Cartoonists confront Israel.
Once Art Spiegelman's Maus (1986) demonstrated that the medium of a graphic novel could effectively address serious historical topics such as the Holocaust, it was inevitable that Israel would be one of the topics to follow. Just as Maus has become required reading in many schools, it is probably only a matter of time before graphic novels become part of high school curricula on the Arab-Israeli conflict, too, for better or for worse. If the latest offerings in the field are any indication, it is more likely to be worse.
A generation wedded to video games and other modes of visual entertainment naturally finds graphic novels more attractive than conventional books. The first volume of Yen Press's graphic novel adaptation of the television series Twilight had a print run of 350,000. Six-figure first printings of graphic novels may well become commonplace before long.
None of this has been lost on educators. Recent studies have found graphic novels increase students' comprehension skills, not to mention improving their attitude towards reading in general. "More Powerful Than a Locomotive" was the title of an analysis of the impact of graphic novels on students, in the Journal of Research on Libraries and Young Adults. The Maryland Department of Education's "Comics in the Classroom" initiative is sure to be imitated in other states.
With their great newfound power to influence the teenage masses, one would hope cartoonists tackling serious and sensitive issues such as the Arab-Israeli conflict might recognize their great responsibility to get their facts straight. Three recent graphic novels about Israel, however, illustrate what happens when a skilled cartoonist utilizes the unique aspects of the medium to distort history.
Consider Joe Sacco. Although he bills himself as an "historian," and the cover of his new graphic novel, Footnotes in Gaza, describes it as "visual journalism," the book is not so much a work of history or journalism as it is a 400-page bill of indictment against Israel. An ordinary history text would have to withstand the scrutiny of scholarly referees before publication, not to mention challenges from historians who review the published version. Not so Sacco's work. In the medium of the graphic novel, he can make his case without having to field many tough questions or marshall the kind of evidence expected of conventional history books.
Sacco believes Israel is to blame for the Arab-Israeli conflict, and he sets out to prove it through the prism of an incident that took place in Gaza during the 1956 war.
In the years leading up to that war, Arabs from Egyptian-occupied Gaza frequently crossed the border into Israel, some to resettle in areas from which they had fled in 1948, some to steal from Israeli villages, some to murder Israelis. From 1949 to 1956, some 200-250 Israelis were killed in such attacks. In Sacco's telling, the infiltrators were justified (he calls them "raiders" or "militiamen," never terrorists), while the Israelis who tried to stop them were trigger-happy and bloodthirsty, and their expansionist leaders dreamed of an Israeli empire stretching across Gaza and Sinai.
Like a skilled prosecuting attorney, Sacco does not attempt to portray his clients, the Palestinians, as angels. He concedes they were occasionally cruel, as when he shows a terrorist cutting off someone's ear; or less than believable, as when he quotes a victim of an alleged Israeli atrocity insisting he was struck in the head by 36 bullets. But he makes up for them by piling on a seemingly endless stream of dramatic comic-book scenes of Israelis beating, humiliating, or murdering innocent Gazans.
All of this leads up to the allegation at the heart of Footnotes in Gaza, that Israeli soldiers deliberately massacred 275 Arabs in the Gaza city of Khan Younis during the 1956 war. The Israeli position, presented in less than 3 pages-as compared to the 385 Sacco gives to the Arabs' side--is that in the heat of a tense battlefield atmosphere, soldiers fired in self-defense at a stampeding mob, killing 40 to 50.
With compelling artwork, clever storytelling techniques, and occasional flashes of humor, Sacco skillfully veers back and forth between the 1950s and present day Gaza. We follow cartoon Sacco and his trusty guide and translator, Abed, as they interview elderly Gazans speaking about the 1956 episode, mad then periodically come back to our own time, where we see the pair ducking Israeli gunfire and eluding bulldozers. The suspenseful narrative and scenes of human suffering, when portrayed comic book-style, are unlike anything a standard history text could hope to convey.
That, of course, is the key to Sacco's success. The dramatic illustrations are necessary to obscure the weakness of his facts. Sacco tracked down some elderly Gazans who claim they saw Israeli soldiers fire into a peaceful, defenseless crowd. Yet he did not locate any Israeli participants in, or witnesses to, the alleged massacre. Buried deep in Sacco's own footnotes, ironically, one finds Mordechai Bar-On, right-hand man to Chief of Staff Moshe Dayan in 1956 and later a leader of Peace Now, telling Sacco: "The Palestinians have a tendency to inflate those stories became it serves them so they want to inflate them.. [O]ver the years the story goes and becomes bigger and bigger. The memory becomes bigger and bigger."
