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

To: “ruth.kifer” , chapterheads@spme.org

Cc: “A. Finkelstein” , Alison Katsev ,  Barbara Illowsky , “D. Furst” ,  Dalia Sirkin , David Meir-Levi ,  David Mesher , “Dr. Naomi Wagner” ,  “F.C. Grants” , Frank Kushin ,  George Grant , Jonathan Roth ,  “K. Sucher” , Kathryn Sucher ,  “L. Gantoka” , Laemor Kahanov ,  Larry Gerston , Lydia Ortega ,  “M. Freedman” , Majorie Freedman ,  Marshal Burak , Martin Schulter ,  Michael Sinensky , “S. Karlinsky” ,  “S. Sloan” , Sharon Glazer ,  Stephen Branz , Steward Karlinsky ,  Toby Adelman , Vicki Harrison

Subject: Iranian Revolution exhibit on Second Floor of MLK, Jr.

 

Dear Ruth:

 

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.

 

Yours,

Jonathan Roth

 

Jonathan P. Roth

Professor

History Department

San Jose State University

San Jose CA 95192-0117

Tel: (408) 924-5505

Fax: (408) 924-5531

email: jonathan.roth@sjsu.edu

 

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2) March 15, 2012: Response from Ruth Kifer to Professor Jonathan Roth

 

Jonathan,

 

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

found at:

http://library.sjsu.edu/policies-procedures/exhibit-policy-and-guidelines

 

Ruth Kifer

 

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3) March 16, 2012: Response from Professor Jonathan Roth to Ruth Kifer

 

Dear Ruth

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

accepted?

 

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,

 

Jonathan

 

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4) April 5, 2012: Response from Ruth Kifer to Professor Jonathan Roth

 

Jonathan,

 

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

a call.

 

Ruth

 

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5) May 5, 2012: Response from Professor Jonathan Roth to Ruth Kifer

 

From: Jonathan Roth

Date: May 5, 2012 3:35:00 PM PDT

To: “ruth.kifer” , ned.himmel@sjlibrary.org,  Mo Qayoumi , mayoremail ,  Michael Conniff , Mira Amiras ,  Persis Karim , Hyon Chu Yi ,  Susan Maltiel , Victoria Harrison

Cc: Mary Nino

Subject: Swastika superimposed in Jewish Star exhibited at MLK Library

 

Dear Ruth:

 

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

members.

 

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

time period.”

 

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

as Nazis.

 

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

untranslated Farsi.

 

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,

 

Jonathan

 

 

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6) May 17, 2012: Response from Ruth Kifer to Professor Jonathan Roth

 

Jonathan,

 

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

http://library.sjsu.edu/reserve-studymeeting-room/reserve-studymeeting-room

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.

 

Sincerely,

 

 

 

Ruth

 

 

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7) May 22, 2012: Response from Professor Jonathan Roth to Ruth Kifer

 

Dear Ruth:

 

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

Board.

 

Yours,

 

Jonathan Roth