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Groups Split on Cartoons

The eruption of violent Islamic protests over the cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad has triggered a sharp debate between Jewish organizations over whether they should be speaking out about the crisis.

The American Jewish Committee sent a delegation of its leaders to Denmark, which has come under harsh condemnation in the Muslim world for not stopping the initial publication of the cartoons. Leaders at the AJCommittee couched their support as a defense of free speech, not of the cartoons themselves.

This week, following the Denmark trip, another organization, the American Jewish Congress, was urging a restrained approach in order to avoid playing into the accusations of Iran that Jews and Israel were behind the publication of the cartoons.

“What could Jews possibly gain by lending credence to antisemitic and lunatic ravings of the president of Iran (especially in the eyes of Muslims who are not committed to his effort to make everything into a Jewish or Zionist conspiracy) by taking a prominent role in defense of press freedom and Western ideas of pluralism and religious freedom?” wrote the general counsel of the AJCongress, Marc Stern, in an opinion essay in this week’s Forward (see front page). “The desire to do so, and the impulse not to sit idly by, may be admirable but, at least here, they are not wise.”

The argument drew a sharp rebuke from the executive director of the AJCommittee, David Harris, who led the mission to Denmark. “Actions speak louder than words,” Harris told the Forward. “Jews are kidding themselves if they think they can sit this one out…. Are we supposed to duck for cover when this erupts and embassies are torched? What’s next? This is an attempt to intimidate, and we have a stake in ensuring it does not succeed.”

In an obvious swipe at the AJCongress, he added, “Those organizations that have historically defended freedom of press and First Amendment privileges should be especially responsive to such threats.”

Abraham Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation League, noted that while Jewish organizations were not eager to become embroiled in the cartoon affair, they were eventually drawn into it when Muslim groups asked them for their position. Jewish groups, he said, also felt the need to speak up in response to the Iranian accusations that they were responsible for fomenting the trouble and the hypocrisy of Arab regimes that expressed outrage at the cartoons, while allowing their media to publish antisemitic articles and caricatures.

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