What were they thinking?

What were they thinking?

When one thinks of satire, the names Jonathan Swift and Mark Twain come to mind in the literary realm, and perhaps Stephen Colbert and South Park in more modern media.

Using irony or wit (according to one library definition) to expose or attack human vice or foolishness, satirists traditionally set up situations that exemplify the object of ridicule and then take careful aim at the traits or behaviors they have targeted.

In a scholarly paper on the purpose of satire, one commentator has written, “The best satire does not seek to do harm or damage by its ridicule, unless we speak of damage to the structure of vice….Far from being simply destructive, satire is implicitly constructive, and the satirists themselves…often depict themselves as such constructive critics.”

Praising a genocidal murderer and falsifying the identity of the writer meets none of these definitions. A Rutgers University op-ed in a self-styled satiric publication that finds redeeming value in Adolf Hitler and attributes this assertion to a political science major and social activist, who frequently defends Israel in op-ed articles appearing in the official Rutgers student newspaper, The Daily Targum (and whose family lost relatives in the Shoah), is both mean-spirited and stupid.

Far from calling attention to a human foible through literary cleverness, the piece, as it appeared in the supposedly satirical student publication “The Medium,” exemplifies nothing but bias and calls attention to Rutgers’ less than sterling record on anti-Israel and anti-Semitic incidents.

Little wonder that Jewish groups are up in arms, demanding a university investigation. The incident – if something so wicked can be reduced to being called something so tame – also highlights the reasons why the United States Department of Education needs to launch its own investigation, as at least one organization requested some time ago.

Dismissing the incident by pointing out that federal courts extend broad protection to student media, the university administration – while calling the use of the Jewsh student’s byline and photo “extremely offensive and repugnant” – said that approving material in student-run publications before it appears could be construed as prior censorship.

Even more, Ronald Miskoff, one of the paper’s faculty advisers, suggested that rather than condemn the piece, one needed to ask whether “Jews [are] taking things too seriously. It wasn’t a swipe at the Jewish people or at Israel. It was a swipe at one person who has been speaking out” on Israel’s behalf.

Wow. It was only a swipe at someone who was defending Israel, as if everyone should understand that such a swiping action is necessary and – in a perverse way – even commendable.

Thus creeps in the possibility of self-censorship. Will other Jews who support Israel risk becoming targets of mockery? Will the incident – as some suggest – exercise a chilling effect on those who might otherwise speak up for the Jewish state?

Let us return to the concept that satire often employs irony. Here is an irony, as pointed out in a Record editorial. Quoting Miskoff as saying that college “is a time in people’s lives when they test boundaries and learn the results of error prior to taking on full adult responsibilities,” the editorial suggests that perhaps the legal team defending Dharun Ravi could use that rationale in their client’s appeal. Ravi is the former Rutgers student who was recently convicted of hate crimes against a fellow student, Tyler Clementi. Prosecutors argued that the hate crimes contributed to Clementi’s suicide.

We do not support trampling on the First Amendment. We surely do not support the notion of prior restraint. Expecting faculty advisers to actually advise, however, has nothing to do either with the First Amendment or prior restraint. It has everything to do with a college adviser doing the job of advising soon-to-be-adults about the meaning of satire and its limits.

Rutgers already had much to answer for regarding anti-Semitism on campus, especially as regards Israel. An investigation is indeed warranted. We are not convinced, however, that the fox should be given charge of the henhouse. An independent probe is the better way to go.