A Springtime of Erasure

A cartoonist reflects on a right-wing smear campaign that summoned the specter of “Degenerate Art.”

Eli Valley
November 25, 2019
Hitler Youth
Illustration: Eli Valley

I WAS HEADING to Palo Alto for a presentation at Stanford on political satire, diaspora pride, and the urgency of Jewish memory and conscience in the face of burgeoning fascism in America, but it was hard to pack amid panicked texts from my mom. The subject of her frenzied concern: metal detectors, security perimeters, and how to deal with “crazies” (her word) inspired by a New York Times opinion editor’s signal boost of an article stating that I posed an imminent threat to the safety of Jewish students on campus.

It all started, arguably, with the erasure of Jews in a comic. I’d been invited by the Stanford chapters of Students for Justice in Palestine and Jewish Voice for Peace to present my work during Palestine Awareness Week. Prior to the event, the groups distributed flyers featuring comics I’d drawn that mocked two Benjamins—Netanyahu and Shapiro—for their contempt for the progressive values shared by the majority of American Jews. In response, Stanford College Republicans plastered undergraduate dormitories with flyers setting a panel from one of my comics alongside images from Der Stürmer, a Nazi propaganda tabloid, all under the headline “Spot the Difference.”

The Der Stürmer image featured a Jewish man as a worm and was originally captioned “The Jew’s symbol is a worm, not without reason. He seeks to creep up on what he wants.” The selection from my art was a panel from a decade-old comic, “Metamorphosis,” which satirized the Jewish communal world’s millennial outreach efforts via a depiction of 19th-century Jewish intellectuals chatting not about socialism, communism, and Zionism, but about their cheeseball Jewish young adult engagement initiatives. You couldn’t get more Jewish in-jokey than that! Hence its publication in the Forward; hence its reproduction on tote bags for the 2012 National Jewish Student Journalism Conference. According to the campus Trump supporters, this portrait of Jews talking about Judaism was tantamount to Nazism.

Following the College Republicans’ lead, the Hillel-affiliated Israel on Campus Coalition—which had been in the news for working with Israel’s Ministry of Strategic Affairs to harass and spy on progressive Jewish undergrads—jumped on the bandwagon, adding that I was “appropriating Passover” by drawing a seder.

Three days later, a Stanford Law student published an op-ed in The Stanford Daily situating my art within a history of “anti-Semitism and cartoons,” and calling it “morally repugnant,” “ethically disgusting,” “feral and despicable,” and “indefensible.” At a loss for additional synonyms, he went on to compare me to Nazis, synagogue shooters, and “Palestinian terrorists,” and insisted I be barred from speaking at the university lest Jewish students be traumatized. The following day, New York Times opinion editor and columnist Bari Weiss shared the screed on Twitter, adding a personal note of gratitude to the author.

Within hours, I was facing six minyans of hatred. Top Jewish Trump surrogate Jeff Ballabon insisted I was worse than a kapo, and then upped the ante to “malshin”—a traitor to Jews who has historically merited the death penalty. The Stanford Review (founded by Trump-supporting oligarch Peter Thiel) published a diatribe comparing my art to blackface and insisting it was “so charged with anti-Semitism that no political pretense could justify a public display.” In a Jewish News Syndicate column, Jonathan Tobin—who had insisted in a National Review piece two years earlier that “the case for Trump or even senior aide Steve Bannon . . . being an anti-Semite doesn’t stand up to scrutiny”—called my work “repugnant anti-Semitic trash.” Even the associate dean at the Simon Wiesenthal Center joined in, comparing my art to “Nazi Germany’s anti-Semitic genocidal propaganda from the 1930s and ’40s.” Granted, his boss had actually blessed Trump at the presidential inauguration. But still, for a Holocaust remembrance organization to make that comparison was startling. By the time I arrived at Stanford, a pro-Trump group had published images of me superimposed on comics I’d drawn condemning Trump’s racism, with the message, “Tell this loser cartoonist who hates Jews and America that his racism isn’t welcome on our college campuses.”

