Tuesday, December 19, 2006

Responding to the Holocaust Cartoon Contest

I wrote yesterday that I think that Iran’s call for Holocaust cartoons, though it misidentifies the responsible party, is the best Muslim response to the Danish Cartoon Fiasco. It challenges the West to ‘put its money where its mouth is’, and employ freedom of expression to run these cartoons just like they ran the Mohammed caricatures.

It betrays a bit of a lack of understanding of what freedom of expression and the press entail – I CAN publish whatever I want, but don’t HAVE TO publish whatever I want. And after I publish whatever I want you can call me whatever names you want to call me because I published it, and you can cancel your subscription, and you certainly aren’t required to grant me a forum to air my views. And the government simply cannot interfere.

Thus, there are two potential responses that we, as Jews, can take to these Holocaust cartoons:

  • We can protest their publication in Western media outlets, but would need to also protest the publication of the Mohammed caricatures. If we complain that Holocaust cartoons are inappropriate because they cross a certain line of offensiveness, then we should not distinguish between the two sets of cartoons. One might argue that it’s not our responsibility to protect Islam from defamation, to which I’d counter that

  • If we have perfected a nonviolent mechanism for protecting ourselves from defamation – and we have, by and large, at least in the USA – then we should definitely extend it or share it with those who simply have not. Ta’aninan Le-Yatmi (a halakhic principle which is invoked to enter a plea for those who can’t be expected to enter one for themselves). We can’t expect these countries to take a lesson that, “See, the Jews can influence the media through nonviolent measures, we should, too” because that message would be completely lost. Admittedly, this thinking is a bit paternalistic, but, then again, the entire notion of a ‘Light unto the Nations’ is a bit paternalistic.

  • In these particular circumstances, if we defend only ourselves it will reinforce the conviction that the Iranian leadership is trying to make, namely, that ‘freedom of expression’ is a farce which is selectively employed to defend only those controversial or insulting ideas which are not part of the media’s agenda.

  • This is the approach that I prefer, namely, that we shouldn’t protest against the publication of these cartoons. I think that any paper which published the Mohammed caricatures should publish the Holocaust cartoons. The statement must be made somehow that independent media outlets have the right to publish this garbage, and the best way for that statement to be made is if, just this once, it’s actually published. More than apologizing, let’s demonstrate that it’s never worthwhile to get all worked up over something which is, at the end of the day, a cartoon. Let’s demonstrate that we value the freedoms that we enjoy even if they sometimes cause us pain. So let’s take a collective deep breath and take one for the team (cf. Isaiah Chap. 53).

So far, the responses of some high-profile Jewish organizations, as reported by Reuters have essentially played directly into Iranian hands. Were the Mohammed caricatures not ‘deliberately inflammatory’? Are we as adamant when we protest against the Danish cartoons? In the ADL’s statement on this, they address the issue in the first and last line, while using the rest to talk about Moslem hate. This report does pretty much the same. We really can’t afford to be perceived as employing a double-standard (whether in reality we are or aren’t). We either condemn is all, or let it all ride.

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