Israeli cartoonist stunned by Muhammad controversy

By now every pundit has weighed in on the Danish cartoons ridiculing Muhammad. But what do cartoonists think about the controversy?

Israeli political cartoonist Michel Kichka needs only one word to describe his reaction: “Amazed.”

“I thought it would take one or two days then everything would be calm,” says Kichka, in San Francisco for an exhibit featuring the work of 19 Israeli cartoonists. “I was surprised it became global and extreme. It made me feel that something deeper than cartoons was at the heart of the debate.”

Kichka sees the conflict as evidence of a “clash of civilizations.” However, coming from a country where Muslim sentiment is always a consideration, he wasn’t especially thrilled with the Danish cartoons.

“No cartoon of Muhammad would be easy to digest, even for moderate Muslims. But to show him as a terrorist went too far. It was in bad taste. It doesn’t justify the reactions, but cartoonists have a responsibility.”

Like commentators in the West, Kichka agrees that freedom of expression is a cornerstone of democracy. But he also sees shades of gray in the responses to the cartoons.

“Europe has a long history of [separation of] church and state,” he says. “Things seem to be well balanced, but Europe has changed. There are a lot of Muslims there now. We need a new modus vivendi, and it won’t be easy.”

Some observers have called Islamic outrage hypocritical given the anti-Semitic cartoons that often appear in Arab newspapers. Kichka agrees.

“I’m not sure it’s hypocrisy, but it’s something that looks like it,” says the Belgian-born artist. “They have competitions there to draw the most anti-Semitic cartoons. The worst is the best. The public in general is not aware of what has been done there. It’s a deep problem.”

Would Kichka himself draw a cartoon lampooning Muhammad? He says no, and not just because it would insult Muslims.

“Muhammad has never been a target for [Israeli] cartoonists,” he says, “because we can draw a suicide bomber very easily. They have faces for us.”

Dan Pine

Dan Pine is a contributing editor at J. He was a longtime staff writer at J. and retired as news editor in 2020.