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What the row over caricatures of Yasser Arafat tells us about Palestinian politics

Anything other than uncritical veneration of their political leaders is regarded with suspicion—or worse.

Caricatures of the late Palestinian Liberation Organization leader Yasser Arafat in the new Yasser Arafat Museum in Ramallah, January 2022. Source: Twitter/Khaled Abu Toameh.
Caricatures of the late Palestinian Liberation Organization leader Yasser Arafat in the new Yasser Arafat Museum in Ramallah, January 2022. Source: Twitter/Khaled Abu Toameh.
Ben Cohen
Ben Cohen
Ben Cohen writes a weekly column for JNS on Jewish affairs and Middle Eastern politics. His writings have been published in the New York Post, The Wall Street Journal, Commentary, Haaretz and many other publications.

A perennial discussion in the cauldron that is Middle Eastern politics concerns the degree to which a sovereign Palestinian state, should one ever be created, would be democratic.

The democratic character of any state is determined in the main by three elements. First, the frequency and transparency of elections; second, limits on the power of elected officials and defined boundaries between the executive, the legislature and the judiciary; and third, the extent to which basic civil rights like freedom of speech and freedom of assembly are respected.

An independent Palestine would probably host elections on a regular basis, although the integrity of these would always be a subject for debate, as would the ever-present prospect of armed conflict between rival Palestinian factions. As far as an honest, accountable government that subordinates itself to the rule of law is concerned, there is very little evidence to suggest that a future State of Palestine would be administered in this way.

To the contrary, throughout the existence of the Palestinian Authority—now in its 28th year—there has been a constant stream of news stories regarding corruption, political violence and violations of core civil rights by Palestinians against other Palestinians. The latest example occurred last week when the Yasser Arafat Museum in the West Bank city of Ramallah removed artwork depicting the late PLO leader that loyalists deemed “offensive.” The principle underlying this act of censorship is one that Arafat himself would have appreciated; a client of the Soviet Union who spent much of his time meeting with dictators in the Communist bloc and in the Arab world, Arafat was an admirer of those systems of government where the state is the ultimate regulator of what the people living under its jurisdiction see, hear and read.

In totalitarian states, artistic depictions of leaders are by definition sycophantic. From the Soviet Union’s Joseph Stalin to North Korea’s Kim Jong-un, from “Chairman Mao” of China to Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein, the official portraits of those who wield near-unlimited power invariably show them as steely-jawed and commanding the love of their people; as strong and paternal; and as courageously unwavering in their convictions. In Arafat’s case, his 1974 address to the U.N. General Assembly, when he wore his pistol bolted to his waist, or any of the numerous occasions when he flashed a victory sign at photographers would be appropriate subject matter for this style of art.

Less so was the case with the portraits of Arafat chosen for display at the museum in Ramallah. Photographs of some of them were shared on Twitter by the Palestinian journalist Khaled Abu Toameh, and the selection on display might be described as underwhelming. There is a drawing of Arafat with an olive branch clenched between his teeth, another showing him adjacent to the Al-Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem, and another of Arafat wearing a carefree grin beneath his keffiyeh. One might conclude that there is some gentle mockery in these caricatures, though nothing that could be considered insulting, and certainly nothing that could be construed as a slur on either Arafat’s Arab nationality or his Muslim faith—a marked divergence from the anti-Semitic tropes and Nazi imagery that routinely accompanies Arab and even some Western caricatures of Israel’s elected leaders.

But when the Ramallah exhibition, unimaginatively titled “Palestine and Yasser Arafat,” opened to the public last Sunday, not all the works met the loyalty standard such art demands. The exhibition’s purpose—“solidarity with Palestine and the roots of Yasser Arafat’s memory in the international community”—didn’t preclude less conventional artistic representations, but that made no difference. A row duly broke out, manifesting on ideological and party lines, and reflecting the fractured personal relations between some Palestinian leaders.

The exhibition lacked “honesty in representing Yasser Arafat,” said Nasser al-Kidwa, a veteran Palestinian diplomat and former head of the Yasser Arafat Foundation before he was sacked last year following a bitter disagreement with the Fatah movement. On this occasion, though, Fatah agreed with al-Kidwa’s assessment. “The insult to Yasser Arafat is an insult to all the Palestinian people,” it declared, before delivering a threat: “We therefore call upon the Yasser Arafat Foundation to remove all the insulting works and apologize, or we will have to remove them ourselves.”

Mohammad Sabaanah, a Palestinian cartoonist, told The New Arab media outlet last week that he had turned down an invitation to participate in the Arafat exhibition because he didn’t trust the organizers. “When I found out that some prominent artists were not invited to participate, I doubted the criteria behind the exhibition, and I withdrew from it,” he said. Sabaanah then explained that there was a “clear confusion” between political cartoons and caricature portraits, which are “basically a satirical representation of a personality.” It was those latter representations of Arafat that were judged unacceptable, according to Sabaanah.

In its own statement, the Yasser Arafat Foundation, which staged the exhibition, forlornly insisted that the offending artworks did not “insult Yasser Arafat’s personality or symbolism.” However, it continued, “all works exhibited have been removed due to lack of acceptance by the Palestinian public.” Unquestionably, what transpired in Ramallah was a victory for censorship.

It is also another strong reminder of the absence of a democratic culture in Palestinian politics. Even now, at a time when most Western societies are bitterly polarized and democracy is dismissed as overrated, our media outlets do not shy away from lurid cartoons of Donald Trump, Joe Biden, Nancy Pelosi, Anthony Fauci or any of the other personalities that have dominated recent news headlines. Western publics do not expect their leaders to be treated with respect all the time, nor do they demand limits on what can be said about them or how they are depicted. But among the Palestinians, anything other than uncritical veneration of their political leaders is regarded with suspicion. Those Palestinian artists who forget to censor themselves can expect a visit from Fatah’s enforcers in the not-too-distant future.

Ben Cohen is a New York City-based journalist and author who writes a weekly column on Jewish and international affairs for JNS.

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