Freedom of speech, Charlie Hebdo and the academic boycott of Israel – Robert Fine

Written version of a talk given at colloquium on freedom of speech by Robert Fine, University of Warwick 17

Robert Fine

Robert Fine

November 2015

Under the register of Je suis Charlie, a demonstration of an estimated million and a half people was held in Paris and another million and a half people took to the streets elsewhere in France. They were among the largest public demonstrations in French history, held in protest against the murder of ten editors and cartoonists of a left wing magazine for having published cartoons representing the prophet Mohammed, one security officer and one (Muslim) police officer for having been in the way, and four shoppers in a Kosher supermarket for being Jewish.

The murders had an explicit antisemitic dimension: the four Jews killed in the kosher supermarket were killed because they were Jews; the one woman in the editorial board of Charlie Hebdo who was murdered seems to have been murdered because she was Jewish. This was Elsa Cayat, a Jewish atheist psychoanalyst famous for beginning her therapy sessions with words ‘so, now, tell me’ and for her advice to her sister ‘you ought to read a book a day’. At her funeral the rabbi told a lovely story about rabbis telling God to mind his own business in their debates and God chuckling: ‘My children have beaten me’.

The murder of these Jews in Paris followed the murders of four people in the Jewish Museum in Brussels and before that of a teacher and three students in a Jewish school in Toulouse.[1] It was followed by the murder of a Jewish security guard outside a synagogue in Copenhagen. The murderers themselves were supporters of a jihadi Islamist movement, Al Qaeda in Yemen, which wore its antisemitism openly on its sleeve. The mass demonstrations against the killings expressed popular support for freedom of expression, religious tolerance and opposition to religious fundamentalism. As one commentator put it, they represented resistance to ‘the assassin’s veto on critical discourse’.

At the same time a sceptical discourse arose among many left and liberal intellectuals. In the Left-liberal press there was no shortage of derogatory comments about the public display of solidarity with the murdered cartoonists, Jews and security people.[2] To take one example, Mehdi Hasan of the New Statesman wrote that Je suis Charlie was the symbol of the prejudices of the ‘enlightened liberal West against backward barbaric Muslims’. He maintained that the demo was premised on an illusion, that of untrammelled freedom

"They have weapons.  Fuck them, we have champagne"

“They have weapons. Fuck them, we have champagne”

of speech, that it was based on double standards since it refused cartoons mocking the Holocaust and sacked one cartoonist (Maurice Sinet) in 2008 for allegedly making antisemitic cartoons, that it defended a right to offend Muslims that had no corresponding notion of responsibility, and assumed Muslims should have thicker skins, that it supported a magazine that used ‘brazenly racist imagery’ and attacked member of a powerless minority religion, that it vilified Islam across the European continent. For good measure he was also critical of hypocrisy of Western leaders like Obama and Merkel supporting freedom of speech when, he claimed, Obama was demanding Yemen jail an anti-drone journalist and when Merkel supported laws against Holocaust denial. Hasan wrote that it ‘sickened’ him to see Netanyahu at the demonstration.

One thing that strikes me about this discourse, which was strong on the left and had lots of resonance in liberal circles, is how little of value is left for freedom of expression and indeed how little concern it shows about manifest instances of antisemitism.

There was to be sure a problem of double standards among some of the elite of national leaders who attended the demonstration but this is all the more reason to defend this freedom consistently and protest wherever we find it violated. If one opposes, for example, bans on the headscarf and burqa in public institutions, as I think I do, then one should also defend Charlie Hebdo and one should object to the 14 out of 20 countries in the Middle east which criminalise ‘blasphemy’ and the 12 out of 20 which criminalise ‘apostasy’. It is not clear to me why paying some lip service to freedom of expression by the elite is worse than their paying no lip service at all. The Charlie Hebdo cartoonist Bernard Holtrop commented on their new-found friends with rather typical Charlie Hebdo vigour: ‘we vomit on all these people’. The hypocrisy of elites does not make the principle of freedom of speech any less valuable. [3]

There was to be sure a danger of Islamophobic appropriation of the protest by the French Front National and movements opposed to the ‘Islamicisation of Europe’. However, the assembly of the people who gathered together in Place de la République almost to a person expressed democratic rather than Islamophobic sentiments, there were many Muslim people who attended, and the organisers of the demonstration explicitly excluded the Front national.

