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January 9, 2015 1:48 pm

It’s Not About Free Speech

avatar by Ruthie Blum

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Grieving Parisians who gathered to mourn the victims of the Charlie Hebdo shooting are standing up for freedom of expression. Photo: Screenshot, Vice News.

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.

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, however, was Biderman.

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 [Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu] is arrogantly and wantonly destroying Israel’s ties with the U.S. 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 was 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.”

Indeed. Biderman is brave 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 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 Shariah, 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 U.S. embassies across the Middle East — Charlie Hedbo published another series of Muhammad cartoons, showing the “prophet” naked.

Even Wednesday’s mass murder of its own employees is not keeping the surviving staff from cranking out its 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 U.S. 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 slaying of the French satirists. Their pens were no match for Islamist swords. This is because their slaying were not a metaphor for the curtailing of free speech. They were part of the campaign to kill and subjugate all free people, which is what global jihad is all about. Seriously.

Ruthie Blum is the author of “To Hell in a Handbasket: Carter, Obama, and the ‘Arab Spring.'” This article was originally published by Israel Hayom.

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  • Just to update the figures, I understand as of Wednesday 14th 2015 about three million copies of Charlie have been sold in France and about two million more copies are being printed and will be available in other countries. Media here in London have tended to show the cover with the phrase ‘All is forgiven’ but without the cartoon figure of Mohamet. The original Danish Mohamet cartoons were not published in Britain.

  • The sentence “the more you touch on an explosive subject, the better your joke has to be.”- is not too smart paradox. I would say: the more explosion you should be awaited.
    Have you ever seen such a nasty cartoon on Jesus, or even Budda?
    Three main religions appeared long ago and mankind were always divided by them, but accepted all of three. It is rather funny, but even ISIS fighters recognize three main world religions: Islam, Christianity and Judaism. Islam contributed to the world treasure a lot. It is the same level cruel (if any) as all other religions. But you mixed religion and “jihadists” of ISIS, the big merciless gangs, mildly saying, which kill and rape under the flag of Islam. But in reality they have rather little connection with Islam. It is much perverted twisted and mutilated Islam, but you abused a feeling of hundreds of millions. When Russia’s Putin launched a brutal war in Chechnya under the flag of Orthodox Christianity and with a great support of the Church, and now in Ukraine under the same flag, nobody thought to blame Orthodox Christianity in mass murder, tortures and expelling. The same, when Bush made a “slaughter house” in Iraq and Afghanistan, nobody blamed Christianity. So you went too far in your “free speech” and likely in your knowledge of Islam, Now you experience a an effect of boomerang.

  • howiej

    Biderman wasn’t “aware of the great sensitivity that 9/11 holds for the Americans.” Perhaps working for Haaretz numbs the brain, or is it a condition for employment? The author of the article did a very poor job of exploring the subject. She should have just had the last paragraph printed.

  • Arty Cohn

    These cartoonists seem to have only a vague idea of the issues that they are stabbing with their cartoons.