Cartoon of Dershowitz mingled appropriate satire and anti-Semitic imagery

Cartoon of Alan Dershowitz that appeared in the Daily Cal, and that was retracted as allegedly antisemitic.

Shortly after Israel apologist Prof. Alan Dershowitz spoke on campus at UC Berkeley on October 11th, the Daily Californian student newspaper published Joel Mayorga’s political cartoon criticizing his support of Israeli human rights abuses (color and black-and-white versions appear in this post). Daily Cal editor-in-chief Karim Doumar initially wrote in defense, “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, Doumar retracted the cartoon and removed the image from the publication’s website. So, was this cartoon a legitimate critique, or did it cross the line into anti-Semitism?

I think the cartoon was mostly a legitimate critique. However, one specific aspect of the depiction – Dershowitz as a spider – was unmeritorious of publication given that this echoes anti-Semitic propaganda depicting Jews as dehumanized insects.

The cartoon appears to be making the following points:

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

However, Dershowitz’s body is illustrated as arachnid. The Third Reich’s propaganda machine depicted Jews as insects, as several pro-Israel students point out in their letter to the editor. In his retraction, Doumar 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 visually and in unnecessary ways overlap with historical anti-Semitic propaganda are at the least insensitive, reflecting a troublesome gap in the knowledge of the cartoonist, and could be labeled as crossing the line into anti-Semitism. Although we might assume 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 the Daily Cal, Mayorga said that ‘although he believed he could have spent more time drawing Dershowitz, he believed he was careful in drawing Dershowitz’s features because he understood the issue’s sensitivity.’

“No matter how I drew him, the anti-Semitic card would have been thrown,” Mayorga said. “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. However, given the benefit of historical education, 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 have the added benefit of emphasizing 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 are perpetuation of the blood libel myth. I disagree. Dershowitz has metaphorical ‘blood on his hands’ – culpability – as a result of his discourse, which helps shield 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 therefore cannot be called anti-Semitic. On the other hand, Dershowitz drawn as a spider was unnecessary to make the point.

Dershowitz’s letter to the Daily Cal simply reinforced the point the political cartoon made, that he distorts reality, while hypocritically defending and/or hiding from public view Israel’s worst atrocities:

The cartoon resembles the grotesque anti-Semitic blood libel propaganda splashed across Der Stürmer in the 1930s, which depicted Jews drinking the blood of gentile children…. These anti-Semitic displays against me were in reaction to a speech in which I advocated a Palestinian state and an end to the occupation and opposition to Israeli settlement policies. Many on the hard-left refuse to acknowledge this sort of nuanced positioning. That is because their hostility towards Israel does not stem from any particular Israeli actions or policies. Even if Israel were to withdraw from the West Bank, destroy the security barrier and recognize Hamas as a legitimate political organization, it would still not be enough.

Notice in this letter that Dershowitz is presenting the ‘liberal case’ – the mythical and unviable two-state solution – and his soft criticism of Israel (opposition to settlements), without addressing the central point of the cartoon: Israeli human rights abuses, and the way he supports them by presenting the false Israel to the public. He is also falsely conflating fair criticism of his support for Israeli human rights abuses with the ‘blood libel.’

In The Forward, Raphael Magarik argues the image was not anti-Semitic in any way whatsoever:

…The mere appearance of blood near a Jew is not a blood libel. The State of Israel has an army, and that army sometimes kills Palestinians, including women and children. When you prick those people, I am told, they bleed. It is perverse to demand of artists that they represent actual, real Israeli violence without blood, just because European Christians invented a fake accusation.

Although Magarik’s above point is well considered, and his article is worth reading in its entirety, there is one problem with his piece: it doesn’t address Dershowitz’s arachnid form. Perhaps that’s because Magarik cites a black-and-white version of the image with a few splotches of color, in which Dershowitz’s body doesn’t appear obviously spider-like. Notice that the giant circle behind Dershowitz’s body is shaded in an ambiguous way in that version. When I first saw it, I didn’t get the spider reference, either. However, the full color version seems clearly to show Dershowitz as a spider. And that’s not okay.

Cartoon of Alan Dershowitz that appeared in the Daily Cal, and that was retracted as allegedly antisemitic.

UC Berkeley is known as the home of the Free Speech Movement, the 1964-5 student uprising that is memorialized today as a café where students can buy expensive lattes, but a place where (I believe) the importance of free speech is easily lost amidst the pro-Israel noise machine. Doumar’s ultimate retraction was an abdication of his responsibility to defend the legitimate aspects of the cartoon. In explaining the choice to retract, he 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. We apologize to our readers and members of our staff who were hurt by the cartoon.”

One problem with this retraction is that it doesn’t explicitly state the one and only element of the cartoon that could be considered a genuine reflection of anti-Semitic propaganda: Dershowitz’s arachnid form.

Anti-semitic cartoon that used spider body to dehumanize a Jew.

‘Twisted limbs’ is not the same as insect, and the insect aspect, which is dehumanization, was the problem. However, Dershowitz’s foot crushing a Palestinian, and holding an IDF soldier who had shot a Palestinian, were fair and accurate 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 editor seems unaware of the difference between actual anti-Semitism and legitimate criticism of Israel, which he conflates in the retraction.

Mayorga said that he ‘disagreed with the retraction and that he felt censored by the decision.’ I would like to see the Daily Cal give Mayorga a platform to publish a revised, non-spider-Dershowitz cartoon, still with blood on his 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. As James North and Phil Weiss point out, the entire controversy is a distraction from what really matters: “that Dershowitz has justified vicious attacks on Gaza in which several thousand innocent Palestinian civilians have died.”

(A shorter version of this letter appears as a Daily Cal Letter to the Editor.)