The Iranian government’s exhibit of cartoons mocking the Holocaust, which opened recently in Tehran, was intended as a "test" of Western reactions, in the wake of the cartoons about Muhammad published by a Danish newspaper last year.
Well, the West has passed Iran’s "test" with flying colors.
The exhibit in Tehran showcases more than ’00 of the entries submitted to the Iranian government’s grotesque "Holocaust International Cartoon Contest." They invoke a wide range of both classical and modern anti-Semitic images: Jews with huge noses, Jews controlling the world, Jewish vampires drinking Arab blood, swastika-adorned Israeli soldiers slaughtering Arab children.
The Iranians expected this would be a way to expose Western hypocrisy: Westerners are willing to circulate cartoons insulting Muhammad, Tehran reasoned, but surely they would be outraged if cartoonists insult the Holocaust.
Yes, we are outraged. But we did not respond with riots, arson, and murder as Islamic extremists responded to the Danish cartoons. Instead, we responded exactly as civilized people should respond when they don’t like an article or a drawing: We turned the page.
We did so despite the fact that we have ample reason to be outraged.
First, because the cartoon exhibit in Iran is government-sponsored. This is a critical difference between the Denmark controversy and the Tehran exhibit, something the Iranians never grasped because they are apparently incapable of understanding how free societies work.
That newspaper in Denmark is not controlled by the Danish government. It is a free, independent newspaper that can print whatever it chooses. And if subscribers or advertisers don’t like what they print, they can cancel their subscriptions or advertise elsewhere. Muslims who were offended by the cartoons should have directed their protests at the newspaper or the cartoonists, not at all Danes, or all Europeans, or all Westerners. And it goes without saying that those protests should have taken the form of letters or phone calls, not rock-throwing or bomb-hurling.
By contrast, the cartoons mocking the Holocaust are being sponsored by the Iranian government. It can and does control whether or not they are disseminated. Similarly, anti-Jewish cartoons and articles appear often in government-sponsored publications in Egypt, Saudi Arabia, the Palestinian Authority, and elsewhere in the Middle East. They are totalitarian regimes that could stop the dissemination of such hateful images with the snap of their fingers.
The second reason we are outraged by Iran’s Holocaust cartoons is their impact.
We have seen no evidence that the cartoons about Muhammad resulted in anti-Muslim feeling among Westerners. They certainly did not provoke anti-Muslim violence.
By contrast, the anti-Jewish cartoons that Arab governments publicize do play a role in encouraging hatred and violence. They appear in government-controlled media and schools, and are thereby legitimized by the regime’s seal of approval and the endorsement of teachers and other authority figures. As U.S. Sen. Hillary Clinton pointed out in a memorable speech last year, what these regimes are doing is nothing less than "child abuse." They "take young minds and twist and pervert them and create a new generation of terrorists…. Young minds are being infected with this anti-Semitism."
A frightening report appeared in the Israeli daily Ha’aretz last week about a summer camp for disadvantaged children run by the terrorist group Islamic Jihad on the beaches of Gaza, under the Palestinian Authority. A camp director named Hisham explained what the campers are taught: "We teach the children the truth. How the Jews persecuted the prophets and tortured them. We stress that the Jews killed and slaughtered Arabs and Palestinians every chance they got. Most important, the children understand that the conflict with the Jews is not over land, but rather over religion. As long as Jews remain here, between the [Jordan] river and the sea, they will be our enemy and we will continue to pursue and kill them. When they leave we won’t hurt them."
At a press conference in 1934, President Franklin Roosevelt pointed out that one of the most ominous signs of future German aggression against France was the message of militarism and martyrdom that the Nazis were imparting to German children. To illustrate his point, he told an anecdote about a little German boy so inculcated with Nazi propaganda that each night he prayed, "Dear God, please permit it that I shall die with a French bullet in my heart."
Not many people paid attention to those warning signs in the 1930s. Will our generation repeat that mistake?
Edward I. Koch served as mayor of New York City from 1978 to 1989. Rafael Medoff is director of The David S. Wyman Institute for Holocaust Studies. They are authors of the forthcoming book "Confronting Anti-Semitism and the Holocaust."