'100 Cartoons': Drawings that summarize Israeli, Zionist history - review

100 Cartoons was not a history book told in comic strip form, but an academic study of the history of Zionism and the modern State of Israel, using cartoons to illustrate the issues of the times.

 CARTOONS FROM the reviewed book: Zion: Lieder des ghetto. Drawn by Ephraim Moses Lilien (1903). (photo credit: Courtesy)
CARTOONS FROM the reviewed book: Zion: Lieder des ghetto. Drawn by Ephraim Moses Lilien (1903).
(photo credit: Courtesy)

When I mentioned to a friend that I was reviewing a book called Israel: A History in 100 Cartoons, the first question she asked me was “Who is the artist?” 

It was a logical response for someone who had not seen the book, so I explained to her that no, 100 Cartoons was not a history book told in comic strip form (although with the popularity of graphic novels today, such a book might be a good idea). Instead, it is an academic study of the history of Zionism and the modern State of Israel, using cartoons to illustrate the social and political issues of the times.

The author, Colin Shindler, is a professor emeritus at the School of Oriental and African Studies at the University of London. He became the first professor of Israel studies in the UK in 2008. Shindler has written 12 books, including The Rise of the Israeli Right and Israel and the European Left.

Why cartoons?

“Most people appreciate a political cartoon,” Shindler writes. “It gives a voice to the powerless and brings a smile to the face.”

“Most people appreciate a political cartoon. It gives a voice to the powerless and brings a smile to the face.”

Colin Shindler

The author is a serious scholar with a thorough knowledge of the history and politics of Israel. In this book, he cleverly uses political cartoons drawn by Israeli cartoonists to accompany his text. The cartoons add an original dimension to the chapters, each one carefully chosen to reflect the subject of the text it accompanies.

An Israeli flag [Ilustrative] (credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST)An Israeli flag [Ilustrative] (credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST)

In his introduction “Jews: Caricatures, Cartoons and Comics,” Shindler writes: “Cartoons also record history. They provide a snapshot of an event or an episode that reflects popular feelings at the time. They are an invaluable adjunct of historical research.”

Caricatures go back to ancient times. Annibale Carraci, an Italian painter (1560-1609), “is reputed to have developed it in more modern times and realized its potential to reveal and indeed shock. He said that ‘a good caricature, like every work of art, is more true to life than reality itself.’”

As technology progressed in the 19th century, newspapers and journals reached more and more people. Cartoons were used as a form of propaganda or a way to ridicule a leader. “A clever caricature can also be a catalyst to quite easily release pent-up anger at a particular political scenario. As the writer Joseph Conrad succinctly commented in his 1915 novel Victory: ‘A caricature is putting the face of a joke on the body of a truth.’”

Jews were the subject of cartoons for a long time before any Jew became a cartoonist. They were represented with typical antisemitic stereotypes by British and French artists in the 18th and 19th centuries. The artist Thomas Rowlandson portrayed 18th-century Jews in London as criminals. 

Jews were drawn as old, ugly, and religious, with beards, bulging eyes and, of course, long, hooked noses. In Nazi Germany, the in-house artist for Der Stürmer depicted Jews as sexual predators, ritual murderers of German children, and financial exploiters. Jews and Israelis were depicted in similar ways in the USSR after the State of Israel was established. 

At about this time, Jewish cartoonists began to appear in America. It was the Jewish cartoonists Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster who created Superman, and Bob Kane (Robert Kahn) who brought Batman to the world. These Jewish cartoonists created characters that were the opposite of the commonly held view that Jews were helpless; in their fantasy world, Jews became superheroes.

ISRAEL: A History in 100 Cartoons begins with two in-depth chapters about the development of political Zionism and the events leading up to Israel’s declaration of statehood in 1948. These chapters are followed by a history of the State of Israel from 1949 to 2020, and includes a chapter for each year and a cartoon for every chapter. Among the cartoonists whose work is included in the book are Yaakov Kirschen, the originator of the “Dry Bones” comic in The Jerusalem Post; and Kariel Gardosh (“Dosh”), who created the national symbol Srulik, with whom readers might be familiar. In the year-by-year chapters of Israeli history, Shindler gives an overview of the political, social, economic and security events of each year.

In “The Road to 1948,” one of the introductory chapters, there is a section titled “Israel’s War of Independence and the Nakba.” Clearly, the author wants to be as politically correct as possible and give both sides to the story; as an academic this certainly makes sense. Perhaps Israel: A History in 100 Cartoons does not intend to provide political commentary, but anyone writing a history book is in some way or another expressing their own point of view, even if it is inadvertently. 

Much of the section about the War of Independence focuses on the flight of the Arabs both before and after the State of Israel was declared in May 1948. This section is illustrated with a picture of a man standing solemnly in a cemetery with tombstones on which were written “killed while defending Kfar Etzion” and “killed while defending the Old City.” Underneath this cartoon is written: “The Zionist Jews fought Palestinian Arabs in a civil war until May 1948.”

While it is well known that the Arabs use the term Nakba (“catastrophe”) to describe Israel’s War of Independence, this is the first time I have heard Israel’s War of Independence called a “civil war” (when I hear the term civil war, I think of the American Civil War in the 1860s). 

I decided to Google the definition of “civil war” and found that The New World Encyclopedia defines it as “a war in which parties within the same culture, society or nationality fight against each other for the control of political power.” This does not describe Israel’s War of Independence. 

Wikipedia says a civil war is “a war between organized groups within the same state (or country).” This does not describe Israel’s War of Independence either. The term “civil war” does not describe a conflict between a newly declared independent state and the five armies that tried to push it into the sea. In this case, I beg to differ with the author’s appraisal of history. 

A little further research shows that he is far from the only one who uses the term “civil war” to describe Israel’s War of Independence. Perhaps I am naive or a bit sheltered, but it looks to me like history is being rewritten these days.

Israel: A History in 100 Cartoons provides the reader with many details about the politicians and political parties that made up Israel’s government throughout the years. With the use of cartoons, it is unique and different from other books that have been published previously about Israel’s history. Yet more than anything else, what stands out about this book is not the cartoons but the fact that nothing has really changed in the 75 years since the State of Israel was born. 

Shindler does not live in Israel, but I do, and the events we hear about every day in the news have a habit of recycling themselves. Wars and terror attacks continue to plague those of us who live here, and Israel’s government continues to arrange and rearrange itself like puzzle pieces that do not fit. 

Shindler writes that in 1950 “the leaders of the religious parties sent a letter to Ben-Gurion alleging that religious rights in the ma’aborot (tent cities built to house the multitudes of new immigrants in the 1950s) were being hampered. 

“At an extraordinary meeting of the cabinet, designed to discuss the matter, ministers from the religious parties refused to attend. This set off a year-long series of threats of resignations and the holding of new elections. In parallel, David Ben-Gurion negotiated with the secular parties, Mapam, the Progressives, and the General Zionists, which offered the prospects of alternative coalitions.”

Resignations? New elections? Alternative coalitions? Sounds very familiar.

As it says in Ecclesiastes: “There is nothing new under the sun.” 

ISRAEL: A HISTORY IN 100 CARTOONSBy Colin ShindlerCambridge University Press400 pages; $39.98