Judy Mandelbaum

Judy Mandelbaum
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APRIL 26, 2010 11:54AM

A Dutch court rules on Holocaust cartoon controversy

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All the media attention swirling around supposed death threats against the makers of South Park over a caricature of the prophet Mohammed overshadowed another press story last week that might have a lot more to tell us about relations between the Muslim world and the West.

Back in 2005, the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten famously published a series of cartoons poking fun at Mohammed, which led to a global backlash resulting in the boycott and destruction of Danish products and over a hundred lost lives. A few months later a Pan-Arabist and anti-Zionist organization in Holland calling itself the Arab European League published its own set of cartoons ridiculing the Holocaust on its website in order to illustrate “the double morals of the West during the Danish cartoon affair.” The group wrote among other things:

1-     The issue for us is not about depicting the prophet or any other theological consideration. It’s about stigmatizing a whole population of more than one billion Muslims through portraying their symbol as being a terrorist, megalomaniac, misogynic and a psychopath. This is Racist, xenophobic and calling for hatred against Muslims.

2-     We do believe in Freedom of speech but we think that respecting sensitivities and being constructive is also an added value to a democratic society. We are against laws oppressing any form of expression no matter how appalling it is.  Nevertheless, we condemn the selective indignation of Europe’s intellectual elite and population. When anti-Muslim stances are made or published this is perceived as freedom of speech and cheered and supported but when other sensitive issues to Europe like the Holocaust, anti-Semitism,  homosexuality, sexism and more are touched, Europe’s elite is scandalized.

(…)

5-     Arabs and Muslims are facing occupation on the hand of the west, oppression on the hand of the dictators often supported by the west and aggressive colonization by the Zionist and appartheid state of Israel. Adding symbolic offence to factual aggression is responsible for the tension that we are witnessing today. Any attempt to understand the cartoon’s issue out of the current international context is completely missing the point.

A Hague-based group calling itself the “Center for Information and Documentation Israel” then filed a formal complaint in Amsterdam, saying that the publication of the Holocaust cartoons was “a nightmare for the thousands of Jewish victims of the Holocaust who are still alive." The AEL in turn argued it was merely going after the West's own "sacred cows," referring to a disclaimer it had posted stating that "in our cartoon campaign we do not endorse any anti-Semitic, homophobic or sexist stands. All we are trying to do is to confront Europe with its own hypocrisy using sarcasm and cartoons.

Last Thursday a Dutch court ruled in the AEL’s favor, stating that “The context in which this cartoon was published takes away from its criminally offensive nature.” So that appears to be that.

Okay, so let’s take a look at these infamous caricatures (click on them for a closer look):

Hitler goes Dutroux:

Anne Frank
(Depicting Hitler and Anne Frank)

 

Freedom of speech:

6 million

 

Science fiction:

Spielberg and Jackson
(Depicting film directors Steven Spielberg and Peter Jackson)

 

Colonial sense of humor:

Sense of humor

 

 Solving the female circumcision issue:

Cure for female circumcision
(Depicting Somali-born Islam critic Ayaan Hirsi Ali)

So, are you shocked and appalled and already heading out the door for the nearest courtroom? Or, like me, are you merely surprised at how weak and downright incomprehensible they are? I mean, I've seen far better on the pages of (junior) high school newspapers! It beats me why anyone would bother taking these guys to court – couldn’t the money be better spent on giving them a couple of drawing lessons?

And yet – that’s also how I felt about the original Mohammed caricatures. While I will always support a free press as far as I have to go to protect it, it’s a totally non-negotiable issue, the Danish campaign – which was intended as a deliberate provocation – always seemed petty and mean-spirited to me, and the global reaction was a foregone conclusion. There was certainly nothing about those spectacularly unfunny drawings that could ever deserve the name “comics,” and the same goes for the AEL’s trashy Holocaust caricatures. You see, genuine comics charm and delight us. They make us laugh as they teach us about human nature. Thoughtful strips like Doonesbury and Peanuts, and clever political cartoons by such skilful artists as Pat Oliphant and Tom Toles – as hard-hitting as they sometimes are – enrich our lives while exercising our smile muscles. And then there’s the kind of toilet graffiti that tears down and demeans – and no one so much as the “artist” who sprays his or her message out into the world like an unpleasant body odor. And that’s the kind of “comics” I’m talking about here. They just aren't funny.

