Vancouver Comics Arts Festival apologized to Miriam Libicki for banning her due to past service in the IDF

Miriam Libicki. (Credit: Jeff Vinnick/Vancouver Public Library)

UPDATE (6/2/24): The Vancouver Comics Arts Festival issued a formal apology to Miriam Libicki—who isn’t mentioned by name—saying the announcement of banning her from future events was a consequence of “a ramshackle organization made up of caring individuals.”

The following report was originally published by The CJN on May 29:

The Vancouver Comics Arts Festival has permanently banned artist Miriam Libicki from appearing in the event because of, in the words of the festival’s directors, “this exhibitor’s prior role in the Israeli military and their subsequent collection of works which recounts their personal position in said military and the illegal occupation of Palestine.”

A citizen of both the United States and Israel, Libicki is a graphic novelist and artist based in Vancouver whose work explores identity and the clash of cultures through her own experiences. Her autobiographical comic series, Jobnik!, which she self-published in 2008, looks at her service in the Israeli army during the Second Intifada.

Towards a Hot Jew, published by Fantagraphics in 2016, is a series of graphic essays about her own Jewish identity and related experiences—the piece from which the book draws its name explores the fetishization of Israeli soldiers.

A page from Miriam Libicki’s contribution to the book ‘The Jewish Graphic Novel: Critical Approaches’

In 2017, Libicki was named writer-in-residence by the Vancouver Public Library. It was the first time the library had chosen a graphic novelist for the position. 

She was one of three graphic novelists selected to tell the stories of four Holocaust survivors in the 2022 book But I Live. Libicki is also a 2020 nominee for best short story in the Eisner Awards, considered by many to be the most prestigious awards in the comics industry, for her work “Who Gets Called an ‘Unfit’ Mother?”

“I am a Jewish artist who makes nonfiction and autobiographical comics,” Libicki told The CJN. “In recent years, I have been working closely with Holocaust survivors to tell their own stories. I consider this urgent and timely work. The award-winning anthology of Holocaust memoirs, But I Live (New Jewish Press, 2022), was the only graphic novel I was selling at VanCAF 2024.

“I am, and I have consistently, publicly, been pro-peace. I am in favour of a Palestinian state via negotiations. Because of the vulnerable populations I work with, I prefer not to discuss my specific political views in public. I believe all policing of artists’ personal identities and nationalities is wrong. VanCAF’s illegal ban, and defamation directed at me, is bad for all artists of all political orientations and backgrounds,” she added.

Following this year’s festival that ran May 18-19, VanCAF’s board of directors said it had been approached by members of their community regarding public safety concerns upon learning a participant had served in the Israeli military.

An uncredited social media post addressed to the Vancouver Comic Arts Festival.

In a May 25 “accountability statement released on social media, which did not mention Libicki by name—nor was it signed with any names—the VanCAF board scolded itself for “the oversight and ignorance to allow this exhibitor in the festival, not only this year but in 2022 as well.” 

Having her appear in the festival, VanCAF added, “fundamentally falls in absolute disregard to all of our exhibiting artist’s, attendees and staff, especially those who are directly affected by the ongoing genocide in Palestine and Indigenous community members alike. Upon examining these concerns and conducts, this exhibitor will not be permitted to return to the festival.”

“VanCAF’s Board of Directors apologizes for the harm we have caused by our negligence to address this and our inability to take action sooner,” the statement went on to read.

VanCAF explained that the board would now take action to revise its present code of conduct policy and its festival submission guidelines in an effort “to better represent our community values.” The board promised to be fully transparent to its community and to adhere strictly to the Palestinian Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel (PACBI) guidelines. The festival will additionally “develop a cohesive and inclusive safety procedure within our organization that will ensure the future well-being of all VanCAF attendees, exhibitors and staff.”

The statement continued to condemn “the ongoing genocide and land theft committed by the state of Israel in Palestine,” reiterated its solidarity with Palestinians and called for an immediate and permanent ceasefire, right of return and complete sovereignty of the Palestinian state.

“We greatly appreciate the support from the community in helping us see where we have failed and allowing us the opportunity to address our mistakes,” the statement concluded. “During this period of transition, VanCAF will be onboarding new stakeholders, board members and staff to better reflect our community’s values and needs.”

The statement was removed by VanCAF on May 29, shortly after the initial publication of this article.

Some members of the British Columbia literary community have expressed their dismay and disbelief at VanCAF’s statement and decision to keep Libicki out of the festival. Charlotte Schallié, the chair of Germanic and Slavic Studies at the University of Victoria who spearheaded the But I Live project, said, “Miriam is an artist of utmost integrity and humanity, and I am deeply saddened and troubled that she was banned from the Vancouver Comic Arts Festival.

“Especially in times of deep polarization and divisiveness in public discourse, freedom of artistic expression has to be upheld as a fundamental principle and practice. Any form of suppression and censorship of artistic freedom stymies our own ability to engage in critical dialogue and hold space for diverse and differing viewpoints.”

Alan Twigg, the author Out of Hiding: Holocaust Literature of British Columbia and the founder of the newspaper BC Bookworld, said, “When I watch CNN and learn about the latest book-banning nonsense in the United States, I want to believe such ignorance and prejudice could not happen in Canada.

“The idiotic excuse for prejudice in this case, it appears, is that its author or illustrator has spent some time within the Israeli military. Do they not realize that some form of military service is mandatory for all young Israelis? We should not countenance such absurdity.“

Started in 2012, VanCAF is a free annual two-day comics and graphic art festival held at Vancouver’s Roundhouse Community Arts and Recreation Centre. It brings in hundreds of exhibitors and thousands of attendees each year. The festival is managed and organized by the Vancouver Comic Arts Association, a non-profit organization whose stated goal is to connect local cartoonists with the community.

VanCAF has 25 sponsors listed on its website, including the Canada Council for the Arts, the BC Gaming Commission, the BC Arts Council, Creative BC and Metro Vancouver.