When venerated media outlets like ‘The Harvard Lampoon’ casually publish an image of a bikini-clad Anne Frank, is it more than just ‘poor judgment?’

Antisemitic humor: A cloaked villain

THE HISTORIC ‘Castle’ that is home base for ‘Lampoon’ members (at Cambridge’s 44 Bow Street) sits directly across from the Harvard Hillel buildings.. (photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)

When an image of Anne Frank wearing a bikini circulated around the Harvard University campus in May, many Jewish students were shocked and disgusted, viewing the incident as the epitome of bad taste and insensitivity. That the image was not funny, most people could agree on. That it was a crude appropriation of a young girl’s body was evident to most (except, I suppose, its creator).

That it should not have been published was not heavily disputed. But was it antisemitic? That’s where you have to initiate a baffling investigation: a research project into the origins of jokes that offend Jews. Are they born from a seething hatred toward all Jews? From a blithe ignorance that repudiates any sort of accountability? From the poison of antisemitism that slips through a human’s veins, unawares? From some complicated combination of all of these? Sometimes there is no way to know.

The Anne Frank episode shows how difficult it is for Jews to know where they stand when their identity is on the line. Across college campuses, this murky line between ill-will and ignorance has plunged many Jewish students and leaders into confusion, as they wonder which jokes directed at them qualify as antisemitic, and how they should respond.

The Harvard Lampoon, a social and satire organization, published the Anne Frank image in the spring issue of its humor magazine, with the caption “Gone Before Her Time: Virtual Aging Technology Shows Us What Anne Frank Would Have Looked Like If She Hadn’t Died.” Beneath the photoshopped photograph were the words: “Add this to your list of reasons the Holocaust sucked.” The corner of the photoshopped photograph contained the author’s initials: CdLLdr.

The author of the piece, whose full name is Cristóbal De Losada López de Romaña, presumably published in the hopes of provoking laughs. What he provoked instead was a strong backlash against his piece and against the Lampoon’s choice of material.

“I’m appalled that such an unfunny, hateful, ignorant, pedophiliac, and dehumanizing image could be published,” wrote Harvard student Paulette Schuster. “I cannot fathom the thought process where CdLLdr (very inconspicuous by the way) thought it would be remotely funny to put the head of a 15-year-old Holocaust victim on the body of a swimsuit model.

Leaders of Jewish organizations on campus had their say, too. “We are profoundly disappointed in the poor judgment that was used when deciding to create and publish this image,” Harvard Chabad student leaders wrote in an emailed statement.
The Lampoon’s next-door neighbors were disturbed by the caricature as well, to say the least. The castle that is home base for Lampoon members sits directly across the street from the Harvard Hillel buildings, so closely adjacent that party music from the Lampoon drifts through the Hillel windows on some Friday evenings. The sounds of a particularly robust Kabbalat Shabbat might penetrate the Lampoon’s brick walls, too.

“Let me share here what I have written to our neighbors just across Mount Auburn Street,” wrote Harvard Hillel director Rabbi Jonah Steinberg in an email to Hillel affiliates. He found the Lampoon photo to be concerning, because it carried on the Nazi propaganda’s legacy of dehumanizing Jews. “By producing and spreading such an image, you effectively join yourselves to the obscenity of the Nazis themselves and carry it forward,” he wrote. “It is an image one can imagine Julius Streicher, publisher of Der Stürmer, producing and celebrating.”

Danu Mudannayake, who will be a senior at Harvard this fall, circulated a Change.org petition that said the Lampoon’s “antisemitic content [was] a logical outgrowth of a corrupt internal culture where members exercise infinite freedom at the harm of everyone else.”

IMAGE FROM an 1886 ‘Lampoon.’ (Credit: Courtesy)

IMAGE FROM an 1886 ‘Lampoon.’ (Credit: Courtesy)

The Lampoon publicly apologized for its actions, making sure to “affirm and emphasize that the Lampoon condemns any and all forms of antisemitism.” A Lampoon co-president also sent a personal email to the members of the Hillel steering committee, apologizing for allowing publication of the photoshopped image.

Perhaps a few students upheld the Lampoon’s freedom of speech and argued for their right to make fun of all religious and ethnic groups and their histories. But most students wondered about what amount of naiveté factored into the image’s publication, and what amount of animosity. Was the Lampoon staff simply blind to the implications of their actions? Was the true light of “veritas” merely hidden from them in their quest to be “funny”?

Jacob Schwartz, a senior at Harvard, indicated that it was more than that. “Although I try to judge favorably, and part of me wants to chalk this up to ignorance, this is beyond me,” he wrote on Facebook. “The people who created this photo clearly knew enough about the Holocaust to understand on a basic level the tragedy that the Jewish people endured. And yet they decided that this was not only passable but funny. The audacity and complete inhumanity of this edition of The Harvard Lampoon is beyond me.”

