Unlearning Intolerance (Extract)

Extract of an article in Issue 8, August 4, 2008 of The Jerusalem Report. To subscribe to The Jerusalem Report click here. Palestinian and Israeli cartoonists share the stage in U.N.-backed peace exhibit The caricatures of the Prophet Muhammad published in a Danish newspaper in 2005 sparked outrage and violence across the Muslim world. But the political fallout of that event also led to something more positive: the birth of Cartooning for Peace. This traveling international exhibit strives to "unlearn intolerance," as its founder French cartoonist Jean Plantureux, better known by his nom de plume Plantu, explains. Plantu - whose work has appeared for decades in the French daily Le Monde - was on hand for the June opening of the exhibit in East Jerusalem. The three-day event, sponsored by the United Nations and the Peres Center for Peace, included an exhibit of more than 40 cartoons, by 13 artists from Algeria, Egypt, France, Israel, Japan, Switzerland, Turkey and the United States. It was held simultaneously at four venues in the region: the French Cultural Institute in East Jerusalem, the Peace Center in Bethlehem, a U.N. school at the al-Amaari refugee camp in Ramallah and the Cartoon Museum in Holon. Launched in October 2006 at U.N. headquarters in New York, the exhibit, which is periodically updated with new cartoons, has traveled throughout the United States and Western Europe. The publication of the Muhammad caricatures produced such a violent reaction "that we realized we needed an antidote to the poison it spread," Plantu, 57, told a symposium at the French Cultural Institute. The seeds, however, were planted long before that, he said. It happened in 1991 when, at an exhibition in Tunisia, Plantu met Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, who drew a Magen David on one of the cartoonist's drawings and signed it. The following year, Plantu traveled to Israel and convinced then-foreign minister Shimon Peres to sign the same drawing. Plantu noted proudly that this "document" preceded the Oslo Accords as the first to bear the names of both Israeli and Palestinian leaders." Although Cartooning for Peace is a traveling exhibition, "each venue demands its own agenda," notes cartoonist Michel Kichka, one of the local organizers of the event. "In Israel, the Arab-Israeli conflict takes center stage, but the overall theme - cartoonists for human rights - remains the same," explains Kichka, a senior lecturer of comic art at the Bezalel Academy of Art and Design in Jerusalem and one of Israel's best-known cartoonists. Most of the cartoons on display had already appeared in newspapers and journals, while a few were commissioned. A cartoon by Plantu in the exhibit expresses the confusion of Palestinians faced by the widely differing attitude toward them in Israel. An Arab stands under two Israeli banners held aloft by left and right-wing Israeli youths, mirror images of one another. In one, the Star of David morphs into a dove with an olive branch in its beak; in the other, the Magen David becomes a hawk holding a lightning bolt. Kichka, the Belgian-born son of Holocaust survivors who came to Israel in 1974, avoids the fulminations of many of his colleagues in favor of a gentler, almost diplomatic touch. He points out the absurdity of racism in his work that shows two zebras talking about their parents. One says, "I was born to a black father and a white mother." The other replies, "Really? With me it was just the opposite." In "Before and After," he depicts the transformation of a Hamas jihadist into a civilized parliamentarian by exchanging a green suicide bombers' headband for a similarly colored tie. In a starker image, Shai Charka, a staff artist for the right-leaning Israeli daily Mekor Rishon, shows the border fence with identical scenes on either side. An Israeli officer rebukes a soldier, by asking incredulously, "It was a whole [Palestinian] family? How could you have fired?" On the opposite side, a Palestinian officer chews out his subordinate with an equally incredulous "It was a whole [Israeli] family? How could you have missed?" Another Charka cartoon shows Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad juggling four balls whose trajectories form the atomic symbol of intersecting ellipses before a befuddled-looking person with a globe of the world for a head. Uri Fink, one of Israel's pre-eminent cartoonists and comic book artists, takes a more ambivalent point of view. Fink is known for the Hebrew superhero Sabraman, whom he first came up with in 1978, at age 15. His most recent, English-language, comic book, "Tales from the Ragin' Region," deals with the 2005 disengagement from Gaza, which tore the nation into two opposing camps. That ambivalence is reflected in Fink's drawing which shows a buxom, thong-wearing female figure who encapsulates every possible point of view on the subject of the Gaza evacuation. Seen from an alluring, over-the-shoulder pose, she wears a head covering to express her settler sentiments, an Israeli police officer's cap to represent the evacuation forces and a suicide bomber's belt strapped to her waist. "To many it was a trauma but for me it was all a big mess," he says. "It used to be easy to take a single point of view, but now everything is just so damn confusing," says the cartoonist who describes himself as a "recovering left-winger." "No one stands for just one thing," he explains. The war in Iraq was the most burning issue in the exhibit. New York Times syndicated cartoonist Jeff Danziger drew the well-known World War I-vintage recruitment poster Uncle Sam standing amidst the ruins. But instead of the original, "I want you for U.S. Army" he's saying, "I want me the hell out of here." Another Danziger cartoon showed a calendar month with a dead GI in each square. On the same subject, Ali Dilem, who works for the Algerian daily, La Liberté, exhibited "The Iraqis after Four Years of American Occupation," in which two Iraqis discuss the highs and lows of the war. The "high points" are a number of figures dangling from gallows above, and the "low points" are graves in a cemetery below. In a second work by Dilem, Osama bin Laden is wearing a T-shirt which has an airplane replacing the heart in the "I Love [Heart] NY" inscription. The issue of censor-ship was widely discussed at the symposium. Dilem, 41, stated that he spends much of his time in the Hall of Justice in Algiers defending his cartoons about certain Muslim clerics as well as Prime Minister Abdelaziz Belkhadem. To the delight of the audience, Dilem recounted a cartoon of the prime minister holding up a picture of himself and asking, "Who drew this horrible caricature of me?" A supporter whispers the answer, "It's not a drawing. It's a photograph." Extract of an article in Issue 8, August 4, 2008 of The Jerusalem Report. To subscribe to The Jerusalem Report click here.