The U.S. State Department revoked a Palestinian cartoonist’s participation in a government-sponsored program focusing on free speech due to what the department called the “anti-Semitic” nature of his editorial drawings.
The State Department decided to rescind the invitation to Majed Badra to participate in its International Visitor Leadership Program, which runs today through July 9, after determining some of the cartoons on his website were “anti-Semitic and extremely objectionable,” Phil Frayne, spokesman for the Bureau of Near Eastern Affairs in the State Department, said in an email.
Badra, of the Amad News Agency, said his cartoons are anti-Israeli occupation, not anti-Jewish, and he respects all religions.
“I just wanted to express that I'm against the Israeli occupation, settlements, killing, siege and injustice, and how much we want democracy, human rights, freedom and two states solution,” he said via Skype. “I'm open-minded, and I carry all the respect to people in the world regardless of their gender, religion, race or color.”
U.S. embassies and consulates from around the world nominate political cartoonists to participate in the program, which has existed for several years, before the Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs in the State Department gives final approval.
More than a dozen political cartoonists from North Africa, the Middle East, and South and Central Asia are in Washington, D.C., today as they begin their three-week trip, which includes stops in Baltimore, New York, Portland, Ore., and St. Petersburg, Fla. The visitors will meet with people and “examine the role of a free, independent media in a democracy vis-à-vis political cartooning.” The program is organized by the Institute of International Education, a not-for-profit organization based in Washington D.C.
“Participants will examine the practices, techniques and ethical responsibilities of political cartoonists, the philosophical beliefs underlying their work, and the impact that their cartoons have on history, political debate, public opinion and free speech,” according to the program materials.
Program materials show one other cartoonist from the Palestinian authority, Mohammed Alnemnem of the Ma’an News Agency, is attending the program. Other participants hail from Algeria, Bahrain, Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Sudan, among other countries.
Badra said he learned in May 2010 he had been nominated and accepted to participate in the Political Cartoonist Program and was ecstatic about the opportunity.
He prepared for the trip for months, canceling work and other obligations. He found out he was approved for a visa through the program on June 6. However, Badra received a call from the U.S. Consulate in Jerusalem on June 10 and was told his participation, and therefore his visa, had been canceled due to the alleged anti-Semitic nature of some of his cartoons.
Frayne said the officers at the State Department who initially selected Badra for participation reviewed some of his work, but did not see the offensive cartoons at that time.
Badra said he was told to delete the controversial cartoons so he could be considered in future programs. He has since taken down his website, but several cartoons are still available on the Internet. One depicts President Barack Obama standing in front of an American flag displaying the Star of David. One particular cartoon Badra said U.S. officials noted was a cartoon of former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert wearing a Hitler-like mustache.
Badra said he was devastated to find out the trip he had been planning on for over one year had been canceled because the U.S. government believes he is anti-Semitic. He said he looked forward to learning from people in his profession and about U.S. media.
The young cartoonist noted that the U.S. government interfered with his freedom of speech in the context of a program that is meant to support it. He said he wishes he had a chance to explain himself before he was rejected.
"I just draw what surrounded me," he said. "I draw the truth. We live in a difficult situation."
Frayne said the State Department regrets the "inconvenience experienced by Mr. Badra."
“This decision does not mean, of course, that he is ineligible for future exchange programs, only that having such objectionable cartoons on his web site mitigated against his participation at this time," he said.
A spokeswoman with the State Department’s Educational and Cultural Affairs bureau said her department organizes the program, but Consular Affairs handles approving or denying visas.
She said her department is disappointed Badra could not attend. Representatives from the Institute of International Education did not return calls seeking comment.