In the pages of The New Yorker, a cartoon shows an Orthodox Jew with a protruding nose walking away from his just-spanked son. The child is holding a drawing of a sack of money. "So let that be a lesson to you, Abie," the father warns. "It is forbidden to depict the profit!"
The cartoon is the work of Art Spiegelman, who is Jewish.
Online, a call goes out for the best anti-Semitic cartoons in the world. The contest is sponsored by a Tel Aviv comic books publishing firm. Only Jews can enter. All the firm’s owners are Jewish.
A cartoon submitted to a contest run by an Iranian newspaper, asking for drawings about the Holocaust, shows three contestants in a TV quiz show setting, a chart in the background listing such tragedies as 9-11, "The tsunami," and "Earthquakes anywhere."
"The Jews did it!" the contestants declare.
The cartoon, very tongue-in-cheek, was created by two Americans. Both are Jewish.
In the wake of the Muslim riots in Europe sparked by a Danish newspaper’s editorial cartoon that many followers of Islam consider disrespectful to the prophet Muhammad, and the subsequent announcement by Hamshahri, the Tehran newspaper, soliciting cartoons mocking the Shoah, enraged Jews have taken up arms.
Their weapon is the pen, not the sword. They’re fighting back with satire.
In the United States, and especially in Israel, which is leading the counter-offensive for Jewish interests, the rhetorical knives are being sharpened for this newest battle, which is being fought in a high-tech era on a relatively low-tech battleground: the pages of the world’s newspapers and magazines.
"We’re trying so set an example," says Amitai Sandy, an illustrator and publisher of Dimona Comix (www.dimonacomix.com), a group of Tel Aviv artists who publish an annual comic book collection in English and sponsored a competition for "the best anti-Semitic cartoon" drawn by a Jewish artist, which ended last week.
"We thought the Iranian contest is no big deal, because they publish anti-Semitic cartons all the time," Sandy says. Nobody can make better jokes about Jews than Jews "themselves," he says, adding that most reactions that reached him were positive. "This is fighting fire with humor," people told him.
Collectively, it’s an effort to defuse the tension, to numb the pain of anti-Semitic attacks, like African-Americans employ the N-word to co-opt the sting of racism.
The Jewish response to the hate mongering, including more traditional actions by an Israeli news agency and a Jerusalem-based Jewish student organization, has received less publicity than the Muslim rioting and the Iranian cartoon contest. This may change soon, with the release of the Tel Aviv firm’s winning entries and the approaching deadline for the Iranian cartoon contest.
The Israel News Agency started a marketing contest to block the Iranian cartoon contest from reaching a prominent place on the Google search engine Web site, and the World Union of Jewish Students has launched an international anti-hate cartoon contest, both in response to the Hamshahri competition.
Why all this concern over some comics?
Because, experts say, sometimes drawings are not just drawings, and humor is not just humor. One man’s chuckles may be another’s blasphemy.
"Far from promoting peace, laughter in one country has provoked protests, outrage and boycotts in many others," Paul Lewis, a professor of English at Boston College and author of the forthcoming "Cracking Up: American Humor in a Time of Conflict" (University of Chicago Press), wrote recently in the Hartford Courant. "Humor brings people together except when it tears them apart."
"If you went back a hundred years, the Christians would have got upset if you had a cartoon about the Crucifixion," says Christie Davies, a British expert on humor and author of "The Mirth of Nations" (2002, Transaction Publisher). "The Muslims still live in a fundamentalist world … a world that is not pluralistic. It’s a mark of the greater maturity, the greater pluralism of Western society, that it no longer behaves like that."
Davis is an active member of the International Society for Humor Studies, which will sponsor a seminar on cartoons at its annual conference, in Copenhagen in July.
"People are taking it seriously, unfortunately," Victoria Dolburd, chairperson of the World Union of Jewish Students, says of the Iranian cartoon contest. "People have been talking about it."
Her group is sponsoring its "Fight hate with humor" cartoon contest as part of a yearlong "Against Hatred" campaign.
"I think in the long run we can win this," says Mark Weitzman, director of the Simon Wiesenthal Center’s task force against hate and director of the center’s Museum of Tolerance in Manhattan.
"Pictorial images of hate have been very powerful through the ages," Weitzman says. "Cartoons pack a powerful punch." He cites cartoons in earlier times about Jews committing the blood libel, and the anti-Semitic cartoons in the Nazis’ Der Sturmer, which inflamed extant anti-Jewish feelings.
That, Weitzman says, is why the Museum of Tolerance has a "Wall of Stereotypes," a permanent exhibit that features examples of such hateful cartoons.
Cartoons "offer a very simplified view of reality," visual images that require few or no accompanying texts, he says. "It’s visceral." Cartoons can succeed where essays cannot, especially in influencing the uneducated. "Not everyone is literate."
If humor is the weapon, the anti-Semites will probably lose, experts interviewed by The Jewish Week agreed.
The battle of cartoons is making clear the divide between the Jewish community, a perennial target of the haters of the West, and the Muslim world. Different cultures with different approaches to humor and self-criticism. If cartoons are the medium and humor the message, the longstanding Jewish tradition of Jewish irony and self-mockery gives Jewish artists a distinct advantage, Davies says. "The Jews didn’t chose the battleground," he says in a telephone interview. "Someone else chose it": the Muslim leadership of Europe, reacting to the cartoon in Jyllands-Posten. "They simply decided to fight on it."
