The Renowned Israeli Political Cartoonist Who Was Almost Recruited by the Mossad

Ranan Lurie, 85, has worked at the world’s top papers, drawn influential caricatures of hundreds of leaders and had military exploits worthy of a superhero

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Ranan Lurie.
Ranan Lurie in his New York home.Credit: Natan Dvir
Ofer Aderet
Ofer Aderet

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.

Lurie's 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 the center of the first cartoon drawn by Lurie, called “the most influential political cartoonist in the world” by Clare Boothe Luce, is a political figure who was in the headlines at the time. The drawing, which mocks British Foreign Secretary Ernest Bevin, who supported restricting Jewish immigration to Palestine after World War II, is one that Lurie has kept to this day. Bevin looks as though he has tumbled down some stairs. Each of the stairs represents a different country over which Britain had lost control – from India and Pakistan to the Land of Israel.

He sent the drawing to the Yedioth Ahronoth daily, which published it immediately after the British departed a short time later, and even paid Lurie his first fee in the profession that was in time to make him a multimillionaire.

“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 new book, self-published in English and entitled “The Maestro Who Has 3,000,000 Followers.”

Ehud Barak, Yasser Arafat, and Benjamin Netanyahu. Credit: Ranan Lurie

Several months later, as a cadet in the second air force pilots course, Lurie drew a cartoon of a different sort. As part of the course, Lurie, the youngest of the students, participated in missions in which transport planes refitted as bombers attacked the Gaza Strip and Egyptian military positions in the south. Years later, the legendary editor of The Air Force Journal, Moshe Hadar, described Lurie’s second cartoon: “A tow-headed youngster wearing overalls, black leather boots and a pilot’s cap and armed with a commando knife leaned over a five-kilogram gray steel bomb. His left-hand caressed the bomb and his right slipped easily over the bomb’s surface and wrote on it: ‘From the producer to the consumer.’”

Three quarters of an hour later this same cartoon was released into the air with a piercing whistle when Luria, in his role as “hurler” (the crew member on the aircraft who dropped the bombs on missions), tossed the bomb, with his drawing on it, with his own hands at armored vehicles moving in Gaza from an altitude of 8,000 feet.

Ranan Lurie in his New York home. Credit: Natan Dvir

This is how nearly every chapter in Lurie’s life appears: surprising, daring, pathbreaking, irreverent, extraordinary and full of self-confidence. That said, the messages of his cartoons vary from chapter to chapter.

'Had I been active, professionally, in the days when Hitler was in power, I would have used my platform to show what was really hiding inside that monster and the extent to which he himself did not understand how sick he was'

Ranan Lurie. 'The American politicians are very sensitive about their images and therefore very touchy.'Credit: Nathan Dvir

The interview with him takes place in his room at the Tel Aviv Hilton Hotel, where he has been a guest during his visits to Israel over the course of more than 50 years, since he immigrated to the United States. This time, he has come accompanied by a South Korean photographer to check out locations for his flagship project, “United Painting” – a gigantic transcontinental work of art though which he aims to transmit messages of reconciliation and peace.

In the new book, Lurie relates how he had the privilege of meeting face to face with – and drawing cartoons of – leaders and high-ranking individuals around the world. The list of Israelis includes former prime ministers David Ben-Gurion, Yitzhak Rabin and Levi Eshkol. The international list is exceedingly long. Starring on it are many of the people who garnered 15 minutes or more of fame in the international arena, including presidents, prime ministers, cabinet ministers, dictators and terrorists. He drew Yasser Arafat eating the dove of peace and Barack Obama as a weak and hesitant leader.

Are there some leaders you liked to draw more than others?

“I love the ones who are so clear that they save me time. The ones whose cartoon I can finish and then go off to a matinee. The crafty leaders, who steal my time, I like less but by and large, I love drawing all of them. It’s like a crossword puzzle – there are easier ones and more difficult ones to figure out.”

Are there leaders who were hurt by your cartoons and were angry at you?

“The American politicians, who are always at their campaign headquarters, are very sensitive about their images and therefore very touchy.”

