Robert Lederman doesn’t stand out in a crowd. But his artwork does. During months of protest over the police shooting of Amadou Diallo, Lederman’s caricatures depicting Mayor Rudolph Giuliani as Adolf Hitler received far more notoriety than the affable, middle-aged Jewish artist and street peddler from Brooklyn who created them. The signs, which Lederman distributed to the protestors, were panned by Jewish leaders. Some say they harmed efforts to address police brutality by distracting from the issue.
The public may have turned the page on the Diallo protests, but Lederman has opened a new chapter in an ongoing debate over the use of Holocaust rhetoric and imagery in popular culture and public discourse. Fifty years after the Third Reich, it has become more acceptable to coin phrases such as the “Soup Nazi” or denounce a politician’s “Gestapo” policies.
“To compare your landlord to Hitler because he didn’t give you enough heat, that’s ridiculous,” says Lederman. “But to compare [Serbian leader Slobodan] Milosevic to Hitler, I don’t think is so ridiculous. I think it’s a useful symbol in some contexts.”
In a vastly unpopular view even among some of the mayor’s staunchest public critics, Lederman insists the Hitler comparison in this case is not hyperbolic. “I don’t believe that Giuliani is the equivalent of Hitler,” says Lederman, 48. “But I definitely do think that some of Giuliani’s policies are similar to and reminiscent of Hitler’s policies.”
He qualifies his distinctions between Giuliani and Hitler with such terms as “for now” and “as yet.” On his web site, he asks “Is he sending millions to the gas chambers? Of course the answer for now is no. That’s the same answer one would have had to give if these questions were being asked … in 1932.”
Lederman believes Giuliani’s policies provide unequal protection to different communities, favor corporations over citizens and quash free speech and criticism of his administration. He even implicitly suggests that homeless people and others may have met with foul play. “There’s a lot of people who have been ‘cleaned up’ in this city,” he says. “They may not have been exterminated. Do I think Giuliani has had people killed? I’m not saying that. I don’t know that he has.”
Norman Siegel, director of the New York Civil Liberties Union and one of Giuliani’s most persistent critics, calls that view baseless and “irresponsible” and the Hitler comparison “repugnant.” Giuliani, Siegel says, “has a terrible civil liberties record and he’s bad on race relations, but there’s absolutely no comparison to Adolf Hitler. Not even close. People who do that trivialize what Hitler was.”
Lederman became an overnight Giuliani gadfly in 1994, when the newly elected mayor banned artists and other vendors from selling their work on the streets without permits. Having learned to draw from his father, Paul, a commercial artist, Lederman first set up shop at age 12 outside DuBrow’s deli on Kings Highway, hoping to raise enough money to produce independent films, a pursuit he has since abandoned. He continues to support himself and two young children by selling his art.
“Between 1962 and 1994, there was basically no problem for street artists in this city because police and the Department of Consumer Affairs had a policy that artists were protected by the First Amendment,” says Lederman.Lederman responded to the change by co-founding Artists’ Response To Illegal State Tactics (ARTIST). He says he has been arrested 36 times for protesting Giuliani policies and what he considers a crackdown on civil liberties, and claims that police officers have arrived at demonstrations seeking him by name, with orders to arrest him.
Police department spokeswoman Marilyn Mode called that claim “delusional. He has been given summonses several times for disorderly conduct. It’s pathetic that he’s so intent on trying to attract attention to himself.”
Lederman’s formal education ended with graduation from Tilden High School in Canarsie, but in recent years he taught himself about the legal system as well as about art. His victorious civil battle against the ban on artists led all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court. Although free to ply his trade on sidewalks, Lederman says he continues to oppose the mayor because he believes Giuliani’s goal is to become United States attorney general, a non-elected position with the potential to influence the lives of all Americans. “He’s not serious about running for the Senate,” he says, citing unnamed sources close to Giuliani. “He and [Republican Texas Gov.] George Bush have a deal. It doesn’t matter if 100 percent of the people don’t like him.”
Lederman has been branded a self-hating Jew or worse by the Jewish Defense Organization and the New York Post. But he considers activism an expression of his Jewish identity.
“The things that stick in my mind about the Holocaust are the Warsaw Ghetto, Jews who fought back,” he says. “I see myself as part of that tradition, as someone who sees Giuliani violating our rights. I’m not going to wait until I’m on a boxcar going to a camp, I’m going to fight him now.”
Such statements lead Abraham Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation League, to believe that Lederman “doesn’t begin to understand what Hitler represents and what his plan was and what the Final Solution is all about, or what price the Jewish people paid for Hitler.”
Lederman, whose grandparents came here from Russia at the turn of the century, has no known relatives who suffered under Hitler, although he points out that his late father, Paul fought the Nazis in an Army artillery unit, surviving the Battle of the Bulge. “I probably know more about the Holocaust than a lot of Jewish people,” he said.
Although he is not an observant Jew, Lederman has a white mezuzah on his apartment door and says he celebrates Jewish holidays. “I’m proud to be Jewish and have a lot of respect for Judaism,” he says. “The idea that I’m anti-Semitic is ridiculous.”
Lederman describes his painting style as “Jewish impressionist” and says he deliberately invokes the feel of propaganda posters used by the Nazis. He started out selling images of jazz musicians, but has made a cottage industry of the Giuliani-Hitler pictures. He’s sold hundreds of acrylic-on-cardboard posters for between $100 and $400, he says. A show of his work is presently at the Clayton Gallery on Essex Street on the Lower East Side. Dozens of signs that he handed out at demonstrations were not returned, he said, and some have been sold to police officers.
“The mayor’s had a few hundred of them confiscated,” he says with a smirk. “He’s my biggest collector.”
No matter how much analogy he draws between 1999 New York and 1930s Berlin, he readily admits that he chose Hitler because of his notoriety. “People who know nothing about history, people who couldn’t even tell you who the vice president is, or possibly even the president, know about Hitler. They see the little mustache, they know who I’m talking about. If I compared him to Pol Pot, people wouldn’t know who that is.”