SJP poster sparks backlash, motion to censure

[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.

10 Comments

  1. This is the second time SJP had to apologise. Again the university administration backs down on anti-Semitism.

    Vassar’s SJP sort of apologizes for anti-Israel, Nazi cartoon: College president demands review of pro-Palestinian group’s status on campus; organization says incident was a mistake By AMANDA BORSCHEL-DAN 16 May 2014

    • (1) https://hyperallergic.com/394190/scathing-comics-about-the-crisis-of-being-jewish-today/ for a picture of Diaspora Boy. It reminds me of things that were published in Germany during the 1930s and even worse things (big-nosed Jews as spiders and insects) by the “Palestinian civil society” supported by Students for Justice in Palestine.

      (2) Disagreement with Israel’s policies, or the status of the territory Israel rightfully took from aggressors that had, as of 1967, started three wars in less than twenty years and then put the world at risk of nuclear war in 1973, is not anti-Semitic just as disagreement with actions of the United States is not un-American. Citizens of both countries have a right to protest, a right that does exist in Gaza as currently run by Hamas and the Palestinian Authority. When you refer to the creation of Israel as a “nakba” or catastrophe, you are denying the right of Israel to exist (https://www.nationalsjp.org/2019) which is anti-Semitic. Arabs would not have had to flee the region had various countries not attacked Israel on the day of its creation. A lot of Germans faced a similar “nakba” in 1945 when some of the countries they had abused such as Poland were given German territory by the victors. If you start a war with the intention to commit genocide and/or ethnic cleansing, as did Germany as governed in 1939 and Israel’s neighbors did in 1948, 1967, and 1973, you can’t complain when bad things happen if it doesn’t work out for you.

      (3) ADL also implies SJP may create a hostile learning environment as follows. https://www.adl.org/resources/backgrounders/students-for-justice-in-palestine-sjp “SJP’s insistence that one cannot be a good Jew while still being a Zionist is a blatant effort to constrain the Jewish identities of their fellow students and can turn campuses into hostile places for Jewish students. In one instance an SJP chapter called for the expulsion of the Jewish student group Hillel from the campus (see below).” I do not believe any college or university wants to associate itself with a hostile learning environment.

      (4) Boycott, divestment, and sanctions (BDS) is meanwhile nothing more than a way to support terrorists without violating any laws. It’s a felony to provide material support such as money to Hamas, but it is not illegal to try to harm Israel’s economy through BDS instead. It is particularly telling that nobody is promoting BDS against “Palestinian civil society” for, among other things, firing Qassam rockets at civilians while using its own people as human shields. The latter is a war crime.

      (5) Noting that Israel is the only country in the region with equal rights for women and LGBT people, with both groups being abused routinely in Gaza and other areas under Palestinian control, perhaps Vassar’s women’s advocacy groups and LGBT groups need to take a close look at what SJP really supports. I find it very telling that the political Left’s purportedly deep concern for women’s and LGBT rights ends where the Middle East and Central Asia (Iran) begin.

  2. Rabbi…It takes 2 to listen!…
    As to the cartoon… I find it hard to believe that this was posted innocently and without a snickering self righteous awareness of its potential impact and without full knowledge of the racist history of these caricatures!

  3. There has been a history of antisemitic posts in the past by SJP. Some may recall the white-supremacist, Nazi-era WWII poster that SJP posted on a social media page a few years ago that was clearly antisemitic. Regardless of context, this poster is a blatantly antisemitic depiction of Jews. The fact that none of the students who reviewed this before it was posted realized that this was antisemitic demonstrates the College’s lack of attention to the issue of antisemitism. Giving SJP another pass just encourages th to is organization to do it again and ask for forgiveness later. From past experience, had this been a derogatory depiction of another ethnic or racial group, the administration would have moved swiftly. Why does the double standard about antisemitism continue to persist on the Vassar campus? The time for the administration and VSA to take this issue seriously is long overdue.

  4. Why is it Vassar has sunk itself in the Leftist revisionist histories and Arab Propaganda that the Administration doesn’t even consider it’s reversion to the anti-semitism extant at their school in the 19th/20th Centuries has simply reared it’s head again in the 21st?

    The “SJP” is simply a Leftist US branch of the Arab/Islamist Supremacist Palestine LIberation Organization (created in 1964, along with the Arab Nationalist Identity of “Palestininian”), a 1960’s propaganda creation of the Arab League designed to destroy the Nation State of Israel. Too bad Vassar doesn’t see fit to teach about WW1 and it’s outcomes. No wonder the Ivy League Schools produce so many morons today.

  5. I agree – when people criticize Zionists, they mean Jews. Polls all indicate that more than 80% of Jews support Israel. Don’t palestinian supporters realize that If attacks against Jews escalate, Jews will move to Israel & increase the Jewish population ?
    If people want to boycott Israel, they should give up Israeli products such as cell phones, etc. & more tech devices. A Covid vaccine was developed by an Israeli. Be honest – give up your Israeli products & use palestinian products. Need I say more ?
    The people of Israel live !!!

  6. The Oxford dictionary defines Zionism as; “a movement for (originally) the re-establishment and (now) the development and protection of a Jewish nation in what is now Israel.” In contrast anti-Zionism is the opposition to the establishment of a Jewish nation. Considering that Israel currently exists (and has existed for 74 years) fulfilling the definition of anti-Zionism would require the destruction and elimination of the State of Israel. It is one thing to oppose the policies of the Israeli government, anti-Zionism is an entirely different matter. To deny the right of the most persecuted religious group in human history the right to a sovereign state to live as Jews amongst other Jews IS anti-Semitism.

  7. Another story of the depths that vassar has sunk. It amazes me that in this universe of wokeness, triggers and sensitivity to any perceived offense, this fragile and overly sensitive generation of misinformed kids can easily brush aside racist tropes when it’s against jews.

  8. I’m just disgusted that this group even exists at Vassar. The anti-Semitic tropes and caricatures are so far beneath a school of Vassar’s caliber

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