Not the Israel His Parents Promised

Jeff holds his loved ones to a higher standard.

I was never Harvey Pekar’s biggest fan.  He hovered over life’s unremarkable moments in a way that I found well, thoroughly unremarkable.  There is a line between life and art.  And when it came to American Splendor, the comic-book series for which Mr. Pekar is famous, Harvey crossed that line time and time again.   Here’s Harvey at the drugstore, Harvey getting directions, Harvey babysitting—the parade of unvarnished, and frankly, uninteresting anecdotes marched along with an almost methodical disregard for all that is aesthetic about existence.

And of course, that was part of the point.  American Splendor was supposed to be about the life of the everyman depicted in all his quotidian glory.  Harvey gave us this life.  But he never gave us the reason for its depiction.  One could argue, as I’m sure many have, that Harvey aestheticized the unaesthetic simply because it had been neglected for so long.  But if that’s the case then American Splendor merely serves to remind us of why; it does not persuade us, or at least this reviewer, that things ought to be otherwise—that what we need are more comics about drugstores, navigation and babysitting.

Foes of American Splendor, and perhaps some of its fans, will take heart in knowing that Harvey Pekar’s latest (and last) work, Not The Israel My Parents Promised Me, is not like this.  It takes up the weighty theme (a theme!) of Harvey’s evolving and oftentimes ambivalent attitude toward Zionism.  The story is set in Cleveland where Harvey and JT Waldman, the book’s resourceful illustrator, are discussing their forthcoming graphic novel—the one you’re reading.  As the two roam about Harvey’s hometown they consider what it would take for readers to emerge with a big-picture perspective on the Jews, the State of Israel, and the relationship of both to the author.

Harvey Pekar and JT Waldman browsing for used books.

The book delivers on this, weaving together anecdotes from Harvey’s Jewish upbringing and highlights (flashpoints mostly) from the history of the Jewish people.  The yarn that emerges is equal parts Hebrew School and Khmelnytsky.  But the effect is something more: an evocation of the historicized Jewish consciousness.  Incidents from Harvey’s own life are here transvalued into continuations of a centuries-long struggle for Jewish continuity.  Thus, Rome’s conquest of Palestine follows on the heels of Harvey’s torah reading, the author’s present taking on the drama of his people’s past.

It is in this context that Israel emerges—a symbol of Jewish endurance after so many years of predation.  The State’s mythic dimension, its aura of historical vindication, comes across with an earnestness usually relegated to Zionism’s religious ranks.  In this way, Mr. Pekar does the Jewish narrative admirable justice even as he goes on to question the entitlements of its protagonists.

Harvey Pekar’s final memoir, featuring JT Waldman, will be available in July from Hill & Wang.

Questioning is eventually established as the novel’s central motif, one that gains prominence during Harvey’s account of The Six-Day War, and ultimately sets the tone for the remainder of his reminiscences.  With the end of ’67 Israel went “on to take the Golan Heights from Syria, The West Bank…from Jordan, and most of the Sinai Peninsula from Egypt.”  While Harvey remembers being proud of Israel for winning against all odds he also recalls being disconcerted by his Leftist friends, those who wondered whether “the Arabs living over there” would ever get “a fair shake.”

But despite the land-for-peace theories that might have given them one, the Palestinians “were so humiliated by the war” that they refused to negotiate.  Then came the Jewish settlers who, with Begin’s blessing, began moving into the Occupied Territories, sabotaging Israel’s “best chance for lasting peace.”  Harvey goes on to denounce the continuing occupation, the settlements and the increasing chauvinism of Israel’s Orthodox when it comes to things like marriage and conversion.  His criticisms are commonplace, though no less damning as a result.  Less commonplace is his frank, uncompromising tone.  Here’s Harvey putting things plainly, as only he can:

I know that we Jews have been the most viciously persecuted ethnic group to survive.  We were scattered from our homeland, yet after 2,000 years we’ve come back to regain some of it.  But the Palestinian Arabs are not going anywhere.  Their ancestors lived on the same land.  They still live in Palestine.  And as long as they do, they will fight for independence.

