Cartoons on the offense

27 03 2009


Pat Oliphant's cartoon

Pat Oliphant's cartoon

Cartoons are making the headlines again. Australian-American, award-winning cartoonist, Pat Oliphant, recently published a black-and-white cartoon (as you can see above) portraying an Israeli soldier as a Nazi; headless, with his right arm raised in the air, going after a small Gazan woman carrying a child.

The outrage has been quite loud and astonishing. Numerous editorials appeared in mainstream media, not to mention a wave of blogging and ranting. Check out The Jewish Journal, and the Atlantic Magazine’s Jeffery Goldberg. The Anti-Defamation League that fights anti-Semitism had called this cartoon “hideously anti-Semitic.” Much of the opinion on the street is that it is so.

This reminded me of the Danish cartoons portraying the Muslim prophet, Muhammad, as a terrorist with a turban-bomb. Remember the chaos about those cartoons? The level of offense and insult carried out in this Israel-related cartoon competes with that of the prophet’s cartoons.

My Muslim fellows should, then, understand and even sympathize with the outrage about this. And those who cried “freedom of speech” about the Danish cartoons shouldn’t dare to yell “anti-Semitism” this time around.

Political cartoons are important. They are a way of expressing opinion, just as protests do. Granted they can be brutal and unrealistic, but that’s the point, isn’t it? Now I agree with the opinion that this cartoon, much like the Danish ones, can incite hatred, portraying a whole population as evil and murderous. That is why people should, and normally do, take cartoons with a grain of salt.

Here is a detailed analysis, from an Israeli side, about this cartoon by famous professor and writer, Barry Rubin. This was posted on several websites, and fellow blogger on The Lid. You may not agree with all of it but it is a good analytical piece. 

We will continue to debate the role of cartoons in our society and the limit of cartoonists. This is one case study to consider.


If they are the children of Camp David, then we are the children of the Intifada

21 03 2009

Mona Eltahawy

Celebrating the 30th anniversary of the Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty this March 26th, the Middle East Institute in Washington DC published a special edition of Viewpoints magazine. Mona Eltahawy, a New York-based Egyptian journalist contributed quite an interesting article about the effects of this treaty on the generations that followed.

Mona is a very smart journalist. She’s won many awards and made quite a reputation for herself. In her article, she characterizes the Arab generation before the treaty as the generation of Naksa (or setback in Arabic). The generation that came after this 1979 treaty is the generation of Camp David; youth that lived through peace times, away from wars with Israel. Egyptian President Anwar al-Sadat had hoped at the time that such treaty would mitigate the animosity between the people of the two countries, and maybe even the Arabs and the Israelis in general. The reality is, however, quite the opposite. As Mona observes, and many of us do, the animosity still exists, and quite strongly so.

If we are to characterize generations according to certain historical events, especially in a heated place like the Middle East, then I would say that my generation (in the late 1980s and early 1990s) is the generation of the Intifada and the failed Oslo Accords. The first uprising of 1989 has scarred many in the Middle East. The Oslo Accords principles (1993) have yet to be fully implemented by both the Palestinian and Israeli sides. In many ways, everything that followed Camp David were points of deterioration instead of improvement. Do we, then, still wonder why the generation of Camp David and the ones that followed are no different from the generation of the Naksa?

We have yet to see the fruits of the Second Intifada (2000), the Lebanon War (2006) and the Gaza War (2009) on future generations. My guess is that it won’t be much different on all sides.


*You can visit Mona Eltahawy’s website here

NYU-Tel Aviv, Partnership Protest

9 03 2009

In a spacious room at the Kimmel Center for student activities at New York University, a panel was held to discuss the perils of a partnership between NYU and Tel Aviv University (TAU). The lecture was titled, “NYU-Tel Aviv University: A Partnership in Occupation,” responding to a new study-abroad program in Israel. Three panelists sat at a rectangular table at one end of the room. Two of them were NYU professors: Elias Khouri from the Middle Eastern and Islamic Studies Department, and Andrew Ross from the Social and Cultural Analysis Department. The third panelist was a young Israeli man, called Nir Harel, representing “Anarchists against the Wall,” a group in Israel that campaigns against the constructed wall and house demolitions, among other policies. Harel was touring the U.S. to fundraise for the organization as they face debt and financial problems. The panel was moderated by a member of Students for Justice in Palestine.

