Earlier this year, I witnessed the BDS Movement at Columbia University dehumanize Jewish students with virulently anti-Semitic publicity materials. I watched the Columbia student community passively stand by, ignoring and downplaying the threat of anti-Semitic imagery. As the grandson of a Holocaust survivor and a student at Columbia, I am writing to unequivocally condemn the terror of anti-Semitic hate imagery.
This April, Columbia University Apartheid Divest (CUAD), a student group that promotes boycotts, divestments, and sanctions (BDS) of Israeli companies that “maintain the State of Israel’s continued human rights abuses,” used the following graphic for their advertising materials across social media and Columbia’s public spaces:
In the bottom right corner of the cartoon, an Israeli soldier is depicted with a red protrusion sticking out of his helmet, which horrifyingly resembles a horn. The portrayal of a Jew as a horned devil’s worker is centuries old hate propaganda. I am shocked and terrified to see a student group promoting an image that evokes the Nazi hate propaganda that vilified Jewish people under Adolf Hitler’s tyranny. The symbol of a Jew with horns is completely irrelevant to CUAD’s pro-BDS agenda, which seeks “to support Palestinian human rights.” Yet during their annual Israeli Apartheid Week (April 1-4), everywhere I looked on campus, from stairwells to news feeds to lobbies, a cartoon of a Jewish person with a bright red horn sticking out of his head glared back at me.
I feel humiliated that Jewish professors, staff members, and students were subjected to this hate imagery outside of their offices, on the way to their classrooms, and in their places of relaxation. The dissemination of this cartoon incites an acute fear that as anti-Semitic rhetoric, symbols, and actions become more prevalent, supposedly inclusive communities like the Columbia University student body will continue to turn their backs and overlook the severity of anti-Semitic bigotry.
When I expressed my fear of the cartoon, I was told by one student that accusations of this poster containing anti-Semitic imagery is a distraction tactic that turns conversations away from the more important issues raised during Israeli Apartheid week. I was also reassured by a member of CUAD that the cartoonist had no anti-Semitic intention when drawing this image, and that when it comes to anti-Semitism on campus, CUAD is not what I should be worried about.
Despite their dismissal of my concerns, in the face of public resistance to CUAD’s poster, the group has failed to denounce anti-Semitism, apologize, nor even remove the cartoon from their social media platforms. In denying wrongdoing, CUAD is pouring salt on a tender wound. They set a precedent in which resistance to anti-Semitic hate propaganda can merely be swept aside as a distraction and a misinterpretation. Whether the hateful symbol on this cartoon was a result of negligence or deliberate prejudice, ignoring its dangerous messaging leaves the door open for further imagery to circulate public spaces resembling other horrific hate symbols, like swastikas, white sheets, and nooses, while perpetrators claim oblivion and innocence. It does not matter what the intention of the cartoonist was; What matters is the impact of the cartoon on people receiving its message.
In addition to CUAD’s inaction, when I submitted an earlier version of this article to Columbia’s undergraduate newspaper, Columbia Daily Spectator, the newspaper’s opinion team acknowledged it was a “timely”, and “balanced” piece, but ultimately declined to publish it because of its “polemic nature against another student group.” Despite their opposition to publishing my submission, Columbia Daily Spectator has previously published opinion articles directly chastising student groups, including a 2018 article targeting the Columbia Republicans group entitled “CUCR, get your act together,” and another criticizing the group for their “racist, anti-worker policy.” Spectator’s refusal to publish my article enforced a toxic double standard in which condemnation of blatant anti-Semitism is treated as less valid than expressions of vulnerability by other marginalized communities.
In the shadow of the second fatal shooting at a US synagogue in a span of six months, as well as a recent New York Times cartoon depicting the Jewish people as dogs, I urge individuals to recognize and actively resist anti-Semitic crimes and propaganda in their communities. This semester, the Columbia University student body jeopardized the security of Jewish college students by acting as a bystander and tolerating anti-Semitic hate imagery on campus. My community betrayed Jewish students by ignoring and delegitimizing cries of anti-Semitism. Frighteningly, many of us do not need to look far to find anti-Semitism around us, including in places like Columbia University that pride themselves on being progressive and liberal. Communities across the globe must open their eyes to growing threats to Jewish safety and take a role in first acknowledging, and then actively combating, this trend. Whether anti-Semitism is manifested through blatant acts of violence or subtle tropes of vilification, to dismiss it as innocuous is to ignore the danger it poses to Jews world-wide and to normalize bigotry.