Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Israel: The Graphic Story

There is a new graphic novel about the history of the State of Israel titled Homeland: The Illustrated History of the State of Israel. The term "graphic novel" might make you think of a fancy comic book, but that is misleadingly understated. This is a beautiful book that uses stunning graphical art to tell a story. Trust me, you will not confuse this with Peanuts.

The story underlying the book is a professor in the US teaching her students the story of Israel, and then guiding them on a visit through the country. The professor's story begins with the beginning, Genesis and the Creation. It continues through the Bible and then the post-biblical history, jumping relatively quickly from the main events throughout history until modern Zionism, the Holocaust and the establishment of the State of Israel.

Click here for moreEverywhere in history, the people are depicted in a sufficiently modern way to look "normal" but in a sufficiently historical way to look plausible. In other words, this isn't so historically accurate that it is annoying but it isn't so inaccurate that it is frustrating. There are a handful of minor historical errors that bother me but don't really detract from the experience of the book (e.g. calling Rabbenu Tam a German). And it is quite an experience. There is a real sense of the difficulties of the exile and the miraculous return to Israel.

You can also sense a certain amount of political correctness that I found enhances the book. There's the occasional comment about what women were doing at any given point in history, which is quite incongruent and greatly reminds me of Dave Barry's mock history of the US, Dave Barry Slept Here (you have to have read it to understand what I mean). But there is also an attempt to show the varying accounts of history -- of who was the aggressor and who the victim -- without detracting from the overall positive view of the State of Israel. I thought this was done very tactfully and effectively.

However, despite my overall delight in reading this book, I was disappointed that I found it to be too Israeli and not Israeli enough. Too Israeli in that it focused an inordinate amount of time on military accomplishments and challenges. It really dominates the book. I understand that it is an important element of Israeli life but I wanted more. And that's what I mean by not Israeli enough. The rest of Israeli culture is relegated to brief mentions when it should be emphasized. There are more milestones to the past 60+ years of Israeli history than the various wars. A timeline of the State of Israel should not be a list of military skirmishes but of the people's great accomplishments in turning a Third World country into a First World cultural and economic power.

And how is it possible to fail to mention the great religious accomplishments in Israel? It is true that there is more religious freedom for all people in Israel than ever before, but Judaism has gone through an incredible renaissance in the country. I do not believe that there is any mention of the plethora of yeshivas in the country!

When I mentioned tonight to a friend that I was planning on reviewing this book, he asked me whether it was written from a religious perspective. I told him that I can't tell, and that's a problem. It seems to me that the book is written from a "traditional" perspective, i.e. someone who respects Judaism and its history but isn't particularly Orthodox in practice or beliefs. That isn't a worldview that I share but it's one that I respect and, to some degree, I miss. It seems to me that there used to be more of it around.

What this book does is it establishes a national narrative. It tells the story and the history of the country. It explains the national practices. It lays down a framework of Israeli culture and pride. This is exceedingly important (as R. Jonathan Sacks explains in his recent book, Future Tense). There was a time, not long ago, when Israel had a national narrative. When there was pride in the Zionist vision and how it had been put into place. The Post-Modern world destroyed that narrative and this book attempts to rebuild it. I celebrate this book because even with its flaws it has a very noble goal that, I think, it accomplishes quite well.

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