Visual Activism in Palestine

Ruthie Ginsburg

­This entry is about the connection between images and activism. The use of photographs and videos by activists as a tool of protest is nothing new, but with the recent outburst of the COVID-19 pandemic it has been appropriated in new ways and under novel social and health conditions, such as restrictions on crowding. Demonstrations in Israel-Palestine were ongoing before the pandemic, of course, and they did not stop in the spring and summer of 2020. But since the COVID-19 outbreak protests have been more limited — led mainly by middle class Israeli-Jewish activists, and concerned primarily with the formation of the Israeli government under Benjamin Netanyahu as the newly-reelected Prime Minister. These demonstrations have focused on the serious allegations levied against Netanyahu, including breach of trust, accepting bribes, and fraud, and on the danger his re-election poses to democracy.  Prior to and regardless of the pandemic, Israeli democracy embraces Israeli citizens while excluding Palestinians, and privileges Jewish Israelis over Arabs. In the period of the coronavirus, other groups have been further precluded from participating in civil demonstrations and voicing their needs, such as poor, women, Ethiopians, and disabled people. Two community-based organizations have challenged this situation: “(Women) Breaking the Walls” and “Can2cam.” Sapir Sluzker Amran is an Israeli organizer of the protests by those groups and a member of both. With other activists, she projected slogans and online speeches of dissent onto buildings and walls in Israel, creating actions that appeared simultaneously in physical public spaces and on the screen. These actions vocalized the demands of people who are usually excluded from the public space: Struggles relating to prisoners’ rights, domestic violence, disability benefits, police brutality and more. I met Sluzker Amran several years ago when she worked at the Association for Civil Rights in Israel, where she initiated a course called “Photo-Rights” for members of protest movements. The aim of the course was to raise the participants’ awareness of their civil rights as activists and to coach them in their visual documentation practices. Sluzker Amran started “Photo-Rights” in 2014 independently and led it till 2019. She is a lawyer who devotes her time to strengthening the public actions of diverse groups. What follows is a conversation with Sluzker Amran, in which I asked her about protest in the time of coronavirus.

Photo: Oren Ziv / Activestills
Photo: Oren Ziv / Activestills
Photo: Oren Ziv / Activestills

In conversation with Sluzker Amran

Who is behind these protests?

The protests were organized by two groups. One is a community-based organization called “(Women) Breaking the Walls,” the other is called “Can2Come.” I initiated the first group with Carmen Elmakiyes. It concentrates on issues that intersect women’s rights and poverty. It is a movement that works on the ground in communities, and it continues our commitment to struggles relating to public housing, domestic violence, women prisoners, electricity shut-offs, and crimes of poverty. After working on these issues for several years and accompanying activists, we came to the understanding that it is important to find creative ways to express our demands. The other element that is important for our group is to connect between activists, and to address the question of how to connect people to movements. That is, even if people want to protest, it’s not always accessible to them. Especially women, and women who live in poverty.

The second group, Can2Come (“Can” in Hebrew means “here,” and “Come” sounds like the Hebrew word for “stand up”) is comprised of activists who work together on different issues. Some of us started our political activism during the social protests of 2011 [a wave of mass protest in Israel against rising cost-of-living and social injustice], but most of us came from involvement with protests in poor and marginalized communities. Our first aim was to acquire a physical space, a place to help grow our community. The other aim is to advance a social-political agenda. We learned from experience that when a political campaign ends, we tend to start a new one, but the work becomes more a reaction than actually creating a pro-active social-political agenda. We sought to change that dynamic. Therefore, we try to connect between communities, to link between struggles, creating solidarity between different groups. Can2Come wants to be a home base for activists. To offer a place where they can plan a campaign and come back after a demonstration to consider what the next step should be. We don’t have a physical space yet, because we have our own restrictions in terms of funding and who should feel free to become part of the space, based on that funding. But it will serve as a home for workshops and for studying together.

In both groups, we only just started to express authorship over our actions. We prefer not to be recognized, not to be credited or pigeonholed as an organization. There are benefits to not naming the group, not labeling it, particularly when working with diverse people. Sometimes it is repulsive, especially on the left, when people look to reap benefits without contributing to sustain their organization. It is nice that we can come as independent, radical activists, doing what we do because we care and not for the sake of having our name appear in the newspaper.

In what way are protests less accessible to some people now?

I mentioned the inaccessibility of protests because for me, as a young woman without kids who lives in Tel Aviv, if there is a protest in the evening and if it suits me, I’ll go. I can take part in it. I will know about the protest since the information is available to me, it runs through my social circles. But this situation it is not true for everyone. Especially if we think about poor women with children.

What happened to the accessibility of civil protest during the COVID-19 pandemic? What happened to the public space?

The only people to protest under the pandemic restrictions were people who could afford to. We wanted to take back the public space. Even now, when some of the restrictions have been removed, the idea is what we want the public space to be sustained. The protests were mainly about the assault on democracy and corrupt rule. People who attended those demonstrations were financially better-off—- people who own a car (there were several demonstrations by caravans of drivers), people who don’t need to work because they have a good pension. In the first few days of the lockdown there were no other expressions of dissent. We resented that this was the level of civil discourse and that those were the people leading it. I’m always concerned about who the other activists are at the front of a political struggle, whether they represent a wide range of voices, whether their claims are shallow or multifaceted. You can join those demonstrations, but someone else has designed them. During the first few days there were also demonstrations on Zoom, but they served more as a webinar — a lecture where you are invited to watch without taking an active role. We noticed that the voices of poor people were not being heard in the mainstream media. Against that background, we wanted our actions to uplift other voices.

