Iran’s caricature of a contest

THANE ROSENBAUM, a novelist, essayist and law professor, is the author, most recently, of "The Myth of Moral Justice."

IN CASE you haven’t noticed, the season for global Holocaust contests is drawing to an end. In January, Oprah Winfrey sponsored a national high school contest that attracted 50,000 student essays on the contemporary relevance of Elie Wiesel’s memoir “Night.” I was a judge. In late May, the 50 winners appeared on “Oprah” to receive a $10,000 college scholarship.

Around the same time, the Iranian newspaper Hamshahri announced its own Holocaust contest -- one of pictures, the kind that are worth 1,000 unprintable words.

The contest solicited cartoons from around the world that either mocked the Holocaust or portrayed it as a myth. The president of Iran, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, has repeatedly said the Holocaust is a myth, and the contest was, presumably, in retaliation for cartoons, appearing nearly a year ago in the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten, that mocked the prophet Muhammad. The Iranian cartoon competition drew more than 1,200 submissions from 61 countries. Six came from the United States. The 204 finalists are on display in Tehran, where the winning cartoon will receive $12,000. I was not asked to judge this competition.


A strange parallel universe these two Holocaust contests occupy. After all, the contests are based on the same historical event. Submissions flowed in simultaneously, albeit in different parts of the world. Even a cash prize for first place is comparable. And Oprah and Ahmadinejad are prominent international newsmakers who became titular figureheads for each competition.

Yet the two contests reveal vast differences in the intentions of their organizers and the expectations of the contestants. They also say much about the nature of free speech, religious tolerance and artistic freedom.

The Oprah essays were written by American teenagers, the vast majority of whom are not Jews and have no personal connection to extreme prejudice of any kind. They were reflective, mature writings -- humbly written, achingly observed -- seeking to comprehend the darkest hours of inhumanity and reminding the world of the consequences of indifference and moral failure.

An entirely different agenda and set of ambitions energized the artists in the Iranian competition. One cartoon depicts Jews going into a gas pipeline. Another portrays the Statute of Liberty holding a book on the Holocaust in one hand and performing a Nazi salute with the other. Many of the cartoons simply and crudely communicate the message that the Holocaust is a lie -- a fictitious Big Bang that preceded the creation of Israel.

The Oprah contest sought to educate high school students about history and what happens when history is forgotten.

The Iranian cartoon contest seeks to deny and erase history, all in a misguided and feeble attempt to express a cultural and religious grievance.


Yet, in the end, aren’t both contests valid? Does art have to be literally or historically true to be deemed art? Or can the art be judged on its own merit, regardless of its point of view?

Because the winners of the Iranian cartoon contest have yet to be announced, we don’t know whether the judges will be persuaded by aesthetics or politics. Yet the contest, which amounted to an all-points bulletin for Holocaust deniers, suggests that the competition is more about venality than artistry. After all, the Muhammad drawings that sparked this wave of cartoon contretemps were no great works of graphic art.

Whatever grievance existed against the Danish newspaper that published the Muhammad cartoon, it isn’t clear how denying the Holocaust punishes Danes for their blasphemy of Islam. Aside from this misdirected ricochet of revenge, the contestants in the Iranian competition have much to learn about the relationship between caricature and truth, which often supplies the wit and wisdom of graphical art. Caricature is defined as a ludicrous exaggeration of a subject. It takes the subject as a given, then distorts its characteristic features to offer another truth -- sometimes deeper, sometimes debased. But caricature never obliterates the larger truth of its subject. Indeed, the very existence of the subject offers the best reason for mockery, adding dimension, color and nuance to its underlying truth.

What the cartoonists in the Iranian competition either failed to comprehend -- or understood and gleefully exploited -- is that there is a world of difference between mockery and denial, between caricature and falsehood, between expressing an idea through a graphical design and altering a picture to promote a grotesque lie. Derision is one thing; denial is something else altogether.

Hamshahri originally said its contest was intended to examine whether the Western world could tolerate the mockery of its own religions. But the Holocaust is not a religion, it is a historical fact. For the Nazis, the Final Solution had nothing to do with Judaism and everything to do with Jews. A Jewless world could have practiced Judaism without any objection from the Third Reich.

But here again is the crux of this clash of civilizations. The cartoons in Iran could have mocked Abraham, Isaac and Jacob -- the patriarchs of Judaism -- and Jews would not have hurled stones or threatened to blow up the Iranian Embassy or burned all their Persian rugs in protest. Moreover, most devout Christians, although they may not like it, realize that Jesus Christ does, occasionally, end up on a billboard, in a music video or a cartoon.


Respecting someone’s religious beliefs and allowing them to have those beliefs, and even to share them with others, are the hallmarks of a secular society, one founded on pluralism and liberal values. That’s what religious tolerance means. It doesn’t mean that religion is both freely practiced and free from criticism or caricature.

Although the Iranians have now conveniently availed themselves of free speech and artistic freedom for the one limited purpose of denying the Holocaust, all those cartoons still don’t make them enlightened citizens of the modern world. The Oprah contestants would have a lot to say about that.