Apologies for cartoons…writes Rabbi James Kennard

July 31, 2014 by Rabbi James Kennard
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In December 2012, during a previous period of conflict between Israel and Hamas, Melbourne’s premier newspaper The Age published a cartoon by Michael Leunig. It featured little more than (yet another) re-working of the famous lines by Pastor Martin Niemöller, bewailing the inaction of the bystanders during the Holocaust (“first they came for the Socialists and I did not speak out . . . then they came for the Jews . . .”).

Rabbi James Kennard

Rabbi James Kennard

Leunig’s version replaced Nazis with Jews and Jews with Palestinians:

“First they came for the Palestinians and I did not speak out because I was not a Palestinian.
Then they came for more Palestinians and I did not speak out because I feared hostility and trouble.
Then they came for even more Palestinians and I did not speak out because if I did, doors would close to me, hateful mail would arrive, bitterness and spiteful condemnations would follow.
Then they came for more and more Palestinians and I did not speak out because by then I had fallen into silence to reflect upon the appalling, disgraceful and impossible aspects of human nature.”
There was the predictable round of protests from the Jewish community, met with the predictable indifference from The Age’s editor. Leunig himself declared that he was not an anti-Semite and that this was proven beyond question because “he knew it”.
And there the story would have ended, had not the Kom Karapanagiotidis, the Chief Executive of the Asylum Seeker Resource Centre (ASRC) a generally worthy organization that aids refugees and lobbies for a more humane policy towards them, used Leunig’s cartoon on the ASRC’s Facebook page, as a show of support for Palestinians during Operation Protective Edge.
Many Jewish individuals and groups, which had previously been happy to work with the ASRC, were uncomfortable or worse. The Principal of Bialik College’s request for the cartoon to be removed was met with a dismissive refusal, and he courageously declared that any partnership between his school and the Resource Centre was suspended.
But then there was a change of heart. After representation from various Jewish figures, Karapanagiotidis realised that he had erred, and his mea culpa was published in the Australian Jewish News.
“(My grandparents’) story (of the Pontian genocide in Turkey) is precious and untouchable to anyone who is not Pontian. Then it hit me, this is what I have unintentionally done to the Jewish community. . . I have caused great pain and I am so deeply sorry for this. I have no right to reference the Holocaust, regardless of my intentions, it’s untouchable and an unimaginable offence to the six million who have perished.”
So all is forgiven.
But it should not be.
Because the apology was for a non-offence, while the real misdemeanor remained unremarked, and unrestricted.
Karapanagiotidis apologised for “referencing the Holocaust”. Is that a crime? Has the Holocaust evolved from being a seminal event in Jewish history and a critical element in Jewish identity, to become such a totem that it is “untouchable” by non-Jews?
I have spoken elsewhere of why the Holocaust is unique amongst genocides and why, in my opinion, equivalences between that horror and events in Rwanda or Cambodia are historically false. But I understand the opposing view and take no offence when it is offered. To accept Karapanagiotidis’s regrets for daring to “touch” the Holocaust is to declare it beyond rational and historical analysis by anyone except ourselves. Such a position is not only baseless – it is dangerous. It enables our opponents to accuse us, with some justification, of denying free speech and it reduces Jewish identity to eternal victimhood.
What he should have apologised for was for publishing a cartoon that explicitly compared the Holocaust to the suffering of Palestinians, for deliberately casting Jews in the role of Nazis. It is a very sad indictment on our times that it needs to be explained again, but the point is this; the Holocaust was on the scale of millions; a systematic industrial process of annihilation was created to serve it, and it was motivated by an clear and open attempt at genocide. Therefore any comparison with the tragic Palestinian situation, so indescribably far removed from those characteristics, implies either a nonsensical inflation of their grievances or an evil denial of the horrors and the extent of the Holocaust.
This comparison in Leunig’s cartoon was worse than offensive. It was totally and utterly wrong.
For good measure Leunig, and hence Karapanagiotidis, threw in the usual antisemitic trope of insidious “Jewish power”. Without a hint of irony, Leunig uses his platform in a leading newspaper to proclaim that “doors would close” to those of his opinion. Any observer of today’s media, social and public, will regard the claim that supporters of the Palestinian cause are “silenced” as laughable. Unfortunately, accusations of shadowy activities by which Jews exercise control behind the scenes are anything but funny.
No Mr Karapanagiotidis, what you chose to publish was not objectionable because it offended me. It should have offended morality itself because it was racist and false. Antisemitism is not something to “apologise” for. It is something to root out and destroy. And if you were not held to account for anything more than treading on my “untouchable” history while your racism was left unchallenged, then the failing is ours.


Rabbi James Kennard is the Principal of Mount Scopus Memorial College, Melbourne.

He writes in a personal capacity.



2 Responses to “Apologies for cartoons…writes Rabbi James Kennard”
  1. thank you Rabbi for your clarification, it’s difficult sometimes to express exactly what the problem is for us Jews, and you’ve nailed it.

  2. Liat says:

    So well expressed, Rabbi James Kennard. You make distinctions that are all important in the merry-go-round of comments, comparisons and analogies that are increasingly offered in discussion of Israel and Gaza. Behind the laziness and ignorance of these offerings lies a devious passion for inverting what has been worst in Jewish historical experience to attach to the contemporary, and in doing so practise anti-Semitism.

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