Supposedly there was a blood libel last week at University of California, Berkeley. After Alan Dershowitz spoke at the law school, the student newspaper ran a cartoon that provoked numerous complaints about anti-Semitism, including letters by University of California Chancellor Carol Christ and Dershowitz himself, who wrote that there was “little doubt that this abhorrent cartoon was a hard-left Neo-Nazi expression.” The editors promptly retracted the cartoon and apologized (presumably they will enjoy their remedial readings of “Chutzpah” and “The Case for Israel”).
The only problem is, the cartoon isn’t anti-Semitic. It depicts Dershowitz putting on a show called “The Liberal Case for Israel” (the title of his talk), while behind the scenes he stamps on a Palestinian and holds up an Israel Defense Forces soldier who has shot a bleeding civilian.
It is not great art. (Trust me: I have squinted and peered at it as I would at a long-lost Vermeer.) But as far as I can tell, it is simply arguing that Dershowitz represents himself as a liberal while actually shilling for Israeli state violence against Palestinians.
That is not anti-Semitic; it is true.
The letters decrying the cartoon are vague about exactly where the Jew-hatred resides, though they all characterize the cartoon as a “blood libel.” The blood libel myth that Jews murder gentile children to bake their blood into Passover matzo is indeed a vicious, nasty staple of European anti-Semitism. Blood libels have in the past depicted Jews as cannibalistic, predatory and secretly violent.
But 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.
That is not to say that it is impossible for art to actually invoke the blood libel. An image of, God forbid, a Jew baking matzo with Palestinian blood would be clearly horrific and wrong. By contrast, when Alan Dershowitz and Carol Christ call this cartoon a blood libel, they mean that they don’t want any disturbing images of the Occupation. That, unfortunately, would require censoring not only cartoons, but also cameras.
The cartoon also represents a Jew as deceptive and untrustworthy. So did Der Sturmer, and “The Jew of Malta,” and “The Protocols of the Elders of Zion.” But again, “deceiving and untrustworthy” is simply what people commonly accuse their political enemies of being. And again, in this case, it’s true. Despite presenting himself as liberal, Dershowitz has a long track record of supporting illiberal violence, including calling in 2002 for leveling Palestinian villages to retaliate for terrorist attacks. How is one supposed to accuse him of intellectual dishonesty without triggering stereotypes?
It is certainly possible to cleave too closely to Der Sturmer. But the traditions and tropes of anti-Semitism are deep and endless, and if you want to, you can label any cartoon you don’t like “anti-Semitic.” That is a very useful trick if you want to make arguments about Israeli misdeeds impossible, but it is an irresponsible use of history.
In the present, there is a Jewish state, which has nuclear weapons and a well-trained army, and which occupies Palestinian territory. If your definition of anti-Semitism makes it impossible to depict those facts, then you have defined the term poorly. You are not clarifying the boundaries of prejudice; you are crafting a tool to foreclose discussion.
By the way, when he’s not worried about defending Israel, Dershowitz himself becomes ever-so reasonable and moderate about anti-Semitism. When asked to comment on Steve Bannon and on Breitbart articles like “Bill Kristol: Republican Spoiler, Renegade Jew,” Dershowitz replied cautiously:
“I think we have to be very careful before we accuse any particular individual of being an anti-Semite… [the headline] doesn’t suggest to me anti-Semitism… I don’t think anybody should be called or accused of being anti-Semitic unless the evidence is overwhelming.”
It’s a fair point.
Calling someone an anti-Semite is incredibly damaging, and we should be cautious about it, especially if we’re tarring college students with Middle Eastern names, like two of the editors Dershowitz named in his letter.
If only he showed the same careful scrupulosity with undergraduate student-journalists that he does with “alt-right” crypto-fascists.
Raphael Magarik is a doctoral candidate in English literature and Jewish studies at UC Berkeley.