Seattle Jewish organization fighting Islamophobia with posters

Jan 5, 2017, 8:31 AM | Updated: 5:11 pm

When it comes to mass discrimination, history has not been kind to people of Jewish faith. That’s why the local chapter of Jewish Voice for Peace has taken to solidarity with what it believes to be persecuted refugees and those of Muslim faith, even if it is as simple as a sign that says “Refugees are Welcome Here.”

“As Jewish folks in particular, because we are not right now being targeted by the state, we really want to stand in solidarity with those who are being targeted, including Muslims and all people of color,” said Wendy Elisheva Somerson, a founding member of Seattle’s chapter of the Jewish Voice for Peace.

Related: Don’t support this Seattle extremist group, says Jason Rantz

Artist Micah Bazant, from the national Jewish Voice for Peace branch in New York City, created the “Refugees are Welcome” art, which depicts a man with an infant huddled in his coat. These posters aren’t a response to Donald Trump – the rationale pre-dates him by more than a decade. The impetus actually came from the rise in Islamophobia that stemmed from 9/11, when a different kind of registry was created for Muslims immigrating from other countries, as well as the Syrian refugee crisis earlier this year. Elisheva Somerson said the organization started canvassing and handing out flyers to businesses, primarily in Capitol Hill, in January of 2015.

The JVP, which has been around for about 10 years and focuses on peace in the Middle East, justice, equality and dignity for Palestinians and Israelis and, broadly speaking, is an anti-racist organization. Trump’s rise up the Republican ranks to the White House and his controversial Cabinet picks have changed the dynamics of the organization of late. Among the group’s concerns are Trump’s many campaign ideas and promises, including his proposed registry for Muslims (which has since been relatively muted) and the appointment of Breitbart News CEO Steve Bannon as a White House advisor. Bannon is one of the primary faces of the alt-Right movement and has been labeled anti-Semitic, though KTTH’s Michael Medved has said a look at Bannon’s actual record indicates he’s not scary as it might seem.

The local chapter of the Jewish organization planned to restart canvassing with the posters in December, and posters and prints can also be ordered online. Somerson said she wasn’t sure how many posters total have been distributed but guessed there were “thousands” hanging around the city of Seattle.

Related: Gov. Jay Inslee keeps his word on accepting Syrian refugees

“We are asking local businesses to take a stand against racism and Islamophobia,” she said. “We welcome refugees in this country. We don’t agree with the things Donald Trump has said about banning Muslims from immigrating to this country or banning Syrian refugees.”

Somerson said this is not specifically about providing a “safe space” for refugees but is instead an awareness campaign — a broad declaration that they don’t want government officials racially profiling Muslims on airplanes and trains.

“It’s such a scary, hateful environment right now for folks wearing hijabs,” she added. “We’re really trying to stand up in solidarity with our Muslim neighbors and friends.”

JVP-Seattle and Jews Against Islamophobia also joined together on Dec. 21 outside Pacific Place to stand together against Islamophobia and racism as part of a Chanukah ritual — holding nine signs, which, together, made the shape of a Chanukah menorah. Each sign contained an injustice that said they wanted to recommit themselves to challenging. Among them:

• We refuse to be silent about anti-Muslim speech and violence.
• We condemn state surveillance of the Muslim community.
• We fight anti-Muslim profiling and racial profiling in all its forms.
• We call for an end to racist policing
• We honor indigenous rights and support the resistance led by the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe to protect their land and water.

“It’s just a moment for Muslims and Jews to come together,” Elisheva Somerson said. “And I think Muslims are primarily being targeted right now but we don’t know what’s going to happen with rising anti-Semitism and the way that racism and anti-Semitism intersect. It’s just a moment for us to show solidarity based on part of our own history of anti-Semitism in this country and in this world and to stand in solidarity.”

Jewish support for the voiceless

The posters from Jewish Voice for Peace are not the only ones preaching inclusion and safety, especially in Capitol Hill where multiple marches and rallies have been held since Election Day, including a gathering of thousands for the “Seattle Women March Against Hate” on Dec. 3.