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 – one can best understand the family background from which he came by perusing the Guinness Book of Records. Lurie holds a record as a member of the most ancient family documented in history – the one with the longest family tree in the world. His family, which claims direct descent from King David, no less, managed to document its roots back to the 10th century, B.C.E. Among the names on the tree’s many branches are the Prophet Isaiah, Rashi, Felix Mendelssohn, Sigmund Freud and Yehudi Menuhin.

Menachem Begin, David Ben-Gurion, and George H. W. Bush.Credit: Ranan Lurie

Part of the family was based in White Russia beginning in the 15th century, with more recent members of it referred to as “the Rothschilds of the East.” One of them, Joseph Yona Lurie, Ranan’s great-great-great-grandfather, was a financial advisor to Czar Alexander I and later was close to Napoleon Bonaparte. Tangible evidence of this is preserved to this day at the Haifa Museum of Art in the form of “Napoleon’s Holy Ark Curtain Cover” – a (repurposed) velvet cloak with silver embellishments and pure gold buttons that the Lurie family received as a gift from the emperor of the French.

Lurie holds a record as a member of the most ancient family documented in history. Among his ancestors are the Prophet Isaiah, Rashi, Felix Mendelssohn, Sigmund Freud and Yehudi Menuhin

The family moved to Jerusalem in 1815, which made Ranan a sixth-generation citizen of the city. His father Yosef Lurie was, according to family tradition, the first Jewish baby born outside the Old City in 1906 – in the first house built by Jews outside the city walls, in the Yemin Moshe neighborhood. Yosef eventually became an accountant; his wife Shoshana, Ranan’s mother, who was born in Be’er Tuvia, was the office manager for Pinhas Rutenberg, the founder of what is now the Israel Electric Corporation.

In 1932, Yosef and Shoshana Lurie traveled from their home in Tel Aviv to Egypt for the birth of their first child, Ranan, 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.

Lurie enlisted in the Irgun when he was a student at the Herzliya Gymnasium and all of 14 years old. He lied about his age, claiming to be 16.

“I didn’t enlist in Etzel out of hysterical ideology. I was impressed by the drama of Etzel. This served my ‘story urge’ and enabled me to make up for my young age,” says Lurie.

In June of 1948, after he recovered from his battle wound, Luria integrated into the Etzel battalion that had been established within the Givati Brigade of the newly organized Israel Defense Forces. Battalion 5 was commanded by Eitan Livni, father of Zionist Union lawmarker Tzipi Livni. When Livni asked him his age, Lurie replied: “Sir, do you want to know how old I am, or how old I am according to Etzel?” Livni made do with the fabricated age and allowed the lad to serve under him despite the fact that his actual age was by then only 16 and one month.

In one of the photos in his private album, Ranan is seen as a machine gunner in the War of Independence. “I took part in battles. We stopped the Egyptians,” he says. Later, he was offered the opportunity to take the tests for the pilots course. He passed and began the prestigious training program, but was bumped from the course after 150 flight hours in Piper and Stearman aircraft.

The U.S. takes off on credit cards, LIFE, 1970.Credit: Ranan Lurie

About this chapter, too, he has an interesting story. The reason for his dismissal was a flight he made at very low altitude over the Sharon Hotel in Herzliya. “They court-martialed me, so I would serve as an example. But they had no way of knowing exactly at what altitude I had flown so they called in the lifeguard from the beach, who testified that he needed to dive into the water from a paddleboard at the sight of the approaching airplane,” he recalls. This court martial ended Lurie’s military career, but brought him back into the business of cartooning.

Cheeky irreverence

His first home as a caricaturist was a full-time job at the Air Force Journal. “It all started from there. Who knows where I might have ended up had it not been for the Air Force Journal,” he says. Selected examples of his work from that period can be seen in his first book, “Among the Suns,” which was published in 1955 by the Ministry of Defense publishing house. Lurie, who was intimately familiar with air force life, succeeded in translating it into many cartoons that brought smiles to the faces of some pilots and air force personnel – and angered others, who flooded the editorial office with letters of complaint.

