Crossing A Line
Artist’s lecture features slide of his work equating Netanyahu with Hitler.
Above: Emory Douglas showed this slide of his work during an Oct. 4 Stamps Speaker Series lecture from the U-M School of Art & Design.
Credit: Alexa Smith/Facebook
Emory Douglas, a California graphic artist and former Minister of Culture for the Black Panther Party, drew the ire of University of Michigan students, parents, alumni and Jewish community members when, as a guest lecturer Oct. 4 at a Penny Stamps School of Art & Design program, he presented a slide of one of his artworks comparing Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to Adolf Hitler.
The image labeled both men “guilty of genocide” and gave the definition of genocide at the bottom of the artwork.
Douglas’ lecture, “Designing Justice,” also included two pro-Palestinian, pro-BDS (boycott, divestment and sanctions) pieces and his depictions of oppressed people around the world. Slides also showed satiric images of Henry Kissinger, Barack Obama and Donald Trump, and others accused the U.S. of genocide for perpetuating war in the Mideast and blamed the U.S. for advancing diseases like sickle cell anemia.
The artist showed a brief film about his life, then presented his 200 or so slides with little context or commentary, other than reading the text in his art.
The lecture at the Michigan Theater in Ann Arbor was free and open to the public. The lecture series is a one-credit mandatory course requirement for Stamps students. They must attend all 11 lectures; if they miss more than two, they fail.
Stamps senior Alexa Smith of Livingston, N.J., attended the lecture and then posted the offending slides on social media.
Smith, a graphic design student who has created her own works focusing on promoting social justice, said she is no stranger to the controversial nature of art when used in politics. She knew the political and radical nature of Douglas’ work and knew he had created a pro-Palestinian mural in favor of the BDS movement in Oakland, Calif.
But she said his poster juxtaposing Adolf Hitler with Benjamin Netanyahu with the definition of genocide underneath crossed a line for her.
“That was no longer about boycotting Israel,” said Smith, who is active in pro-Israel activities on campus and designed the logo for the campus pro-Israel group WolvPAC. “It was a complete attack against Jewish students and it made me sick to my stomach that he equated the atrocities of the Holocaust to the Israel-Palestinian conflict. When things like this become the norm, it makes Jewish and pro-Israel students feel they don’t have a big voice on campus.”
Smith said her frustration was compounded because two years ago the Stamps series invited graphic novelist Joe Sacco to speak. In his novels Palestine and Footnotes in Gaza, Sacco did not draw faces of Israeli soldiers because, he said, it would humanize them.
After Sacco’s lecture, Smith went to the Stamps administration asking to invite Artists 4 Israel, a group that uses art to treat Israelis traumatized by war. She said this suggestion went ignored.
U-M spokesperson Rick Fitzgerald said the Stamps speaker series is intentionally provocative.
“(Douglas) presented and discussed a wide array of topics, much focused on the oppression of people across the globe by governmental powers,” Fitzgerald said. “The university understands how people may react differently to different speakers and disagreeing with controversial speakers is part of the learning process. Pertaining to its lecture series, Penny Stamps clearly states on its website that discovering what you do not agree with will help you find your voice as much or more perhaps than the things you find resonance with.”
On Monday, U-M Hillel leaders sent a letter to students and parents concerning this incident, noting it comes just weeks after a professor refused to provide a student with a recommendation letter to study abroad at an Israeli institution.
“We at Michigan Hillel share your concern that this image denigrated the memory of those killed in the Holocaust by suggesting a false equivalence to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict today,” the letter stated. It went on to say Hillel staff and students have been communicating with U-M top administrators, expressing concerns about these incidents and “the broader concern of professors and lecturers inserting anti-Israel politics into the classroom or their actions without regard to the impact on the student.”
“We have suggested avenues and resources for more training and understanding around modern-day anti-Semitism and have offered steps to ensure a more inclusive classroom atmosphere,” the letter stated. “We were pleased to hear the university leadership’s repeated rejection of BDS, including the specific boycott of Israeli academic institutions. Based on our conversations, we are confident the university is taking these issues very seriously.”
Carolyn Normandin, Michigan director of the Anti-Defamation League, said since the Emory Douglas lecture, ADL has been in close contact with Michigan Hillel and with U-M administrators.
“Any time a person equates Israeli leadership to Hitler, it crosses a line from criticizing Israel into anti-Semitism,” she said. “It is one thing to criticize Israeli policy, as any country’s policy should be criticized in an open and free society … but no Jewish student in a required lecture should feel so blindsided.”
On Monday, news media in Israel reported that Israeli Minister of Education and Diaspora Affairs Naftali Bennett sent a letter to U-M President Mark Schlissel voicing strong condemnation of the comparison between Hitler and Netanyahu, which, he, says breached the accepted International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance definition of anti-Semitism.
Bennett cited the recent U-M study abroad recommendation letter refusal and writes: “The time has come for you as head of the university to take a strong stand against what has clearly become a trend of vitriolic hatred against the Jewish state on your campus.”