Armed with press releases and draped in full-body owl costumes, a handful of feathered feminists staged a demonstration last week in front of the headquarters of the United Jewish Communities.
The walking birds were members of Jewish Women Watching, a women’s rights group whose members famously refuse to identify themselves while launching campaigns aimed at embarrassing the Jewish organizational establishment. Originally dedicated to puncturing the glass ceiling of Jewish communal life with a mixture of spunk and chutzpah, the watchers have expanded their list of policy concerns and organizational targets.
This multi-issue agenda was on display December 19, during the protest in front of the offices of UJC, the national roof body of local Jewish charitable federations. The owl ladies announced what they dubbed as the underground organization’s first annual Greasy Latke Awards, a vehicle for skewering a host of prominent institutions for allegedly engaging in various discriminatory practices.
In addition to slamming organizations (and one prominent philanthropist whose main sin appears to be his yen for formal and informal Jewish educational programs), Jewish Women Watching is also taking aim at the Forward and The New York Jewish Week. The watchers sent out a mass e-mail message last week claiming that the newspapers were “afraid” to publish the group’s ads.
The truth, as we had informed the watchers in an e-mail of our own, is that this newspaper has a general policy of not publishing ads from people who refuse to identify themselves. The Forward itself has repeatedly addressed the controversial issues that the women’s ad raised, often in stronger terms than they did, and we will continue to do so. Unlike Jewish Women Watching, however, the Forward doesn’t hide behind anonymous campaigns or owl masks. And, as a matter of ethics, we don’t allow our pages to be used for anonymous attacks by advocates — of whatever stripe — who won’t take responsibility for their words.
On their Web site, the watchers insist they keep their identities secret in order to “focus attention on the issues — not ourselves.” It’s a strange claim from activists who walk around Manhattan in full-body bird suits.
Whatever their intentions, the watchers’ cult of secrecy has become a distraction that trivializes the significant progress being made by like-minded activists on many fronts. A corresponding risk is that the group’s secret tactics and mud-slinging style will eventually resurrect the unfortunate impression that many of the issues in question are fringe concerns, rather than matters of justice embraced by a growing majority.
Take off the masks, ladies, so we can get back to the issues.