Eli Val­ley And the Art of Of­fense

In his work, the con­tro­ver­sial car­toon­ist forces us to make a choice: Laugh at our­selves and re­pent, or call him a self-hat­ing Jew and es­cape.

Forward Magazine - - Contents - By Batya Un­gar-Sar­gon Batya Un­gar-Sar­gon is the For­ward’s opin­ion ed­i­tor. Fol­low her on Twit­ter, @bun­garsar­gon

DI­AS­PORA BOY: COMICS ON CRI­SIS IN AMER­ICA AND ISRAEL. By Eli Val­ley OR Books, 144 Pages, $29.99

There’s a con­cept in the early Zion­ist writ­ings that still haunts con­tem­po­rary Jewish life. It’s the be­lief that the Di­as­pora Jew is an out­moded kind of Jew. Weak and ef­fem­i­nate from too much study­ing, he is sub­mis­sive and ab­ject, al­ways apol­o­giz­ing to the gen­tiles who hate him. As op­posed to this Di­as­pora Jew, the early Zion­ists en­vi­sioned a Zion­ist Jew or a new Jew; he would be strong, phys­i­cally and men­tally, and un­apolo­getic for his power.

These days, this idea is trans­mit­ted less through ex­plicit writ­ings and more through sym­bols and aura. It’s ram­pant in the self­ies that ador­ing Amer­i­can vis­i­tors take with soldiers from the Israel De­fense Forces, and in the stut­ter­ing man­ner­isms as­sumed by ev­ery lead in a Woody Allen movie. But there was a time when Jews were less coy. Max Nor­dau, a found­ing fa­ther of Zion­ism, called the Di­as­pora Jew “a crip­ple within, and a coun­ter­feit per­son with­out, so that like ev­ery­thing un­real, he is ridicu­lous and hate­ful to all men of high stan­dards.”

If you think this sounds more like anti-Semitic ca­nard than like Zion­ist thought, you’re right. And it’s ex­actly

this kind of in­tel­lec­tual hypocrisy that Eli Val­ley skew­ers in his new book, “Di­as­pora Boy: Comics on Cri­sis in Amer­ica and Israel,” a col­lec­tion of pre­vi­ously pub­lished comics (many of which ap­peared orig­i­nally in the For­ward, where Val­ley was once an artist in res­i­dence).

The comic strip after which the book is named first ap­peared in Jewcy in 2008, and the book ex­hibits Val­ley’s sig­na­ture style — densely crowded frames with black-and-white characters that jux­ta­pose the ghoul­ish with the high­brow. In Val­ley’s ren­der­ing, the new Jew is called Israel Man, a su­per­hero who is “able to see 10,000 years into the fu­ture,” and whose se­men is “used to make the desert bloom.” In the shadow of this mag­nif­i­cent new Jew is Di­as­pora Boy, a crip­pled, snivel­ing, drool­ing cretin who has to stand on large tomes (“How To Love Your Anti-Semitic Gen­tile Wife,” “The Hypochon­driac’s Cook­book,” “How To Live With­out a Na­tional Cul­ture”) just to be as tall as Israel Man. Un­like his ide­al­ized coun­ter­part, Di­as­pora Boy “can­not defe­cate with­out 5,000 mg mag­ne­sium hy­drox­ide, 4 gal­lons of prune juice, and a heat­ing pad.” He also “hasn’t had an erec­tion since the destruc­tion of the Sec­ond Tem­ple.”

What Val­ley is do­ing here is tak­ing the an­tiSemitic hypocrisies within Jewish thought and lit­er­al­iz­ing them. If Nor­dau called the Di­as­pora Jew “a crip­ple within,” Val­ley makes him crip­pled with­out.

He then takes the Zion­ist quotes, which would no doubt of­fend even the staunch­est Zion­ists to­day, and as­so­ciates them with other cul­tural touch­stones that most of us sub­scribe to ab­so­lutely un­crit­i­cally.