Okay, I’m going into utopian mode now. Be sure to close the skylight before I head off through the roof! But it seems to me that if we could somehow harness the power of comics to laugh at our own foibles and take the occasional jab at our respective holy cows – just as Daniel Barenboim is using the power of classical music to bring Israeli and Palestinian young people together in his West-Eastern Divan Orchestra – we would all be a lot farther ahead than we are at the moment.

A while back an old comedian explained to me the difference between German humor and Jewish humor. In German humor, he said, you always need a victim. Whether it’s Jews or Poles or blondes, somebody has to bleed. In Jewish humor, by contrast, you always make fun of yourself. Guess which kind is funnier…?

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Yeah, I'm not finding myself moved to take my umbrage at the purveyors of these incompetent scribbles to court. More to the point, though: neither am I moved to foment riots in the streets or issue fatwas on the lives of the incompetent scribblers.
How many people have died because of these cartoons? I'm guessing none. If the point was to show that we westerners are just as sensitive to provocation as Muslim extremists, this was an epic fail.
I agree. When you look at all these caricatures for what they really are - failed comics - you start to realize how absurd the whole controversy really is.

Rated.
-- fumbling for my ACLU Mbrshp card. Ok. Have it.
These imblicks make themselves objects of deserved derision far more effectively than any court could. And, of course, May They Rot in Hell.
Excellent reporting.
Rated.
The cartoons are stupid but not terrifying. But the real problem is that (to lapse into many too many metaphors): you're not fighting fire with fire in these "arguments" about what is offensive and what should be done about it. Most of the players use slingshots ("we're gonna take you to court") but one player uses real weapons ("we will make it permissible and honorable for anyone to kill you and your family")

Norwonk said it -- there's a real difference in terms of reactions...
What Jonathan said. Except for the rotting in hell part. Just purgatory of course. But may they have many, many rungs to climb on the ladder to freedom. Interesting post, Judy. Thanks.
Dear Judy,

Good comment, but I'm not entirely sure that the cases are comparable (but I'm vague on this myself, as you'll see). It is simply much easier to offend Muslims, particularly fundamentalist Muslims, than most Westerners. The strictures of their culture, which do not have parallels in Western culture, make this possible. So, depicting Mohammed is, supposedly, objectionable. From that point, it's relatively easy to offend. The original Mohammed-Danish cartoons were designed to offend. They may also have been making a legitimate political point (i.e., a show of defiance to the threats of fundamentalists) but they were not really that funny.

With the Holocaust cartoons, a different dynamic is at work. First, while I think it may be possible to have a genuinely funny cartoon about Mohammed (given the ongoing political and social importance of Islam) I am at a loss to see how it is possible to say anything about the Holocaust that could be funny. But I think that the idea that the West has certain taboo topics that it will not allow to be mocked or debated is a valid one, and the Holocaust is one of those topics. In many countries in the West, it is illegal to question the reality of the Holocaust. In my own view, these kind of laws are mistakes - they add an element of credibility to the doubters that they should not have. But the laws themselves are largely justified on the basis of the idea that certain topics should not be open to debate. That kind of idea runs contrary to many of the values that Westerners claim to support and protect. So, these AEL people may have been making a valid point in a way that was guaranteed to offend - because, in our cultural context, mocking or questioning the Holocaust is taboo.

Is this comparable to the offense that some Muslims took to the Danish cartoons? I don't know - I'm not a fundamentalist Muslim. To my Western eyes, the topics are totally different - one is a commentary on a powerful political/religious force, and is therefore the subject of legitimate commentary. The Holocaust cartoons are created simply to hurt. As I said, I see what the AEL people are getting at, but their behaviour comes across as simply childish and spiteful, rather than enlightening. And, from my perspective, I can see the offense in making light of an historical event that killed 13 million people much more easily than I can see the offense in depicting a religious figure in an objectionable way. But, again, the cultural gap comes into play. I'm not Muslim.

Sorry for the rambling. In the end, I suppose I would simply say the idea that the West does not have taboo topics is clearly wrong, as is the idea that only Muslims use threats of violence to silence and intimidate others. Glenn Greenwald's column today has many examples of people in the West being silenced for taking unpopular positions on Christianity or politics. Clearly, there are many limits to our freedom of speech and those limits are enforced by the powerful, often with popular support. Why do we choose to pick fights with Muslims in order to demonstrate our commitment to freedom of speech when we have so many other examples of suppression of expression that we could focus our efforts upon? In part, it's probably because Muslims are easy targets.
I have to agree. Those are lame "cartoons". It flatters them to rise up about it. There isn't anything funny about the holocaust or genocide. One can ONLY make offensive or shocking scribbles. With words that insult the victims.

