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

– D. Schwartz


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