When An Israeli Artist Uses The Bible For His Satire

Israeli cartoonist Ze'ev Engelmayer and his drawing of the Tower of Babel
Israeli cartoonist Ze'ev Engelmayer and his drawing of the Tower of Babel
Reut Barnea

HOLON â€" "The Bible is great raw material â€" an eternal soap opera ..."

The most famous story ever told is the latest subject matter for one of Israel's best-known satirists, 52-year-old Israeli artist and illustrator Ze'ev Engelmayer. With the opening of his exhibit at Holon's Israeli Cartoon Museum, Calcalist spoke with Engelmayer about his work, provocation in art and knowing where to draw the line.

CALCALIST: Why the Bible? That's banal.

ZE'EV ENGELMAYER: The Bible is visible in Israel pretty much everywhere: When the country is led by people with names like Benjamin and Sarah (Netanyahu), and a president called Reuven (Rivlin), it's only natural that a local artist would address this. The fact it's banal does not deter me, it's actually a challenge. I'm trying to read these texts with fresh eyes.

Are you not afraid creating provocative artwork about something like the Bible?

The Bible in itself is very provocative. You cannot treat these stories with some sanctimonious gentleness. These artworks will obviously receive all kinds of reactions, and not everyone will like them. But the Bible contains stories larger than life that deal with every possible aspect â€" love, adultery, forbidden relations, natural disasters, Sodom and Gomorrah. It's like Game of Thrones but B.C.

Among those artworks that might not be well received is one where a chubby boy is lying on a sofa in the desert and his mother, standing above him, calls "wake up, Isaac, dad wants to slaughter you." In another, Adam and Eve discuss online nudity.

Source: Holon's Israeli Cartoon Museum

Humor doesn't reflect contempt, quite the opposite. I can't stand the term "respect for tradition" because this respect doesn't allow these texts to live and remain relevant. I also dislike the term "consideration for public feelings." Art sometimes hurts public feelings.

You've had the reputation of being the "bad boy" of Israeli cartoonists for years, the one that slaughters sacred cows on every occasion.

Not at all. I never created any work of art just to piss someone off. Well, almost never. In my view, I'm actually the responsible adult of Israeli illustration. Every time I slaughter a sacred cow, one warm tear runs down my cheek and is absorbed by the soil of the homeland.

Are there any topics you still keep away from?

I made a series of works about the Islamic State (ISIS). I actually drew them nice and polite â€" they would always say "thank you." But I'm not going to make them public. I like the feeling of having my head attached to my body.

Your visual language is probably one of the best known ones in contemporary Israeli culture. You started drawing when you were in high school in Canada, and when your family returned to Israel you were accepted to the Bezalel school of arts. Had you stayed in Canada, do you think you would have produced similar artworks?

Had I stayed there, my brain would have probably frozen. In Israel, reality is fascinating and it forces you to react. Here everything flows and mixes: the language that's comprised of Yiddish and Arabic and American slang, the streets that bear both signs for "King of Falafel" and "sushi," as well as graffiti. It's a visual salad that perfectly matches my collage-like language.

Is the connection with the audience important for you?

Of course. I love the unmediated connection with the audience. My father used to sell art in stalls across Israel so I've gotten used to street sales and it feels natural to me to distribute cartoons this way. I would love it if my works hanged on walls in every home in Israel. I prefer it this way rather than overpriced art owned by millionaires. Well, I don't object if my works are also owned by millionaires ...

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How Thailand's Lèse-Majesté Law Is Used To Stifle All Protest

Once meant to protect the royal family, the century-old law has become a tool for the military-led government in Bangkok to stamp out all dissent. A new report outlines the abuses.

Pro-Democracy protest at The Criminal Court in Bangkok, Thailand

Laura Valentina Cortés Sierra

"We need to reform the institution of the monarchy in Thailand. It is the root of the problem." Those words, from Thai student activist Juthatip Sirikan, are a clear expression of the growing youth-led movement that is challenging the legitimacy of the government and demanding deep political changes in the Southeast Asian nation. Yet those very same words could also send Sirikan to jail.

