Slaughter in Paris
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Slaughter in Paris

Dirty Charlie

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Demonstrators march in Paris during the unity rally on January 11. The huge sign reads “We Are Charlie.” Photo by Dan Kitwood/Getty Images

Charlie Hebdo, the satirical French weekly, entered American consciousness last week when terrorists attacked an editorial meeting, killing 12 people, among them five staff cartoonists.

Afterwards, the phrase “Je suis Charlie” was spread by people who wanted to signal their support for freedom of expression – many of whom, outside of France, had never heard of the publication.

But Edward Portnoy was a longtime Charlie fan.

Dr. Portnoy, who teaches Jewish studies courses at Rutgers, discovered the magazine 20 years ago, when he spent a year in France. When he was a child, when his friends collected baseball cards, he had collected Wacky Packs – stickers that parody actual boxes or labels. Later, he earned a doctorate in Jewish history at the Jewish Theological Seminary of America; his dissertation was on political cartoons in the American Yiddish press.

So Charlie Hebdo, with its “crude and obnoxious” cartoons, was his kind of paper. “I always liked satire and parody,” he said. “When I first saw these crude cartoons – many of which are very clever and sharp – they just appealed to me.”

Initially, “It was a way to learn the language visually. When I was learning French, I read a lot of cartoons,” he said.

When he returned to America, he kept following Charlie Hebdo. He had relatives in France send him copies, and he bought them himself when he visited Montreal. “When I asked certain people to bring me a copy, they would groan, because they said it was embarrassing to buy,” he said.

Charlie Hebdo is a tabloid, closer in size to the Jewish Standard than to the New York Times, printed on newsprint rather than glossy magazine stock. It generally runs 16 pages. “It’s not all cartoons, but the core is a cartoon,” Dr. Portnoy said. “Every cover has a huge, very colorful, very provocative cartoon.

“There’s no parallel publication in the United States. If American cartoonists would publish what they publish in Charlie Hebdo, there would be an outcry.”

The closest American analogue to its crude humor is the television show South Park, he added.

Both South Park and Charlie Hebdo used the outcry over cartoons showing Muhammed as an excuse to double down in support of freedom of expression and the right to commit blasphemy.

But not even South Park would dare show the Christian trinity – the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost – engaged in a sexual act.

Charlie Hebdo did.

On Tuesday evening, Dr. Portnoy presented a lecture on the history of Charlie Hebdo at a weekly gathering of cartoonists and scholars of cartooning that meets at the New School in Manhattan. It was a reprise of a presentation he gave three years ago, after Charlie Hebdo’s offices were firebombed for its Muhammad cartoons, and then published more cartoons mocking Muhammad.

“As someone who has read this magazine for 20 years, it is mind-blowing to see it as the central feature of so many news stories, and the topic of discussion of people who have never seen a copy in their hand,” he said. “They’ve only seen decontextualized cartoons online.”

The cartoons “all deal with contemporary news events. In order to understand the magazine you have to have a very strong understanding of French politics and culture. If you just look at the cartoons and don’t know anything about France, you’re not going to understand it at all. It is very left wing, in an anarchistic vein. Very anti-authoritarian, very anti-religion. I wouldn’t say it’s anti-Muslim. It’s anti-Islam, and especially anti-Islamicist. If you look at its history, you will see a very consistent anti-religious line that attacks all religions, Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. They are very much an equal-opportunity offender.

“They made cartoons that deal with the Holocaust in unpleasant ways. I don’t think they were anti-Zionist, but they published a fair amount of work that portrayed Israel negatively.

“Even before the Danish cartoon crisis in 2006 they had published cartoons that criticized Islam as a religion. The fact that Muslims reacted much more severely than Jews and Christians, who maybe complained but took it in stride, egged the cartoonists at Charlie on.

“When they saw they were getting a big reaction, they went even further.”

Being outrageous was a sincere editorial move from Charlie’s staff; it didn’t make it France’s most popular magazine. “Its print run is sixty thousand. In a country of sixty million, it’s not that much.”

On Sunday, world leaders turned out to show their resolve against terrorism and their support for freedom of the press.

“There’s a huge irony here,” Dr. Portnoy said. “If the murdered cartoonists knew who was marching in support of them, they would be appalled. They’d think it was a joke. The hypocrisy of the politicians marching is outrageous. The line of people together with the president of France – people from Turkey and Jordan and all of those countries that jail journalists.”

Dr. Portnoy said that America once, briefly, had a similarly provocative cartoon publication. “A short-lived magazine called Good Morning, by an artist by the name of Young.” Founded in 1919 and lasting only through 1921, it was founded by an artist named Art Young and based on a Yiddish humor magazine, Der Groyser Kundes – “The Great Prankster.”

“During World War I, Art Young was put on trial for sedition and couldn’t find work. Der Groyser Kundes gave him a job drawing cartoons. He was their only gentile artist,” he said.

“Yiddish cartooning could be very provocative – but the social situation was very different. Times have changed. I’ve seen Yiddish cartoons that show the editor of the Forvertz, Abraham Cahan, dressed as a prostitute, trying to lure a writer into a brothel.”

But compared to the nude cartoons of Charlie Hebdo – that is France, after all – the satire of Abraham Cahan a century ago was positively demure.

“He has a long dress on,” Dr. Portnoy said.

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