John Leo
Was the recent Dick Locher political cartoon in the Chicago Tribune anti-Semitic? Lots of people think so. George Bush is down on one knee spreading dollar bills to entice Ariel Sharon onto a bridge leading to peace. A big-nosed Sharon, with a Star of David on his suit, peers down at the money and says: "On second thought, the pathway to peace is looking a bit brighter."

Most of the elements of classic anti-Semitic cartoons are there -- the nose, greed, the invitation to laugh at the Jewish people's alleged lack of principle. But I have a question. Suppose you are not a fan of either Sharon or Bush, and you think that Bush really is bribing Israel to go along with an unworkable peace plan. Is it anti-Semitic to have this opinion? Or is it OK to think it but not OK to do a cartoon about it?

Granted that Locher and his editors should surely have recognized that the images are familiar ones in Nazi propaganda. They didn't because political cartooning is a form of pictorial assault that depends on exaggeration, and editors tend to get used to exaggeration and over-the-top metaphors from cartoonists.

Because the possibility of going too far is built into the business, it's important to know a cartoonist's track record before screaming for his head. Locher has no reputation for nastiness or anti-Semitism. Another cartoonist, Steve Kelley of the New Orleans Times-Picayune, told me: "He would have had to be an idiot to deliberately insert an anti-Semitic message into the Tribune, and he is not an idiot."

One obvious problem with a controversial cartoon is that you can't fix it by taking one or two things out, as you can with a column or a news report that goes too far. You have to kill it or let it be, often without realizing how incendiary it will seem to some people. This means editors are often torn between a form of censorship-like monitoring and an anything-goes acceptance.

Syndicated cartoonist Doug Marlette drew loud protests from Muslims for a satirical version of the evangelical Christian campaign against gas-guzzling SUVs ("What would Jesus drive?"). Last winter, he depicted a Muslim at the wheel of a Ryder truck carrying a nuclear bomb. The caption said, "What would Mohammed drive?" After Muslim protests, Marlette said he was not attacking the founder of the Muslim faith, as he certainly seemed to be. He said his target was the distortion of Islam by murderous fanatics.

John Leo

John Leo is editor of and a former contributing editor at U.S. News and World Report.

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