Benjamin Netanyahu’s long tenure in power has been a boon to cartoonists and satirists — and never more so than during the current quagmire of his own making in turning to the far Right and hinting at authoritarianism. Recently, Eran Wolkowski in Ha’aretz showed Netanyahu and Itamar Ben-Gvir driving past a gathering of demonstrators — the balloon emerging from Ben-Gvir’s mouth read: “Shall we make a U-turn and drive over them?” For many readers, it will bring both a smile and a shudder.
Cartoonists have alighted with glee on Netanyahu’s history of scandals: The CIA Affair (1996); the Gifts Affair (1999); the Bibi Tours Affair (2011); the Pistachio Affair (2013); the Laundry Affair (2013); the Submarine Affair (2016); Cases 1000, 2000 and 4000 (2019). As the writer Joseph Conrad succinctly commented: “A caricature is putting the face of a joke on the body of a truth.”
Netanyahu’s recent autobiography, Bibi: My Story, demonstrated how he sees himself and his place in Jewish history. He is clearly piqued by those who do not accept his narrative. “[Barack Obama] disregarded our history and disrespected Israel’s elected leader who dared to disagree with him.”
The recent discovery of his speech, given a decade ago, now published on Twitter, in which he proudly defended the independence of the judiciary is — in the context of the current assault on the rule of law in Israel — both breath-taking and expected. It is Netanyahu’s bottomless self-conviction that truth is relative that sets him apart from other politicians.
His autobiography also conveys to the reader his antagonism towards the Fourth Estate, the free Israeli press — and by extension his deep disdain for cartoonists who pierce his thick political skin.
When asked to write this article, based on my forthcoming book, Israel: A History in 100 Cartoons, it seemed churlish at first to recall Israel’s halcyon days at a time of profound crisis when huge protests were taking place in the present. Yet Netanyahu’s attempt to eliminate the system of checks and balances that protect a democratic society is also part and parcel of the onward flow of Israel’s history.
Being a cartoonist brings its risks. Dictators in undemocratic states fear ridicule. Depicting an authoritarian leader in his underpants solidifies opposition.
In 2008, Baha Boukhari, the chief cartoonist for al-Ayyam in Gaza, drew attention to the sycophantic behaviour of those around the Hamas leader, Ismail Haniya, with cartoons featuring Haniya’s face. Bourhari was sentenced to six months’ probation and fined. In 2011, cartoonist Ali Ferzat was attacked by Bashar Assad’s security police in Syria — both his hands were broken as a warning.
Even in democratic Israel, cartoonists are often maligned and their work misinterpreted. In the summer of 2018, the cartoonist Avi Katz was dismissed from the Jerusalem Report for a cartoon which represented leading Likudniks as pigs. The Jerusalem Post editorial stated that it was “reminiscent of anti-Semitic memes used against Jews in history”. It also commented that “We, a Zionist newspaper, cannot accept this demeaning analogy.”
Katz’s cartoon was based on a selfie by the Likud MK, Oren Hazan, with party representatives, huddled around Netanyahu after the passing of the controversial Nation-State law. Katz drew the Likudniks around Netanyahu in exactly the same position and in exactly the same clothes as in the photograph — but as pigs. The caption was taken from George Orwell’s Animal Farm: “All animals are equal, but some are more equal than others.”
This was plainly a nod to the broad accusations that the Nation-State law demoted Israeli Arabs to second-class citizens. The allusion to Orwell’s pigs was glossed over. Instead, it was the fact that pigs are unclean and not kosher that prevailed.
The Israeli cartoonist Ze’ev, had similarly depicted a squabbling Menahem Begin and Arik Sharon as pigs around a table in a cartoon in Haaretz in 1980. It also featured Yitzhak Rabin as a donkey, Shimon Peres as a horse, Yitzhak Shamir as a piglet and Ezer Weizmann as a camel. Hanging on the wall behind Begin and Sharon was a framed statement which read: “All ministers are equal, but some are more equal than others.” While all this did indeed cause protests, it did not result in the dismissal of Ze’ev.
Perhaps this reflected the preoccupation of Netanyahu and his supporters compared to those of his Likud predecessors Begin and Shamir.