They make a false equation, at any rate. They want us to "honor" an inane idea that some people are sanctified to the point where we can't sketch them. So their "retaliation" is to mock mass murder. Hmm.

OK, they make their point. Yep, agreed, you can draw and say what you like in free countries. That's a good thing.

Trying to insult survivors, like many in my family, with the kind of thing you show in this post? That's just a stupid waste of the freedom.

And your last point is spot on. Anyone who can deflate their own culture/religion/race/personal foibles has a shot at being deeply funny.

(I gotta admit, that Dutch Mohammed cartoon showing him so upset at his own reflection while shaving was pretty funny, though)

Thank you for this useful and shrewdly written post, Judy.
Fantastic comments, everybody, it's great to see such a wonderful discussion going! Snarine, thanks for mentioning Glenn Greenwald's great post today, where he talks about Douthat and plenty of others of his type, that sort of got me going too!

Norwonk, I agree that they basically failed to make their point, particularly considering they got acquitted!!!

Greg, I also think it's pretty crazy to praise someone beyond depiction, but ultimately it's their call. I'm all for caricatures and comics, but I believe in keeping them funny! I guess that makes me a comedic fundamentalist, more Jon Stewart than Khomeini...
We're all pretty much on the same page here, but I want to register a quibble with one point in snarine's comment:

"But the laws themselves are largely justified on the basis of the idea that certain topics should not be open to debate."

I don't think that's the premise upon which laws criminalizing Holocaust denial in Europe are based. I agree that these laws are wrong-headed, and have in the end only the effect of giving Holocaust denial the dangerous thrill of the thing repressed, but their driving rationale isn't primarily about protecting people from offensive speech. They are, instead, an attempt to address the reality that Holocaust denial itself is, at its root, an eliminationist ideology, grounded squarely on the premise that an entire people has been perpetrating a massive deception on the rest of the world for three generations, for no better purpose than to pick the pockets of (apparently endlessly gullible) Europeans and to lay claim to a sliver of land on the shores of the Mediterranean Sea. In the end, there can really be only one way to protect the innocent peoples of the Earth from a group who would willingly perpetrate such a global fraud, and, worse still, bequeath to their children the mission to extend that global fraud into the future indefinitely.

It is, I think, this understanding of the end toward which the logic of Holocaust denial inescapably drives that motivates legislated taboos against it. While I do have deep-seated reservations about the moral and practical effect of such laws, I have no difficulty at all imagining why they would be enacted in the very places where the original impulse to elimination once found its purest political expression.
@David
That's an excellent point. I think you can sum up the Holocaust denial argument as follows: "The Nazis didn't kill any Jews, but considering all the crimes the Jews have committed since 1945, particularly by lying about the poor Nazis, they would certainly have been justified in finishing them all off while they had the chance!" Of course, this ultimately contradicts their whole argument. So if you look at it that way, the people who design all these anti-hate speech laws probably know what they're doing.
Yes they are not very good. But a hoax and a myth like the 'Holocaust' really doesn't deserve better. I suppose also that Jews in Holland know their role and they're not going to 'protest'. They're beaten down, they know what will happen to them.
I've never cared much for the kind of humor that degrades, humiliates or brutalizes its subject, although I recognize that swinish, sophomoric humor is immensely popular these days.

See: Sacha Baron Cohen.
The Muslims have a point. There are double standards. When soeone does something like Piss Christ putting a cruxifix in urine, or smear the Virgin Mary with dung it's called art. If they did it with the star of David it would be called a hate crime. However, how come it's only when one religion gets offended by depictions, people die, and it isn't Christianity or Judaism. Goof on Christ or Moses people get annoyed. Goof on Muhammed and people get stabbed to death.
What David Lieberman said. I couldn't have said it better myself. Excellent post.
I must put on my heady intellectual cap to embrace this. Of course you have done the very best here and I have come to expect that from your writing. Well done. I don't even know what to think about this topic anymore. I have read the comments and agree with many of them. I cannot add anything, except, thank you once again for informing us. Rated.
Oh, and I meant to ad, that this is not my kind of humor. The cartoons that they introduced shown here are not really funny to me. I think they were in fact designed that way. There are all sorts of things parading around in the world disguised as humor, "it was only a joke". No, I don't accept that definition.
I think theese cartoons are disguesting! im 16 and I LOVE to draw I would never as an artist or as a discent person post theese cartoons if I were the one to create them.