Last May, the Jerusalem Press Club (JPC) held an international conference on freedom of the press. Some 50 journalists and activists came here from all around the world to discuss the threats against journalists and the assaults on media freedom. The testimonials of participants from Africa and Asia were particularly moving.
One of the highlights of the conference was a session titled “Discussing Charlie Hebdo” (you can watch it on YouTube), at which Eva Illouz, a world-renowned sociologist and professor, conversed with Solene Chalvon, a member of the editorial board of Charlie Hebdo, about the special role played by the viciously biting cartoon in French political and cultural tradition.
At one point, Chalvon, who had proudly defended her magazine’s harsh line, stood up, and holding one of the recent issues, praised a certain cartoon that showed a happy Frenchman smoking a cigar, while in Africa, an armed Boko Haram thug tells a young, pregnant girl: “Now go to France and collect your social security benefits.”
Chalvon, however, was in for a surprise. And so was I. The audience — consisting of journalists and press freedom fighters, mind you — vocally disagreed with her over the value of this image. But it mocks the apathy of the French middle class to the grievances of the Africans, Chalvon argued. No, she was told by the audience, it offends Africans, women, and poor and miserable people.
Listening to that heated debate about the limits of free speech, I wondered whether there was a compromise: a way of drawing a cartoon that could criticize effectively without hurting too much the feelings of people who looked at it. Furthermore, whether there is something that Israel — a country of so many religious, ethnic, social and national feuds, contrasts and sensitivities — can contribute to this discourse? And how about Israeli youth — maybe with their fresh outlook, they might come up with new ideas that previous generations failed to produce?
What emerged was a competition among Israeli high school students titled “Cartoon, Criticism, Care,” commissioned in cooperation with the Israel Museum of Cartoon and Comics and with the blessing of the commissioner of civic studies at the Israeli Ministry of Education. Thirty of the best cartoons selected by the jury are displayed in an exhibition that opens this week at the gallery of Mishkenot Sha’ananim conference center in Jerusalem, commemorating the first anniversary of the terror attack on Charlie Hebdo and the ensuing manhunt, which took place last Jan. 7-9.
To say the works that resulted from the competition were a surprise would be an understatement. One member of the jury, Michel Kichka, a world-renowned cartoonist, had expressed doubts, wondering whether high school students would be able to provide deep insights on the subject, let alone express them artistically. Summing up his impressions of the students’ cartoon submissions, he said, “This will make a very respectable exhibition.”
Naturally, many of the cartoons dealt with what bothers high school students immediately: The pressure of too many class assignments, the feeling that school dries up their creativity (one cute cartoon depicts a girl entering school from one side and coming out as a robot on the other side). Another laments the conformity and lack of individuality among young people, and one the quest of girls to be thin like models.
Overall, however, what struck the jury was the seriousness with which the students tackled issues and the artistic expression they used to portray them. Israel’s lack of separation between religion and state was a popular theme, as well as pollution, intolerance of the Other and, of course, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
People often ask me how I can remain optimistic when everything in Israel looks so bleak. This time, I don’t have to come up with some elaborate explanation. Just come to the exhibition, or watch it online (jerusalempressclub.com), and you’ll know the answer yourselves.
Here are the three winning cartoons, with the narratives their creators attached to them.
Amit Katz, 17, Hadera
Fun at the Beach 2116
Iosefa Jacobovici, 16, Ra’anana
Hava Herman, 15, Jerusalem