Our view on cartoon controversy

Ellen Futterman is Editor of the St. Louis Jewish Light. 

By Ellen Futterman, Editor & Larry Levin, Publisher/CEO

In last week’s print edition of the Jewish Light, we had more than a half-dozen stories focusing on Israel, including news, editorial, opinion and analysis pieces. Some were local; some were by, or distributed through, JTA.

There wasn’t much reaction in letter form to this wide range of articles.But on top of those stories, we had an editorial cartoon about Israel.

The top half of the cartoon, by syndicated Jewish cartoonist Steve Greenberg, recalls Eddie Adams’ famous Associated Press photograph from the Vietnam War of a South Vietnamese national police commander executing a Viet Cong prisoner on a Saigon street. It has the caption, “ ‘Street justice’ that undermined the rule of law and damaged democratic principles, and gave the other side a propaganda tool.” 

The bottom half shows an Israel Defense Forces officer pointing a gun at what we assume is a Palestinian man lying on the ground with a bloody knife next to him, with the caption, “Much the same.”

The cartoon elicited strong opinions from some who found it inappropriate for a Jewish newspaper to publish. We offer some of those views in letters that appear this week.

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Because the question of why we published the cartoon came up, we thought we’d provide some insight into our perspective on the matter:

1. As always, we see it as our responsibility to provide a variety of perspectives about Israel. In this particular issue, the Israeli coverage was especially wide-ranging:

• A front-page news story about an Israeli company that’s opening an office in St. Louis

• An interview with an Israeli-Arab leader about the schools she founded that teach English to Arab students

• Two JTA stories, one about separation of Jews and Arabs in Israeli society and another about parents of Israeli officers lost in the Gaza war of 2014

• An editorial about how to combat BDS supporters

• A JTA-distributed commentary about the importance of the Israeli Supreme Court’s ruling on conversion

• And a local opinion piece calling into question the statements presidential candidate Bernie Sanders has made about Israel

2. Greenberg, an award-winning cartoonist whose work appears regularly in the Los Angeles-based Jewish Journal and many other publications, offers a plethora of insights about Israel and Jewish issues. We would hesitate to censor one of his many cartoons because of one particular view. And given Greenberg’s position “within the tent” — a nationally recognized cartoonist for many Jewish publications – we don’t presume any anti-Semitic intentions as some may have inferred. Criticism of the IDF’s actions, while painful, is not out of bounds for a Jewish publication.

3. Was the presentation in the cartoon harsh? Yes, it was, and that’s often the nature of editorial cartooning. We think some of the response may have been due to the visual nature of the opinion offered. Cartoons often elicit a more visceral reaction than a deliberate, intellectual one. We suspect (but don’t know for sure) that if there were an opinion piece taking the IDF to task for its actions, there certainly might be opinions drawn, but not with the emotive force of the responses in this instance.

4. Have we offered strong opinions in cartoons before? Well, sure. For instance, we’ve run numerous installments of the cartoon “Dry Bones,” which often has taken a very conservative (and highly pointed) approach to many issues, including those surrounding Israel.

5. Are there times we wouldn’t run a cartoon or article based on content? Yes and, in fact, we have for a number of reasons. If, for instance, we thought the artist or writer was himself or herself positing anti-Semitic views or was offering personal attacks on an individual, we’d be unlikely to publish.

But we did not believe that was the case here. The cartoonist was offering a historical comparison that some of our readers found patently wrong and offensive. While we surely understand and appreciate that, our goal is to be a publication that embraces viewpoints about Jewish and Israeli issues across as broad a spectrum as possible.

Because we’re the only Jewish news organization in town, and we service those with a myriad of views, our goal is to keep the discussion as wide and open as possible. That may not sit well as we choose to publish views that sit at the edge of acceptable discourse. But that’s our role, and that’s why we published Greenberg’s recent cartoon.