A bitterer gelechter

This short century has already seen its fair share of cartoon controversy. Remember the 12 editorial sketches in the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten published in September, 2005?

An old cover of George Orwell’s ‘Animal Farm: A Fairy Story,’ first published in England in 1945 (photo credit: WIKIPEDIA)
An old cover of George Orwell’s ‘Animal Farm: A Fairy Story,’ first published in England in 1945
(photo credit: WIKIPEDIA)
When something was funny and yet not, my mother used to say in Yiddish, “A bitterer gelechter!” A bitter laugh. That’s the optimum response a political cartoonist aims to elicit – a wry, this-would-be-funny-if-it-weren’t-so-sad kind of smile. And the closer to the bone it cuts, the bitterer the gelechter.
On August 6, 2018, cartoonist Avi Katz took aim at MK Oren Hazan’s triumphant selfie, shot ecstatically moments after the controversial Nation-State Law was passed in the Knesset. Hazan, who had previously jumped out of an official welcoming line to snap a selfie with a bewildered President Donald Trump, was celebrating a law that, inter alia, declares “Israel is the historic homeland of the Jewish people and they have an exclusive right to national self-determination in it,” and downgrades Arabic as a national language.
To the Arab citizens of Israel, and to the Druze and Christians who call Israel home, as well as to those Jewish Israelis who found the law disturbingly racist, the selfie, splashed over news outlets across the country, was disconcertingly smug. Katz caricaturized the moment in a cartoon, portraying Hazan and his exultant chums (including Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu), as the ruling pigs in George Orwell’s iconic Animal Farm. The caption, clearly from the famous wall in the barn, reads: “All animals are equal, but some are more equal than others.”
Repercussions were swift and severe. The Jerusalem Report, and its owners, the Jerusalem Post Group, were flooded with complaints; Steve Linde, editor of The Report, was compelled to fire Katz. Readers baulked at seeing Israel’s leader on trotters, topped with a pig’s head; they complained that it was reminiscent of antisemitic tropes and crossed all red lines.
Katz posted the cartoon on his Facebook page, garnering hundreds of both supportive and outraged comments. “Crazy antisemite,” wrote one commenter. “Filled with self-loathing, frustrated and bitter. I suggest that you climb into a jar of saltwater [in a] dark and shady place until you are nicely pickled.” Another admonished: “It is you who is the pig. And those in the picture are just the representatives of your people and the illustrator is one of the enlightened [who are] boorish and ignorant.”
Interestingly enough, a similar cartoon was published in 1980 in the daily Ha’aretz newspaper, with the very same caption (in Hebrew) depicting “Arik’s Animal Farm.” Former Prime Minister Menachem Begin and then defense-minister Arik Sharon were the pigs; opposition leaders including Yitzhak Rabin and Shimon Peres morphed into horses and donkeys. There was no scandal. And Israel Prize Laureate Yisrael Zeev did not lose his job.
So what’s changed?
Even in the Israel of today some readers defended Katz, and stood up for freedom of speech. A whip-around online campaign raised over 10,000 shekels on his behalf, and the Union of Journalists in Israel declared it “takes seriously the decision to fire cartoonist Katz from The Jerusalem Report because of his critical cartoon. Causing harm to a journalist because he expressed an opinion, let alone when it was approved by his editors, is a dangerous step that must not be accepted. We call on Katz’s editors to retract this unacceptable step.”
So who’s correct?
This short century has already seen its fair share of cartoon controversy. Remember the 12 editorial sketches in the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten published in September, 2005? One had Muhammad with a bomb tucked into his turban; another placed the Prophet, dressed like a mullah, on a cloud, greeting freshly dead suicide bombers. “Stop, stop, we have run out of virgins!” yells the caption – alluding to the promised heavenly delights for terrorists. The newspaper was debating criticism of Islam, and examining the issue of self-censorship; many Muslims were not amused. Protests broke out around the world, some turned violent and a reported 200 deaths occurred in the chaos.
All this drama unfolded just a few short years after 9/11; political and social tensions were already running high between Muslim majority and Western countries. Danish Prime Minister Anders Fogh Rasmussen described the controversy as Denmark’s worst international relations incident since World War II. Newspapers around the world wondered whether to republish the cartoons and risk reprisals; in Israel, where terrorism is always a threat, the risk seemed almost too great. However, The Jerusalem Post reprinted them in full, explaining the backstory.
The Danish paper had not run the cartoons on a whim. Immediately prior to the printing, writer Kåre Bluitgen had encountered great resistance by illustrators who refused to work on his children’s book, The Qur’an and the Life of the Prophet Muhammad lest they became fresh targets for terrorists. The murder of film director Theo van Gogh in Amsterdam, in retaliation for his film exposing the suffering of Muslim women, colored the Danish cartoonists fearful. So when a reporter on the daily paper raised the idea of checking whether members of the Newspaper Illustrators Union would be willing to draw Muhammad, or felt too intimidated to do so, culture editor Flemming Rose took up the challenge.
On September 30, 2005, Jyllands-Posten published an article entitled “Muhammeds ansigt” (“The face of Muhammad”) incorporating the cartoons. The article consisted of the 12 cartoons and an explanatory text, in which Rose wrote:
Modern, secular society is rejected by some Muslims. They demand a special position, insisting on special consideration of their own religious feelings. It is incompatible with contemporary democracy and freedom of speech, where one must be ready to put up with insults, mockery and ridicule. It is certainly not always attractive and nice to look at, and it does not mean that religious feelings should be made fun of at any price, but that is of minor importance in the present context. ... we are on our way to a slippery slope where no one can tell how the self-censorship will end. That is why Morgenavisen Jyllands-Postenhas invited members of the Danish editorial cartoonists union to draw Muhammad as they see him.
