Michael Leunig is one of Australia’s best known cartoonists. He is also an anti-war activist, and a strong critic of the State of Israel. The latter viewpoint has regularly offended many Jewish readers of Melbourne’s The Age newspaper. Most recently Leunig gained international notoriety and infamy when a cartoon he drew comparing Israel to the Nazis was falsely entered in an Iranian anti-Jewish Holocaust cartoon competition.
In the past five years, Leunig has produced four cartoons which have particularly upset Jewish readers. The first three cartoons were arguably anti-Zionist, rather than anti-Jewish in a racial sense.
One cartoon titled “How can you relate to evil inferior weirdos when you’re so fabulous and good” compared Palestinian suicide bombers to Israeli pilots who drop bombs on Palestinian civilians. The implication was that the Israeli actions were as bad if not worse than the Palestinian actions. A second cartoon headed “How to do it” suggested that the Israelis had driven the Palestinians off their land, systematically oppressed them, and slandered those who defend them. A third cartoon suggested that the vegetative former Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon might recover sufficiently to order more military strikes similar to that which killed the former Hamas leader Sheikh Ahmed Yassin.
Leunig has defended these cartoons on the basis that they are allegedly “anti-war”, but it would be more accurate to classify them as reflecting a pro-Palestinian bias since they support one particular side in an armed national conflict. To be genuinely anti-war, the cartoons would need to celebrate moderates and condemn extremists and violence on both sides.
Yet none of Leunig’s works condemn Palestinian extremists, and in fact the three cartoons cited above implicitly defend the actions of suicide bombers and those hardliners (such as Yassin) who order the bombings. Nor in contrast does Leunig offer any sympathy for the Jewish victims of Palestinian terror. It would seem that Leunig simplistically constructs the Middle East conflict as the powerful State of Israel oppressing the defenceless and innocent Palestinians.
Leunig’s fourth cartoon (which The Age actually refused to publish) is even worse since it arguably shifts from hardline anti-Zionism to overt anti-Jewish racism. Headed “Auschwitz 1942 and Israel 2002”, the cartoon states that “Work brings freedom and war brings peace”, and suggests that Israel is inflicting genocide upon the Palestinians. This cartoon can only be viewed as a deliberate attempt to diminish and trivialise the extent of Jewish suffering in the Holocaust by comparing Jews with Nazis. It was particularly hurtful to Holocaust survivors.
Having said that, Leunig did not argue (as do some anti-Zionist fundamentalists on the far Left) that Jews collaborated with the Nazis to perpetrate the Holocaust. And he certainly did not endorse Holocaust denial which brings us to the question of Iran.
The Iranian regime is virulently anti-Zionist. The current President has openly called for the genocidal elimination of the State of Israel. The Iranians are also significant propagators of anti-Jewish racism including most notably Holocaust denial. It is significant that in Western countries Holocaust denial is almost exclusively limited to neo-Nazis. Its political purpose is similar to that of older anti-Semitic myths: that Jews ritually murdered Gentile children, poisoned the drinking water of Christians, or plot via the Protocols of the Elders of Zion to control the world. The intention is to promote hatred, justify genocide of Jews and rehabilitate Nazism and Hitler. Not surprisingly, a number of the leading European deniers - the Swiss Jurgen Graf, the Austrian Wolfgang Froelich, the German Horst Mahler, and the French Roger Garaudy - either live in Tehran or have close contacts there.
Following the worldwide protests over the Danish cartoons mocking the Muslim religion, the Iranian newspaper Hamshari announced that they would hold a competition of cartoons mocking the Holocaust in order to test the limits of Western concepts of free speech. Instructively, the Iranians chose to mock Jews rather than the Danes who had perpetrated the original offence. And they also chose to mock Jews in a racial rather than religious sense.
That is, they could have published cartoons mocking Moses or Jewish religious practices. But instead they chose to mock the prime example of contemporary Jewish suffering. To draw some obvious analogies, this would be the equivalent of a newspaper humourising the enormous suffering of the East Timorese, or alternatively satirising the 1995 Srebrenica massacre of Bosnian Muslims.
Which leads us to the question of the alleged alignment between Leunig’s views and the anti-Jewish prejudice of the Iranian regime. Leunig is not a Holocaust denier, but he has abused the Holocaust for political gain. There are legitimate criticisms to be made of Israeli government policies, but comparisons with the Holocaust are not only disproportionate and hurtful to Jewish survivors, but factually wrong. In drawing an analogy between Auschwitz and Israel, Leunig over-stepped the line that separates reasonable sympathy for the Palestinians from overt anti-Jewish racism. That is why some of his critics - however harshly - thought it was natural that he had entered the Iranian competition.
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