Shame and Comfort: How To Understand Israel In Sixty Days Or Less

Posted by on November 15th, 2010 at 12:01 AM

Sarah Glidden; (DC/Vertigo); 208 pp., $24.99; Color, Hardcover; ISBN: 978-1401222338


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All images ©2010 Sarah Glidden and DC Comics

Sarah Glidden’s How To Understand Israel In Sixty Days Or Less is an interesting companion piece to Joe Sacco’s Footnotes In Gaza. Both authors are obsessed with telling the truth about the miserable Israel-Palestine conflict and doing so by unearthing the smallest details that can provide clues as to what’s really happened/is happening.  Sacco did it by focusing in on one particular historical event, both as an illustration of how this event is still relevant today, but also to show how the vagaries of memory and cultural narrative creation can distort truth into something more convenient.  Both authors wanted to go directly to the source and talk to the people living there in order to give a voice to others, but more importantly, to gain a view of the area unfiltered by anyone’s perceptions but their own.  In Glidden’s case, as a 26-year-old American who is Jewish, this came in a format that she immediately viewed with suspicion: a “birthright” tour.


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The big difference between the two books is that Sacco’s approach, in order to get at the truth, had to ignore the larger cultural narrative, even if this was a frequently cold and dispassionate technique.  Sacco is neither Israeli nor Palestinian, and even if he is sympathetic to the latter group, his narrative isn’t dictated by cultural pressures.  For Glidden, also a left-leaning person also sympathetic to the Palestinians, her experience was far more complicated, because it had as much to do with a young person clearly in search of a new identity as it did with a curious intellectual trying to get to the bottom of a historically thorny situation.


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Even with her eyes wide open, it does seem naïve to think that a state-sponsored tour, even one with open intellectual discussion, would provide her with the proper context to render an objective and dispassionate eyewitness judgment of what’s really going on.  These tours, paid for in full by Israel (and private donors) in an effort to get young Jewish people worldwide to visit what they want them to think of as Their Country, contain a certain level of propaganda.  Glidden, self-described as liberal and progressive, is both suspicious of the intent and supportive of the plight of the Palestinians.  Indeed, her boyfriend (of Pakistani descent) worries that this is a “brainwashing” exercise on the part of the Israelis and that her views will change.  Glidden’s views do wind up changing, though not in the way one would think and certainly not because she was brainwashed.


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Glidden nails it when she notes that this is not a “holy war”; that terminology has come into play again only in the last hundred years or so.  It’s purely a matter of land and resources: Israel is a strategically and commercially useful territory that’s passed through dozens of owners over the past three thousand or so years.  What’s interesting about the book is that despite certain strongly held views in support of the plight of the Palestinians, Glidden finds herself sympathizing with the Israelis she meets and eventually understands that she doesn’t need to agree with them (or rather, have them agree with her) to have affection for them (and by extension, for Israel).  As a Jewish woman, Glidden feels a weird responsibility for Israel’s actions, even if she’s not religious and is an American.  That in part fuels the emotional turmoil she feels on the trip, as situations that she initially perceived as cut-and-dried were far more complicated than she first thought.  The more she examined the issues, the fewer obvious solutions there were for her to grab onto.


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As a result, Glidden feels both shame and comfort in her trip to Israel.  Comfort in traveling to  a foreign land yet being welcomed as One Of Us, and shame that she actually feels that way, that she in some respect has fallen prey to the “magical thinking” of being in the Holy Land.  The philosopher Slavoj Zizek has a concept that he calls “belief before belief,” in which we set out to rationally construct beliefs or examine beliefs while in fact we have already come to believe in them already.  It seems that Glidden didn’t go on the birthright tour and then conclude that her feelings about Israel (and her own identity) were more complicated than she initially thought, especially with the way she wound up being drawn to the country.  Instead, this is an issue she had grappled with and already subconsciously decided before she even set foot in the country.  Her self-appointed guise as the “progressive American” was simply the mechanism that allowed her rational self to make the trip, even if she had been warned (and even thought herself in the past) that these are propaganda tools.  Glidden’s narrative has all the earmarks of a conversion experience.  Here the conversion is not to a religion, but rather to a frame of mind surrounding the need for communitarian experience.  That desire is a basic human need, and one of the great pulls of Evangelical Christianity (as an example of a belief system that encourages rapid conversion) is the opportunity to instantly become part of a community and feel connected.  Even for a non-religious Jew, the idea of an entire state welcoming them “home” with open arms, instantly accepting them because they are already part of the fold due to birth (or prior conversion to the faith), has to be an equally enticing lure.