The turnout was quite impressive, filling a large number of the chairs set up. Most of those who came seemed to belong to the view that this partnership is truly one in occupation, as evident during the Q&A later. Professor Ross discussed TAU’s violations of academic freedom, using correspondences with his colleague professors at the university who have said that the university doesn’t tolerate those who disagree with Israeli policies, making it difficult for them to find jobs and get tenured. Professor Khouri argued that Israel is an occupational force regardless of what other names it may be called.

Despite some organizational and technical problems, emotions were running high in the room, as the Middle East topic normally does. There wasn’t much diversity in opinions in this panel. I suppose it wasn’t its intent to do so. Many things were said, far too complicated for a simple blog entry. I was, however, drawn to a couple of questions asked by a small group of Jewish students clustered together at the end of the room. One female student asked professor Khouri what he thought of terrorist organizations such as Hamas and Hezbollah. That naturally provoked some chaos. “According to who? Israel?” jumped in another female student in the audience. “According to facts,” the first one said, at which point the audience voiced more disapproval, even sarcastic laughter. Another Jewish student whom I had seen an hour earlier at the Bronfman Center for Jewish Life, directed a question to Professor Ross. It went along these lines, “I’m wondering if your views about NYU-Tel Aviv are strong enough to make you resign if this partnership takes place, or are you just a liar and a hypocrite?” I emphasize here that I’ve modified the original version.

A liar and a hypocrite? Break… Huh? There is no doubt that it takes much courage to ask any combative question among a Palestine-supporting audience. Calling a professor a liar and a hypocrite, however, wasn’t the smartest argument tool. If anything, that Jewish student gave Professor Ross the biggest favor, proving Jewish and Israeli intolerance to dissent in opinion, not to mention making the other Tel Aviv supporters look intolerant as well. In this student’s opinion, it seems, you either agree with Israeli policies or you’re a liar and hypocrite. If you can’t argue about these policies in New York, then forget about it in Tel Aviv.

I admit my discomfort about the one-sidedness of opinion the panel portrayed. I wanted to ask about the advantages of such a partnership. Nothing can be completely negative. I belong to the opinion that encourages any effort that might, in some way, create better understanding among the sides of this conflict. If we are to cut all ties with all universities in locations that violate human rights, then why do we have an NYU study-abroad program in Shanghai? Better yet, why are we building a whole other campus in Abu Dhabi with its problematic labor laws, women’s laws and a bunch of others? If we delve into this slightly more, then we shouldn’t send students to Cairo either, given Egypt’s violations of academic and social freedoms. I agree that this wasn’t the purpose of this panel, but these are points to consider.

I have no doubt that going to NYU-Tel Aviv has its disadvantages. If a student wants learn about this particular conflict in the Middle East, as the brochures and ads mention, going to Jerusalem would be a far better idea. At least you’d be exposed to some Palestinians and Arabs here and there, instead of mainly Jews and Israelis. But, again, I’m up for any idea that makes us understand each other slightly better. Going to Israel might open our minds a little more, even if it’s a tiny little bit more. Those who are rational and truly interested in the conflict won’t rely on one side to hone their views anyway. Right?

“Since when is war an exercise in proportionality and/or popularity?”

14 02 2009

During Operation Cast Lead –Israel’s military operation on the Gaza strip that began on December 27th,  2008 – I eagerly followed the Israeli news, particularly the Haaretz.


Haaretz is one of Israel’s many great newspapers, one that might be perceived as particularly liberal and left-wing. There are many articles in this newspaper and fewer images. Like many newspapers with online versions, it allows readers’ comments right below the articles.


In an article by political columnist Ari Shavit, titled “Gaza Op May Be Squeezing Hamas, But It’s Destroying Israel’s Soul,” Shavit wrote about the effects Operation Cast Lead has on Israelis’ views, taking the opinion that Israelis are not truly considering the lives affected by this operation. He wrote about the lack of proportionality, voicing the opinion that Israelis have become indifferent to the way the war has turned out, calling for it all to stop.


One of the readers, called Brent from Toronto, Canada, wrote this comment titled “Where’s my barf bag?”:


“Since when is war an exercise in proportionality and/or popularity? Instead of quivering in the attic, have some backbone and stop being afraid of actually doing what needs to be done: Fight your enemies till they are defeated and surrendered as a vanquished foe. Then reap the dividend of real peace.”


