I was on vacation with family in the United States last month, but had brought my laptop along so that I could continue to work away from the studio. It was deadline day for the cartoon I submit every two weeks to the Jerusalem Report, and I was perusing the news for inspiration. That’s when I saw the Jerusalem-based photojournalist Olivier Fitoussi’s photograph of a gaggle of Likud politicians taking a congratulatory selfie after passing the controversial nation-state bill in the Knesset.
Fitoussi’s image captured a surreal scene: Knesset member Oren Hazan, who previously made headlines when he grabbed a selfie with U.S. President Donald Trump, holds his cellphone aloft to take a photo of his fellow lawmakers, as his belly spills out of his trousers. Pressing into frame is a delirious David Bitan, who was forced to resign as coalition chairman last December because he is under investigation for money laundering. Peeking past Bitan is Anat Berko, who claimed from the Knesset podium that there is no such thing as a Palestinian people because there is no “P” in Arabic. And standing behind the group is a somewhat uncomfortable looking Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
In my mind, the cartoon was already there, I just had to share it with others. So I took stylus in hand and redrew the situation, replacing the politicians’ faces with pigs heads, and in large letters along the top of the cartoon I scrawled that well-known quote from George Orwell’s Animal Farm: “All animals are equal, but some are more equal than others.”
I sent it off to the Report office back in Jerusalem, and received a note of thanks and appreciation from the editor, Steve Linde. Then I uploaded the drawing to Facebook, for the benefit of the dozen or two friends and colleagues who usually comment on my cartoon there.
It’s a process I’ve repeated over and over again, but this time something unusual happened. I was sitting at breakfast with my family when I received a note from Linde. He apologetically informed me that my drawing was going viral – in a bad way. He told me that management was furious and had ordered him not to use my cartoons going forward. I was in shock. I had been drawing for the Report for 28 years and while I had often poked fun at the powers that be, I had never been censored.
I logged on to Facebook, and found that my cartoon had garnered hundreds of responses, far more than I am used to — most appreciative, some argumentative, a minority vituperative. A few social media users called me an anti-Semite, others a Judeo-Nazi — someone even issued a threat on my life, suggesting I should receive the Charlie Hebdo treatment. I informed my new fan base that I’d been fired.
Within a few hours, the number of comments on my post was pushing 3,000; it had been shared 4,000 times. I was soon besieged with requests for interviews. Meanwhile, two colleagues from the Report, Bernard Dichek and Haim Watzman, resigned in protest. As more and more media around the world picked up the story, I was inundated with job offers and publishing possibilities; one organization even started a fundraiser to help me through the hard times. I decided to just keep working, illustrating children’s and school books, and to continue drawing my cartoons every week, if only for my audience online.
It took Jerusalem Post editor Yaakov Katz (no relation) a couple of weeks to publish a defence of my firing, on the grounds that drawing Jews as pigs is “reminiscent of anti-Semitic memes.” (In 1998, the Report was purchased by the owners of the Jerusalem Post with a guarantee of editorial autonomy and independence.) Katz’s perspective left me confused: it seems only members of the political right in Israel can claim immunity, while vilifying and threatening the opposition is acceptable.
Many responders have hailed me as a hero of freedom of expression. They assume that I am a victim of persecution because I oppose the Netanyahu government. But the truth is that I’ve been disagreeing with the Israeli government and its policies for years. And yet, until my last cartoon, I was never censored or censured. Why now?
As best I can tell, it’s all about the imagery of the pigs.
It is interesting to try to understand this obsession with pigs, and the notion that depicting a Jew as a pig is in line with a tradition of anti-Semitic cartoons. Admittedly, there is some history here — the theme of the ‘Judensau,’ for example, which we see in relief on many European churches, portrays Jews having sex with pigs or suckling from a sow’s udders. Of course, I’d argue that’s not quite the same as my drawing. There are other examples of the “Jew as Pig” motif, including a notorious painting of a pig in an Israeli army uniform, complete with kippa and forlocks, M-16 over his shoulder, Talmud in hand. That picture has been posted time and time again by my Facebook detractors, as if to prove that what I drew was anti-Semitic. There’s only one problem with that: the painting was not produced by anti-Semites or Hamas propagandists – it’s from a Haredi leaflet, attacking the supposedly traitorous members of the Ultra-Orthodox who dare to defy their rabbis and serve in the Israeli army.
Across Israel and the Jewish Diaspora, the nation-state law has garnered significant disapproval. Indeed, the editor of the Jerusalem Post himself wrote an article criticizing it. So it’s not as though I was alone in taking on what many see as a divisive and dangerous move by this government. Which leads to two final questions: why was I singled out? And who’s next?