“A lot of people hate his drawings because they do not like to see criticism and look at themselves in their nakedness,” wrote the journal’s late editor, Moshe Hadar. “Ranan makes them do that every time a cartoon of his published. The cheeky irreverence that is deeply rooted in his personality also determines his path to a large extent.”

Ephraim Kishon, who began writing his humoristic-satirical column “Had Gadya” for the daily newspaper Ma’ariv three years earlier (he kept it up for 30 years), wrote the introduction to Lurie’s first book. Kishon, who was still a new immigrant at the time, was smitten by the charms of the young sabra officer who started drawing funny and distorted airplanes after he was prevented from flying them. In his introduction, he called Lurie “the most up-to-date of Israeli cartoonists.”

Following studies in painting and drawing under the artists Miron Sima, Mordecai Ardon, Joseph Zaritsky and Reuven Rubin, Lurie began to publish cartoons as well as reportage in Bamahane, the then-weekly magazine of the IDF. One of his proudest journalistic achievements came in 1954, when he was attached to a fleet of Israel Navy frigates visiting Venice. Posing as an Australian reporter, he boarded an important Egyptian ship that was anchored there by chance. He spent two hours on board, leaving with a photograph of the ship's officers. More to the point, perhaps, he relates that “I had photographed the newest radar, which the Russians had installed in the bridge of the ship.”

Lurie's Who's Who In The World.Credit: Ranan Lurie

Luria still enjoys looking back on that coup. “I pretended to be an Australian because my mother had grown up in Australia. It was an adventure. At a certain stage, I put my camera into a plastic bag, planning to dive into the sea and swim to shore if they caught me,” he said.

When he returned to Israel with the Egyptian intelligence, there was a great deal of interest, he says, “from the Mossad, from the IDF, from the British and from the Americans. They all came with contracts and wanted to recruit me,” he relates with great self-satisfaction. “The photos I brought with me from the Egyptian ships were a sensation.”

A few months later he became the first recipient of what later became the Sokolow Prize, the Israeli journalism award.

Lurie dwelled at length on the idea of joining the ranks of an intelligence agency in his 2004 book “The Cartoonist’s Story.” That book, which he describes as a novella, features a teenager named Arik Lurie, an Israeli cartoonist, who is recruited by the Mossad. There he learns the art of political cartooning, which he must use to get close to world leaders and spy on them. The CIA then demands that the Mossad share the intelligence it received from its young agent.

There are many points of convergence between the lives of Arik Lurie and his creator, Ranan Lurie. Ranan prefers to remain vague about whether he ever cooperated with any intelligence organization or took part in any clandestine or semi-clandestine activities, although he has hinted at this in print several times. In any case, his resume lists commando training and parachuting with units of the French Foreign Legion in the Pyrenees, the Paratroop Regiment of the 16th Airborne Division of the British infantry and the Screaming Eagles 101st Airborne Division of the U.S. infantry in Kentucky. In Britain, he reports, he also trained in how to escape from a sinking submarine.

Bibi well-done

Lurie's Who's Who Of September 11.Credit: Ranan Lurie

In 1956, Lurie joined Yedioth Ahronoth 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.

The good relationship that Lurie developed with Israeli Prime Minister Levi Eshkol, one of the local leaders he drew, is evident in another chapter in his extraordinary biography. In 1967, he went to Canada to show some of his works at the Expo 67 world’s fair in Montreal. After the official opening of his exhibition, Lurie returned to his accommodation to find a telegram from his commander in the army reserves, Ze’ev Shaham. “Come to my son’s bar mitzvah,” wrote the man he knew as Zonik.

“My wife didn’t understand what was happening there,” reminisces Lurie, “because the son was already 17.”

In fact, that was his call-up signal for the Six-Day War. When he landed in Israel, a jeep with a driver awaited him 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.

Something happened in the small town of Anabta that remains etched in Lurie’s heart and mind to this day. 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 relates.

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 to this day he owns 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”).