It is shortly thereafter that Harvey makes his most sobering observation—that “the Jews…are not making a serious effort to come up with a two-state solution.”  Of course this view, and this portion of the book in general, will draw fire from the usual corners for the usual reasons.  In fact, this is something of which Mr. Pekar seems acutely aware, and may explain his repeated attempts at preemption.  At one point JT Waldman warns, “People will just say you’re heckling from the sidelines and that your point of view is skewed and negative.” “Find me a textbook or newscaster who isn’t biased,” Harvey retorts.

In another of these self-conscious moments JT asks, “how [do] you…have a two-state solution when you don’t have a partner on the other side?” Harvey’s response: “Well, what you do is…you stay out of there and don’t go populating the settlements and the border with hundreds of thousands of people they can terrorize!”  Harvey doesn’t address all the points on which his detractors are likely to harp: Arafat, Hamas, The Second Intifada, Palestinian rejectionism. But he is sure to remind us that “there are plenty of other places that people can get a blow-by-blow of historical events,” and that he has intentionally avoided rehashing “every detail of every failed attempt at peace over the last 30 years.”

Israelites roam the land of Canaan in Harvey’s whirlwind tour of the Jewish past.

Despite the criticisms that can be made—the book’s highly abbreviated account of modern Israeli history (precisely that history on which so many of its arguments depend), its omission of Israel’s many liberal accomplishments—one finishes with the sense that Harvey has made his point.  This is simply not the Israel his parents promised him.  This is not a country animated by the idealism the Pekars embodied, one that combined the imagining of new social forms—Harvey’s mother was a Communist—with a special antipathy for ethnic oppression.

Nor is this the country the Jews seemed to promise.  By parents we can take Harvey to mean his mother and father, but we can also take him to mean his Jewish ancestry.  Harvey’s disillusionment with the Jewish State is only exacerbated by his deep respect for the Jewish people, a people whose commitment to justice he always admired.  The Jews, insofar as Israel represents them, have not made good on this commitment, or at least not as good as Harvey would have hoped.  “I thought the Jews were different,” he muses, “straight shooters who would never grab more than what they deserved.”  Harvey’s profound sense of national pride is unmistakable throughout Not The Israel, but it is a pride earned through merit.

Some may object to the standard Harvey holds the Jews.  When he asserts that “Israeli treatment of Palestinians eats at Jewish claims of fairness,” we may well wonder if anyone could have fared better.  But I suspect Harvey, who died in July of 2010, would have bristled at this, thundering, as he does near the end of his book, “I do know the difference between right and wrong.”


Harvey Pekar
1939-2010

– D. Schwartz

Vote Attack (Or non-vote attack, to be precise)

Jeff votes. I die.

Who knew that people take voting so seriously?

Yesterday, over lunch, I got into a bit of a heated debate with a fellow intern about my voting habits. The conversation, which began with the respectful, but always provocative, question “Can I ask you a personal question” quickly turned personal. The personal question (which should not be placed in the “personal questions” cupboard next to “Have you ever had a venereal disease” or “What are the first 9 digits of your Social Security number”) was “Whom will you be voting for in the next election?” Slightly disappointed that the question didn’t concern the beanie resting on my Yiddishe kop or the undressed salad adorning my plate, I responded with my usual spiel about “rational non-voting.” I explained that, in one sense, my voting in a large national election would be extremely irrational because the probability that my vote would decide the election is infinitesimally small. I added that I simply could not muster up enough excitement about any particular candidate in the upcoming election to justify the effort of going to the polls. My non-vote would thus be “rational” in the sense that the costs of going out and voting (waiting in line, being accosted by campaign supporters, listening to ignoramuses discuss Obama’s “socialism” or Romney’s Mormonism at the polling place) would probably outweigh any personal benefits (be they emotional or expressive) I would get from casting my vote.

I knew I would probably have to address all the usual counter-arguments, and I did.

“What if everyone thought the way you do? Then nobody would vote!” Not everyone thinks the way I do, I told him. If they did, my vote would matter, and I would get off my rear and vote.

The rapper formerly known as P. Diddy votes. Do you?