All of this shouldn’t have bothered me. Hyperbolic art provokes hyperbolic reaction; that’s par for the course in the genre of grotesquerie. And this campaign was neither new nor unique: Weiss had spent years trying to get writers and academics fired from their jobs for advocating for Palestinian suffrage. But use of the term “Nazi”—and not just as a flippant epithet hurled by apartheid advocates from the fever swamps of comment threads—gnawed at me. I felt unmoored by the onslaught of hate. 

As I filed through JFK Airport, half-expecting the drug-sniffing dogs to bark “He’s Waffen-SS!” before I could make it to the gate, I was struck by the irony: “You’ve been drawing Trump having intercourse with dead pigs against a backdrop of Klansmen and kids in cages, and now suddenly you’re sensitive?”

WHEN TRUMP’S ELECTION pulled back the curtain on the rise of the far right in America, I’d naively assumed the Jewish left would be vindicated. As the president solidified his stature as the hero of American Nazism, enacting policies of white supremacist violence on the border and lending credence to conspiracy theories about George Soros bringing in brown people to replace the white race—an idea that helped incite two antisemitic massacres in the span of six months, including the worst pogrom in American Jewish history—it seemed clear: the only course of action was to oppose these escalating horrors by every available means. And for Jews, this meant bringing our historical trauma to bear on the unfolding American catastrophe.

I knew there were those in the Jewish community—especially among the organizational leadership, as well as within the vocal minority that supported Trump—who insisted Holocaust analogies were verboten. But to me, they were mandatory, a means of alarm and mobilization. Three weeks after the election, as an admonition to Democrats not to compromise with an administration that promised mass roundups and deportations of those deemed “illegal,” I drew an image based on the iconic photograph of a boy raising his arms in the Warsaw Ghetto. In my work, I tried to suss out why our collective memory was presumed too loaded to apply to the current crisis. Two months after Trump’s inauguration, I drew ICE agents dragging a mother from her screaming daughter as she cautions her child, “Hush, sweetheart, and be careful with your analogies, lest you cheapen the sanctity of the Shoah!” Art became a form of prayer and a form of witness. Even as my subjects broadened beyond particularist Jewish topics, the art was haunted by Jewish memory. It felt like the most Jewish art I’d ever made.

From “On Nazi Imagery Today” by Eli Valley, 2017

That’s why Stanford floored me. This wasn’t just a spillover from Israel polemics. Much of the art cited as proof of my “Nazism” was recent work—condemnations of people abetting white supremacy in America. It felt different from earlier denunciations, and not just in magnitude. These critics were furious at my claim on Jewish memory and motifs, and insistent that I had no right to draw from our history. 

On the Stanford campus, before the presentation began, I headed out a back door of the lecture hall for a quick bathroom break in a nearby building. A single security officer lingered outside. The time and place of the presentation had been moved, and non-students were prohibited from attending, partly in response to the uproar. Wandering between buildings, I was struck by the emptiness of the grounds. The lead-up had been cacophonous, both off-campus and on. But now that I was here, the sudden silence was unnerving. I felt like a phantom—like I’d been erased.

IT HAD BEEN A SPRINGTIME OF ERASURE. Two months earlier, after Meghan McCain wept on The View and cited her friendship with Joe and Hadassah Lieberman while demonizing Ilhan Omar, I drew a comic satirizing her appropriation of Jewish identity and trauma. In response, McCain insisted on Twitter that I was an antisemite. Instead of rallying around the absurdity of a Christian woman calling a Jewish artist an antisemite for satirizing her weaponization of Jewish memory, the Jewish right leapt, aghast, to her defense. The same polemicists who had spent decades insisting non-Zionist Jews were crippled by a desire to ingratiate themselves with gentiles now rushed to invite McCain to their Shabbat dinners. It wasn’t even implied, it was emphatic: McCain was a Jew, I was a Jew-hater.

