Drawing Closer (Extract)

Extract from an article in Issue 10, September 1, 2008 of The Jerusalem Report. To subscribe to The Jerusalem Report click here. The two Palestinian policemen stand silently, silhouetted by the afternoon sun in Manger Square in Bethlehem, looking down at Shay Charka, the diminutive Israeli cartoonist. Our Palestinian host for the Bethlehem session is polite, perhaps slightly embarrassed, but firm. "They ask… if you can… take off your kippa," he tells Shay in Hebrew. "There is concern it could cause… trouble…" Shay's hand hovers over his knitted kippa. "Well… if it's a matter of pikuach nefesh - life or death… I suppose maybe… if it's a security issue…" "No, not security," the host answers quickly. "You're in no danger here. But there are, you know, sensitivities…" "Ah, sensitivities," Shay dares to answer and returned his hand to his side. "I'm sensitive too… you invited us here, maybe you should just accept us as we are." "Maybe we can find you a hat?" comics artist Uri Fink offers. "You'd look good in the policeman's cap, with the Palestinian flag on it." The officer doffs his hat with a smile and proffers it to Shay. "Here, you can have it. And yes, I understand everything you've been saying!" Shay squares his narrow shoulders, saying, "Let's just go in," and turns towards the entrance. We, his cartoonist homeys, follow. And it was with his knitted kippa that he stood by his cartoons, spoke to and was applauded by an audience of Palestinians, who elsewhere would have taken him for a West Bank settler. It all started, I suppose, a year ago, when I heard Jean Plantu, the great French cartoonist, at the Cartoon Festival in Jerusalem. He told the audience of famous cartoonists from around the world, about how he had brought Yasser Arafat and Shimon Peres to sign the same drawing - the first document jointly signed by leaders from both sides of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, a year before the Oslo agreements. I told the story in an Upfront here in the November 2005 issue of The Jerusalem Report and sent Plantu the article with my portrait of him. Plantu was delighted and asked if I would be interested in a project he had initiated with Francophonic Israeli cartoonist Michel Kichka, Palestinian cartoonist Baha Boukhari, and other colleagues from Europe, America and even Africa and Asia. The program was launched in 2006 with an exhibit and symposium at the United Nations in the presence of then-secretary general Kofi Annan, who let the artists know how seriously he takes them: "Cartoons have a special role in forming public opinion because an image has a stronger, more direct impact on the brain than a sentence does, and because more people will look at a cartoon than read an article," he declared. So if we are going to unlearn intolerance, we need to engage cartoonists in the discussion." Throughout 2007 Plantu's group displayed their cartoons and spoke publicly in several European capitals. And for June 2008, they had planned an exciting program. The cartoonists would converge on Jerusalem first of all, where one copy of a group exhibit about conflict and reconciliation, and war and peace would be shown and the artists would meet the public and the press. The next day, everyone would move on to Ramallah, where another print of the cartoons would hang and the cartoonists would talk to a local crowd and conduct a "master class" with children in a nearby refugee camp. And on the last day of the program yet another copy of the exhibit would be shown at Holon's newly established Cartoon Museum. Plantu asked me to send him a selection of illustrations I have done for The Report that relate to the project theme, and he was particularly taken by the dove-hands painting, which I did back in the mid-90s to illustrate a joint call by Palestinian and Israeli professors to hurry up and finalize the Oslo peace process. This image has since garnered a lot of mileage: It was adopted as a symbol by a peace dialogue group called "Encounter" and stickers bearing the image found their way to the bumpers of relief trucks in the war-torn Balkans; and I personally gave a print to the late Palestinian leader Faisal Husseini in Jerusalem's Orient House. Plantu asked my permission to use the graphic as the symbol of the exhibit. I agreed, of course. A couple of weeks later, he got back to me apologetically. Some of the Palestinians involved didn't agree to the use of the image, because the Magen David was too blatant. Plantu made a drawing of his own, which made a more subtle reference to the sides in the conflict - his dove holds a pencil striped blue and white, and red, black and green. "This shows we still have a way to go… and many drawings to do!" he wrote. But my image was blown up to poster size and greeted visitors to the exhibit opening at the French Cultural Center in East Jerusalem. Saladin Street, north of the Old City, is crowded with small, run-down shops, but hiding behind stone walls is a 19th-century villa, which houses the Chateaubriand Center. There's not much room in the building but the grassy yard was hung with prints on clotheslines, with works by Israelis Michel Kichka, Shay Charka, Uri Fink, Daniella London-Dekel and myself; Palestinians Baha Boukhari and Khalil Abu Arafeh; George Bahgory from Egypt; Izel Rozental from Turkey; No-Rio from Japan; Jeff Danziger from the U.S.; Patrick Chappatte from Switzerland; and Plantu and Pierre Wiaz from France. And there was Ali Dilem from Algeria, too. Dilem's very presence was something of a breakthrough. His entry, facilitated by the Peres Center for Peace, was the first ever of an Algerian national, travelling on an Algerian passport, to Israel. One can only hope that his return home was uneventful; Dilem has already been imprisoned for annoying the authorities and has a fatwa (Islamic religious ruling) sentence of death hanging over his head from fundamentalist organizations. (Algerian cartoonist Brahim Guerroui was gruesomely murdered by terrorists in 1995. They returned his severed head, his mouth stuffed with cartoons.) Cartoonists, journalists and the public - mostly from the French-speaking community - wander the grounds looking at the cartoons, getting acquainted, interviewing, explaining, arguing. The center of attention is the glamorous Senegalese-born French Secretary of State for Human Rights, Rama Yade, but a cartoon of mine sparks a hot debate, too. I had drawn the "Hunting Season" illustration to accompany a Moshe Negbi Viewpoint in The Report about the light sentences handed out in Israel to Jews who kill Arabs. The Arab artists couldn't believe we could get away with such a critical image in the Israeli press. Boukhari says his cartoons have caused newspapers to be closed 17 times, sometimes by the Israeli authorities, sometimes by the Palestinians. We Israelis found ourselves explaining that we are expected to criticize the government - it's part of our job description. Extract from an article in Issue 10, September 1, 2008 of The Jerusalem Report. To subscribe to The Jerusalem Report click here.