There are examples of Islamophobic violence and stupidity. A right of centre French Mayor of Villiers Sur Marne banned a film called Timbuktu (by the Mauritanian director Abderrahmane Sissako) on the grounds that it was ‘an apology for terror’. The film actually showed that the first victims of Jihadism are Muslims and how Jihadi forces spread terror in delightful Mali villages through Sharia Law. The villages in question, by the way, were retaken by Mali troops with French support. The President of  Mali, Ibrahim Keita, walked at the head of the unity march arm in arm with Netanyahu. And you might recall that French citizenship was granted to a 24 year old Malian shop worker, Lassana Bathily, who hid and saved Jewish shoppers in the kosher supermarket.

The representation of Charlie Hebdo as Islamophobic, homophobic, xenophobic – but not Judaeophobic – is mobilized as grounds for withdrawing solidarity from the victims of the violence. First, there is the obvious difference between defending someone’s right to say something, including something highly controversial and shocking, and endorsing the content of what it said. Second, there is a real problem about the reading of the cartoons. Luiz’s wonderful cartoon of Muhammad shedding a tear under the words ‘Tout est pardonné’ and carrying a placard saying ‘Je suis Charlie’ has a brilliantly ambiguous meaning but surely contains the sense of pardoning the innocent Muhammad for being invoked by nihilistic madmen. It is like another earlier cartoon of Muhammad in tears saying ‘c’est dur d’etre aimé par des cons’, or like one on Muhammad beheaded by a black masked fanatic under the words ‘If Muhammad returned’, or one on one of the cartoonists in a gay embrace with a bearded Mulla under the words ‘Love is stronger than hatred’ (which actually became a slogan on the demonstrations after the killings). This particular cartoon was published shortly after the Charlie Hebdo offices were fire-bombed.

This is not to say that everything Charlie Hebdo did was right and good, but it has attacked many religious targets of different denominations in a Rabelaisian anti-clerical tradition that goes back to the French Revolution and it has attacked Israeli policies toward Palestine. There was one cartoon of priests (I think) declaring ‘every sperm is sacred’ and another of an Israeli settler killing a Palestinian farmer and saying ‘Take that, Goliath’.

Charlie Hebdo was originally a creature of the post-68 New Left, and remained firmly on the left in recent times. It was strongly supported by SOS Racisme and they worked together to campaign against anti-immigrant policies. The editor Charb was in the Front de Gauche, campaigned against neo-liberal changes to the European constitution, and illustrated Marx: A User’s Guide. Bernard Maris, one of the co-editors, was a member of an anti-globalisation movement called Attack and a critic of austerity, corporate corruption, tax havens, the arms industry and Sarkozy.  Now being on the left does not mean that one is not racist but its attacks on ‘blasphemy’ are an act of non-racial solidarity with secularists in countries that criminalise blasphemy. Among other things, Charlie Hebdo does not let its readers forget that the first victims of Jihadism are always Muslims. It expresses its solidarity, for example, with bloggers and cartoonists assassinated by religious fundamentalist forces (like the Syrian Raed Fares by ISIS) or brutally punished (like the blogger Raif Badawi in Saudi Arabia).

The attack on Charlie Hebdo within left and liberal circles reminds me of the response of people like John Berger to the 1989 Fatwa against Salman Rushdie. How quickly it was said then that Rushdie provoked the reaction by his blasphemy and that his writings weren’t any good anyway!

