Please indulge me a fantasy that is probably in bad taste: I would like to think that the Charlie cartoonists died laughing. They must have been great laughers. Their cartoons, overall, are wild, rambunctious, Rabelaisian—deeply French. They jeered and prided themselves on jeering. In the words of Robert Darnton, our greatest historian of French writing from the revolutionary period, “Charlie Hebdo specialized in broad, free-swinging jokes, loaded with sex and in-your-face bad taste.”
They seem to have known full well who they were and to have relished it. Their idea of freedom was not everyone’s. (That is, in a way, inherent in the definition of freedom.) But they had a belief system and a way of life that embodied it. They believed—however foolishly, however brilliantly, however childishly—in the power of the pen. For them, as for the millions who rallied in France after the killings, freedom of speech, of caricature, of insult, and yes, of silliness, is the Enlightenment’s deepest current. In their way, the wild soixantes-huitards of Charlie Hebdo were old-fashioned not only because their generation was passing but because they believed in Immanuel Kant’s great slogan for the Enlightenment: “Have the courage to use your own understanding!”—or more pithily translated, “Dare to know!” They were professional blasphemers. And so they were firebombed in 2011. After that, they worked under (obviously insufficient) police protection. They understood that blasphemy is dangerous.
But it turned out that blasphemy was not the only target of the cutthroats who would repeal the Enlightenment.
The four Jews Amedy Koulibali murdered at Hyper Casher, the Kosher supermarket in the east of Paris, did not die laughing. What we know about them is that they were Jews shopping before the Sabbath, Jews who kept kosher or had nondoctrinal reasons for liking kosher food. The youngest of the four, Yoav Hattab, 21, was the son of the chief rabbi of Tunis. Evidently he came to France to study at a Marseilles yeshiva and then decided to stay. In one published photo, with a big smile, he shows off an inky forefinger, presumably to display to the photographer that he has voted in the Tunisian elections, the closest the Arab world has come, by far, to redeeming the promises of a long-ago Spring.
That these four men were Jews would have been all Koulibali knew of them. He did not care to know their views of the Quran or of a two-state solution or French imperialism. It was enough that they were Jews. According to a propaganda video released by his accomplices after he was dead, Koulibali was a “soldier of the Caliphate.” His mission was accomplished: He held hostages and “executed” Jews.
Of the dozen killed at Charlie Hebdo by Koulibali’s collaborators, the Kouachi brothers, there were 11 men and one woman. Her name was Elsa Cayat. Other women on the premises, also held at gunpoint, were permitted to go on living. One of the murderers told Sigolène Vinson, a Charlie freelancer who had gone to the morning meeting: “I’m not going to kill you because you’re a woman. We don’t kill women, but you must convert to Islam, read the Quran and cover yourself.” Then he cried out: “Allah hu Akbar.”
Now here’s the thing. The killers must have known that Elsa Cayat was Jewish. There is no likelier explanation for the chilling fact that of the women on the scene, Cayat was the one singled out for murder. Cayat’s cousin, Sophie Bramly, told CNN’s Erin Burnett that the killers’ selectivity, in this regard, has not come in for much comment by French media. Nor, outside the CNN report, has the point been much noted in the Anglo-American media. But there it is. In the eyes of the killers, male cartoonists were enemies of Allah. Women who were not otherwise cursed were deemed salvageable. After all, Allah is merciful. But a Jewish woman is unsalvageable. As in 1976, when non-Israeli Jewish passengers were assigned to the Israeli group and kept hostage by Palestinian hijackers when other nationals were released; as in 1985, when Leon Klinghoffer and other Jews were sequestered for special treatment on the Achille Lauro—in 2015, Elsa Cayat forfeited her right to live by virtue of being a Jew.
The three murderers, Koulibali and the brothers Said and Cherif Kouachi, passed through careers in criminality, Yemeni al-Qaida training, and prison terms. In the days and weeks to come, we may learn more of what they thought and did, and nothing written now can be conclusive. But we do know something. Thanks to a telephone left off the hook at Hyper Casher after an alert reporter called the landline, we have a recording of a few minutes of Koulibali ranting to the hostages. (I will use the translation released by CNN.)
“I was born in France,” he says. Evidently his parents emigrated from Mali, in Francophone West Africa. So he is French. But not really, for, as he goes on: “If they didn’t attack other countries, I wouldn’t be here [holding hostages at the supermarket].” So he is a Frenchman born, but it is they who “attack other countries.”
Koulibali’s confusion is commonplace among second-generation Muslims of African origin living in Europe. Who is he? What does he belong to? Like others, too, he will hack the Gordian knot to ribbons. One thing he knows is what he detests. In his eyes and those of his co-believers, he comes to the aid of the victims of Syria’s Bashar al-Assad. Assad and his supporters, he says, “tortured the kids. They killed people. We didn’t come help them for years.” So, now France is we again. It is “we,” France, its citizens, who failed the Syrians. (Later he will go on to curse the hostages for paying French taxes.) But he will fail them no longer.
