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Remembering Mike Ronnen

Mike, Israel's cartoonist, had courage and humor to spare.

September 1, 2009 02:05
Remembering Mike Ronnen

ronnen 248.88. (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimksi [file])

Picture Mahmoud Ahmadinejad on the left side of the frame, his back toward you, his head pitched 90 degrees to the right, his expression one of surprise and burgeoning horror. On the opposite side of the frame, separated by a row of urinals, is Shimon Peres, looking entirely at his ease. Says Peres: "Mine's bigger." The image - cunningly conceived, simply sketched, earthy, hilarious and as pointed as a dagger - belongs to Meir, or Mike, Ronnen, Israel's cartoonist. Like any good cartoon, it's the kind of thing every reader would get instantly. But some readers would also be put in mind of the story, maybe apocryphal, of Winston Churchill and Clement Attlee standing similarly apart in the men's room of the House of Commons. ("Feeling stand-offish today, Winston?" "That's right, Clement: Every time you see something big, you want to nationalize it.") And, if the reader spent a bit more time thinking about it, he might also understand its deeper meaning, which is that courage takes humor, and vice versa. Mike, who died Sunday morning just a few months shy of his 83rd birthday, had courage and humor to spare, not to mention a few other virtues not easily come by. Among them: integrity, good taste, urbanity and the kind of deep human tenderness that made his friendship a treasure to everyone who ever knew him. I first met Mike in 2002, by which time his career at The Jerusalem Post had already spanned 53 years. I was barely 28, freshly installed as the Post's editor-in-chief for reasons that, to this day, are a mystery to me. A parade of reporters, editors and columnists would come through my office, seeking to impress. But not Mike, who nevertheless did show up one day with his sketch for the next day's cartoon. When I burst out laughing, he must have reckoned that this boy-editor, who favored wearing pinstripe suits and urged his staff to dress likewise, was maybe not such a prig after all. This is how our friendship was born, in a rather tatty editorial office under the faraway gaze of a portrait of Gershon Agron. It made no small difference to my own tenure as editor that Mike had known the Post's founder personally and well, having been hired by him in 1949 when he was just 22 and freshly off the boat from Australia (by way of Allied-occupied Japan and King Farouk's Egypt). Institutional memory matters at a newspaper, because it is the only way it can keep faith with generations of readers. And I, who had no institutional memory to speak of, had Mike to thank for everything I knew about the cast of outsize personalities who had previously sat in my chair, from Ted Lurie to Lea Ben-Dor to David Bar-Illan. Then again, who hadn't Mike known - and what hadn't he seen - over his many years? One day, chatting about a column of mine about atrocities in Zimbabwe, Mike mentioned that he had spent some time there seeking military recruits among South African and Rhodesian Jews. And how, I wanted to know, had that come about? Well, David Ben-Gurion had dispatched him there personally, under the cover of an "aliya mission." Now there was a story Joseph Conrad might have appreciated. Another time, as he was raising himself painfully from his chair, I asked if he was suffering from arthritis. Not at all, he said - just the effects of an old shrapnel wound from the War of Attrition. There were other war stories: In New Guinea, during the Second World War, fending off crocodiles from his unit's encampment near the beach; in Tokyo, for the war-crimes tribunals, sketching Hideki Tojo not long before his hanging. For the 35th anniversary of the Six Day War, I prodded Mike to write up his recollections of the taking of Ammunition Hill, in which he had taken part as a soldier of the Jerusalem Brigade. The result was one of the very best pieces of war-writing published in this or any other newspaper. An excerpt: "I then came upon the shattered bunker that had held out to the last, and from which a Jordanian had tried to kill me. Four young corpses lay inside, another outside. "Other bodies were in small fragments. Using prisoners, we buried the whole bodies, together with other Legion dead, in one of the very top trenches of the hill. "Thinking that this temporary grave would later be visited by a Jordanian war graves unit, I decided... to erect a grave marker. This consisted of a Jordanian semi-automatic rifle (an American World War II Garand M1) stuck barrel-first in the grave. To the butt of the rifle I tied a large piece of blue cardboard, torn from a Jordanian platoon rollbook. With a black felt-tip marker I used for drawing cartoons, I wrote, in English: 'Defence Army of Israel - Here lie buried 17 brave Jordanian soldiers.' The marker and the rifle were later photographed, but both were soon souvenired. King Hussein quoted the marker in his book on the war." Later, in the same piece, Mike writes about entering Ramallah with the IDF: "Turning a corner, we suddenly entered a scene from a Fellini film: dozens of pierrot-like figures, all completely white, were milling around in a street covered with white powder. Hungry Arabs had broken into an UNRWA flour store. I stopped a man with a full sack balanced on his head. He said his family hadn't eaten for days. I let him go with a grin and a rukh el bet." It was all of a piece with Mike: the guts and the gallantry, the ordinary human decency - and then the slyly erudite reference to the French style of Commedia dell'Arte. Mike took many things in their stride, politics perhaps most of all, and he rarely failed to see the absurd in any kind of situation. But he was serious about art and uncompromising, even brutal, in his judgments, and it was through those judgments, administered at regular intervals in the columns of the Post, that he earned his only real enemies. His hillside home in Motza was a shrine to his abstract modernist tastes, shaped and sharpened by his fascination with all things Japanese (including the language, which he knew passably well). I can imagine not a few Israeli artists who would have just as soon blown it up. In the event, he sold it for a small fortune earlier this year. Then there was the fact that Mike was a Zionist. To the bien pensant critic of Israel, it may seem strange that a man so completely at home in the world would actually choose to make his own home in the Jewish state. But then that critic would not likely have had the experience, as Mike did, of being maligned as the "clever Jew" after he had tried to teach fellow Australian military cadets about the uses of perspective in sketching battlefields. Mike, always irreverent in matters of religion, came to Israel, and fought for it, not because he was descended from generations of Jerusalemites - though he was - but because it was the one place where his Jewishness didn't matter. In Israel, he was an everyman; in Israel, he was free. This note would not be complete without mentioning Mike's family. Not many children have been so cherished by their father. Even fewer fathers have been so adored by their children. Mike spoke to me with pride about every one of his children and grandchildren, and his death marks a loss that is immeasurable. But immeasurable also, to me not least, is the blessing of his memory. Bret Stephens is the foreign affairs columnist and deputy editorial page editor of The Wall Street Journal. He was editor-in-chief of The Jerusalem Post from 2002 to 2004.

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