The antisemitic dimensions of the violence have normally been either neglected by people critical of the freedom of speech demos or somehow understood as a reaction to the killing of Palestinians by the Israelis. Even if the grocery shoppers were innocent, still we hear it is a reminder that Jews 1000 miles away are guilty of terrible crimes against Islam – or some such racist nonsense. Rather than see Islamophobia and antisemitism as connected forms of racism, there is a tendency to set up a zero-sum competition of victimhood in which concern for one supplants concern for the other. It is what Kenan Malik calls an ‘auction of victimhood’ where in the name of offended groups a struggle goes on within elites to get taboo images banned from the press.

We find a homogenised picture being drawn of Arab-Muslim powerlessness, persecution and poverty. This image touches on the experience of discrimination felt by doubtless many Muslims in France, especially in the banlieues, but pays little heed to the dynamics of society – that is, that Arabs and Muslims in France are socially differentiated and politically diverse. The depiction of Muslims as uniformly and unreflectively ‘offended’ by cartoons depicting the Prophet Mohammed, often drawn by secular Muslim intellectuals, colludes uncomfortably with an Islamophobia that declares that blind rage is in the culture if not the genes of Muslims. It is not true anyway that all pious Muslims are opposed to the representation of the Prophet and there are plenty of secular Muslims that are not pious anyway. While few proponents of this sceptical discourse defend the attacks, the role they are tempted to assume is to translate them into a political language they can defend.

In this Alice in Wonderland world everything is upside down. What is Right is treated as Left (Jihadism with its dream of a Caliphate, its conspiracy thinking about Jews undermining Islam, its attacks on anyone who disagrees) and what is Left is treated as Right (Charlie Hebdo with its antiracist, anti-homophobic and anti-establishment views). Important distinctions are not made – between speech designed to incite violence and hatred which is not protected in law) and speech that is anti-religious and may appear blasphemous from the point of view of the pious (like Malcolm Muggeridge and Life of Brian) which is protected. Hate speech has led to prosecutions of the comedian Dieudonné M’bala M’bala for saying in public ‘Je suis Charlie Coulibaly) for inciting hatred of Jews but also against Brigitte Bardot and the journalist Eric Zemmour for inciting anti-Muslim hatred. These are important distinctions. Laws against hate speech protect people from violence. Laws against blasphemy protect the state and state religions from the people.

The tendency to devalue freedom of expression also seems to me transparent in the current campaign in our academic union UCU to impose an academic boycott on Israeli academic and cultural institutions. No right to freedom of expression for Israeli academics. It has never been clear why Israeli academics and academic institutions are singled out when a host of other countries have equally or more repressive regimes and usually far more restrictive academic institutions. Nor is it clear why Israeli academic institutions and their members are being blamed for the alleged crimes committed by the state, when the whole point of freedom of expression is to support civil society against states seen rightly or wrongly as repressive. It seems to me like blatant discrimination on grounds of nationality or worse ethnicity (if Palestinian Israelis are excluded from the boycott), blatant collective punishment of civil society actors (many of whom are on the left) for what their state is alleged to have done, and blatant disregard for the important of listening to points of view with which one disagrees or thinks one will disagree. It’s like the blasphemy argument all over again.

The failure to answer these questions leads to ever-wilder claims about the nature of Israel to justify a selective boycott: that it is like or worse than apartheid, that it always has genocidal intent vis-à-vis Palestinians, that it is akin to Nazism, that it turns Jews from victims to victimisers, etc. The practices of the boycott campaign certainly have their own ideational dynamic.

Normal procedures of solidarity with fellow trade unionists and fellow academics in this case alone are not followed. Key principles to which universities are committed – academic freedom, freedom of speech, exchange of ideas, rational argumentation – are in this case suspended. It is considered perfectly ok for the union to restrict access to the voices of Israeli or Jewish Israeli academics. It is not even considered important to take steps to ensure that the campaign does not attract antisemites or generate antisemitic consequences. The union does not follow its own ‘MacPherson’ principle, namely that if some members feel rightly or wrongly a whiff of they antisemitism; this is sufficient ground not for exploring whether or not it is true. [4]

The union shows no sign of responsibility to explain why its policy of excluding Israeli and only academic institutions from the world academic community should not be considered discriminatory on the basis of nationality (Israeli) or religion (Jewish), and no sign of responsibility to prevent slippage from political criticism of Israeli state policy to the vilification of a whole people.

