An outspoken United Synagogue rabbi this week triggered a fierce debate about the grey area between freedom of speech and incitement, after he accused the satirical cartoonists murdered at French magazine Charlie Hebdo of “sinning against society”.
Rabbi Yitzchak Schochet of Mill Hill shul, writing in his weekly ‘Ask the Rabbi’ column for Jewish News, was referring to unflattering images of religious figures in the magazine, which was targeted by Islamist gunmen in Paris on 7 January.
Schochet said the cartoons were “not merely insensitive but a breach of fundamental rights,” adding that Judaism says “putting someone to shame is like bloodshed”.
The comments, which addressed “the paradox between the legality of freedom of speech and the illegality of incitement toward racial hatred,” caused significant debate among rabbinic and community leaders.
Rabbi Danny Rich, chief executive of Liberal Judaism, said Schochet had “missed the point” while Vivian Wineman, president of the Board of Deputies, defended the magazine’s “right to print” the cartoons.
“Despite his language, Rabbi Schochet raises an important issue in that just because one has the right to publish something, does not mean one has to,” said Rich.
“Nevertheless he misses the main point, which is that in a democracy and a society based on religious pluralism all ideas including those we hold dear may undergo investigation, criticism and even lampooning,” he said.
“In the case of the cartons an idea, not an individual, was put to shame.”
Senior Masorti Rabbi Jonathan Wittenberg agreed that “Judaism regards ona’at devarim – causing hurt through cruel or careless speech – as a grave wrong” but said “freedom must not yield to intimidation”.
He added: “When a society loses the freedom of speech it also forfeits truth and justice. Throughout the ages poets and scientist alike have paid for those losses with their lives.”
Senior Reform Rabbi Laura Janner-Klausner said: “Freedom of expression must be balanced with concern for the sensitivities of others. We have a right to offend, but it does not make it right to do so.”
At the Board, Vivian Wineman said: “We are not defending the cartoons but Charlie Hebdo’s right to print them. The cartoons have brought far less shame on Islam than the murders carried out in its name.”
Similarly, Board presidential candidate Alex Brummer, an old friend of Schochet, said he was “known for his trenchant views”. He added: “Fortunately, we live in a free society where he can express his views without fear or prejudice even if we disagree with them.”