Like many of you, I thought that the posthumously-published Harvey Pekar’s Cleveland was going to be the final work from this truly seminal American writer to ever see print, but happily we’ve all been proven wrong as publishers Hill & Wang have just released, in hardback no less, the stunning (in both literary and visual terms) Not The Israel My Parents Promised Me, the late, great Mr. Pekar’s examination of the state of Israel’s complex past, present, and potential futures, his evolving views on/relationship with that country as an American Jew (admittedly one with a thoroughly iconoclastic perspective), and hey, to top it all off, it even serves as a bit of an abbreviated history of the Jewish people themselves, all bound together by a Ulysses-style afternoon spent wandering and driving through the streets of his hometown (Cleveland, Ohio in case you didn’t know — but I’m sure you did) in the company of the book’s illustrator, renowned Jewish graphic artist J.T. Waldman.
Pekar’s parents were ardent Zionists even though his mother was decidedly non-religious (she was even — gasp! — a Communist!), and the driving narrative force behind this blue-collar Joycean work of visual essay, if you will, is following the trajectory of evolving thought “our man” (as Harvey himself would no doubt put it) goes through from childhood to adolescence to adulthood to old age as he explains why and how his views on what he once considered to be, naturally enough, “The Promised Land,” changed from those of an ardent and uncritical supporter to those of someone not only disillusioned with the nation itself, but with the entire religious-intellectual ediffice of Zionism that gave rise to its birth and forms the basis of its continuing existence to this day.
I think it’s telling that a work of this magnitude and scope, from two Jewish artists no less, isn’t getting anywhere near the publicity that Pekar’s Cleveland did, even though it is, if anything, an even more engrossing read than that admittedly fine volume was, even though it’s exceptionally well-illustrated, with Waldman employing a wide array of visual styles (astute readers may pick up on a definite hint of Craig Thompson’s Habibi in some of the pages dealing with the Jewish people’s struggles in times of antiquity, so be on the lookout for that!) all with a fine eye for detail and expression throughout, even though it contains a fine epilogue scripted by Pekar’s widow and frequent collaborator, Joyce Brabner, that serves a very moving tribute to both the man and his work, and even though this represents arguably the most compelling writing, from a socio-political perspective, of Pekar’s entire career — and frankly, it’s also unsurprising. The debate around the state of Israel has been framed in such narrow terms by the mainstream media here in America that you literally run the risk of being charged with anti-Semitism for voicing even a modestly critical opinion of any of the Israeli government’s actions.
And you know what? You can’t blame “Jewish political power,” or any other such nonsense, for that. You can’t even lay the responsibility for this intellectually stifling state of affairs on the most hard-core Zionists. Within the Jewish community itself — yes, even and especially within the nation of Israel — there is heated, intense debate on the course the country has taken in recent decades, and continues to take. The parameters of the discussion among people of the Jewish faith of all stripes are much more wide-open than they are in the corporate-owned American press, to the point where the reviews I’ve found of this book, critical as it is of both Israel and Zionism, in the Jewish press and on various Jewish websites have largely been quite positive, even ones written by authors who disagree with Pekar’s conclusions. Spirited, vigorous debate, pursued in a spirit of intellectual openness and honesty, has always been highly valued by Jewish people, all over the world, throughout their history.
Who’s to blame, then, for the “you either support Israel 100% all the time or you’re a Nazi” mentality that prevails among the “elite” media class in the US, then? How about the Christian Right? Their warped relationship with the state of Israel — essentially they support it full-throatedly and without exception because, you can’t make this stuff up, they think Biblical prophecy can only be fulfilled when all the Jews return home and then Jesus is gonna come back and kill every last one of them that refuses to accept him as the Messiah (I wish more Zionist groups would keep this in mind when forming political marriages of convenience with these people — seriously with friends like that, who needs enemies?) — and the extent to which they’ve co-opted our political process, while simultaneously causing the press to be scared shitless of potentially offending them, forms the basis of the decidedly one-sided nature of the debate on Israel here in the good ol’ U.S. of A., and it seems unlikely to change anytime soon.
Against that backdrop of moral and intellectual cowardice, works like this one stand out for their stark and unflinching honesty all the more. Harvey Pekar’s fellow American Jews, as well as Israelis, are well used to this sort of entirely-heartfelt polemic, and even those who feel that Israel is, indeed, all that their parents promised them are willing, by and large, to listen to the other side of the argument, as presented in works like this, and have at it. Yet thanks to the noise-machine on the American right, and their cowed stooges in the press, the arguments put forth in this book are something “the rest of us” almost never get to hear. Do yourself a favor — reject this false, black-and-white/with-us-or-against-us dichotomy. Pick up Harvey Pekar’s Not The Israel My Parents Promised Me, examine all the issues relevant to the state of Israel fully and from all sides, and then — shock! horror! — think for yourself and form your own opinions.