I assumed that this comment was written by a young person, in his 20s, not only because most commentators tend to be young but also because it is a hot-headed comment. I have seen many of these comments on Israeli and Arab online newspapers. Here is what I find problematic about this tiny paragraph:


First of all, war should be an exercise of proportionality. Assuming that this war is forced upon a side, it should serve to bring justice, and even peace.


When I thought of the concept of proportionality, I thought of the old phrase, “Eye for an Eye.” In the Torah, the Bible and the Quran, people are taught this principle. In Leviticus 24: 17-21, the third book in the Torah, it states: “fracture for fracture, eye for an eye, tooth for tooth; what injury he gave to another will be given to him.”


In the Quran 5.45, it says, “Unbelievers are those who do not judge according to God’s revelations. We decreed for them a life for a life, an eye for an eye, a nose for a nose, an ear for an ear, a tooth for a tooth, and a wound for a wound.


It doesn’t matter whether you follow any religion or not. The question is: Why haven’t these books along with conventional wisdom and the law demand more punishment than exactly the equivalent of the harm? Why not two eyes, three or even a hundred? Because proportionality matters. It sustains some sort of humanity, some sort of justice and fairness. If there is no proportionality we become the aggressors we hate.


If you are a Gandhi-lover you will ignore all the quotes above and say, “An eye for an eye makes the whole world blind.”


The second problem is in the phrase “quivering in the attic.” Our commentator here portrays any action other than war to be an act of cowardice.


But here’s the revelation: courage is not always associated with war. It is not always associated with fighting, whether for defense or offense purposes.


There are many examples of courage that involved no violence at all, no “quivering in the attic.” Those who marched in Selma, Alabama, in 1965 as part of the Civil Rights movement carried a motto of peaceful protest. They got the beating instead of giving it. Nelson Mandela fought the apartheid and sat in his prison cell for 27 years. He too had courage, without “quivering in the attic” yet without firing a shot. What needs to be done here, perhaps, is far from flexing muscles on both Hamas’s and the Israeli Defense Forces’ sides.


The third and last point is the connection between “surrendered as a vanquish foe,” and “real peace.” I searched for what real peace means to this reader. It is intriguing how these two phrases are written in two consecutive sentences. The idea that in war there is only one winner who triumphed and one loser who became the “vanquished foe” is not always true. In fact, there can be two losing sides in wars. Think of Vietnam.  Better yet, think of Iraq and Afghanistan. Chaos and instability persists years later. Neither the Palestinians nor the Israelis have been victorious enough to reap the “dividend of real peace” for the past 60 years.


People may see what happened in Gaza in different ways. We have yet to completely digest what truly happened. But real peace doesn’t come by easy, and it especially doesn’t come by through bombs and rockets. Again, I emphasize 60 years of lack of “real peace.” How many more lives are you willing to sacrifice for it?




“T for Terrorist, basically.”

13 02 2009

Think Coffee has become one of those hotspots for students and scholars around the New York University campus area, who come not only for the organic coffee but also for the long, somewhat peaceful hours of reading, computer-screen staring and sometimes chit-chatting. I have become a regular customer since its opening more than two years ago.


On a Tuesday morning, right after my 9.15am class, I climbed those three steel steps into the entrance of the coffee shop on Mercer Street, hoping for a few hours for homework. Right in front of the door, I caught a snippet of a phone conversation between a young guy and his phone-buddy at the end of the line. He was spelling something. In his grey jacket and his black cap, as he casually talked and looked at his feet, the 20-something-looking gentleman shrugged and spelled, “T for terrorist, basically.”


Now I know that English is not my first language. I don’t always remember the “A for apple, B for bike, C for cat.” But when has the letter “T” become immediately associated with “terrorist”? Not tie, television, or even Tsunami?


People think differently, of course. No one can or should dictate what pops into people’s minds when they think of a letter, an image or a person. It says something about our generation, however, when the first word that you think of for the letter T is “terrorist.” Is “O” for “Osama” now too? Or should it be “Obama”?


This isn’t necessarily a problem. It is mind-boggling, however, to realize and observe that our thoughts, and our generation, have witnessed such a shock as to alter positive thinking into negative thinking. Terrorism is a negative thought. It is exists, it affects our lives, but it shouldn’t be at the forefront of our thinking. It can become subconscious. I am sure that the person who said this quote hasn’t really thought about it this way, and I’m sure that many of us don’t think of it as a big deal.


But it is important to be aware of how we think.