Local & State Voices

Brilliant or hateful? A pointed drawing gets a cartoonist fired.

Avi Katz turned a recent photograph of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and other Likud Party members into a controversial cartoon.
Avi Katz turned a recent photograph of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and other Likud Party members into a controversial cartoon. Photo: Olivier Fitoussi; Cartoon: Avi Katz
In George Orwell’s “Animal Farm,” the pigs rule. They foment a barnyard revolution and create a democratic utopia inspired by the slogan, “All animals are equal.” But, as Orwell’s allegory on totalitarianism progresses, the pigs consolidate their power over the other livestock and poultry and the slogan evolves: “All animals are equal. But some animals are more equal than others.”

This story sprang to the mind of Jerusalem Report cartoonist Avi Katz as he saw a recent photograph of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and other Likud Party members. Their parliament had just passed a law defining Israel as the nation-state of the Jewish people, giving them an “exclusive right to self-determination” within it. The law has been criticized by many, including the Jerusalem Post, owner of the Report, as discriminatory to the country’s non-Jewish citizens. After its passage, a group of disheveled Likud members snapped a celebratory selfie with the neatly dressed Netanyahu in the middle.

“It just looked like pigs,” Katz explained afterward. “It seemed to me so obvious, almost as if I was explaining someone else’s joke.”

He quickly redrew the image, substituting pigs’ faces for the politicians. To drive the point home, he added the Orwell quote to the top of the drawing: “All animals are equal but some are more equal than others.”

The Jerusalem Report editors published the cartoon and it ran on the top of its web site. But a social media backlash attacked the cartoon as anti-Semitic and Katz was summarily “let go” (although the cartoon stayed on the Report’s web site for over a week following his firing).

The Jerusalem Post justified Katz’s firing, saying while they support freedom of speech, Katz’s cartoon crossed the line from criticism into “incitement and hatred,” the pig being one of the most unclean and impure animals in Judaism, and long-associated with anti-Semitic memes.

It’s a brilliant drawing but difficult to defend. The pig as an anti-Semitic image has been in use since at least the 13th century, with many European Christian churches displaying sculpted Judensau, obscene folk art of Jewish men suckling and mating with pigs. Judensau was also a derogatory term for Jewish people used by the Nazis.

But Katz wasn’t the first cartoonist to use a supposedly anti-Semitic trope for his own ends (in fact, another Israeli newspaper cartoonist drew his country’s politicians as Orwell’s pigs 35 years ago, and no one objected).

Nazis had also labeled Jews as rats and vermin. Art Spiegelman in his wonderful graphic novel “Maus”, inverts this stereotype. His Jews are portrayed as victimized mice, preyed upon by Nazi cats. Instead of being fired for this, Spiegelman won a Pulitzer Prize.

This differs from some blatantly racist cartoons which portray former President Obama as an ape, or eating watermelon. The connections of those images to our more recent racist past are not only well- established, but seemed to be used only to caricature the president as a black man, not to legitimately criticize his policies.

I can’t buy the idea that a Jewish cartoonist attacked Israeli politicians for their Jewishness. The Orwell parody is so apparent and so obviously the sole point of the cartoon. His drawing is not only a killing satire, but sadly prescient as well. By being fired for criticizing his government, Katz proves the cartoon’s point, as an illustration of a slide into authoritarianism.

Siers is the Observer’s cartoonist and a member of the editorial board. Email: ksiers@charlotteobserver.com