Gov. Jay Inslee has kept his word on accepting Syrian refugees while others refused, resettling far more refugees in 2016 from the war-torn country than ever before. Mayor Ed Murray has also said Seattle, which passed an ordinance in 2003 denoting it as a Sanctuary City, will keep accepting refugees even if that means losing out on some federal funding under the incoming Trump administration.

Washington state consistently falls within the top 10 refugee-receiving states in the country, according to the Washington State Department of Social and Health Services (DSHS). A record 3,907 refugees were accepted into Washington in the federal fiscal year 2016 (Oct. 1, 2015 to Sept. 30, 2016), a 33 percent jump from 2015. Of the total number of refugee arrivals, the top five countries of origin included Ukraine (20 percent), Iraq (16 percent), Afghanistan (13 percent), Somalia (11 percent), and Burma and Iran (6 percent each). Only 165 (4 percent) were identified as Syrian refugees, who have been the focal point of the most scrutiny from officials around the US.

Elisheva Somerson says she believes the message of acceptance is getting across.

“It just seems like such a heightened political moment where awareness around Islamophobia and Xenophobia is really on the increase,” she said.

What good is a poster?

At Scratch Deli, the poster sits among a group of other posters on the community bulletin board that promote art classes and shows. Daniel O’Connell, one of the Deli owners, said he recalls it going up about a year ago and that he makes a conscious effort to maintaining its space during his monthly board-tidying. He views the poster as a “signaling mechanism” that communicates that is an Islamophobia-free space.

“I like to think that Scratch is a safe zone, period,” he said. “I would hope that in a situation in which I witnessed bigotry or someone came in and expressed that they were being harassed outside for any reason, I would have the courage to help in whatever way I could, including sheltering the harassed and removing the harasser from our establishment. That said, I recognize that Scratch is located in Capitol Hill, a hyper-socially liberal bubble within the already hyper-socially liberal bubble that is Seattle, so I don’t know that I’ll ever be faced with these situations.”

The Seattle Police Department embarked on a similar yet completely different mission with its “Safe Space” program in May of 2015, providing businesses and organizations with decals and information on how to report malicious harassment and hate crimes. There are directives and responsibilities associated with those posters, most notably to call 911. In April of 2016, the program expanded to all 98 Seattle Public Schools and has reached 1,600 locations including expanding to 46 law enforcement agencies around the country. The point of the signage was to reduce anti-LGBTQ crimes and bullying. Businesses and organizations are encouraged to post the signs at the entrances to their premise as a “symbol of safety for the victims of LGBTQ crime and a warning to those who commit those crimes.”

Officer Jim Ritter, the creator of SPD’s Safe Place Initiative, said there has been a “significant increase” in reported hate crimes or malicious harassment or bias elements since 2015, which he says indicates the program is working. More than anything, though, he says it has built collaboration within the community and has started conversations that weren’t happening previously.

“It’s creating conversations that haven’t been had before and I think that the residual impact has gone far beyond even the local impact of this in the victims of these crimes,” he said.

Somerson, meanwhile, said the JVP signs are not to be mistaken with policy and that signs in a window should not be confused with the creation of an actual safe space.

“I don’t think because someone puts a rainbow sticker in their store, that makes it a safe space for LGBT folks. I just don’t,” she said. “That was also a campaign put through the Seattle Police Department, which is notorious for not exactly treating people of color and queer folks well so I don’t believe that we can guarantee safe space anywhere. I think that it’s certainly a sign that we are standing in solidarity, we would hope that it makes people feel safer, it makes people feel like they have somewhere to turn, that people care about them, that their friends and neighbors understand this political moment and are standing up for them. I have questions about the idea of ‘safe space.’”

O’Connell, too, recognizes the limitations of the poster’s sentiment.

“My only concern would be someone putting up a poster and patting themselves on the back for a job well done,” he said. “I certainly don’t consider having the poster up to be the fulfillment of my civic or humanitarian duty, and I would caution anybody who does to reconsider.”

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Seattle Jewish organization fighting Islamophobia with posters