A Tel Aviv exhibition commemorating the victims of last year’s Charlie Hebdo terror attack was at the center of a media storm last week over allegations that it censored cartoons of the Prophet Mohammed. The curator denied the accusation and said it was merely a publicity stunt to trigger debate.
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The problem started when U.K. daily The Independent ran a story last Monday with the headline, “Prophet Mohammed cartoons ‘censored’ at Charlie Hebdo memorial exhibition in Israel.” The newspaper cited cartoonists Vladik Sandler and Roy Friedler, who said their work at the “Après Charlie” exhibition at the French Institute of Tel Aviv had been censored.
The Independent and other media reports stressed the irony of a memorial exhibition for the victims of the January 7, 2015 massacre restricting the very freedom of expression it was supposedly upholding and celebrating.
Sandler posted an update on his Facebook page last Sunday, recounting how one of his cartoons had been removed from the exhibition.
He said the cartoon, which depicted the Prophet Mohammed as a nude being sketched by five deceased Charlie Hebdo staff, had been removed at the “special request of the French Embassy.” He also said a cartoon of Friedler’s, also depicting Mohammed, was partially concealed with a red sticker saying “Censored.”
Friedler said on Thursday that exhibition curator Nimrod Reshef (also chairman of the Israeli Cartoonists’ Association) told him they had to partially conceal Mohammed at the request of “someone from the embassy.”
“I understood there was no choice,” Friedler told Haaretz. “Either I agreed to have a sticker – or they would take down the cartoon, because the embassy demanded it. It was an ultimatum. They explained they were afraid of hurting Muslims’ feelings.”
But a spokeswoman at the French embassy in Tel Aviv denied the allegations and said nobody had said anything or tried to interfere with the contents of the exhibition, which was curated and organized by the Cartoonists’ Association.
However, Reshef admitted Thursday that he was behind the so-called censorship. “It was my idea to put the sticker on, as a trigger for debate,” he said. “It was coordinated with Roy.”
As for Sandler’s cartoon, Reshef said that each cartoonist submitted one work, while Sandler submitted two. Subsequently, one of them was displayed in the exhibition, while the other appears only in the catalog. However, Friedler continued to deny any knowledge of this and said it wasn’t what he’d been told. And Sandler? He seemingly put two unrelated events together and waxed poetic over how the Kalashnikov is mightier than the pencil, in spite of everything.
So, was it all a regrettable misunderstanding or deliberate misdirection? One way or another, Sandler, Friedler, the Cartoonists’ Association and even the French Institute received their share of much-wanted publicity.
The “journalistic truth” – such an outdated, irrelevant term in the Facebook era – seemingly doesn’t interest anyone. “It’s a good story, isn’t it?” said one of the interviewees. “What does it matter what happened or didn’t happen?”
What does matter is that the debate the cartoonists wanted to trigger remains unspoken. Instead of sparking a discussion about whether it’s still possible or proper to mock the Prophet Mohammed, God or Jesus after the Charlie Hebdo massacre, and the issue of sacred cows and their social significance, the affair mainly raises questions about the media’s problematic image – seemingly for good reason.