The early history of the campaign to boycott Israeli academe within the main academic unions in the UK goes back to the 1980s when some Left groupings which labelled Israel ‘the illegitimate State’, called for the ‘no-platforming’ of Zionist organisations on university campuses. These included Jewish Societies with which the Left groupings had previously cooperated in the Anti-Nazi League.

Instead we find a almost obsessive insistence that what it is doing is not antisemitic. In the early 2000s the Association of University Teachers (AUT) passed a motion deploring the ‘witch-hunting’ of colleagues participating in the academic boycott of Israel, demanding recognition that ‘anti-Zionism is not anti-Semitism’, and resolving to give support to members ‘unjustly accused of anti-Semitism because of their political opposition to Israeli government policy’.

The AUT successor union, UCU, passed successive resolutions calling for the boycott of Israeli academic institutions all of which were prefaced by statements to the effect that criticism of Israel is not antisemitic. In 2006 it was resolved that ‘criticism of the Israeli government is not in itself anti-Semitic’ and claimed that ‘defenders of the Israeli government’s actions have used a charge of anti-Semitism as a tactic in order to smother democratic debate and in the context of Higher Education to restrict academic freedom’. At the 2007 congress, it resolved that ‘criticism of Israel cannot be construed as anti-Semitic’ and at the 2008 congress it resolved that ‘criticisms of Israel or Israeli policy are not, as such, anti-Semitic’. In 2011 the union resolved to dissociate itself from the ‘working definition of antisemitism’ of the then European Union Monitoring Commission (EUMC), since it attempted inter alia to draw a line between legitimate political criticism and antisemitic stigmatisation of Israel.

The lady does protest too much, methinks, as Hamlet’s mum put it.  Once we embrace censorship there is always the question of who will be next. How can we stand up to the Prevent agenda if we stop people speaking on the basis of nationality, religion or ethnicity?  Freedom of speech is not a liberal bauble but a freedom on which all other freedoms depend. It is the freedom crucial to civil rights, gay liberation and women’s movements. This is not to say that I agree with American Supreme Court judgments on the First Amendment, which offer far too narrow definitions in my view of what constitutes incitement to hatred and violence. I don’t like its reliance on counter-speech of the victims – it needs to protect victims. I don’t like its limitation of incitement to violence and hate only that kind of speech that is targeted at specific individuals rather than whole groups. A vigorous defence of freedom of expression and a vigorous support for restrictions on expressions of incitement to hatred and violence are not incompatible.

Written version of a talk given at colloquium on freedom of speech by Robert Fine, University of Warwick 17 November 2015

[1] On the escalation of antisemitic violence in France in recent years, see the five part series in Tablet  by Marc Weitzmann ( and Marie Brenner, “Frabce’s Scarlet Letter”

[2] Richard Seymour in the Jacobin described the demo as ‘platitudinous, mawkish and narcissistic’ – a ‘blackmail that forces us into solidarity with a racist institution’. It became something of a vogue to say ‘Je ne suis pas Charlie’. Jon Wilson in Labour List referred to what he called the ‘obvious racism’ of Charlie Hebdo. Jacob Garfield in the Hooded Utilitarian described Charlie Hebdo as ‘xenophobic, racist, sexist, homophobic, and anti-Islamic’ and claimed it editorial board was all-white as if this were itself a damning argument (it was actually untrue – he seemed to forget about the murdered Algerian ? Moustapha Ourrad).

