It’s been decades since Michel Kichka, a Belgian-born Israeli political cartoonist and graphic novelist, began drawing and cartooning his way through life.
Recently awarded the prestigious Francine and Antoine Bernheim Lifetime Achievement Award by the French Judaism Foundation, given each year to an individual whose contributions in the fields of science, literature and art positively impacted the French Jewish community and Jews around the world, he could — one would think — start resting on his laurels.
Nope. Not happening.
“I’m happy about the award, and it was a total surprise to me when I found out about it,” said Kichka from his home in Jerusalem several weeks later. “But it’s not a life achievement in the sense that my achievements are behind me. For creators, recognition is very meaningful. But I still have what to prove.”
Kichka, 65, has been active in various cartooning fields for decades: drawing political cartoons in Hebrew and French, creating graphic novels and comic books, illustrating books written by others, and teaching as a senior lecturer in the Department of Visual Communication at Bezalel Academy of Arts and Design in Jerusalem, where he has mentored a generation of award-winning Israeli cartoonists, including Rutu Modan, Assaf Hannukah and David Polonsky.
“I bounce between those four areas,” said Kichka.
Over the last 20 years, he also regularly participates in conferences and exhibits discussing freedom of expression and the global society.
“We all, all of my colleagues and I, talk about this because people are asking themselves questions,” said Kichka. “Are there limits to expression and what is happening in our society? There’s censorship and fake news and the world has changed and we are asked to express ourselves and write articles and not just draw behind our tables.”
Kichka has delved into this world of politics and society through his inks and sketchpads for decades. He came to Israel from Belgium as a 19-year-old in 1974 to attend a four-year cartooning program at Bezalel after leaving his architectural studies.
It felt like a calling, said Kichka, to come to Israel, a country that was reeling from political changes as the Likud party came to power in 1977 and Israeli society began changing from its Labor-led, historically secular framework.
“I began to feel the changes that Likud brought to society,” said Kichka. “I felt I couldn’t stay and not choose my camp. It was my first time voting. So little by little, I became more aware of the importance having a position, of having a view. You can’t live in Israel and not have an opinion.”
He worked in Hebrew from the start, primarily because he saw it as his obligation, living in this society and with a desire to address his fellow Israelis around him.
It also made sense for Kichka to work in French, and he has contributed to France’s Le Monde and other French publications for years, in an attempt to show lesser-known sides of Israel, he said. His Hebrew works are often translated into English and French, and syndicated around the world.
Awards soon followed. In 2008, the Tel Aviv municipality awarded Kichka the Dosh cartooning award (named for the famed Israeli cartoonist Kariel Gardosh), and in 2011, the French Culture Ministry bestowed on him its Order of Arts and Letters.
“Israel is just known by the conflict seen on plasma and that is very superficial,” he said. “As an Israeli inside the country, I think I can shed some light on our life here and the way we live. I mostly disagree with my governments, so it’s a way to show the world that there’s a voice of the opposition, that there’s the possibility to be a part of the opposition and to be against the government’s politics, and with no risk.”
Part of that need to express his opinions is channeled through his blog, written in Hebrew and French and updated regularly. (In order to read and see Kichka’s cartoons in English, see his Facebook page.)
Kichka is also a member of Cartooning for Peace, an international association for cartoonists who work together in the spirit of tolerance, and heads Israel’s Cartoonist Guild.
He also produces graphic novels, which started out as comic books in the mid-1980s for a variety of French series. A number of years ago, he set out to tell his own story and that of his father, a Holocaust survivor, which became “Second Generation, The Things I Didn’t Tell My Father,” a graphic novel published in 2016 by Europe Comics. It was a difficult story to tell, but Kichka felt he had to.
Kichka is following that first autobiographical graphic novel with a new one, coming in September from Modan, “Falafel with Hot, Spicy Sauce,” which tells the story of his immigration and life in Israel. It’s another autobiographical work told in French (for now), an overview of his 45 years in Israel and features his wife and three sons, who served in combat units against Kichka’s background and political position.
It’s a continuation of Kichka’s need to look, examine, express and share his thoughts and views, tempered, perhaps, by his love and admiration for his adopted country.
“I have positions and opinions and perspectives and it makes me worry probably more than the younger generation because I know what they are missing,” said Kichka. “I know what the dream was that I came for, and have put myself on a mission. I’m a defender of the Zionist project, not of the politics, and that’s two different things.”