"They’re much more subtle," Davies says, pointing to the counter-intuitive contest sponsored by Dimona Comix. "For Muslims to choose humor as the battleground on which to battle the Jews is crazy: they’re going to lose. The Jews … are used to using visual images."
Take the Dimona contest and Spiegelman’s drawings.
"The Jews have gone in for self-mockery" for centuries, Davies says. If a Jewish artist resorts to seemingly anti-Semitic stereotypes (two of Spiegelman’s New Yorker cartoons show hook-nosed Jews) "in a way you’ve disarmed the opposition," he says. The message: "OK, we can do it better than you."
"We’ll show the world that we can do the best, sharpest, most offensive Jew-hating cartoons ever published," Eyal Zusman, a Tel Aviv actor-writer affiliated with Dimona Comix, was quoted by the comicbookresources.com Web site as saying. "No Iranian will beat us on our own turf."
Dimona Comix received "hundreds" of submissions, "from all over the world," Sandy says. The winners, to be announced later this week, will be posted on-line at www.bookma.org and will be displayed in Tel Aviv.
Spiegelman, who won the 1992 Pulitzer Prize for his Maus graphic novel about his father’s Holocaust experience, called the Dimona Comix competition "really smart. It’s about the uses of triple irony to say things that need to be said in a complex world."
"There has to be a right to insult," Spiegelman said in an interview in The Nation. One of his trio of cartoons, fanciful "submissions for Iran’s anti-Semitic cartoon contest," depicts an apparently Jewish man at a dinner table, declining his wife’s offer to pour a drink from a bottle, declaring, "No more Palestinian blood, thanks. It’s bad for my cholesterol."
"Where I’ve had to do my soul searching," Spiegelman said in the interview, "is articulating how I feel about the anti-Semitic cartoons that keep coming out of government-supported newspapers in Syria and beyond. And basically, I am insulted. But so what? These visual images are the symptoms of the problem rather than the cause."
Hamshahri, a Tehran newspaper under the auspices of the religious authorities who run the capital, last month announced its international cartoon competition, co-sponsored by the Iran Caricature House, to test the West’s limits of free speech on such topics as "looting and crimes perpetrated by the US and Israel as well as alleged historical events like the Holocaust."
Deadline for the Iranian contest is May 15. First prize will be two gold coins, each worth about $140.
The contest is a sham, designed only to hurt sensitive feelings, says Edward Margolis, a Chicago attorney-cartoonist who proposed the World Union for Jewish Students competition.
"I have reason to believe that the Iranian Holocaust Denial Contest is a fraud … a fake," he says, pointing to an earlier "World Without Zionism" competition that was sponsored last year by the Caricature House and drew heavy criticism outside of Iran, but showed no apparent results.
"The Western media is being ‘punked’" by the current Iranian cartoon competition "and continues to report on it like mad," Margolis says.
He and his illustrator nephew, Noah Crissey, submitted their own entry, the "Iranian College Bowl" spoof, in the Iranian competition, to test the organizers’ sincerity. He says he has received no response so far.
"This is probably the most important free speech idea of our time," Margolis says of the worldwide cartoons imbroglio. "Editorial cartoons in Iran and throughout the Middle East are taken very seriously and are considered to be a barometer of public opinion. Totalitarian governments recognize the power of these strong visual images and through state-controlled media use cartoons to manipulate the masses even where literacy is low."
But the Iranian contest may be for real.
The competition has drawn some 700 submissions from 200 people, according to Al-Jazeera. The Jewish Telegraphic Agency reported this week that at least six Americans, including one whose cartoon shows an Israeli soldier pointing a gun at a Palestinian woman’s head and stating, "What has Ariel Sharon learned from the Holocaust?" have entered the Iranian competition. JTA quoted Mike Flugennock, the artist, as denying that his drawing is anti-Semitic: "It specifically addresses policies of the Israeli state with regard to its behavior in Palestine, and their similarities to the strategies employed by the Nazi regime in Warsaw and elsewhere."
Editors of Hamshahri did not respond to several e-mail and phone messages from The Jewish Week asking for comment.
WUJS, a network of Jewish student groups in 45 countries, mounted its anti-hate cartoon contest to "use the power of cartoons in a positive way," chairperson Victoria Dolburd says. "We want to use different ways to teach people to be against hatred."
The WUJS competition is open to anyone, including professional cartoonists and amateurs, she says. Submitted cartoons may be in color or black-and-white, but the captions should be in English. "It should be understood internationally."
The contest has received several dozen entries so far, Dolburd says. The entries will be judged by a jury of international journalists and cartoonists, and published in a brochure. "We’ll make it as public as possible," she says.
Will she send copies of the winning entries to Iran?
"Why not?" Dolburd answers.
And one final note: the publisher of Hamshahri on Tuesday defended his publication’s Holocaust cartoon contest.
"We do not want to make fun of anyone with this competition, we just want to raise a question to find an answer which is very important to us," Mohammadreza Zaeri said at a Tehran news conference. "We are not even after a historical discussion on the Holocaust. The West believes that the Holocaust is true and we suppose that if it is true, aren’t we entitled to draw caricatures about it?"
Tuesday was Purim. The Purim story took place in ancient Iran.
For information on the WUJS cartoon contest, go to www.wujs.org.il/home/cartoon.php.