[3] Perhaps Charlie Hebdo is like Aristophanes. It is said that when the demagogue Cleon criticized Aristophanes for lampooning the city’s magistrates before foreigners, never daunted, Aristophanes’ two plays, The Acharnians and Knights, satirized the situation with Cleon. They resulted in prizes for the poet. Let’s hope for the same for Charlie Hebdo. Comedy can say and do what cannot otherwise be said or done with impunity in public life, and the behaviour of its audience is part of that special contract. The audience of Aristophanes could laugh without danger, even when the victims of comic abuse were in reality powerful and influential. I guess we can no longer laugh without danger.


[4] The argument drawn from the precedent of boycott in the struggle against apartheid, that it represented a non-violent and democratic ethos, is one-sided: it underplays the role of direct links and solidarity with fellow academics and unions; it erases from memory the considerable problems caused by the discriminatory enforcement of the boycott; it glosses over political differences between opponents of apartheid that underlay boycott debates. One argument put forward in favour of the boycott of Israeli academe is that it was called for by ‘Palestinian civil society’, but in theory it is in the nature of civil society not to speak with one voice and in practice the Palestinian Authority on the West Bank does not support the call.

Livingstone – not the first time he has used the mental illness slur

Yesterday Ken Livingstone, responded to political criticism of his appropriateness to co-chair Labour’s policy making body on defence.  In a previous debate about mental illness,  Kevan Jones had spoken emotionally about his own experience of depression.  Yesterday, in response to Jones’ criticism of his politics on defence, Livingstone said:

“I think [Jones] might need some psychiatric help. He’s obviously very depressed and disturbed. He should pop off and see his GP before he makes these offensive comments.”

Back in 2006, when Livingstone was Mayor of London, he responded similarly to a journalist who asked him for a quote outside a party for a Labour minister:

Oliver Finegold: “Mr Livingstone, Evening Standard. How did it …”

Ken Livingstone: “Oh, how awful for you.”

Finegold: “How did tonight go?”

Livingstone: “Have you thought of having treatment?”

This exchange preceded the one in which Livingstone famously accused the Jewish journalist of being ‘just like a concentration camp guard’ because he was ‘only doing his job’.

Later last night on Channel Four News, there was an exchange between the Livingstone and Jones:

Livingstone: [asked if he was forced to apologize]  “Jeremy … reminded me that Jeremy’s strategy is that we don’t do all the offensive back-stabbing and rows that we’ve had in the past, so I just got on board with that.”

The reality is, … you provoked this row by questioning my ability to do this job …

Jones: “So that excuses your grossly offensive language?”

Livingstone: “And I thought your attack on me was grossly offensive.”

Livingstone understands that it is the practice of the new Corbyn politics to construct any political criticism as “grossly offensive”.

The standard response is then to act like a victim of powerful dark forces and complain about being “smeared” by the Tories/Zionists/Blairites/Tabloids.

But Livingstone took it one step further, giving everybody something concrete with which to “smear” him.  Then his hurt at being “smeared” could be all the louder, and his public escape from opprobrium all the more brilliant.

‘Jeremy doesn’t do personal’ does not mean that the Corbynistas refrain from insulting others; it means that they refrain from responding to that which they are able to construct as insulting.

Livingstone pioneered the ad hominem response to political criticism with the Livingstone Formulation – in which anybody who raises the issue of antisemitism is accused of doing so in bad faith in order to silence criticism of Israel.

Now the Corbyn faction is generalising the Livingstone Formulation into a political strategy.  Any political criticism which is hard to deal with can be characterized as a “smear” and can be slapped down with the counter-allegation that the critic is acting dishonestly and out of malevolent motivation.

This way of doing politics is more than just a rhetorical tactic however.  It is deeply rooted in the Corbyn faction’s Stalinist and ‘campist’ political tradition.  This faction defines people as being part of the “community of the good” or part of the “community of the bad” and it assigns people or groups or even whole nations to one or the other.  The Corbynistas do not relate to those who are bundled outside of the community of the good or the community of the oppressed by reason or by argument: instead they feel licensed to treat them as political enemies and to isolate and silence them.

For more on this, read: The Corbyn left: the politics of position and the politics of reason.





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