The pencil is mightier than the sword

A new exhibit at the Israeli Museum of Caricature and Comics called ‘That Was The Year 2010’ reviews major events of the past year in caricature.

cartoons 521 (photo credit: Courtesy)
cartoons 521
(photo credit: Courtesy)
As Israelis up and down the country were glued to their TV sets during the height of World Cup fever last July, caricaturist Guy Morad drew a single-frame cartoon. In it, two men are depicted strolling past the instantly recognizable blue-and-white poster of kidnapped soldier Gilad Schalit, with its slogan “Gilad is still alive.”
“Can you believe the World Cup will be over on Sunday?” one man says.
“I haven’t a clue how I’ll manage to hang on for another four years,” agrees his glum-looking friend.
Morad, a freelance newspaper and magazine illustrator and member of the Dimona comics collective, says he got the idea for the cartoon when he realized that the World Cup took place every four years.
“That’s the same length of time Gilad Schalit has been imprisoned,” he explains.
“At that time, everyone was so busy with the World Cup; but just a week or so before that, Schalit’s family had organized a march to raise awareness.
I wanted to show people a sense of proportion.”
The kidnapped soldier’s four-and-ahalf- year incarceration in Gaza at the hands of Hamas – and the public’s relative indifference to it – is one of the topics covered in “That Was The Year 2010,” an exhibition opening this week at the Israeli Museum of Caricature and Comics in Holon.
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The museum’s annual review of the best Israeli cartoons of the past 12 months includes work by the likes of veteran caricaturists Shlomo Cohen, Michel Kishka, Uri Fink and Yaakov Kirschen – familiar to Jerusalem Post readers as “Dry Bones” – together with that of younger artists including Morad, Yonatan Wachsmann, and Zeev Engelmayer.
The gargantuan task of selecting the best of the thousands of cartoons published over the past year fell to Eran Litvin, the exhibition’s curator.
According to Litvin, the caricatures featured in the exhibition provide sharp, relevant commentary on major political and social events at home and abroad.
“The caricaturists have their fingers on the pulse of Israeli life,” says Litvin.
“Everything important that happened in 2010 is covered in the show, from major events in politics and culture to sport.”
METRO WAS treated to a sneak preview of the caricatures Litvin chose, and found them a fascinatingly odd way to review the past year’s events. In the usual way of things, we enjoy caricatures one at a time as commentary on current events, usually within the wider context of a newspaper. Taking in a year’s worth in quick succession is like a modern history lesson in a hall of mirrors: Reflected in their distorted surfaces are the features of the year’s events and personalities, exaggerated but strangely recognizable.
As well as Gilad Schalit’s continued captivity, the show covers topics like the Anat Kamm espionage saga; the sexual harassment accusations against Police Cmdr. Uri Bar-Lev; Israel’s relations with Turkey, the US, and the Palestinians; the Galant affair; government plans to deport Israeli-born children of foreign workers, and the recent Carmel fire tragedy.
Though most of the cartoons focus on events in Israel, international news is covered too, particularly the debate over the “Ground Zero mosque,” the catastrophic earthquake in Haiti, the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico and (of course) the 2010 FIFA World Cup.
Indeed, it seems nothing and no one – no event, politician or public figure, and not even us, the humble Israeli public – escaped a jab from the sharp pencils of Israel’s crack team of caricaturists.
Some of the cartoons are sharp social criticism, but others use classic Israeli black humor as a way to cope with otherwise bleak situations. The repercussions of Israel’s row with Turkey following the flotilla raid in May, for example, is used by cartoonist Yonatan Wachsmann to poke fun at an Israeli stereotype.
In October, Tourism Minister Stas Meseznikov called for a tourist boycott of Turkey, a prime summer destination for vacationing Israelis.
Wachsmann’s cartoon “Israeli Revenge” shows a gaggle of Israeli tourists arriving in Turkey. “Behave like normal,” their guide instructs them.
“I named this particular cartoon “Israeli Revenge” because as well as bringing money to other countries, Israeli tourists also have a reputation for behaving badly,” explains Wachsmann, cartoonist at economic daily Calcalist.
