Last week, the Salt Lake Tribune published two cartoons by Pat Bagley that were offensive to many in the Utah Jewish community. The first cartoon, short of the typical caricature of Jewish facial features, might have been seen as a legitimate commentary on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict; there were different ways to interpret the cartoon. However, within the same week, another cartoon was published that plainly misrepresented current events and crossed a line. The two commentaries within such a short span of time represent a blatant disregard for facts and sensitivity.
On Wednesday, leaders from the Jewish community, fueled by the frustration of the community and our own concerns, came to the editors of the Salt Lake Tribune to discuss the offensive cartoons.
We began the discussion with the Tribune’s editors by trying to understand what the limits and range of the editorial process are. We continued through a thorough examination of the cartoons to explain what was either clearly insensitivity or malice.
What we were told is that editorial cartoons do not need to be factually accurate, that the intent of the cartoonist was more important than the community’s response, and that if more people had expressed concern, the editors might have paid more attention to our alarm.
Why are these cartoons so problematic?
They perpetuate factual misunderstandings of the conflict in the Middle East.
The conflict between Israelis and Palestinians is complicated. It is multifaceted and tragic. If cartoonists cannot suss through the nuance, perhaps political cartoons are not the way to express such a complex conflict. Perhaps the tomes dedicated to the ongoing struggle are the only way to understand.
They draw false analogies, aligning sides with unrelated issues. The second cartoon in particular sought to bring the issues of Gaza home to Utahns, calling it a "proxy." Mr. Bagley explicitly drew parallels between internment camps or ghettos with Gaza, convoluting two very different experiences. Utah is not Gaza. Gaza is not a ghetto. Israel is not "the Feds." This cartoon is inflammatory and wrong.
They oversimplify the issues and assign clear blame when these are not clear issues and assigning blame is unproductive. The situation is not a simple one. I know that my community has a diversity of feelings and thoughts about Israel and its actions. To distill the conflict into one-sided blame is to show immense ignorance and to neglect journalistic responsibility.
They continue an historic line of offense. Political cartoons carry a lot of weight and share a good deal of information in a concise space—often by playing on old tropes and stereotypes. The Jewish community keeps in its consciousness the rhetoric and images of propaganda that have been so often used against us throughout history. In the same way that other minority groups have sensitivities to slanders that are continually hurled at them, we know too well the power of defaming stereotypes.
I believe in free speech. I also believe in the responsibility of a publication to edit. The editors of the Salt Lake Tribune have argued that they did not know or realize how upsetting and offensive the Bagley cartoons were. Insensitivity is a poor defense. If the Salt Lake Tribune only recognizes its editorial responsibility when the public decries the paper’s contents, we must be ever more vigilant about our outcries.
Attempts to understand and report on world events need to be educated, nuanced, clarifying, and well above the standard the Tribune has set. The people of Utah deserve more from the state’s flagship paper.
Ilana Schwartzman is rabbi of Congregation Kol Ami in Salt Lake City.
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