To Combat Anti-semitism, Cartoonist Turns to Old Jewish Staple — Humor

Israeli cartoonist Ya’akov Kirschen, whose Dry Bones comic strip has appeared in Jewish newspapers for more than 30 years, is aiming his pen in a new direction. Enlisting the help of Mr. Shuldig and his dog Doobie, along with their other bulbous-nosed, wide-eyed cartoon friends, the artist has formed a nonprofit organization called The Dry Bones Project to combat the “lies and ugliness” of anti-Semitism through humor.

“My experience with Dry Bones has taught me that people laugh when they see the unexpected appearance of what they perceive to be the truth,” explains Kirschen, 66. “The strength of cartoons is that when you get someone to laugh, at that instant they see things from your point of view.”

The Brooklyn-born cartoonist, who immigrated to Israel in 1971, never has concealed his contempt for those he perceives as Israel’s enemies, and the Dry Bones comic strip long has served as an outlet for Kirschen’s strong Zionist beliefs.

Creating the new nonprofit simply represents a more organized effort to fight the anti-Semitism and anti-Zionism that has emerged in the Western world over the past few years.

“We plan to educate those who might be tricked into supporting this war against our people by holding the perpetrators of these assaults and their ideas up to ridicule, satire and exposure,” Kirschen says. “Humor is a very basic tool of the Jewish people, and for the entire Judeo-Christian world to be under attack and for us not to use humor would be a silly failing.”

Daniel Pipes, an academic who directs the Middle East Forum, is on the project’s international advisory board. Though he has made his career defending Israel through political analysis, Pipes acknowledges the limitations of words.

“Anti-Semitism is irrational and so cannot be combated by marshalling evidence and convincing arguments,” he suggests. “Perhaps humor can work to expose its folly.”

So far, the project has two components: Kirschen’s Dry Bones comic strip and an annual Purim awards ceremony that will “honor” people Kirschen and his board believe deserve a gentle slap in the face.

It’s the “gentle” part that distinguishes Kirshen’s comic style. His is not the humor of a Dennis Miller or even an Ali G, the HBO comedian who has tried to expose American xenophobia by, for example, persuading patrons in an Arizona bar to sing along about throwing Jews “down the well.”

Kirschen’s characters smile as they convey the cartoonist’s simple, straightforward messages: Anti-Semitism is stupid, doublespeak is wrong and those who threaten the Jewish people’s safety in their homeland must be exposed.

“Unlike many cartoonists whose mission is to go for the jugular, Ya’akov sees his mission as educating people,” says Abraham Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation League, who says he welcomes this latest initiative.

“As anti-Semitism has mushroomed these past few years, he’s used his Dry Bones to show how ludicrous and untruthful it is. And I think he’s been quite successful,” Foxman says.

Cartoonists are given great license to stretch the truth, Kirschen says, and they can abuse that power. Pointing out that a recent cartoon showing Ariel Sharon eating Palestinian babies was named best cartoon of the year in Britain, Kirschen maintains that a print journalist never would be allowed to convey such vitriol in words.

“We as a people have borne the brunt of totally insane lies published in American and English newspapers,” he continues. “As a Jewish cartoonist, I am very wary in my cartoons about libeling people. I have the power to do it, but I set my own boundaries. I don’t want to incite.”

The Dry Bones Project is still in the formative stages. So far, Kirschen has a Web site — www.mrdrybones.com — and two prototype cartoon books that he is showing to Jewish and Christian leaders in North America and Israel.

He is ready to provide the material for free to anyone who wants to print and distribute it, and he’s already getting some tentative bites.

Bridges for Peace, a Christian Zionist organization based in Tulsa and Jerusalem, is considering printing the booklets and sending them to its affiliated newspapers.

The Women’s International Zionist Organization has invited Kirschen to discuss his project with its young leadership group later this month in Tel Aviv, and to speak about it at the group’s annual conference in Jerusalem next January.

Rabbi Stanley Davids, president of ARZA — the Association of Reform Zionists of America — says he is “personally very excited” about the project’s potential, and is bringing it to the ARZA leadership “for consideration, to see whether we would want to distribute it to our congregations.”

He tested the comics this past weekend at a national gathering of Alpha Epsilon Pi, the Jewish campus fraternity of which Davids is a past national president, to see whether it might be a useful tool for pro-Israel college students.

As time goes on, Kirschen hopes to expand the Dry Bones Project to include work by other cartoonists and writers, “so it becomes a kind of Mad magazine,” he says.

Another possibility is branching out to write jokes. There are plenty of anti-Semitic jokes, he says, so why not write a few anti-anti-Semitic ones?

“We want to use every kind of humor to carry this out,” he declares. “Wouldn’t it be wonderful if people started telling jokes like, ‘Two anti-Semites were on a train ‘ “

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