Sarah Glidden's Israel

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January 19, 2011

For her first graphic novel, a memoir provocatively titled How to Understand Israel in 60 Days or Less, author and cartoonist Sarah Glidden recounts her free trip to Israel on a Birthright tour. Despite her heritage as an American Jew, Glidden is staunchly pro-Palestinian; she wants to see the country firsthand, but more than that, she expects the trip to confirm her opinion of Israel as an oppressive, trigger-happy state.

Soon after arriving, however, she quickly finds herself confused by her burgeoning sense of connection to the place, as well as by her own political baggage: “I’m Jewish, so that means I’m supposed to support Israel no matter what, right?” she asks at one point. “But according to a lot of people, any support for the Palestinians means that you don’t support Israel. At the same time, when it comes to politics, I’m left-wing and progressive. And if you’re progressive, you’re supposed to be an anti-Israel… So see?” she concludes, “I’m stuck!”

It’s a disquieting entanglement, one that rang particularly true for me because it echoed something I discovered seven years ago, during my freshman year at the University of Michigan. Though I had never been on Birthright, I had visited Israel twice on organized trips and developed an interest in the conflict. I wasn’t sure about the precise details of my views, nor where I fell on the spectrum of Middle East political activism in the U.S., but I knew, at the time, that I wanted to be part of the conversation.

So I joined a pro-Israel student group that seemed open-minded enough. There were just as many pro-Palestinian clubs as pro-Israel ones on campus; unlike many other major metropolitan areas, which skew Jewish, the suburbs of Detroit are also home to a large Arab population. What’s more, Ann Arbor is strewn with reminders of its former progressive glory — Students for a Democratic Society held its first meeting there in 1960 — and aging liberals still guard street corners with poster-board signs championing freedom for the Palestinians.

Mix a few Northwest flights from LaGuardia filled with East Coast Jewish teens into this left-wing, Arab-populated society and I quickly learned that what results is something resembling a catfight. Successions of rallies and counter-rallies were much more the norm than informed debate. Pro-Palestinian and pro-Israel editorials and op-eds alternated daily in the school newspaper, passed off as some sort of dialogue when, in reality, they were a thinly veiled disguise for a shouting match.

For Glidden, that shouting match takes place internally. As the weight of her political affiliations bears down on her, the trip starts to turn into an emotional rollercoaster. She pulls us along carefully, though: as an active skeptic, she constantly asks questions that anticipate many of ours. In turn we trust her and her intelligence, making her breakdowns feel all the more honest and painful. She visualizes these moments poignantly, too, as with a six-panel montage that depicts the violence of the conflict — from the brutality of the Nazis to that of present-day checkpoints for Palestinians — chasing her crying self down a Tel Aviv street. Later, after having been rushed through Israel’s Holocaust museum, Yad Vashem, only to be given an hour of free time in a mall, she envisions ghostly concentration camp prisoners sitting in the food court and riding the escalator.

Ultimately, of course, the conflation of the personal and the political is unavoidable, particularly in Israel, where the simple fact of what neighborhood, city, or part of the country you live in has implications far beyond yourself. “What does it mean to live in ‘disputed territory’?” Glidden asks. “Do you just ignore the controversy and try to live your life like normal? Or does it define you?” As for me, I couldn’t help but take things personally, either. I saw Michigan’s campus as a microcosm of the larger world, and it left me fairly hopeless. If we couldn’t talk amongst ourselves in the Midwest, how could we expect anyone to do so in the Middle East? And why, I wondered, did one have to enlist as pro-Israel or pro-Palestinian — why not identify as pro-peace? A few weeks after joining the pro-Israel group, I quit in frustration.

In retrospect, I was idealistic and naïve to expect people to simply get over themselves long enough to talk about the conflict. We can’t step out of our skins for political debates; in fact, they may push us further into ourselves than we’d like. But the first step undoubtedly involves civility, something those in the Middle East often lose sight of or can’t attain. Partly that means humanizing the conflict — meeting and talking to Israelis and Palestinians so that they become more than mythic inhabitants of a warring Middle-earth.

In this task, Glidden does come up short, at least by her own standards: Despite a long-standing intention to visit the West Bank, her nerves about the prospect of traveling into Ramallah keep her from doing so. As she sits in a theater in Jerusalem watching a play, she thinks about how comfortable she feels in a room full of like-minded Jews. “I’m ashamed to admit to myself that I like this feeling of being in this room,” she writes. “I’m even more ashamed at how much I didn’t like being outside of it.” In the next panel, this acute self-awareness is complemented by a subtle display of her powerful imagination: she and her travel companion, Melissa, sit in the front row of the theater, where we have already seen them, only now their fellow audience members are outfitted as Israeli soldiers, forming a sea of green army uniforms stretching to the back of the space.

This combination of traits makes Glidden an engaging narrator and How to Understand Israel a compelling memoir. Appropriately, the book’s final resolution is largely personal, though, of course, with political applications as well: Glidden simply realizes that she doesn’t need anyone to sanction her point of view on the situation. Further, she accepts that she doesn’t completely know what that point of view is yet, and “maybe I never will.” This, she seems to say, is the secret to understanding Israel: accept that you don’t really understand, and try your best to make sense of it anyway.

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