Some people do embellish the truth to advance a came. The late Edward Said, in his foreword to Sacco's earlier graphic novel, Palestine, portrayed himself as having been "exiled" from Palestine by the Jews--yet he wrote those words fully two years after his false claims about being a refugee were exposed in the pages of Commentary. [Justus Wiener, " 'My Beautiful Old House' and Other Fabrications by Edward Said," Commentary, September 1999.] Still, how many teenage readers of Footnotes in Gaza will doubt the alleged eyewitnesses' words, after several hundred pages of unrelenting Israeli barbarism? On the contrary, they are more than likely to concur with Sacco's conclusion: the reason the Arabs wage war against Israel is that the Israelis' massacre of Gazans "planted hatred in their hearts."
This view of course requires pretending that the Arabs did not have hatred in their hearts prior to 1956; that they did not try to throw the Jews into the sea in 1948; and that they were not terrorizing Jews in the Holy Land long before 1948. But since the 1948 war appears in just a single panel of Footnotes in Gaza, and pre-1948 Arab violence is not mentioned at all, uninformed young readers simply will not know better.
Graphic novelist Harvey Pekar, for his part, is no less passionate than Sacco. He is simply less skilled than Sacco at prosecuting Israel. Pekar's posthumous Not the Israel My Parents Promised Me has no real plot-not unlike his "American Splendor" series of underground comics, which was a kind of Seinfeldesque series about nothing. The minutiae of Pekar's life as a file clerk in a Cleveland hospital comprised the centerpiece of the "Splendor" stories. Admittedly there was a certain unorthodox charm to this approach, particularly when the king of 1960s underground comics, Robert Crumb, illustrated some of Pekar's stories. Soon, however, the novelty wears thin.
So it is in Not the Israel. Instead of exploiting the graphic novel medium's inherent suitability for character development, revealing body language, and suspense, Pekar and artist JT Waldman, appearing as themselves, do little more than wander around a bookstore and library, while Pekar delivers tiresome lectures on Jewish history.
Never having visited Israel, Pekar's own connections consisted of childhood memories of his parents' Zionism and occasional classroom discussions when he attended Hebrew school. He breezes through several millenia with generalities ("The next 500 years were pretty rough for the Jews"), but his familiarity with the history of the conflict is put to the test as soon as he reaches the modern era. Arab pogroms against Jews in Palestine the 1920s and 1930s are reduced to "the Jews and Arabs took turns attacking each other." There is no mention of the British White Paper that kept Jews trapped in Hitler's Europe. The Roosevelt administration's abandonment of European Jewry is glossed over in half a sentence. The Allies don't "discover" the Holocaust until war's end, in 1945.
Israel's creation, in 1948, gives Pekar a brief jolt of pride, but disillusionment sets in all too soon. An Israeli consular official in Chicago is rude to him. A "Jewish Trotskyist friend" tells Pekar that Israel is "racist." Some pro-Israel relatives at his parents' Passover seder mouth "bigoted stuff against gentiles." Before long, Pekar has come up with his own explanation for the entire Israeli-Arab conflict: "A lot of Israelis came from Eastern Europe, where they had been abused for centuries. They thought turnabout on gentiles was fair play." He presents no evidence to back up this theory; he just says it.
Pekar's caricature of modern Israel will raise eyebrows. He accuses Israel of obstructing peace by "putting scattered handfuls of Jews in Gaza," seemingly oblivious to the withdrawal of all Israelis from that region seven years ago. (Waldman adds to the absurdity with his settlement-construction scene: a settler, with a saw in hand, tells his comrade, "Hold that board steady, Chaim Yankel!") Pekar charges "chauvinist Orthodox Jews" (represented by the floating heads of menacing-looking rabbis) with causing "stoppage of all air traffic during the Sabbath," evidently unaware that numerous airlines, except Israel's El Al, do fly in and out of Israel on Saturdays. He blasts Israel for "building walls around [the Palestinians]," even though the much-ballyhooed wall does not surround anybody, but stands on one side of the Palestinians, that is, the side through which suicide bombers used to (and still sometimes try to) pass.
Suicide bombers, however, do not exist in Harvey Pekar's Israel. Palestinian terrorist attacks in general are trivialized as "atrocities on both sides." When the cartoon figure of artist Waldman finally gets in a word edgewise, it is to offer up this pearl of wisdom: "The Palesfinians have no chance for a livelihood, so they end up shooting rockets at Israelis 'came they're like, We got nothing else to do.'"