My book, Israel: A History in 100 Cartoons, reflects the 75 years of Israel’s voyage through choppy waters, including the Netanyahu years. For each year, there are four pages: a cartoon by an iconic Israeli cartoonist of the time, a timeline for the year and two pages of narrative about what happened during that year. There are also sections on Zionism, the Road to 1948, and a long introduction about the role of Jews in satire, caricatures and cartoons internationally.
It therefore includes cartoons by numerous talented Israeli cartoonists who have illustrated and illuminated — to the delight of the people of Israel and Jews in the Diaspora — the many controversial episodes in Netanyahu’s zig-zag journey over three decades.
One of the earliest cartoons in the book, featuring Netanyahu, is that of Mike (Meir Ronnen from Melbourne) in Yediot Aharanot. Following his narrow victory over Shimon Peres in the 1996 election, different-hatted Netanyahus are depicted as being all things to all people and a master of public relations in the media. His political adaptability shows him about to speak to the secular as well as to the national religious, the haredim and the Arabs — with seemingly equal conviction.
Netanyahu’s tortuous relationship with Obama was depicted by Shlomo Cohen, the brilliant cartoonist of the freebie, Israel Hayom. Netanyahu spent 18 years in the US and was culturally familiar to conduct a political pas de deux with his US opponents. Netanyahu is teaching “a popular Israeli dance” to Obama, the new, sceptical, Democrat president. “One step forward, two steps back.” Understand what is possible and repeat — advance and retreat as necessary.
Netanyahu returned to power in early 2009 when bribery charges caught up with Ehud Olmert. Dudy Shamai drew the elegant Olmert in Ma’ariv with a cigar and a brown envelope in his breast pocket. He is tying the noose around his neck as if it was a tie. His downfall was perceived widely as of his own making.
The election of Donald Trump in 2016 and the bizarre interregnum of abnormal politics that followed was a source of sorrow to many observers — not least to American Jews, of whom over 70% voted for Hillary Clinton — but on the other hand, it was an unexpected gift to Israeli cartoonists.
Itamar Daube’s cartoon in Yediot Aharanot a week after the election result was based on a photograph of Netanyahu, laid out on a bench, resting his head on the lap of his wife, Sara. In Daube’s drawing, Sara Netanyahu is replaced by a smiling Donald Trump. It conveys Netanyahu’s contentment with the new occupant of the White House.
Amos Biderman targeted the Netanyahus’ extravagant lifestyle — particularly in the realm of haute cuisine and gourmet restaurants — in a cartoon in Haaretz in June 2018. The behaviour of his wife, Sara, in this context became a recurring feature of public criticism.
Here, Netanyahu states: “We are the Silver Platter!” and this is a play on Natan Alterman’s famous poem about the fighting youth who selflessly established the state. In the poem, the youth responds to the question “who are you?” with the answer, “We are the silver platter upon which the state was given”. The comparison strikes at Netanyahu’s sense of entitlement and his sense of indispensability.
Yonatan Wachsmann in Calcalist at the end of 2020 focused on Netanyahu’s longevity — and his remarkable ability to use the political knife to eliminate both permanent foe and former friend.
In this wonderful cartoon, a self-satisfied Netanyahu, smoking a favoured cigar, sits at his desk. Behind him are the heads of his defeated opponents, displayed like the trophies of a big game hunter in times past. Above him directly is the head of Benny Gantz (Kahol v’Lavan). To the Left are Benny Begin (Likud) and Avi Gabbay (Labor). To the upper right are Shaul Mofraz (Kadima) and Tzipi Livni (Kadima). To the lower right are David Levi (Likud) and Isaac Herzog (Labor).
The brilliance of Israeli cartoonists was finally recognised over a decade ago by the establishment of the Israeli Cartoon Museum in Holon — a joint venture between the local municipality and the Israeli Cartoonists Association. Its voluminous archives, publications, exhibitions and educational work will well serve the cartoonists of the future.
Moreover in today’s era of “alternative facts”, “fake news”, unhinged imaginations and vested interests, art — and especially the political cartoon — attempts to impede the blurring of fiction and reality, to puncture Orwellian “doublethink”. As Gideon Ofrat, the Israeli art critic and historian, commented:
“Could it be that even in the era of post-truth, art has no choice but to tell the truth? Could it be that in an age when culture seems to be losing its hold on truth — art may be the last space unable to say ‘yes’ to a lie?”
Today’s cartoonists carry a heavier burden in the age of social media than their predecessors, but they still speak truth to power. Their tradition continues.
Plus61j 30 January 2023