Barbed ire

A new exhibition at the Holon Cartoon Museum displays Israeli political drawings and caricatures

August 15, 2019 09:18
Barbed ire

Border Conflict by Guy Marod / Yedioth Ahronoth: The chief of staff asks, as he looks at an incendiary balloon flying over from Gaza. ‘What do we do?’ Then-Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman responds, ‘Pray for rain’. (photo credit: GUY MAROD / YEDIOTH AHRONOTH)

One of the salient tests of democracy is its ability to take criticism against itself, its institutions and the people who wield power under its aegis. So when Michal Korman suggested to Holon’s Cartoon Museum – where she works as head of education and as a curator – that it was time that they displayed political criticism that had been expressed in local cartoons and caricatures, she knew that she was asking for a direct assault against the “only democracy in the Middle East.”

“We didn’t have to look far,” Korman told The Jerusalem Report. “In every journal, newspaper, blog and platform on the Internet there was material. We focused the exhibition on the years 2017 and 2018, though we are keeping one section for updates.
Cartoons and caricatures are to be found across the political and social spectrum, from Left and Right, and from secular to Haredi sources.”

Everyone it seems has joined the assault. Whereas some of the earlier attempts in Israel at visual criticism could be crude, nowadays the graphics and the messages they contain, while no less biting, are highly sophisticated often brilliantly executed by some of the best exponents of their craft.

A quick look at the exhibition “Zipporen Shlufa” (Showing Claws: Graphic Responses to Public Scandals) demonstrates this in abundance. Row after row of beautifully produced graphics show the intensity of the criticism across the board against things that seem to have gone wrong in the country.

The exhibition is divided into themes: criticism of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his family, the rise of the MeToo protest, the opposition to violence against women, conflicts concerning religion and state, the rising cost of living, the widening social gap, changes in the media, and the tensions on the border with Gaza.

The exhibition brings together 27 caricaturists from Left and Right of the political spectrum, who unsheathed their claws to tear into the body politic of Israel’s elite. Although the point of their work is to inject humor into often tragic situations, their real role is to make people stop and think, and maybe to get them to act.

The various scandals surrounding Netanyahu and his family is caught in the cartoon by Itamar Daooba showing the family encased in boxes of presents, which is the subject of Case 1000, as it is known. Is it a criminal act to receive presents on this scale, or is it just something that is inappropriate for a prime minister and his family? Either way, the cartoon is a wonderful example of the effectiveness of a purely graphic comment on events of the day without the use of words.

Avi Katz has another dig at the PM, transforming him with a subtle word play on his name by calling him Newtonyahu, and using the well-known myth about the scientist discovering gravity from falling apples. Katz has turned the apples into “the fruits of corruption,” the implication maybe that these “apples” will inevitably fall on the prime minister’s head, but also (unlike the famous scientist) that there are many “apples,” perhaps too many to brush aside.

Katz is also recalled here for filing one of the sharpest and most explosive caricatures of the past two years – one which led to his ouster from this magazine. His caricature was based on an actual scene where one of Likud’s members of the Knesset, Oren Hazan, took a selfie of himself with members of the government including the prime minister. He took it to celebrate the passing of the Nation-State Law, which to many smacked of unnecessary jingoism. What was worse was the childish manner in which Hazan flung himself in front of everyone to take this ‘historic’ shot (he had recently done the same with the president of the US). Katz turned this incident into a parody of George Orwell’s famous Animal Farm, complete with pigs taking the role of the ‘superior’ animals. This was too much for the magazine’s owners, who immediately dismissed the cartoonist. What is interesting is the flood of other cartoonists and readers of the magazine who commented on what they saw as a restriction on freedom of speech. A spate of cartoons displayed in the exhibition are critical of the firing of one of their colleagues. They underline the point being made: any restriction on the freedom of speech is bad news for a state that purports to be democratic.
The Nation-State Law engendered many responses, including that of the loyal Druze community. This was expressed artfully in a cartoon by Eran Volkovsky, who depicted the prime minister redrawing the flag of Israel to include the characteristic shape of a Druze mustache appended to the Star of David, which is the central icon of the Israeli flag.