Praise for Lurie’s work from all over the world was not long in coming. “He is like a van Gogh with a sense of humor,” said Punch magazine in London. “He is the dean of political cartoonists,” said NBC. Time magazine called him “a maestro ... a journalist of Olympian stature.” Italy’s La Stampa dubbed him “the king of American political cartoonists.”

A cartoon of President Barak Obama by Ranan Lurie.Credit: Ranan Lurie / "The Maestro Who Has 3,000,000 Followers"

Have you discovered the formula for a successful cartoon?

“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.”

Would you say that every person everywhere is able enjoy every cartoon if he understands its context? Or is it culture-dependent?

“There are people who simply don’t understand humor. Nothing will help. It’s usually the white Anglo-Saxon Protestant types. The Germans, however, get things better than the WASPs, and when they understand the humor, they are very pleased. And there are the sharp American Jews, who say, ‘This isn't bad.’”

Sometimes even the funniest cartoons are unable to bridge gaps and remove barriers. Lurie discovered this the hard way two decades ago, when Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak invited him to work in his country. Lurie happily accepted the invitation. “He told me he was sick and tired of the anti-American cartoons and the ones that showed hatred for Judaism and especially for Israel,” he says.

Lurie had two projects underway at the time. One was the Arabic edition of a newsweekly he had recently begun to edit and publish, which showed current, historical and economic events through cartoons. The other was the publication of his cartoons in the established Egyptian newspaper Al-Ahram. From the perspective of Israeli-Egyptian relations, this was a breakthrough. A Jewish artist, a former Israeli with a history as a fighter in Israel’s wars, started publishing cartoons in a newspaper that was considered the mouthpiece of the Egyptian regime.

One of the cartoons Lurie published there showed Mubarak next to American President Bill Clinton eyeing a dish from which Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s feet were peeping. “How do you want him?” wonders Clinton. “Well-done, please,” says Mubarak.

At the time the Arab League was discussing punitive measures for Israel as retaliation for its decision to build the settlement of Har Homa beyond the Green Line near Jerusalem.

Within a few weeks, a popular local weekly published a biting article that claimed “to reveal the whole truth” about Lurie. Among other things, it claimed that Lurie had killed Egyptian prisoners of war during his army service – an accusation that Lurie has sweepingly denied.

Lurie had to stop publishing cartoons in Egypt. Later, there was an anti-Semitic cartoon depicting Lurie in IDF uniform, parachuting onto a pyramid that he was going to destroy.

“Imagine that one morning the competing cartoonists, the Egyptians, wake up and see a cartoon by a Jewish Israeli on the front page of Al-Ahram,” says Lurie today, in an attempt to explain the anger he stirred in Egypt. “Mubarak apologized to me personally on the phone and said that he was afraid of a revolution, because ‘this is the Middle East.’”

In Israel, too, Lurie was at the center of a momentary scandal in the 1980s, when he was sent by the German newspaper Die Welt to interview Prime Minister Menachem Begin. Lurie says that during the course of the visit, the government secretary, Aryeh Naor, proposed giving him “secret information” in exchange for a promise that Lurie would help him get work in the German media.

The “information” turned out to be the transcript of a conversation that supposedly took place between U.S. President Jimmy Carter and his German counterpart, Chancellor Helmut Schmidt, in which Carter complained about American Jews in an ugly way. Lurie suspected that the transcript was a fake and complained about Naor to then-Attorney General Yitzhak Zamir. Naor, the husband of current Supreme Court President Miriam Naor, resigned from his position and was convicted of unbecoming behavior by the civil service disciplinary court.

Is there anyone you did'nt have the opportunity to meet who you would have liked to draw?

“Had I been active professionally in the days when Hitler was in power, I would have used my platform to show what was really hiding inside that monster and the extent to which he himself did not understand how sick he was.”

Does the political cartoon still have a role today’s world, when leaders are photographed from every possible angle?

“At the end of one of my lectures, at Stanford, a student raised her hand and said that a cartoon can never depict a person the way an excellent camera can photograph him. I told her that she was mistaken. Even if it is the most sophisticated camera in the world, it will never be able to capture the person more accurately than the artist or the cartoonist who knows how to point out his true character.”

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