January 04, 2021
By David Andrew Weinberg
On New Year’s Day, Iranian officials acting with the support of Supreme Leader Khamenei released the full results of Iran’s third major collection of political cartoons aimed at promoting Holocaust denial. Past contests on this horrendous topic were notoriously held with Iranian state support in 2006 and 2016.
Yet again, Iran’s effort came in response to a European publication promoting offensive caricatures of the Prophet Muhammed – most recently, following an announcement by the French magazine Charlie Hebdo that it would republish its 2015 cartoons on the subject. And as in previous cases, Iranian officials made clear that their intention was two-fold: to challenge Europe’s approach to freedom of speech that permits demeaning Islam’s messenger but forbids Holocaust denial; plus also asserting that Palestinians were unfairly forced to pay for European crimes, thus reinforcing the regime’s narrative that the State of Israel is illegitimate.
This one, comprehensive cartoon contest was originally going to be titled The Compensation for the Holocaust (although some sources translated it into English as The Atonement of the Holocaust). However, events intervened, and the effort was consequently split into two separate collections.
The first intervening event was the Kingdom of Bahrain’s normalization announcement with the State of Israel and joining the United Arab Emirates for a historic signing ceremony with Israel on the White House lawn. As a result, when Tehran’s cartoon contest was formally launched on September 22nd its title was changed to Palestine is Not Alone. Holocaust denial and Charlie Hebdo were mentioned as possible themes during the contest’s launch event but were not officially part of the contest categories or submission criteria.
Second, French President Emmanuel Macron proclaimed “we will not give up cartoons” at a memorial for a teacher killed by an extremist for showing Charlie Hebdo cartoons to his class. Tehran took this as Macron’s endorsement of blasphemy against the Prophet Muhammad, as well as a renewed reason to resuscitate its Holocaust denial effort to mobilize anger at France.
Although the Palestine is Not Alone contest was already scheduled to stay open for submissions until December, in the meantime organizers announced the urgent launch of a separate, smaller collection of materials focused specifically on condemning Macron. It was titled The Lies of the Holocaust and aimed at generating posters for an incendiary protest at France’s Embassy in Tehran.
Cartoons promoted in connection with Iran’s Holocaust Lies collection and the demonstration in Tehran encouraged Holocaust denial, antisemitic tropes, and demonization of French President Macron in numerous grotesque and intolerant ways. Many portrayed him as a long-nosed, devious tool of international Jewry, a snake-tongued or devilish monster, and a purveyor of filth and even Nazism itself. In many instances, the cartoons explicitly cited recent remarks on the subject by Iran’s supreme leader, suggested exploitation or exaggeration of the Nazi genocide, and bloodsucking Jews.
Consequently, when Iran’s international call for submissions to its other collection, Palestine is Not Alone, came due in December and were finally posted online on New Year’s Day, Holocaust Denial was but one of the many antisemitic messages contained in that set of 800-plus images. However, the Holocaust-related bigotry in those materials still came through quite clearly.
One image glorified the notorious French Holocaust denier Roger Garaudy in a gallery of what it called “The free men of the world, supporters of Palestine, against Israel” that also included several terrorist leaders. Several compared Israel or Western nations to Nazis, and numerous others argued that Israel was fundamentally illegitimate or engaged in genocide.
Iran’s Palestine is Not Alone cartoon contest also provided a platform for propagating antisemitic bigotry of all kinds. For example, every one of the seven antisemitic tropes outlined in ADL’s Antisemitism Uncovered: A Guide to Old Myths in a New Era were promoted through the contest: not just Holocaust denial but also power, disloyalty, greed, deicide, blood, and anti-Zionist bigotry. Examples include images promoting a stereotype of Israeli Jews, the Jewish people, or Zionists as greedy, controlling America, betraying peace overtures with butchery, drinking blood, or as Christ-killers, and portraying Zionism as fundamentally violent.
Furthermore, Iran’s Palestine is Not Alone international cartoon contest propagated a broad array of other egregiously antisemitic materials as well. Many of the examples engage in demonization or dehumanization of Jews, Zionists, or the Jewish state, for example comparing them to devils, diseases, machines, scorpions, sharks, snakes, or vermin.
