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Is This High School Student’s Drawing Anti-Semitic Or Progressive?

An artwork displayed last week at Northern Virginia Community College’s Ernst Community Cultural Center in Annandale, Virginia drew condemnation from a local rabbi for anti-Semitism.

The picture, which has since been removed, was drawn by a 17-year-old high school student and depicts a squint-eyed man with a hooknose, sidelocks and kippah standing near a well with a sack of money. In a border to the figure’s left is the drawing’s title: “Jewish People.” Below the image, a caption reads, “No Jew in the world understands the importance of money.”

The offending illustration, which was recognized by the Scholastic Art Awards, a national arts organization, was created for a class assignment with a surprising goal in mind.

”Jewish People” is part of “Racial Irony,” a series of eight pictures that the student drew with the aim of calling attention to racial biases and stereotypes. Though a stereotype in which Jews don’t understand the importance of money is certainly a novel one.

The Ernst Center, which did not exhibit the picture with material clarifying its intent, didn’t display the other artworks in the series to which “Jewish People” belongs. Virginia ABC affiliate WJLA reported that in response, a local rabbi, who asked to remain anonymous, wrote an email to the student’s art teacher, South County High School’s Justyne Fischer, expressing his concerns.

“This drawing is an example of bigotry and anti-Semitism,” the rabbi wrote. “How can it be displayed by you, let alone, win an award? That this is taking place right in my own backyard is deeply deeply painful.”

Fischer defended the student in a reply.

“My student is using her freedom of artistic expression to respond to a president who calls Mexicans ‘rapists’ African countries ‘Shit Hole Countries’ and White Supremacists, ‘Very Fine People,’” she wrote in an email published by WJLA. “She chose to create a portfolio of eight works which are ANTI stereotype. She focuses on Blacks, Whites, Italians, Pakistanis, Jews, Irish etc. Her intent is to point out implicit bias that exists and raises it to the surface in the form of racial ironies… Instead of vilifying me and a 17 year old student, look at your president who is in ‘your own back yard.’”

Fischer’s references to Trump elicited a complaint by the Suburban Virginia Republican Coalition, a Republican lobby group.

“The teacher involved allowed her obvious dislike of President Trump to justify anti-Semitic imagery,” Michael Ginsberg, a member of SUVGOP, wrote in an open letter to the chair of the Fairfax County School Board posted to SUVGOP’s website. “Artistic expression is one thing, but justifying inappropriate, anti-Semitic speech by blaming someone else is not a lesson Fairfax County schools should be teaching their students.”

Scott Brabrand, Fairfax County Schools’ superintendent, apologized in an email to the rabbi, affirming what seems like a no-brainer: It’s a mistake to post an anti-Semitic cartoon in a gallery and not explain it.

“We will request that the event organizers consider making changes in how student artwork is displayed during the exhibition and include the artist’s statement along with the artwork,” Brabrand wrote in the email, quoted by WJLA, which included a call to raise cultural awareness among his district’s students and teachers.

Braband also stated his belief the picture, while provocative, was not meant to cause harm. “It is my understanding that it was not the intent of the artist to offend anyone, but rather to bring to light how the exaggeration of stereotypes spreads ignorance.”

PJ Grisar is the Forward’s culture intern. He can be reached at [email protected]

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