A Lesson In Protesting Insulting Cartoons

By Edward Koch and Rafael Medoff

Published February 17, 2006, issue of February 17, 2006.
  • Print
  • Share Share

As mobs throughout the Muslim world assaulted European targets in response to the publication of caricatures of Muhammad, an Iranian government newspaper offered its own bizarre response to the controversy by announcing a contest for cartoons mocking the Holocaust.

In their fevered imagination, the Iranians believe they will expose a double standard, according to which the West allegedly tolerates cartoons offensive to Muslims but will not tolerate cartoons deriding the Holocaust. What Tehran apparently does not realize is that Americans already grappled with this issue two years ago — and responded very differently.

On April 21, 2004, The Medium, a student newspaper at Rutgers University, published a cartoon under the headline “Holocaust Remembrance Week: Springfest 2004.” It portrayed a carnival-style scene of a bearded Jewish man sitting above an oven, with a person throwing a ball at him. The caption read: “Knock a Jew in the oven! Three throws for one dollar! Really!”

Rutgers president Richard McCormick criticized the cartoon as “outrageous in its cruelty” and asked the editors to apologize, but concluded there was nothing he could do to punish the newspaper. The First Amendment’s guarantee of free speech would prevent a state university such as Rutgers from shutting down The Medium or even cutting off its funding “based on its viewpoint,” McCormick said, citing a memorandum by his legal staff.

Instead of circling the wagons, the university’s lawyers should have engaged in a little creative thinking. There was, in fact, a variety of ways that Rutgers could have responded to the cartoon, as the solicited comments from a number of other university presidents and constitutional experts soon revealed.

On the one hand, there were some who took a position similar to that of McCormick. Brown University president Ruth Simmons and Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates, Jr., for example, agreed there was nothing Rutgers officials could do beyond criticizing the newspaper. Princeton University president Shirley Tilghman went even further, writing back that although her private university was not bound by the same First Amendment restrictions as Rutgers and therefore could shut down a student newspaper for any reason, doing so would constitute censorship and therefore she would have refrained from taking such action.

But others felt differently. New School University president Bob Kerrey was the most blunt: “An apology is not enough. The paper should be closed and no university funding ever provided to the students who were responsible. This would be my minimum response.”

Constitutional experts Floyd Abrams and Alan Dershowitz pointed out that while Rutgers could not single out one publication, it is under no obligation to fund any student newspapers at all. Dershowitz noted that “many major universities, including Harvard, do not fund the student-run newspaper, precisely because they do not want to be associated with the adolescent views often expressed therein… So long as the decision to de-fund newspapers is made across the board and without regard to the particular content of the particular newspaper, I think it will pass constitutional muster.”

Stephen Gillers, vice dean and professor at the New York University School of Law, offered a thoughtful comment regarding the student activity fees that Rutgers students are charged, and which are used to fund campus newspapers. He found a relevant Supreme Court decision that would permit Rutgers to give students the option to request that none of their fees go to The Medium. Why, indeed, should students be compelled to finance a publication that they might legitimately regard as promoting bigotry?

Neither the public nor a university are required to quietly accept any outrageous action in the name of free speech. There are appropriate, peaceful, legal ways to register one’s displeasure over a grievous insult.

Nobody responded to the Rutgers cartoon with arson attacks or stonings or violence of any kind. The editor of The Medium was not jailed. No legal restrictions were imposed upon the newspaper or the university. Instead, reasonable people engaged in a thoughtful discussion within the context of complete respect for freedom and the law.

That is the standard according to which a civilized society should conduct itself. And it is a standard to which everyone should be held — regardless of the depth of their religious sentiments or the extent to which their feelings have been injured.

Edward Koch is a former mayor of New York City. Rafael Medoff is director of The David S. Wyman Institute for Holocaust Studies. They are authors of the forthcoming “Reflections on Antisemitism and the Holocaust.”






Find us on Facebook!
  • Can you relate?
  • The Forverts' "Bintel Brief" advice column ran for more than 65 years. Now it's getting a second life — as a cartoon.
  • Half of this Hillel's members believe Jesus was the Messiah.
  • Vinyl isn't just for hipsters and hippies. Israeli photographer Eilan Paz documents the most astonishing record collections from around the world:http://jd.fo/g3IyM
  • Could Spider-Man be Jewish? Andrew Garfield thinks so.
  • Most tasteless video ever? A new video shows Jesus Christ dying at Auschwitz.
  • "It’s the smell that hits me first — musty, almost sweet, emanating from the green felt that cradles each piece of silver cutlery in its own place." Only one week left to submit! Tell us the story of your family's Jewish heirloom.
  • Mazel tov to Chelsea Clinton and Marc Mezvinsky!
  • If it's true, it's pretty terrifying news.
  • “My mom went to cook at the White House and all I got was this tiny piece of leftover raspberry ganache."
  • Planning on catching "Fading Gigolo" this weekend? Read our review.
  • A new initiative will spend $300 million a year towards strengthening Israel's relationship with the Diaspora. http://jd.fo/q3Iaj Is this money spent wisely?
  • Lusia Horowitz left pre-state Israel to fight fascism in Spain — and wound up being captured by the Nazis and sent to die at Auschwitz. Share her remarkable story — told in her letters.
  • Vered Guttman doesn't usually get nervous about cooking for 20 people, even for Passover. But last night was a bit different. She was cooking for the Obamas at the White House Seder.
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?




















We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.