Je suis Charlie: I value free speech and deplore the terrorist assault on the Charlie Hebdo magazine, and its journalists, that took place in Paris on January 7.
Je ne suis pas Charlie: I also deplore hate speech and images directed at vulnerable minorities, and believe that all members of society – including journalists – should take responsibility to refrain from language and/or cartoon caricatures that reinforce racist, anti-Semitic and Islamophobic stereotypes, and fan the flames of hatred and prejudice.
So, are there limits to freedom of speech? The World Wide Web is entangled in debates on the issue. As I grappled with the various arguments, I was fortunate to speak with my second cousin and one of my dearest friends, Francesca Klug, principal architect of the UK Human Rights Act, and Professorial Research Fellow in Human Rights at the London School of Economics, whose latest book, A Magna Carta for all Humanity. Homing in on Human Rights, is due to be published this year to mark the 800th anniversary of Magna Carta.
When I saw Francesca recently, and we discussed the terrorist assaults in Paris and the subsequent outpouring of Je suis Charlie sentiment, she was clear that free speech is contingent and not absolute. Interestingly, in the aftermath of the outcry that erupted among Muslims, following the publication of cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad in the Danish newspaper, Jyllands-Posten on September, 30, 2005, she was invited to write an article in The Guardian in February 2006. Her reflections at that time speak powerfully in the context of reaction to the Paris attacks. Professor Klug writes:
Torrid debates about the right to mock belief systems versus the obligation to respect religious sensitivities camouflage the essentially racist nature of the cartoons in question…
Liberal secularists cite Enlightenment heroes such as Voltaire, Kant and Mill to underline their cause. But they fail to distinguish between free speech as an essential means to challenge state or church monopoly power and stigmatising vulnerable religious or ethnic minorities in the name of a free press…
A few months later, Francesca Klug also contributed to a public debate organised by Intelligence Squared and the London Jewish Cultural Centre, where she spoke against the motion, ‘Freedom of Expression Must Include the License to Offend.’ Time does not permit me to quote her entire address. So I will, limit myself to this:
The only right – yes, the only right – which explicitly refers to individual responsibilities in the European Convention on Human Rights and the UN Bill of Rights is free expression. Why? Because experience of the Second World War and the Holocaust demonstrated that sticks and stones may break my bones but words can soften up whole populations to collude in genocide. Not necessarily by direct incitement to hatred, which is notoriously difficult to prove, but by the drip, drip effect of dehumanisation and negative associations. The phenomenon we tragically witnessed again in Rwanda, decades later.
Words – and images, too: Francesca Klug begins her 2006 Guardian article by mentioning an anti-Semitic caricature that has been ubiquitous for centuries: a cartoon that – and I quote: ‘shows a hook-nosed man, hands dripping with blood and the world in his grasp.’ She goes on: ‘The caption is “Le Peril Juif”. It might do well in the Holocaust cartoon competition, launched by Iran’s bestselling newspaper, Hamshahri.’ Yes: a Holocaust cartoon competition; in response to the Danish cartoons, an Iranian newspaper saw fit to test the boundaries of free-speech for westerners, by publishing anti-Semitic caricatures of Jews.
We are not surprised by anti-Jewish sentiment in the Muslim world: while the Charlie Hebdo magazine was attacked on January 7 for publishing cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad, that kosher supermarket was attacked on January 9, simply for being Jewish. But before we get too preoccupied with Muslim anti-Jewish venom, let’s not forget that cartoon, with its French caption: Le Peril Juif: ‘The Jewish Peril.’ It was first published in France in 1936.
In his comment piece in The Guardian on January 11, Gary Younge, echoing Francesca Klug, with the words, ‘far from being “sacred” as some have claimed, freedom of speech is always contingent’, focuses on the dangers of binary responses. He writes:
By framing events in Manichean terms – dark versus light; good versus evil – an imposed binary morality seeks to corral us into crude camps. There are no dilemmas, only declarations. What some lack in complexity they make up for in polemical clarity and the provision of a clear enemy.
Gary Younge argues further:
The demand that Muslims should have to answer for these killings is repugnant. Muslims can no more be held responsible for these atrocities than Jews can for the bombings in Gaza. Muslims do not form a monolithic community; nor does their religion define their politics – indeed they are the people most likely to be killed by Islamic extremists. The Paris killers shot a Muslim policeman; the next day a Muslim shop assistant hid 15 people in the freezer of a kosher deli while the shooter held hostages upstairs. Nobody elected these gunmen; they don’t represent anyone…
Those who claim that Islam is “inherently” violent are more hateful, but no less nonsensical, than those who claim it is “inherently” peaceful. The insistence that these hateful acts are refuted by ancient texts makes as much sense as insisting they are supported by them. Islam, like any religion, isn’t “inherently” anything but what people make of it. A small but significant minority have decided to make it violent.
