An opinion by Irvin Ungar
Earlier this month, Liberia was one of only five countries in the United Nations to support Israel’s right to bear nuclear weapons as a deterrent to those bent on its destruction. On December 7, 149 nations voted to place Jerusalem’s unconfirmed nuclear arms arsenal under the “safeguarding” of the UN’s International Atomic Energy Agency. Of course, no resolution was concurrently advanced condemning Iran’s nuclear weapons program. Such is the upside-down world in which we live.
My worldview often emanates through the battlefield and weaponry of “soldier in art” Arthur Szyk (1894-1951). To quote my friend, Rabbi Byron Sherwin z”l, “For Szyk, the artist is a warrior: his arsenal consists of pens and brushes, paint and ink; his battlefield is a canvas, a sheet of paper; his enemies are injustice and oppression.”
Szyk’s fight for Black people in America is well known — creating artwork attacking segregation and racial humiliation in the US military during World War II, as well as his bold stand against white supremacists and Klansmen who dared lynch Black people.
Liberia, a Black nation, courageously stood up to the world’s standards of injustice last week by taking its place alongside Israel — a nation who has never known true peace throughout all its years of existence. Arthur Szyk would be pleased with the position of a country whose side he took at the same time he supported the birth of Israel in 1948.
In 1948, while simultaneously creating artwork in defense of the Jewish state against invading Arab nations, Szyk also learned the entire history of Liberia, while creating designs for postage stamps for the West African nation. His passion and talent produced artwork featuring the Seal of the Liberian Republic accompanying native villagers, workers participating in the production of the country’s chief export of rubber, the landing of the first colonists, and American religious leader and founder of Liberia Jehudi Ashmun. These themes and others appeared on stamp denominations of 1-cent, 2-cent, 3-cent, 5-cent, 25-cent, and 50-cent (airmail) published in 1949. A year later, Szyk’s festival stamps featuring the symbols of the harvest festival of Sukkot were published by the postal service in Israel.
Liberia’s friendship with Israel dates to 1947, when it voted at the UN in favor of the establishment of a Jewish state in Mandatory Palestine, exactly 100 years after its own birth. Combining Liberia’s historic role vis-à-vis the Jewish state with his own attitude of respect for Black people, Szyk’s activist nature motivated him to illuminate and celebrate Liberia’s national history on stamps that would travel the world. Szyk undoubtedly understood the emotional bond that existed between Liberia and Israel, both lands serving as a home of refuge, born out of their peoples’ historic escape from bondage and oppression.
Liberia’s vote was one in favor of protecting Israel’s right as a haven for its people, a vote in which only a handful of the nations of the world agreed. Source: algemeiner.com
Irvin Ungar is an Arthur Szyk scholar whose book “Arthur Szyk: Soldier in Art” was a winner of the 2017 National Jewish Book award. His most recent book “Arthur Szyk Preserved: Institutional Collections of Original Art” will appear this coming February 2023.