Interview with Nisi Jacobs – Founder & CEO, WoMen Fight AntiSemitism

by | May 24, 2019

By Scott Douglas Jacobsen

Nisi Jacobs is the founder and CEO of WoMen Fight AntiSemitism, which describes itself as welcoming “all genders and races into our united front to fight for equality and against Antisemitism.”. WoMen Fight AntiSemitism (WMFA) is pursuing New York State adopting an official definition and framework of Antisemitism, South Carolina adopting an official definition and framework of Antisemitism and raising awareness for the United States to ratify the ERA and CEDAW.

Nisi attended Stuyvesant High School in 1987 thanks to Alice De Rivera who successfully sued against the school’s all-boy policy in 1969. At Stuyvesant, Nisi studied with Frank McCourt, author of the Pulitzer Prize winning memoir ‘Angela’s Ashes’ and was awarded the Stuyvesant Award for Creative Writing by McCourt. Nisi is a 3D editor on productions that have screened at the MoMA, Lincoln Center, The Whitney, Tribeca Film Festival, Museum of Moving Image, Pompadou, Berlin Festival, among other venues. 

Scott Douglas Jacobsen: How do you define secular art? How would this then turn out in some of the history of secular art productions?

Nisi Jacobs: Secular art would entail the creation and manifestation of a creative vision or idea emanating from an artist that is not restricted or bounded by any type of religious commitments or dogma or indoctrination that dictates where that artist can pursue and feel into the unknown.

Jacobsen: What about some of the pragmatics in everyday life for secular art? For example, some of the processes in brainstorming, designing, and implementing a secular piece of art.

Jacobs: I think that organizations that are granting, funding, and supporting the kind of art that would be defined as secular would have a humanist or a political underpinning, which is interested in changing societies’ restrictions on certain minorities including sexual, gender, racial, class, etc.

So, otherwise, you have money concentrated in religious and academic institutions. Every funding source will have its self-interest or interest in promoting what it deems valuable. Likely, there is not one generalization, where you can say, “The funding is available to secular artists.”

Secular artists are going to have to look at their art and see what category it best falls under. Are they working with LGBT concerns? Are they working with feminist concerns? Are they working with race concerns?

It is likely, I imagine, that there is a pressure to politicize the work. It is not allowed to be free necessarily because of the way that the funding is categorized.

Jacobsen: If we are talking about red lines in terms of funding and the productions themselves, what would be something crossing over into standard religious art? What would be something walking along that red line, along that border?

Jacobs: The boundary, you can almost look at what Madonna did at Eurovision. She ran through her performance. There was a contract that she signed which said that the performance would have no political content. 

She ran it for the judges. It was checked with no problem. When she performed for the live audience, she revealed political content that she had promised not to include. I think that likely the line that has been pushed over and over and would be something like my father and his friend screening a film deemed illegal because it had homosexuality in it, before homosexuality was legal in New York City.

They pushed the line. They did something illegal. They broke a rule. That will relax the rules. Then there is another opportunity for the line to be pushed again. There is probably, if you look at it, the line pushed repeatedly with the artists daring to pull off the forbidden.

I do not know if it is a set line in other words. It is like a shifting tide, as the pressures change and recede. What was illegal or unacceptable becomes normal and then the cycle continues.

Jacobsen: What have been some areas in which the line has been the most dynamically changing, altering, and shifting with the pressures for an expansive form of art and a more regressive or restrictive form of art in those domains?

Jacobs:  I think of the Bauhaus Movement in relation to the Nazis, as Bauhaus artists were considered were degenerate because they were not conveying nationalist imagery. But in our time, right now, I think that there are always these pressures, diverse cultures that are conflicting, and they are happening at the same time.

I think it is hard to say. Unless, one is researching all these pressures that are occurring – these artistic hubs – then it is hard to say. But from my experience in New York and the art world here, and being aware of gender issues my whole life as a specific gender and in the arts, which has been restricted for females, I think the biggest impact is the explosion of women, of having careers, of having big, bold, and vibrant art careers in the last decade or so.

When I was in school, I went to Cooper Union. I ended in the 90s. I think it was Jenny Holtzer, doing these big digital and technical displays. There were few women who had broken through.

Most of them were from a previous era, like Judy Chicago. To be honest with you, it felt like there was a sense of having to sleep your way anywhere. That is what professors would say, “If you want to meet so-and-so, you will have to go to this party with me. Let us talk, let us get coffee.”

That sort of thing. If you chose not to follow that and did not have a lot of money, I can go into a lot of experiences in art school with male professors. I do not want to do that right now. Anyway, I have admiration for women who have developed careers in the arts.

Jacobsen: What has been the biggest barrier in your time?

Jacobs: I think the biggest barrier was a sense that my own vision did not count. It was being selfish. Women are judged on how kind, giving, and supportive they are rather than how focused and ambitious they are. 

Even the typical conditions in an atheist and progressive climate is still wrought with conditioning undermining the pursuit women are after. You must decide that you are going to be judged negatively if you want to succeed. 

Jacobsen: Thank you for the opportunity and your time, Nisi.

Jacobs: You’re so welcome.

Scott Douglas Jacobsen is the Founder of In-Sight: Independent Interview-Based Journal and In-Sight Publishing. He authored/co-authored some e-books, free or low-cost. If you want to contact Scott:

Do not forget to look into our associates: Godless Mom, Nice Mangoes, Sandwalk, Brainstorm Podcast, Left at the Valley, Life, the Universe & Everything Else, The Reality Check, Bad Science Watch, British Columbia Humanist Association, Dying With Dignity Canada, Canadian Secular Alliance, and Centre for Inquiry Canada.

Other Resources: Recovering From Religion.

Image Credit: Nisi Jacobs.

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