Additionally, while it is not surprising the contest’s organizers encouraged caricatures aimed at demeaning Arab leaders past or present who have made peace with Israel, it is striking how many of these images portrayed such peacemakers as scandalous agents of the Jews. Additionally, many of these images applied classic antisemitic tropes to Bahraini, Emirati, Jordanian or Egyptian leaders, depicting them as bloodthirsty, devilish, greedy, and monstrous.
Notably, a cartoon that generated controversy when it was published by the New York Times and then withdrawn for showing U.S. President Donald Trump being led by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, was also reposted by the contest in its section of caricature submissions.
Incitement to Violence
Perhaps what makes this dehumanizing propaganda so dangerous is that it also is used to legitimize Iran’s support for terrorism to destroy the Jewish state. Indeed, one of the contest’s organizers invoked the memories of several terrorist leaders at its launch event in September, presenting it as part of a “cultural and artistic war against the evil regime of Israel.”
A handful of cartoons promoted by the contest went so far as to call for the destruction of Israel – and, in one case, to call for the destruction of the United States of America as well. One lifts up an old quote from the Islamic Republic’s late founder, Ruhollah Khomeini, calling “Israel and its dangerous agents… an abscess of corruption in the heart of the Islamic countries” that threatens them and “must be eliminated”. A second image advances a more recent quote from Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei that Israel’s “foundations are extremely loose” and that “the regime is condemned to disappear.”
Another cartoon shows armed fighters at al-Aqsa Mosque with shirts that say “freedom with blood” putting ballots in a box that says “Public referendum for all Palestinians: from the river to the Nile”. Likewise, a similar submission displays on it a long Khamenei quote that includes the phrase “from the River to the Nile” as well, and another uses a Khamenei quote condemning “the fake regime of Israel” and calling it a “dirty page in history which will be closed.”
Other content from Iran’s Palestine is Not Alone contest contained propaganda glorifying support for major terrorist organizations that seek to eliminate the Jewish state, attack Jewish communities, or engage in other acts of terrorism. Various logos glorify a broad array of U.S.-designated terrorist entities, including Hamas and its use of precision-guided missiles, Lebanese Hizballah, Hizballah Brigades in Iraq, Harakat al-Nujaba in Iraq, Iran’s IRGC and the late head of its Qods Force, Qassem Soleimani. Disturbingly, in one image Soleimani is even depicted strolling along Jerusalem’s Western Wall.
In 2016, Iran’s Foreign Minister Javad Zarif tried to fend off criticism over his country’s second major international cartoon contest that encouraged Holocaust denial by claiming that the Iranian government did not support, endorse, control, or organize the event. His claim was widely debunked at the time, and again this time around it is clear that the effort is state supported.
The two cartoon contests this year were both organized by one of the same individuals and institutions that organized the last one: the Arts Zone division of Iran’s Islamic Propagation Organization (which reports directly to the regime’s Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei) as well as an individual named Masoud Shojaei-Tabatabai, who runs one of Arts Zone’s departments as well as the Iranian House of Cartoon, which at least in past years has identified itself as being sponsored by the Municipality of Tehran.
As ADL documented in October, Shojaei-Tabatabai announced his original plans for the contest on a program run by Khamenei’s personal website. He also promoted both events extensively through Mehr News Agency in Persian and Tehran News in English, both of which are also divisions of Iran’s Islamic Propagation Organization, whose chair is appointed by Khamenei. When The Lies of the Holocaust was organized on short notice in October, it was to provide materials for use at threatening demonstrations outside the French Embassy in Tehran, which was organized by university divisions of the Basij, which according to the U.S. Government is subordinate to IRGC and also coordinates closely with Khamenei’s son in his personal office.
As such, this barrage of incitement is not just the work of some uncouth nongovernmental agitators. It is part of an ongoing campaign of state-sponsored propaganda that helps fuel bigotry and terrorism around the world.
And it is up to all governments, not just civil society, to push back appropriately.
David Andrew Weinberg is ADL’s Washington Director for International Affairs.