February 16, 2006
Europe’s Jews Caught in Cartoon Furor
European Jews have expressed a mixture of anger and frustration as the furor over a Muslim cartoon erupted into violence in Europe and the Middle East.
As frequent targets of anti-Semitic cartoons -- many of them in the Arab press -- Jews on one hand sympathized with the Muslim outrage over depictions of the Islamic prophet Mohammed, which is considered by Muslims to be blasphemous.
But Jews joined many others in expressing shock at the level of violence the controversy sparked.
"Of course, we condemn all forms of propaganda that carry prejudice toward any faith. But people in glass houses shouldn't throw stones," said Serge Cwajgenbaum, the secretary-general of the European Jewish Congress.
In Denmark, Jews felt solidarity with their country as it came under attack after a Danish newspaper printed the controversial cartoons, including one that depicted the Islamic prophet Mohammed as wearing a turban shaped as a bomb.
"Usually the Jews are always in the center of things, but here we feel we are part of the Danish population," said Rabbi Bent Lexner, Denmark's chief rabbi.
Other newspapers across the world -- in France, in Australia and in the United States -- printed one or more of the cartoons. In France, the editorial director of France Soir, was fired after running at least one of the cartoons. At least one Israeli paper, the Jerusalem Post, also reprinted the cartoons. A German Jewish Web site, haGalil, was hacked after it posted some of the Danish cartoons.
The fallout took on specific Jewish overtones as the Muslim reaction intensified. As Muslims rioted across the Middle East, the Web site of the Arab European League printed anti-Semitic cartoons and Iran's largest newspaper requested cartoon submissions that question the Holocaust.
"The cartoon was made by a Danish newspaper, not a Jewish one. But once again, someone does something and we as Jews are guilty," said Petr Kadlcek, the head of Poland's Union of Religious Jewish Communities.
Most European Jews, led by France's chief rabbi, Joseph Sitruk, saw the original cartoons as a needless provocation.
Following a meeting with French Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin, Sitruk said, "We win nothing by disparaging religions, humiliating them by making caricatures of them."
Jews are no strangers to racism dressed up as humor, said David Ruzie, a French university professor and international law specialist.
"There is humor, and there is humor," Ruzie said. "It was through derision that Germany, and in France as well, before World War II, began to attack Jews."
There was widespread condemnation of the Muslim reaction, which in addition to the anti-Semitic cartoons, included Muslim violence, throwing rocks at Danish and other European institutions abroad and, in some cases, setting buildings ablaze.
"I don't believe in absolute freedom of expression," said journalist Jean-Claude Baboulin, writing in Guysen Israel News, a news service, "but I certainly don't defend the Muslims who believe they have a right to forbid others what their religion forbids them," he wrote, referring to the Muslim prohibition to depict Mohammed.
This is not the first example of religious slander in the European media, but the reactions are exaggerated, said Jean-Michel Rosenfeld, a Paris official.
"There is something to be angry over, just like when Catholics were furious over caricatures of the Holy Trinity in the French press," he said, "but the Catholics did not go out and burn buildings."
Others reacted with more equanimity.
People of all faiths must work to defuse the situation, said Paul Spiegel, head of the Central Council of Jews in Germany, complementing German Chancellor Angela Merkel in her call "for prudence and de-escalation."
For some elderly Danish Jews, the violence brought back some historical nightmares, said Lexner, the Danish chief rabbi.
"I think that there are some kinds of fear, especially of those people who have seen this burning of flags and violence in the many countries, and they compare" that to the 1940s, fretting that "things are repeating themselves," he said.
In England, both lawmakers and Muslim leaders condemned a demonstration last Friday in front of the country's largest mosque, during which some Muslims threatened terrorism and another "7/7," referring to the July subway and bus bombings that left 56 dead.
Most Muslim protests in Europe were peaceful, however.
Many European and American Jewish observers noted the irony of Muslims and Arabs objecting to an offensive characterization of Mohammed when anti-Jewish characterizations are rampant in the Arab world.
Some in the secular French Jewish community revealed bitterness at the anger expressed against France, particularly concerning demonstrations that took place in Gaza.
Ruzie wrote on the Web site desinfos.com: "The traditionally welcoming attitude of France toward the Palestinians" has not exactly "paid off."
Underlying much of the reaction was an anger that efforts at tolerance and dialogue could now be jeopardized.
"Some people have worked for trying to integrate the Muslim community in the Danish society, and I think that, in that way, many years of work were destroyed," Lexner said.
JTA staff writer Chanan Tigay in New York and correspondents Dinah A. Spritzer in Prague, Lauren Elkin and Brett Kline in Paris and Toby Axelrod in Berlin contributed to this report.