A cartoon protest threatens to redefine free-speech

March 10, 2017
Cartoon by undergraduate political science major Felipe Bris Abejon in the UCLA student newspaper The Daily Bruin.

There are few countries in the world – perhaps a few Islamic countries, India, Ireland – that define themselves for the world as being inextricably identified with their majority religion as Israel.  Israel is the “Jewish” state.  It wants to be seen as the Jewish state.  In certain arenas – say in negotiations with Palestinian entities – it demands to be acknowledged as the Jewish state.  I make no judgments about that. 

But if you’re going to identify as Jewish, seriously Jewish, there’s no way you can separate that identity from the Torah.  It’s the primary source of our learning, the blueprint for how Jews are supposed to live as a community, the foundation of the Jewish people.  And what more basic element could there be in the Torah than “The Ten Commandments,” mentioned twice in the Torah:  Exodus 20:2, and repeated in Deuteronomy 5:6, and of which “Thou shalt not steal” is number eight (acknowledging that this can vary with interpretations – just as there are a number of interpretations of what “steal” exactly means).  “Steal” might mean steal another person – kidnapping.  It might mean taking what doesn’t belong to you.  It might mean a lot of things, but there is so much in our teachings, including about a dozen mitzvoth regarding respecting private properties and just due process, not to mention the Tenth Commandment regarding coveting the possession of others, that we all pretty much get the picture. 

So if the Ten Commandments and other mitzvot are at least one of the cornerstones of the Torah, and the Torah is the foundation of Judaism, and Israel is the Jewish state, then someone who decides to draw a political cartoon using the Ten Commandments to criticize Israeli policy would appear to be on pretty solid ground.  That’s what a UCLA contributing cartoonist, Felipe Bris Abejón did when he published a cartoon in the “Daily Bruin” newspaper, a cartoon now notorious for having been criticized as anti-Semitic and withdrawn by the paper with apologies.  The cartoon  in question, shows Israeli Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, standing in front of two commandments, one (listed as #6) with a word crossed off:  “Though shalt not steal” and another (listed as #7) “Thou shalt not kill.”  The caption says, “Israel passes law seizing any Palestinian land,” and Netanyahu is saying, “#7 is next.” 

The caption, of course, refers to the Netanyahu controlled Knesset recently passing a law retroactively legalizing both housing and  makeshift “outposts,” at the time illegally built on Palestinian land and bringing them under Israeli sovereignty.  Some are recent; some go back decades.  Palestinian landowners would have to accept either “alternate plots” or financial compensation.  Clearly the “Regularization Law,” doesn’t mean “any Palestinian land.”  On the other hand, it does look a lot like theft of the weaker party by the stronger – never a good marketing image.  You can say it’s not theft because compensation is involved, but if someone 6’ 8” and 275 pounds, with a gun, stopped you on the street, took your watch, and offered you fifty bucks for it, take it or leave it, you’d probably still want to call a cop.  The law has been vigorously opposed by the opposition in Israel and will be appealed to its Supreme Court.   

Netanyahu’s threat to do the same thing with number seven – killing – is more problematic.  That commandment is usually meant to mean, thou shalt not murder, and once again, there are is a raft of commentary on this commandment.  To attribute to the Prime Minister the intention to implement as law, a policy to murder or in some way kill (the implication being Palestinians) is going pretty far, although there are those – and not just bizarre outliers – who would argue that this has been de facto policy for some time. 

The cartoon was strongly protested and condemned by various groups – some calling it anti-Semitic – including the anti-Defamation League, campus organizations, and even state legislators.  The ADL called it “deeply offensive….and impugning core Jewish beliefs.”  Many were outraged that the cartoon “mixed politics with religion.”  Danny Siegel, president of UCLA’s Undergraduate Student Association Council, declared in a statement: “As a Jewish student at UCLA, I am disgusted by the anti-Semitic claim in my school newspaper that the Israeli government is purposefully using my Jewish faith to justify policy matter.”

But is that what it was doing, and is the cartoon anti-Semitic?  To me the cartoon isn’t using Jewish faith to justify policy – quite the opposite.  It’s pointing out that policy is violating tenets of Jewish faith.  It doesn’t say that Judaism calls for theft and murder; it cries out that Judaism abhors theft and murder at a fundamental level, and any attempt to legitimize it through acts of law are extremely troubling and should be scrutinized in the cold, harsh sunshine of First Amendment exposure. 

As for anti-Semitic, does the cartoon call for the destruction of the Jewish people – the spurious argument by those who label the BDS movement (which I categorically reject as wrong and wrong-headed) anti-Semitic?  No, it does not?  Does it equate Netanyahu with all Jewish people or even all Israelis?  No, it does not?  Does it equate Judaism with the abandonment of it’s mitzvot?  No, it does not.  Rather it accuses the Prime Minister of having somehow lost his way as the head of the state he so aggressively insists is Jewish, an accusation made in a variety of arguments by the opposition in his own country. 

Condemnation of the cartoon decried the fact that Abejón dragged religion into his commentary, but how can mixing politics with religion be out of bounds when discussing Israeli settlement policy, when the entire settlement history is inextricably entwined, from day one, with religious fervor and aspiration.  Somehow, the very use of religion, despite the fact that Israel identifies its very existence as religiously-based, is a taboo crossing into forbidden territory.  No one chose to defend the cornerstone of American democracy – free speech. 

Yes, Jewish history is unique.  Yes, we have been persecuted since the days of Sinai, and yes, in particular for our religion.  But that doesn’t not inoculate either Israel or Judaism from pointed and aggressive argument, and it does not allow for increasingly self-serving definitions of anti-Semitism.  The effort to steadily and relentless expand the definition of anti-Semitic, in confrontation with free speech, does not do us credit, just as the equally steady and relentless effort to equate criticism of Israeli policy with anti-Semitism does Jews equal harm.  The “I know it when I see it” argument was dubious when used to define pornography; it is not improved when a certain segment of our demographic is allowed to define anti-Semitism for everyone, particularly public educational institutions – where the marketplace of ideas should most energetically flourish. 

The “Daily Bruin” quickly apologized and more. “This was a mistake that should have been caught at any point in the process, and it didn’t get caught,” said editor-in-chief, Tanya Walters. Was it?  Apparently no one thought so as it went to press.  I’m assuming a lot of people saw it.  I’m sure what they thought they saw was edgy, provocative commentary, not beyond-the-pale anti-Semitism.  Criticism that reminds us of our roots, our heritage, our connection to God may be uncomfortable – perhaps should be uncomfortable.  But it’s not illegal, not anti-Semitic, and should not be suppressed. 

Mitch Paradise is a writer, producer and teacher living in Los Angeles. 

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