In the wake of the Oct. 7 attack in Israel, the haunting posters bearing the word “KIDNAPPED” in vivid red letters, displaying those taken hostage by Hamas militants, serve as poignant reminders of the individuals still held in the Gaza Strip. However, in recent weeks, a disheartening trend has emerged on college campuses and in cities worldwide – individuals tearing down these posters.
A video circulated on social media captured an exchange at the University of Southern California, where two young people were seen discarding the posters. “You should be ashamed of yourselves,” admonished a bystander, to which one of the individuals responded, “I’m not a fan of Hamas,” highlighting the complex emotions surrounding the conflict.
The “kidnapped” posters, originally created by Israeli street artists, have become a widespread form of activism, ensuring that the plight of over 200 hostages remains visible to the public. Yet, their removal has evolved into a form of protest, reflecting the anguish over the Israeli government’s treatment of Palestinians leading up to Oct. 7 and the subsequent bombings in Gaza. Some caught in the act of removing posters have faced public condemnation, even losing their jobs.
This clash of perspectives has intensified already strained emotions, encapsulating one of the most hotly debated questions of the war: Whose suffering should garner public attention and empathy?
Critics of the posters denounce them as wartime propaganda, while those removing them are labeled as antisemitic and lacking compassion. The disputes are now teetering on the edge of violence, acting as a surrogate for the life-or-death struggle in the Middle East.
For Nitzan Mintz, one of the artists behind the posters, the unexpected virality of the campaign was initially shocking. Witnessing people tear them down has exposed what she perceives as clear antisemitism. “By accident, this campaign did more than bring an awareness of the kidnapped people,” she lamented. “It brought awareness of how hated we are as a community.”
These clashes over the posters are a blend of the old-fashioned – fought with paper, tape, and bare hands – and the modern, as social media has the power to escalate street-level disputes into global incidents. Videos of people removing the signs have flooded the internet in recent days.
In one such video from New York City’s Queens borough, individuals who assert they are not Jewish confront a person dismantling posters, culminating in a heated exchange. At Boston University, a young woman caught removing signs grapples with being documented, asking, “Why are you filming?” and receiving the response, “To show where the hate is coming from on this campus.”
While regulations on where flyers can be posted are typically dictated by local authorities, college campuses often establish their own rules. Tim Zick, a law professor at William & Mary Law School, stresses that the crux of the matter lies in free expression. “As a matter of free speech, people who oppose the ‘kidnapped’ posters could erect posters of their own, expressing their views,” Zick asserted.
The conflicts around these posters reflect a broader rift within the progressive Jewish community. Rafael Shimunov, a Jewish peace activist, posted a video discussing the motivations behind putting up and taking down the posters, emphasizing the need for inclusivity. He did not endorse poster removal but urged their creators to highlight missing Palestinians as well.
Adaptations of the posters have emerged in the past week, some altering the original message and others supporting it. These actions underscore the complexity of the issue and the deeply felt emotions on all sides. Ultimately, the torn “kidnapped” posters serve as poignant symbols of a broader debate on how best to navigate empathy and understanding in the face of such a complex and heart-wrenching conflict.
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