When I was seven years old I was a flower girl for one of my female cousins. Twenty-five years later I attended the couple’s silver wedding anniversary. In all that time I had not seen the bridesmaid whom I had been paired with. So when Jenny and I were brought together on that special day, palpable was her surprise that no longer did I resemble that dark haired young miss of seven dressed in a miniature version of her own beautiful ice blue gown, with my hair piled high and, like her, always smiling in that group photograph.
In fact, for Jenny, right up until our paths re-crossed that day, I had not and never would age. In her eyes, had we not met again, I would still be seven years old and would have gone on being so, despite the previous twenty-five years flowing under the bridge. What, however, was striking to me was that seemingly she could not reconcile that while her life had been well lived with marriage and children in those intervening years, I would not also have grown to adulthood and be living through my own personal milestones.
Such is the life of a photograph – especially one of those “big day” photographs – that causes the moment, and the subjects, to be forever stuck in time.
I was reminded of Jenny and of being stuck in time when I saw a photograph of a pro-Hamas demonstration in Poland after the October 7th atrocities in Israel. The main subject of this photograph1 is a young, white woman who is seen smiling widely while carrying a sign with the caption ‘keep the world clean’ with the flag of Israel shown cast into a rubbish bin. Since taken, the image has received much attention online.
When asked about her sign, this young woman, Marie Andersen, a Norwegian medical student who is studying in Poland, insisted that she was not demonstrating against the Jewish people, just the Israeli Government.
Whether Marie Andersen likes it or not, carrying her sign at this march is Antisemitism, as acts such as this always have been. Though she may insist that her sign has nuance and that it is the Israeli Government and not Jews that drew her ire, what she is actually supporting is the genocide of the Jewish people at the hands of Hamas, both in Israel and everywhere else in the world. The rubbish bin and the word, clean, give the game away.
Maybe hers is not the worst of the anti-Jewish responses seen across the globe to the atrocities carried out by Hamas. But what it does say is that Antisemitism, especially the type that seems designed to divert with its almost casual, afternoon stroll appeal that comes through in the photo, is insidious. Like those who would tear down the signs of the missing Israeli civilians, with laughs and backslapping, what this photo is reminiscent of is Hannah Arendt’s phrase the Banality of Evil.
Many decades prior to Marie Andersen’s moment in time, another photograph with a remarkably similar context, was taken. Yet in this case what comes to be seen as the main subject of the photograph is shown responding in a completely differently way to the Antisemitism he sees. Taken in 1936, the photograph2 is of a massed rally, but with one man refusing to make the Nazi salute to Hitler, who is present at the occasion, despite everyone else in the photo doing so. Subsequently, it has become emblematic of moral strength in the face of evil.
In the years to come, how will Marie Andersen see herself when her image is shown over and over, as it surely will be? Will seeing her image with her disgusting sign, or being reminded of that day in Poland when people will ask, were you that girl in that photo, change her? Will she continue to see herself in that ordinary and commonplace, Adolph Eichmann way of the Banality of Evil, professing only to a political posture? Or will she think about her material support for the murder and torture of innocent Jews and the taking of civilian hostages in the worst Jewish catastrophe since the War?
I sincerely hope that Marie Andersen’s moment in time does not forever freeze her as the girl with the sign. But to do so will first require her to acknowledge that Antisemitism is insidious and that we must all be on alert.