It began on Thursday, May 2, when members of the Stanford chapter of Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) posted flyers with cartoons by Eli Valley, a Jewish political cartoonist known for his provocative drawings of right-wing and Jewish figures. Soon after, Nazi-era propaganda appeared in freshman dorms. By May 7 one of The New York Times’s most controversial columnists had chimed in, helping spread the story far beyond Stanford. It ended — for now — with a speech by Valley scheduled for this Friday, May 10, being closed to the public over security concerns.
How did a campus kerfuffle become national news?
SJP was using the flyers to advertise Valley’s speech and an accompanying exhibit of his work, which it organized for Palestinian Awareness Week. Stanford’s offshoot of Jewish Voice for Peace (JVP), a left-wing Jewish advocacy group that opposes Israel’s occupation of the Palestinian Territories co-sponsored the event. (Valley was formerly a longtime contributor to the Forward, and one of the cartoons posted at Stanford was originally published in the Forward.
The cartoons posted included a caricature of the right-wing Jewish figure Ben Shapiro in which Shapiro defends the Pharaoh at a Seder, saying, among other things: “Egypt was overrun by Israelites. They would not assimilate! The Pharaoh had every right to limit their birthrates.” Another flyer showed Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu spouting a fictional campaign promise about throwing “droves of Arabs into the Mediterranean” and building “Jewish-only skyscrapers on the hilltops of Rammallah.” (In later panels he denies having said this, expressing “love” for Arabs before, in the final frame, asserting his admiration of them from “one of the loveliest skyscrapers in Rammallah” where “no Arabs currently reside.”)
That same Thursday the Stanford College Republicans (SCR) said they noticed that flyers for one of their upcoming events, called “Yes: America is a Judeo-Christian Nation,” were being covered by Valley’s cartoons.
“The cartoons were being placed over top of our flyers, which were also being ripped down and replaced with SJP’s posters in a number of places,” administrators of SCR’s Facebook page told the Forward. They declined to share their names. “We decided to respond immediately since the vandalization of another group’s advertising materials constitutes a violation of that group’s right to freedom of speech.”
Emily Wilder and Esther Tsvayg, co-presidents of Stanford’s chapter of JVP and members of SJP, told the Forward that space on campus bulletin boards is often at a premium, so papering over other event posters is common.
On Friday May 3, the day after SJP posted flyers for Valley’s event, SCR posted photos of the Valley cartoons and the displaced posters for their event on Facebook. That same day, Wilder and Tsvayg learned that flyers from the anti-Semitic publication Der Stürmer, founded as a viciously anti-Semitic Nazi-era newspaper in Germany, had been hung alongside some of Valley’s cartoons in freshman residence halls, inviting viewers to “Spot the Difference.” Tsvayg said a student at a Hillel meeting that night recognized the same kind of staple in the Der Stürmer posters and a poster for the SCR event on the same bulletin board.
The SCR later acknowledged on their Facebook page that a member of their group had posted the Der Stürmer flyers.
When asked about the flyers, the SCR Facebook administrators said “We see nothing wrong with likening Eli Valley’s hateful cartoons to the cartoons that hate-mongers have historically used to target various groups of people, including Jews.”
Wilder and Tsvayg attended a meeting at the Hillel that night, where they were among 30 Jewish student leaders present. Jessica Kirschner, the rabbi of Stanford Hillel, called the meeting in a message on the campus Jewish community Listserv inviting leaders to discuss the flyering.
“I was aware of why the SCR posters were repugnant,” Tsvayg said. “I thought that that was what the controversy was about, and then when we actually got there we spent the majority of the time talking about Eli Valley. There was some discussion of the Nazi propaganda, but only to ascertain if it was our responsibility or not.”
“Nobody listened to us or asked us how we were feeling, especially after a non-Jewish student organization had put up Nazi propaganda and basically equated us to that,” she said. “Everyone in that room was basically saying this is a Jewish conversation and there should have been more conversation with the community beforehand but we are Jewish, we’re part of the Jewish community and we’ve never been invited into any conversation within the Jewish community because of who we are in our political stances.”
