Antagonisms toward Jews and Muslims have intertwined of late. With the Trump administration’s vitriol fanning the flames of Islamophobia, violent attacks against Muslims continue to escalate exponentially. At the same time, ThinkProgress reports that Jews are the segment of the United States population most affected by hate crimes based on religion in the aftermath of Trump’s election, including the recent wave of bomb threats in Jewish Community Centers nation-wide. Central to Trump’s campaign platform was his commitment to the “total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States,” a promise he implemented with the Muslim ban on Holocaust Remembrance Day, coinciding with a statement he issued ignoring Jewish victims of the Holocaust. The ban’s bad faith equation of Islam with terrorism was a frightening message to peoples of Muslim descent. Its timing was also a clear reminder to Jews of historical endeavors to ethnically cleanse the body politic. Notwithstanding the collusion of Modern Orthodox Jew Jared Kushner with the administration’s white supremacist platform, most Jews are horrified by the implications of the regime’s ties to neo-Nazism and the Ku Klux Klan. The testimony of Kushner’s late grandmother, Rae Kushner, speaks to the parallel struggles of Jews fleeing Nazism and the edict barring Muslims from the United States: “The doors of the world were closed to us.”
In the midst of escalating hostility toward non-Christians, there are signs of Jews and Muslims forging alliances. Jewish advocates for religious inclusion made their presence felt at the airport protests against the Muslim ban, while the bipartisan Muslim Jewish Advisory Council is lobbying lawmakers to condemn hate crimes against religious minorities. LOUDER THAN WORDS (LTW), an artist-activist collective focused on combating domestic violence and sexual assault (DVSA), exemplifies this upsurge of Jewish-Muslim collaboration. Its latest effort, WOMEN ON THE MOVE (WOM), is a public art project that will transform a 20-foot-long truck into a mobile billboard and resource center, touring city streets to educate communities about strategies for redressing DVSA and demand that recent and proposed cuts in funding to combat DVSA be overturned. The organizers of WOM contend that grassroots activism constitutes a powerful counteroffensive against the administration’s violent provocations. During summer of 2017, they will bring their mobile learning center to underserved neighborhoods, working with advocates, policy makers and survivors to determine the areas where their services are most needed. Plastered on all three sides of the exterior with artwork addressing victim blaming and the social and economic costs of rape, their truck will weave through the neighborhoods of five major cities, stopping in public gathering places (parks, shopping malls and schools) where the organizers will facilitate workshops for students and teachers and conduct nomadic seminars in coordination with local activists. To engage pedestrians in conversation, volunteers will step out of the truck to distribute free artist-designed posters. The truck’s interior will function as a resource center, including a multi-media library and oral histories covering the walls. The artists view their project as a contemporary drive-in movie theater with videos by the collective, as well as TED Talks including Ione Wells’ How We Talk About Sexual Assault Online and Jackson Katz’s Violence Against Women — It’s A Men’s Issue playing on the truck’s exterior.
LTW was founded by S.A. Bachman, a 60-year-old Jewish educator and agitator from Cleveland, Ohio, and Neda Moridpour, a 33-three-year-old DVSA-certified counselor and advocate from Iran. Neither Bachman nor Moridpour is religious, but their cultural legacies implicitly orient their activist pedagogy and art. Moridpour has a deep admiration for Ashura, a mourning ceremony for the prophet Muhammad’s grandson wherein participants congregate in public processions for ceremonial chest beating, a display signifying that oppression will be overcome. As she observes, “Iran’s history has always been intertwined with religion, from Zoroastrianism to Islam. During centuries of religious oppression, Iranians practiced community building as a crucial survival skill.” Moridpour is inspired by the relationship of cultural and religious rituals to activism, having observed firsthand how sharing personal experiences strengthens bonds, particularly when confronted by the threat of violence from without. Memories of windows taped over to prevent shattering during the Iraq-Iran war, the bomb shelters to which her family frequently fled, the smell of rosewater in mosques and the sound of adhan all stir post-traumatic stress symptoms while informing her steadfast dedication to grassroots activism.
While Bachman’s mother struggled to convince the rabbi to allow her back into Sabbath school after playing hooky too many times, she still strives to make potato latkes as well as her mother and sister. Bachman calls her dog bubellah and, when phoning friends to discuss the daily bad news, is known to ask, “Have you heard the latest mishegoss?” She observes that a love of learning is ingrained in Jewish traditions, since the Jewish people lived in diaspora for nearly 2,000 years and books took the place of temples as the principal means for connecting with God: “The study of the Talmud is about debating ideas with no correct answers, a principle which is intrinsic to my teaching at both the high school and university levels.” A self-described book fetishist, Bachman finds ways to nail books to her walls in place of artwork so that she can be reminded of the ideas contained within. The concept of tikkun olam, defined as “acts of kindness performed to perfect or repair the world,” is a code of ethics that sets the stage for the activism she views as her life’s work.
Chipping away at the media-amplified enmity between Jews and Muslims, Bachman and Moridpour take to the streets to remind us of the critical impact of collective resistance. WOM’s journey will be launched in June 2017 in New York City. While the New York City segment is fully financed, the collective needs contributions to support the continuation of its tour to Cleveland, London, Los Angeles and Washington, DC. Donations will be heartily appreciated.