August 23, 2019

Nous Sommes Charlie: This week we are Jewish Hebdo

In 2008, I had a chance to make a statement in defense of satire, and I passed.

This was when some Muslim leaders issued a fatwa against Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten for 12 cartoons it published in 2005 depicting the prophet Muhammad. To say many Muslims found those cartoons offensive is an understatement: The Muslim world went nuts. The focus of most of its anger was one cartoon drawn by Kurt Westergaard that showed Muhammad with his turban drawn as a lit bomb. Riots broke out around the world against the cartoons, resulting in more than 200 deaths. The Danish papers’ editors were subject to ongoing death threats and Westergaard himself survived at least one assassination attempt. 

It was a big story about Islamic fundamentalism and the limits of free speech, but even though we ran a story about it, I chose not to print the cartoon of Muhammad with a bomb for a turban, even by way of illustration. For one, I found it crude and offensive — I never would have published it had the cartoonist submitted it to me cold. At too many painful times in our history, Jews had been the subject of caricatures that ascribed negative traits to all Jews, that impugned our entire people in one stereotypical stroke, and actually fueled bigotry and incited attacks. There is a line between satire and incitement. Nothing is wrong with provocative or controversial, but the “turban bomb” cartoon in question struck me as just racist and — worse — not that funny.

And because I didn’t love the cartoon, the very real threat that accompanied reprinting it — no matter how remote — didn’t seem worth it.

I now see I was wrong. 

Last week, nine members of the brave current and former staff and affiliates of the French satiric magazine Charlie Hebdo (Charlie Weekly) paid with their lives for the right to offend, along with a maintenance worker and two police officers, when two Muslim extremists stormed the weekly’s Paris offices and murdered them in cold blood. Two days later, as the gunmen were still at large, a crazed compatriot of the terrorists burst into Hyper Cacher, a kosher supermarket in the Porte de Vincennes neighborhood of Paris, taking innocent shoppers hostage, killing four of them. Altogether, 17 innocent people — Jews, Muslims and Christians — were slaughtered by the Islamic fanatics.  

The outpouring of grief and outrage and solidarity resulted in the biggest rally in France since the end of World War II. Some 3.7 million people gathered in peaceful rallies of support on the streets of Paris and throughout France, Europe and even at Los Angeles City Hall. They made no demands and there was no violence, but they sent a single, loud message: Enough

Enough tiptoeing around terrorists’ sensibilities. Enough kowtowing to the craziest elements among us. Enough pretending that Israel or Israel’s policies in the West Bank or Gaza are somehow the cause of the dysfunction in the Muslim world. Enough thinking that attacks on Jews and Jewish institutions are only a Jewish problem. Enough thinking that it’s OK to mock Christianity or Jews, but not, God forbid, Islam. Enough

It’s OK to mock everybody and everything. No, it’s not just OK: It’s a matter of life and death. That’s why this week we reprinted the covers from Charlie Hebdo on and in these pages, along with essays on the essential importance of satire. And that’s why we changed our masthead this week, for the first time in the paper’s nearly three decades. This week, we are not Jewish Journal. We are Jewish Hebdo. 

The events of the past week are yet more proof that the world is in the midst of a long and unfinished struggle against Islamic extremism. All of us who want to live in a free, tolerant society — Muslims, Jews, Christians and all the rest — must find ways to fight back against suppression whenever and wherever we can. If the extremists declare some goofy cartoons of Muhammad as their battleground, then those cartoons must become our battleground. We must defend them, if not on their merits, then on the right of artists in a free society to draw what they want and of publishers to distribute those images. We now see what happens when we cede any freedoms out of fear of retribution or of offending religious sensibilities — the extremists claim our refusal as victory and find new victims to intimidate. By taking up the cause of publishing these so-called offensive works, we are defending not just law, but also morality. We are saying that nothing — no cartoon, no blasphemy, no joke, no satire — is more offensive than the taking of innocent human lives. All humans have a right to offend and to take offense, but never to take a life just because they feel offended. 

So when fanatics try to shut down free speech with violence, one of the best ways to fight back is to amplify exactly what they find offensive. If that’s what those cartoonists were killed for, that’s what we’ll stand for.

And we have to stand together. The murder of four innocent Jews at Hyper Cacher following the Hebdo attacks reminds us that Islamic terror, so often directed at Jews and Israel, is not an Israeli or a Jewish problem, but the world’s problem. Fanaticism is the most dangerous –ism, and its iteration in the Muslim world no longer can be disguised as the righteous reaction against oppression in Palestine or discrimination in France or blasphemy in Denmark.  

It is a disease that has taken root in a great religion, and it must be rooted out.

Here is the full cover from this week's Jewish Journal issue:

Rob Eshman is publisher and editor-in-chief of TRIBE Media Corp./Jewish Journal. E-mail him at You can follow him on Twitter @foodaism.