In a phone call to with the Forward, Rabbi Kirschner disputed this narrative. “I think JVP’s characterization now is disingenuous,” she said. “There were absolutely people in the room who spoke with anger and frustration and expressed their hurt feelings very clearly about both sets of flyers. But that doesn’t fit their victim narrative.”
Kirschner added that in a Facebook statement, the Hillel objected to both the Valley flyers and the the Der Stürmer flyers.
“The Republicans are trying to score points, and the Students for Justice in Palestine and the Jewish Voice for Peace are trying to score points, and they’re all trying to score points on the backs of the Jewish community,” Kirschner said of the flyering, which she described as “thoughtless.”
Hillel does not recognize JVP as a member organization due to their support of the boycott, divest and sanction movement (BDS), Kirschner said She clarified that “as individual Jewish students they are absolutely welcome to everything that Hillel does.”
After hearing the concerns of the community at that meeting, Wilder and Tsvayg agreed that the design of the flyers and the manner in which they appeared was “not tactful” and decided to take them down, together with SJP.
“I think people read that as us admitting that we found the content offensive or we were going to cancel the event. That’s not what we were saying at all,” Tsvayg said, clarifying that they had no intention to cancel Valley’s talk or denounce his cartoons, only to admit fault in the flyers’ presentation.
That same day, Valley, who did not respond to multiple requests for comment, called out what he believed to be hypocrisy by SCR on Twitter.
Once again, those who have methodically normalized Neo-Nazism in America are pretending anti-Nazi artists are the real Nazis. Looking forward to Stanford next week! https://t.co/ab3m0gJaS2— Eli Valley (@elivalley) May 3, 2019
Later that day, Valley replied to a thread by the Israel on Campus Coalition, which accused SJP and SVP of “plaster[ing] Stanford’s campus with propaganda depicting Jews as reptilian dinosaurs.” Valley claimed that ICC has a history of “spying on students” and linked to reporting in the Forward on the tactics with which ICC monitored progressive Jewish students, and specifically those who support BDS.
Just saw this thread — An organization connected to @HillelIntl that has a history of spying on students is comparing me to Nazis.https://t.co/S1qXXKGrug— Eli Valley (@elivalley) May 4, 2019
Here’s a report on @IsraelCampus’s endless sleaze:https://t.co/n67AskPVl3pic.twitter.com/jwyxj56KnQ— Eli Valley (@elivalley) May 4, 2019
On Sunday May 5, Vice Provost of Student Affairs Susie Brubaker-Cole and Dean of Religious Life Tiffany Steinwart issued a joint statement about the posters.
“Some of the posters were developed in the context of the upcoming student-sponsored Palestine Awareness Week May 6-10,” the statement said, “others were developed in protest to these posters. Some of the posters invoked anti-Semitic stereotypes and tropes and undermined values we seek to foster at Stanford University.”
On Sunday, SJP emailed an apology to the Stanford student body. “We now recognize that in order to engage critically with Eli’s work, the audience needs to have a certain understanding of the complexities of Jewish life and the Israel-Palestine conflict that the general audience does not necessarily have,” SJP wrote. “It was inappropriate for us to distribute the comics around campus without Eli’s knowledge or guidance and without providing the reader with any background.”
And on Monday May 6, Wilder and Tsvayg published an op-ed in The Stanford Daily apologizing for the way the posters first appeared and clarifying their position on Valley. “We recognize that they were ill-planned/designed and did not accurately represent either Eli’s art or what we hope to accomplish with this event,” they wrote. “We made members of our community feel offended and unsafe, and for that, we take full responsibility and have since removed these fliers (sic).”
“JVP took on the statement because we realized SJP would probably come under way more flak if they said anything we wanted to say,” Wilder told the Forward.