But Schwartz still didn’t think the image itself crossed the line of antisemitism. “I don’t think the Lampoon is antisemitic. I don’t even think what they posted was intended to be antisemitic,” he said. “I think they were trying to make a joke. It was not funny, for not only antisemitic reasons but a number of reasons.” He mentioned that the Lampoon had reached out to Jewish communal leadership to see how the magazine could remedy its mistakes.

The New England Anti-Defamation League seems to recognize the complicated interplay between ignorance and antisemitism, stating not that the image was antisemitic, but rather that it could add fuel to the fires of antisemitism. “Trivializing #genocide plays into the hands of #antisemites & Holocaust deniers,” it tweeted.

Steinberg pointed out that he did not believe that the Lampoon staff sat around planning to create something antisemitic. “I very seriously doubt that any person or group of people sat right across from our building, our Hillel building, over at the Lampoon, sort of rubbing their hands together and saying, ‘Let’s figure out how we can be antisemitic,’” he said. He maintained that the Lampoon’s depiction of Anne Frank showed a type of obsession with victimization. “Now whether that is inherently antisemitic or not, it is very upsetting when it is directed in the Jewish direction,” he acknowledged.

THE SAME month that Harvard students were navigating the bounds between antisemitism and indifferent distastefulness, students at Stanford University were embroiled in their own disagreement about whether some political satire was antisemitic, and whether Jewish students should be insulted by such contents.

The political cartoons in question were creations of Eli Valley, a Jewish writer and artist whose controversial illustrations have confronted Zionism and right-wing politics, often by comparing current events to the Holocaust. One of his cartoons portrays a woman and her child being separated by ICE agents, with a caption that berates those who refuse to use Holocaust analogies. While the young girl cries “MOMMA,” her mother responds, “Hush child, and be careful with your Holocaust analogies, lest you cheapen the sanctity of the Shoah!”

The Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) group at Stanford invited Valley to speak as part of its Palestinian Awareness Week, and plastered some of his cartoons around campus in order to advertise the event. One cartoon depicted Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu making statements such as, “We can finally throw the droves of Arabs into the Mediterranean and build Jewish-only skyscrapers on the hilltops of Ramallah.”

New flyers appeared around campus, with images from Der Stürmer juxtaposed against Valley’s cartoons and a caption that read, “Spot the difference.” A member of the Stanford College Republicans was responsible for the new flyers, which members from both the Jewish Voice for Peace (JVP) and the Jewish Student Association (JSA) board condemned for containing despicable imagery.

SJP issued an apology for posting the Eli Valley cartoons without providing the reader with any background, yet both it and the JVP still maintained that the flyers were not antisemitic.

ARVARD HILLEL director Rabbi Jonah Steinberg noted in an email to Hillel affiliates, ‘It is an image one can imagine Julius Streicher, publisher of [notoriously antisemitic Nazi-era weekly] “Der Stürmer,” producing and celebrating.’ (Credit: Courtesy)

ARVARD HILLEL director Rabbi Jonah Steinberg noted in an email to Hillel affiliates, ‘It is an image one can imagine Julius Streicher, publisher of [notoriously antisemitic Nazi-era weekly] “Der Stürmer,” producing and celebrating.’ (Credit: Courtesy)

“We maintain that it is absurd to call Eli Valley’s art, or Eli Valley himself, antisemitic,” wrote Emily Wilder and Esther Tsvayg, co-presidents of JVP at Stanford, in an op-ed for the Stanford Daily student newspaper. They maintained that Valley’s work has been an outlet of political expression for many American Jews and that his art “engages deeply with Jewish texts, history, culture and experience.”

The JSA board at Stanford disagreed with this approach and wrote in a public statement, “Although Valley’s intent may be to produce scathing political commentary, his work extends beyond politics and into outright hostility toward the Jewish community.”
Whereas JVP saw Valley’s references to Jewish history as a source of “meaning,” JSA found them to be offensive and harmful. “His work crosses the line from pointed political criticism to offensive denigration of Jews,” they wrote at the time. “Sometimes, he even evokes the blood libel and other antisemitic depictions that have been used for centuries to justify hatred of and violence toward millions of Jews.”

To the JSA board, Valley’s artwork “normalizes damaging stereotypes” and must be viewed in the context of a long history of violence against Jews.

Ben Simon, a Stanford sophomore at the time, commented on the tension the cartoons created for Jewish students. “A lot of stuff borders on antisemitism,” he said. He mentioned that he, along with other Jewish students on campus, particularly the more politically conservative ones, “felt very attacked.”

MILES AWAY from both Harvard and Stanford, the City University of New York’s Baruch College has been home to a number of instances in which certain tropes and stereotypes have reared their ugly heads in the guise of humor, resulting in a number of incidents that have concerned Jewish students and professors.

Ilya Bratman, a professor at Baruch and director of the Hillel there, has witnessed a number of remarks and incidents on campus which were intended to be humorous, yet ventured into antisemitic territory.

These encroachments into antisemitic domain take place against a backdrop of recurring antisemitic incidents at Baruch. A swastika drawn on the Hillel building and in a bathroom there have acquainted students with some of the more blatant strains of antisemitism.

