In Israel, Charlie Hebdo Would Not Have Even Had the Right to Exist

In France, freedom of speech is considered a universal right, an Israeli law bans 'offending religious sentiments.'

Wikicommons

Georges Wolinski, the leading caricaturist at Charlie Hebdo, was among those murdered in the terror attacks in Paris last week. He was one of my cultural heroes when I was starting out.

Neither Superman, Charlie Brown, Asterix nor "The Adventures of Tintin" spoke to me the way Wolinski’s black-and-white sketches did — with his distorted, exaggerated figures openly revealing their dark urges. This half-Polish, half-Tunisian Jew possessed an anarchist spirit that left no sacred cow standing.

Every community was insulted by his brush. His position toward readers was this: Does it bother you? So don’t read it! And if you want to ridicule me back, I won’t sue you.”

After the terrible massacre at Charlie Hebdo and the murders that followed at the Jewish market, concerned people have spoken out over the fate of France’s Jews. Don’t they see the time has come to move to Israel, as Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu told them after the murder at the Toulouse school?

And the sooner the better! But if Wolinski had moved to Israel and opened a Charlie weekly here, he would have had a problem.

In France, freedom of speech is considered a universal right, while in Israel such a weekly would not be able to exist because of the Israeli law that bans “offending religious sentiments.” During my years as a cartoonist I have had to become familiar with the laws restricting the Israeli press.

But note that the law against offending religious sentiments is not a law against racism, smut or slander (there are other laws for that). This is a very specific draconian law, a real anti-Wolinski law. The law prohibits illustrating Moses, Jesus or Mohammed in a way that would hurt the feelings of believers.

When I first started out I didn’t know there was such a law in Israel. Once, as a hungry beginning illustrator one cold Parisian winter, I approached Wolinski with a proposal for a comic in Charlie. He wanted something about the Middle East, Israelis and Arabs, and I suggested a hostage-taking terror attack in which Palestinian terrorists take over a kibbutz. The incident turns into an orgy with the women kibbutz members and volunteers; extremist clerics also take part.

He was enthusiastic about the idea. When I returned to Israel, I didn’t show the draft to anyone because there was no one to show it to, but I didn’t think it was prohibited.

I found out about the law only years later, when my caricature in a well-known newspaper that criticized the cruel pre-Yom Kippur custom of kaparot — swinging a chicken over one’s head to atone for sin — was brought up for discussion in the Knesset. (And there weren’t even any boobs in the picture!)

From the rostrum, the police minister compared my work to the caricatures in the Nazis’ Der Stürmer, and on the minister’s instructions my editor and I were summoned for questioning. Sometime later I was cut from the paper’s staff.

Since learning about the law, I’ve noticed court decisions based on it. In 1997, Tatiana Soskin was sentenced to prison for drawing her famous “pig poster” in Hebron. In 2006, a campaign ad for the Shinui party was banned because of offense to religious sentiments.

“Only in Israel are there laws against bad taste,” an American attorney once told me. This seemed strange to him because freedom of the press is part of his country's constitution. To the French, this also seems strange because laws limiting freedom of speech were taken off the books at the end of the 18th century.

In Israel, as we know, there is no constitution to protect freedom of speech. The religious parties opposed such a constitution in 1948, but the Israeli law against offending religious sentiments is a legacy of the British Mandate. The law was imported by the British colonialists from another colony – India – in 1936 to prevent a recurrence of religious and racial riots like those here in 1929.

Were the 1929 riots a one-time event? And therefore might it be possible to abolish the emergency laws? If any American, French or British person thought so, reality slapped him in the face when in 1994 another massacre happened in that same city, Hebron.

So were the British right in their legislation? When various groups live cheek by jowl in a small area, should expression be censored? Should consideration for our neighbors be more sacred than freedom of speech?

And what about our livelihood as illustrators? Well, I long ago stopped making a living from print media. Haven’t you heard? It died a long time ago.

Ido Amin is an illustrator and animator.