[Disclaimer: The writer of this Letter to the Editor is a fellow for CAMERA (Committee For Accuracy in Middle East Reporting and Analysis).]
Dear Vassar Community,
Recently, on Dec. 2, The Miscellany News published a joint statement by Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) and Vassar Student Association regarding SJP’s use of antisemitic artwork to advertise an event with Eli Valley, a cartoonist known for his libelous renderings of Jewish people and the State of Israel (Miscellany News, 2021).
The first paragraph of SJP’s statement sounds convincingly contrite. SJP noted, “We did not put in due consideration for how the art used might be perceived by some of the Jewish students on campus.” Despite their insistence, this situation is not a matter of perception. The fact is that incontestably antisemitic imagery was spread on campus by a registered student organization. Their statement reads more like an attempt at justification than a genuine apology.
After the first paragraph, SJP relinquishes that previous responsibility. Instead, they allege that they followed all campus rules and claim that an unspecified technical issue prevented them from learning that administration members would believe that Valley’s cartoon could cause harm. But SJP should have reached out to Jewish affinity groups on campus to ensure the cartoon was appropriate before posting the image on social media and other platforms.
SJP’s statement then veers off into a defense of Eli Valley. They argue that Mr. Valley cannot be antisemitic because he is Jewish; however the notion that Mr. Valley is antisemitic is assessed by his actions and words, not his religion or ethnicity. Some of his most egregious offenses include depicting Jews as the bloodthirsty undead, accusing Hillel, a Jewish organization, of cannibalism, comparing Israelis and Nazis and appropriating Nazi slogans into his comics.
His ethnicity and religion do not excuse his virulent displays of bigotry toward Jews. The cartoon SJP posted was blatantly antisemitic and characteristic of Valley’s work. For those unfamiliar with the cartoon, it is a monstrous illustration of a character dubbed “Diaspora Boy” that parallels historic examples of antisemitic tropes. Furthermore, the widely accepted International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) defines antisemitism as “a certain perception of Jews, which may be expressed as hatred toward Jews. Rhetorical and physical manifestations of antisemitism are directed toward Jewish or non-Jewish individuals and/or their property, toward Jewish community institutions and religious facilities,” (IHRA, 2016). Valley’s cartoon, which depicts Jews in a grotesque way, falls under this working definition, as IHRA identifies classic antisemitic symbols and imagery as antisemitic. SJP’s cartoon was striking in its similarity to antisemitic caricatures from the 1930s. Looking at both side by side is chilling. The failure of the VSA and the administration to address this incident in a timely, sufficient and serious manner exemplifies a larger issue that plagues the social fabric of Vassar’s campus: the serious problem of antisemitism.
Complacency in the face of a heart-wrenching yet teachable history is dangerous amid the rising tide of antisemitism. On college and university campuses, Jewish students have been accosted, attacked and discriminated against. A report by the AMCHA Initiative lists 192 acts “involving the public shaming, vilifying or defaming of students or staff because of their perceived association with Israel” (AMCHA, 2020). This is a 60 percent increase in 2019 from 2018. Keeping this in mind, it becomes more apparent why the cartoon yielded negative reactions from many Jews.
The final sentence of the statement makes SJP’s lack of remorse apparent; SJP implied that they apologized only because they were compelled to do so. They write, “We also hope that people take time to engage with the ideas surrounding the image that were further discussed at the event, and critically examine the ways that certain speech and people are surveilled, censored and punished, while others are empowered and prioritized.” SJP’s words are intentionally ambiguous, but the implication is clear: SJP appears to be playing the victim, implying that their critics’ concerns––most notably those of Vassar’s Jewish population––are prioritized over their own. That is far from the truth.
As a Jewish Vassar student, I hesitated to express my views on antisemitism or Israel out of fear of being ostracized or attacked by other students or faculty. I love Vassar and appreciate its outspoken support for the exchange of ideas and critical thinking, but safe spaces and shelters for Jewish students to express their opinions or fears are lacking on this campus. SJP has vilified Israel and, by extension, Jewish students. The cartoon is another example of concerning programming from SJP, which has focused on bashing Israel rather than amplifying Palestinian voices. As an organization that purports to advocate for Palestinian rights in accordance with international law, SJP seems to devote an overwhelming emphasis and double standard towards Israel, the sole guaranteed national haven for Jews. Their recently released statement illustrates this point, as they detract from the antisemitic issue at hand and discuss Valley’s art and its qualms against Zionism instead.
Given that SJP was involved in incendiary incidents in recent years, advertising this cartoon was insensitive and tone-deaf. A quick Google search reveals overwhelming pushback from the Jewish community in response to Valley’s art. In an opinion article published in the Stanford Daily, a Stanford law student explains how Valley’s art incites the potential for violence against Jews. He notes, “The images are indefensible in any context. They are not justifiable, and they are not explainable. The sin is not against sensitivity. It is one of smearing a Jewish minority under attack here and abroad in the name of a skewed vision of a foreign conflict,” (Stanford Daily, 2019).
Additionally, the VSA should have been more vigilant in censuring SJP, and they should have encouraged SJP to release a more genuine apology. SJP claims it did not intend to exacerbate this situation and that they are sorry for any potential harm, but their letter is disingenuous. Their efforts to contradict the very essence of the apology within the same letter signifies a lack of contrition. As a community, it is imperative we speak up when confronting the virulent antisemitism that plagues the world today. Moving forward, the VSA, administration and student body need to condemn these damaging incidents to protect the Jewish campus community.