This week, the New York Times' token center-right columnist, Ross Douthat, had an important piece on the contradictory notions of censorship in contemporary society. Reading it through Jewish lenses, though, one can see its implications for our own society as well.
Back in 2006, when the appearance of cartoons caricaturing Islam's founder, Muhammad, sparked worldwide riots, the scriptwriters of an entertainment program with well deserved notoriety for its offensive language and willingness to ridicule anyone and anything, tried to run an episode featuring its own animated images of Muhammad. The channel airing the program, however, blacked out these images.
Two weeks ago, these same writers got their revenge with another episode lampooning the censorship of their work, this time featuring Muhammad speaking from inside a U-Haul trailer and a mascot's costume. This prompted an Islamic website to post a column predicting the writers would end up like Theo van Gogh, a Dutch artist murdered in 2004 for his stinging critiques of Islam, alongside a photo of van Gogh's corpse. The host channel's response was swift in coming: the very next episode, intended to feature similar "non-appearances" by Muhammad, was purged of every last reference to him and the earlier episode was removed from circulation.
Douthat notes that "in a way, the muzzling of [this program] is no more disquieting than any other example of Western institutions' cowering before the threat of Islamist violence. . . . It's no worse than . . . Yale University's refusal to publish the controversial Danish cartoons . . . in a book about the Danish cartoon crisis. Or the fact that various Western journalists, intellectuals and politicians . . . have been hauled before courts and 'human rights' tribunals, in supposedly liberal societies, for daring to give offense to Islam."
Yet this case is particularly instructive, writes Douthat, because it's a "reminder that Islam is just about the only place where we draw any lines at all." The program in question, after all, is infamous for trampling on the sensitivities and values that most Americans hold dear, and for skewering every last one of Western society's "sacred cows." Indeed, writes Douthat, today's American culture "has few taboos that can't be violated, and our establishment has largely given up on setting standards in the first place. Except where Islam is concerned. There, the standards are established under threat of violence, and accepted out of a mix of self-preservation and self-loathing."
He concludes, powerfully: "This is what decadence looks like: a frantic coarseness that 'bravely' trashes its own values and traditions, and then knuckles under swiftly to totalitarianism and brute force."
Those last lines resonated deeply with me, because the phenomenon Douthat describes, this peculiar mix of bullying of the benign and cowering before the malignant, exists in the secular Jewish media as well, and in particular, in the Forward, a publication that bills itself as American Jewry's national weekly newspaper.
Query: Could anything top, for pure irony, the aforementioned refusal of Yale University Press (YUP) to allow the Danish cartoons to appear in a scholarly tome it published, written by Jytte Klausen, whose very topic was those cartoons and the controversy they created?
Answer: Yes, here's something more ironic, nay, more deeply hypocritical, than that.
In February, the Forward printed a review of Klausen's book, in which the reviewer, Rutgers professor Eddy Portnoy, writes that "YUP has caused irreparable harm not only to the text itself, but also to academic discourse as a whole. In its 'Publisher's Statement,' YUP claims it is 'an institution deeply committed to free speech.' But that depth is apparently not too profound. . . . That the book doesn't include images of its very topic, is quite simply, ridiculous. . . . "
Professor Portnoy also notes that the British journal Index on Censorship, which calls itself "Britain's leading organization promoting freedom of expression," published an interview with Ms. Klausen in which it refused to include images of the cartoons. He sums up the larger phenomenon of self-censorship under the threat of Islamist violence with this conclusion: "We are in deep trouble when university presses and organizations dedicated to free speech censor themselves in order not to offend and provoke. The hypocrisy is absolutely jaw-dropping."
I can only assume that Professor Portnoy's jaw dropped even further, when, upon opening to the Forward issue containing his review, he read a brief item by the newspaper's editor entitled "To Print or Not To Print?" In it, she was at pains to explain why, in the selfsame issue, the paper had chosen not to reproduce any of the Danish cartoons to accompany the Portnoy review, yet did reprint a cartoon by the Zionist group Im Tirtzu lampooning New Israel Fund (NIF) president Naomi Chazan, alongside a news story about Im Tirtzu's allegations that NIF funds many numerous groups that contributed to the Goldstone report and are otherwise anti-Israel and pro-Palestinian.
The answer? "After much deliberation, we decided that the drawing of Chazan (by another Jewish organization) said more than words ever could about a development within the Jewish community, here and in Israel. It is our story, and it is happening now. But we saw no similarly compelling reason top reprint the Danish cartoons, first made public years ago, since Portnoy's book review stands on its own. This debate is part of an ongoing discussion about whether and how offensive ideas, in word or illustrations, should be displayed by a news organization like the Forward, which is anchored in journalistic independence and a commitment to community dialogue. As always, I welcome your thoughts."
To me, her words were redolent of politically correct cowardice hiding behind tortured rationalization and doublespeak, a textbook example of what Messrs. Douthat and Portnoy spoke of. Yale refusing to print the offending cartoons in a book on the subject? Cowardice. The Forward nixing the cartoons alongside a review assailing Yale's meekness? Cowardice squared.
So long as Islam is not at issue, and particularly when Orthodox Jews and Judaism are, the Forward is able to discover reservoirs of great boldness to smash the icons of Jewish tradition and society, treating nothing as inherently sacred, above reproach and beyond its journalistic reach. Of course, the newspaper, true to its post-modern self-consciousness, would probably use other words to describe its coverage, tedious and vastly overused ones like "edgy" and that biggie, "transgressive."
Was the NIF story the first time the paper has run caricatures in furtherance of its "journalistic independence" and profound "commitment to community dialogue"? No. Less than a month earlier, the Forward featured a comic strip about Orthodox Jews that Rabbi Avi Shafran described as "featuring grotesque depictions of religious Jews and aimed at disparaging Jewish outreach to other Jews."
Now, Reb Avi is a mild-mannered fellow, hence his somewhat muted choice of wording. Personally, I'd say that after well over a decade of observing Orthodox-bashing in the secular Jewish media and heterodox publications, this cartoon, in its wording and pictorial depictions, was one of the most toxic pieces of unvarnished anti-Orthodox animus I have seen. Nor was this the first time the paper had run this artist's pictorial thuggery. But not to fret: the Forward "welcomes your thoughts" in its "ongoing discussion" about "offensive ideas." And have a nice day, too.
And thus we have before us an astonishing contrast: a gratuitous, poisonously sarcastic slashing of fellow Jews, followed weeks later by the donning of kid gloves to grovel, er, gingerly handle the Muhammad story so as not to – Allah forbid – offend. Spare me all the buzzword-filled talk of "an ongoing discussion about whether and how offensive ideas . . . should be displayed by . . . the Forward, which is anchored in journalistic independence and a commitment to community dialogue" — try being transgressive of Ahmed, instead of Avi, for a change.
So this is what Jewish journalistic decadence looks like: a cowardly publication possessed of, to quote Douthat, "a frantic coarseness that 'bravely' trashes its own values and traditions, and then knuckles under swiftly to totalitarianism and brute force."