Skip To Content
JEWISH. INDEPENDENT. NONPROFIT.

Support the Forward

Funded by readers like you DonateSubscribe
Back to Opinion

Why Charlie Hebdo Must Be Free to Offend All — Even Us

Offensive to All: An example of the provocative caricaturing of Stephane Charbonnier, the murdered editor of Charlie Hebdo. This is one in a series of cartoons lampooning the commandments of the bible. Image by charlie hebdo

It is not easy to be at the receiving end of Charlie Hebdo’s especially biting, brutal form of satire. Jews should know.

Since the massacre of the French magazine’s top editors and journalists January 7, much has been made of their eagerness to criticize and lampoon people of all faiths, from the pope to presidents to the Prophet Muhammad. An oft-cited example is a depiction of an Orthodox Jew awkwardly kissing a Nazi — though careful digging by Forward staff ascertained that wasn’t, in fact, published by Charlie Hebdo but by Shoah Hebdo, a critique of the criticizers.

No matter. Jews come in for some cringe-worthy portrayals elsewhere. In 2013, Stephane Charbonnier, the editor and one of 10 staff members (along with two police officers) murdered, penned a series entitled “One Commandment A Day: The Torah Illustrated by Charb,” coarsely depicting Jews perverting their religious values in ordinary interactions and through the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Offensive to All: An example of the provocative caricaturing of Stephane Charbonnier, the murdered editor of Charlie Hebdo. This is one in a series of cartoons lampooning the commandments of the bible. Image by charlie hebdo

Ne pas opprimer les faibles” (Don’t oppress the weak) is illustrated by a Jewish man firing an assault weapon into the back of a Palestinian woman. “Here, take that Goliath!,” he says.

That’s followed by “Ne pas se venger” (Don’t take revenge), in which the woman is lying prone, bleeding profusely, as the man gestures, “Don’t make a big deal about it. No hard feelings.”

Awful. Offensive. Unfair. Even, perhaps, dangerous.

And all we can and should do is swallow hard and accept that this is the steep but worthy price of allowing free speech in an open society.

“Muhammad isn’t sacred to me,” Charbonnier told The Associated Press in 2012, after his magazine published cartoons infuriating some Muslims, its offices firebombed in response. Neither, it seemed, were Jews, Catholics, Israel, the French government, and other forces of perceived power and influence. Yet even if Charlie Hebdo’s graphic opinions amounted to hateful speech, they should never have triggered violence, murder and a frontal challenge to basic democratic values.

There is only one legitimate way to deal with offense — and gladly there are examples of this alternative approach. After the publication of controversial cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad in a Danish newspaper triggered deadly riots, two Canadian newspapers decided to make a statement by reprinting the cartoons. One of the papers was the Jewish Free Press in Calgary.

“First they came for the cartoonists,” read the headline in the February 6, 2006 issue. The paper also published a selection of anti-Semitic cartoons that appeared in Muslim countries. Its publisher offered members of Calgary’s Muslim community a chance to respond.

They refused. Instead, Muslim groups filed complaints with the Crown Prosecutor, alleging that publication amounted to a violation of the Canadian criminal code prohibiting the “willful promotion of hatred.” The police investigated and, in the end, no charges were ever filed.

This is how democratic societies settle their differences: not by silencing offense, but by civilly confronting it. There should be no other way.

Engage

  • SHARE YOUR FEEDBACK

  • UPCOMING EVENT

    SKY & SCULPTURE

    Hybrid: Online and at the Marlene Meyerson JCC Manhattan

    Oct 2, 2022

    6:30 pm ET · 

    A Sukkah, IMKHA, created by artist Tobi Kahn, for the Marlene Meyerson JCC of Manhattan is an installation consisting of 13 interrelated sculpted painted wooden panels, constituting a single work of art. Join for a panel discussion with Rabbi Joanna Samuels, Chief Executive Director of the Marlene Meyerson JCC of Manhattan, Talya Zax, Innovation Editor of the Forward, and Tobi Kahn, Artist. Moderated by Mattie Kahn.

Republish This Story

Please read before republishing

We’re happy to make this story available to republish for free, unless it originated with JTA, Haaretz or another publication (as indicated on the article) and as long as you follow our guidelines. You must credit the Forward, retain our pixel and preserve our canonical link in Google search.  See our full guidelines for more information, and this guide for detail about canonical URLs.

To republish, copy the HTML by clicking on the yellow button to the right; it includes our tracking pixel, all paragraph styles and hyperlinks, the author byline and credit to the Forward. It does not include images; to avoid copyright violations, you must add them manually, following our guidelines. Please email us at [email protected], subject line “republish,” with any questions or to let us know what stories you’re picking up.

We don't support Internet Explorer

Please use Chrome, Safari, Firefox, or Edge to view this site.