[Update: Dec. 7, 2021: An earlier version of this article referred to “antisemitism” and “antisemitic” as “anti-Semitism” and “anti-Semitic.” Corrections have been made since.]
On Nov. 14, the VSA brought forth, and ultimately tabled, a censure motion against Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP). The censure motion concerned SJP’s usage of a cartoon by Jewish-American artist Eli Valley, entitled “Diaspora Boy,” on a guest-lecture poster that the student organization had circulated around Vassar’s campus.
Several Jewish students on campus found the cartoon, which satirizes Jewish stereotypes, antisemitic. According to VSA Vice President Ryan Mazurkiewicz ’22: “I got a lot of emails that were basically like, ‘Hey, this is an antisemitic caricature.’”
A Jewish student, who asked to remain anonymous, described why he felt the image was antisemitic: “It is clearly representative of a Nazi-era depiction of the Jewish ‘subhuman,’ with a big nose and big ears, a witch-like hunched back (think Gargamel from the Smurfs), black hair and a unibrow, and a gait, among some other potentially concerning and offensive traits reminiscent of antisemitic propaganda.”
After numerous complaints, the VSA raised a censure motion, the least punitive disciplinary measure possible, against SJP during their weekly Senate meeting.
The VSA asked SJP representatives to attend that meeting, and over an hour of debate led to an alternative solution: SJP would publish a formal apology in The Miscellany News for their use of perceived antisemitic imagery.
SJP did not anticipate backlash against the poster: In an interview with The Miscellany News, An SJP representative said: “[The backlash] took us by surprise.” The representative described that various students reached out to them about the poster: “We had a complaint with the VSA Judicial Board placed against us, alleging antisemitism. Other than that, we received 1 or 2 angry DM’s on our Instagram.”
The representative said that, as a Jewish student, he empathized with the anxiety and fear surrounding antisemitism but felt that there was sufficient information to contextualize the image as non-Zionist Jewish art. “The title of the lecture—Drawing the Dystopia: On Non-Zionist Jewish Art and Politics —clearly implies that the guest was a Jewish artist creating work to interrogate and problematize the false equivocation of anti-Zionism with antisemitism,” he believed.
The anonymous student disagreed in part: “Whether you agree with using that type of ‘advertising,’ which I personally don’t, I think that it’s fair to argue that a group with an antisemitic past mobilizing such imagery is unacceptable.” He continued: “In my view, SJP should have faced a censure, and I feel that the motion not passing really speaks to the forgiving culture towards antisemitism on Vassar’s campus and, in a larger sense, the College’s indifference towards the experiences of Jewish students, faculty, and staff.”
The representative acknowledged that opinions differ within the Jewish community and hoped that the guest lecture would lead to constructive dialogue between Zionist and non-Zionist Jews. “This is not to say that an initial reaction of offense is unwarranted, but that I would hope people would be curious enough to engage with Jewish art and dialogue surrounding Jewish identity in a deeper way than the first reaction.”
The College’s Campus Activities Office (CAO) did approve this poster; however, they suggested running it by Rachlin Director of Jewish Life Rabbi Bryan Mann before its release. The representative said that SJP did attempt to email Rabbi Bryan Mann, but accidentally emailed another Vassar employee with the same name, Professor Emeritus Brian Mann, who did not respond to the email.
The representative described: “I assumed that I was being ignored, as I never got a reply, and just decided to keep moving forward with the event.” Additionally, according to the representative, members of the College’s administration and Rabbi Mann met to discuss the poster. At this meeting they decided the poster could be interpreted as offensive, but the representative shared that this decision was never communicated to SJP.
“Rabbi Bryan thought he made it clear to other members of the administration that he wanted us to speak with him, but that was never clearly communicated to us. I spoke with him the following week, and it was clear that we both wanted to speak beforehand, but there were various breakdowns in communication,” said the representative.
Rabbi Mann shared his perspective: “Had I gotten to meet with SJP, I would have been honest and said, ‘If you use this image I believe it will cause a lot of hurt on campus. I also think it will shift the conversation away from your event and the content of the conversation with Eli Valley and it will only be about this image.’”
He continued, “Based on follow up conversations I have had with SJP leaders I trust they would have taken this seriously and potentially used another image.”
Two weeks following the Nov. 14 Senate meeting in which a motion to censure was brought against SJP, the VSA approved a bill that amended the poster approval process. When approving advertisements for controversial speakers, all relevant administrators and student organizations must meet with one another to discuss the potential implications their advertisements could have. According to Mazurkiewicz, “Once [the poster is] approved by that committee, discipline is no longer on the table for the organization because the administration has approved it.”
Associate Dean of the College for Campus Activities Dennis Machenska emphasized the need for campus organizations to continue carefully considering the potential adverse effects of any posters they publish, with a particular focus on context: “One thing that will be considered [in the new vetting process], for example, is to provide context for an image, rather than just publish it as a stand-alone.”
He elaborated: “Without context or more information about the speaker, the image was approved by CAO,” Machenska described. “Subsequently, the image on the poster did create harm on campus which led to the involvement of the VSA and the newly created process to vet and approve posters of controversial speakers.”
A common sentiment that all parties expressed was a need to strengthen dialogue. The representative stated: “We’re always happy to engage in good faith dialogue.” Rabbi Mann reiterated this point: “I have found one of the ways to build shared trust and relationships is through storytelling. Every identity comes with a story including Zionist/anti-Zionist. One of the best things we can do within Jewish life and as a campus is be open to hearing and sharing each other’s stories.”
Additional reporting by Olivia Watson.