'The Right's Campaigns Are More Effective': Meet the Daring Poster Child of the Israeli Left
The seasoned graphic designer and activist Lahav Halevy tells Haaretz why the right's propaganda always seem to come out on top, and why lefties don't fight the occupation (their espresso will get cold)
Aug 14, 2019
You can count on the fingers of one hand the number of political graphic designers in Israel. Lahav Halevy is one. His Facebook profile is fertile ground for his burgeoning talent, which can be seen in slogans and posters against the government and its appendages. The page, usually updated in his free time, is a separate entity from Lahav's daily, intense work at his studio, Blue Collar, on Herzl Street in south Tel Aviv, as a graphic designer working for private companies and public bodies alike.
Clients come from across an entire spectrum: Alongside restaurants such as Lachmanina and Brasserie in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem eateries like Agrippas and Goldy’s (the latter is a favorite of ultra-Orthodox Deputy Health Minister Yaakov Litzman, who's been in the news lately for alleged involvement in a corruption affair), Lahav also works with Tel Aviv's Steinhardt Museum of Natural History, the environmental nonprofit Adam Teva V’Din, the Berl Katznelson Foundation, agriculturally oriented businesses including Yochi Asparagus, Shenkar School of Engineering and Design, Meretz MK Ilan Gilon etc.
In addition, every few months Halevy works pro bono on one campaign chosen from requests that he receives – but he has stopped doing paid political campaign work.
“I worked with the Joint List in 2015," says Halevy, 54, referring to the Israeli Arab political party, "and they called recently to ask permission to use [the work] again. A political campaign is like a typhoon – it’s suicide. I don’t know how to make money from it.”
A poster by Halevy. 'We hereby destroy' is written over a photo of Israel's government. A play on 'We hereby declare (the establishment of a Jewish state)' from Israel's declaration of independence. Lahav Halevy
It's easy to get Halevy going on the subject of Israel's so-called visual environment. For example, he is still fuming over the choice of font used on the gravestone of Prime Minister Shimon Peres, in Jerusalem: “It is the embodiment of Israeli amateurism. They simply took the Arial font and stuck it on there. It seems that the person who won the bid for creating the headstone also did the inscription. Our children are educated in this sort of thing. My daughter came back from high school with a page of instructions on how to submit a paper: first page, 18-point Arial. But that’s a screen font that’s not appropriate for print!
The logo of the environmental nonprofit Adam Teva V’Din, designed by Halevy.Lahav Halevy
"Why not cooperate with Bezalel [Academy of Arts and Design, in Jerusalem] and get graphic design students to teach children and teenagers in schools how to submit work based on a carefully formulated approach and not on Arial? In a properly run place, an education ministry would go to a typographer who would create a font for them. I’m not saying high-schoolers should take typography classes, but a standard must be maintained. It saddens me," Halevy tells Haaretz, "and that's only one niche."
In academia there are professors who ask students to submit papers in 12-point Arial.
“For sure. At the universities too they don’t understand that the visual dimension needs to be more cultured. And they also want people to emphasize sentences in italics – which is something that did not exist in Hebrew. It is just another reflection of the general mess. Road signage isn't good either, and from that I understand that roads are not paved properly either – and apparently I’m not wrong. I returned to Israel in 2000 after nine years in the United States, and at one time things were more orderly around here. But once the prime minister was also more ashamed.”
The subject of politics enters our conversation for a moment, but Halevy then goes back to citing another example of what he sees as mediocre design: the new branding of Tel Aviv University. “There are about 25 local firms that can handle the branding of an institution of such a size. If none of them were responsible for the branding, then it can’t be good. It’s like, you need a kidney operation and there are only four doctors in Israel who know how to do it. If a dentist does it, the results won’t be good.”
Which brings us back to his main gripe about the absence of proper design standards in the country. To demonstrate this Halevy shows me two slides: one, with logos of foreign institutions such as the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York and the City of New York; the other, logos of municipal institutions in Jerusalem, Netanya and Be’er Sheva. The foreign logos are precise and minimalist, while the Israeli ones are very dense. For example, “one city celebrated a round-numbered birthday and just stuck a number on its logo. And after that they added something else.”
A poster designed by Halevy. It reads 'I will be nothing because there was nothing,' a play on Netanyahu's reaction to being investigated by police: 'There will be nothing, because there's nothing.' Lahav Halevy
Where are the graphic designers in Israel? Are they all bad?
“The public institutions are the ones who create [the environment]. When I returned from the United States, I realized that the chance to change things is only by means of private individuals. It was convenient for me to work with restaurateurs – people who don’t cut corners. Sometimes I look at logos created here and they are truly barbaric,” he says, looking at the one used by Jerusalem city hall.