It is not likely Harvey Pekar's parents ever promised him Israeli bureaucrats would be polite, El Al would fly on Saturday, or the Jewish state would be popular among "Trotskyists," much less among unemployed Gazans. Unless they were extremely naive, the Pekars probably realized Israel would be imperfect, but that for all its flaws, Israel would still be the good guy in this fight. One wonders what they would have thought of their son's decision to use his talents as a comic book writer, in the final months of his life, to malign the Jewish State for which they longed.
One might feel relieved that Pekar did not make full use of the advantages of the graphic novel format to do even more violence to the historical record. But the fact that it could have been worse is not much comfort when one realizes there may not be anybody on hand to counter the aforementioned inaccuracies when the average student reads Not the Israel My Parents Promised Me.
While Sacco and Pekar strive for realism, Guy Delisle uses humor and stranger-in-a-strange-land innocence in his new graphic novel, Jerusalem: Chronicles from the Holy City. It is a technique that has served him well in his three previous cartoon-travelogues, of North Korea, Burma, and China.
Delisle, unlike Sacco and Pekar, does not give the impression of having ventured forth with a political agenda. Nonetheless, the circumstances of his visit to Jerusalem probably militated against an entirely objective perspective. His wife, Nadege, was assigned by Doctors Without Borders to work for a year in the Palestinian Authority-controlled territories. As a result, the Delisle family lived in an Arab neighborhood of Jerusalem and socialized mostly with Western journalists, NGO staffers, and visiting political activists whose sympathies were not with Israel.
Sure enough, within days of Delisle's arrival, acquaintances are pressing him to refrain from shopping in the Jewish neighborhood across the street, Pisgat Ze'ev, became it is, in their view, an illegal settlement. Several talk him into accompanying them to a demonstration against an Israeli checkpoint, which they denounce without any explanation as to what the Israelis are checking, or why. Ultimately, though, it is hard to spend time in Jerusalem without old assumptions being challenged. Delisle soon discovers, for example, that Arabs shop in Pisgat Ze'ev and that there are non-Jews, including Arabs, among its residents. He and Nadege even end up as Shabbat dinner guests of a "settler" family that defies the image their critics have popularized.
The book's low point is Delisle's account of Operation Cast Lead, Israel's military response to waves of rockets fired from Gaza in late 2008. Sderot and other Israeli towns battered by Hamas rockets are not even mentioned. In this version, there are no rockets or Israeli victims, only "Israel's attack on Gaza" and Palestinian casualties (which a top Doctors Without Borders official compares to the Darfur genocide). This section concludes with a graph showing the wide disparity between Israeli and Palestinian fatalities from Operation Cast Lead, as if a body count reveals which side is to blame. A similar chart of American and German casualties in World War II could likewise yield morally muddled conclusions as to who was the aggressor and who was the victim.
Not that Delisle's skewed description of the Gaza war is typical of Jerusalem: Chronicles from the Holy City. On the contrary, most of it is an entertaining jaunt through the complex world of modern Jerusalem. Delisle employs a charmingly simplistic artistic style to present slice-of-life vignettes ranging from his teaching of cartooning to veiled Muslim women at Al-Quds University, to the foibles of Christian factions wrestling over each square foot of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. In an earlier time, a book that looks like this probably would be placed in the "Humor" section of libraries and bookstores. Today, however, it is just as likely to be considered alongside conventional studies of history, politics, or religion--which is what makes its more serious portions a source of concern.
While nobody was looking, cartoonists have edged their way onto the turf of traditional historians, by finding new and compelling ways to talk about history-ways that will bring more young people into the conversation than ever before. All things being equal, the rise of the serious graphic novel would be cause for celebration. Those who are dismayed by teenagers' preference for YouTube over books cannot help but smile hopefully when the New York Times cites a graphic novel about history as "one of the few contemporary works" on the subject that is "likely to outlive the era in which they were written." Until, that is, they see The Times is speaking of Joe Sacco's Footnotes in Gaza, and shudder at the prospect of it being taken seriously for decades to come. The new reality is that in the years ahead, an increasing portion of the younger generation may be learning about Israel and Jewish history from graphic novels as much as from conventional history books. If historians want to remain relevant, and if Israel's friends want to keep pace in the information wars ahead, they will need to recognize which way the wind is blowing, and respond accordingly.
RAFAEL MEDOFF's next book, Cartoonists Against the Holocaust, coauthored with Craig Yoe, will be published in 2013.)
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|Date:||Jan 1, 2013|
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