In the op-ed, Wilder and Tsvayg went on to address allegations that Valley’s work is anti-Semitic. “Mr. Valley is a Jewish American artist who has worked for well over a decade creating comic art exploring the most pressing issues facing the Jewish community today — from the Israel-Diaspora relationship to interdenominational tensions to the moral obligation to fight white supremacism and Neo-Nazism. Published in a wide range of Jewish and secular publications, his art engages deeply with Jewish texts, history, culture, and experience. To call that antisemitic denudes the term of its meaning,” they wrote.
But Wilder and Tsvayg were careful not to let SCR off the hook.
“That a member of the Stanford College Republicans, a non-Jewish organization, leapt at the opportunity to traumatize Jewish students with literal Nazi imagery — with little to no response from either Hillel or the Stanford administration — is part of a larger trend of conflating anti-Zionism, even from Jews, with antisemitism while overlooking actual displays of antisemitism when politically expedient.”
Their op-ed was run against an opposing one by Ari Hoffman, a law student at Stanford, who said Valley’s work was ”seemingly drawn from Der Stürmer” and accused him of working “under the fig leaf of criticizing Israel” to “depict Jews and Jewish rituals in the most grotesque of terms.” Hoffman, who did not reply to a request for comment, specifically cited Valley’s use of yellow star badges, concentration camp uniforms and references to the blood libel in his work.
“Like most hate, it’s remarkably lacking in insight. It is crude and disgusting, and its ceaseless recourse to Nazi imagery is matched only by its slavish devotion to the age-old tropes of Jewish caricature,” Hoffman wrote.
On Tuesday May 7, New York Times Opinion Columnist Bari Weiss retweeted Hoffman’s article. “Thank you,” she wrote, tagging Hoffman.
“Valley’s work has nothing to do with peace in the Middle East, and everything to do with the free-form hatred that gloms onto Jews and the Jewish State.” Thank you, @arih1987: https://t.co/Q1cyg5Dpht— Bari Weiss (@bariweiss) May 7, 2019
Her tweet, which reached a wide audience, propelled a thunderous defense of Valley’s work, including from New Yorker writer Helen Rosner and Palestinian-American activist Linda Sarsour. Weiss’s entry into the debate also prompted renewed discussion about whether Valley’s art is anti-Semitic.
And Valley responded to Weiss in no uncertain terms.
I would urge everybody to read this repulsive smear-job on my work, insinuating I am a Nazi who poses an IMMINENT THREAT TO JEWS, and know that lifelong McCarthyite @bariweiss is a columnist at the New York Times and has a six-figure deal to write a book about antisemitism. https://t.co/LZegyIXbyu— Eli Valley (@elivalley) May 7, 2019
In another tweet, Valley wrote “one purpose of the smears and lies about my work is to continue the erasure of Jews who don’t fit the Zionist mold. To @bariweiss, @benshapiro + their ilk, we are antisemites who have no right to be proud of our Jewish traditions. Fk that and fk them.”
In a May 8 story, Valley clarified his response to his detractors in an email to the Stanford Daily. “It’s time we started calling the contempt shown by the Jewish right towards the American Jewish majority, its tacit and active alliances with white supremacists, and its repeated calls for our very erasure as Jews, what it is: anti-Semitism,” he wrote. “And we should not tolerate it.”
Valley is still scheduled to appear at Stanford on Friday, but Tsvayg and Wilder said that the event was moved to a different time and closed to the public due to security concerns. ”Thanks to @bariweiss’s ‘Free Speech Should Only Exist For The Alt-Right’ campaign, security at Stanford is closing my Presentation to the public and limiting it to students/faculty. If you’d like to come and are not from Stanford, contact me and I’ll add you to guest list,” Valley wrote on Twitter.
This morning, the cartoonist tweeted he was boarding a flight to Palo Alto. “Sorry haters,” he signed off.
PJ Grisar is the Forward’s culture intern. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org