Life & Culture

The cartoons that tell Israel’s story

A new book traces the history of the Jewish state through the work of its top caricaturists


A visit to the Israel Cartoon Museum in Holon several years ago first gave me the idea of telling Israel’s history through cartoons. It was undoubtedly the hardest of all my books to write.

Which episode in a year to highlight; which cartoon to select, which events to record?
Clearly there could have been an infinite number of parallel histories.

Lockdown, however, gave me the time and space to write, assisted enormously by the Museum’s expert archivist, Hila Zahavi.

It also allowed me to be in touch with the families of cartoonists whom I have always admired — Ze’ev, Dosh, Arieh Navon, Shmuel Katz, Mike Ronnen and many others plus today’s generation of brilliant Israeli caricaturists.

All were the scourge of unscrupulous politicians and the unravellers of absurd scenarios.

For each year from 1949 to 2020, there are four pages: a cartoon by an iconic Israeli cartoonist of the time, a detailed timeline for the year and two pages of narrative, documenting 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.

Like many, I very much enjoy a political cartoon. It can often tell a story better than a thousand pages of text. It gives a voice to the powerless and brings a smile to the face.

A prime example is a cartoon by David Low published in the Evening Standard in June 1940.

It depicts a British soldier, standing on the white cliffs of Dover, enveloped by threatening waves, but waving an angry fist at the Luftwaffe, high above in a black sky. This followed the retreat from Dunkirk and preceded the expected Nazi invasion of the British Isles. The cartoon’s defiant caption said it all: “Very Well: Alone”.

This is the underlying theme of this book — it depicts the Jew as an outsider, stiff-necked and contrarian rather than as the proud and compliant member of a community.

It explains why Jews were disproportionately represented as members of the fraternity of cartoonists and satirists.

This book therefore views Israel, not as an international pariah, but as the dissident of the nations — and Zionism as a revolt against the place in history allocated to the Jews.

Israel: A History in 100 Cartoons is published this week by Cambridge University Press. Colin Shindler will be speaking at Jewish Book Week on February 26.

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