Retraction of cartoon censors legitimate criticism, ignores anti-Semitic aspect of cartoon

letter to the editor
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Shortly after Harvard Law professor Alan Dershowitz spoke on campus, The Daily Californian published a political cartoon criticizing his support of Israeli human rights abuses. In an editor’s note, the Daily Cal originally wrote, “The artist’s intent was to argue that (Dershowitz’s) recent lecture at UC Berkeley were (sic) hypocritical.” Following a flurry of accusations that the cartoon was anti-Semitic, however, the Daily Cal retracted the cartoon and removed the image from the publication’s website. So, was this cartoon a legitimate critique, or not?

The cartoon was mostly a legitimate critique. One aspect of the depiction, however — Dershowitz’s positioning as a spider — was unmeritorious of publication, given that this echoes anti-Semitic propaganda depicting Jews as dehumanized insects.

The cartoon appears to make these points:

Dershowitz is putting on a show in an attempt to convince his audience that Israel is a liberal state, which is the false self Israel tries to project to liberal college campuses through, for example, pinkwashing. Israel, however, is in fact an egregious human rights abuser, including Israeli Defense Forces’ brutality against innocent and underage Palestinians, assassinations and collective punishment and oppression. Dershowitz is hypocritically complicit in and an enabler of Israeli human rights abuses by distorting reality in his public argument for Israel as a “liberal” state while defending and refusing to condemn Israeli human rights abuses.

The above are fair and accurate criticisms of Dershowitz based on his record.

But Dershowitz’s body is illustrated as arachnid. The Third Reich’s propaganda machine depicted Jews as insects, as members of Bears for Israel point out in their letter to the editor. In its retraction, the Daily Cal states, “We are ensuring that a detailed knowledge of the history of harmful visual propaganda becomes an integral part of how we train our staff.”

Political cartoons that overlap in unnecessary ways with historical anti-Semitic propaganda are at the least insensitive and could be labeled as crossing the line into anti-Semitism. Although we might assume Joel Mayorga, the cartoonist who drew Dershowitz as a spider, is guilty of historical ignorance, not intentional anti-Semitism, historical ignorance is no defense for the editors who published the piece.

According to an article in the Daily Cal, Mayorga said, “No matter how I drew him, the anti-Semitic card would have been thrown. When anybody tries to call out Zionism or military policy, the anti-Semite card is always thrown to delegitimize those critiques.” Mayorga is right, in that Israel’s apologists usually label any criticism of Israel as anti-Semitic. And usually, these charges are canards.

Given the benefit of historical education, however, redesigning the image so that Dershowitz is portrayed in human form would be all that’s needed to remove any implication of actual anti-Semitism. Imagine Dershowitz as a giant –– say, 26 feet tall, the same height as Israel’s imposing apartheid and land confiscation wall –– who is still crushing a Palestinian with one foot and holding up an IDF soldier who assassinates a Palestinian civilian. This design would emphasize Dershowitz’s outsize and privileged power to persuade the public of a false reality.

Some critics, such as UC Berkeley Chancellor Carol Christ, claim the violent elements of the image perpetuate the blood libel myth. I disagree. Dershowitz has metaphorical “blood on his hands” — culpability — as a result of his discourse, which shields Israel from appropriate forms of condemnation and sanction in the court of public opinion. Dershowitz’s pro-Israel propaganda is gaslighting writ large. Israeli soldiers who murder unarmed and innocent civilians, in addition to underage Palestinians, should not be immune from being the subject of political cartoons that depict these atrocities simply because of the past history of the blood libel myth, and neither should a Jewish professor who defends Israeli atrocities.

Put another way, the “blood on his hands” imagery was necessary to make the point about Dershowitz’s culpability, and it therefore cannot be called anti-Semitic. On the other hand, Dershowitz being drawn as a spider was unnecessary.

The Daily Californian’s retraction was an abdication of its responsibility to defend the legitimate aspects of the cartoon. It wrote: “The cartoon depicted Alan Dershowitz presenting as he crouched on a stage, with his body behind a cardboard cutout labeled ‘The Liberal Case for Israel.’ Dershowitz was drawn with twisted limbs. His foot was crushing a Palestinian person; placed in his hand was a depiction of an IDF soldier next to someone the soldier had shot.”

Notably, the retraction doesn’t state the one and only element of the cartoon that could truly be considered a reflection of anti-Semitic propaganda: Dershowitz’s arachnid form. ‘Twisted limbs’ is not the same as insect. The insect aspect, which is dehumanization, was the problem. On the other hand, Dershowitz’s foot crushing a Palestinian and his holding of an IDF soldier who had shot a Palestinian were fair criticisms. Israel’s apologists intimidated the Daily Cal into retracting the entire cartoon, including the aspects of it that represented legitimate criticism. Furthermore, the Daily Cal seems unaware of the difference between actual anti-Semitism and legitimate criticism of Israel, which it conflates in the retraction.

Mayorga said he “disagreed with the retraction and that he felt censored.” I would like to see the Daily Cal invite Mayorga to publish a revised, non-spider-Dershowitz cartoon, still with blood on the professor’s hands, and stand behind it. Actual Palestinians, who are actually suffering and dying as a result of intentional Israeli atrocities, should be the primary concern of the editor, not the bruised ego of a privileged professor who is culpable for the perpetuation of such atrocities.

Matthew Taylor is a Jewish UC Berkeley alum with a B.A. in peace and conflict studies.