CRNI Executive Director Terry Anderson interview with Palestinian cartoonist Mohammad Saba’aneh, currently one of our Regional Representatives with a responsibility for the Middle East.
Mohammad describes the difficulties he has encountered as a cartoonist seeking to speak truth to power in Gaza leading to jail time in Israel, accusations of antisemitism, calls for his dismissal by the PNA and threats from Hamas.
This interview was conducted in 2020, in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic; at that time CRNI expressed deep concerns about the future of cartooning. This forms part of a series of testimonies intended to help illustrate CRNI’s work in support of threatened cartoonists.
Mohammad, we first met in 2015 when CRNI was strategizing with global cartoonists following the Charlie Hebdo attack. Can you tell us what happened after you published a cartoon calling for peace in the immediate aftermath?
In 2015, after the Charlie Hebdo attack I had suggested to some Palestinian cartoonists to use the medium as a tool to explain the idea of religion, instead of using violence. I published several cartoons about Islam and called all cartoonists to respond, but use the same tool that had been used to criticize Islam and the prophet Mohammad. One of my cartoons about the prophet Mohammad was considered by certain religious people to be an offensive artwork and they attacked me and launched a big campaign, asking the Palestinian government to arrest me. President Mahmoud Abbas ordered my interrogation. I called [CRNI founder] Dr. Robert Russell, asking CRNI to help and they launched a big media campaign around the world. The campaign scared the authorities in Palestine since what they have done was against freedom of expression and that’s why Abbas stopped the interrogation order. It was very helpful.
You’ve been harassed by authorities on both sides but it’s safe to say that as a Palestinian activist you’re more often troubled by Israel. What is the most important aspect of your time as a prisoner there?
There’s no comparison. Yes, the Palestinian president called for my arrest and interrogation and I have had several problems with politicians in Palestine; I was suspended from my places of work more than one time because of my cartoons. But the Israeli authorities continually attack me. They detained me for five months in very bad conditions. I am always stopped and questioned when I travel through the border. In 2018 Israeli border forces confiscated my artwork on the return journey from a Belgian exhibition, just because my artwork was about Palestinian history. Three years ago the Israeli army interrogated me for more than three hours over the content of my sketchbook. Very recently my exhibition was stolen from the International Criminal Court at The Hague. I believe the Israeli delegation were behind that but ICC is doing an investigation to find out. To be honest with you, I never feel safe because of them.
Time and again cartoonists divide over the issue of antisemitism. There have been many high profile cases of late where cartoonists have been accused of over-stepping while satirising Netanyahu and his government. Does freedom of expression have limits?
In my opinion Israel uses antisemitism as a tool to prevent any criticism. I have Jewish ancestry myself, so I reject the suggestion that I am antisemitic. I have Jewish friends around the world and I have no problem with Jews. Israel and pro-Israelis use it as a red line and most of the government support that. It is strange that you can criticize any religion, government, president around the world but you cannot criticize Israel. And no-one seems to mentions that what’s going on is against freedom of expression. I think all the cartoonists around the world should stand against this violation against freedom of speech. In the last two years at least ten high-profile cartoonists from around the world were accused of antisemitism, one of them from Israel himself, because they criticized the Israeli government. All the organizations that work on freedom of expression should stand against that, or we will be attacked more and more. Cartoonists will lose their jobs.
How has CRNI supported you over the years?
CRNI is my shelter. They stood with me while I was in prison in 2013 and when I was attacked by the Islamist movements and when I was suspended through pressure from the PLO. And I am sure they will keep supporting me. But they need more resources and mechanisms to support cartoonists. Maybe they should establish an online platform to sell cartoons and products, the funds to be used to help cartoonists around the world.
You have an impressive dedication to education and the young people of Palestine. What is the importance of cartooning in a classroom setting?
I did several workshops to teach cartooning in Gaza and one of them was with CRNI support. The kids produced an exhibition about freedom of speech and it was great. I used cartoons as a methodology to encourage critical thinking. I do believe that cartoons are a very flexible tool to be used with kids. Also a means to promote freedom of speech, that’s why I did as many workshops as I could. In 2012 I did one for some deaf students to give them visual language since they cannot speak and that was great.
As we speak you are studying in the UK. Do you think freedom of expression is faring well in that country?
All the countries around the world claim that they respect freedom of expression, except when you criticize Israel. In the UK it is the same. Several cartoonists have had problems because they criticized Israel. It is strange, any cartoonist can criticize whatever he needs to criticize but this opportunity stops short of Israel. We should ask Israel to define the meaning of antisemitism in order to avoid it to their satisfaction. [laughs] Would the cartoonists accept that challenge? Those who faced other taboos break that taboo, I wonder? The problem not just in the UK, it’s around the world.