Symbols are Avi Katz’s bread and butter, but he never expected to become one.
A former liberal arts student in Berkeley, Calif., Katz moved to Israel in his 20s as an exchange student, mostly to avoid the draft for Vietnam. He completed his studies in the Betzalel Academy of Art and Design in Jerusalem, where he met his wife, and decided to make aliyah and stay for good. Going on to become a well-known American-Israeli teacher, illustrator and political cartoonist, he never looked back.
Last June, Katz, who moves between Israel and New York for his work, found himself in the center of a media storm. He was let go from his longtime freelance position at the English-language biweekly Jerusalem Report, which circulates largely among Anglos here and in Israel, over a cartoon criticizing the passage of the so-called nation-state law; the cartoon, traced over a widely-circulated news photograph in which triumphant Likud Knesset members are taking a selfie celebrating the passing of Israel’s contentious new law, alluded to George Orwell’s 1945 allegorical “Animal Farm” by depicting Prime Minister Netanyahu and his colleagues as pigs. Above the drawing, Katz scrawled Orwell’s famous quote: “All animals are equal, but some are more equal than others.”
Being that the law was widely seen as discriminatory against Israel’s non-Jewish citizens — it gave the Jewish people “an exclusive right to national self-determination,” declared Hebrew the state’s official language and elevated “the development of Jewish settlements” to a national value — Katz’s message seemed pretty straightforward. “It wasn’t my most pointed political statement, not by far,” he told The Jewish Week in a recent phone interview from Tel Aviv, “but people here are weird about pigs.”
In the days following the cartoon’s publication, the Jerusalem Report, which is owned by the Jerusalem Post, was doused by a torrent of criticism on social media, denouncing the publication for likening Israeli MKs to the most ritually impure animal in Judaism. Katz was cut loose shortly after. “Avi Katz is a cartoonist who worked as a freelancer at the Jerusalem Post and in accordance with editorial considerations, it was decided not to continue the relationship with him,” was the Post’s initial, uninformative statement to the media regarding his termination. Another, bigger wave of outrage against the Post followed, this time from the international media as well, for falling perfectly in line with Katz’s Orwellian metaphor by squashing freedom of speech and purging dissent.
The occurrence did have a distinctly totalitarian feel to it, Katz recalled. “The Jerusalem Report, which is supposed to be editorially independent, got instructions from The Jerusalem Post, which itself received its instructions ‘from above’… it was like a giant hand reached ‘from above’ into my life and knocked it off course.” Eetta Prince-Gibson, former Jerusalem Report editor, who herself was fired in 2011 for what she claimed were murky reasons, came vigorously to Katz’s defense.
In light of recent headlines, Katz’s Orwellian allegory — both the cartoon and its creator’s dismissal — have an almost prophetic feel. Last week, ahead of Israel’s upcoming elections on April 9, Netanyahu announced a deal by which the extremist party Otzma Yehudit (Jewish Power) would merge with Jewish Home, the slightly more mainstream party of religious Zionists. An openly racist group, Otzma’s platform calls for annexing the occupied territories, rejecting any Palestinian state, expelling all “enemies” of Israel (Arabs) and “taking ownership” of the Temple Mount. If Netanyahu wins the upcoming election, the party will go from being an extreme fringe group to becoming part of the governing coalition.
For many Israeli-Americans, including a number I spoke with for this column, the deal represents another deeply alarming transition in a slow-but-sure Orwellian cycle, in which Israel appears to be morphing from a shelter against racial discrimination and violence to a perpetrator of those ills. The deal was denounced widely by Jewish-American groups across the board, with even staunchly pro-Israel groups such as AIPAC and the American Jewish Committee condemning Otzma Yehudit’s views as “reprehensible.” (Some Orthodox groups praised the deal.) The Israeli American Council, Israeli-Americans’ leading national umbrella organization, told The Jewish Week in a statement that “IAC’s policy has been to not comment or get involved with internal Israeli politics.”
For his part, Katz is surprisingly optimistic about what comes next. “Things cycle back and forth. Netanyahu has already been in power forever; he has already kicked out all opposition. … I think that [this deal] marks the end of his era, and that something new is about to begin.”
Orli Santo’s column appears the first week of the month.