Campus discourse about antisemitism is escalating just weeks into the spring semester, with a Penn lecturer defending himself after his political cartoons were publicly denounced by Interim Penn President Larry Jameson.
Annenberg School for Communication lecturer and cartoonist Dwayne Booth — who publishes political cartoons under the pen name Mr. Fish — has come under fire for his artwork of Israel, President Joe Biden’s stance on the Israel-Hamas war, pro-Israeli figures, and Prime Minister of Israel Benjamin Netanyahu. Several of the cartoons — including one which resembles the antisemitic trope of blood libel — have been denounced as antisemitic by critics, and Jameson condemned Booth's art in a University statement published on Feb. 4.
Jameson said the loss of life in Gaza and Israel should not be “fodder for satire,” calling the cartoons “reprehensible” and “painful to see" while affirming Penn’s “bedrock commitment” to academic freedom.
“We also have a responsibility to challenge what we find offensive, and to do so acknowledge the right and ability of members of our community to express their views, however loathsome we find them,” he wrote.
In an interview with The Daily Pennsylvanian, Booth defended his cartoons from mounting backlash among Jewish community members, adding that he received no communication from the University suggesting that his job was endangered because of the cartoons.
A University spokesperson referred the DP to Jameson’s Sunday evening statement, and an Annenberg spokesperson did not respond to a request for comment. Jameson’s statement came in the wake of a story published by Washington Free Beacon on Feb. 1 that criticized the cartoons, calling them “grotesque" and "anti-semitic."
Since Jameson spoke out, Booth told the DP he has received backlash online and via the phone, including death threats and threats to his family. In response, he alerted Penn's Division for Public Safety. A DPS spokesperson declined to comment, though his email has been removed from the Annenberg website and Path@Penn no longer displays the time and location of a class he is teaching this semester.
Booth said that the columns are not new and have been publicly available on political columnist Robert Scheer’s website as well as Booth’s professional website since they were published starting in October of last year, after the Oct. 7 Hamas attacks on Israel.
He added that the illustrations were originally created to accompany columns by Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Chris Hedges. Booth said that the columns provide the necessary context to understand the cartoons, and that they are open to misinterpretation when depicted by themselves.
Still, Jewish community members said that Booth's cartoons crossed a line, serving to propogate harmful messages rather than convey a nuanced opinion about the Israel-Hamas conflict.
“Scholars strive to understand hateful words, images, and actions and their power in the past and the present. But we don't create materials of our own that amplify messages of hate,” professor of modern Jewish history Joshua Teplitsky wrote in a statement to the DP.
"I worry that provocations do more to polarize than they do to foster discussion and debate,” he continued.
Jameson's statement also condemned a Booth cartoon that depicts photos of Jewish prisoners in a Nazi concentration camp holding signs opposing the ongoing conflict between Israel and Hamas.
Booth said that he created the cartoon, which is titled “Never Again and Again and Again,” to accompany a Dec. 31 column by Hedges titled “Israel’s Genocide Betrays the Holocaust,” which compares Israel’s treatment of Gazans to Nazi treatment of Jewish people.
“By obscuring and falsifying the lessons of the Holocaust, we perpetuate the evil that defined it,” Hedges wrote in the column.
According to Booth, the cartoons have produced meaningful exchanges since they were published and have only recently been described as antisemitic. He took issue with Jameson's description of Booth as using historical atrocities faced by Jewish people as “fodder for satire.”
“To say that to use that situation as fodder for satire means he doesn't know what satire is,” Booth said. “Because satire [is] most effective at times of great tragic events, atrocities, and debates about what atrocities are public policy.”
Wharton junior and Penn Hillel Vice President of Israel Engagement Sadie Waldbaum told the DP that the cartoons “crossed a line.” She added that she was particularly concerned with his depiction of Jews drinking blood, describing them as rooted in “medieval antisemitism.”
Waldbaum specifically referred to Booth’s cartoon titled "The Anti-Semite," which depicts three individuals drinking blood out of glasses labeled "Gaza." The cartoon appears to resemble the antisemitic trope of blood libel — which suggests that Jews use the blood of other groups for religious purposes.
Teplitsky also expressed concern, saying that he was “taken aback” by Booth’s cartoon. He added that the cartoons draw upon tropes with “deep antisemitic histories.”
The trope of blood libel has been “used extensively in similar cartoons by the Nazis to dehumanize Jews, and has no place in political discourse," College sophomore Morris Hakim said.
Executive Director at Penn Hillel Rabbi Gabe Greenberg wrote in a statement to the DP that the conflict between Israel and Palestinians was "complex and complicated," requiring Penn students to confront "nuanced perspectives that will help them understand and learn more.”
Still, Greenberg said the “The Anti-Semite” cartoon did not convey one of these nuanced perspectives.
“Instead, it is trafficking in a millennium-old antisemitic trope, the 'blood libel,' which has a dark history of being used to demonize and dehumanize Jewish people,” he wrote.
He expressed concern that “this type of speech contributes to a sense shared by many Jewish students that Penn is not a wholly welcoming environment for them.”
Two students currently taking Booth’s class — both of whom were granted anonymity due to fear of retaliation — told the DP that Booth has acknowledged the backlash. The first time that many students had heard about the backlash Booth was receiving was when he sent an email explaining the situation, one student said.
“I don't think the intent was to endanger anyone, but his intent is definitely to catch people's eyes and make them think about it,” a second student, who praised Booth as a lecturer, said. “His job is to produce thought provoking content. And that's obviously what he did."
The first student added that while Booth did not express concern over the controversy in class, he did tell them that he wanted to make sure they felt “safe and secure in the classroom.”
“I did appreciate kind of how forthcoming he was and the way that he's not let that affect the class,” the student said.
Booth reaffirmed his students' perspectives, describing “the whole point of satire" being to "start conversations not end conversations.”
Booth also said he did not show students the cartoons in class: "There's no real reason to bring those into the classroom because we're all engaging with this stuff in our own lives.”
“It's not up to me to try to skew one’s political belief one way or the other,” he continued.
On Monday, Booth released a cartoon entitled “Quiet!” depicting Uncle Sam putting his hand over a person’s mouth. The caption read “Critical thinking is bad for America.”
In a followup to its initial story, the Washington Free Beacon published a story on Monday criticizing Jameson’s “tepid” statement for not referring to Booth by name. The story included the day that Booth would next be teaching a class.
Staff reporter Alex Slen contributed reporting.