As long as the reader knows the news stories behind them, these cartoons transmit a message that is both cogent and easy to grasp – which is why cartoons can be such a powerful vehicle for social criticism, says Litvin.
“A good caricature has the ability to hit you right in the gut,” explains Litvin. “And the message gets through very fast.”
Cartoonist Morad, creator of the cartoon criticizing the Israeli public’s indifference to the plight of incarcerated soldier Gilad Schalit, believes cartoons encourage people to think about important political and social issues to which they might otherwise pay scant attention, and ask questions about them.
“Cartoons make it easier for people to understand issues, such as political matters that maybe they don’t have the strength to read about in the news,” he explains. “Although if people don’t read the news in the first place, they won’t understand what the caricatures are about.”
Morad says his Gilad Schalit cartoon sparked a great deal of public response – evidence that its sharp message struck a chord.
“People started to send the cartoon to each other on Facebook, and Erim Balaila, an NGO that raises awareness about captured soldiers, asked to use it too,” notes Morad.
“OK, so the cartoon won’t bring Gilad home. But I wanted to do something.”
THOUGH CARTOONS have been a regular part of the news media for centuries, comics and caricatures have not shaken off the stigma of being simplistic and even childish, and are frequently dismissed as lowbrow amusement rather than serious commentary.
The American-born caricaturist Kirschen, whose English-language political and social cartoon was a regular feature in the Post from 1973, believes it is a mistake to see cartoons in this way.
“Cartoons are often denigrated,” Kirschen says. “People use the term ‘cartoon-like’ to refer to something superficial, or not properly thoughtout.”
Nevertheless, cartoons are capable of conveying political and social messages to a wide audience.
“Cartoons are a very significant means of putting ideas into other people’s heads,” Kirschen observes.
As an extreme example of the incredible power cartoons wield as a vehicle for propagating ideas, Kirschen points to the Nazi regime’s use of caricatures to spread anti- Semitic propaganda. Caricaturist Phillipp Rupprecht’s images of “stereotypical Jews” were printed in the heavily anti-Semitic Der Stuermer daily and were the topic of several comic books.
The visual symbols created by Rupprecht to spread anti-Semitic propaganda are still employed today by cartoonists in Iran and the Arab world – a chilling example of the lasting power of the caricature.
Indeed, there are numerous examples of how, in recent times, caricatures have been used to incite violence or spread racist propaganda – notably during the 2006 Mohammed cartoons affair in Denmark and Iran’s subsequent International Holocaust Cartoon Contest.
However, caricaturist Wachsmann says the medium can also be a definite force for good.
“Cartoons can help solve problems by giving people background about issues,” he explains.
And while the cartoon has been used for hundreds of years by the print media, it is no less relevant in today’s Internet age, as Kirschen points out.
“Cartoons are more important today than ever,” he notes. “If, previously, people were illiterate and couldn’t read, now they are ‘post-literate’ – meaning they can read, but think it’s a hassle. A cartoon will make someone laugh, and that helps an idea stick in their head.”
JEWISH CARICATURISTS have a long and rich tradition of using the cartoon to transmit important ideas. In the shtetls of 19th-century Poland and tsarist Russia, caricaturists criticized the Jewish situation under these often-cruel regimes despite censorship and financial restrictions.
During WWII, Polish-Jewish caricaturist Arthur Szyk fought the Nazi regime not with guns or bombs, but with pen and ink. His brutal caricatures compared Goebbels, Goering and Hitler with historical and biblical figures like Attila the Hun, Pharaoh and Haman, highlighting a millennia-old tradition of organized anti-Semitism.
“Art is not my aim, it is my means,” said Szyk of his caricatures.
This strong Jewish tradition has taken firm hold here in Israel, where in just 60 years, caricature has grown into a major force for social commentary.
“Caricature as a medium is still going strong,” says Litvin. The cartoons on display at this exhibition are ample proof that he is right.
“That Was The Year 2010” runs until March 26 at the Israeli Museum of Caricature and Comics, Rehov Weizmann 61, Holon. For more information call (03) 652-1849, or visit