On October 4th at the University of Michigan,, during an installment of the Penny Stamps Speaker Series (a required lecture series for all art students hosted by the Stamps School of Art and Design), guest speaker Emory Douglas gave a presentation that focused on intentionally provocative art. Unfortunately, he gave rise to one of the most anti-Semitic incidents we have ever observed on this campus. The lecturer displayed a slide with a picture of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Adolf Hitler side by side, with the words “Guilty of Genocide” written across their foreheads. No matter how you feel about Middle Eastern politics, this is blatantly anti-Semitic imagery disguised as “art.”
To be sure, likening Netanyahu to Hitler is inaccurate and Orwellian. Perhaps too many people have forgotten exactly what the Nazis did; for many years during the early 20th century, they perpetrated some of the most grotesquely evil acts this world has ever seen. As part of Hitler’s “final solution” to the “Jewish problem,” innocent men, women, and children were stuffed into boxcars until movement was nearly impossible, and shipped off to death camps by the millions. Many of those who didn’t die of starvation by the time the trains arrived were simply killed instantly, including children separated from their parents. Those who were “lucky” enough to survive past this stage were forced to work tirelessly with virtually no food or water, all while enduring living conditions not befit for even the worst of criminals. At the Nazis’ discretion, groups of these prisoners were led to undressing rooms and ordered to strip so that they could “shower.” Little did these poor people know that in just a few short seconds, they would be locked in the adjacent room, suffocating on poisonous gas that the Nazis poured through the shower heads. The bodies were quickly removed to make room for the next victims.
This carnage was not limited to the gas chambers. Victims were frequently executed by firing squad, positioned so that their bodies would fall into a large pit, sometimes engulfed in flames. Jewish and other prisoners were used as subjects of “scientific experiments” that caused irreparable physical damage. Hitler’s Nazis were remarkably efficient, conducting their mass slaughter quickly and confidently, all while taking great steps to instill a false sense of hope within their victims, ensuring them that all would be fine if they simply work hard.
These recent historical realities are painful but important, to revisit. It is critical to understand that humans are capable of such villainy – of organizing the slaughter of millions of innocent people simply on the basis that they are “different.” The suggestion that Netanyahu and his government deserve the same label as one of the most ruthless mass-murderers this world has ever seen insults the memory of every person that fell victim to Hitler and the Nazis. This insinuation must not be tolerated in the realm of public discourse.
The idea that Israeli actions are comparable to the Holocaust, let alone genocidal at all, is simply wrong. The United States Department of Justice defines genocide as “violent attacks with the specific intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnic, racial, or religious group.” Netanyahu and the Israel Defense Forces are most certainly not intentionally killing innocent people, and they are not trying to “destroy” Palestinian ethnicity. Rather, they are defending their citizens from bellicose threats of destruction and acts of terror, just as any other country would in similar situations. Despite the Israel Defense Forces’ (IDF) military efforts to counter terrorism, Palestinian civilian casualties are relatively low, especially when compared to the numerous other wars and conflicts that have devastated the Middle East and North Africa during the last seventy years. In fact, since the Six-Day War in 1967, Palestinian life expectancy has continued to rise and Palestinian infant mortality rate has seen a steady decline. Therefore, it only makes sense that the Palestinian population has grown exponentially since 1967. None of this would happen under a Holocaust-like genocide.
By failing to condemn anti-Semitic slander against the world’s only Jewish state, we are complicit in the dissemination of toxic misinformation at the University of Michigan. Emory Douglas, the guest lecturer, successfully created his intended response, but at what point does intentional provocation become anti-Semitic, anti-Zionist, and utterly offensive?
To date, the University’s response has been limited to a brief statement. President Schlissel acknowledged that there were a large number of students and community members that were deeply offended by the event, and even acknowledged the outlandish comparison. However, he defended Emory Douglas’ right to free speech. While this commitment to free speech is commendable, it has not been consistently applied. When racist incidents infected Ann Arbor in 2017, the university was very quick to respond and to condemn the behavior. If “free speech” is not protected in these incidents, why is it protected now?
Many students in Ann Arbor will inevitably defend this insanity, insisting that “criticism of Israel is not the same thing as anti-Semitism.” This statement on its own is one hundred percent correct; no one who merely “criticizes” Israel deserves to be labeled as an anti-Semite. But what transpired on campus last week was not an innocent, intellectually honest critique of government policy – it was an act of disgusting anti-Semitism that maliciously compared the Prime Minister of the world’s only Jewish state to the man who worked so hard just decades ago to ensure that no Jew would ever walk this earth again. A more rational “criticism” of Israeli government policy might read something like “Netanyahu’s government should not launch military campaigns in Gaza, as they result in unnecessary loss of life.” One could also apply a similar critique to many other countries’ campaigns against terrorism. But what we should never tolerate is flagrant slander that marginalizes not only the Jewish nation but those in the University of Michigan community who value its existence. We should know better.
Contributed by Campus Coordinators Zac Schildcrout (University of Michigan Class of 2018) and Alexa Rittenberg (the Ohio State University Class of 2017)
This article was updated on 10/24/18 to include content reflecting the university’s response.