Nothing ruins a good joke faster than having to explain it. But for Yaakov Kirschen, nothing kills a bad joke faster than revealing the hidden details that make it wrong.
Kirschen, who draws the comic strip Dry Bones, explained the double-edge sword of humor by and about Jews in “The Latest News and Other Jokes,” a “stand-up analysis” hosted by the Zionist Organization of America Pittsburgh District on Thursday, Oct. 8.
Born Jerry in Brooklyn in 1938, Kirschen drew comics for Cracked and Playboy in the 1960s before moving to Israel. He began drawing Dry Bones in 1973. The cartoon, usually presented in four panels, uses several characters to take opinionated stands on day-to-day events in Israeli and Middle East politics, and Jewish life worldwide.
Humor, Kirschen said, makes it easier to accept controversial opinions.
In 2002, responding to a public debate about whether the term “suicide bomber” or “homicide bomber” was more accurate, Kirschen drew a cartoon where his long-running character Mr. Shuldig looks at the reader and says, “Israel is the only country in the world where we have armed guards to shoot people to prevent them from committing suicide.”
“Anyone who looks at this cartoon laughs,” Kirschen said. “The minute they laugh, it means we understand that these guys are not committing suicide. So you can say things in a cartoon that people will accept, because it gets under the radar.”
But anti-Semitic cartoons can get under that same radar, Kirschen said.
That’s why Kirschen accepted an offer from Yale University to become the artist-in-residence at the Yale Initiative for the Interdisciplinary Study of Anti-Semitism, an attempt to create an institutional framework for discussing and analyzing anti-Semitism.
For the Initiative, Kirschen analyzes anti-Semitic cartoons from around the world, explaining the mechanics of their humor from the perspective of a cartoonist.
He showed a few examples to the crowd of about 100 mostly older people in attendance.
A cartoon from Bahrain shows the well-known recycling symbol where three bent arrows make a triangle. But each arrow shows a Star of David on one side and a swastika on the other. Kirschen noted that the white space inside the symbol also makes a Star of David.
A cartoon from Egypt shows Palestinians in a Gaza-shaped pit, while an Israeli soldier dressed like a Nazi shoots down at them and a bulldozer prepares to bury them alive.
“Here, Gaza is not fighting back. There’s no Kalashnikov. There’s no rocket return,” Kirschen said, noting that the Egyptian cartoon presents the Palestinian people as having no way out of Gaza, even though the region shares a border with Egypt.
Kirschen also directed attention at images produced outside of the Middle East, particularly a March 2009 cartoon from the widely syndicated cartoonist Pat Oliphant.
In the Oliphant cartoon, a headless Israeli soldier pushes a Palestinian woman and child off a cliff using a giant Star of David with one end converted into an open, fanged mouth.
Kirschen pointed out an Israeli flag inside the image, created from the star along with a line of smoke on top and a band of ground below acting as the horizontal stripes. “The whole image of the flag is getting into your brain without you perceiving it,” he said.
Kirschen also took aim at Eli Valley, a Jewish cartoonist who regularly produces comics for the Forward. Kirschen presented Valley’s work blind, first analyzing it and then telling audiences that Valley is Jewish and his work appears in Jewish newspapers.
Valley often takes a satirical and critical look at Jewish figures, trends and taboos.
Kirschen pointed to a February cartoon Valley drew called “The Shonda,” about Jewish leaders who publically criticize Bernard Madoff for stealing from Jews, but say nothing about Jewish groups that benefit from ethically suspect donors.
But Kirschen showed only one frame of the cartoon, where a Jewish man getting a head massage at a beach-front resort says, “No amount of racketeering, wire fraud or tax evasion gives me the same pleasure as alerting people to the dangers of anti-Semitism.”
“These are all Jewish crimes according to this cartoonist… So alerting people to the dangers of anti-Semitism is just as much fun as tax evasion and wire fraud,” Kirschen said, noting that Klansman David Duke used the cartoon on his Web site to argue that Jews say things about other Jews that non-Jews could never get away with saying.
In the full cartoon, Valley indentifies the character as “an international fugitive,” giving money to charitable Jewish causes that more than welcome his donations.
Kirschen also pointed to a particularly incendiary Valley cartoon where a Jew is portrayed as a horned monster raping Christian and Muslim women, but did not indicate to the audience that Valley drew the cartoon for a 2006 contest where Jewish cartoonists drew phony anti-Semitic cartoons as a way to undermine actual anti-Semitism.
At the time, the Forward quoted Amitai Sandy, an Israeli graphic artist and the creator of the contest, as saying, “The idea is very simple. By joking about ourselves, we wanted to show how ridiculous all these images can be.”
Kirschen said that when he introduces Valley’s cartoons by saying they come from a Jewish artist, audiences ask, “Well, why do you think he did that? Why do you think the Forward printed that?” Kirschen believes the cartoons should be considered on their face.
“If this guy’s name was Adolf Schmidt, and he was being published in a magazine called ‘Christ for the Nations,’ you would never say that,” Kirschen said. “You would assume he’s an anti-Semite. But you know what? This anti-Semitism is coming from our baby, and therefore, there must be a reason. We give him a pass.”
Kirschen recently created the Web site jdefamers.org to highlight and call out public figures he considers to be “Jewish defamers of Israel” or “cuckoos in our nest.”
A cuckoo lays eggs in the nests of other birds. Those eggs hatch first and the baby cuckoo kills its rivals before they hatch. “That leaves the momma bird believing that this monster is hers. And therefore, you’ve got to show it some understanding,” Kirschen said.
(Eric Lidji can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (412) 687-1006.)