Thailand's Criminal Code 'Lèse-Majesté' Article 112 imposes jail terms for defaming, insulting, or threatening the monarchy, with sentences of three to 15 years. This law has been present in Thai politics since 1908, though applied sparingly, only when direct verbal or written attacks against members of the royal family.

But after the May 2014 military coup d'état, Thailand experienced the first wave of lèse-majesté arrests, prosecutions, and detentions of at least 127 individuals arrested in a much wider interpretation of the law.

The recent report 'Second Wave: The Return of Lèse-Majesté in Thailand', documents how the Thai government has "used and abused Article 112 of the Criminal Code to target pro-democracy activists and protesters in relation to their online political expression and participation in peaceful pro-democracy demonstrations."

Criticism of any 'royal project'

The investigation shows 124 individuals, including at least eight minors, have been charged with lèse-majesté between November 2020 and August 2021. Nineteen of them served jail time. The new wave of charges is cited as a response to the rising pro-democracy protests across Thailand over the past year.

Juthatip Sirikan explains that the law is now being applied in such a broad way that people are not allowed to question government budgets and expenditure if they have any relationship with the royal family, which stifles criticism of the most basic government decision-making since there are an estimated 5,000 ongoing "royal" projects. "Article 112 of lèse-majesté could be the key (factor) in Thailand's political problems" the young activist argues.

In 2020 the Move Forward opposition party questioned royal spending paid by government departments, including nearly 3 billion baht (89,874,174 USD) from the Defense Ministry and Thai police for royal security, and 7 billion baht budgeted for royal development projects, as well as 38 planes and helicopters for the monarchy. Previously, on June 16, 2018, it was revealed that Thailand's Crown Property Bureau transferred its entire portfolio to the new King Maha Vajiralongkorn.

photo of graffiti of 112 crossed out on sidewalk

Protestors In Bangkok Call For Political Prisoner Release

Peerapon Boonyakiat/SOPA Images via ZUMA Wire

Freedom of speech at stake

"Article 112 shuts down all freedom of speech in this country", says Sirikan. "Even the political parties fear to touch the subject, so it blocks most things. This country cannot move anywhere if we still have this law."

The student activist herself was charged with lèse-majesté in September 2020, after simply citing a list of public documents that refer to royal family expenditure. Sirikan comes from a family that has faced the consequences of decades of political repression. Her grandfather, Tiang Sirikhan was a journalist and politician who openly protested against Thailand's involvement in World War II. He was accused of being a Communist and abducted in 1952. According to Sirikhan's family, he was killed by the state.

The new report was conducted by The International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH), Thai Lawyer for Human Rights (TLHR), and Internet Law Reform Dialogue (iLaw). It accuses Thai authorities of an increasingly broad interpretation of Article 112, to the point of "absurdity," including charges against people for criticizing the government's COVID-19 vaccine management, wearing crop tops, insulting the previous monarch, or quoting a United Nations statement about Article 112.

Juthatip Sirikan speaks in front of democracy monument.

Shift to social media

While in the past the Article was only used against people who spoke about the royals, it's now being used as an alibi for more general political repression — which has also spurred more open campaigning to abolish it. Sirikan recounts recent cases of police charging people for spreading paint near the picture of the king during a protest, or even just for having a picture of the king as phone wallpaper.

The more than a century-old law is now largely playing out online, where much of today's protest takes place in Thailand. Sirikan says people are willing to go further on social media to expose information such as how the king intervenes in politics and the monarchy's accumulation of wealth, information the mainstream media rarely reports on them.

Not surprisingly, however, social media is heavily monitored and the military is involved in Intelligence operations and cyber attacks against human rights defenders and critics of any kind. In October 2020, Twitter took down 926 accounts, linked to the army and the government, which promoted themselves and attacked political opposition, and this June, Google removed two Maps with pictures, names, and addresses, of more than 400 people who were accused of insulting the Thai monarchy. "They are trying to control the internet as well," Sirikan says. "They are trying to censor every content that they find a threat".

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