“But you have a civic duty to take part in the the democratic process!” “Civic duty,” I argued, is not a transcendent moral idea, but a social norm to which I do not feel beholden. Besides, “civic duty” would only require that I participate in the electoral process. I could enter the voting booth, vote randomly, and have fulfilled my “civic duty.”

Then it got real personal.

“Why,” demanded my colleague, “do you even bother working at an organization that takes part in the fight to defend liberty (I work for an educational non-profit that aims to educate students about America’s founding and the principle of liberty) when you have no desire to effect change through the corresponding political process?”

Well!

In spite of its absurd, non-sequiturial nature, this question still really offended me. My coworker was either implying a) that by not voting I was only acting based on rational self-interest (in this context – translate: selfishness) and, therefore, that my dedication to my work at the foundation somehow contradicted my voting behavior, or b) that my work at the organization was as insignificant as a single vote in the upcoming election would be.

I tried to explain that my voting behavior was only based on rational self-interest because my vote would statistically add nothing to the benevolent cause of “defending liberty.” If my vote mattered, I would certainly vote for change! No dice. I tried to explain that my work at the foundation, unlike a single vote, added real marginal value to the organization and that I was having a recognizable, if small, positive impact on our cause. Once again, no dice.

The conversation thankfully concluded with the end of our lunch hour. But as I reflected on our exchange later that afternoon, I started to realize that my arguments about the irrationality of voting behavior and my personal cost/benefit calculus could never penetrate a more powerful force: My coworker’s steadfast devotion to the cause of voting qua voting. Voting, I came to realize, was my coworker’s Occupy Wall Street, his Animal Rights, his Darfur. And, when all the objective logic melted away, all he was left with was his personal schedule of values, the defining element of his own, totally valid, cost/benefit calculus. Maybe he loved voting so much because he felt a subjective sense of duty. Maybe he just loved the rush of pulling the lever. It didn’t matter. In the end, all that mattered was that he loved voting and that he thought others should too.

Some people love voting.

Others don’t.

I can dig that.

Note: Since this post’s publication, the author has decided to cast a vote in the upcoming presidential election.

 

– Winch

The Paranoid Style in Israeli Politics

A demonstrator outside Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert’s residence. 2007.
REUTERS | Yonathan Weitzman

Jeff “is a double sufferer, since he is afflicted not only by the real world, with the rest of us, but by his fantasies as well.”

Guy Bechor’s recent op-ed “Before We Lose Control” argues stridently for the immediate expulsion of Israel’s African immigrants.  Israel’s immigration woes are unique, Bechor argues, because the primary reason for “the infiltration” is not “to improve the lives of the Africans who came here.”  Rather:

 It turns out that in Israel there are those who want to exploit this to change our country’s demographic balance….A number of associations, NGOs and others have encouraged this African immigration to Israel. They begin by directing the emigration from the countries of origin, preserving it, preventing it from running into obstacles in the Sinai Peninsula, and providing it with a warm home in Israel.

Israel, it seems, has not merely been caught up in the problems of an impoverished, war-torn region, but has in fact fallen prey to a coordinated act of subversion.  For “what is the plan hatched in secret by those organizations of ‘human rights?’ When the numbers reach a quarter of a million or half a million…the organizations will turn to the High Court…demanding that Israel grant residency to these ‘immigrants.’”  This is not just “a war on immigration,” Bechor warns, “but a war over the continuation of the Jewish majority in Israel.”

As strange as Mr. Bechor’s version of the facts is (if these NGOs are indeed smoothing out a path through the Sinai they’re doing a terrible of job it), his version is all the more bizarre in its accounting of how those facts came to be.  His line of reasoning bears comparison with other writers who have found themselves embroiled in “social conflicts that involve ultimate schemes of values and that bring fundamental fears and hatreds…into political action.” These writers, or paranoids as Richard Hofstadter dubbed them, are people for whom “the central image is that of a vast and sinister conspiracy…set in motion to undermine and destroy a way of life.”

