Vertigo/DC Comics, 2010
‘I’m waiting for the scenery to look more like how I’d imagined Israel and less like rural Pennsylvania,’ thinks Sarah Glidden, as she stares from her bus window at the plain, flat landscape on her ride north from Ben Gurion airport. Combining light-hearted humour with both the harsh and mundane realities of Israel, this scene is representative of her graphic novel, How to Understand Israel in Sixty Days or Less, the award-winning comic artist’s first book.
The memoir takes place over several weeks on the author’s first trip to the country. Twenty-something Glidden, a self-declared liberal who is pro-Palestinian and critical of Israel, and who has a non-Jewish boyfriend and few Jewish friends, decides to get to the bottom of the Arab/Israeli conflict by going on the free Birthright trip offered to young Jews who have never before been to the country. She expects to be critical of the programme’s ‘propaganda’ and, once there, does not disappoint herself: she repeatedly questions whether Israel had the right to take land from the Palestinians and Bedouins, and probes the real meanings behind nationalist myths like Masada. But soon her strict liberal outlook starts to crumble. She finds herself falling for Israel, or elements of it: its own left-wingers, its compelling history , the feeling of belonging.
Her journey takes her through the contemporary political landscape she came to explore and into a more complex landscape of culture, history and powerful emotions. At every stage, her identity and her preconceptions are challenged by the confluence of these different forces and the book’s appeal lies in the honesty with which she confronts these.
Questions rather than answers are what she collects on her journey, from characters who not only represent different political viewpoints but are themselves multi-faceted, complex, defying stereotypes: her guide, who is pro-Wall for the safety it offers but empathetic to the pain it brings; her cousin, who moved to Israel to study medicine, but hates how Arabs are treated; an orthodox rabbi who values human respect above religious law; an American who thinks the Arab nations should help the Palestinians, but can’t stand Israelis and their rudeness; an unreliable peace activist; a left-wing youth leader who asks why progressives are anti-Israel – shouldn’t they be pro things? Glidden’s smart, passionate take on complicated people and positions results in an emotional journey, complete with insomnia and tears, calmed by the presence of her level-headed, soya-milk and yoga- obsessed friend Melissa, who isn’t afraid to tell her to take it down a notch.
The book is narrated not just verbally but by watercolour graphics. Glidden paints herself as a frumpy, arty type, and the characters she meets are portrayed astutely and comically, in simple cartoonish figures with dots for eyes, reminding this Canadian of Lynn Johnson’s early For Better or For Worse. Particularly memorably drawn are the girl from Orange County, who brazenly mistrusts Arabs, wears enormous sunglasses and a scarf and is seeking to ‘meet hot Israeli soldiers…what-ever’; the fashionable New Yorkers who wear fitted vintage coats; and the chubby trip organiser in wire-framed glasses. Glidden shows us the country, too: the view from Masada, green kibbutzes in the Golan, Jaffa. Her graphics are most exciting when they jump into the surreal, casting herself in historical scenes and conversing with fantasy figures. She debates with the pioneers who came to build up Palestine (‘Wait, but what about the people who live there already?’) and her nights are peopled by imagined characters—from prehistoric man and woman to Ottoman tax collectors—who had once slept in the same spot she now lies. A painting accuses her of insensitivity; a Bedouin speaker gives her the honest speech she longs for. She listens cautiously as Ben Gurion explains how he never wanted to infringe on Arab rights. Through courtroom scenes she dramatises her recurring question:‘Is Birthright trying to brainwash me or is it actually pretty reasonable?’, including herself in these frames in a direct personal link with the political and the historical.
The narrative is strongest when she is most open abouher fears and preconceptions: are the soldiers on their trip the ones that actually bulldoze houses? She is too uncomfortable to ask. Learning that her Republican travelling companion is not homophobic, as she has assumed, makes Sarah consider whether she has misjudged others as well.‘I’m ashamed to admit to myself that I like this feeling of being in this room [full of Jews],’ she confesses. ‘I’m even more ashamed at how much I didn’t like being outside of it.’These are moments of reflection on the path to maturity as Sarah learns to tolerate people whose opinions she does not share and she starts to ask if the Israeli/Arab conflict is no-one’s fault —if both sides did what they had to in order to survive.
Every memoir is a selective retelling, but some of Glidden’s omissions are distracting. It remains unclear why she chose to go on Birthright—a state-funded trip known for its agenda—when there are many ways for a first-timer to explore Israel (there’s no such thing as a free trip!). I was left wondering why she was looking for this fight, and wanted to know more about the background to her identity issues: Where did she get her liberal politics? Did she have any Jewish sympathies before? Glidden mentions that her non-Jewish boyfriend is concerned that she is being brainwashed by Zionists; I wondered how the trip made her feel about their relationship. She also briefly notes that her brother died in an accident. This harrowing insertion took me out of the story—I wondered if that was the same brother who had gone to Israel in the past, and how this tragedy may have played into her identity struggle? I would have preferred more of this backstory, in place of her longer researched segments about Israel’s history: though interesting, they sat awkwardly in the personal story, and her emotional demeanour detracted from their credibility. Ultimately, perhaps, this remindsus that most arguments about Israel are emotionally driven, and drives home her point that objectivity is difficult if not impossible to achieve.
Despite being 200 pages, Understanding Israel is a quick read and a compelling tale, presenting varying arguments and stories about Israel in an easy-to-understand way. Glidden should be commended for taking on this heated topic and treating it with honesty, self-reflection and humour (‘So it looks like Purim really does have a lot in common with Halloween in the states… it’s just an excuse for girls to dress like sluts.’) The book will appeal to those who have felt a conflict between their liberal views and their connection to Israel.The blend of simple prose with sparse drawing style gives the serious themes additional impact; and though the memoir poses rather than answers questions about how liberal Jews can feel sympathy for Israel, it also captures the tastes and smells of Israel with great accuracy. I could taste the borekas as I read.