The War of Independence: The graphic novel

Books: A story of the buildup and chaos, through the lens of one family’s experience.

Jerusalem: The Story of a city and a family 521 (photo credit: Courtesy First Second)
Jerusalem: The Story of a city and a family 521
(photo credit: Courtesy First Second)
The story of the War of Independence is a complex and fascinating topic. Although much has been written about the war, it is such a large canvas, with so many tragedies, heroes and characters, that it is forever new. In Jerusalem: The Story of a City and a Family, the reader is treated to the story of the buildup and chaos of the war, through the lens of one family’s experience.
The book is illustrated by Nick Bertozzi, who has completed other graphic novels; however, it is based on family stories told to author Boaz Yakin. Yakin is a screenwriter and film director based in New York, and he chose to focus on Jerusalem during the war as “a single portrait added to the immense gallery of portraits of a tiny, strategically and economically insignificant desert hamlet, which has for 2,000 years proven unparalleled in inspiring passions and dreams.”
The graphic novel focuses on the life of the Halaby family, which moved to Jerusalem in 1894 and lives near the city’s Mahaneh Yehuda market. The author notes that at the time, it was a “poverty-stricken neighborhood populated by a motley mix of Jews from all across the Middle East… as well as a contingent of Ashkenazi Jews from Eastern European countries.”
The book’s story plays out against the backdrop of a sibling rivalry that seems biblical in origin. Rabbi Ismail Halaby of Aleppo (Halaby is the Arabic word for Aleppo) had two sons, Yakov and Izak – the more beloved of the two. “Yakov, overcome by jealousy at the attention lavished on his brother, vowed never to allow Izak a moment’s peace.” By late 1945, the two brothers are estranged and Yakov is suing Izak for back rent from the family’s small apartment.
The story is primarily the coming-of- age narrative of Motti Halaby, the youngest of the five children of Izak. When the book opens, Motti is attending a French school at the famed Ratisbonne Monastery in Jerusalem. He always seems to be getting into trouble, failing in his studies, arguing with the priests, fighting with his friends – as if he is lost in life.
This forms the arc of the novel, for Motti is trapped in a family that one can only call dysfunctional. His older brother, Avraham, serves with the British Army in World War II, and comes home to British Mandate Palestine in 1945 as a stern former soldier and Communist agitator. His middle brother, David, who he is closest to, joins the army at the very end of the war and ends up serving in the Jewish Brigade of the British Army, helping Jewish refugees come to Palestine. The youngest brother, Ezra, is an underground fighter in the rightwing Irgun. The notion is apparently to portray a family divided by politics, as if they are symbolic of the divisions of the Jewish people in the period.
The women of the family are not shown as politically inclined. The mother, Emily, is a narcissistic, quibbling banshee, who constantly criticizes her ne’er-do-well husband, Izak, and tears out her hair over the “problems” caused by her children. At one point, a woman named Sylvia turns up and claims she has married David while in Rome, after the war. As David is still serving in the army, she has come to Palestine to live.
Emily quizzes Sylvia on her worthiness for her son. “Your hands are like meat hooks, my son would never have taken a wife with such hands.” Emily plainly feels Sylvia is too low-class and her cooking is terrible – nothing she does is right.
Finally, Sylvia breaks under the pressure: “This is a family? You share the same roof over your heads but since the day I came here, I’ve never heard one kind word – not for me, not for one another… you’re like a pack of wild dogs locked together in a cage.”
Sylvia’s wrath for these “wild dogs” is set against the backdrop of a country torn apart by war, war between Jewish fighters and the British, and between Arabs and Jews. Avraham, the Communist, is full of naïve views about peace and coexistence.
Even as Jerusalem is surrounded in 1948 by the Jordanian Legion and Arab fighters, he preaches peace: “A man never fights because he’s strong, he fights because he isn’t strong enough.”
Avraham has befriended Elias Habash, an Arab from the village of Deir Yassin and leader in the Jerusalem chapter of the Communist Party. This story seems concocted so that the massacre of Deir Yassin can form part of the book and play into the narrative of the dispute between Ezra, the fighter, and Avraham the leftist. But there is something contrived about this story. While “Elias Habash” is a very Christian Arab name, and most Arab leaders of the Palestine Communist Party were Christians, there were no Christians in Deir Yassin according to the British 1945 census.
Either way, the novel doesn’t present a one-sided view of events, in that it tries to explain the motivations of each character, and there is little political preaching.
The book is beautifully illustrated in black and white. Some familiarity with the history of Israel and the War Of Independence is necessary to understand a few of the references.
However, in its attention to detail about Jerusalem and the period, it is spot on.
At its heart, Jerusalem: The Story of a City and a Family is a very nice contribution to the existing body of graphic novels about Israel.