October 17, 2018

Why there’s no Charlie Hebdo in Israel

In the hours that followed the deadly attack on the French satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo, cartoonists around the world paid tribute in the best way they knew how: through their own sketches. Solidarity cartoons showed pencils as World Trade Center towers; pencils as guns; pencils twisted into ribbons of honor; pencils cut in half, then sharpened into two.

In interviews with the Journal, a handful of Israeli and Palestinian cartoonists — some of whom knew the victims well — agreed that Charlie Hebdo’s four fallen illustrators were masters of their craft, unmatched in their devotion to freedom of expression.

“I grew up on their humor, their graphic approach. They are part of my own heritage,” said Belgian-Israeli cartoonist Michel Kichka, former head of the Israel Cartoonists Guild and a legend in his own right.

One question, though, cartoonists in Israel found difficult to answer: Why, in the Holy Land, a hotbed for both dark humor and religious extremism, is there no bible for secular ideologues like France’s Charlie Hebdo? 

“I’m surprised that we don’t have a similar magazine,” Kichka said. “We don’t even have one. In France, they have more than two — there are others less famous than Charlie Hebdo. When you go to a kiosk in France to buy a newspaper, there’s a whole selection. I regret that we don’t have this platform in Israel.” 

Jews have a rich history of satire, Kichka said, but not necessarily visual satire, perhaps due to religious laws against idolatry, and it’s more often directed more at the self than at the other. In America, Jews have helped create publications like Mad Magazine and National Lampoon. However, Kichka said, “In Israel, we don’t have the same tradition” — and “it will not be easy” to invent it now, in the current environment.

Uri Fink, another famous Israeli cartoonist and a former student of Kichka, said the art form doesn’t enjoy the same respect in Israel.

“In France, it’s more mainstream,” Fink said. “It’s not avant-garde. These people are considered cultural treasurers, [Georges] Wolinski and [Stephane] ‘Charb’ [Charbonnier]; they’re household names over there.” In Israel, by contrast, “Cartoonists are never in too much danger because we are not that important,” he said.

Fink, a member of the international Cartooning for Peace collective, remembers one Israeli publication from the ’90s with a brazenness similar to Charlie Hebdo’s. It was called Penguins’ Perversions and was printed over a span of about five years by three recent high-school graduates. 

One of its founding members, Amitai Sandy, described one cartoon the publication ran after the head rabbi of Chabad-Lubavitch died in 1994:

“We did a comic of his crew sitting outside his hospital door. The doctor says, ‘Sorry, he’s dead.’ They say, ‘But we promised the people the messiah.’ So they have no choice but to put his body on a shawarma pole and feed him to the people.”

Despite the taboo nature of its cartoons, the only real opposition to Penguins’ Perversions, according to Sandy, was when then-Knesset member Efi Oshaya asked the police to arrest the cartoonists. Police refused.

“There was always less anger than we hoped for,” Sandy said. “I kind of realized in Israel people are not easily offended by humor. Maybe it’s because we’ve all told Holocaust jokes since we were little.”

Then, during the suicide bombings of the Second Intifada, he said he and his colleagues found themselves almost at a loss for commentary.

“Imagine it: The religious guys from ZAKA [Orthodox rescue volunteers], because they have to put the whole body in the grave, would be collecting fingers from treetops,” Sandy said. “I think that as satirists we always fail to surpass the reality in this place.”

Penguin’s Perversion eventually fizzled. And as Sandy has moved further left on the political spectrum, he’s also become more hesitant to make fun of Israeli’s minority groups, as Charlie Hebdo was so famous for doing in France. “Islam is being attacked in Israel so much that, for us, it’s redundant,” he said. “The atrocities, the ridiculous things going on in our government, the things our own prime minister says, are more ridiculous than any satire we could come up with.”

Other Israeli cartoonists agreed that defending secular society from sacred cows is not their top priority. 

“These guys [at Charlie Hebdo] are atheists, and atheism is their main flag, their main battle. So they are mocking all religions,” said Amos Biderman, a cartoonist for leftist newspaper Haaretz who caused an uproar last summer with a drawing of the Israeli prime minister flying a plane into the World Trade Center.

Biderman said he respects Charlie Hebdo’s cause, but that for him personally, satire exists more for self-reflection. “I don’t deal with religions,” he said. “Most of my cartoons are domestic issues — politicians here in Israel, everyday life. Religions are not my business.”

Biderman disagreed with the scores of cartoonists and journalists internationally who claimed, in the wake of the Hebdo assassinations, that terrorists had only strengthened the free press.

“People who say that are speaking in a cliche,” Biderman said of the optimists. “It’s a cliche and not a reality. Newspapers in England are covering this story, but they don’t show the cartoons. They black them out. Where are the big heroes that got stronger?”

And the fear is selective, Biderman said. “Why do they censor the Muslim cartoons?” he asked. “Because they’re afraid. And they’re not afraid [of] Jews or Christians.”

In Israel, where two sets of extreme nationalists live side by side in a constant state of tension, the threat of a violent reaction to a controversial opinion is twofold.

