Officials in Virginia’s largest school system have apologized for artwork from a high school student that depicted Jewish people with anti-Semitic stereotypes and was displayed at a local college.
The image was one of eight in a portfolio called “Racial Irony” that won a regional art award. The series was intended to convey a message that the “exaggeration of stereotypes spreads ignorance,” according to Fairfax County Public Schools.
But the work from a South County High School student sparked criticism from some members of the Jewish community, who said the art perpetuated anti-Semitic imagery.
The image, shown as part of an exhibition from Feb. 15 to March 14 at Northern Virginia Community College’s Annandale campus, depicts a man with a hooked nose carrying a bag of money. The caption reads, in capital letters, “No Jew in the world understands the importance of money,” according to a photo of the image circulated by the Suburban Virginia Republican Coalition, a political action committee that also criticized the image.
County Schools Superintendent Scott Brabrand apologized on March 28 in a letter to the community and said the student did not intend to offend anyone.
“I want to extend an apology to you. . . . I understand how, out of context, this piece of art was offensive to you in that it appears to portray Jewish individuals in a negative light,” Brabrand said. “It is my understanding that it was not the intent of the artist to offend anyone.”
In his letter, Brabrand said the student had written an “artist statement” explaining that the work was meant to illustrate “the effects of stereotypes and why it’s important to see the tragedy in it.” But that explanation was not included in the exhibition.
Brabrand said the school system will reassess its process for submitting artwork to the regional Scholastic Art & Writing Awards, in which the student competed. Judges awarded the student a “silver key,” and the student was allowed to choose one piece of art to display in the exhibit. The student chose the piece about Jewish people.
Fairfax public school students submitted more than 3,500 entries to the contest. Students who receive the highest accolade in the regional competition, a “gold key,” are judged against winners from across the country.
The Jewish Community Relations Council of Greater Washington commended Brabrand’s response on its Facebook page and said the incident provided a “valuable teaching moment.”
Rabbi Shmuel Herzfeld of Ohev Sholom synagogue said that he was pleased by Brabrand’s response but that the art should not have been displayed. The episode, he said, raised valuable questions about how students should express sympathy for victims of anti-Semitism.
“We have to be really careful when we’re using satire,” Herzfeld said. “Everyone’s intent here was good, but there’s a sensitive conversation to be had.”
The Suburban Virginia Republican Coalition condemned the art in a news release. Mike Ginsberg, a founder of the group, said he appreciated the school system’s response but remained troubled by a message the student’s teacher sent a community member who expressed concern with the work.
The community member, who did not want to be identified, wrote in an email to the student’s teacher at South County High that the artwork was an “example of bigotry and anti-Semitism.”
In a responding email, the teacher, referring to the student artist, said, “She is pointing out how racism and ugliness is now NORMALIZED by our current president who intends to divide our nation for his own personal gain. Instead of jumping to conclusions and assuming the worst, take a breath. Instead of vilifying me and a 17 year old student, look at your president who is in ‘your own back yard.’ ”
The teacher, Ginsberg said, was “rude and condescending.”
“I would hope that the school system would rein in that ideology,” he said.
The teacher declined to comment through the high school’s principal but did not dispute the authenticity of the email.
Julie Zauzmer and Michelle Boorstein contributed to this report.