The phenomenon of Jews erasing Jews is not new, and it wasn’t new when Zionism came on the scene over a century ago and bifurcated Jewish self-image into the proud nationalist and the self-loathing assimilationist. In the presentation I’d give at Stanford, I planned to discuss Max Nordau, an early Zionist pioneer and proponent of “Muscular Judaism,” whose vituperative bile against diaspora Jews became an integral component of the Zionist cause. At the first Zionist Congress in 1897, he described the diaspora Jew he hoped to erase: “He has become a cripple within, and a counterfeit person without, so that like everything unreal, he is ridiculous and hateful to all men of high standards.” 

But the trend of erasure has seen a resurgence in recent years as a newly emboldened Jewish left has set Zionist ideologues and American Jewish leaders on edge. Two months prior to L’Affaire McCain, The Times of Israel published a hair-raising op-ed by a white writer dissecting and dismissing the Jewish identities of several Jewish women writers of color who had been exploring racism in the Jewish community, and who hold left-wing views on Israel/Palestine. The writer coined the odious term “Jewface,” proclaiming the young women imposters. As I write this, the Forward has printed an op-ed by the head of young leadership at the American Jewish Committee insisting that American Jews who oppose Israeli settlements are mere “tokens” exploited by a gentile left. 

And there’s a new twist to erasure: many of those doing the erasing are actively or tacitly aiding in the rise of movements seeking the extermination of Jews. We saw this most starkly after the Tree of Life massacre, when Trump flew to Pittsburgh to meet not with local leaders, but with Ron Dermer, Israel’s ambassador to the United States. Two days earlier, Dermer had gone on MSNBC to exalt Trump, pivoting from the white supremacist massacre by invoking Jeremy Corbyn, the “radical left,” and 1990s Black nationalist icon Louis Farrakhan as he insisted, “I see a lot of bad people on both sides.” Israel’s Minister for Diaspora Affairs Naftali Bennett flew to Pittsburgh and New York on an erasure tour in which he insisted that the ADL’s statistics on growing antisemitism in America were fictions. “I’m not sure at all there is a surge in antisemitism in America,” he said. “I’m not sure those are the facts.” Vice President Pence, for his part, appeared onstage with a pet “rabbi” from Jews for Jesus—a movement that in its very name stands for the erasure of Jews—to feign solidarity with the Jewish community. After Charlottesville, and then Pittsburgh, and then Poway, the Jewish right can no longer conceal its bargain with the forces of eliminationist antisemitism. But still they plod on, possibly in denial themselves about where this is heading—that the erasure of Jewish voices is a step toward the erasure of Jewish bodies.

For me, the McCain imbroglio brought this into stark relief. You can’t truly get the feel for Jewish erasure until your own lived Jewishness is called into question. In retrospect, it was the perfect prelude to Stanford. After all, a world where Jewish art turns Meghan McCain into a victim of antisemitism can easily become a world where Jewish art against Nazism is damned as Nazi art against Jews.

LOST IN THE FRENZY of right-wing Zionists and Trump hagiographers posing as Weimar Republic cultural critics in the lead-up to the Stanford presentation was the question of my actual sources of inspiration. I’m usually quick to bring up 1950s MAD comics—their Yiddish-infused, riotous dreamscapes skewering postwar American consumerism and conformity—as my formative bedrock. No disrespect to my furshlugginer idols, but my roots also go back further, to the ferocious anti-Nazi artists of the Weimar and early Nazi periods. Haunted by the devastations of the First World War and horrified by the growing Nazi threat, these artists produced searing portraits of a society barreling from one catastrophe to the next. Grotesqueries abound, as in Otto Dix’s 1924 War portfolio, 50 eviscerating etchings of maimed and mutilated soldiers. These corpses in trenches, bullet-punctured faces, and grinning skulls teeming with worms reveal the harrowing substratum of a Germany teetering on the brink of fascism, populated in Dix’s other portraits by the discolored, plasticine figures of the country’s elite and not-so-elite. Or in the works of George Grosz, which ferociously skewer the self-satisfied greed and brutality of military officers, bureaucrats, and industrialists while highlighting Berlin’s self-destructive interwar spiral. In “The Voice of the People Is the Voice of God,” from 1920, Grosz venomously sends up right-wing pundits as horses, monkeys, and other unidentifiable beasts—including one with an early swastika on its forehead—in a scene that could easily pass for a satire of the parade of sycophants at Mar-a-Lago. 

