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Visualising the Holocaust: Iran's Holocaust Cartoon Contest1


Political cartoons have long been a vehicle for promoting antisemitism and, more recently, anti-Zionism. In addition to existing work on antisemitic cartoon depictions in Europe (Kotek, 2009; Vincze, 2013), there has been some important research into visual depictions of Jews and Israel in the Middle East (Kotek, 2009; Smith, 2012; Stav, 1999). Long-standing antisemitic myths are often represented in cartoon format in order to shape people's perceptions of Israel – they tend to emphasise the “evil” of Jews and the “conspiratorial” nature of Israel, often confl the two categories. Such cartoons can validate and promote antisemitism and are sometimes intended to justify draconian measures against Jews and the Jewish State. In addition to exploiting the media as a communicator of its anti-Zionist ideology, the Islamic Republic of Iran makes full use of political cartoons in order to delegitimise and demonise Israel. This was compellingly demonstrated in the Iranian governmentendorsed International Holocaust Cartoon Contest in 2006.

As a response to the Danish cartoons controversy in 2005, which depicted the Prophet Mohammed in demeaning ways (Hussain, 2007), the Iranian newspaper Hamshahri, which is owned by the Tehran Municipality, sponsored The International Holocaust Cartoon Contest. Submissions to the competition came from a number of countries (see Figure 6.1).

The stated aim of the contest was to denounce “Western hypocrisy on freedom of speech” in reference to the West's response to the Danish Cartoon Controversy. The organisers claimed that the Holocaust Cartoon Contest would challenge the boundaries of the Western notion of freedom of speech by problematising mainstream representations of the Holocaust. Although the stated aim was to reiterate opposition to Zionism and to the State of Israel, the contest clearly exhibited the Iranian regime's antisemitic orientation and its willingness to employ overt antisemitism as a vehicle for promoting its anti-Zionist agenda. Indeed, the contest was endorsed by Iranian officials, including Iran's Culture Ministry.2

1 This chapter is based upon a previously published article: Jaspal, R. (2014). Delegitimizing Jews and Israel in Iran's International Holocaust Cartoon Contest. Journal of Modern Jewish Studies, 13(2), 167–89. It is used here with the permission of that journal. 2 Anti-Defamation League website


Figure 6.1 Contributors to the 2006 International Holocaust Cartoon Competition

Given the social and political importance of the Holocaust Cartoon Contest and the general clout that visual representations can have in shaping public opinion, political views and intergroup relations (Bounegru and Forceville, 2011), this chapter focuses on the 2006 contest as a case study for examining antisemitic and anti-Zionist social representations and patterns of delegitimisation and demonisation in the Islamic Republic. The contest is one of the many ways in which the Iranian regime has sought to disseminate its anti-Zionist ideology (Jaspal, 2013a), but provides unique insight into the overtly antisemitic aspects of this ideology. The chapter begins with a methodological overview of the visual thematic analysis of the cartoons submitted to the contest. Then, the following three superordinate themes, which emerged from the analysis, are outlined and discussed: (i) Constructing the “Evil Jew” and “Bloodthirsty Israel”; (ii) Palestinian Suffering as the 'Real' Holocaust; and (iii) Nazi-Zionism as an International Conspiracy.

Methodological overview

All 227 cartoon submissions to the Holocaust Cartoon Contest are available to download on the Irancartoon Web Gallery website.3 The 227 cartoons were analysed using qualitative thematic analysis, which has been described as “a method for identifying, analysing and reporting patterns (themes) within data”

3 (Braun and Clarke, 2006, p.78). These patterns of meaning are represented as “themes”. While thematic analysis has typically been employed in the analysis of textual data (see Part IV of this book), this study applies the method to the analysis of visual representations in order to identify social representations of Jews and Israel embodied in cartoons concerning the Holocaust. This approach has been referred to as visual thematic analysis (see also Nerlich and Jaspal, 2014).

Thematic analysis was deemed to be advantageous because it can allow the analyst to integrate the micro and macro levels of analysis. For instance, while at the micro level a cartoon may depict a prisoner concentration camp, at a macro level this resonates with imagery of the Holocaust and perhaps genocide, more generally. The aim of the study was to provide a rich thematic description of a relatively small corpus of cartoons, which might elucidate emerging social representations of Jews and Israel. Given the dearth of research into cartoon representations of Jews and Israel, an inductive approach has been adopted whereby the themes are closely linked to the data themselves, and thus data-driven, rather than interpreted through the lens of any pre-existing theory (Patton, 1990).

The analysis focuses upon representations of Jews and Israel in particular, that is, upon (i) the constructed “essence” of Jews and Israel; (ii) their relationships with others (e.g. Palestinians); (iii) historical events associated with Jews and Israel (primarily, the Holocaust). The analytical codes captured the essential qualities of the cartoons, such as inter alia the components of each cartoon, its general tone, its potential emotive force, the presence of other groups, and emerging patterns within the data. Subsequently, these codes were collated in order to create overarching themes characterising the corpus of cartoons. Finally, superordinate themes representing the themes derived from the analysis were developed and ordered into a logical and coherent narrative structure. Relevant constructs from Social Representations Theory (such as anchoring and objectifi were drawn upon as a means of theoretically enriching the analysis. All source information regarding the cartoons discussed in the chapter is presented in the footnotes in this chapter.

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