Stamp of Disapproval

Philatelist Lawrence Fisher's award-winning collection documents anti-Israel sentiment in the Arab world through the decades.

The stamp that sparked a 25-year passion was stuck to a letter lying on the table in a house in Southern Lebanon. It was 1982 and Lawrence Fisher, a new recruit in the IDF, was there to bring medical supplies to Israeli troops stationed close by at the start of the Lebanon War.

"I was shocked to see there were stamps like that," recalled Fisher in his Ra'anana home recently, sitting on the sofa with a large portion of one of Israel's most remarkable stamp collections on his lap. The stamp, which depicts a dagger dripping with blood plunged into the heart of Israel, was issued in Egypt in 1965 in commemoration of the Deir Yassin massacre of 1948.

When Fisher returned home, having left the letter on the table, he searched through his stamp catalogues for more information about the design. He had already developed an interest in stamps, inherited from his father, who collected stamps with sporting themes, but "nothing serious."

Fisher learned that similar stamps had been issued by other countries, including Syria and Yemen. He began to look into stamps across the Arab world, and found there were more than a few carrying anti-Israel messages.

The next stamp to pique his interest was a Jordanian stamp issued in 1964 in commemoration of the first Arab summit conference which established the PLO. It shows a map of the Middle East where Israel's territory is depicted as part of Jordan. Fisher was hooked. "I saw a theme - to push the Jews into the sea," he says. But a not insignificant problem emerged for a collector with an interest in the stamps of enemy countries: how to get hold of them.

"There was no Internet and almost no peace agreements then," says Fisher, who immigrated to Israel from Zimbabwe at the age of 17. Fortunately, he continues, thanks to his friends around the world - and stamp dealers in the United States - Fisher was able to build his collection of stamps and postal history relating to the Arab-Israel conflict.

According to Fisher, stamp collecting is a hobby which provides much room for individual innovation. "Just collecting stamps and putting them in an album doesn't do it for me," he says. "I like to try and create a story out of the stamps and postal covers, everything that answers the theme. It's an amazing way of telling history."

Like many other serious philatelists, Fisher decided to create his own exhibit. His first, entitled, "The Arab-Israeli Conflict," was displayed in Be'er Sheva in 1990. His finest work to date, recently exhibited in Belgium, is entitled "From the Holocaust to Statehood and the Struggle for Survival." It won two prestigious vermeil awards.

Defining the extent of the theme can be tricky, Fisher admits. "When did the [Arab-Israel] conflict start? In 1948 with the establishment of the state? In 1882 with the first aliyah? With the birth of Mohammed?" he asks. Fisher now lectures in both English and Hebrew on the subject and the years seem to have done little to dull his enthusiasm. "Now take a look at this," he says, pointing to one of his most valuable items: a letter that survived the 1970 bombing of a Swissair flight from Zurich to Tel Aviv that killed all 47 passengers. "Very few pieces of mail were salvaged," he says, explaining that he swapped it with another collector for a rare letter that had survived an air crash. "It's pretty tattered," he says, adding that his mother, who lives with him, sometimes refers to his collection as "those tatty covers." He estimates the piece's worth at $300 to $400.

Fisher flicks through his meticulously annotated albums to highlight an Iraqi stamp issued in 1983 commemorating the "Aftermath of the Zionist Racist Aggression on Sabra and Shattela," depicting blood dripping from the Star of David and a fist with blood coming out of the ground.

A more recent addition to his collection portrays the well-known image of Mohammed al-Durra, the 12-year-old Palestinian boy shot dead in Gaza at the start of the second intifada in October 2000, crouching in fear with his father. In the background sits Jerusalem's Dome of the Rock mosque and two white doves circling above, holding a ribbon in the colors of the Palestinian flag. Similar versions of the stamp, which is Iraqi, were issued across the Arab world. Also in Fisher's collection are letters sent by Arab POWs in Israel, from which the red star of David has been removed, as Arab states refused to accept mail showing the symbol.

Fisher displays letters franked with slogans, such as "Remember the million Palestinian refugees evicted from their homes on May 15, 1948" on a Sudanese letter sent to New York in 1960.

His Holocaust collection includes proofs of stamps from inside the Lodz ghetto in 1944 and a letter sent to Shanghai with a request for food parcels to be sent to individuals in the Warsaw ghetto in 1941. There are stamps of Hitler from Nazi Germany and a Czechoslovakian stamp of Theresienstadt looking remarkably serene in 1945. The latter stamp has been used. "I'm still on the lookout for a new one, but it'll cost $200 to $300," he says, adding that most of the stamps in his collection are either in mint condition or attached to their original letters.

Fisher describes the experience of putting together an exhibit as "exhilarating." Building his collection, he says, has brought him great enjoyment and enabled him to meet some interesting people. "It's pushed me to use my intellect and I've learnt a lot of history along the way. For example, when I started I didn't know what happened at Deir Yassin." Israeli stamps, he declares, have never interested him much: "I prefer to put my limited resources into other things."

Fisher, who is "scared" to calculate how much he has spent on his hobby over the years, reveals that some of his purchases have turned a tidy profit: He once bought two stamps from the United Arab Emirates commemorating a Gulf swimming competition for three dollars. The stamp, it turns out, was never issued and he later sold one for $1,500. "It's all a question of supply and demand," he says. Over the last couple of years, Fisher has sold some of his more valuable items, such as mail sent to Israel during the early years of the state that accidentally ended up in Arab countries and was returned to its senders after being opened and resealed. "I have to pay the rent," he explains.

Toward the end of the interview, Fisher confesses that a new hobby has at times eclipsed his stamp collecting in the last few years: fitness training. Though he mainly earns a living as an IT manager, Fisher now also works as a private trainer, specializing in older clients. "A lot of trainers don't know how to handle people with problems," he says.

Fisher has even tinkered with selling his whole collection; his latest exhibit alone is estimated at $20,000. But in the meantime, it remains firmly in his possession and continues to bring him satisfaction. "Every time I look at it I feel proud," he says.