Despised by right-wing critics, Grosz was fined for defaming the German army and hauled into court for drawing Jesus in a gas mask. Berlin police seized all copies of his limited-edition Ecce Homo collection, ordering the original prints and plates destroyed on the grounds that they were “indecent representations which offend the sense of modesty and morality of a person of normal feeling.” They didn’t define “normal feeling,” or how exactly it was possible for a person to have normal feelings as society was collapsing all around them.

The Nazis finished what the Weimar censors started. In 1933, Otto Dix was fired from his position at the Dresden Academy and barred from its grounds. After appealing his dismissal he was told certain works “most seriously injure the moral feeling of the German people, and others could dampen the German people’s will to defend themselves.” Nazis confiscated 260 pieces of Dix’s art. Grosz fled to America 18 days before Hitler took power, escaping arrest and possible murder. Nazis confiscated 285 of his works. Years later, a classified SS document called him “one of the most evil representatives of degenerate art.”

Video still from Julien Bryan’s footage of the “Degenerate Art” exhibition, 1937. Courtesy of the Julien Bryan Collection at the Steven Spielberg Film and Video Archive, US Holocaust Memorial Museum.

DEGENERATE ART: A term codified by the Nazis to describe art they deemed a blight on the German spirit. Like its war on the Jewish people, the Nazis’ war on art was designed to eliminate what it insisted was a warped and pathological deviation from artistic greatness—a deviation represented by Jewish, Bolshevik, cosmopolitan, mentally ill, and other racially impure aesthetics. As many as 22,000 works of modern art were confiscated from museums; roughly a quarter of these were destroyed.

Not content to ban both the art and the artists, the Nazis decided to hold a “Degenerate Art Exhibition” in July 1937 to coincide with the opening of the “Great German Art Exhibition” the day before. Paintings and sculptures were crowded together and accompanied by inflationary price tags—an indictment of the “Jewish” art trade. The exhibition’s walls were adorned with slogans like “Revelation of the Jewish racial soul,” “An insult to German womanhood,” and “Nature as seen by sick minds.” The exhibition catalogue—more of a hate guide to the exhibits, which included works by Dix, Grosz, and 110 other artists—quoted from Hitler’s address at the opening of the Great German Art Exhibition: “But what do you manufacture? Deformed cripples and cretins, women who inspire only disgust, men who are more like wild beasts, children who, if they were alive, would be regarded as God’s curse! And this is what these cruel incompetents dare to present to us today as the art of our time.” Although most of the artists featured in the Degenerate Art Exhibition were non-Jews, the Nazis’ obsessive determination to erase non-glorifying art from civilization mirrored its drive to remove unfit people from humanity. 

“Degenerate Art” has become synonymous with the Nazi war on free thought and expression. Less known, but even more shocking, is that the term had been popularized by none other than Zionist pioneer Max Nordau during his career as a cultural critic, five years prior to his denunciation of diaspora Jews at the First Zionist Congress. Obsessed with the notion of modern art as a signifier of mental and physical deformity, Nordau condemned it in terms astonishingly similar to his condemnation of diaspora Jews. “Degenerates, hysterics, and neurasthenics are not capable of adaptation,” Nordau wrote of modern artists. “Therefore they are fated to disappear.” Although their targets did not entirely overlap, Hitler directly drew from portions of Nordau’s work in Mein Kampf, while eliding the source. 

There is much to ponder in the way an early Zionist’s denigration of modern art and diaspora Jewry mirrors the ideological monstrosities that would soon envelop Europe. As my talk at Stanford neared, the polemicists and opinion writers—many of them Nordau’s philosophical descendants—who insisted my art was “Nazi-like” because of its grotesqueries, because of its hyperbole, and because it skewers petty fascists, were not just exposing themselves as ignorant of a century of exhilarating art that raged against the most despicable forces in history. They were also operating within that history, treading the path of the very movement they insist they despise. In their insistence on removing a supposedly profane element from both the Jewish community and the artistic landscape, they were direct heirs to the most abominable, antisemitic movement in Jewish history. That they claimed to be doing so out of dire concern for Jewish welfare is obscene.

