Friday, August 25, 2006

Iran Exhibits Anti-Jewish Art

The New York Times
Iran Exhibits Anti-Jewish Art

TEHRAN, Aug. 24 — The title of the show is “Holocaust International Cartoon Contest,” or “Holocust,” as the show’s organizers spell the word in promotional material. But the content has little to do with the events of World War II and Nazi Germany.

There is instead a drawing of a Jew with a very large nose, a nose so large it obscures his entire head. Across his chest is the word Holocaust. Another drawing shows a vampire wearing a big Star of David drinking the blood of Palestinians. A third shows Ariel Sharon dressed in a Nazi uniform, emblazoned not with swastikas but with the Star of David.

The cartoons are among more than 200 on display in the Palestinian Contemporary Art Museum in central Tehran in a show that opened this month and is to run until the middle of September.

The exhibition is intended to expose what some here see as Western hypocrisy for invoking freedom of expression regarding the publication of cartoons that lampooned the Prophet Muhammad while condemning President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad of Iran for questioning the Holocaust.

The cartoons of Muhammad, first published in September 2005 in a Danish newspaper, were widely condemned by Muslims as blasphemous. They prompted riots in many countries, which left some people dead and several European embassies burned by demonstrators.

The cartoons in the exhibit draw on images both ancient and contemporary, from the fictional “Protocols of the Elders of Zion,” to Israeli tanks running over Palestinian children. Each picture is carefully matted and placed in a soft wood frame, hung with great care and illuminated by gentle lighting.

“It is not that we are against a specific religion,” said the show’s curator, Seyed Massoud Shojaei, making a distinction that visitors to the show are certain to question. “We are against repression by the Israelis.”

In February, the Iranian newspaper Hamshahri said it would challenge Western concepts of freedom of expression by exploring one of the West’s taboos and challenging accounts of the Holocaust in the contest. Mr. Shojaei said more than 1,000 pictures from 61 countries had been submitted, proving that “there is a new Holocaust in Guantánamo Bay, Abu Ghraib, Palestine, Iraq and Afghanistan.”

The provocative theme may attract the attention of the West. But it has gone little noticed here. Over a three-day period the gallery was virtually empty. A few visitors stopped by, mostly art students who said they had visited to examine artistic techniques. Many were happy to take away a free poster: a photograph showing three military helmets piled up, two with swastikas on the crown, a third with the Star of David.

“I came here to study the quality of the work,” said Hamid Derikvand, 27, who said he was an art student at the university across the street from the gallery.

What did he think of the message? “I am not interested in politics,” he said.

Technically this is not a government show. The cash prizes that will be awarded to the winners — including a $12,000 top prize — will not come from the government, Mr. Shojaei said. But the theme of the show fit well with the leadership’s efforts to define itself as confrontational with the West and as a leader in challenging Israel’s existence. At the height of the worldwide anger over the Muhammad cartoons there were two protests in Tehran, both organized by government officials.

But while people here say they sympathize with Palestinians and Lebanese and are angry at Israel and the United States, there did not seem to be a rush to see the show.

“Look, these cartoons are the reflections of U.S. and Israelis’ deeds, but wouldn’t it have been better if they were put on display in the U.S. or even in Israel?” said Ali Eezadi, 70, a retired industrial engineer who visited the gallery Thursday afternoon.

“If this were the case,” he said, “certainly there would be a rationale for it. But having this kind of exhibition in Iran does not draw much attention. I mean, these things are said, written and expressed in lots of ways that makes people apathetic.”

At first, Mr. Shojaei was eager to show visitors around. He was proud to point to his own drawing, a rabid dog with a Star of David on its side and the word Holocaust around its collar.

He said there were three reasons for holding the show. The first is that in the West it is all right to insult religion but impermissible to question the Holocaust, he said.

The second is to ask why Palestinians must pay the price for the atrocities of the Holocaust — which he, unlike his president, did not question. And the third is to draw attention to what he called the creation of a new Holocaust against Muslims, primarily Palestinians.

“We have been accused of being advocates for neo-Nazis,” he said, speaking in Persian through an interpreter. “This is not true.”

The show took up three floors of the gallery, and Mr. Shojaei was on the third floor, surrounded by images that at most used the Holocaust as a subtext: a dove chained to a Star of David. President Bush seated at a desk swatting doves. A Jew, or Israeli, asleep with three Arab heads mounted to the wall above his bed.

“We are not saying the Holocaust is a myth,” he said. “We are saying that by this excuse Israelis are repressing other people.”

But Mr. Shojaei was not interested in answering questions or being challenged on his statements. “You will need to make an appointment for an interview,” he said abruptly, and left quickly through the front door after an attempt to engage him.

Cartoons from other countries were on display as well: China, India, Brazil, Syria, Jordan, Pakistan. An Israeli soldier, holding a gasoline can that said Holocaust on the side, pouring the fuel into a military tank. A razor blade in the ground, like the wall Israel is building along the West Bank, with the word Holocaust along the side. Two firefighters, each with a Star of David on his chest, using Palestinian blood to extinguish the word Holocaust, which was ablaze.

Mr. Shojaei said none of the images were intended as anti-Jewish, only anti-Zionist and anti-Israeli — and of course, anti-American and anti-British. As evidence, he said Iranians lived peacefully with this country’s Jews.

But Morris Motamed, the one Jewish member of Iran’s Parliament, said he had not gone to the show, because “it was in line with anti-Semitism and aimed at insulting Jews.”

He added, “I felt if I went, I would get insulted and get hurt.”