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It’s all there in the text.  Her initially strident attacks on Israel’s human rights abuses, feel like “the lady doth protest too much” as she’s rebuffed with party-line thinking and the pressure of the group’s camaraderie.  The birthright organizers aren’t stupid, and know that a traditional propaganda indoctrination isn’t going to work with intelligent people.  Instead, they know that the fact someone would come all the way to Israel to check it out must mean that there’s some level of attraction and sympathy to be found on their part.  What better way to let that sympathy grow than by giving them a free vacation, introduce them to and humanize soldiers (“every person is a soldier, but every soldier is a person”), subtly introduce modern myth-making stories about the siege of Masada and the boldness of settlers?  When an Israeli asks her how a so-called “progressive” can be “anti” anything (as in, anti-Israel), she says, “That’s a good point.” That was actually an absurd statement on his part, as a progressive can be anti-racism, anti-militarism, anti-sexism, etc., but Glidden wanted to believe it was true.  At this point, being strictly anti-Israel had become being anti-Glidden, a terrible paradox engendering a kind of cognitive dissonance she found hard to endure.


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What led to this heightened desire to feel a part of something larger than herself?  At the risk of further psychoanalyzing the text (as opposed to the author; I have no idea what form her current belief system takes) too much, Glidden once again provides clues.  She speaks of her disgust for living in the U.S.A. under George W. Bush and flirting with being an ex-pat in Barcelona, an indication that her nationalist identity is very much in flux.  That experience didn’t work out, in part because she didn’t find herself part of a community just because she left one.  Glidden talks about being a restless world traveler, seeking out new experiences and cultures but constantly feeling like an outsider.  Being on a trip where one’s hosts explicitly welcome them “home” must be a tremendously powerful experience, especially when it is tethered to several thousand years of ethnic and religious tradition.  The most important part of a conversion experience narration is that by its very nature, it must be told; hence, the comic itself.


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Even with Glidden seeing the man behind the curtain, so to speak, she’s still pulled in by Israel’s mystique and still too scared to take a taxi to Ramallah to see what life’s like for the Palestinians.  Armed with knowledge of its history, she laughs off the whole Masada experience, a sunrise hike designed to make Jews everywhere sympathetic to Israel defending itself against its enemies.  She finds the group’s stay at a Bedouin encampment to be enraging, yet she’s successfully rebuffed again and again by statements like “you don’t have to agree with everything” and “it’s complicated.”  The scene where she breaks down after hearing a woman play to her emotions in her passionate retelling of Israel’s “War of Independence” story is the classic conversion experience “dark night of the soul,” where one’s sense of doubt inhibits one’s journey through conversion and comes out the other side into a new steady state, where cognitive dissonance has faded at last.

That steady-state wound up being something different, perhaps, than her hosts intended.  Glidden did not emerge from her trip “in the tank” for Israel as her boyfriend feared.  Instead, she managed to find a compromise of ideals that included a couple of speakers from a bereavement group that pleaded to see the conflict as individuals, with unspeakable tragedies on both sides.  A rabbi whose lecture she saw took that idea a step further, speaking out against the notion that it’s acceptable within the law for Jews to mistreat or exploit non-Jews.  Humanizing the other, Glidden comes to understand, is the only chance for peace possible in the region, but it’s a brick-by-brick process that features any number of demolitions (both literal and metaphorical) of progress to date.

Humanizing the problem bit by bit (much like the way the birthright tour humanized Israel for Glidden) is the only solution for what is otherwise an intractable problem.  It’s intractable, as Glidden discovers, because all of Israel’s human rights abuses can be traced back to one question: “Does Israel have the right to exist?”  As one Israeli tells her, “You can’t ask that question, nobody can ask that question” because saying “no” would nullify the state.  But so would allowing Palestinian and Syrian Arabs to return back to land that Israel seized by force.  Allowing them to return would no doubt lead to violence, violence sparked in part by original acts of violence by Israel as part of a never-ending cycle.  Of course, asking if Israel has a right to exist is asking a deeper question: does any state have the “right” to exist.  The answer to that question is obviously “no”; no state has a right to exist.  Countries are generally formed through force and its pioneers generally exploit and/or massacre native populations.

