One of the most prominent and politically influential Israeli cartoonists, Ranan Lurie, passed away on Wednesday in the U.S. at the age of 90.
At the height of his career Lurie's cartoons reached hundreds of millions of people, publishing cartoons of hundreds of political leaders in thousands of newspapers and magazines across the globe. "A camera can never, even if it is the most sophisticated, accurately identify a person more than the painter or cartoonist ever could perceive, for they know how to reveal their true character," he said in an interview with Haaretz in 2017.
Among his cartoons are Israeli prime ministers Ben-Gurion, Rabin, and Eshkol, as well as hundreds of high-ranking leaders and personalities, dictators and terrorists from around the world.
Lurie's parents, Yosef and Shoshana Lurie, traveled from their Tel Aviv home in 1932 to Egypt to give birth to Ranan, their first child, in the home of his wealthy grandfather, who worked in Egypt as the chief agent for the Carmel Mizrahi wine company. They returned to Tel Aviv ten days later. Years later Ranan came back to Egypt – first as a fighter in Israel’s wars, subsequently as a journalist who had the privilege of conducting an extraordinary interview with President Anwar Sadat in 1977 and finally as a cartoonist who was invited by President Hosni Mubarak to contribute to Egyptian newspapers.
Ranan Lurie drew his first cartoon nearly 70 years ago, during Israel’s War of Independence. At the time he was a 16-year-old fighting in the ranks of the Etzel, the pre-state underground militia led by Menachem Begin, also known as the Irgun. In April 1948, in advance of the offensive on Jaffa, he set out with his commanders “Dov” and “Ze’ev” to reconnoiter in the sector they were about to attack.
A grenade that was lobbed at them wounded Lurie in the arm, and he was sent to Hadassah Hospital in Tel Aviv. It took him several weeks to recover, and he resorted to pencil and paper and to pass the time. Thus was born the first of the more than 12,000 cartoons he would draw over the next seven decades.
“By chance, I had a pencil and some paper in the hospital. So I drew. By the same token, if I had had a violin there, I might have been a great violinist today,” he says, recollecting this cartoon in a special interview on the occasion of his 85th birthday and the publication of his book, self-published in English and entitled “The Maestro Who Has 3,000,000 Followers.”
If the political cartoonist Lurie is a record-breaker – his work has been crowned as the most widely distributed in the world after being published in 1,100 newspapers in 103 countries and in 104 million copies. In 1956, Lurie joined Yedioth Ahronoth newspaper as its political cartoonist, a position he held for 11 years. Along with dealing with real-life figures, he created and nurtured the character of Beinstock, a soldier who later changes his name to Bentziel. Bentziel was an Israeli anti-hero in the spirit of Srulik, as drawn by cartoonist Dosh (Kariel Gardosh) in Maariv, or Dudu Geva's character Yosef.
From Yedioth, it was only a hop, skip and jump to the big time for Lurie. This began in 1958 with a cartoon in Life magazine. Later, his work would also appear in The New York Times, Le Figaro, Paris Match, The Sunday Times, Germany's Die Welt and Asahi Shimbun in Japan.
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He was called to Israel for the Six-Day war, and after landing in Israel, a jeep with a driver awaited and took him to join his buddies in the 5th Division. Lurie was given command of a company assigned to defend the narrow “bottleneck” of the country – between Netanya and Tul Karm, which was then Jordanian territory. Within a short time the brigade occupied the latter (now in the West Bank), as well as Qalqilyah and eastern Samaria.
During his interview with Haaretz, he recalled something that happened in the small town of Anabta during the war that was forever etched in Lurie’s heart and mind. Appointed as its military governor, Lurie met with the mayor for the signing of an instrument of surrender.
“We sat with him. He was shaking, poor man. I told him that nothing bad was going to happen to him if he did what I said,” Lurie recalls. However, at the end of their meeting, Lurie suddenly saw dozens of Israeli buses waiting. When he asked his commander what was going on, he was told that he had to load the residents of Anabta onto them and send them off.
“I asked where to, and they told me that the drivers knew. I asked the drivers and they told me that the order they had received was to drop these people off on the other side of the Jordan River.”
When he looked around, Lurie, the one-time Irgun fighter, saw the Arab families with their small children, waiting to find out their fate. He thought of his own young children waiting for him at home. “I went to the deputy battalion commander and I said to him: ‘Not where I’m in charge.’ I spoke from the depths of my soul. I simply couldn’t,” he related.
When his commander accused him of refusing an order, Lurie got angry. “How can you not be ashamed of yourself? This isn’t what I’m fighting for.” “A little while earlier, I had given a lecture to my 500 soldiers," Lurie says. “I told them that they were not to lay a finger on an old man, a woman or a child. One of them asked me what to do if a boy of 12 was holding a rifle. I said to him that even if we capture cannibals, we will not start eating human beings just because that’s what they do.”
Thus the residents of Anabta were saved from deportation. And here Eshkol enters the picture. Lurie, who knew him well in his capacity as a cartoonist and journalist, had the premier’s direct phone number. “I called. I drove to Jerusalem. I went to Eshkol. I told him. That’s how the issue was resolved,” he relates tersely.
It was following the war that Lurie’s career took off internationally. He moved to the United States where he owned two homes: a duplex apartment in Manhattan and a house in Connecticut.
At first, Lurie was the chief political cartoonist for Life magazine and The Wall Street Journal, and later he regularly published cartoons in The New York Times and then in Newsweek, where he was given a weekly page called “Lurie’s Opinion.” He made his big money, he says, from syndication – which increased the distribution of his cartoons, propelling him into the Guinness Book of Records. At the peak of his career he established an independent syndication company called Cartoons International, which was managed by his wife Tamar. The couple has two sons and two daughters. One of their sons is film and television director Rod Lurie (“The Contender,” “Straw Dogs”).
“A cartoon is like a truck which picks up the reader and presents him with a message. It does this by various means – like the drawing and the humor, which are its wheels. The most primitive basis of every caricature is its ability to present something ridiculous that is calling for something else. Hence, the success of a cartoon is measured by whether as many readers as possible can understand what is happening in it.”