskForce launched the INTO ACTION lab, ” a movement of designers, illustrators, animators and artists building cultural momentum around civic engagement.” Sergant set what he called an “audacious goal of a billion views.” The lab just passed 70 billion.

Often acts of prejudice are an attempt to silence the victim. But for Schragis and Katz, art is a way of communicating the complicated feelings that come up when one is a target. For Sergant, GIFs communicate a more universal message of solidarity. Either way, the above responses demonstrate that as American Jews, we have voices, and we will not be silenced.

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