During the 2014 Gaza war, Haaretz hired a bodyguard for one of its left-wing writers. And on the day after the Charlie Hebdo attacks, a Haaretz cartoon comparing the Charlie Hebdo victims to Palestinian journalists killed in Gaza was met with death threats from online commenters.

“We must do what the terrorists did to them in France, but at Haaretz,” Chai Aloni wrote on Facebook. “Death to traitors,” Moshe Mehager wrote. “Haaretz is where the terrorists should have gone,” Riki Michael wrote. Right-wing politician Ronen Shoval called for a police investigation.

Palestinian cartoonists, for their part, have long complained of a triple censor: the Israeli government plus both Palestinian political camps. 

Within hours of the Charlie Hebdo shooting, Palestinian cartoonist Mohammad Sabaaneh, 34, had uploaded a tribute to his Facebook page. In the drawing, an Islamist terrorist fires on the Charlie Hebdo offices and, in the process, backfires on a mosque. 

His caption: “Whoever shot down cartoonists in France today have in fact shot Islam, not defended it.” 

In an interview a few days later at his office in Ramallah, Sabaaneh said many friends and fans asked him why he jumped to support a paper notorious for mocking the Muslim prophet.

“I told all my friends, all the Muslim cartoonists, that our role is to draw something about Islam, to show people what is Islam,” he said. “If you love Islam, you must fight the idea by idea. You must fight cartoon by cartoon. Frame by frame.”

Still, he said, he chooses not to insult anyone’s religion in his own work. “We have a priority: our freedom, our land,” he said. “Because French and European countries don’t have a political issue like us, they draw about religion. When the situation here is very quiet, there is no intifada, there is no violence against Palestinians, I think we’ll draw about some international issues. But for now, the political situation is our priority.”

After years of carefully avoiding calls to violence and offensive caricatures, Sabaaneh was jailed by Israel for four months in 2013 for alleged ties with Hamas. He’s still banned from visiting Jerusalem, and when he travels to other countries to exhibit his work, he must use the Jordanian airport.

Ironically, Sabaaneh also has gotten threats from Gaza after criticizing the Palestinian Islamist movement. And that critique was more on politics than religion. “I don’t think there are many Arab cartoonists or Muslim cartoonists who would draw anything against Islam,” he said.

If Israeli cartoonists mocked the prophet, Sabaaneh said, “It would also be a big problem. They are very careful. I look at all their cartoons, and I see it.”

Israeli artist Kichka confirmed: “We have never published any picture of Muhammad in Israeli cartoons. We have enemies, and our enemies have faces, and our enemies are sometimes our own leaders.”

Perhaps the most circulated cartoons in Israel are those drawn by Hamas cartoonists — including racist depictions of Jews and calls to arms. “When you draw what the Israelis want you to draw, they will translate and promote your cartoon,” Saabaneh said. “So I ask a lot of cartoonists related to Hamas, ‘Do not draw the blood.’ It gives us the image that we’re like animals, and we are not like animals. We are people who have rights. And we can draw our right to resist the occupation in a different way.”

Fink said he, too, is very careful in his depictions of both Muslims and Jews.

“Eventually, I have to draw a religious Jew, and I have to be very careful to draw him as a handsome, small-nosed guy,” he said. “And I accept it, because the drawing of the Jew in [the Nazi magazine Der Sturmer] is still in everybody’s mind. It‘s part of the international consciousness.”

Technically, Israel has a law banning all publications “liable to crudely offend the religious faith or sentiment of others.” Israeli illustrator and animator Ido Amin wrote in a post-Charlie Hebdo op-ed that he became intimate with this law, a leftover from the British Mandate, when his “caricature in a well-known newspaper that criticized the cruel pre-Yom Kippur custom of kaparot … was brought up for discussion in the Knesset.” According to Amin, police brought him and his boss in for questioning, and he was cut from the paper’s staff soon after.

“So were the British right in their legislation?” he wrote. “When various groups live cheek by jowl in a small area, should expression be censored? Should consideration for our neighbors be more sacred than freedom of speech?”

A desire for peace and progress does seem to be the common factor holding many Israeli and Palestinian cartoonists back. Fink, a member of Cartooning for Peace, said: “You want to offend — you want to show people this ridiculous world. But sometimes if you go too far, it doesn’t work. If people are too offended, they don’t get the joke.”

Even the free-speech warriors at Charlie Hebdo sometimes appeared a tad more cautious when satirizing the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. 

Fink remembered meeting the late Charlie Hebdo editor Stephane “Charb” Charbonnier at a Cartooning for Peace conference in 2009, aimed largely at uniting Israelis and Palestinians through art.

“The relationship between Charlie Hebdo and Cartooning for Peace was interesting,” Fink said, “because they were anti-everything kind of guys. They would say, ‘Don’t offend anybody? Screw that!’ ”

Even so, Fink said of Charbonnier, “We were there together, and we had lunch. We talked about Israel. He wanted to do something about the settlements and be as objective as possible. So, he got the mayor of Ariel to take him to see the settlements. He was critical, but he went firsthand. He wanted to know for himself.”