Gary Younge challenges the binary debate that takes place, largely, between white western detractors of Islam and Muslim defenders. But there is another binary that is, perhaps, even more pernicious. One of the tragedies of the terrorist assaults in Paris is not just that 17 people – journalists, police officers, Jews – were murdered by fanatics, but that two vulnerable minority communities in Europe – Muslims and Jews – both the targets of defamation, hatred and ridicule, find so little common cause between them, largely because Islamist extremists scapegoat Jews for Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians.
Those who have been persecuted and oppressed – which includes, both, Jews and Muslims – are, perhaps particularly at risk of being caught in the binary trap of ‘us’ and ‘them’, as fear and terror overwhelm our capacity to think and reflect. And so, concerned – even fearful – as we may be of being targeted by Islamist extremists, following the assault on that kosher supermarket in Paris, it is crucial that we do not succumb to an anti-Muslim/Islam reflex. Islamophobia is little different from Jew-hatred: both warped states of mind involve fear of the ‘other’, fear of those deemed to be ‘different’, and gross stereotypes projected onto a collective ‘menace’ that bears no relation to the complex and multifaceted reality of, either, Muslim life, or Jewish life.
The Exodus story we are following in the Torah at the moment is very instructive on this issue. We only have to read the beginning of the Exodus narrative, where the Israelite minority in Egypt becomes the target of persecution, to be reminded that the language of anti-Semitism and Islamophobia has ancient antecedents, and that racist apprehension of the threat posed by the ‘other’ is often translated into acts of oppression. And so, we find in Exodus chapter 1 (8-11):
Now there arose a new king over Egypt, who did not know Joseph. / And he said to his people: ‘Behold the Israelites are too many and too mighty for us; / Come, let us deal wisely with them, lest they multiply, and it comes to pass that, when a war befalls us, they also joined themselves to our enemies, and fight against us, and go up from the land.’
Familiar with the story, which we also recall each year at the Festival of Pesach, we know how those words led to deeds: the Israelites were enslaved, and the baby boys condemned to death (Exodus 1: 11-22). Similarly, the story related in the Book of Esther of the fate of the Jewish minority in the Empire of ‘127 provinces’ ruled over by King Achashveirosh (1:1), constructed like a gruesome ‘fairy tale’, conveys the same deadly truth about where the hatred of minorities can lead. Read at the Festival of Purim, the narrative centres on the anti-Jewish plot devised by Haman, the chief courtier of the King. We read (3: 8-9):
‘There is a certain people, scattered and dispersed among the other peoples in all the provinces of your realm, whose laws are different from those of any other people do not obey the Kings laws; and it is not in your Majesty’s interest to tolerate them. / If it please your Majesty, let an edict be drawn up for their destruction, and I will pay 10,000 talents of silver to the stewards for deposit in the royal Treasury.’
Of course, in both these texts, the target of hatred is the Jewish people. But the fear of the ‘other’ that each text expresses is not confined to anti-Semitism. It applies to all forms of racist stereotyping. Once we acknowledge this, we are also challenged to explore the implications. The opening phrase of this week’s parashah is a good place as any to start. The parashah is called, ‘Bo’, because Bo is the first significant word that distinguishes the portion from all the others in the Torah. It begins (10:1):
Va-yomer Adonai el-Moshe: ‘Bo el-Paroh’ – Then the Eternal said to Moses: ‘Come to Pharaoh.’
Moses would have liked to have remained a shepherd, tending the flock of his father-in-law Jethro in Midian, but he was summoned by the Eternal to become the shepherd of his people, and lead them out of slavery in Egypt (Exodus 3-4). In order to do this, he had to overcome his feelings of inadequacy and ‘Come to Pharaoh.’ Most translations say, ‘Go to Pharaoh’, but the imperative is Bo, ‘Come’, not, Leich, ‘Go.’ Moses would have preferred to go – to go away, to take flight again, as he had done, after he killed the Egyptian taskmaster and fled to the land of Midian (Exodus 2:11-15). But this time he could not run away. Despite his fear and reluctance, Moses had to ‘Come to Pharaoh’; he had to confront the persecutor of the Israelites, and play his part in liberating them.
We also have to come before the enemy – the enemy, which is not another people, but rather hatred of the ‘other’ that like the ‘hardened heart’ of Pharaoh (Ex. 10:1), freezes out empathy and compassion. We can retreat into fear; we can regard ourselves as powerless victims of the projections of others. Alternatively, we can take responsibility for our own projections onto others, and confront xenophobia and persecution in all its forms, and do what we can to change hearts – and minds. Ultimately, Je ne suis pas Charlie: I am not Charlie; Nous ne somme pas Charlie: we are not Charlie – because as Jews, we are also human beings – in all the complexity that being human entails – and because all the ‘others’ are human beings, too. May we find the courage to practice the wisdom of this essential truth. And let us say: Amen.
Rabbi Elizabeth Tikvah Sarah
Brighton and Hove Progressive Synagogue, 24th January 2015 – 4th Sh’vat 5775