When Shirly Gurten leaves her house in Arlington these days, it’s often with a backpack filled with posters and packing tape. The posters are of hostages who were kidnapped Oct. 7 when Hamas attacked Israel, killing around 1,200 people, mostly civilians, and abducting nearly 240.
The packing tape is for attaching the posters to utility poles near the Capitol Theatre on Massachusetts Avenue. Since protesters began ripping them down, Gurten has started putting the fliers in protective plastic sleeves and wrapping everything in more tape.
She doesn’t see herself as an activist.
“I’m an Israeli,” said Gurten, who was born and raised in Jerusalem. “We only know how to be proactive.”
Gurten is among those who have been posting the fliers in cities around the world, from Cape Town to Cambridge, Kyiv to Mexico City. With their bright-red “KIDNAPPED” banner, the posters have emerged as a tangible, ubiquitous symbol of the Middle East conflict. But as Israel rejects global calls for a cease-fire and the reported death toll of Palestinians climbs past 11,000, including more than 4,500 children, they’ve also become flash points of the culture wars erupting on city streets and cellphone screens.
Gurten, a 29-year-old audio designer who came to Boston in 2017 to study at Berklee College of Music, learned about the downloadable “kidnapped” posters last month through the area’s Israeli community. Initially, she planned to print out a few fliers, but then she opened the digital file and saw it contained around 200 pages. “Because every page is a person,” she said. So, she printed all of them.
She’s been putting the posters up — and making sure they stay up — with the support of some in the local Jewish community. Richard Fraiman, who owns the Capitol Theatre, started helping Gurten after he saw fliers torn off utility poles near his cinema. “I said, ‘Well, give us a pile of them and we’ll put them up — you can’t do this all by yourself,’” recalled Fraiman, who said his wife’s cousin was among those killed on Oct. 7, in Kibbutz Be’eri. “So we put them up, and sure enough they were ripped down again.”
Fraiman’s question is “why?”
“Why would somebody be so threatened, and be offended, to see a real person’s picture there?” he asked. “Why does it set them off?”
Sut Jhally, a professor emeritus of communication at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, said that while he wouldn’t tear down the posters himself, he finds them problematic. “I think what makes people want to rip them down,” he said, “is their sense of injustice and their sense of rage — why are we caring about these people and not the people that, in fact, America is directly responsible for killing, which is Palestinians? It is American aid, it is American weapons, literally, that is killing Palestinians. Why do we not care about the people that we kill? The people that are our victims?”
The battle over the posters is unfolding across Boston, from the Common (where Gurten has also posted fliers) to T stations to college campuses as tensions flare and antisemitic and Islamophobic incidents surge in the United States.
Created by Israeli designer Tal Huber, the posters were conceived by street artists Nitzan Mintz and Dede Bandaid, who relocated from Tel Aviv to New York City in September. Like Gurten, their lives have been consumed by the #KidnappedFromIsrael campaign since they started it.
The fliers, now translated into more than 30 languages, feature the names and faces of the missing, whose ages range from around 10 months to 85 years. Many of the photos and details have come directly from families of the hostages who want their loved ones to be part of the campaign, Mintz said by phone.
Those taping up the posters say they want to honor and remember the hostages. Those tearing them down or defacing them have called the hostages “colonizers” and the campaign “false propaganda.” Many have been caught on camera mid-act, their faces broadcast over social media; some accused of ripping down fliers have been fired from their jobs as a result.
Lost in the ideological clash is the notion that the posters are a form of art — what graffiti historian Roger Gastman calls “cause-driven art.”
“It’s, to me, the definition of street art — it’s getting your message out there by any means necessary,” he said in a phone interview.
Others see the fliers as a form of propaganda. “I think the posters are indicative, actually, of what’s going on in American media,” said Jhally, who’s the founder and executive director of the Media Education Foundation.
“There are some people who are considered to be ‘worthy’ victims; that is, victims worth of our sympathy and our attention,” Jhally said, referencing Noam Chomsky. “And there are other people who are considered to be ‘unworthy’ victims . . . we don’t care about them, we don’t even want to think about them.”
Mintz and Bandaid came to New York for an artist residency program, but they never started. On Oct. 7, she received a phone call from her mother in Israel who said the country was under attack.
When they heard about the hostages, “We couldn’t hold ourselves from screaming. We decided that we have to do something.”
And that something had to be immediate.
A 24-hour brainstorming session yielded the idea of putting the hostages’ names and faces on milk cartons. But production would take too long, so they simplified the concept. “After 9/11, people were still looking for loved ones and the entire city of New York was covered with ‘missing people,’” said Mintz. They modeled the design on that format.
Strangers Mintz and Bandaid approached didn’t want to help put up the posters, so they went out alone. One night they uploaded the posters to Dropbox and shared it through their social media; the next day, people were posting them around Manhattan.
“This has gone to the streets very quickly, all over the place,” Gastman said, noting that the fliers are also “being accepted in a lot of communities” that typically might not embrace street art.
Now, Mintz wakes up “glued to the phone.” Watching the news, “I feel terrible. Terrible and terrified about what’s going on in Gaza, to the people,” she said. In Israel, Huber spends hours talking to families of the hostages. They update their website, www.kidnappedfromisrael.com, as new information comes in. “If we discover someone was slaughtered instead of being kidnapped,” Mintz said, “we need to remove them.”
Gurten, whose younger brother currently serves in the Israel Defense Forces, also monitors the news. “Everyone feels so helpless about the situation,” she said. “My brother is fighting in battles; the least I can do is put some posters here.”
“Everybody knows somebody,” said Fraiman, whose eldest daughter lives in Israel. “One of my granddaughter’s classmate’s families was slaughtered.”
Gurten said she has seen videos of people tearing down posters in Arlington, Boston, New York City, and Miami. On Massachusetts Avenue, she said, some people use their car keys to scratch off the protective tape.
She and other volunteers in the area are now thinking about applying Vaseline or baby oil to create another layer of protection.
“Every week when I go to synagogue, people tell me, ‘I’ve seen the posters, and it’s made me feel stronger. I’m glad that we keep putting them out there,’” Gurten said.
“I do see this as part of my duty,” she said, “to tell the world what happened.”