July 2009

When does a cartoon go too far?

By Gail Binkly

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Going beyond offensiveness

The politics behind the cartoon

Three people called me, highly upset, shortly after our June issue came out. They were outraged, to put it mildly, by the cartoon we had published, which was a slam at the pro-Israel lobby and the United States’ support for that nation.

The cartoon was by Moab, Utah, artist and writer Travis Kelly, who provides most of our cartoons. Entitled, “Lox News,” it mocked “triumphant Zionism” and people such as Abe Foxman, head of the Anti-Defamation League. It said that Foxman “has proposed the Final Solution to the anti-Semite question: ‘The new Halliburton/KBR detention camps must serve as re-education centers for chronic Jew haters, overt and covert — roughly 98 percent of the incorrigible Goy population’.”

It also depicted House Speaker Nancy Pelosi as saying, “I LOVE Israel! More than my own children!” and included the satirical statement, “With another 435-0 vote, the U.S. House has passed the ‘Proactive Israel Approval’ bill, which grants pre-emptive approval for any and everything Israel does in the future. . .”

The cartoon was far too complex for me to describe it all, but that should give you an idea of the tone. The gist was that the pro-Israeli lobby is extremely powerful and operates by accusing anyone who dares to criticize Israel of being anti-Semitic.

The folks who called me are Jewish, and they believed the cartoon was anti- Semitic. “It perpetuates hate,” said one.

They said they have concerns about Israel’s policies and its treatment of Palestinians. But they insisted the cartoon was over the top and would feed the hatred of crackpots who believe a Jewish conspiracy controls the world.

One of my callers spoke about the abuse and discrimination he suffered as a Jew in the U.S. Army. Another said she had aunts who died in Nazi concentration camps. The callers are thoughtful people and I believe their concerns were genuine, not some knee-jerk reaction to any criticism of policy in the Middle East.

I then pored over the cartoon, struggling mightily to decide whether something mocking spurious claims of anti- Semitism had crossed the boundary and become anti-Semitic itself. To me it seemed clear that the target was the Israeli lobby, not all Jewish people, but I had to agree there were elements that were of questionable taste.

I asked about a dozen people I know and respect what they thought of the cartoon.

Two said it was quite funny and on target. Most said it was a harsh but legitimate criticism of Israeli policies and rabid Zionism. However, two had concerns.

One friend e-mailed me: “Some of it is over the top, certainly one-sided, and lots of it is true. I did not like the coupon thingie or the ADL part, that does tie all Jews to Zionism and the money-lender/profiteers too much.” But she also mentioned it was on the opinion page and said she hoped it would spark a dialogue.

One of the smartest, nicest couples I know e-mailed me that they’d disagreed. “I thought the cartoon was fine and not anti-Semitic. Chris thought it was unpleasant and anti-Semitic.”

Then, just before press time, another man called our office to ask what the cartoon had meant. “Is it anti-Jew, or or is it making fun of people who hate Jews, or something else entirely?”

His confusion hammered home the point that the cartoon was easily interpreted as being anti-Jewish.

So I apologize for publishing it. I should have read it more carefully.

The people who called me to complain are, as I said, intelligent folks, and I take them seriously. You can disagree over whether “Lox News” is truly offensive, but I believe mentioning “the Final Solution” was tasteless. I don’t think anyone should use that term in jokes or satire; there is nothing funny about it.

I have to point out that political cartoons by their very nature can be offensive; it’s difficult to summarize complex issues in a cartoon; cartoons involve hyperbole, exaggeration and over-simplification. Travis Kelly is, in my mind, a brilliant cartoonist. He has won two awards from the Society of Professional Journalists for his work in the Free Press. He has a long history of attacking and satirizing all sorts of targets. But his cartoons are complex and often subtle; they have to be read carefully.

I am not apologizing because he criticized the pro- Israel sentiment that pervades American policy, or because his cartoons are harsh. Nor am I apologizing for offending someone; newspapers do that all the time. And Israel cannot be exempt from criticism even though the Jewish people have suffered greatly in the past.

I am apologizing because I do not want the Free Press, wittingly or unwittingly, to encourage hatemongering. I think this cartoon could too easily be interpreted as denigrating Jewish people rather than criticizing Zionism, which is a different thing. The non-Jewish folks I talked to mostly saw the cartoon the way it was intended. But my Jewish callers did not. I have to give extra credence to what they say because, when it comes to deciding whether something is offensive or not, “majority rules” isn’t a good enough standard. You have to consider the sensibilities of those who might be hurt.

Anti-Semitism and racism are real. This point was hammered home by the events of June 10, when an 88-year-old racist, anti-Semitic wacko walked into the Holocaust Museum in Washington, D.C., and shot to death a black security guard before he himself was shot and critically wounded. This man had written diatribes including statements that Europe, Canada and Australia are “overrun by hordes of non-Whites and mongrels.”

Conscious prejudice against any racial, ethnic or religious group is stupid and despicable. I can’t be any plainer than that. It’s the province of pathetic people who make themselves feel better by denigrating someone else. I am sure everyone who works for the Free Press agrees.

Think about it: How can any of us be “mongrels” when we all came from the same source — whether it was Adam and Eve or mud on the back of a turtle or the Big Bang? Who among us is “pure”? And why would anyone believe “purebred” humans are better than “mongrels,” anyway? It’s in the mixing and blending of ideas, cultures, and even genes that we grow and become great.

People are always murmuring darkly about how some group or other is controlling the world or trying to control it — Jews, blacks, Chinese, Muslims, Mexicans. The group that made the most serious stab at world takeover, at least in recent history, was Aryans, if I recall right, so maybe they’re the ones we should fear most. But I’m part German and I have no desire to take over the world. Here’s a thought: Maybe, just maybe, not all members of any ethnic group think or act alike!

But back to the cartoon. One of my callers, Joe Kantor, has written to express his view that the cartoon was offensive; and Travis Kelly also wrote to explain why he drew what he did. Read their views on Page 24 and see what you think.

Gail Binkly is editor of the Free Press.