‘Freedom for Humanity:’ A Cautionary Tale

January 24, 2021 by Ben Cohen - JNS.org
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What follows here is a story about a politician from the extreme left, a politician from the far-right and a painting replete with antisemitic tropes that has travelled around the Internet for around a decade, and still does.

A view of the antisemitism “Freedom for Humanity” mural in London that was removed in 2012. Source: Screenshot.

Let’s start with the painting—more precisely, a wall mural. The image exists only in digital form now, having been unceremoniously wiped in 2012 from a wall on a street in the East End of London that it once occupied.

The mural was removed in part because of numerous complaints to the local council about its antisemitic content. The creation of a Los Angeles-based street artist named Kalen Ockerman (aka “Mear One”), the mural’s vanilla title—“Freedom for Humanity”—doesn’t quite prepare the viewer for the spectacle on display.

At its centre, we see a group of six elderly, impeccably dressed men with prominent noses playing the board game Monopoly. The game sits on a table constructed on the broken backs of human beings stripped of their clothes, who strain under its weight while bent double, heads clasped in hands. Directly behind them, the “eye of providence” stares out ominously.

The “eye of providence”—a symbol that appears on the Great Seal of the United States and on the reverse of a one-dollar bill—is much prized by conspiracy theorists as evidence that the world’s financial system is run by freemasons and sundry other illuminati. Place the eye alongside a group of plump Jewish bankers who extract their profits through the sweat and toil of downtrodden workers and, presto, you have an antisemitic trope in your hand.

As is par for the course with those who traffic in antisemitism, Ockerman denied that his mural was another incarnation of the medieval depiction of Jews as parasitic exploiters of regular, God-fearing folk. “My mural is about class and privilege,” he told an interviewer in October 2012. “The banker group is made up of Jewish and white Anglos. For some reason, they are saying I am antisemitic. This I am most definitely not. … What I am against is class.”

Unsurprisingly, this interpretation of the mural was already shared by others on the left, including Jeremy Corbyn, three years before he became the leader of the opposition Labour Party when he was, as he now is once more, an ordinary member of the British parliament.

When the mural was removed in 2012, Corbyn opined in a Facebook post that Ockerman now shared the illustrious company of the Mexican artist Diego Rivera, whose famous mural at New York City’s Rockefeller Center was plastered over by Nelson Rockefeller, who objected to the inclusion of a portrait of Vladimir Lenin within. On the far left, that counts as a huge compliment.

When Corbyn’s post about the mural came to light six years later—as the Labour Party was enveloped by one antisemitic scandal after another under his leadership—he issued a hasty apology, claiming that he hadn’t looked at the artwork closely enough to notice the “disturbing” antisemitic imagery that it contained. For anyone aware of the long tradition of antisemitism on the political left, which is rooted in the notion of Jews as transnational financiers, Corbyn’s explanation was hardly convincing. He admired the mural because its constituent images spoke meaningfully to his anti-capitalist, anti-imperialist convictions; he just didn’t have the courage to admit that.

Here’s what is interesting, though. The very same mural had the same energizing effect on someone whose view of the world would seem to be the absolute opposite of Corbyn’s—an individual whose election pledges included commitments to fight “taxpayer-funded benefits for illegal aliens” and “the expansion of Medicaid and medical welfare,” alongside a full-throated defence of Second Amendment rights.

How is it that someone who represents these opinions in a U.S. state legislature—in this case, Republican Rep. Jim Spillane of Deerfield, N.H.—finds himself in perfect harmony with an English Socialist who gets teary-eyed at the mere mention of the old Soviet Union? The question arises because, in early January, Spillane shared the “Freedom for Humanity” mural on Twitter, helpfully adding the caption: “Truth. Agree.”

Spillane doesn’t believe that he erred in sharing the image, which he insists is not antisemitic. “As far as I know, none of those people is Jewish,” he snapped at a local news outlet before hanging up the phone last Thursday. Sadly, he is not the only GOP state legislator to have approvingly shared the mural with their online followers. Last September, Rep. Danny McCormick of the Louisiana state legislature did exactly the same on his Twitter feed.

The cyclical journey of this particular mural—from the extreme left to the far-right and back again—takes place on a road that is much more straightforward to navigate than partisans of either side would be comfortable admitting. For while the historic enmities between both of these extremes are undeniable, the clashes between far-left and far-right in the last century have fundamentally been driven by geopolitics, not ideological disagreements.

As the example of the mural demonstrates, when it comes to breaking down the alleged evils of capitalism—in essence, a system that privileges a white, “Judaic” elite while everyone else is immiserated and enslaved—today’s Communists and right-wing populists find themselves in broad agreement on what these are.

Not every extremist will place the same emphasis on the Jewish elements of the mural, and the majority would probably echo Spillane’s incredulous denial that these antisemitic themes are present in the first place! But the lesson that matters for the Jewish community is that antisemitism can exist on the further reaches of left and right for exactly the same set of reasons. Whatever else might divide them, on this question, which both sides used to call “The Jewish Question,” their unity is too close for comfort.

Ben Cohen is a New York City-based journalist and author who writes a weekly column on Jewish and international affairs for JNS.

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