Nearly 2,000 people in New York State recently received an unusual bookmark in the mail, from a mysterious group that calls itself Jewish Women Watching.
The bookmark, which can be seen here, calls attention to what it calls “Jewish racist voices” by pointing to the difference in response by Jews to the creation of two public schools in Brooklyn: the Arab language and culture-focused Khalil Gibran International Academy, which opened in September 2007, and the Hebrew Language Academy, which opened its doors this past September.
It seems a change in direction for the group, which began its activism a decade ago when it sent a Jewish New Year card to some 1,500 leaders in the Jewish community, declaring that “sexism is a sin.”
They stuck with that message for JWW’s first couple of years, in twice-a-year actions putting the focus on gender disparities within the organized Jewish community.
For Purim the first year they sent groggers saying “Drown Out Sexism” to 1,500 Jewish leaders. The next Rosh Hashana, they placed a small ad on the bottom of the New York Times’ front page saying “Jewish Women/Girls, Hold your community accountable. Sexism is a sin.”
Their actions got increasingly risqué: Timed to coincide with Simchat Torah in 2002, the group sent 3,000 Jewish leaders a condom and a postcard critiquing cooperation with the Christian right, saying ““Why is the Jewish community in bed with Pat Robertson, Jerry Falwell, and Ralph Reed?”
In 2006 it had a party at a Soho sex-toys shop, Babeland, to protest what they described as “Bush’s Christian agenda” and quashing of sex education and reproductive rights.
They also started donning owl costumes at some of their protests at places including Manhattan’s Jewish Community Center and the offices of what was then called United Jewish Communities.
In recent years they’ve focused more on the political: a YouTube video in November 2008 mocked some of the rumors about Obama’s ties to Islam, and the new bookmark effort is being titled “Critique Responsibly.”
I asked Jewish Women Watching, in an email via their website, why they chose this issue now and chose a bookmark.
The anonymous response, signed by “Ruth the Moabite and Miriam the Prophet of JWW,” was also emailed. The foremothers wrote:
This issue, like many others we address, is an example of a larger problem in the Jewish community. Our analysis is that anti-Arab racism was the driving force between the attacks on KGIA, a belief which was reinforced when HLA opened and didn’t receive the same hateful response. As such, we wanted our audience to have the bookmark as a reminder that this is an ongoing problem in the community that they need to call out.
The bookmark was chosen specifically because we wanted something school-themed.
The group’s calling card has been its mysteriousness and anonymity.
Though I’ve long had my suspicions about who is backing JWW, I’ve never been able to get confirmation.
When I asked the Prophetesses about their funding, they responded: “We can’t release budget or funding information because our funding is anonymous.”
Personally, though I don’t agree with all their politics, I’ve generally found their actions fun and amusing.
And frankly, in an era of uber-serious Jewish political groups seeming to constantly churn out dire predictions and serious statements, it has been a welcome bright spot of relief.
I just wish they’d put the focus back where it started, on sexism, an issue that has not gone away in the organized Jewish community and continues to get too little focus by mainstream leadership.