Still, Bratman said that comments by professors are more of a burden to Jews on campus than the recurring Nazi symbols. “The bigger problems are the things that happen from the faculty and from within the classroom,” he said. “Professors are emboldened and say wildly inappropriate things, and sometimes for the sake of humor or to make a point.”

Recently, a professor made a remark in a “humorous” but “very degrading way,” in which she referred to Jews in Crown Heights as “those who are able to get away with crime.” The idea behind the comment, as Bratman explained, was that Jewish people were all buddies with the cops and were therefore able to get away with any criminal actions, in contrast with their black neighbors.

A student came forward about this incident and was rewarded with an in-class apology from her professor. But many students are afraid of aggravating their professors, who are in positions of power over them and have sway over their classroom success. “They say, ‘What am I going to do? How am I going to fight?’ So they decide not to fight it. They decide to let it go,” Bratman said.
In his role as professor, Bratman has heard a number of students make remarks that he felt were “very much antisemitic.” “They have no idea what they’re saying,” he said. He expected that many of the tropes which his students brought up had simply become an “accepted form of discourse.”

At one point, in the context of a historical discussion about the Ku Klux Klan and black Klansmen, one of Bratman’s students claimed that the KKK was partnered with American Jews. The students in his class then entered a conversation about how that would have been possible, and whether or not a Jew would have been able to hide himself among the other Klansmen. Bratman recounts one student insisted that a Jew would have been able to conceal his identity, saying, “Oh he’s white, you know, he pretended.” Another student asserted that this would not have been possible because ‘“You can tell a Jew from other people.’” And how would that have been possible? “All Jews have big noses.”

“I recognized how little they understood,” Bratman said. He mentioned that these students attend university in New York City, a place of much diversity, where they must have had some sort of interaction with Jews. “It was very disgusting to see how little and how unconnected these American New Yorkers [were], who lived in New York and see Jews every day,” he said.

Comments such as these may stem from a variety of places, according to Bratman, some from malicious antisemitism and some more from a genuine lack of understanding about what crosses the line. “It’s a mixture, and just all of it intertwined,” he said.

He noted that some antisemitic themes have entered common discourse, and that he has seen students laugh at Jewish comedians who have made references to tropes about Jewish money. Bratman explained that because Jews themselves are able to laugh about the stereotypes, non-Jewish students believe they “must be true,” and they proceed to laugh at them.
Bratman said that humor has become a survival mechanism for Jews who make jokes in order to make light of situations in which they have found themselves. “I think we tend to laugh at ourselves in order to survive,” he explained. “We can laugh because this cannot be a not-laughable matter. This has got to be from God, therefore we can laugh at it.”

This lighthearted approach to life is one that leads to an ironic setup, in which everybody laughs at the Jews. “We live in a world that’s also crazy and wild. It’s the world of paradox where we can laugh at ourselves. The world can laugh at us. We allow it and laugh with the world.”

SO WHAT can Jews do when faced with humor that bothers or baffles them? According to many, educate.

Bratman used his classroom as a platform to test this approach. One day he wrote on the board, “Why do people hate the Jews?” He told his students to write a paper on the topic. When he read the responses, he was met with a slew of tropes: Jews were insular, they were capitalist and they were poor; they were pretentious and they were treasonous; they were gentrifiers and they were hungry for discounts.

Bratman showed his students the flaw in their logic. “Do you see all these things that are on the board that we’re putting up? They’re like opposites,” he explained to his students. All Jews cannot be both rich and poor, both capitalist and communist, both insular and influential, he said.

Others also touted the importance of educating people to prevent them from making incursions into antisemitism. In the case of the Lampoon, Schwartz recommended making an effort to engage people with Jewish history. “I’ve urged them to take Holocaust education courses, to present Holocaust education courses, and also to meet with the survivors so they understand what they did wrong.”

Rabbi Steinberg emphasized that education about the Holocaust must be prioritized at universities, in a way that it currently is not. “You would think in a place like Harvard that it’s all about education, the obvious answer of ‘educate, educate, educate’ would already be taken care of,” he said. “But the truth is, if you take a look at the Harvard curriculum, there is not all that much teaching on the Holocaust, and I think Harvard could stand to have better education.”

Teaching students that they need to stand up when they see something problematic is also an important element in this type of education. “There was a failure to respond to a sense that something was wrong with that image,” Steinberg said. One of the editors, who is a Jewish student, told Steinberg that he was uncomfortable with the image, and that he could tell that a number of other Lampoon members were feeling similarly. But none of them spoke up. When Steinberg heard this story, he shot a look at the student editor. “I know that’s how bad things happen.” He said the student admitted that was the case.

Steinberg is convinced that some dialogue and personal interactions could help students recover from incidents of insensitivity. The irony of Hillel’s juxtaposition to the Lampoon did not escape him. He recommended that Lampoon staff members connect with Hillel student leaders. “The more we know each other as human beings, the less likely we are to dehumanize one another,” he said. “And I think the failure in that depiction that the Lampoon published was a failure of compassion, which is in a sense of humanity. And the only antidote to that I know of is to know each other as human beings.”