Barbara Sofer

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Why were advertisements with women torn down?

By Barbara Sofer

July 31, 2020

I’m not usually vengeful, but I admit to recently nurturing a rare revenge fantasy.

It starts as I’m driving down Begin Road in Jerusalem and glance up, as has been my habit this last month, to admire the large billboards on the bridges that cross the highway.

Instead of the usual advertisements for various education programs, TV shows or automobiles, the five bridges over Jerusalem bear billboards celebrating our country’s nurses. Women, men, Jews, Arabs, black, white – they’re all part of the effort to help us survive this epoch-defining crisis. In this case, the photos are of Hadassah Medical Center nurses, but the message is clear that all the nurses of Israel – with an emphasis on the 36,000 working shifts in hospitals – deserve our admiration and gratitude.

To my dismay and disgust, the faces of the two women nurses have been cut out. Two rectangles have been sliced into the billboard where their faces once inspired us.

It’s not the first time, of course, that women’s faces have been blotted out, scratched out, covered with graffiti, in Jerusalem. Bus stop shelters with advertisements including women have been burned down, leaving public transportation passengers exposed to sun and rain. Mayoral candidate Rachel Azaria had barely put up campaign posters when they were ripped and blackened. We remember the four-year legal campaign that got the Egged bus cooperative to display women’s faces despite its understandable fear of attacks by local misogynists.

Just to be clear: we’re not talking about immodest advertisements that objectify or trivialize women. Nor is there even a touch of impropriety. They nurses are, of course, fully dressed in their uniforms. One is wearing the wraparound headscarf associated with Orthodox Jewish women. The perpetrators did leave the headscarf and the other nurse’s hair in place. What is gone? Their sparkling eyes and broad smiles – features that show them as confident and amiable women with no need to be self-deprecating.

No eyes. Even niqab-wearers show their eyes. (Relevant to nothing, an interesting side effect of the pandemic is that niqabi women in the West report that they are no longer exposed to taunts, since most people wear mask.

In a country with so little national consensus, I thought we’d all agree that we Israelis owe respect to our nurses. I hoped that facing a pandemic together would knock out some of the nonsense.

Nurses have a proud history. The first post-high-school college for women in this country – an American-style nursing school – opened in 1918, the year of the Spanish flu. Not all parents agreed to have their daughters live away from home and learn hands-on nursing, but 400 young women from the Yishuv insisted on applying for the first 40 places. Henrietta Szold herself moved to Jerusalem from America to get the nursing school off the ground, and adopted the nurses like daughters.

Later, those nurses traveled to Cyprus to treat the Holocaust survivors interned at the British detention camps there. An Israeli nurse organized the first-in-the-world field hospital with operating room in Haiti after the devastating earthquake. Our nurses have played the greatest hands-on role in the 2020 pandemic, straining the workforce to such a degree that the nurses went on strike last week.

So, here’s my fantasy.

Cutting out the women’s faces on the bridge was indeed a daring operation. Most likely, the perpetrators had to get up in the middle of the night to carry out their nefarious deed with fewest observers. It required physical acuity and overcoming fear of falling – skills better put to use in the IDF. What devotion! The culprits had to hang over the bridge and risk their lives. They might have slipped and smashed their skulls and spines. They could have been crushed by a coach. And to make it clear to all that they had nothing against nurses per se – just against women – they left the faces of the male nurses intact.

In my fantasy the culprits fall from the bridge, get hit by a small car but survive. The ambulance crew rushes them to the Hadassah trauma center in Jerusalem’s Ein Kerem or to the new one on Mount Scopus. Even though it’s the middle of the night, the doctors and nurses are there for the injured. Some of the staff are on night shift. Others with unique skills have to be summoned from sleep. The team – doctors, nurses, technicians – are all women. Among them are the two nurses whose faces they cut out. Unlike their picture, now they aren’t smiling.

I SPEAK to Dr. Rely Alon, Hadassah’s deputy director for nursing and health professions and the initiator of the billboard campaign, sponsored by a Hadassah donor in the United States.

“2020 is the International Year of the Nurse, and who could have guessed how appropriate that would be? With the arrival of the coronavirus, I felt it was time to strengthen and salute our nurses,” she said. The vandalism, she said, made her sad.

When I told her of my fantasy, she shook her head. “We would never for a moment consider denying anyone treatment, no matter their race, religion or offensive opinions.”

Then I tracked down Annael Raspaolo, the 25-year-old surgical nurse whose face was cut out.

“I figured that whoever did it was so small that he wasn’t important,” she said. “That billboard was thick. It took a lot of effort to cut it. I can’t imagine getting up in the morning and spending your day planning how to cut out my face.”

They were planning their strategy while she was spending her day treating patients in the surgical ward. And yes, it was likely that she would have taken care of the perpetrators if they’d fallen.

“And I would have given them the same excellent treatment we give everyone,” she said. “Maybe they’d learn something.”

A group of activists from Jerusalem’s Hitorerut Party wasn’t wasting their time on revenge fantasies. Without asking, they went around Jerusalem and pasted posters on billboards of Henrietta Szold, historic founder of Hadassah and patron of Israeli nurses.

Surfing around the Internet with the words “destroy,” “women,” Jerusalem,” to look at images of women’s faces defaced, the search engines repeatedly offered me “Destruction of Jerusalem,” relating to the Ninth of Av, which we marked this week. Misogyny is a form of sin’at hinam, causeless hatred. We needed to wipe it out back then, and we need to wipe it out now.



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