Later, Rose explained his intent further in The Washington Post: “The cartoonists treated Islam the same way they treat Christianity, Buddhism, Hinduism and other religions. And by treating Muslims in Denmark as equals they made a point: We are integrating you into the Danish tradition of satire because you are part of our society, not strangers. The cartoons are including, rather than excluding, Muslims.” The publication of the cartoons was also accompanied by an editorial titled “Truslen fra mørket” (The Threat from the Darkness) condemning Islamic spiritual leaders “who feel entitled to interpret the prophet’s word, and cannot abide the insult that comes from being the object of intelligent satire.”
Although nobody lost their job in the fracas, several Western embassies worldwide were attacked, churches were vandalized, and a consumer boycott of Denmark was declared by Saudi Arabia and Kuwait, among others. Cartoonist Kurt Westergaard, after surviving a spate of attacks, now lives under police protection and Rose has been targeted too. And yet, two years later in an obscure town in Sweden, Lars Vilks submitted three pen and ink drawings for an exhibition on “The Dog in Art,” depicting the Prophet Muhammad as a roundabout dog. When the organizers in the town of Tallerud baulked, Ulf Johansson, the editor of a plucky little regional newspaper published the sketches in Nerikes Allehanda, and promptly found himself with a $50,000 price tag on his head. Al-Qaida announced a bounty of $150,000 for anyone who bumped off Lars Vilks.
So far the Swedes have held on to their heads. Twelve people working in the offices of the French satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo were not so lucky. On January 7, 2015 two brothers, Saïd and Chérif Kouachi, members of Al-Qaeda’s branch in Yemen, burst into the offices of the paper and gunned down 12 people including journalists, the paper’s editor and his bodyguard, and a maintenance worker. Then, screaming, “Allahu Akbar!” the terrorists escaped in a getaway car.
I am quite convinced that not one reader of this paper condones the killings or the violence sparked by irreverent cartoons criticizing Islam. And I am almost 100% convinced that no Israeli would riot and kill over a caricature. In fact, at the height of the second intifada, when Israelis were being bombed indiscriminately on a daily basis, Israel’s then-prime ninister, Ariel Sharon, was splashed over The Independent newspaper in London. “Splashed” is an appropriate word: Dave Brown’s “cartoon of the year” parodied Goya’s “Saturn Devouring One of his Children.” Sharon is naked in the sketch, big and bloated and barbaric. Oh, and biting off the head of a Palestinian child.
Sharon has a gleeful look in his eyes; his fangs are dripping with blood.
“What’s wrong?” the Israeli PM drools. “Have you never seen a politician kissing a baby before?”
Brown’s drawing, described in England as “warped, wicked and wonderful,” was a great hit all over the world. This was in 2003, when 1,123 Israelis were killed by Palestinian terrorists. Some 806 of the casualties were civilians. There was no lack of blood and gore – heads were blown off, eyes were blown out of heads – but Brown somehow neglected to caricaturize any of the suicide bombers and the Jewish babies that they bloodied. Yet, no Jewish riots rocked the world; no British embassies were attacked.
Double standards are alive and kicking when it comes to cartoons, just like everything else. Cartoons cut deep into our consciousness, and into our conscience. But who decides what crosses all red lines?
Which brings us back to Animal Farm.
George Orwell’s allegorical novella, published in 1945, satirizes Joseph Stalin. Orwell believed the Soviet Union was a brutal dictatorship, driven by a cult of personality and sustained by a reign of terror. Orwell wrote the book towards the end of World War II, when the Brits were pretty partial to the Soviet Union and Stalin, due to their wartime alliance; initially no publishers would touch the book. As international relations between the countries soured and froze into the Cold War, Animal Farm became a huge bestseller. Snowball and Napoleon, two young pigs with promise, lead the animals in a revolt against Farmer Jones, and splash their Seven Commandments of Animalism on an old barn wall. The book is brutal. One by one dissenters are dispatched as Napoleon gradually turns into Farmer Jones – sleeping in a bed, walking on two legs – and finally being more equal than anyone else.
Oren Hazan – he of the Crystal Meth/procurement of prostitutes scandal, he who stated in the Knesset of Palestinians that “we’re gonna shut your mouths, we’re gonna speak the truth. There is no Palestinian people,” he who said Israel should stop African refugees from having children and “if we don’t kick them out, they’ll kick us out,” and he who wrote on his Facebook page that he doesn’t blame Lucy Aharish for “seducing” the soul of her Jewish actor husband “to hurt our state and prevent more Jewish offspring from continuing the Jewish lineage” (but he does blame husband Tsahi Halevi for enabling assimilation), and he who is a repeat offender in the Knesset, guilty of endlessly spewing profanities at anyone from Defense Ministry officials to Arabs, women, and fellow MKs – this is the Oren Hazan whom Katz portrayed as a more equal pig.
And Israel’s prime minister, who would like to stifle all criticism by the media, the judiciary, the police or the people he deems “left wing” (the new dirtiest word), and who described Arab citizens as “droves” flowing to the polls to oust him – he’s another depicted as a more equal pig.
One has to wonder: Who is the person who should lose his job?
Dr. Pamela Peled lectures at the IDC and Beit Berl and can be contacted at peledpam@gmail.com