A similar sense of restriction shows up in a cartoon showing then education minister Naftali Bennett leaning on the door of a class of mature students listening to a lecturer expound on freedom of speech, and admitting that he has ‘‘no opinion one way or the other about the subject matter.” That these restrictions apply more openly to people with left-wing views comes across in a cartoon showing two women trying to receive a permit to enter Israel: “Are you here for Gaza or the Druze community?” asks the clerk pointedly.

The country is, of course, undergoing a number of crises regarding the sharing of the national cake, none so obvious as the refusal of the Haredi community to participate in a basic necessity of joining the armed forces and afterward the work force. This has incensed the majority of Israelis who do serve in the army and do pay taxes on their income. A specific cartoon that is also purely graphic is the one by Arkady Zikoon showing a soldier and a member of the Haredi community trying to ride a unique bike in tandem, but each peddling in a different direction.

The conflict between religion and state is not new, but many observers charge the present Likud-led government for exacerbating divisions in the people that were not there before. This was nicely caught by Amos Elbogen and Nir Molad, who contrasted demonstrations in the old days with those of today. In the first panel they show people demonstrating for unity among the people, of complete support for the army, and the ability to overcome such hardships as the Arab blockade. By contrast, today’s demonstrators seem to be more interested in badmouthing the ‘other’ side, whether these are Ashkenazim (crazies! or crybabies) or homosexuals, etc.

One of the other constant themes of criticism is the apparent indifference that Israelis show, whether it is against women (Kishka’s powerful condemnation of Israel as a whole being the scene of the murder of a woman), or the terrible statistic of building workers (mainly foreigners) falling to their death on building sites. Tsach Cohen captures this poignantly in a cartoon echoing the iconic photograph of builders in the US, sitting and eating their lunch high above on the skyscraper they are in the midst of building. In Cohen’s version, the workers are supplemented by an angel of death-like figure who is waiting to strike with his scythe.

Another cartoon dealing with the MeToo movement shows a group of well-known men sitting on the edge of some water with fishing rods in their hands ready to catch their prey. The heading tells of “Men on Holiday,” but the men include internationally known purveyors of sexual molesting, such as Harvey Weinstein and Kevin Spacey as well as some local celebrities, such as sports commentator Alex Giladi, and coming to join them, the veteran television anchorman Haim Yavin, who is asking to be given room to sit next to his fellow suspects.

One of the rationales by the government for all their policies is that they are doing much better than their neighbors, well expressed in the cartoon of Mishik Golest. Titled “Tensions in the Middle East,” it shows a ‘pure’ Israeli (modeled after an earlier image of a young kibbutznik complete with a kova tembel on his head) who looks on with surprise and naivete at his quarreling neighbors.

But the grim truth is that these neighbors never cease to attack Israel. The country has been shaken by the apparently child-like invasion of balloons filled with combustible material that has bedeviled the so-called Gaza fringe community for two or three years. Cartoonist Guy Morad has Israel’s military leaders lining up in front of a red balloon flying in the sky and asking impotently what to do. They are being answered tersely by the prime minister: “Pray for rain!” This, of course, has a double twist to it in that the prime minister is openly secular – only in desperation does he feel the need to turn to old-time religion.

Another cartoon on the same theme by Arnon Avni emphasizes the frustration that Israel feels at the situation on its southern border. In the cartoon, a cabinet meeting is in session with all the heavies of Netanyahu’s government being asked by the prime minister to close their eyes and to say with determination: “Gaza Disappear!” If it were only so simple!

Israelis of all types and persuasion have been thrown into turmoil. They have, for the first time in the history of the state, been confronted with a second election within the space of five months. It all looks like a very confusing roller coaster ride, according to Shlomo Cohen’s cartoon. It’s lucky that some Israelis still have a sense of humor.

This is an extremely timely and important exhibition. The fact that a broad range of opinions are suggested in the various cartoons demonstrates the seriousness with which the Israeli public view these issues and are unafraid to voice them.
The exhibit runs until the end of the year.

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