Can you tell me about the protest actions that you carried out?

We carried out several actions and I will tell you about three of them: Two were held outside the home of the CEO of the Finance Ministry and one at a main intersection in Tel Aviv — Azrieli intersection (which is also the site of the Israeli government headquarters in Tel Aviv). In the two demonstrations outside the home of the Finance Ministry CEO, different people spoke over Zoom: Ex-prisoners, (women) teachers, asylum seekers, Ethiopians and people who face police brutality. We launched a Zoom meeting, and anybody could join in. The protestors communicated from inside their homes, while we projected a live feed of the meeting onto the front wall of the CEO’s house. One of our principles in engaging people to participate in the demonstrations was to help them handle Zoom and to teach them how to broadcast themselves on video. We didn’t know how the police would respond. The first time it went well. The second time, we were accused of violating the CEO’s privacy. So we erected a screen to avoid projecting the Zoom video onto the actual wall of his house. To our surprise 300 people joined the Zoom meeting. A lot of people also responded through the chat feature. People were stuck at home, wanting to be heard, and many felt that they were not being represented in the media — their demands don’t make the news. We prepared a list of speakers beforehand, and other people joined in the course of the demonstration. Simultaneous with the Zoom meeting, we projected a livestream of the actual meeting onto the outer wall of the house. We wanted to give the protestors the feeling that they were demonstrating on the street.

The third action involved projecting slogans onto the wall of the government headquarters at Azrieli intersection. We collected the slogans beforehand. The slogans expressed support for activists’ groups and struggles. There were slogans against the Israeli occupation, against poverty, against the kidnapping and disappearance of Yemenite, Mizrachi and Balkan Jewish children, against the killing of Ethiopians by police, and against domestic violence. We circulated a picture of a blank billboard, like the ones you see at the intersection, and asked people what message would they like to see on it. The accompanying text said that the public space belongs to us too, and now that we can return to the public space, we don’t want to see meaningless advertisements. What are the messages that you want to see in the public space? Companies pay a fortune to advertise, we can come and project our own messages. It might not have the same effect but it’s not totally different either. During the protest we projected the slogans that people and civil organizations had sent us and we live-steamed the action. When we projected them onto the wall of the government headquarters, it produced a good image (for the activists and organizations to use).

Like other protest actions, we don’t know if it was affective, but it empowered people in their homes. When they saw their slogans on the billboard, maybe it encouraged them to act. Across the three protest actions we were never more than six or seven persons on the ground.

Did the pandemic restrictions reveal any kind of vulnerability in the public space?

The challenges and complexity of the public space is something we cope with constantly. We don’t have financial support. We do most of our work on the ground in communities, rather than on social media. During the COVID-19 crisis the matter of funding came to the fore, but it was an issue for us beforehand too. Groups that have money will reach more people because they can upload a lot of notifications onto social media, and that is what will be seen in the public space. Marginalized struggles will go unnoticed because they have less financing and fewer notifications. Our organizations therefore operate on the ground in communities, and the demonstrations are creative, like performances and installations, and confronting decision-makers in their homes. Virtual public space is governed by financial struggles and as a consequence, you see shallow and un-complex claims, since those are the principles that govern social media. To broadcast a complex claim you need five minutes and not half a minute. Also, in a social media notification you can only select one visual image, whereas I want to present all kind of activists’ identities, and not only one picture.

What are your thoughts on the concept of ‘home’ during the pandemic restrictions?

People were happy that the demonstrations took place at the CEO’s house. People are being forced to shelter in place, but not every home is a suitable space, or a sheltering one. Even if people have a nice home, they seek to help others who lack that private space. We invited people to a pop-up demonstration without announcing where it would be held, only that we would go to a home of a decision-maker. That’s a known strategy. If you have funding you can arrange a big demonstration in a central location and get headlines and influence. But if you don’t have the resources, we will arrive, ten people, at the home of a decision-maker and ruin his or her evening. We can get a news item out of it and upload it onto social media. Maybe we will attain the same effect. Maybe it is even more irritating and drastic. I see it as measure for measure — the economic policies harm families and abuse people in their homes. The CEO’s policies affect our lives, so he can suffer for one night. The demonstration will not take place at his office, not during working hours and not against other people, but rather in the evening, when he wants some quiet time with his family. If people can’t enjoy peace and quiet in their homes, he shouldn’t either. The economic policies harm my intimate space, so we will spoil his space as well.

Were the images of slogans and speakers on Zoom meant only to transmit a message, or did they have other meanings?

We tried to demonstrate ownership of the public space and to expose power relations as well. The mainstream media doesn’t cover those issues, but we can transmit them. We don’t have the money to pay for advertising on billboards, but with our elementary tools we projected our slogans. It was not a big advertisement and there wasn’t huge exposure but there was presence. The images from these actions can encourage others to act in the public space and to claim it with their­­­ own demands.

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