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Torah Studies
The Cartoon Controversy
February 21, 2006
© Rabbi Jack Moline

Almost thirty years ago for nine months I was the Hillel Director at the University of Virginia. One day, one of the students – our own Marla Shuman, as a matter of fact – came into my office to tell me that a local boutique had redecorated its dressing room and that an artist had painted God's name – the yod heh and vav-heh – on the wall. She was offended. In fact, she was offended not just because the name of God was on a dressing room wall, but it was coming out of the butt of a chicken.

And indeed it was.

Not too many days later, I was approached by another student who told me that a new restaurant in town that was definitely not kosher had a sign in the window advertising kosher sandwiches. How did he know the restaurant was not kosher, I asked? He replied, "Well, for starters, the place is called `Christian's'."

And indeed it was.

Now, I would very much like to tell you that the proprietors of both businesses were understanding when I went in to explain what was troubling about their representations. But I can't. The boutique owner suggested that I attempt an anatomically impossible act of self-gratification. And Christian, who owned Christian's, made two arguments that were logical in a peculiar way – first of all, there is nothing illegal about such a sign and second of all, anyone who keeps kosher would know better than to eat in a restaurant called "Christian's," sign or no sign.

And so in a cheesy little boutique the chicken perpetually flatulated the sacred name of the Lord and in a trendy little eatery the Jewish population of Charlottesville, Virginia continued to be mystified by what appeared to be a gastronomic intermarriage.

And now I find out that what I should have done was to start a riot.

You are all aware of the continuing flap over cartoons published in Denmark and other European countries depicting the prophet of Islam, Mohammed. While Muslim law, hadith, is far from univocal on whether or not such representations of the image of Mohammed are forbidden, those of you who were living in Washington while I was fighting blasphemous chickens and sandwich shops will remember that the Hanafi Muslim community occupied the B'nai B'rith building and the National Mosque over the release of movie entitled "Mohammed, Messenger of God" that showed only the prophet's hand. For many Muslims, the drawings were deeply offensive.

And we as Jews ought to know how that is. On matters much less sacred than the Tetragrammaton we have unleashed a blizzard of letters to editors and legislators and diplomats when caricatures of Jews appear in pictures and words. A film has just been released in Turkey that depicts a Jewish doctor who contracts with the US Army to harvest organs for transplantation from prisoners of war. The doctor is played by Gary Busey, who is about as Jewish as the guy who owned the restaurant in Charlottesville. But we are going to yell and scream and not care one whit about freedom of expression because we know that the purpose of that film is to demonize the Jews. After all, the Nazis did it. Medieval Christians did it. On the day the story about the Danish cartoons broke, a ferry capsized on its way from Egypt to Saudi Arabia. The "Washington Post" published a front-page story with a map that listed Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Jordan, but did not identify the southern end of Israel. And, oh yes, anti-Jewish cartoons appear all the time in the Muslim press, and not just in the Middle East. A publication out of Los Angeles called "The Minaret" is famous for its anti-Jewish cartoons, defended on the basis that they are political in intent.

So we know that even if freedom of the press and freedom of expression allow for the publishing of material that is offensive to the many or the few, the aspects of a successful society that cannot be legislated – decency, sensitivity, awareness and self-restraint -- ought to prevent decision-makers with an ounce of menschlichkeit from exercising rights without meeting responsibilities. Especially when something is done with impunity, as the commissioning and publication of these cartoons were, the flaunting of "we did just because we can" is reprehensible. Just because we could doesn't mean we should.

On the other hand, the disproportionate reaction of segments of the Muslim world is an illustration of the gap between Muslim and Western cultures. I am not at all reluctant to call the riots and protests embarrassing and uncivilized. Denmark and other European nations are dealing with umbrage and outrage coming their way. Muslims are no longer eating Danish pastries; they have renamed them "Roses of Muhammad," and they go very well with "Freedom Fries." There have been demonstrations and boycotts in Denmark and elsewhere.

But the populations of distant Muslim countries are dealing with civil strife, property damage and economic disruption to no particular effect. As if something will be accomplished by closing a business district for a rally of tens of thousands who have never even seen the cartoons – after all, they cannot be published in Muslim countries – and as if the cartoonists and their publishers would be punished as cars burn in Khartoum or windows break in Indonesia, the fools and charlatans who use hysterical rhetoric and religious extremism to whip a crowd into a frenzy are driving a wedge farther and farther between their countrymen and the mystified, terrified West. I have no doubt that these backwater mullahs want exactly that, but it does not serve the purpose of their people or the peaceful aspirations of the religion they purport to practice.

Listen – I have a list of grievances a mile long about the way Jews are treated religiously in this country. Alexandria City Council meets on Saturdays half the time – all the time for public time to address the council. TC Williams has scheduled next year's graduation for Friday night. Diabetics, lactose intolerants, peanut sensitives and others are served well-labeled and special-ordered food at public events, but if I want kosher it is always b.y.o.k. or eat an airline meal. Billy Graham has concluded every Presidential inauguration ceremony for 20 years in the name of the particular god he worships and left me out. Community service projects ask that I subscribe to Christmas in April, Carpenter's Shelter, HOHOHO, and the barely disguised YMCA.

The perpetrators of those offenses are ignorant and insensitive, but they are not malicious. And they are exercising the right our universal God gave to us to be stubborn and arrogant, but they do not set out to offend. Burning my car – or yours – to protest the Christmas tree in market square leaves us without transportation and the tree still standing.

So let's show a little consideration to others even as we demand it for ourselves. And let's not be afraid to criticize where criticism is due. Shame on the Danish press for an unnecessary choice. And shame on the Muslims who have elevated some stupid little drawings above the genuine concerns of their fellow human beings.

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