THE PRESENTATION WENT WELL, all things considered—the slide projector worked, there was ample water, I wasn’t shot. But toward the end, I got emotional. I was sharing a comic from 2014, drawn when Netanyahu made an end run around the Obama administration to address Congress, in an effort to scuttle what would become the Iran Deal. It was four panels featuring scenes of American Jewish life. The text was all narration:

We thought we were safe here. We knew it. “Land of the free”—it resonated . . . Ethnic intolerance, racial prejudice, nationalist hysteria . . . We’d faced it all wherever we lived. But not here. Not anymore. It couldn’t happen here. 

But just when we’d gotten comfortable, we learned of an ugliness heading our way. The government opening its doors to the very incitement we’d thought was a thing of the past. We had thought we were safe—free from xenophobia, free from demagoguery. But we’d taken it all for granted. On that day we knew: No matter how safe we think we are, we might never really be free.

In the final panel, a family is stunned and horrified to find Netanyahu speaking on TV. The comic was a reflection on the moral abyss between American Jews and the authoritarians helming Israel’s government. More than that, it raised an alarm about the dangers Israel now posed to American Jewish lives in its embrace of movements that have historically sought the elimination of Jews. But substitute Netanyahu with Trump, and it’s no longer satire. It’s literal. Reading the comic, reciting the litany of horrors that have become reality in America, my voice started breaking. The last thing I wanted was a tearful spectacle—or worse, performative pathos to drive the presentation home. I heard my voice drop to a near-whisper. 

I’d presented the comic several times since the Trump nightmare began, and this had never happened before. In part, it may have been the pressure releasing after a full week of vilification. But that doesn’t fully capture it. I think, in the end, “It couldn’t happen here” broke my heart. The cautionary tale of European Jews deluded about their safety at the dawn of the 20th century has by now become cliché. But it is happening here—not systemically to Jews, not immediately, but it’s already begun against other communities, and it’s getting worse. 

By the time I got home, I was starting to see myself through the eyes of the demonizers. Yes, with less of the bigotry, the mendacity, the demagoguery, the cruelty, the disdain for centuries of Jewish civilization, and the contempt for even the barest notion of Palestinian humanity, but still—part of me was afraid to go back to drawing lest everything look like, or be interpreted as, a Goebbels concoction. Self-doubt is essential to making art, but it can also be paralyzing.

I know this is the goal of gaslighting: insist on an alternate reality and eventually the target will start to question their own reality. It worked. After the concerted campaign of erasure, I started to erase myself. I was exhausted; I didn’t want to draw.

AFTER SEVERAL WEEKS of self-doubt, a national debate brought some clarity. In mid-June, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez recorded an Instagram video in which she condemned the concentration camps on our border and called for action to stop the atrocities. Within hours, the country was up in arms over the term “concentration camps,” with some of the same individuals and institutions that had condemned me as a Nazi insisting that Ocasio-Cortez was not only misinformed, but antisemitic. The rabbi at the Simon Wiesenthal Center who had denounced me insisted that her use of the term “concentration camp” was an “insult to victims of the Shoah.” 

Thankfully, in an open letter published in The New York Review of Books, over 400 scholars interceded to say: these are concentration camps. Jews throughout the country came to Ocasio-Cortez’s defense, insisting that Jewish memory is nothing if not an injunction to stop the horrors from repeating. Soon the grassroots initiative Never Again Action was formed to confront the machinery of ICE concentration camps directly.

I started drawing again—tracing the horrors in black and white, holding the grotesqueries up like a mirror—because I remembered: we are fighting for our memory and we are fighting for our lives. As far as creative motivation goes, nothing quite compares to witnessing the methodical erasure of our collective history and conscience. I am going to keep drawing.

Eli Valley is a Jewish Currents contributing writer. His comics collection Diaspora Boy: Comics on Crisis in America and Israel is available from OR Books.