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Culture Kvetch: Harvey Pekar’s Unfinished Lament

A revisionist historian could get a lot of mileage (maybe even tenure) out of casting Judaism not as a religion but as a shared culture of argument and complaint. From the Book of Exodus to the pages of Haaretz, ours is a people of perpetual dissatisfaction, of failed attempts at suasion, of arguments hammered out over centuries.

In recent years, American liberal Zionist criticism of Israel has assumed its place in this paradigm. Such discussions are both legalistic and hectoring, rational and emotional, predicated on international law and a sense of humanistic fraternity. And rather than representing something anti-Jewish, criticism of Israel reveals itself as deeply, intrinsically Jewish, a natural outgrowth of that history of argument and complaint. (In fact, it finds itself represented most vividly in Haaretz.)

In the last few months, this criticism—often built upon a central argument that the Occupation is untenable, unjust, and corrosive to Israeli democracy—has crystallized in several books, all articulating an existential unease regarding the future of Israel and Palestine. These books include Gershom Gorenberg’s The Unmaking of Israel and Peter Beinart’s The Crisis of Zionism, and the latest entry is the most unusual: Not the Israel My Parents Promised Me, by the comic book writer Harvey Pekar. It is also a profound failure, one that serves as a road map for how liberal critiques of Israel can founder in their own solipsism.

Best known for his American Splendor comic (and the film it spawned), Pekar was also a jazz critic and, for much of his life, a file clerk for Cleveland’s Veteran Administration Hospital. He grew up in Cleveland, the son of working-class parents from Poland. As we learn in Not the Israel My Parents Promised Me, his parents were at once fervent Marxists and fervent supporters of Israel—the two were fairly compatible in those years—although Harvey’s father, Sholom, was devout, whereas his mother, Dora, refused to attend synagogue.

Pekar, who died almost exactly two years ago, had a distinctive voice that was somehow raspy and screeching at once. Burdened with a number of health problems, including several bouts of cancer, and with weedy eyebrows and a shambling gait, he had a sickly, practically crazed sense about him. In person—I saw him at UCLA, with Alison Bechdel, a couple months before he died—he was at once coarse and modest, naïve and covertly wise. This, too, was the secret of American Splendor, which chronicled Pekar’s mundane life as a file clerk but, through its humble presentation and intense focus on the quotidian, elevated itself to something higher, to a vaunted place within the literature of complaint.

In Not the Israel My Parents Promised Me—which features some gorgeous drawings by J.T. Waldman but, with its abbreviated narrative, feels far from finished—Pekar attributes his “personal entanglement with Israel” to his parents. The book’s sections about Pekar’s childhood are its most appealing; it’s here that we not only learn about Pekar but get a sense of how liberal critiques of Israel must be abstracted from the emotional, personal, and, often, familial tangle in which they spawn.

Unfortunately, Pekar only offers limited remembrances about his childhood—snatches of Marxist and Zionist thought, exhortations to learn Hebrew and support the nascent Jewish state. Most of the 170-page book is nothing less than Pekar’s capsule history of Judaism, from Abraham to the present day, and of the historical relationship between Judaism and Islam. If that sounds impossible to capture in a comic-book narrative of that length, that’s because it is. (All of this is couched in a frame story of a conversation between Pekar and Waldman about why Pekar wants to write this book.)

In a few instances Pekar bungles, or clumsily elides, his historical narratives—including his own. In one passage, Pekar remembers worrying about whether the Jews would emerge victorious in the war that followed the Israeli Declaration of Independence. He writes that it was “just before my Bar Mitzvah,” yet Pekar was born in 1939, which would put his Bar Mitzvah in 1952, several years after the 1949 armistice that ended the war.

There are more egregious instances, whole swathes of history muddled or skipped over when only depth and thorough recounting would do. He writes that “in July 1946, an escalation of violence led to the bombing of the King David Hotel, killing 91 people”—as if the event occurred out of thin air, rather than being the work of the Irgun, whom he separately (and correctly) identifies as terrorists. Other examples abound, such as when he describes the Israeli invasion of Suez in 1956, and the subsequent British and French bombing campaign, without mentioning that the latter two countries encouraged Israel’s strike in the first place.

There are some very fine moments in the book, where Pekar’s characteristic grace and humanity shine through, where the schlemiel emerges from trauma mysteriously sacralized. He recounts visiting the Israeli consulate in Chicago as a young man, having been discharged from the Navy for personal issues. Still a firm believer in the Zionist project (the advent of the Occupation would change that), he’s shocked and disturbed when a consular official tells him that they have no use for someone like him—weak, addled, possessing few skills—in the Hebrew state.

“I knew I had psychological problems,” he confesses, “but if they really felt all Jews were brothers and sisters, maybe they could find a place for me.”

There’s another surprising moment when a Cleveland librarian digs up an op-ed that Pekar had published in 1978 in the Plain Dealer criticizing the Israeli invasion of Lebanon. Pekar reads an outraged response by a New York rabbi (also dug up by the librarian), who belittles Pekar as “a Jewish ignoramus” and writes, sarcastically, “Indeed, if he is a ‘freelance writer,’ he is one who does not do his homework.” Pekar reveals that this rabbi is married to his cousin—the two men have spent many pleasant evenings together in New York. The anecdote represents something deeply hurtful to Pekar but also illustrates the way in which the way that, when it comes to debating Israel, the personal and political can become precariously intertwined.

It’s unnecessary, if not cruel, to lay any more criticism at the cold departed feet of Pekar, or at whomever might have finished his work. Since hearing Pekar mention this book at UCLA two years ago, I’ve had hopes for Not the Israel My Parents Promised Me, in part because the space for liberal critiques of Israel has become troublingly constricted, especially so in the United States. The furor, much of it vulgar and personal in nature, that erupts upon any consideration of Peter Beinart and the muted, if respectful, response that greeted Gorenberg’s book are evidence of that.

The failure of Harvey Pekar’s book, then, is not one of argument or even of genre. If nothing else, liberal Zionism cries out for more creative explorations of its internal crises and contradictions, and of its failure to wield the kind of moral authority that its partisans would hope for. No, the problem with Pekar is that he was not allowed enough time to wend his way out of the thicket of inherited ideologies, emotions, and memories that surrounded him—and that surrounds so many of us. He was animated by a sense of justice, with a passion so firm and bitter that he practically shook on the stage at UCLA’s Royce Hall. But he died without having learned how to translate this feeling into his distinctive vernacular.

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