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A Fine Line Between Comment and Insult

October 15, 2000|NARDA ZACCHINO | Times Associate Editor Narda Zacchino is the readers' representative

As civil strife rages in Israel, thousands of readers are expressing anger over a cartoon on that conflict by Times editorial cartoonist Michael Ramirez published Oct. 6. Most of the complaints have been generated through a campaign on the Internet, where the cartoon has been widely distributed.

While it's true that coverage of the Middle East in the news pages and in editorials and commentary articles generally attracts intense reader reaction from all sides, the response to this cartoon is unprecedented at The Times.

E-mails and phone calls have been received not just from subscribers but from around the nation and the world. The Times Web site alone in just two days received about 1,000 complaints on the cartoon, which was condemned by spokesmen for both Jewish and Arab organizations in a story Wednesday in the Jerusalem Post. It also sparked a 100-person Jewish protest last week that stopped traffic outside a Vermont newspaper that carried the cartoon.

The cartoon depicts two men--one wearing a hat commonly worn by Orthodox Jews, who is standing while reading from a prayer book, and the other on his knees, bowing and wearing a kaffiyeh, the headdress worn by many Muslims. They are both praying before a huge wall constructed from the letters "H-A-T-E." A caption reads: "Worshiping their god."

For the Record
Los Angeles Times Tuesday October 17, 2000 Home Edition Metro Part B Page 9 Op Ed Desk 2 inches; 47 words Type of Material: Correction
Attribution--The readers' representative commentary Oct. 15 attributed a quote to Rabbi Yitzchok Adlerstein of the Simon Wiesenthal Center and Sydney M. Irmas. In fact, the letter quoted was from Adlerstein, who is a project director at the Center and also holds the Sydney M. Irmas chair in Jewish law and ethics at Loyola Law School.

The wall is clearly reminiscent of Judaism's most holy site, the Western Wall, which outraged most of those complaining. "Associating the [Western] Wall with hate is a most monstrous insult to the Jewish religion itself," wrote Steven Teitelbaum, regional president of the American Jewish Congress. Reflecting the view of many, he added that "while it would be correct to say that there is hatred that stems from both sides, it would be incorrect to state that the hatred comes from the teachings of their gods."

Another reader wondered, "What response do you feel would occur if a statue of the Virgin Mary appeared on the editorial page with the word 'hate' written on it?"

A letter from Rabbi Yitzchok Adlerstein of the Simon Wiesenthal Center and Sydney M. Irmas, chair in Jewish law and ethics at Loyola Law School, suggested that Ramirez might not understand the Western Wall's meaning in the Jewish world, but that "someone on the editorial page should have." They said Ramirez should "meet quietly with someone in the Jewish community who could dispassionately explain the fine line between political symbol and religious icon."

Ramirez denied that the wall in the cartoon was intended to depict the holy site but rather is "an unspecified wall of hate." He said he intended the cartoon to be "metaphorical," portraying the "extreme elements" among the Israelis and Palestinians who "engage in hatred of the other." In a response to readers that was posted on The Times' Web site Wednesday alongside the cartoon, he asked: "Do some from both sides seem to have elevated fanaticism to a religion of sorts? Clearly. Regrettably. That is my point."

Obviously, the cartoon failed to communicate his message. In addition, virtually no one saw the image as anything but the Western Wall, the use of which in the cartoon was careless and insensitive. In fact, Ramirez was ordered back to the drawing board once: The first draft of the cartoon, which was an unmistakable replica of the Western Wall, had been rejected for that reason by his editor, Janet Clayton, Ramirez said. Unfortunately, that first drawing was posted on The Times Web site when he first submitted it Oct. 3 and inadvertently was left there after his revised cartoon--the one published in the newspaper Oct. 6--was posted as well.

Although the original cartoon was withdrawn from the Web site Wednesday, that image's Web link had been distributed widely across the Internet for eight days, and it was seen by countless e-mailers.

Causing further anger and misunderstanding was the fact that the two praying figures were so small that a huge number of readers mistakenly saw them as two Jews, rather than a Jew and a Muslim, suggesting that only Jews hate. Others who saw it as Ramirez intended it to be seen were angry that the cartoonist depicted both religions as being devoted to hate. Some were incensed that it appeared during the Jewish high holy days.

Ramirez reduced the conflict to a religious rather than political dispute, while "the entire conflict between the Israelis and Palestinians is not based on religion," as one reader put it, but rather over land and security-political issues. These have been debated in decades of peace negotiations involving the best efforts of major world powers. Yet they have run aground on the hard rocks of competing nationalist interests that, while at times inflamed by religious extremism, are nonetheless real and must be resolved.

To reduce the complex, enduring and seemingly intractable problems of Israel and Palestine to a simple matter of religious fanaticism mocks the history of the region.

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