Correspondence between Jonathan Roth, SJSU history professor and head of the local chapter of Scholars for Peace in the Middle East, and Ruth Kifer, SJSU University Library Dean, regarding a the image of a swastika superimposed over a Jewish star in a poster that was part of a library exhibit
1) March 4, 2012: Letter from Professor Jonathan Roth to Ruth Kifer
From: Jonathan Roth
Date: March 14, 2012 1:29:31 PM PDT
Cc: “A. Finkelstein”
Subject: Iranian Revolution exhibit on Second Floor of MLK, Jr.
I am sure you remember our discussion about the poster glorifying a
Palestinian terrorist a few months ago, that had been exhibited in the
Cultural Heritage Center. At that time you assured me that exhibits
would be monitered for anti-Semitic content.
Now I find that one of the images in the exhibit on the Second Floor
features a swastika superimposed over a Jewish star. While this does
reflect the historical anti-Semitism and anti-Zionism of the Iranian
revolutionaries, it is not explained or put in context. I hardly need
to add that combining a swastika with a Jewish star is highly
offensive to Jews and Israelis.
I would ask that this offensive image be removed.
Jonathan P. Roth
San Jose State University
San Jose CA 95192-0117
Tel: (408) 924-5505
Fax: (408) 924-5531
2) March 15, 2012: Response from Ruth Kifer to Professor Jonathan Roth
I have received your concern about the exhibit, Recollections: Art and the
Archive of an Iranian-American Journey, now installed in the second floor
gallery space of the Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Library. My understanding
is that you would like a specific image removed from the exhibit.
As specified in the Library Exhibit Policy, a review process will be
conducted in a timely manner by Library Administration in response to your
concern. While your request is being considered, there will be no change in
the status of the exhibit. Upon completion of the review process, I will
contact you with the Library’s decision. The Library Exhibit Policy may be
3) March 16, 2012: Response from Professor Jonathan Roth to Ruth Kifer
Thanks for your timely response. Having read the policy, I see that
the library has the right to review and accept or reject an
exhibition. I wonder if this exhibit was vetted, if the swastika was
noted (to be fair, it is quite small) and considered acceptable, or if
it was simply missed.
I would also be curious to know if anyone had the Persian slogans
translated during the vetting process. If so, could I see the
translations? If not, please let me know.
Who is responsible for deciding if an exhibit is acceptable or not?
Have any exhibits been rejected in the past? The process seems
somewhat opaque to me. We have already discussed the issue with the
Cultural Heritage Center. You indicated to me that exhibits were more
or less on a “first come, first serve” basis, but Kathy seemed to
suggest that the CHC exhibits were chosen on the basis of their
mission. Could you clarify this?
The Library Bill of Rights seems to indicate that any artifact or
point of view should be exhibited without censorship. Would then, in
theory, a Ku Klux Klan exhibit on the inferiority of non-white races
or, again in theory, an exhibit by NAMBLA celebrating pedophilia be
It seems to me that there is a double standard. Attacks on Israel or
Jews seems to be “free speech” while something deemed offensive to
another group is viewed as “hate speech.”
All the best,
4) April 5, 2012: Response from Ruth Kifer to Professor Jonathan Roth
I am attaching the documents that you received in hard copy from me in
response to your request regarding the recent exhibit on the second
floor of the King Library. I appreciate your telephone call regarding
this matter and am forwarding the original documents to you. I am
happy to talk with you further about the issues you have raised and
can be reached at 408 808-2022. I am in the office on Friday April 6th
and free after 11:00 a.m. until 3:30 p.m. Please feel free to give me
5) May 5, 2012: Response from Professor Jonathan Roth to Ruth Kifer
From: Jonathan Roth
Date: May 5, 2012 3:35:00 PM PDT
Cc: Mary Nino
Subject: Swastika superimposed in Jewish Star exhibited at MLK Library
I am writing to you to follow up on our discussion of a Nazi swastika
superimposed on a Jewish Star of David, representing the State of
Israel, which was part of a recent exhibit at the Martin Luther King,
Jr. library, as well as the response of the library to my request that
it be removed.
As you can see, I am copying the director of the San Jose Public
Library, as they shared in your review of the matter, as well as the
SJSU President and the Mayor of San Jose. In addition, I am copying
the individuals who wrote the response, as well as the directors of
the various groups that co-sponsored this exhibit (the Middle East
Studies Consortium of Silicon Valley, Middle East Studies at SJSU,
Student Association for Middle East Studies, Humanities Department and
Mosaic Cross-Cultural Center.) I am also copying the SJSU Hillel (home
of Spartans for Israel) and the director of Jewish Studies, and
sharing this email with concerned faculty, students and community
To recount our discussion, the image, which was small but distinct,
was on a pamphlet attacking the State of Israel, which I have
attached. The entire area of the State of Israel is covered by an map
of “Palestine.” In one corner, a Jewish star has a crude swastika
drawn over it. The meaning of this is very clear, and a common one in
anti-Zionist and anti-Semitic literature: that the Jewish State is
equivalent to Nazi Germany.
As you can well imagine, this is a highly offensive image to Jews and
especially Israelis. There is a large Israeli community in the Bay
Area, including many Jews of Persian origin. San Jose State also has
an Israeli student population. My objection to this image (attached)
was based on SJSU’s policy on Hate Speech. I assume the city of San
Jose has a similar policy. You turned down this request, based on the
library’s free speech policy.
