Questioning her birthright

In her drawings and caricatures of American tourists and a few Israelis, the author has captured a very small slice of life.

Masada 521 (photo credit:
Masada 521
(photo credit:
The best thing that can be said about Sarah Glidden’s glib, dyspeptic attempt to present her experience in Israel in graphic novel form is that she tells the truth about her experience and point of view.
How to Understand Israel is the story of her March 2007 Birthright Israel trip, in which she toured the country for 10 days and then spent a few more days in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv. It isn’t 60 days or less; at best, it’s something like 20 days or less.
Glidden, born in Boston in 1980, has been drawing comics for several years and won the prestigious Ignatz Award for her work.
The graphic novel begins in Newark, where she takes leave of her Pakistani boyfriend, Jamil, to board a flight to Israel to join one of the numerous Birthright trips that provide young Jewish men and women a chance to see the country. The narration and illustrations follow what is apparently a typical itinerary. A trip to the Golan Heights reveals Katzrin, the largest town there, and a view of Mount Hermon; the author notes that “it reminds me of ‘Mount Doom’ from the Lord of the Rings.” The next day finds Glidden enjoying the sunrise on the Sea of Galilee. A quick trip to Kibbutz Deganya, some less than gratifying kibbutz food, and the group is off again to Tel Aviv.
The participants meet IDF soldiers and visit Independence Hall. The speaker explains that “everyone thinks that Israelis are so tough. But you don’t get used to terrorism... Maybe we make mistakes and maybe we do things you don’t like, but we love this country.”
The author conjures up a motif of a drunk man at a wedding: “Some of us experience Israel as a crazy uncle... to publicly reject him would expose our family’s shame.”
Chapter 5 brings the author to the desert, where she experiences Beduin culture and David Ben-Gurion’s retirement home at Sde Boker. Then it’s on to Masada, the famous Jewish fortress that held out against the Roman army, and last but not least, Jerusalem.
In her drawings and caricatures of American tourists and a few Israelis, the author has captured, correctly, a very small slice of life. But one can’t really say that the reader is being made to “understand” Israel. The author meets almost no Israelis. She desires to spend her post- Birthright time trying to get to Ramallah to visit some peace activist named Hussein, but, frustrated in her attempts, she goes to a lecture at the Shalom Hartman Institute instead. Most of Israel’s diverse population doesn’t figure in her story at all. The only Russians she meets are cutting her in line, and no Ethiopian Jews, Sephardi Jews or Druse appear. For her, Israel is the kibbutz, a few soldiers and the Beduin.
Perhaps this is not entirely Glidden’s fault; Birthright designed the trip.
However, the reader may not be expecting the author’s endless cynicism – primarily because she doesn’t state up front that her view of Israel prior to the trip was one of intense hatred and criticism. At times she asks probing questions – “What does it mean to live in ‘disputed territory’? Do you just ignore the controversy and try to live your life like normal or does it define you?” In the second chapter, after learning the history of the Golan, she shouts, “I knew it! This whole trip is going to be a regional propaganda tool!” At Deganya, when learning the history of the kibbutz, she exclaims, “None of you are thinking of the consequences of your actions! What you’re a part of will escalate into war in which thousands of [Arabs] will lose their homes.” At a bar, she complains that “the whole Palestinian situation really makes it hard to focus on the good.” She scoffs at having to see “another speech about the poor victimized Jews who bravely built something out of nothing.” In Chapter 4, Glidden draws, side by side, sketches of Nazis murdering Jews and the Israeli army in the Palestinian territories. Of the Beduin she writes, “To have to display a bastardized version of their nearly dead culture to the cousins [i.e., American Jews] of the very people responsible for its death is just cruel.”
The author’s viewpoint is that of the American Jewish extreme Left: “I always thought that that Israel was more wrong because it has all the power... I just wonder if it’s really right for Israel to be a Jewish state?” She has a narrow-minded hatred of Orthodox Jews, which she illustrates in her comic, stemming from one experience with one person. It is perhaps ironic, since she condemns those who judge all Palestinians based on the actions of a few.
When she illustrates her travels to China or Istanbul, she is awed by the local myths and wonders, but in Israel everything is a complaint, a piece of Jewish propaganda, from Masada to Deganya. One wonders why it is that hypercritical Jews like Glidden can find awe in everything but their own culture and history.
It would be a shame if people thought that Glidden’s viewpoint was typical of American Jews or of Birthright participants. It would be a greater shame if anyone thought the book could help them understand Israel.