Today, May 5th, the authors' association PEN America will give a freedom of expression award to Charlie Hebdo, the wildly iconoclastic Parisian journal. For those who've forgotten, ten of their staffers were gunned down along with two police guards back in January. This was followed by an attack on a Jewish supermarket resulting in the death of four Jewish hostages.
The award has prompted angry exchanges between literary heavyweights Salman Rushdie and Francine Prose and a letter of dissent from 204 authors in which they protest that they're not against freedom of expression but against targeting French Muslims:
Power and prestige are elements that must be recognized in considering almost any form of discourse, including satire. The inequities between the person holding the pen and the subject fixed on paper by that pen cannot, and must not, be ignored.
To the section of the French population that is already marginalized, embattled, and victimized, a population that is shaped by the legacy of France's various colonial enterprises, and that contains a large percentage of devout Muslims, Charlie Hebdo's cartoons of the Prophet must be seen as being intended to cause further humiliation and suffering.
Having recently read and reviewed a book about the history of France's extremely troubled relationship with Arabs from North Africa, The French Intifada, I can certainly understand their point of view. And I also understand the counter-argument about free speech.
What I don't remotely understand is that the letter ignores the fact that Charlie Hebdo also mocked France's statistically tiny population of Jews. They have been severely marginalized, embattled, and victimized -- and that even extends to rape and murder. Overall, anti-Semitic incidents were up 100% last year in France as CNN International reported, and here's a sampling:
Among the anti-Semitic incidents were reports of Jewish teens, who wore traditional Jewish items like yarmulkes, being assaulted with Tasers, tear gas and pepper spray. A Jewish teacher leaving a kosher restaurant in Paris was attacked, his nose broken and a swastika drawn on his chest. Two teens and their grandfather were chased by a group, including a man wielding an ax, as they walked to synagogue in Paris. Two French teenage girls plotted to blow up a synagogue in Lyon. A kosher restaurant in Paris was firebombed. A kosher supermarket was set ablaze in Sarcelles.
This is a community that rightly feels itself besieged, and many French Jews have opted to leave France in recent years. So given all that, how is it comprehensible that the protest letter about Charlie Hebdo's award was signed by noted Jewish authors like Deborah Eisenberg, Sarah Schulman, David Leavitt, and Francine Prose among others? Why didn't they demand inclusive language or refuse to sign? What did they have to lose? Isn't leaving Jews out of their protest profoundly hypocritical? Why doesn't Jewish humiliation and suffering in France matter to them and to the many other signers of the letter? Why where they silent?
I don't belong to PEN -- but if I did, I'd be ashamed to sign a letter that whitewashed the plight of French Jews.