Funnybook Babylon

May 22, 2008

Reverse Jerusalem Syndrome, or Stories About The Land With the Broken Heart

Filed under: Reviews — Tags: , , — Jamaal Thomas @ 5:44 pm

“In Israel, cats like me see the shadows of another choice.”
-Ta-Nehisi Coates


In my personal experience, discussions of Israel, particularly with people who have never visited it, rarely focus on the ordinary lives of the people who reside there. For some, Israel stands as a lonely bulwark of Western liberalism in a reactionary region, while for others, its very existence signifies the dark legacy of Western imperialism. There is a tendency to treat Israel as a metaphor, or as a vehicle for competing religious and cultural narratives, which does it a great disservice. Even though Israel is explicitly a project to construct a lasting Jewish state (with all of the conflict that entails), it is also a society and a culture that should not only be viewed through a geopolitical lens. But it’s really difficult to fully understand the true inner life of any culture without personally experiencing it.

As a result, it’s refreshing to read comics that detail the experiences and viewpoints of a person visiting Israel for the first time. How to Understand Israel in 60 Days or Less, by Sarah Glidden is the story of a woman who travels to Israel on a Birthright: Israel trip. Glidden’s book is published in the form of two mini-comics.

The narrative of How to Understand Israel unfolds like a story told by an old college acquaintance. The protagonist (Glidden herself) is a Jewish American woman who has some fully formed opinions about Israel, but decides to go on a ‘birthright’ trip to the nation in order to see things with her own eyes. Taglit- Birthright: Israel is an organization that provides trips for young Jewish people (aged 8-26) to give them an educational experience in Israel, which is intended to strengthen Jewish identity. The first book serves as an introduction to the nation of Israel itself, full of societal tensions and paradoxes. Even the individuals operating the ‘birthright’ trip (designed to encourage Jewish immigration) have mixed emotions about Israel’s occupation of the territories and some of Israel’s more controversial security measures (i.e., the security fence). One gets the impression that Glidden originally intended to confront those with differing perspectives, but found it difficult to do so when she actually encountered Israelis who were living in the situation, especially in the first chapter. The reasons for this approach become clearer in the second chapter, in the debate the group has over a promotional video for the Golan Heights. Although the land originally belonged to Syria, one of the tourists points out that it was used as a launching pad for terrorist attacks on kibbutzes. It was a vulnerability that Israel found unacceptable. On the other hand, after the Six Day War, innocent Syrian villagers were unable to return to their homes.

Now I know what you’re thinking. It sounds like a tedious Newsweek article. But to her credit, Glidden tells this story through anecdotes told in casual conversations between strangers on the tour. The book is filled with little moments of levity, ranging from the mock-trial convened in her mind over the comments made by one of the trip’s chaperones, to the ‘Jewish ZZTop”.

Despite those effort, the conversations between the characters often read like monologues, which makes the book a bit of a difficult read. At points, I felt as though I was reading a series of insightful blog posts on the topic of Israel. There are times when one thinks that Glidden’s book would work better as a set of essays than as a comic book. Glidden has real talent as a comic book storyteller, and her narrative may have been better served by a greater reliance on her art to tell her story. Glidden’s art style is simple, and she draws in a blurry, almost sketch like style, and her backgrounds are clear and evocative. The visual storytelling in the comic shows a great deal of promise, and I look forward to her future work.

How to Understand Israel in 60 Days or Less can be purchased from Sarah Glidden here.


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