In Nazi Germany, there was an anti-Semitic weekly newspaper called Der Stürmer.
Run by Julius Streicher, it was notorious for being one of the most virulent advocates of the persecution of Jews during the 1930s.
What everybody remembers about Der Stürmer was its morbid caricatures of Jews, the people who were facing widespread discrimination and persecution during the era.
Its depictions endorsed all of the common stereotypes about Jews – a hook nose, lustful, greedy.
“Let’s say, … amidst all of this death and destruction, two young Jews barged into the headquarters of the editorial offices of Der Stürmer, and they killed the staff for having humiliated them, degraded them, demeaned them, insulted them,” queried Norman Finkelstein, a professor of political science and author of numerous books including “The Holocaust Industry” and “Method and Madness.”
“How would I react to that?,” said Finkelstein, who is the son of Holocaust survivors.
Finkelstein was drawing an analogy between a hypothetical attack on the German newspaper and the deadly Jan. 7 attack at the Paris headquarters of the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo, that left 12 people dead, including its editor and prominent cartoonists. The weekly is known for printing controversial material, including derogatory cartoons about the Prophet Muhammad in 2006 and 2012.
The attack sparked a global massive outcry, with millions in France and across the world taking to the streets to support freedom of the press behind the rallying cry of “Je suis Charlie,” or “I am Charlie.”
What the Charlie Hebdo caricatures of the Prophet Muhammad achieved was “not satire,” and what they provoked was not “ideas,” Finkelstein said.
Satire is when one directs it either at oneself, causes his or her people to think twice about what they are doing and saying, or directs it at people who have power and privilege, he said.
“But when somebody is down and out, desperate, destitute, when you mock them, when you mock a homeless person, that is not satire,” Finkelstein said.
“That is, I give you the word, sadism. There’s a very big difference between satire and sadism. Charlie Hebdo is sadism. It’s not satire”
The “desperate and despised people” of today are Muslims, he said, considering the number of Muslim countries racked by death and destruction as in the case of Syria, Iraq, Gaza, Pakistan, Afghanistan and Yemen.
“So, two despairing and desperate young men act out their despair and desperation against this political pornography no different than Der Stürmer, who in the midst of all of this death and destruction decide its somehow noble to degrade, demean, humiliate and insult the people. I’m sorry, maybe it is very politically incorrect. I have no sympathy for [the staff of Charlie Hebdo]. Should they have been killed? Of course not. But of course, Streicher shouldn’t have been hung. I don’t hear that from many people,” said Finkelstein.
Streicher was among those who stood trial on charges at Nürnberg, following World War II. He was hung for those cartoons.
Finkelstein said some might argue that they have the right to mock even desperate and destitute people, and they probably have this right, he said, “But you also have the right to say ‘I don’t want to put it in my magazine … When you put it in, you are taking responsibility for it.”
Finkelstein compared the controversial Charlie Hebdo caricatures to the “fighting words,” doctrine, a category of speech penalized under American jurisprudence.
The doctrine refers to certain words that would likely cause the person to whom they are directed, to commit an act of violence. They are a category of speech unprotected by the First Amendment.
“You are not allowed to utter fighting words, because they are equivalent of a smack to the face and it is asking for trouble,” Finkelstein said.
“So, are the Charlie Hebdo caricatures the equivalent of fighting words? They call it satire. That is not satire. It is just epithets, there is nothing funny about it. If you find it funny, depicting Jews in big lips and (a) hook nose is also funny.”
Finkelstein pointed to the contradictions in the Western world’s perception of the freedom of the press by giving the example of the pornographic magazine Hustler, whose publisher, Larry Flynt, was shot and left paralyzed in 1978 by a white supremacist serial killer for printing a cartoon depicting interracial sex.
“I don’t remember everyone celebrating ‘We are Larry Flynt’ or ‘We are Hustler,'” he said. “Should he have been attacked? Of course not. But nobody suddenly turned this into a political principle of one side or the other.”
The West’s embrace of the Charlie Hebdo caricatures was because the drawings were directed at and ridiculed Muslims, he said.
The characterization by the French of Muslims as being barbaric is hypocritical considering the killings of thousands of people during France’s colonial occupation of Algeria, and the French public’s reaction to the Algerian war from 1954 to 1962, according to Finkelstein.
The first mass demonstration in Paris against the war “did not come until 1960, two years before the war was over,” he said. “Everybody supported the French annihilatory war in Algeria.”
He said French philosopher Jean Paul Sartre’s apartment was bombed twice in 1961 and 1962, as was the office of his magazine, Les Temps Modernes, after he came out in full force against the war.
Finkelstein, who has been described as an “American radical,” said the pretensions of the West about Muslim attire exposed a dramatic contradiction in the face of the West’s attitude toward natives in lands they occupied during colonialism.
“When Europeans came to North America, the thing they said about the native Americans was that they were so barbaric, because they walked around naked. The European women were wearing three layers of clothes. Then they came to North America, and decided that the native Americans were backward because they all walked around naked. And now, we walk around naked, and we say that the Muslims are backward because they wear so much clothes,” he said.
“Can you imagine anything more barbaric? Banning women wearing headscarves?” he asked, referring to the 2004 ban on headscarves in French public service jobs.
Finkelstein’s work, accusing Jews of exploiting the memory of Holocaust for political gain and criticizing Israel for oppressing the Palestinians, has made him a controversial figure even within the Jewish community.
He was denied a tenure as a professor at DePaul University in 2007 after a highly publicized feud with fellow academic Alan Dershowitz, an ardent supporter of Israel. Dershowitz reportedly lobbied the administration of DePaul, a Roman Catholic university in Chicago, to deny him tenure.
Finkelstein, who currently teaches at Sakarya University in Turkey, said the decision was based on “transparently political grounds.”
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As usual, right on point. I have bowed to conventional usage and referred to Charlie Hebdo’s cartoonists as “satirists,” but few intellectuals would dream of celebrating this outfit had they not directed their crudest humor at Muslims — and been attacked for it.
Excellent essay, Norman Finklestein. We have followed you through the years of torment you have sustained. More power to you.