France added insult to injury. First, “we” let Assad’s slaughter go on. Then France sent bombers. “Why do they do that?” (They, again.) Why does France bomb the righteous of ISIS who are fighting the sacred fight against the enemies of Allah? Choppily, in unfinished phrases, loose threads dangling from a whole tapestry of Manichaean rage, like an avenging angel who has skimmed his Fanon and plucked out some phrases to justify his rage, Koulibali ticks off places where France has committed crimes: “the north of Mali … Syria … At the same time [he continues] there were children who died.” He does not yet specify which children he means.
They, the French, are the monstrous Other: “They must stop. … Stop attacking the Islamic State, stop unveiling our women, stop putting our brothers in prison for anything and everything.” I. e., for earlier terrorist activity.
After accusing the hostages of paying for these crimes with their taxes—when they could have evaded their own taxes, as Koulibali says he does with his own—he tells them: “You have a choice. You can go live in Israel.”
You can go live in Israel. In Israel you would no longer be lending your support to France’s hatred of Muslims.
This is the weirdest element of this whole unnerving episode. Suddenly, in the mind of an ISIS follower, Israel is to be a refuge for the Jews, as it was in 1945-48.
Then he is back to the dead children: “In Iraq with the embargo they killed a million children.” This is a canned rant, from an earlier time, when Saddam Hussein was still in power. His talking points have not been updated. And then: “It will be us who will bring peace to Palestine.” He does not mean coexistence. What he means is, the peace of the dead Jews—those same Jews who, he has told us, should get out of France so they will no longer pay taxes to fight Islamists.
Millions marched in Paris and elsewhere in France, carrying signs: “Je suis Charlie.” Good. Even if the dignitaries taking part in this rally for freedom of the press included representatives of Russia, Turkey, and Hungary, three of the more journalism-hostile governments in and around Europe, the rally was a necessary act of democracy trying to defend itself. Even if, in the words of the Secretary-General of Reporters Without Borders, Christophe Deloire, “We must demonstrate our solidarity with Charlie Hebdo without forgetting all the world’s other Charlies. It would be unacceptable if representatives of countries that silence journalists were to take advantage of the current outpouring of emotion to try to improve their international image and then continue their repressive policies when they return home. We must not let predators of press freedom spit on the graves of Charlie Hebdo.”
Hypocrites abound. Let them subscribe to commitments they will violate, and let them be exposed for that—also good.
But, in the meanwhile, it is of the utmost importance to those who value liberty and equality to recall that two assaults took place in Paris. One was against freedom of the press. (I intend to say more about this one in my next column for Tablet magazine.) The other was against Jews—Jews as Jews. If that is not murderous racism, there is no such thing. Even those who feel paranoid about anti-Semitism have real enemies.
Face it cool-headedly but face it: Jews, as a people, are under the gun. In a number of recent incidents, French men, women, and children have been murdered for being Jews. In 2006, a young Jew was kidnapped by a gang of thugs, tortured for three weeks, then killed. In 2012, in the south of France, three children and an adult at a Jewish day school were murdered by an Islamist thug, a petty criminal, recruited in prison. Not that France is uniquely dangerous for Jews. In 2008, during the Islamist assault on the Taj Mahal Hotel in Mumbai, one nearby buildings also assaulted was the Chabad house, where the rabbi, his wife, and four others were murdered by Muslim terrorists from the Lashkar-e-Taiba group, based near Lahore, Pakistan.
I have no peroration to close with, or any all-encompassing analysis or a 10-point program of action. I do not know for a fact that the left is any more casual, shall we say, about rank Jew-hatred than the right. But I do wonder why it is so hard—or even hard at all—to get the progressive mind, for which racism is everywhere and always anathema, around the fact that it is both imperative and possible to fight against white supremacy and against Jew-hatred at the same time.
What will it take for progressives to understand in their bones that Jew-hatred can never be one whit more defensible than any other racial insanity? A competitive number of Jewish bodies? Will resolutions flow now through academic associations calling for sanctions against Jew-hating institutions? Why is there any hesitation about protecting a vulnerable and long-devastated people—even when the Jewish State commits its own crimes? Is there always to be an asterisk about racism, where the attached footnote reads: Jews need not apply?
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Todd Gitlin, professor of journalism and sociology and chair of the Ph.D. program in Communications at Columbia University, is the author of The Sixties: Years of Hope, Days of Rage; Occupy Nation: The Roots, the Spirit, and the Promise of Occupy Wall Street; and, with Liel Leibovitz, The Chosen Peoples: America, Israel, and the Ordeals of Divine Election.
Todd Gitlin (1943-2022), was a professor of journalism and sociology and chair of the Ph.D. program in Communications at Columbia University, and the author of among other books The Sixties: Years of Hope, Days of Rage; Occupy Nation: The Roots, the Spirit, and the Promise of Occupy Wall Street; and, with Liel Leibovitz, The Chosen Peoples: America, Israel, and the Ordeals of Divine Election.