Interim UPenn president chastises lecturer over ‘reprehensible’ anti-Israel cartoons

The cartoons include a depiction of three men drinking blood from cups marked ‘Gaza’

The University of Pennsylvania Quadrangle. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

By Louis Keene
February 7, 2024

This story was originally published in the Forward. Click here to get the Forward’s free email newsletters delivered to your inbox.

A University of Pennsylvania instructor’s political cartoons about the Israel-Hamas war are the latest flashpoint in the school’s ongoing controversy around antisemitism on campus.

The school’s interim president, Larry Jameson, condemned a series of images by Dwayne Booth, who teaches a course on political cartoons in the Annenberg School of Communication, in a Sunday statement.

Several of Booth’s cartoons, which he posted to Instagram, to his personal website and to independent news blogs under the moniker Mr. Fish, attempt to parody accusations of antisemitism leveled against critics of Israel.

One of the cartoons depicts three men standing in front of Israeli and American flags, drinking blood from cups marked “Gaza.” One of the men looks over his shoulder at a dove with an olive branch in its mouth behind them. The caption reads, “‘Who invited that lousy anti-Semite?’”

The depiction of Jewish people drinking blood is a central feature of the blood libel, an antisemitic accusation that dates back centuries.

In response to an emailed question from the Forward, Booth wrote that the cartoon “was not rendered to reference” the blood libel, and that “the depiction is referencing a simple metaphor often used in cartooning: Warmongers and those who benefit from the deaths of civilians are, as a metaphor, drinking the blood spilled by their actions.”

“A Feb. 3 cartoon depicts Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu playing chess against a confounded-looking opponent. The caption reads, “Human decency and international law playing chess against Benjamin Netanyahu and not being able to move a single piece for fear of being called an anti-Semite.”

Jameson, who took over in December after former president Liz Magill resigned amid accusations that she had allowed antisemitism to fester on campus, said on Sunday that the cartoons, which were first written about in the conservative publication The Washington Free Beacon, did not reflect the views of the school.

“I find them reprehensible, with antisemitic symbols, and incongruent with our efforts to fight hate,” Jameson said. “They disrespect the feelings and experiences of many people in our community and around the world, particularly those only a generation removed from the Holocaust. And, for me, it is painful to see the suffering and tragic loss of life of noncombatants in Israel and Gaza be fodder for satire.”

Jameson did not say whether Booth would be disciplined, but noted the school’s “bedrock commitment to open expression.”

In an email to the Forward, Booth said he had been teaching two courses for 10 years at Annenberg on satire, and “lecturing on the purpose and power of art, both domestically and internationally, for decades.”

He wrote that while the possibility of being misread came with the territory of being a political cartoonist, he was disappointed that Jameson accepted the Free Beacon’s interpretation of his work as antisemitic.

“It just saddens me that Jameson’s statement attempts to placate the controversy in deference to those attempting to limit free speech, academic freedom, and attack independent journalism in service of an agenda designed to silence debate rather than encourage it,” Booth wrote.

“In the case of the international conversation about the current war in Gaza, it will be impossible to have a substantive debate over the specifics and potential outcomes so long as there remains a lazy conflation that makes the State of Israel and the politics that guide its actions as a nation inseparable from Judaism itself,” he added.

Booth noted that Robert Scheer, the editor and publisher of ScheerPost, which regularly publishes Booth’s cartoons, is Jewish and descended from Holocaust survivors.

The controversy follows several incidents in recent months on the Penn campus, long considered one of the more Jewish-friendly Ivy League destinations, that have drawn accusations of antisemitism.

In September — weeks before the Israel-Hamas war began — the university hosted the Palestine Writes Literary Festival, which drew criticism because it featured Roger Waters as a keynote speaker.

The day before the festival, a man rushed into the Penn Hillel and ransacked the building’s lobby.

Major donors criticized Magill, the university’s former president, for what they saw as a too-tepid response to the Oct. 7 attacks.

She later made a much-criticized appearance testifying about Penn’s response to Oct. 7 at a congressional hearing, and resigned four days later, along with the chairman of the school’s board of trustees.

Louis Keene is a staff reporter at the Forward covering religion, sports and the West Coast. He can be followed on Twitter @thislouis.

This article was originally published on the Forward.

Leave a Reply