Moving beyond the Big Three
Unexpected pleasures

Reading Palestine

I'm a big fan of comics and graphic novels. And I've known for a long time that the medium, despite its reputation for shallowness, can tell important stories: look at Art Spiegelman's Maus, Marjane Satrapi's Persepolis, Howard Cruse's Stuck Rubber Baby. So I suspected I was in for a powerful experience when I picked up Joe Sacco's Palestine.

Sacco spent two months with Palestinians in the Occupied Territories in 1991 and 1992, travelling and taking notes. Upon returning to the States, he wrote and drew Palestine, which recounts his experiences there. He's a journalist, basically, but instead of writing prose, he writes comics. Sacco appears in the book (we see him, notebook in hand, travelling through the Territories in search of people to interview), and leavens the story by poking fun at himself. His voiceover frequently exults at getting the vicarious thrill of engaging with tragedy, even as it's clear he knows he can only handle it because it's not really his life.

He doesn't shy away from the ugliness of this story. There's a lot of hatred over there, and Sacco doesn't flinch from it. Many of the Palestinians in this book hate the Israelis or hate Jews, so if you're a Jewish reader, let me warn you that reading this book is really difficult. It may make your chest tighten with anger and fear. It may make you feel threatened and attacked.

The thing is, almost everyone in this book has been beaten. Arrested for no discernible reason. Held for days or weeks in a prison cell with too many people and not enough toilets. Many have been shot. Many have been tortured. Many have had their olive groves chopped down because molotov-cocktail-throwers might try to hide in them. Most are out of work. All have lost loved ones. And while I do not argue that this list of sorrows justifies suicide bombings (and, to be clear, I don't think Sacco's book argues that, either), it sure puts Palestinian anti-Israel sentiment in context.

Yeah, this book was hard to read because it's hard for me to see anti-Semitism on paper. And yeah, a lot of these people are anti-Semitic, and most are anti-Zionist. But this book was harder to read because looking at what Israeli policy has done to the Palestinians breaks my heart. There's no way to maintain my comfortable fantasies about Israeli justice or inherent Jewish righteousness in the face of this book. You can argue, as some do, that the Palestinians deserve what they get because they can't control their extremists; you can argue, as some do, that it's not unethical for Shin Bet to torture people "within reason." But for my part, I didn't realize quite how bad things were for most Palestinians, and now that I've confronted it, I can't accept those arguments anymore.

The only thing I know for sure is that the situation the Middle East is complicated and painful and full of anger and hurt on all sides. I don't know how to fix it, and I know that my vague notions of "two-state solution" and "peace process" and "respecting the humanity of both sides" are easy platitudes to spout from where I sit a million miles away. But it seems to me that what's happening now is feeding the problem, not solving it. The way the Palestinians live -- their refugee-camp lives, the constant fear of arrests and torture, the lack of work permits, the chopped-down olive groves -- is perpetuating the problem, because how could one grow up like that and not hate the people responsible?

It is hard for those of us who have a vested interest in one side of the situation to acknowledge the other side of the story. I'm pretty far left and even I have a hard time opening my eyes to Palestinian realities. But I have an obligation to open my eyes; I think we all do.

This is the season for teshuvah. During this month Jews reorient ourselves to face God, we do the spiritual housecleaning necessary for atonement and repentance, we face what's difficult and what's important in order to settle our accounts with our Source for the coming year. Reading Palestine is part of my teshuvah process, and I urge other Jews to join me. It is not easy. It is not comfortable. It will make you angry. It may make you weep. But it is important.

Every angry, broken person in the Middle East -- Israeli and Palestinian alike -- is a face of God, and a creation of God, and we owe it to them (and to ourselves) to engage with their stories. It's easy to ignore statistics and news stories; it's harder to willfully blind ourselves to the real stories of real people. Sacco brings those real stories to life, in a way that's artistic and journalistic and funny and poignant and gut-wrenchingly sad.

Is it the whole story? No, of course not, and it doesn't aim to be. Sacco engages with a few Israelis late in the book, but clearly that's not his main focus. I wouldn't argue that this book tells the whole story from both sides. But as an American Jew, I've heard the Israeli side of the story my whole life; when I went to Israel in 1998, I saw the Israeli side of the story in person. I didn't really know the Palestinian side of the story, and I allowed myself to remain oblivious because it was easier to feel good that way. But there's something cowardly about that, I think. If I can't maintain my faith in the benevolence of the universe with my eyes open, then it's not real faith...and if I can't face what's difficult in the world, then I'm allowing myself to be numbed. And how can I face God on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur with blinders on my eyes?

Because I am an American Jew, and because there's such a close connection (for good or ill) between the American Jewish diaspora and Israel, I feel some complicity here. Maybe that's part of why this is so hard for me to read. Many of Sacco's images remind me of Spiegelman's images of concentration camps; but this time the bad guys are Jews, like me. It sounds naive to say that this shakes me to the core, but it does.

It may be that simply opening my eyes to Palestinian realities isn't enough. The rabbis asked "which is greater, study or action?" and Rabbi Akiva answered, "study, if it leads to action." I'm not sure how to take action on this one; it feels so vast and so broken that I can't imagine how to fix it (and don't want to be guilty of American paternalism in assuming I know better than those who are really embroiled in it). Maybe someday I'll return to Israel and cross into the Territories to replant olive trees, as some rabbis I know have done. Right now urging other Jews to read this book and consider its stories seems like a first step.

Please consider reading this book before the Days of Awe; see how it informs your teshuvah process. As it is written in Pirke Avot: it is not incumbent upon us to finish the task, but neither are we free to refrain from beginning it.