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'A political cartoon is a vehicle for social and political change and a noble and honorable art form," declares renowned political cartoonist Patrick Oliphant from the United States.
For three days this week, nearly 30 political cartoonists from 15 countries, including Israel, and the Palestinian Authority have been meeting in Mishkenot Sha'ananim in Jerusalem for the first-ever Cartoon Conference.
"Political cartoonists usually sit alone at their desk, with their pens, brushes, and paper," says the conference's artistic director, cartoonist Michel Kichka, who also lectures at the Betzalel Academy of Art. "This is the first time that we are being challenged to talk about our work and our beliefs, with each other, in words."
The lectures, which end today, have been open to the general public.
Kichka believes that holding the conference in Jerusalem will be beneficial for the cartoonists as well as for the audiences. "Israel and Jerusalem have been at the center of attention by the world media for many years now, and we Israelis are not always pleased with how we are portrayed. As they spend time here, and meet with Israelis, the cartoonists will gain a new, more complex perspective on our situation here.
"And we Israelis," he continues, "can also learn to laugh at ourselves, and to face the things that the cartoonists show us about ourselves - things that we might rather not see."
Speaking to the Jerusalem Post before the conference, Oliphant commented on his work.
"A political cartoonist is a disturber of the peace. We use art and humor to make comfortable people uncomfortable and to provide comfort to the weak," he says. A cartoon, he insists, must be savagely funny. "There is no topic, nothing, that I wouldn't, on an a priori basis, not draw. But a good cartoon is never funny just for funny's sake. We hold politicians and leaders up to ridicule, that's our job. But the humor and the wit are vehicles to express an opinion and a world-view," he says.
Palestinian Baha Boukhari agrees: "We use humor to show the politicians how they affect the lives of the common people. We show reality, without a mask, with a smile, even if the reality we live in is very sad."
Heiko Sukarai, a German cartoonist of Japanese descent, says that his work is guided by two principles: never make jokes about victims and always be on the side of the victims, using your work as a means of emancipation against the powerful.
But in thinking about the Middle East, he says, he has come to realize that these principles can be problematic. "As you in Israel must know so well, the weak can be wrong, too."
As they mingled together, traded trade secrets, and admired each other's work exhibited on the walls of the Conference Center, these prominent cartoonists created an easy, often funny, ambiance. But they are also clearly concerned about the state of their profession.
Says Oliphant, "We are beset by political correctness and the tenuous nature of newspapers today. Too many newspaper owners only care about bottom lines and profits. They don't care about journalism, and they don't want to offend any of their readers so they can make more money. But a good political cartoon invites controversy and engenders dissension. We cannot pander to political correctness or special interest groups, but that is what too many greedy owners and acquiescent editors demand."
American Ann Telnaes, one of the few women political cartoonists in the world, agrees. She will be lecturing today on "Separation of Church and State in the United States.
"The church is encroaching on life in America, especially with this Bush administration," she observes. "And this bodes badly for freedom of the press and for the lives of women."
Oliphant, considered by many to be the "spiritual mentor" of today's political cartoonist, opened the conference with a combined public drawing and talk, illustrating his art and his .
Sharply articulate and painfully funny, he demonstrated how his seemingly-simple lines conveyed his critical messages.
"I have learned that politicians are mostly made of spare parts," he quips, as he transformed a caricature of Nixon into a drawing of Condolleezza Rice as a parrot, and a drawing of Lyndon Johnson into a highly-recognizable rendition of Golda Meir.
Oliphant blatantly calls US President Gorge W. Bush "a dumb wit," and likens conservative politicians to "bacteria, always present and waiting for the right conditions to emerge."
"Of course I'm anti-conservative," Oliphant says. "A conservative cartoonist would be an oxymoron - by his very definition, a cartoonist must be against the status quo."
He dismisses accusations leveled by pro-Israel groups that his cartoons are biased against Israel. "I try to be neutral and I try to treat each individual incident on its own merits, the same way as I handle politicians. But yes, I do have a world view, and yes, of course it is anti-conservative."
Makor Rishon's Shai Charka agrees that "cartoonists must have a world view and then make fun of it. And cartoons have to divide the world into good guys and bad guys, and a kid with a stone looks like a good guy when he's facing a tank. But I insists, through my art, to see the complexity of the situation. And my world view says that Israel must continue to struggle for the Land of Israel."
Despite his love for his profession, Oliphant says that he has few illusions regarding the influence of political cartoons. "But sometimes we can make someone think, get someone angry, force them to reconsider, make them laugh and hurt at the same time - and that is important."