Israel Pulse

Israeli cartoonists draw on 70 years of history

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Article Summary
Israel makes a rich canvas for cartoonists, whose works are displayed at the Israeli Museum of Caricature and Comics on the occasion of the 70th anniversary of the country's independence this spring.

As Israel gears up to celebrate its 70th year of independence, the tiny Israeli Museum of Caricature and Comics in Holon is digging into its archives to offer a pen-and-paper celebration for the anniversary. A retrospective exhibition of the themes, challenges and complex motifs of Israeli life — encompassing topics as diverse as politics, religion and favorite national pastimes — goes on display March 28, featuring the drawings and designs that have marked seven decades of Israeli statehood.

At the family-friendly museum, Israeli society is shown through the eyes of its caricaturists. Israel is a nation where everyday existence is infused with politics, making it a rich canvas for cartoonists, and its legendary artists — including Dudu Geva, Avi Katz and Friedel Stern — have all made history in their country by interpreting the complications of the Jewish state and translating them into comic art.

As the nation marks its milestone birthday in the spring, it finds itself engulfed by the conflict with the Palestinians and populated by secular and religious communities. Despite the tensions in Israel, the Israeli Museum of Caricature and Comics is one of the few places in the world to offer a spotlight on Israeli comic artists. Even the Israeli press, which is rife with competing print dailies and political magazines, has been cutting comics from its pages for decades.

“Cartoons started as a very political [item], a very respectable [item] in the newspapers here,” Galit Gaon, who served as curator at the museum for several years, told Al-Monitor. She recently left her post and established a graduate course in curatorial studies at Shenkar College of Engineering and Design. “It slowly turned into something smaller, I think because our politicians lack the ability to be really honest about themselves and have a sense of humor about it.”

Gaon said that in modern Israel, the best cartoonists do not work for publications like they once did, but instead offer their work independently. As a result, the larger public is not exposed to their satire or brilliant drawings.

“Slowly over the decades, the newspapers stopped using really large cartoons because the responses [from politicians] were so harsh and censoring. But now, because we can consume things on the internet and we are less dependent on editors and people who decide for us what we will read, people are starting to consume them again.”

Boris Erenburg, an Israeli comic artist whose work is part of the exhibition, put it more bluntly, saying that Israel is a healthy democracy that has been bad news for its artists.

“I have always claimed that love and understanding of cartoons is a testament to the mental health of society,” he told Al-Monitor. “Because Israel is a first-class democracy and it is permissible here to say whatever you like, there is no real value in caricature … it has become a mere accompaniment to political articles.”

Nevertheless, the curators have gathered the best comic artworks to trace seven decades of Israeli society. Themes on display range from the birth of Israeli independence, which includes drawings that accompanied the news of Israel’s emancipation from Britain back in 1948, to the more nuanced drawings of recent years from artists such as Erenburg, who portrays an independent nation held hostage by its own splintered society.

“Cartoon in Uniform,” a separate display at the exhibition, explores cartoons that portray the Israeli military experience, while “Like a Fish in the Water,” a collection on display from artist Dudi Shamai, shows the artist’s Dali-esque surrealism as he tackles Israeli political questions through the metaphor of fish and oceans.

“We all understand the power of cartoons,” Gaon said. “People do not need to read through a whole article to understand what the artist has to say, and I think that’s why politicians are scared of them.”

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Debra Kamin is an award-winning international journalist with a focus on travel, culture, entertainment and the Middle East. She has reported from Israel, Palestine, Qatar, Turkey, Rwanda, Japan, Korea, Georgia and beyond. Her work has been published in The New York Times, The Los Angeles Times, Foreign Policy, TIME Magazine, The Atlantic and Variety. On Twitter: @debra_kamin

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