For ex­am­ple, the comics con­nect Jewish op­po­si­tion to in­ter­mar­riage to bizarre anti-Semitic tropes sur­round­ing racial pu­rity. Else­where he points out the dis­tinc­tion be­tween the he­roes of the War­saw ghetto up­ris­ing and the vic­tims of the con­cen­tra­tion camps. With his grotesque, some­times puerile draw­ings, Val­ley con­nects these quo­tid­ian Jewish ob­ses­sions with the early Zion­ist writ­ings, ex­pos­ing how im­pli­cated we all are in what is es­sen­tially racism. He forces us to make a choice: Ei­ther laugh at our­selves and re­pent, or call Val­ley a self-hat­ing Jew and es­cape.

Through­out his ca­reer, Val­ley — who, full dis­clo­sure, I have known in per­sonal and pro­fes­sional set­tings — has been sub­jected to the lat­ter. Abra­ham Fox­man, the for­mer leader of the Anti-Defama­tion League and a re­cur­ring char­ac­ter in the comics, has called him a bigot. John Pod­horetz, ed­i­tor of Com­men­tary Magazine, called him a kapo. He is fre­quently called a self-hat­ing Jew and an anti-Semite in com­ments sec­tions and on Twit­ter.

But to me, these ad hominem at­tacks are mis­guided. It is a Jewish au­di­ence that these comics seek to — well, of­fend. In­deed, it seems clear from read­ing

Val­ley is like that slave who walked be­hind the con­quer­ing Cae­sar, whose sole job was to whis­per, ‘Re­mem­ber, Cae­sar, thou art mor­tal.’

“Di­as­pora Boy” that Val­ley loves Jews so much that he’s will­ing to suf­fer through this kind of abuse to keep call­ing us out.

In this sense, Val­ley is like that slave who walked be­hind the con­quer­ing Cae­sar, whose sole job was to whis­per, “Re­mem­ber, Cae­sar, thou art mor­tal.” Like Cae­sar, we too need that slave to slay our myths.

If I had to put my fin­ger on Val­ley’s most salient tar­get, it would be the way that a fetishiza­tion of racial pu­rity has in­vaded Jewish in­sti­tu­tions. If you’ve ever wor­ried about the dis­ap­pear­ance of the State of Israel due to a de­mo­graphic threat, or if you’ve ever wor­ried about the num­ber of Jews in­ter­mar­ry­ing and ceas­ing to iden­tify as Jewish, you are the ob­ject of this book’s scorn and it will be painful for you to read, as it was for me.

But it also filled me with hope — a hope that there was another way to think of Jews that wasn’t quite so racial (or racist, de­pend­ing on whom you ask). Even if, like me, you be­lieve the Is­raeli army strives to be ex­tremely moral, you will feel ut­terly, bril­liantly mocked by the comic “What Gold­stone Ig­nored,” in which the IDF is pic­tured as the “World’s Only All Kit­ten Army.” So pow­er­ful is Val­ley’s world view that I be­lieve if Val­ley’s de­trac­tors were seated in a quiet room with Val­ley him­self dis­cussing the is­sues he ad­dresses in his work — hypocrisy, Jewish ge­net­ics, Is­raeli ag­gres­sion, how the Jewish lead­er­ship aban­dons any­one who dis­agrees with them — they might even come to agree with at least some of his crit­i­cisms.

It’s the ag­gres­sive­ness of the comics, their very im­pla­ca­ble power, that raises the hack­les so. It’s that they present no room for de­bate; you are in such (lit­er­ally!) ugly com­pany if you try to de­fend any­one, in­clud­ing your­self. There is cer­tainly a kind of il­lib­er­al­ism in this. The comics are ter­ri­bly un­bal­anced. And they are ter­ri­bly of­fen­sive. As a wo­man and a Jew, I am fre­quently of­fended.

But this book helped me re­al­ize how im­por­tant it is to be of­fended. I used to wish Val­ley would write well-rea­soned ar­gu­ments. But now I don’t. Do the Jews need another left­ist to write op-eds in Haaretz about our fail­ings? Prob­a­bly not. But do the Jews need some­one pen­ning comics that whis­per in our stub­born ears, “You’re mor­tal?”

Hell yeah. I bet Cae­sar would have called the slave a self-hat­ing Ro­man, too.

ELI VAL­LEY

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