Yet another nail has been driven into the coffin of freedom of expression in Israel with the dismissal of the artist and cartoonist Avi Katz from the biweekly magazine, Jerusalem Report. The casus belli in this case was a cartoon derived from the infamous selfie taken by that paragon of parliamentary dignity and responsible lawmaking, MK Oren Hazan, an alleged former procurer of prostitutes and drugs when a casino manager in Bulgaria. Katz in a brilliant satirical parody, replaced the faces of the grinning participants, including the Prime Minister, in the selfie with pigs’ heads. In case the obvious reference would be missed by some readers, the quote from George Orwell’s iconic novel Animal Farm was clearly emblazoned above the cartoon, “All animals are equal but some are more equal than others.”
In the interest of full disclosure, I should reveal that as the chief editor many years ago of the magazines, Newsview and Israel Scene, I had the pleasure of working with Avi Katz whose cartoons were a regular feature. I should also point out that on one occasion I vetoed one of his cartoons on the grounds that it showed the protagonists as stereotypical anti-Semitic characters as in the infamous Nazi magazine Der Stürmer. Avi Katz appreciated the point I was making and as I recall, reworked the cartoon in question, which was then duly published. This is manifestly not the case in the pig cartoon at issue. This was an apt, timely and legitimate comment on the ill-conceived and anti-democratic Nation-State Law passed last week by the Israel Knesset.
One of the issues with regard to this cartoon is undoubtedly the use of the pig image with all its unfortunate connotations in Judaism. Presumably if Katz had chosen a donkey image and not a pig, the fallout would have been more muted. But the pig issue is an irrelevancy. The brilliance of the cartoon lies in its literary reference to George Orwell’s iconic work, where Napoleon, who happens to be a pig, becomes a dictator in his society. Any reader with an ounce of literary appreciation would understand and appreciate the connotation. Moreover, a cartoonist who does not offend some of his or her readers is probably not doing the job the way it should be done.
The question here is one of editorial responsibility. Any editor with an ounce of self-respect should be prepared to stand behind his or her editorial decisions, and that is clearly the case with regard to the pig cartoon, which was approved before publication by the editor of the Jerusalem Report, Steve Linde.
But the case of the Jerusalem Report is different in some important ways. The magazine is not autonomous but is a publication owned and controlled by the Jerusalem Post, the editor of which is Ya’akov Katz, to whom Linde reports. From what I’ve heard, Linde was ordered by the Jerusalem Post management, led by its CEO, Ronit Hasin-Hochman, to fire Avi Katz, and it was the management that carried out the decision, overruling and ignoring the protests of Linde. Under the prevailing circumstances, it is Yaakov Katz as chief editor who should resign in protest because of the clear and unmistakable attack on free expression. Steve Linde, a decent and honorable journalist, probably should also have resigned in protest when the furor first broke out, but he may have hoped that the decision to fire Avi Katz could be revoked from within. Moreover, Ms. Hasin-Hochman should now make it clear that the Jerusalem Post management has no interest in publishing an independent paper, and that free journalistic expression and speech is an unimportant factor that should be ignored at will if politically inexpedient. If she, however, thinks otherwise, then she too should resign.