As part of this response, a review, written by SJSU’s Mary Nino and
the City of San Jose’s Katie Du Praw wrote the following:
“The swastika , while in recent years commonly associated with WW2,
has been has been in use for centuries in the Middle East and has a
variety of meanings depending on the culture and the time period. In
this instance, it is clearly a small piece of a much larger grouping
and should be viewed in the context of the entire exhibit and of the
This statement was, in many respects, more objectionable and
offensive than the image itself. The statement iis either based on
ignorance or is a disingenuous attempt to deflect criticism, but in
any case, it denies that those offended, in this case Jews and
Israelis, have an understanding of the offending image. There was
apparently no attempt to reach out to Jews or Israelis, or to do any
research on the matter. It reads as a casual dismissal of those who
are offended, and the tone is one of superior knowledge, which is even
more offensive as image is obviously identifying the State of Israel
The swastika was indeed, an image of pre-Islamic Iran, as well as
(rarely) of Christians in the Near East, but it should be obvious to
anyone that the swastika in question is intended to be the Nazi
swastika. The fact of the matter is that the reviewers completely
misunderstood, or ignored, the “context of the entire exhibit and of
the time period.” Even one ignorant of Farsi could see that the image
in question was part of a call to destroy the state of Israel. The
calumny that Israel is Nazi-like is a common one in the Muslim world,
including Iran, and is obviously meant to hurt and offend Jews, as the
swastika represents the persecution and murder of millions of Jews
(including members of my own family).
The image was part of an exhibit entitled “Recollections: Art & the
Archive of an Iranian-American Journey Works by acclaimed Bay Area
artist Taraneh Hemami.” It was on exhibit on the second floor gallery
of MLK, Jr. library from February 27-March 30th. The description in
English said “Theory of Survival brings together artists of the
Iranian Diaspora to respond to a historical archive belonging to the
Iranian Students Association of Northern California active from
1964-1984.” This was one of the few descriptions in English,
virtually all the exhibits were pamphlets, fliers and slogans in
The exhibit was approved by both the university and public sides of
the MLK, Jr. Library cosponsored by several SJSU programs, MOSAIC
Cross-Cultural Center, The Middle East Consortium and the Middle East
Studies Department. Presumably they all approved of the messages
contained in it, and saw nothing offensive or objectionable, that
might require a contextual description of the swastika image. As far
as I know, no-one translated the written material for offensive or
hate speech. I do not know any Farsi, nor can I read Arabic script,
but from comments on the exhibits website, my understanding is that
most of the material was concerned the Shah of Iran, but the piece in
question was clearly anti-Zionist and anti-Israel. By the way, the
material is presented as “censored” but it is nowhere explained that
the censor was not the United States but Iran itself. The lack of
explanation left a highly misleading impression.
After I circulated your response, there were objections from the
Jewish and Israeli community over both the swastika and the statement
in the review. These were copied to me. If you responded to them, I
have not been copied these responses, either by yourself or the
individuals in question.
This is not an isolated incident either in terms of the library or the
university in general. Last year, the Cultural Heritage Center
exhibited a poster featured an armed terrorist and the words “Free
Palestine.” Again, this violent image was not contextualized.
Anti-Israel and anti-Semitic speakers have been invited on campus over
the years, and in an notorious incident, the consul-general of Israel
was heckled off state at San Jose State.
At very least, I would like to have a meeting with yourself and the
librarians in question, as well as the directors of the SJSU programs
that co-sponsored this, along with individuals from Jewish, Zionist
and Israeli groups, to provide some sensitivity training and education
about this history of the Nazi swastika and its use as an anti-Semitic
symbol, especially in the context of the modern Middle East.
It seems to me that a larger discussion on the persistent anti-Israel
messages on campus and in the library is warranted. The relationship
between free speech and hate speech needs to be clarified in this
context. It is often stated that “anti-Israel” and anti-Semitic” are
not synonymous and this is true in some, though not all cases.
However, the Israelis in the student and general population deserve to
be protected from images and statements that celebrate explicit or
implicit violence against Israelis.
Please let me know if you are willing to set up such a meeting. I
would be happy to assist in any way possible.
All the best,
6) May 17, 2012: Response from Ruth Kifer to Professor Jonathan Roth
I am writing in response to your email in which you invited me, librarians
and co-sponsors of the recent Iranian exhibit from campus to attend a
sensitivity training session on antisemitism and the history of the nazi
swastika. I cannot arrange the meeting you would like to have.
However, you, like any other university community member or member of the
public can schedule a library meeting room for programs or reserve gallery
space for exhibits. Information about meeting rooms can be found at
AND information about exhibits may be found
at: http://library.sjsu.edu/exhibits/exhibits. Please consider using these
popular library services.
I recognize that your concern about the recent exhibit is deeply held and
that you may not be happy with the resolution of your request to remove an
image from the exhibit. I do hope that you understand that the library’s
adherence to the tenants of intellectual and academic freedom is core to the
mission of all libraries and also deeply held. I appreciate your interest
in the library and hope that you continue to avail yourself of all the
resources and services that we have to offer the community.
7) May 22, 2012: Response from Professor Jonathan Roth to Ruth Kifer
Thank you for your email. I am disappointed in your response, which I
do not think addresses the very serious issues raised.
The first is the line between free speech and creating a safe learning
environment. Since the library is a representative of both the
university and the city, it needs to follow those institution’s
policies, as well as the ALA guidelines. This is an important
conversation that needs to occur. I am going to contact the offices of
President Qayoumi and Mayor Reed to discuss the matter with them.
The second issue is explicit statement in your review that the
swastika in question might not be an anti-Semitic symbol. This was
not only false but an dismissive and offensive. It is frankly
unacceptable that such a statement was written and that it went out
under your signature.
The Jewish and Israeli communities, both on campus and in San Jose,
needs to be satisfied that persons in responsible positions are not
insensitive and unresponsive to cases of anti-Semitism. I am also
going to pursue this matter with the Provost and the City Library