RIGHT FROM WRONG: It's not about free speech

Israeli cartoonists should hand their heads in shame for boasting about poking fun at Judaism and politicians to their Right. For this they get rewarded, promoted and admired, not gunned down.

January 11, 2015 22:14
Copies of the French satirical weekly "Charlie Hebdo" are seen in its Paris newsroom

Copies of the French satirical weekly "Charlie Hebdo" are seen in its Paris newsroom. (photo credit: REUTERS)

On Thursday evening, three Israeli cartoonists were interviewed on the evening news about their art, which involves the figurative “slaughter of sacred cows.”

The item was one of many references to Wednesday’s literal slaughter of two policemen and 10 journalists, among them cartoonists, at the Paris weekly Charlie Hebdo.

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The questions, put by Channel 2’s Yonatan Riger to Amos Biderman, Ze’ev Engelmeyer and Daniela London- Dekel – each well-known for pictorial editorials on societal, political and religious ills – centered on three main issues: whether their often antagonistic caricatures ever cause them to fear for their lives; whether there is such a thing as taking free speech too far; and whether they would dare spoof Islam today.

Their responses were as telling as they were predictable.

“Would you draw Muhammad?” Riger asked London- Dekel.

“Yes,” she replied nervously to the specific query, while hurrying to get to the more general point she wanted to make. “But I think that the more you touch on an explosive subject, the better your joke has to be.”

The “explosive subject” she used to illustrate this statement was a cartoon of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, portrayed as children’s animated icon Bob the Builder. (You know, for all the settlement construction in which he supposedly has been engaging.) The only thing funny here is discussing such a drawing in the context of sensitive material that might endanger its creator.

Like London-Dekel, Engelmeyer also used a bombing metaphor.

“We can’t be so naive as to say we are not playing with explosives,” he said. One example of his work on which the camera zoomed in was a cartoon about the biblical story of the “binding of Isaac” at the hands of his father, Abraham. The drawing depicts Isaac’s mother, Sarah, on the morning of the binding. “Wake up Isaac,” she is saying. “Daddy wants to slaughter you.”

Asked if he had not been worried about the repercussions of publishing such material, Engelmeyer balked.

“There’s nothing to worry about,” he said. “That’s how I imagine the morning of the binding... This does not exceed the bounds of free speech; it takes advantage of them.”

The most interesting of the three was Biderman, however. Biderman became infamous beyond Israel’s borders at the end of October, when one of his more disgusting drawings in the left-wing daily Haaretz went viral on the Internet. It depicted Netanyahu flying a plane into the World Trade Center.

After being widely criticized at home and abroad for this travesty, Biderman defended himself in a way that was far more amusing than any of his cartoons.

“The message is that Bibi [Netanyahu] is arrogantly and wantonly destroying Israel’s ties with the US and leading us to a disaster on the scale of 9/11,” he said. “It was certainly not my intention to insult or upset anyone. I wasn’t sufficiently aware of the great sensitivity that 9/11 holds for Americans.”

Biderman claimed to have received death threats via social media after that cartoon came out. So Riger asked Biderman if he is afraid.

“Of course,” Biderman answered with a smug shrug of his shoulders. “Any sane person [in my position] would be... But being afraid doesn’t mean I don’t [continue to draw] things.”

Biderman is brave indeed when it comes to attacking Netanyahu and other aspects of Israeli society. Where the Arab-Muslim world is concerned, on the other hand, he is less of a hero. As Riger pointed out, since the publication of a series of Muhammad cartoons in the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten on September 30, 2005, which spurred Muslim riots all over the world, “Biderman has stayed away from satire on Islam the way he would from fire.”

Biderman’s French counterparts were not similarly deterred. On the contrary, when the Danish cartoons caused a commotion, Charlie Hebdo rushed to reprint them.

A few years later, on November 3, 2011, the magazine came out with a cover that “renamed” itself “Charia Hebdo,” a play on the word for sharia law, and announced that the issue was guest-edited by Muhammad.

Muhammad was shown to be saying: “100 lashes of the whip if you don’t die laughing.”

For this bit of “blasphemy” against Islam, the offices of the magazine (known for its anarchist positions and outrageous, trashy content that spares no cows, sacred or otherwise) were firebombed by angry Muslims.

In September 2012, mere days after a privately made American video critical of Islam began circulating on YouTube – a clip that was blamed for a slew of Islamist attacks on US embassies across the Middle East – Charlie Hebdo published another series of Muhammad cartoons, showing the “prophet” naked.

Even Wednesday’s mass murder of its employees is not keeping the magazine’s surviving staff from cranking out the next issue. Ironically, it is estimated that from a circulation of about 50,000, the upcoming edition will sell a whopping million copies.

In contrast, newspapers in the US and many parts of Europe have been reporting on the terrorist attack against the journalists by blocking out Charlie Hedbo’s front covers. This is ostensibly to avoid fanning any more flames among offended Muslims. More likely, it is out of fear of Islamist wrath, which is a lot more concrete than the kind of criticism on Twitter and Facebook that the likes of Biderman have ever experienced.

Israeli cartoonists should hand their heads in shame for boasting about poking fun at Judaism and politicians to their Right. For this they get rewarded, promoted and admired, not gunned down at their desks.

Herein lies the key point about the brutal slayings of the French satirists (and the following day’s kidnapping and murder of Jews shopping at a kosher grocery store in a suburb of Paris). Their pens were no match for Islamist swords. This is because their slayings were not a metaphor for the curtailing of free speech. They were part of the campaign to kill or subjugate all free people, which is what global jihad is all about. Seriously.

The writer is the author of To Hell in a Handbasket: Carter, Obama, and the ‘Arab Spring.’

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