Op-Ed: In Israel, a cartoonist was fired for a political offense. I quit my job in protest
I have never met Avi Katz, the illustrator and editorial cartoonist fired by the Jerusalem Report in late July for a politically controversial drawing. In fact, I’ve never even spoken to Katz on the phone. Yet we have the intimate relationship that grows out of artistic partnership. For more than 10 years, once every four weeks, I have published a piece of short fiction in the Report, and Katz has drawn the accompanying illustrations.
When Katz was fired, I quit. I notified the Report that I no longer wish to be associated with the magazine.
As a translator and author who has lived in Israel for nearly 40 years, my monthly Necessary Stories column were a welcome change in my routine and a chance to tell the kinds of stories that used to be the backbone of the popular magazines I grew up with in America. I never missed a deadline; my 132nd story appears in the current issue, with a picture by Katz that adds, I believe, considerably to the experience of those who read it.
As is so common these days, I first learned of Katz’s dismissal not from him or from the editor of the Report, but on Facebook. I fired off an email to the editor asking if it was true. He said that he regretted the action but that he’d been placed under heavy pressure from management — management meaning the publishers of the daily Jerusalem Post, which bought out the once-independent biweekly Report a decade and a half ago, promising that it would remain editorially independent.
The magazine and its publishers could have stood behind their cartoonist and his freedom to make fun of the high and powerful... Instead, they buckled.
The decision to terminate Katz’s freelance work for the magazine was the result, the editor wrote, of a series of complaints from readers about Katz’s cartoons.
Katz is a cartoonist with strong opinions and a wild imagination. Many of his editorial cartoons have played off tropes from popular culture, famous works of art and great literature. While we agree on many of the issues facing Israel today, I differ with him on some. Sometimes I don’t get the point of a given cartoon, and sometimes I think he veers in the direction of bad taste, especially when it comes to issues of religion. (I’m an observant Jew, he’s proudly secular). Nearly every one of his cartoons is provocative and guaranteed to get some people angry. That’s how satire works — it forces people to stop short and take a second look at deeply held beliefs and assumptions. And that can be very unpleasant.
To the credit of editors of the Report over the years, the magazine has printed his cartoons and let the chips fall where they may. Until the most recent issue, that is.
The offending cartoon went viral. In it, members of the Israeli parliament celebrate the passage of the so-called Jewish nation-state bill, which codifies Israel’s Jewish nature in the country’s equivalent of a constitution. (Among other things, it demotes Arabic from its status as an “official” language to that of a “special” language.) Many Israelis — myself included — believe the law to be discriminatory and a gratuitous slap by the Jewish state against its minority citizens. Katz depicted the legislators as the pigs from George Orwell’s “Animal Farm” and, for a caption, borrowed that story’s most famous line: “All animals are equal, but some are more equal than others.”
Predictably, the legislators were apoplectic, as were many of their supporters. They charged that the cartoon was anti-Semitic, on the grounds that anti-Semitic cartoonists have at times depicted Jews as pigs.
The magazine and its publishers could have stood behind their cartoonist and his freedom to make fun of the high and powerful and to slaughter sacred cows (or pigs). They could have responded to the attackers by suggesting they write a letter to the editor. Instead, they buckled and announced that there would be no more cartoons from Katz.
That’s the wrong message to send. In this moment, powerful politicians in Israel, Europe and the United States are seeking to suppress criticism of their actions not through government censorship but through delegitimization. Any expression of opinion or even report of fact that they don’t like gets labeled as “anti-Semitic,” “fake news” or “treason.” (And let’s not forget, from the other end of the political spectrum: “micro-aggression”). It’s no longer kosher to get people mad by making fun of their beliefs — but that’s exactly what good satire does, and good satire is essential to pluralist democratic societies.
So I quit in support of Avi Katz. Maybe, now that we have less to do, we’ll have a chance to meet.
Haim Watzman’s most recent book is “Necessary Stories.” He translates the work of many of Israel’s leading writers and scholars into English. His website, with an archive of all his stories, is southjerusalem.com.
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