Thursday, July 19, 2012

The Making of a Masterpiece. Our Brand. Our Image

The Artists 4 Israel image is one of the most iconic in the Israel Advocacy Community and, for that matter, in the Jewish world. In fact, it is one the most iconic images associated with a non-profit organization across the spectrum. It is rebellious, unusual, energetic and a little threatening. That a non-profit would choose to brand itself with a scandalous image - one where two cops are featured, both looking terrified and a hooded figure dominates the forefront of the shot - is unusual and dark. That they would do so, somehow, with much artistic merit is shocking. This image led to the battle cry of Artists 4 Israel: Beautifully Effective, Shockingly Creative. This image has informed all the actions of Artists 4 Israel: challenging, demanding, baiting and beautiful. This is its history.

The day of the largest pro-Israel rally during Operation Cast Lead, the individuals who would become the founders of A4I rallied near the United Nations. We carried, mostly, home-made banners, graffitied by our comrades and stating clearly: Artists 4 Israel. Instantly, others asked to help our mission. It is already well documented how people came to us and said "I am a pianist and I am for Israel. How do I join?" "I am a dancer and I support Israel. How do I help?" At the time, we had no answer. We had attended the rally spontaneously and had no mission. The seed was planted that day, yes, but without this image, it might never have grown.

We were not yet a brand, not yet a movement. Bored by the simplistic chants and ineffectiveness of the rally, we decided to go eat lunch. I wish the story was more noble than that but it was not. We were really hungry.

Walking back to the rally from the diner, hoping that maybe the crowd had been energized into some form of action, we saw the cop car. Here was the power of NY. Here was the example of those that separated the rallied masses from the decision makers in the UN. Here were the paid security brutes that protected the people that sat in the building on the East Side of New York and made stupid declarations about Israel. Here was our opportunity to show the world that, even at the micro level, one must not be afraid to stand up to authority and to force oneself upon the public conscious. We could not yet storm the UN and demand they treat Israeli fairly nor were we yet able to fight the culture war with rap concerts, graffiti and fine art. But, we were able to make a statement.

An 18 year old supporter named Dustin (last name withheld for his safety) grabbed the Israeli flag that eventual Executive Director Craig Dershowitz had draped across his shoulders and wrapped it around his face. Dustin may or may not have been a wanted graffiti artist at the time and needed to conceal his true identity. He ran over to the cop car. The cops were nervous. Some of our founders were yelling for him to stop. Having run from cops for so long, Dustin was now fearless as he stood before them. "You are about to pose for a picture", he said "so smile pretty".

Dustin sat down in front of the car and Seth Wolfson eventual Vice President of Artists 4 Israel had one second to take one shot that would change everything. Notice the composition of the picture. See how the buildings frame the action in the middle. Watch how Dustin stands out bold in the forefront while the fearful cops recede into the background, into nothingness. All that is visible of these cops is a hand up and shielding their face realizing that for that one moment, Israel activists were no longer passive, scared and under their control. The headlights and sirens of the cop car create the eyes that, on Dustin, have been obscured. Shot in black and white, this picture can be old New York or it could be just yesterday. Like the best images, it is timeless.

That Dustin was wearing a hoodie was a beautiful coincidence. That he looked like a kidnap victim was unintentional yet it clearly explains who Operation Cast Lead, that we were fighting against the victimization of the world's citizens by terrorism. Thia was our unexpected commentary on Gilad Shalit, Daniel Pearl and many others. At once, we were the victim but a victim who would rise up and take his place in power one day very soon. Seth had one shot.

One click, one shot and another squad car pulls up. The cops had called for back-up. Can you believe that? We ran. We re-grouped. We rallied ourselves and we looked at the image. It was powerful. We decided that things had aligned perfectly. The religious among us decided that Hashem had deemed it so. The irreligious among us knew we had bullied our way into the scene. All of us knew that with an image like that in the beginning - we must fight until the ending.

Join us. Join power.

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