Rivlin launches caricatures exhibit to celebrate his 81st birthday

Caricatures are part of the fabric of our vibrant civil society, Rivlin said, “a strong society which is not afraid of criticism – even biting and pointed criticism.”

President Reuven Rivlin attends the Knesset session in which the new government was presented (photo credit: KNESSET SPOKESWOMAN - ADINA WALLMAN)
President Reuven Rivlin attends the Knesset session in which the new government was presented
The passing of the Nation State Law in July 2018, downgraded Arabic from its status as a national language but that loss of status has done little to affect its use and now it is used more than ever on state radio and television to convey important messages during the coronavirus crisis.
Of course, Arabic is also gaining in importance as Israel continues to make friends and influence people in the Arab world.
There is a profound respect for Arabic at the President’s Residence, not least because the President Reuven Rivlin’s late father was an Arabic scholar who translated the Koran into Hebrew.
A caricature exhibition that opened at the President’s Residence on Monday to mark the Hebrew date of Rivlin’s 81st birthday, includes letters of explanation in Hebrew, Arabic and English – all on the one board beneath the presidential letterhead.
This is the last time that Rivlin will celebrate his birthday as president as his term of office expires in July 2021. No other Israeli president has experienced as many Knesset elections and in the current political climate, it is possible that he may be called upon once more to oversee another poll.
In his pre-presidential, pre-Knesset Speaker days, Rivlin was a bit of a comedian, with a talent for shoot-from-the-hip double entendres. He was a frequent guest on humoristic radio and television programs, particularly ones that dealt with political humor.
As president, Rivlin was the subject of a caricature exhibition called Crossing the Rubicon, that was held at Sapir Academic College in 2015.  In surveying his many likenesses, Rivlin said at the time: “Caricatures amuse me. Even when I am the subject of the cynical, sometimes mocking humor of the caricature, when I look at it, it seems to be that I am looking into my reflection in many mirrors.”
A proposal, therefore, by Yuval Keshet, the President’s Residence curator, for the president to celebrate his 81st birthday through an exhibit of caricatures of all his predecessors, greatly appealed to Rivlin. Now he could not only see his own reflection, but could reflect on the similarities of all the other presidents of Israel in confronting the political situations of the day.
Even though the president’s role is largely ceremonial, almost all Israel’s past heads of state had previously been politicians and only two, Chaim Weizmann and Ephraim Katzir had not previously served as legislators.  
Of the presidents who had been legislators, Yitzhak Navon and Chaim Herzog were the only ones who had not been ministers, and Navon was the only one who returned to politics at the end of his tenure and was appointed a minister.
Of Israel’s ten presidents, Navon and Rivlin are the only ones born in Jerusalem, to families that lived in the city for generations.
Organizing the exhibition, and selecting the various items on display, which are all labeled in Hebrew, Arabic and English, took almost a year.  While every cartoonist has his or her own style, and sometimes produce the most distorted of images which are nonetheless recognizable, what most cartoonists have in common is the way they exaggerate facial features – most often the nose.
Ezer Weizman  who was the seventh president, often quoted his uncle Chaim Weizmann who was the first president, who complained after all he had done to help bring about statehood, that all he was allowed to poke his nose into was a handkerchief.
Rivlin said at the early morning opening at which the very few guests were served rich chocolate birthday cake topped with lashings of cream, said that he was aware that the situation in which Israelis find themselves today, does not give anyone much cause for laughter, “but if there is anything that I have learned throughout my years as an Israeli politician, or in general, it’s that even when dealing with the most serious of issues, it’s important to leave room for humor. It’s important to laugh – to laugh at the situation and to laugh at ourselves.
Caricatures are part of the fabric of our vibrant civil society, Rivlin continued, “a strong society which is not afraid of criticism – even biting and pointed criticism.”
The exhibition was put together with the assistance of the Israeli Cartoon and Comics Museum in Holon.
Exhibits featuring Chaim Weizmann all date from pre-state days. One by Joseph Bass that dates back to1938, shows an Arab Sheikh sitting astride five chairs labeled Iraq, Egypt, Lebanon, Saudi Arabia and Trans-Jordan, while Weizmann is standing alongside a chair labeled Palestine, hanging on to it for dear life. A 1944 charcoal portrait which Bass did of Weizmann, also contains the subject’s signature in Hebrew.
One of the more amusing cartoons, also by Bass, is of a delegation coming to ask Albert Einstein to be Israel’s second president. Einstein declined. The caption under the cartoon  reads: “Is there no-one in Israel who wants to be president?”
Humorous in a different manner was what looked like a page from an old-fashioned family photo album produced by Yaakov Farkash, who used the pen name Zeev, published in Haaretz in August 1966. It featured President Zalman Shazar in a series of different situations, sometimes with various dignitaries. The final ‘photo’ in the collection is very telling of human nature.
Shazar was essentially a Chabadnik, though he didn’t always act as such. However, when he went to America to meet the Lubavitcher Rebbe, he was understandably very excited and came bearing gifts. The Rebbe was equally excited to be meeting the president of Israel, who was also a Chabadnik, and he to bore a gift as he opened the door for Shazar to step across the threshold.
There is one cartoon in which Rivlin is totally unrecognizable, but it’s clear why it has been included in the exhibition: It shows Rivlin, his late wife Nechama, and eight of their nine grandchildren. It was created by Jacky and appeared in Yediot Aharonot in 2018.
Rivlin is fully recognizable in Amos Biderman’s September 2019 cartoon in which he is serving plates of frogs to Benjamin Netanyahu and Benny Gantz. Netanyahu looks as if he’s perspiring. It is dated two days after the Knesset elections, and the final results are not yet in.
Frogs were among the ten plagues of Egypt at the time of the Exodus and Rivlin considered those September elections unnecessary and a plague upon the nation, so what could be more symbolic than frogs?
One of the exhibit’s final images was published in Yediot Aharonot and is dedicated to Nechama Rivlin, who in the last years of her life wheeled a mobile oxygen pump with her wherever she went. Following Nechama’s death, Daniella London-Dekel removed the tube from the pump and sent it towards heaven, where it turned into a heart.
All the works at the exhibition can be seen on the president’s social media platforms.
The exhibition will be on show at the President’s Residence for the remainder of Rivlin’s tenure.