Cartoon portrait of a nation

Political cartoonist Michel Kichka feels we must poke fun at ourselves in order to survive. But does this Israeli humor 'translate' abroad?

olmert cartoon 88 298 (photo credit: Cartoon by Michel Kichka)
olmert cartoon 88 298
(photo credit: Cartoon by Michel Kichka)
'Political cartoons are a wonderful form of cultural communication," says Michel Kichka, senior lecturer at Bezalel Art Academy and head of the Israeli Political Cartoon Association. Kichka has recently returned from the San Francisco Bay Area, where he opened an exhibit of more than 70 Israeli political cartoons by nearly two dozen Israeli cartoonists and lectured on Israeli political cartooning. Entitled "Israel - the Cartoonists' Diagnosis," the exhibit was first presented at the Israel Center, where it was sponsored by the local Bureau of Jewish Education, and it is now showing at San Francisco's Cartoon Art Museum. The cartoons, selected by the organizers from hundreds of submissions, centered around what the catalogue describes as three gazes - the Israeli cartoonist gazing at Israel; the Israeli cartoonist gazing at the world outside, and the Israeli cartoonist gazing at the world's gaze on Israel. Hundreds came to view the exhibit and hear Kichka's lectures at the Israel Center and more than 3,000 people are expected to view the exhibit at the Cartoon Museum before it closes in April. At the Cartoon Museum, "Israel - the Cartoonists' Diagnosis" is running together with an international exhibit of cartoons entitled, "Why Do They Hate US? - An International Perspective on American Politics and Culture," which also includes several of Kichka's cartoons. "These exhibits have been wonderful," Summerlea Kashar, Administrator and Assistant Director of the Cartoon Museum, told The Jerusalem Post. "They've brought hundreds of Jewish visitors to the Museum, many for the first time, and have helped many non-Jews to view Israel in a different light." Most political cartoons are created for local readers. How do they translate across-cultures? "There is an international language of humor," Kashar responds. "It works." Kichka adds, "The central issues in a country's political life tell a lot about that country and society. And cartoons tell about the kind of humor people enjoy." Political cartoons in Israel can be particularly fierce and scathing. Why would officials at the pro-Israel Israel Center chose this critical form of political humor to present Israel to the public? "They've tried to market Israel as the 'land of milk and honey.' It didn't work," Kichka observes. "And the naive Srulik character isn't relevant anymore, either. When you show your true self, with your weaknesses and your faults, you actually gain sympathy in the viewers' eyes. "Paradoxically, our self-criticism actually endears us to others." Kichka also emphasizes that the cartoons on display represent cartoonists with different, often conflicting, political positions. "Most of the cartoons were prepared in 2005, the year of the disengagement, the establishment of Kadima and so much political and social turmoil. The cartoonists, who come from the left and the right, show that we have a healthy debate going on in this country, and that is a good thing." By chance, the exhibit and Kichka's appearances in San Francisco coincided with the Islamic riots over the Danish cartoons, prompting Kichka to reflect on the purpose and power of political cartoons. "The bottom line is that nothing happens because of a cartoon," he says. "These riots came from something deeper, more problematic, The cartoons were merely an excuse to let the rage and frustration spill out. The rage and the frustration are really directed towards their own regimes - but the people are not free to criticize their leaders. Kichka reveals that his young friend and colleague, Algerian cartoonist Ali Dilem, has recently been sentenced to one year in prison and a fine of 550 Euros for drawing a dozen cartoons of President Abdelaziz Bouteflika. "In the Islamic countries, the people are not free. But they are free to criticize the 'American-Zionist' plot," he observes wryly. In fact, he continues, political cartoons can serve as a "recipe for national health. A people's ability to laugh at itself and criticize itself helps to release pressure. It's one of the reasons that satire shows are so popular. The more you can laugh, the more you can slaughter your own sacred cows, the healthier you will be, both for individuals and for entire societies. The cartoonist is the modern court jester, he says. "Israeli reality is crazy and we've come to view that craziness as normal. To live here, we have to poke fun at ourselves. Otherwise, we will not survive." Yet despite Israel's ability for self-deprecating humor, Kichka says, there are several topics that are still taboo - the Holocaust, bereavement and religious Jews." "In Israel," he explains, "any attempt to draw real cartoons about the religious is automatically viewed as anti-Semitic. And mourning and loss just aren't that funny." But even in the few instances where cartoonists have lampooned bereavement or the Holocaust, he says, it's always less offensive than what the politicians actually say. "After all, cartoons don't create reality - there merely reflect it." Reflecting further, Kichka says that Israeli cartoons may be a bit less biting than in other societies. "As a people, we remember the trauma of the anti-Semitic cartoons," he explains. "And we don't have a long historical tradition of political cartoons - we are still a young country. This is still a country where you can argue with a cop about a traffic ticket. Maybe that's because we're a merciful, sensitive people - in a very positive way."