Majed Badra should be in the United States right now. Almost a year ago, the political cartoonist from Gaza was invited by the State Department to be part of an International Visitor program for political cartoonists from the Middle East and South Asia.
It was a great opportunity. Badra would get to visit to the United States for the first time. He'd spend time with American cartoonists, find out how they learned their craft, look at the issue of humor and art in activism, and take on the thorny subject of press freedom.
Then on June 10th, with visa approved and plane ticket in hand, Badra got a phone call. It was the US consul's office in Jerusalem saying his visa had been rescinded and the trip was off. The reason, the consul said, was that some of the cartoons on Badra's website were "anti-Semitic and extremely objectionable."
Badra was crushed and says the cartoons were misinterpreted. "I am not anti-Semitic or anti-Jewish." says Badra. "I respect all religions. I just want to express that I am against Israeli occupation and against extremist settlers."
Badra is young, only 26. He's spent his whole life in Gaza and his cartoons reflect that. Most are not anti-semitic. They're about the hard truths of living with Israeli occupation, having his movements and lifestyle restricted by the Israeli army, and suffering through a war with Israel in 2008 and 2009. But several of the cartoons do touch a raw nerve. One shows what appears to be a religious Jew, with fangs, wearing a yarmulka with a Nazi symbol. Another shows former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert in front of an Israeli flag. The star of David has been replaced with a Nazi symbol. And the figure of Olmert sports a Hitler mustache.
Israeli political cartoonist Michel Kichka had this reaction after looking at the offending cartoons. "You have a right as a cartoonist to make mistakes in your cartoons. But I think these are very bad mistakes."
Michel Kishka is an Israeli political cartoonist. Kishka is involved in Cartooning for Peace, an organization founded by the French cartoonist Plantu that recognized the power of cartoons and seeks to use that power responsibly and creatively. Kichka said he has Majed Badra's explanations for the cartoons but he's not sure Badra really gets it. "He has to be very aware of what he did. He has to understand what the Holocaust was and what the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is. And once he understands this, we can talk together."
For his part, Badra says he never meant to criticize the Jewish people, just the Israeli occupation but he now knows that some of his images offended Jews so he doesn't use them anymore. Still, Badra is puzzled about why the State Department rescinded his invitation to the United States when part of the purpose of the trip is to discuss and support freedom of speech and freedom of the press.
" I don't know what freedom they are going to discuss. They prevent me from traveling to the US to participate in this program because I say my opinion and give the world the truth of our life."
Uri Fink is an Israeli cartoonist and comic strip artist who is also involved in Cartooning for Peace and in getting Palestinian and Israeli cartoonists to get to know one another.
He says Badra has the right to draw anti-Semitic cartoons. "Know yourself out! What do I care? I have the right to be offended. I don't see any hordes of Jews running in the streets burning a Palestinian embassy because of these cartoons. These are just bad cartoons. "
Neither Uri Fink nor Michel Kichka were willing to comment on whether Badra's invitation to the US should have been rescinded. But both men believe Badra is young for a cartoonist, that he needs guidance and exposure to the outside world – especially other cartoonists – to really flourish. Michel Kichka says that's it is his own friendships with Palestinians, for example, that inform his cartoons on the Arab-Israeli conflict. "I take them into consideration and I hope that they will understand and react in a positive way to what I'm doing and understand that I do what I do because I also suffer. Not only them. I also suffer because of the situation. "
Majed Badra has taken down the offending cartoons from his website and is hoping he'll get another chance to visit the United States. The State Department says it regrets the "inconvenience experienced by Mr. Badra" and that this incident doesn't prevent Majed Badra from participating in future exchange programs.