How to Understand Israel in 60 Days or Less
Created by: Sarah Glidden
Published by: DC/Vertigo
ISBN: 1401222331 (Amazon)
I’m torn over whether I prefer self-reflective to personally obtuse autobiography. Authors of the former recognize the deep fictionality involved in autobiography at a foundational level and tend to play with such self-cognizance. Readers are then saved some of the work1 of discovering author bias and framing their interpretive grid around that. The story becomes less an exploration of a personal history and more an invited journey into the way a particular person perceives the world they inhabit. The non-self-aware autobiography, on the other hand, still in some sense features those same details and the questions they raise—only in a hidden or secretive way. Rather than actively promote self-evaluation, these other brands of autobiography drive the reader to focus on the romance of events instead.
So while I’m not sure which type I prefer generally, I’m glad that Sarah Glidden decided to write the self-reflective autobiography How to Understand Israel in 60 Days or Less. As it’s a book about the instability of opinion based on ignorance and complexity, Glidden’s ability to focus on her own re-evaluations and conflicting emotions helps sell the narrative she’s chosen to put forth. No one will come away from her book understanding Israel or its place on the world stage; but they will be left with a powerful explanation of why people have a hard time knowing what to do with a nation that is simultaneously despicable, noble, ancient, racist, beautiful, ugly, and deeply and abidingly ethnocentric.
If I wrote a memoir about my experience as an American, it might play off similarly. Only maybe with less crying.2
Birthright is a ten-day, organized tour of Israel offered to young adults of direct Jewish decent. Its proposed purpose is to foster comfortability between the Jewish inhabitants of Israel and the ethnically Jewish in foreign nations. Over 80% of birthright participants are Americans. Sarah Glidden was one of these—though she only agreed to participate reluctantly.
Israel would undoubtedly be able to garner much more affection for their little imperialist endeavors if they rode into battle on the backs of dinosaurs. Get on that, Israel.
Glidden, as she reveals herself in the character of Sarah, sees international politics from a leftist or progressive perspective. Before travelling to Israel, she becomes well-acquainted with the nation’s human-rights record (especially in regard to what she considers their foul treatment of the Palestinian people). Before her trip, she’s very antagonistic and cynical toward the whole endeavor—and views birthright as a propagandistic means of brainwashing the young Jewish into adoring a fundamentally broken imperialistic system. Before her trip, she reads up as much as she can about birthright trips, so she’ll know what to expect and how to best guard against the poisoning of her mind/heart/soul. (Sarah has a lot at stake. Beyond her political convictions, her boyfriend is Arabic.) How to Understand Israel is somewhat the story of whether Sarah will succumb to the charms and emotional resonance of the birthright trip.
Glidden illustrates her story in a loose, crumbling style of pen-work that, if intentional, adds to the story-like quality of her recollections, pushing the reader to further see her memoir as a fictionalization of reality. Her colouring is all watercoloured (or some digital approximation thereof) and adds further to the dreamlike quality inhabiting her narration. This is fitting as Sarah, from almost story’s beginning, meanders through her ten-day tour as some kind of somnambulist. Much of her trip is built out of warm dreams and crisp nightmares. She’s never in any real danger, but we do get the sense that despite her vigilance she could at any step fall to the narrative her minders hope to sell her on: that the situation is more complicated than she believes.
Murky presuppositions: they’ll get you every time.
While Sarah finds herself well-guarded against the corny, overt propaganda of some of the museums and demonstrations her tour group encounters, she has less defense against the hearts of the proletariat. It’s the reasonable tour guide who thinks Israel’s treatment of Palestinians is deplorable; it’s the empathetic young Israeli soldier who thinks Israel’s treatment of Arab people is inherently racist; it’s all those Israelis she encounters who don’t come off as fundamentalists but still have reasons they believe they need walls and guns and curfews that really threaten to erode Sarah’s clear moral high ground.
How to Understand Israel isn’t a book intending to answer or solve any questions for the reader. It’s simply an exploration of Sarah’s (and perhaps even Glidden’s) reaction to (and interaction with) a series of perceptions that run counter her expectations. How will she respond? Will her convictions crumble? Will she embrace Israel? Will she forgive Israel the abusive identity it’s molded for itself? Will she concede that the nation has a right to exist as a Jewish state? Will her cynicism poison her friendships? Will it poison even her own soul?
This is where the book’s value lies—as the story of an individual stuck by the arbitrary caprice of genetic fate into the middle of a ridiculous international-historical Situation. If people (and the method by which people live in the world) are of any interest to you, then How to Understand Israel will at the least provide fascinating reading. It may even offer more: an education in empathy? a lesson in historical complexities and narrative ambiguity? an encounter with people you might not otherwise understand? So much the better.
We’re saved some of the work of discovering author bias.
Of course, just because an author makes a play at self-awareness, that doesn’t mean she is perfectly so. Even her self-awareness must be read as biased and narrowly perspectival.
Only maybe with less crying.
Glidden cries a substantial amount of the time. This is not a judgment. I merely found it remarkable (i.e. something to remark upon) and wasn’t sure whether to read it as Glidden being a very emotional person or as the birthright trip being a powerful catalyst for emotional release. Quite probably, the truth lies in between those two things (we aren’t privy to seeing many other traveller’s tearful breakdowns).
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