Cartooning, locally

For a tiny country like Israel, some 30 working political cartoonists may seem a disproportionately high number compared to other countries, but this wasn't always the case.

colorcart 88 298 (photo credit: )
colorcart 88 298
(photo credit: )
For a tiny country like Israel, some 30 working political cartoonists may seem a disproportionately high number compared to other countries, but this wasn't always the case. In the state's early years and through the 1960s, the Israeli press was largely nationalistic. Despite a few cartoonists like Arieh Navon, who developed charming or funny Israeli characters; there were not many critical political cartoons or even a lot of satire in the media itself. But soon enough, and with great ferocity, Israelis learned to let their hair down. By the 1970s, it was fair game to take your best shots at just about anyone through cartoons. This trend was partially inspired by the first television satire program, Nikui Rosh, which pioneered anti-establishment humor. Today, TV satire is still fierce, but Israeli political cartoonists aren't necessarily the hit-you-over-the-head types, says cartoonist Michel Kichka, a senior lecturer at Bezalel and head of the Israeli political cartoon association. "Most Israeli artists tend to put limits on themselves. They don't cross red lines. In Israel, the audience is rather conservative. And Jews are more open to the printed word than the image - it's a matter of tradition." Despite the success of Jewish artists in the fine arts and even in comic arts in the west, Kichka explains that Israeli readers still relate to and even find it easier to read an article than look at a cartoon: "In Jewish tradition, text is not illustrated. Through history we were the people of the book. It took centuries to enter this area of illustrating texts." General taboo images in political cartoons here, he says, are sexual lust, blood, the Holocaust and an attack on religions. That might explain the surprise of Haifa University media expert Gabriel Weimann, who raced to look through files of Israeli political cartoons as soon as he heard about the contentious Muhammad caricatures. "I looked at the [Danish] cartoon and thought, 'Oh! I never saw anything like it,'" he says. It turned out he was right - he could not find anything comparable in the history of Israeli cartoons using the image of Muhammad. "Israeli cartoons [on the subjects of terrorism, war and conflict] are about Palestinian leaders," he says. "Arafat and Saddam Hussein were the most popular, and suicide bombers, too. But it was always Israel vs. the Palestinians - not Judaism vs. Islam; not religious motifs; certainly not the prophet Muhammad." The four or so Palestinian cartoonists at daily newspapers say much the same about their own work - that images critical of Israelis are political, not religious attacks. "Israel always says that I am against the Jews; I am not. We believe in the prophet Musa [Moses] and his religion and in the prophet Isaiah and his religion. We respect all prophets and all religions," says Ommaya Joha, the first female Palestinian cartoonist to be employed at a daily, speaking to The Jerusalem Post from Gaza. "But I hate and I draw about Israeli occupation [not Judaism]." It's not only Israel that fuels her work, though, she says. She also draws occasionally about problems of Palestinian leadership. "Of course I can be critical of Palestinian leaders," she says. "Nobody tells me 'Don't draw that.' How can that be? Because we live in a situation with no real government. We are not like other [Arab countries]. We haven't even become a country yet." In the West Bank, Baha Boukhari of the Al-Ayyam newspaper says a worst-case scenario is having his work rejected by his editor, but that "nobody tells me what to draw." Despite a large collection of cartoons critical of the Israeli military, Boukhari says he is friends with many Israeli cartoonists, and in his work feels "free" to be critical of Israel as well as Hamas and Fatah. "I'm on the opposite side of what Hamas has been," he added. "I'm a man of peace and I try to encourage people in my work not to be violent or extreme." Boukhari was the only Arab cartoonists from any country to accept an invitation to a recent cartoonist convention in Israel. Palestinians are hoping that under the new Hamas leadership there will be a freer press than there was under Arafat, but it is too soon to tell. Naji Salim al-Ali, a famous Palestinian political cartoonist who was not only critical of Israel, but also poked fun at the foibles of Arafat and other Middle Eastern leaders, was shot at close range in the head in London in 1984. Purportedly he had received over 100 death threats previous to his assassination, and to this day his colleagues speculate whether it was Arafat or the Mossad or another Arab state that had him killed. According to the International Freedom of Expression Exchange, a new emergency fund called Bayt El-Kalima, or Kalima House, was launched in December 2005 at the International Conference on Freedom of Expression in the Arab World to support persecuted writers, journalists, cartoonists and artists in the Middle East and North Africa. Another organization, Cartoonist Rights International, also provides advocacy, relief and prizes to political cartoonists in danger around the world. Meanwhile, on February 1, the Cartoon Art Museum in San Francisco launched a show of 15 Israeli political cartoonists' drawings on contemporary Israeli issues. Though Israel has no connection to the latest controversy with worldwide Muslims, interest in this exhibit multiplied intensely after news of the latest cartoon wars hit the press.