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Norway's Favorite Anti-Semitic Cartoonist Strikes Again

After the publication of a dozen Muhammed cartoons in the September 30, 2005, issue of the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten led to mass Muslim mayhem, the story of the cartoons went worldwide – but the cartoons didn't. Well, yes, you could find them online. But very few of the newspapers, newsmagazines, and TV news programs that reported on them actually showed them. They were too scared. One brave exception was Vebjørn Selbekk, then editor of Magazinet, a tiny Norwegian newspaper. In its January 9, 2006, issue, he reprinted the cartoons as part of a feature examining their impact. The feature included an interview with Norway's most famous editorial cartoonist, Finn Graff, who has been plying his trade at various newspapers – most recently Dagbladet – since 1960. Asked if he would ever draw anything that might offend Muslims, Graff said no. He admitted that he feared the possible repercussions, but also insisted that his decision was based “as much on respect for [Muslims'] religious belief as on real fear.” In other words, as I wrote in my 2009 book Surrender, “he supposedly respected beliefs that he knew might drive people to kill him.”

For reprinting the Danish cartoons, the courageous Selbekk ended up being savaged by pretty much the entire Norwegian cultural establishment and pressured to apologize by people at the highest levels of the Norwegian government. Prime Minister Jens Stoltenberg (now head of NATO) declared that, yes, Norway had free-speech rights, but that those rights came with responsibilities, which Selbekk had ignored; Stoltenberg also insisted that no major Norwegian newspaper had reprinted the cartoons. (On the contrary, Aftenposten had done so, and Dagbladet had run them on its website, but in the effort to single out Selbekk for demonization these inconvenient facts were dropped down the memory hole.) On February 10, 2006, Selbekk capitulated and, in the presence of government ministers and reporters, formally expressed his contrition to fourteen imams representing forty-six Norwegian Muslim organizations. It was a disgraceful day for Norwegian liberty.

Meanwhile Graff stuck to his promise. He is still at work, and will turn eighty this Christmas, and he has never drawn a cartoon that might offend Muslims. He has, however, continued to churn out cartoons that depict another group in the most negative imaginable way. That group? Jews. Over the years, his drawings have repeatedly equated Jews with Nazis and Israel with Hitler's Germany. On April 3, 2001, for example, Dagbladet ran a cartoon that alluded to a famous photograph of Jews being rounded up in the Warsaw ghetto; in Graff's rendering, the helpless victims were not Jews but Palestinians, notably Yasir Arafat, and the genocidal monsters were not Nazis but Israelis, as represented by a single huge-nosed soldier (an image of the Jew that would not have been out of place in the Nazi newspaper Der Stürmer).

There were several more such cartoons in the years that followed. The one that ran in Dagbladet on July 10, 2006, drew harsher criticism than usual. Drawn in response to civilian deaths in Gaza, it depicted Ehud Olmert, Israel's then prime minister, as Amon Göth, the Nazi concentration-camp commander who, in the film Schindler's List, is depicted as shooting at Jewish prisoners just for the fun of it. After the cartoon was published, Israel's ambassador to Norway, Miryam Shomrat, filed a formal complaint with Pressens Faglige Utvalg, Norway's press ethics commission. PFU dismissed her complaint on the grounds that the Norwegian press has a high tolerance for controversial editorial cartoons – an absurd claim that came only five months after the Norwegian state had put Selbekk through his humilation ritual.

Since then, Graff has kept these repulsive things coming. Has his chronic Jew-bashing harmed his reputation? Au contraire. Far from ever being disciplined, suspended, or fired, he's been showered with awards. In 2006 he won a prize from Norway's Ethical Humanist Society. The next year, King Harald V presented him with the Order of Saint Olav, the closest thing in Norway to a knighthood. Last year, he was given a lifetime-achievement award that is the highest accolade in Norwegian journalism. When he won that one, Geir Ramnefjell, the political editor of Dagbladet, praised him as follows: “Finn spares no one.” Another inconvenient fact dropped down the memory hole.

Last week Graff landed himself in another controversy. It began with an August 7 cartoon in Dagbladet that shows Benjamin Netanyahu sitting on a bench. Written on the bench in English, in a clear reference to Jim Crow, are the words “Whites only.” Netanyahu's arms and legs form the shape of – what else? – a swastika. One hand is curled into a fist, which he has apparently just used to knock a Druze off the bench. Inspired by the recent official declaration that Israel is, indeed, the homeland of the Jews – a declaration that, some critics charge, turns gentiles into second-class citizens – the cartoon, like the one of Olmert in 2006, led to a complaint to the PFU by the Israeli government, which demanded that Dagbladet apologize and remove it from its website. The Simon Wiesenthal Center described the cartoon as an example of “contemptuous Jew-hatred.” The head of Oslo's only synagogue, Ervin Kohn, called the cartoon anti-Semitic. But Dagbladet stood firm, with Ramnefjell pulling out the “satire” defense.

Appearing on August 9 on Dagsnytt atten, a current-affairs TV and radio program, Kohn underscored that he wasn't denying anyone's freedom of expression. He didn't want to see anyone punished. This isn't a legal matter, he emphasized, but a question of decency. Appearing with him was Arne Jensen of the Association of Norwegian Editors, which supported Dagbladet's position. Jensen said he could understand if Jews found the cartoon offensive, but insisted it was not meant as an attack on Jews but as a jab at Netanyahu. Kohn replied that invoking Nazism was not a “jab.” When the host asked Kohn if there was any boundary that cartoonists should respect, Kohn replied forcefully: “The boundary is Nazism!...How hard is that to understand?” This was, he further argued, not a matter of Jews being “offended,” as Muslims claimed to be by the Danish cartoons; this was a matter of Graff trivializing a profound chapter of European history that involved everyone and that should therefore appall everyone. Neither the host nor Jensen, alas, got it. Jensen proceeded to refer to the Holocaust as something that had happened to “you,” i.e. the Jews; Kohn repeated, passionately, that the Shoah is part of the history of everyone in Norway and Europe. But Jensen remained clueless; replying to Kohn, he actually referred to the Holocaust as “historic discomforts” (historiske ubehageligheter).

The program was illuminating, because even though Finn Graff wasn't there in person, he was there in spirit. The exchange provided a vivid reminder that he's far from the only person in Norway who doesn't grasp the colossal inappropriateness of equating any Jew with the Nazis. They all walk on eggshells when the subject is Islam, but Jews and Israel are another story. Of course it's all about cowardice. In Graff's case, to be sure, it may be about something more. For as it happens – and this is something I first learned the other day from his Wikipedia page – Graff is only half Norwegian. He was born in Germany in 1938, the son of a Norwegian mother and a German father – a Luftwaffe pilot who died when his plane was shot down in the war. In 1946, Graff's mother brought her son to Norway. Is it possible – or, should I say, isn't it likely – that this background helps explain Graff's manifest hatred for Jews, his obsession with Nazi imagery, and his readiness to equate the Holocaust's victims with its perpetrators? In any event, why does this sensational family history never come up when one of Graff's anti-Semitic cartoons creates a blowback? Could it be that the same Norwegian cultural and media elite that blithely rejects any duty to be sensitive about Norway's past treatment of Jews feels curiously obliged to show sensitivity about the Nazi family history of an honored friend and colleague?