Comic artist Sarah Glidden has somewhat divided loyalties when it comes to the topic of Israel. As an American Jew, she is aware of the complicated history of the Holy Land, the Jewish people, and the desire/need for a Jewish state, but as a self-proclaimed progressive she is disgusted by the treatment of the Palestinians. In an effort to justify her opinions and finally put the matter to rest, she decided to take a Birthright trip to Israel, to “discover the truth behind this whole mess once and for all,” chronicling the experience in her graphic memoir, How to Understand Israel in 60 Days or Less.
For those unfamiliar, Birthright Israel is a program where young Jewish adults (ages 18–26) are taken on all-expenses-paid, 10-day tours of Israel. The general purpose of the program is to strengthen Jewish identity and engender positive feelings about Israel, wherein lies the flaw in Sarah’s plan, and perhaps the book. She goes on this trip knowing that they are probably going to put some spin on many of the hot-button political issues, so she treats everything with a dollop of cynicism and waits for those “gotcha” moments where she can be right and they can be wrong. It can come across as irritating, especially when you consider that the trip is a free perk and some of her fellow travelers, like her friend Melissa, are just trying to have a good time. Melissa provides a good counterbalance to Sarah because she was raised in a pretty secular household and this trip represents a chance to reconnect with her Jewish roots.
With Sarah and Melissa as travel companions, the book provides an interesting look at Israel outside the usual tourist hot spots of Tel Aviv and Jerusalem. Those cities are included on the Birthright trip, but we also visit the Golan Heights, the city of Holon, the Negev desert, several kibbutzim, and the Dead Sea. Each section is accompanied by a map, and of course, the entire book is done in simple (but lovely) pencil drawings with watercolor. Though Glidden’s drawings are not overly realistic, they are detailed and colorful enough to give you a good sense of place and her people have just the right amount of expression to convey feeling.
Yet as a travel memoir the book can be frustrating. As a carefully scripted trip, Sarah can only see and experience so much, and it feels like her Birthright group spends a lot more time in and out of centers and lectures than it does actually exploring the country. Their trip to Jerusalem seemed so brief, as it took them to the Western Wall, Yad Vashem (the Holocaust museum), and a mall. We don’t really get a “feel” for the city until the Birthright trip is over, and Sarah and Melissa take an extra day to explore the city on their own.
The highlight of the trip might be the group’s trip to Masada, where the Birthright participants climb to the top of the plateau and visit the remains of the fortress on top, where they are told a story of the “brave defenders” who held out against a Roman incursion for years, before eventually choosing to take their own lives in defiance. Sarah comes prepared for this, reading the original account in order to pick out the falsehoods in the account that Birthright feeds her. It stands out as one of the few instances where Sarah’s cynicism works to her, and the reader’s, advantage.
As the trip wears on so does it wear down on Sarah, and she begins to doubt herself and her beliefs, realizing that the issues of Israel are more complicated than she probably thought, and that there are no easy or obvious answers. She leaves the country knowing more and less as the same time, feeling confused and perhaps even a little empty. The book ends like the trip does, with notes of doubt and uncertainty, conflicting ideals and an overwhelming sense of “it’s complicated.” It’s a real downer after a book that is at times funny, charming, thought-provoking, and rarely ever boring.
How to Understand Israel in 60 Days or Less
by Sarah Glidden
published by Vertigo (New York, 2010)