The reason why this is a particularly distressing thought for Glidden is not explicitly stated, but it’s obvious that this narrative bears an uncanny resemblance to American cultural mythology, and it’s no coincidence that as an American, she feels this shame as well.  The rhetoric surrounding conflicts between the settlers at Deganya and the native Arabs (“we fight in self-defense,” “we built up the land”) is eerily similar to colonial accounts of fighting Native Americans.  The poetry that inspired Eastern Europeans to settle in Palestine isn’t much different than tales of the exploits of George Washington and events like the Boston Tea Party.  The comparison between the fading Bedouin tribes and Native American reservations is also a telling one, as both are a kind of ethnic dispersal designed to strip a group of its pride and resources.

It’s telling that, like Sacco, Glidden quotes the first prime minister of Israel, David Ben Gurion.  He has quite a bit of sympathy for the Arabs and calls what the Israelis did to them exactly what it is: a land grab.  He said that if he were an Arab he’d be angry and want to attack the Israelis too.  In the wake of World War II, the holocaust and 75 years of particularly virulent worldwide antisemitism, Ben Gurion made the difficult decision of Us vs Them.  Jews had been Them throughout the course of history and they finally got to be an Us with political and military power; if it meant creating a new Them to turn into desperate freedom fighters/terrorists, so be it.  As Glidden notes, “Can a tragedy be nobody’s fault?  Or is this a story in which there are just no ‘good guys’?”

It seems as though the answer here is a little of both, though both groups seek to gain the moral high ground while simultaneously seeking to kill innocents in order to prove a point.  If, as Glidden suggests, each side can step into the shoes of just one other person on the opposite side, it would permanently change the nature of their engagement.  Doing so would require extraordinary courage, given that Israelis would prefer to go about living normal lives and not think about the Palestinians, while the Palestinians are trying to scrape together a day-to-day living.  It’s easy to understand, if not condone, the behavior of fanatics when one’s life is constantly disrupted in such a fashion.  That said, the phrase “it’s complicated” seems to be used, even by self-described left-wing Israelis, as a way of excusing morally compromised actions.


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By its very nature, How To Understand Israel In Sixty Days Or Less is not a mature work.  It actually reminds me more of Sacco’s earlier work Palestine than Footnotes In Gaza, in that each artist had a certain wide-eyed quality in depicting Israel.  Glidden’s narrative captions are a bit ponderous and over-earnest at times, like in a silly panel where she is excited about seeing Israeli ants and how their dominion extends across borders.  Glidden does have a certain level of awareness of both her limitations as a storyteller and narrator; she’s very much the “unreliable narrator” (which is further exposed by her cousin who lives in Tel Aviv) but retains a certain sense of whimsy while retaining this status.  Indeed, visual tropes like a hectoring self-image whispering things to say in her ear, a talking toilet, a cartoonish bomb squad robot, and an inner courtroom weighing in on the brainwashing issue all add needed levity to what is otherwise such a downbeat story.  Interacting with ghosts of settlers and other religious figures, as well as imagining herself in the same space as thousands of others throughout the years invoked the recent work of Kevin Huizenga and Richard McGuire’s classic story “Here.”   To add one final comparison to Sacco, Glidden employs a minimalist line with a vibrant and expressionistic use of color in depicting her environs, while Sacco used a bleak, naturalistic black-and-white line.  This speaks to the vibrancy of the lands she traveled through, the people she encountered and her project of depicting Israel as a living, breathing entity.  The end of the story reveals that she’s not quite sure what to make of that entity and what role it will play in her life, but it’s obvious that she wants it to have an important place.  In the end, allowing herself to be confused and uncertain, while a tenuous position to hold, seems to make the most sense regarding an issue that’s so thorny.

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2 Responses to “Shame and Comfort: How To Understand Israel In Sixty Days Or Less

  1. Tim Tylor says:

    Technical problem with this article: The “close-up views” of the example comic-pages are no bigger than the small images in the main article, so the text remains too small to read. I click twice, once on the image on the main article and then on the image in the webpage that comes up. The comic page appears again against a darkened background, but at the same size as on the main article. (Sorry to be so long-winded, but it’s hard to describe the problem concisely when TCJ’s got this odd “click through two pages to see the picture” system.)

  2. Kristy Valenti says:

    We have alerted our webmaster to your comment.