In his seminal essay “The Paranoid Style in American Politics,” Hofstadter argues that “the distinguishing thing about” paranoids is that they “regard…conspiracy as the motive force in historical events.”  Their interpretation of history, and I would add, Bechor’s interpretation, “is in this sense distinctly personal: decisive events are not taken as part of the stream of history, but as the consequences of someone’s will.”

Thus for Bechor, Israel’s current immigration debacle can indeed be thought of as a “war” in which there is an identifiable enemy to be resisted.  This may explain the rage in his account, one in which there are organizations that “bear direct responsibility for the new plague that has befallen Israel.”

But there is no real enemy here, or at least not the kind of enemy with whom one could wage war.  And indeed Israel’s search for an equitable immigration policy will only be hindered by Bechor’s hunt for an antagonist.

Sudanese refugees are detained by the Israeli army near the border with Egypt. 2007. REUTERS | Yonathan Weitzman

– D. Schwartz

The Burden of Doubt

Jeff is a seeker of truth. As such, he always accepts the burden of proof.

Lately, I’ve been thinking a lot about the process of doubt, its forms and its aims. Doubt can be the unyielding weapon of the rational skeptic, but it can also be a symptom of intellectual laziness. Its aim can be constructive, to identify the unshakeable truths of our existence. But it can also be nihilistic, dismissive of meaning or existence.

René Descartes, the 17th century French philosopher widely known as the “Father of Modern Philosophy” was the first philosopher to explicitly outline a method of doubt. In his Meditations on First Philosophy, Descartes undertakes a formidable challenge – to establish as truth that, and only that, which can be known beyond the shadow of a doubt. His goal is ultimately constructive; he seeks “to establish a firm and abiding superstructure in the sciences,” to affirm a set of universal truths (ontological and epistemological) on which science can rely and build. But in order to build this structure anew, he must first deconstruct his precarious tower of long-held assumptions.

Descartes’ method of doubt is one of deconstruction, not of demolition. He proceeds cautiously and deliberately, avoiding the temptation to take a wrecking ball to the foundation of his knowledge and start again from ground zero. He starts at the top, with his weakest assumptions, and proceeds downwards to his strongest. His method of doubt is not dismissive and hasty, but rational and charitable. He makes the case for that which he seeks to doubt as best he can, and only then does he poke holes in the fleshy vulnerabilities of the argument.

René Descartes, “Father of Modern Philosophy”

At first glance, Descartes’ method of doubt seems inefficient, an unnecessary chore that he could have bypassed with a simple proclamation of universal, undiscriminating doubt. Wouldn’t it have been easier to work with a blank slate, with a fresh plot of land from the very beginning?

Upon further inspection, however, Descartes’ deliberate, rational approach to doubt makes a lot of sense. For one, it is possible that some of Descartes’ pre-held assumptions withstand the penetrating scrutiny of the skeptic. Why rebuild the first few floors of an edifice when they are structurally sound?

But I’d like to pose another reason for Descartes’ deliberative rationality: The strength of his assumptions requires it. What exactly is Descartes up against in his quest to deconstruct his preconceived notions? Descartes writes, “All that I have, up to this moment, accepted as possessed of the highest truth and certainty, I received either from or through the senses.” Descartes understands that the ubiquity of human feeling, the reality of humankind’s sensual relationship with the universe presents a robust argument in favor of the existence of the object world. The ease with which I can point to a chair and affirm its existence (I can see, hear, feel, even taste it) places a burden of doubt squarely on the shoulders of the skeptic. And what a burden it is. Descartes could not have started his project by simply stating “that chair does not necessarily exist” because such a statement would seem ridiculous. Instead, Descartes elevates the debate from a sensual plane to a rational one, questioning the validity and reliability of sense data to begin with. He accepts the heavy burden of proof and runs with it.

All too often in our intellectual discourse, we utilize the wrecking ball method that Descartes rejects. We rebuff our ideological opponents’ foundational assumptions without giving much thought to the superstructure of thought supporting their ideas. How often do we engage in political or philosophical arguments and proclaim, victory already in hand, “the burden of proof is on you!” Descartes teaches us that, in order to be constructive, pursuit of truth requires charity and humility – respect for the intellect of others and a willingness to accept the burden of proof.

 

– Winch