One of Halevy's pet peeves in recent times is the choice of the logo for the country's 70th anniversary celebrations, last year. Ultimately, the design became the responsibility of the production company that organized the events, and its logo appeared on almost every official document and poster. This was one of the very few open bidding processes that Halevy has participated in – and he heard about the winner on the radio.
“If we need to decide now on the logo for the 70th anniversary celebrations, then we need to establish a public committee and staff it with ‘tribal elders’ – not government clerks or politicians. Because when this starts to be their decision, the catastrophes begin. Because they think that anyone can do it. When I say that we must do something in green, it’s not because that is my taste but because it’s my job and that’s what's right for the brand.”
Lahav Halevy was born in Nof Hagalil in northern Israel, and in 1991 completed his degree at Bezalel, where he currently teaches. He won a Ministry of Culture prize in 2015 and his works have been displayed at biennales and other exhibitions all over the world: in Moscow; Zurich; Chicago; Sao Paolo; Ningbo, China; and elsewhere. For Halevy, teaching is a sort of remedy for the almost constant frustration he feels: “I do it to voice what I have [to say] and am very dedicated to it. Outside of teaching, the only thing I hear from the client is ‘I like it’ or ‘I don’t like it.' But at school there are opportunities.”
What do you teach?
“That a package of cottage cheese is not something that's superficial. It's different to design a brochure for Alut [the Israeli Society for Autistic Children] or for the victims of sexual assault, but we need to learn what is important and what is not, even when we design a package for cottage cheese. It needs to be clear and accessible. The role of graphic designers is to make things pleasant and to inform.”
Lahav Halevy. 'The entire world needs to be enlisted more on behalf of important causes, but that's already a matter of a long educational process'
What's beyond cottage cheese?
“It is clear that the larger the spaces that we as designers address – such as airports or hospitals – the more challenging the work is.”
When Halevy conducted the branding and design campaign for the agricultural company Yochi Asparagus, he expanded the company’s name to Yochi Asparagus and Other Vegetables, painted its logo maroon and added three asparagus stalks.
Designing the logo of the new natural history museum in Tel Aviv was a challenge, too. “We needed to take 16 words – the name of the museum in three languages: Hebrew, English and Arabic, and the name of the donor – and combine it all into a single logo.” Because an excess of words usually turns a logo into a scribble, he created a whole new font and shrunk 16 words into a sort of totem pole.
As part of his work for the Berl Katznelson Foundation (an educational institution that promotes progressive Zionist values), Halevy also serves as graphic editor of its new Hebrew magazine Telem, aimed at a leftist readership and edited by Adam Raz and Tal Weintraub. Even though illustrations have almost disappeared from Israeli journalism – because it is cheaper to use photographs, and because of the general decline of newspapers and magazines – the dominance of the designer in decision-making processes at a magazine has all but disappeared. Yet Telem's staff decided that their magazine would have illustrations and Halevy hired three illustrators to do the job.
Halevy hopes his affair with the foundation will last: “This is an organization that can sustain things. They came and said that ideologically they wanted to come up with a new statement, and they use the word ‘left’ without apologizing. We are taking the design from old pictures of Berl Katznelson [a founder of Labor Zionism] to a more colorful and newer place, and the first decision was to work with illustrators.”
Telem is part of a sort of small wave of political magazines that are being published in the country in recent years. These include the right-wing journal Hashiloach, edited by Yoav Sorek – whose son Dvir was murdered by Palestinian terrorists last week – which the conservative U.S.-based Tikvah Fund finances, and the year-old Hazman Hazeh magazine published by the Van Leer Jerusalem Institute, and edited by Asaf Shtull-Tauring.
Is there such a thing as leftist design?
“No. There is good and bad design. As campaigners, the right is more effective, because the right’s audience is better. When you say ‘a Jew doesn’t expel another Jew’ this sentence has enormous power. If [left-wing] Meretz hands out T-shirts – most leftists won’t wear them, because everyone has their own designer shirt. One of the reasons the left likes demonstrations in Rabin Square [in Tel Aviv] is that there is the Brasserie next door so there is somewhere to eat. The recent demonstrations at the Azrieli junction, which really did shut down the country, were organized by people who have something that's really hurting them; the Ethiopians, the LGBTs.”
The left isn’t really feeling the pain?
“It hurts, but it’s comfortable. One day I sat with a couple of [leftist] friends and they raised the question of why we don’t stand up all day and protest and fight. I answered them with a smile: ‘Because our espresso will get cold.’ You fight when you don’t have anything to lose. For the settlers, the struggle is in their essence. ‘The Shadow’ [a right-wing rapper] and his friends – as far as they’re concerned, it’s a struggle of life and death. They are willing to die for it. We aren’t willing to die for struggles. Maybe the European phase of life in the State of Israel, of Vienna on the Yarkon, is not Israel as it needs to be.”
