Israeli cartoonist Michel Kichka explores coronavirus

One of the best-known Israeli cartoonists encourages his students at the Bezalel Academy of Art to draw about their shutdown experience

PRIME MINISTER Benjamin Netanyahu drawn by Michel Kichka as Caput Corona, a spoof based on the comic-book hero Captain America.  (photo credit: Courtesy)
PRIME MINISTER Benjamin Netanyahu drawn by Michel Kichka as Caput Corona, a spoof based on the comic-book hero Captain America.
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Michel Kichka, one of the best known Israeli cartoonists working today, was recently so offended by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s remarks on Holocaust Memorial Day saying, “unlike the Holocaust, with coronavirus we reacted in time,” that he took his pen in hand and drew Netanyahu as a Captain America-like hero battling it out with the novel coronavirus.
The homage to the iconic hero drawn by Jack Kirby doesn’t end there, the virus resembles both Hitler and the fictional evil organization Hydra, which Captain America fights and Netanyahu is dubbed Caput Corona. Writing in his blog, Kichka describes how – as a son to a Holocaust survivor – the remark personally offended him as he views it as cheapening the memory of the Holocaust. Kichka claims that Netanyahu is utilizing the Holocaust for his own needs. This is comparable to Right-leaning Polish politicians making it a criminal offense to speak about the Polish nation as being involved in crimes committed against the Jews in occupied Poland.
Kichka also invited his students at the Bezalel Academy of Art to present their own visual commentary on the virus during the quarantine, when classes were out. Rotem Weinstein chose to tackle how home quarantine makes it harder to physically work out and stay in shape, depicting a ballerina doing the same posture in her sleep as she does during healthier times on the stage. Nicole Raskin depicted a Venetian gondolier singing from the balcony as he would from his gondola during normal times, a nod to the new tradition of clapping and singing from one’s home that became common in Spain and Italy during the outbreak.
“I hope to meet these students again in July,” Kichka told The Jerusalem Post, “the fact that second-year students who are taking their first steps in illustration were able to produce such good works made me very glad.” He added that he was very much thinking about his students and their predicament as many student-jobs were eliminated with the changed reality of the outbreak and the loss of the academic class structure. “Keeping in contact,” he pointed out, “has a moral importance.”
Sadly, Kichka’s father, Henry, passed away in April at age 94 from coronavirus in Belgium. The Kichka family is the only one carrying this surname in Israel, as the other bearers were murdered in the Holocaust. His father passed away wearing a shirt with a drawing Kichka made for him with a tree of life with the names of all family members on it.
Kichka penned a graphic novel about his relationship with his father titled The Second Generation – The things I didn’t tell my father. The book was translated into Turkish, Italian, German, and Spanish. Before his father passed away, Kichka drew a cartoon showing his dad as a gunslinger about to shoot it out with the virus. On his blog he wrote with great sadness how “one small virus had been able to do what Hitler’s entire army could not.”
SPEAKING WITH the Post, Kichka explained that he posted on his blog the uncommissioned work he had produced about the virus and its many influences until his father died of COVID-19 and, at this point, “I couldn’t bring myself to find anything funny about it,” he said. “Without this disaster I’d have continued. It is my belief that during hard times comedy has a healing effect and should be included in the Health Ministry’s approved list of subsidized treatments.”
The students were not the only ones to focus on how the virus changed every-day lives. The New Yorker cartoonist Danny Shanahan drew an entire family, plus dog, staring at the door from inside their home hoping to go out for a short walk in a time of house quarantine.
Not all cartoons dealing with the virus poke fun at the powerful or present us with a mirror of ourselves. Sadly, The Anti-Defamation League reported that since the COVID-19 outbreak there has been an explosion of online cartoons that present the outbreak as controlled by Jews, financed by Israel, or a fiction created by the so-called “global-elites.”
Unlike official cartoonists who sign their work and are accountable for it, these works are meant for online communities already festering with hate, a strong desire to believe in outlandish theories and crude all-encompassing statements. In one cartoon, a scientist examines the virus only to discover an alleged “Jew” living inside of it. In another one shared via Telegram, the virus and a stereotypical “Jewish” figure are inside a Trojan horse. Such cartoons usually depict ultra-Orthodox Jews and blur the lines between Jews, insects, and viruses – continuing with the Nazi idea that some groups, like the Germans, are healthy and deserve to live while others, such as the Jews and Roma, are not and do not. The vicious metaphor presents Jews as non-human, and as one does not mourn the elimination of a pathogen, through cartoons it pretends to do so using humor and the veil of free-speech.
Kichka sees this influx of content as the unexpected and uncontrollable, a result of living in the age of social media. “Everyone who has a phone is a reporter,” he says, and a cartoonist who doesn’t sign his name can get millions of likes and shares in a matter of an hour, no matter how vile the content is. “Even [Facebook founder Mark] Zuckerberg can’t stop it, people went on killing sprees and uploaded it and in the few minutes it took to get it off-line it already spread,” he said.
“US President Donald Trump wakes up in the morning and tweets,” Kichka explained, “without talking to anyone on what he is sending, and this is how the world works. It is a dangerous loss of professional ethics and standards and I am very worried because of it.”
The role of a professional cartoonist, he thinks, is that of a “demi-philosopher who presents life in a humoristic way.” Describing what it is that he and his colleagues do as a constant search to produce a “pearl,” a high-quality work, on a daily basis that would get the reader to take notice, laugh, or even scowl.  “A cartoonist has to be in the opposition,” he said, “even if he voted for the current administration.”

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