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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.

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