Have you ever lost out on work because of your opinions?
“Once. A client told me that his investor was a commander of a tank battalion, who told my client that he didn't want him to work with me. In the end they did shitty branding. There is another side to this, too: If [Yisrael Beiteinu leader Avigdor] Lieberman would come to me and ask for a logo, even for a million shekels I wouldn’t work with him.
"I talked with someone about what would be the point at which I couldn’t live here anymore. I thought that if they beat up a good friend, let’s say someone like [human rights lawyer] Michael Sfard, whom I love – maybe it would be a sign that I don't need to be here. All the time, we set red lines for ourselves and ultimately, a lot of times, we cross them and create a new red line. I don't think I will have a career of a distinguished designer in any country. But if there is a situation in which a red line is crossed and they say to me, for example, that I can do some sort of dirty work in Stockholm – like as a dishwasher – and it will provide me with money for a reasonable living, then it could be that I will be forced to do it.”
“Even children in the southern Hebron Hills need to go to the bathroom.” Underneath, in smaller black letters, it says: “But nevertheless, they can’t go to the bathroom.” Lahav Halevi
One of the campaigns Halevy is especially proud of is the one he created for Ta’ayush, an Israeli-Palestinian coexistence NGO: “In 2011, an activist from the organization called and told me that they [i.e., the Israeli authorities] demolished the infrastructure for toilets for Bedouin in the southern Hebron Hills, and that they needed to raise all of 20,000 shekels [about $5,700] for a new mobile home so the children could go to the bathroom. It was completely piratical. I did a few posters for them at night, gave them some of my own money and helped them organize the rest of the campaign.”
So you don’t only drink espresso.
“I want to drink my espresso and also do things. I don’t think that I’m doing anything worthy of fame.”
The posters Halevy designed – keeping his comments in mind about the scandal of the Arial font – were in a brown Frank-Ruhl font, including vowel points, on a light background, and the slogan was: “Even children in the southern Hebron Hills need to go to the bathroom.” Underneath, in smaller black letters, it says: “But nevertheless, they can’t go to the bathroom.” In another poster from the same campaign, Halevy's text at the top was: “While we are shitting on the residents of the Hebron Hills, they don’t even have anywhere to piss out of fear.”
The campaign was very successful and within 48 hours Ta'ayush raised all the money it needed, and more.
One long-term project Halevy is busy with is designing posters for the anniversary of Yitzhak Rabin’s murder, which took place in 1995. Every year since 2001, after the designer returned to Israel, he designs a poster, prints hundreds of copies of it and distributes it at Rabin Square, where the main memorial event is held. For Halevy this is an educational effort, for his children.
Another example of a political poster by Lahav Halevy, created for the 12th anniversary of Rabin's assassination: 'It is forbidden to kill a prime minister.'Lahav Halevy
On the 18th anniversary of the assassination, his posters were displayed at the Levontin 7 club as part of an alternative memorial event. On the 20th anniversary an exhibition of the posters was planned at the Seminar Hakibbutzim Teachers College in Tel Aviv, but canceled at the last minute because the management wanted to censor two of them, which they said “involved incitement.” Halevy canceled the entire show but all the works were displayed a week later at the Beit Ariela Library in Tel Aviv.
Over the years Halevy's Rabin posters have been exhibited a number of times, including the one from 2006, with words written by his daughter – in different contexts – in childish letters that said: “My father is a murderer.” It was designed about the time the prime minister's assassin, Yigal Amir, and his wife Larisa Trembolver were allowed conjugal visits in prison. On the 20th anniversary of the murder, Halevy used an image of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and wrote in red "1995-2015"; on the bottom of the poster were the words: “The undertaker.”
“That’s what he is – the person who buried Rabin and who is burying all of us slowly,” the designer wrote on Facebook.
Perhaps the most widely distributed protest poster created by Halevy is the one he designed in English, as part of a solidarity campaign associated with the MeToo movement. The text on top starts with “Her too,” and then continues “and her, and her” ad infinitum. Printed in London and on T-shirts, the poster was featured on the cover of Israel's La’Isha women’s magazine, and made its way into all sorts of places in Tel Aviv and around the world.
Are there almost no designers like you who consistently post protest posters on Facebook?
“That’s a question I’m asked a lot. But maybe it’s okay that there are only a few. The entire world needs to be enlisted more on behalf of important causes, but that's already a matter of a long educational process."