The Biggest Loser in Tehran's Holocaust Cartoon Contest: Iran

5-18-16 Holocaust cartoon contest
An Iranian cleric visits a Holocaust cartoon exhibit in Tehran on August 14, 2006. The Second International Holocaust Cartoon Contest exhibition opened in Tehran on Saturday. Leaders from the U.S., Germany, Israel and UNESCO have condemned the contest. Raheb Homavandi/Reuters

Germany added yet another voice Wednesday to the growing list of countries and leaders condemning a Holocaust cartoon contest being held in Iran.

"The murder of 6 million men, women and children during the Holocaust, for which we Germans bear guilt and responsibility, must not be abandoned to ridicule," German Foreign Ministry spokesman Martin Schaefer said. The Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier himself, Schaefer said, had previously come out against such a contest during a visit to Tehran in February, the Associated Press reported. It's "very regrettable" that the contest has nevertheless continued, Schaefer said.

An exhibition of 150 cartoons and caricatures submitted for the contest opened Saturday at the Tehran Art Bureau, according to the Tehran Times, with artists of dozens of nationalities represented in the display. Submissions reportedly came from countries such as France, Australia, Brazil, China, Indonesia and Colombia. Three winners in each of the two categories (cartoon and caricature) will be announced upon the show's conclusion at the end of the month, CNSNews reported, with roughly $50,000 in prize money to be distributed among winners and finalists. The top prize is $12,000.

"This exhibition constitutes a response to the publications of cartoons by the French Charlie Hebdo magazine, which affronted the Prophet Muhammad, as well as an expression of [our opposition] to the massacres perpetrated against the Palestinian people," said Masoud Shojaei-Tabatabaei in a report by Iran's Al-Alam TV, which has been posted to YouTube with English subtitles by the Middle East Media Research Institute (MEMRI), a nonprofit based in Washington, D.C., that aims to bridge language gaps and inform discussions of the Middle East.

"We do not mean to approve or deny the Holocaust," Shojaei-Tabatabaei told the Tehran Times. "However, the main question is why is there no permission to talk about the Holocaust despite their [the West's] belief in freedom of speech." He reportedly explained at a press conference Saturday that the first contest, held in 2006, as well as the current one—which some sources are referring to as the Second International Holocaust Cartoon Contest despite the fact that a version of the competition was also held last year—are meant to highlight a double standard in the West when it comes to depicting the Holocaust versus the Prophet Mohammad. He insisted that Holocaust denial was not the goal, but his attempts to elaborate resulted in a jarring comparison. "Holocaust means 'mass killing,'" he said. "We are witnessing the biggest killings by the Zionist regime in Gaza and Palestine."

Iran has a history of Holocaust denial. When the contest was first held in 2006, then-President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad had already become well known for calling the Holocaust a "myth." The country's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, has also expressed doubt. For example, in a speech he gave for Nowruz, the Iranian New Year, in 2014, he called the Holocaust "an event whose reality is uncertain, and if it happened, it's uncertain how it happened."

The comments from Germany's Foreign Ministry spokesman on Wednesday were only the latest in a string of condemnations for the latest contest. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who was a frequent target in the submitted caricatures, fumed at a weekly cabinet meeting in Jerusalem on Sunday, telling ministers that Iran "denies the Holocaust, mocks the Holocaust and is preparing another Holocaust," and saying that "every country in the world must stand up and fully condemn this."

That same day, U.S. State Department spokesman Mark Toner expressed Washington's concern that the contest could "be used as a platform for Holocaust denial and revisionism and egregiously anti-Semitic speech, as it has in the past."

"We denounce any Holocaust denial and trivialization as inflammatory and abhorrent. It is insulting to the memory of the millions of people who died in the Holocaust," Toner added. "Such offensive speech should be condemned by the authorities and civil society leaders rather than encouraged."

In an interview published last month, Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif told The New Yorker that the government of Iran was not responsible for the contest and did not control or endorse the nongovernmental organization running it. But both the contest organizer Shojaei-Tabatabaei and exiled Iranian journalist Aida Qajar have refuted the idea that Iran's government has no involvement.

The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum echoed those sentiments in a press release dated April 29. "The organizations associated with the contest are sponsored or supported by government entities, including the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps and the Ministry of Islamic Guidance," the release said, while reports in Iranian press indicated support from the Ministry of Culture. The 2006 contest, the USHMM said, "had the endorsement and support of government officials and agencies."

"The global community and the people of Iran deserve an unequivocal denouncement of this Holocaust cartoon contest," Tad Stahnke, director of USHMM's Initiative on Holocaust Denial and Antisemitism, is quoted as saying. "Given the Iranian government's past involvement with these events and its history of restricting unsanctioned speech, it will take much more effort on its part to distance itself from this contest," he added. "We strongly encourage Zarif and other members of the Iranian government to condemn Holocaust denial and to allow Iranian citizens access to accurate information about the Holocaust."

In the Al-Alam segment posted by MEMRI, reporter Salim Issa says that "the goals of the contest are to enhance the culture of freedom of speech by means of modern art and to open new horizons for cultural and artistic cooperation and exchange between Iranian and foreign artists."

But Irina Bokova, the director-general of UNESCO, has vehemently criticized the event. "This contest goes against the universal values of tolerance and respect, and runs counter to the action led by UNESCO to promote Holocaust education, to fight anti-Semitism and denial," she said in a statement posted Friday, having previously expressed UNESCO's concerns in a letter to the Iranian ambassador. "Such an initiative which aims at a mockery of the genocide of the Jewish people, a tragic page of humanity's history, can only foster hatred and incite to violence, racism and anger."