Mere hours after terrorists stormed the Charlie Hebdo offices that left 12 people dead in a bloody attack, an illustration of three pencils – one whole, one broken and one resharpened – went viral on social media. For each pencil, the caption read respectively: yesterday, today and tomorrow.
The moving image not only signifies the power of a cartoon, but a unified public standing behind the brave artists who create them.
“I’ve never seen so many cartoons making the rounds on the Internet as I have in the last day,” Avi Katz, a cartoonist for The Jerusalem Report, said on Friday of the outpouring of support his fellow artists have demonstrated since the attack.
“Everybody in the world made a cartoon about what happened and what to do about it and everybody is sending them to each other.”
While varying in point of origin and style, all the cartoonists seemed to hold to one singular message: We will not take this lying down.
Mainstream media though, has come under fire for its decision to not show the controversial Charlie Hebdo illustrations depicting the prophet Muhammad.
“The polite word is chickenshit,” Katz said bluntly when asked about his thoughts on the matter.
“On television, they showed a page from The Telegraph in England of someone showing the cover of Charlie Hebdo where there was a Jewish dati [haredi] guy pushing Muhammad in wheelchair. In The Telegraph they pixelled out the picture of Muhammad and not the anti-Semitic looking picture of the Jewish man, because they’re not afraid of the Jewish reaction they are afraid of the [Muslim one,]” he said pointing out the double standard behind such a decision.
Yaakov Kirschen, the illustrator behind The Jerusalem Post’s Dry Bones, agreed that such a move is an act of cowardice.
Kirschen, whose work calls out Muslim extremism worldwide and Western leadership’s inability to combat it, said religious and political leaders’ decision to go silent has failed the public.
“I don’t think that the political or religious leadership in the West is up to the job. I think they are cowardly. I think they are fearful and that’s what we got,” he said.
In his view, this power vacuum of sorts in the face of adversity has saddled cartoonists and satirists with the challenging – and perilous – task of defending the right to freedom of speech.
“I think that what we have now, is that bizarrely, cartoonists are now the front-line soldiers in the war to defend freedom of speech,” he said. “I think that the role of cartoonists has really changed. I think that cartoonists have become advocates and activists.”
For Katz, he acknowledged that he is speaking from a point of privilege because in Israel he doesn’t face the threats that his peers in Europe or the Arab world must contend with on a daily basis.
“Cartoonists in the Arab world have a very hard time with it, unless they go along with the powers that be.... In Israel, when you do political cartoons and they don’t criticize the government, for example, they think there’s something wrong with you and you’re not doing your job,” he said.
When presenting his work in international exhibitions outside of Israel, he is often approached by his peers in the Arab world who are flabbergasted with what he can get away with back at home.
“The worst that can happen is somebody will write a letter to the editor saying you’re an anti-Semite. But nobody will burn your house down.”
Katz has nothing but admiration for those at Charlie Hebdo who literally put themselves in the line of fire for the sake of free speech and he doesn’t subscribe to the idea that they went too far in their satire.
“The Charlie Hebdo people are very gutsy and they go farther than I do and hit harder than I do and I always respected it,” he explained. “[In a] specifically satirical medium like a humor magazine, you should be able to go crazy. You should be able to go as far as you want and if people don’t like it, they don’t have to read it.”
For Kirschen, his goal as a “cartoon activist” is “to attempt to convince. Cartoonists, if possible, should be using humor to get under the radar so they can speak to the truth. It’s not to thumb your nose at the enemy, but to speak to the positive messages that we have.”
Those are his personal criteria, and it doesn’t matter if Charlie Hebdo adhered to the same artistic standards.
“I think that it doesn’t matter whether Charlie Hebdo was functioning within those parameters, I think that’s totally irrelevant. I think that Charlie Hebdo spoke with cartoons and that it attacked whom it wanted to attack. That’s freedom,” he said.
Unfortunately, it is still unclear what kind of sequence of events will unfold or what next steps individual artists, governments or organizations should take in the face of such threats. For Katz and Kirschen, they each are attempting to combat this onslaught in their own way.
Katz has been invited to participate in an April exhibition at the Caen Memorial Center for History and Peace museum in Normandy, France, which is to be dedicated to the Charlie Hebdo victims.
And for Kirschen, long before the attack, he created a campaign to battle anti-Semitism and Christian persecution across the Middle East. His membership drive, which has raised over $25,000 so far, is intended to create an online university to train aspiring cartoonists how to be advocates and activists for free speech.
As attacks continue across Paris, these moves will not be the be-all and end-all of combating terrorism against free speech, but – for cartoonists – it’s a step in the right direction.