Cartoon proves Holocaust is not a joke

Leonard Pitts, columnist

What is it with student journalists lately?
First you had the white kid at Oregon State who wrote a column calling black people immoral. Then you had the one at the University of Massachusetts who opined that Pat Tillman, the former NFL player killed in Afghanistan, “got what was coming to him.”
But the one that really stops me comes out of Rutgers University. I don’t single it out because of the transgression per se, even though it was egregious.
For those who hadn’t heard: The Medium, a weekly student journal of news, opinion, humor and scatology, published a cartoon on its cover under the headline “Holocaust Remembrance Week.”
The cartoon was set at a carnival and depicted a bearded man sitting on the edge of an open kitchen stove. The caption: “Knock a Jew in the oven! Three throws for one dollar.”
Real knee-slapping stuff.
Small wonder many people reacted in outrage. Some demanded the school shut down the paper. Rutgers officials, pointing to a Supreme Court ruling protecting college newspapers from censorship, said their hands were tied. Last week, the newspaper, which has reportedly become notorious for racist “humor” and pornographic imagery, issued an entirely predictable apology.
But again, it’s not the cartoon alone that drops my jaw. No, the thing that appalls me is that the editor who chose the image and who defended it, says he is himself Jewish. Indeed, Nathaniel Berke told reporters he has ancestors who died in the Holocaust.
His reasoning in running the cartoon? “A lot of people were saying it was very funny,” he told the New York Sun. Also, humor about the Holocaust has always been taboo, he said. He thought making fun of it would help people cope.
The sheer temerity of it inspires awe.
I will leave it to others to analyze what, if anything, all this says about anti-Semitism or Jewish self-loathing. I’m having enough trouble getting my mind around the idea that a man with blood ties to the Holocaust could find that cartoon funny.
The issue is not, contrary to what he would have us believe, that Holocaust humor is not allowed. Granted, it’s a supremely difficult thing to pull off, but the three Oscars awarded to actor-director Roberto Benigni’s “Life Is Beautiful,” a 1997 comedy partially set in a death camp, stand as stark proof that it’s possible.
What separates Benigni’s movie from this execrable cartoon is obvious, of course. In the movie, the dead are not the butt of the joke.
It’s a distinction that speaks to the meanness, the lack of basic humanity, that permeates much of popular culture these days. My argument is not — I can’t say this strongly enough — about language or imagery but rather, about intent. About taking as one’s purpose the diminution and humiliation of some marginalized racial, religious, ethnic or sexual group. And then hiding behind irreverence or claiming higher purpose.
As in this nitwit’s contention that the cartoon would help people cope with the Holocaust. I guess we should be grateful he didn’t say it would help them find “closure.”
Political satire is one of the blessings of American liberty, the sharper its elbows, the better. But making a joke of the signature atrocity of modern times, the wanton slaughter of 6 million human beings, is not satire. Not even close.
It is, rather, the behavior of stunted children, emotional cripples incapable of reverence or even simple respect. And whether that malady stems from the unwillingness of the young to learn the lessons of history or the ineffectiveness of the old in teaching them, the effect is the same. Those lessons, purchased at a cost of blood and flesh, are not passed down and instead, pass away.
To put it another way: The Holocaust is not a joke. And if we’re at a point where you have to explain that to a Jewish kid, heaven help us all.

Leonard Pitts is a columnist for the Miami Herald. Readers may contact him at:
lpitts@herald.com