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Enough!- Another Israeli-American Says No to Zionism

Singled Out: The Individual and the Masses in Israeli-Palestinian Conflict Graphic Novels

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As was demonstrated through the recent protests over the Iranian elections, the documentation of disaster has greatly benefitted from technological advancements of the 21st century. Ordinary citizens are increasingly able to use a simple camera-phone to snap footage, upload it to a social networking site and transmit it to the world. According to Gramsci, historically, what is recorded and transmitted lies in the hands of those in power (those interested in maintaining the status-quo) and the privilege of having one’s story told has traditionally been denied to those who lack the power to do so.

In the context of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, hegemonic media practices in the US tend to cast the impression of Israel as a unique presence in the Middle East; the only Middle Eastern democracy, the only Jewish nation amongst Arab nations, technologically thriving amidst poverty etc. Framing this conflict through the Orientalist lens, “a style of thought based upon the ontological and epistemological distinction between ‘the Orient’ and (most of the time) ‘the Occident’”, has provided a starting point for many scholars and artists on which to base theories and descriptions about the Orient and its people (Said, pg. 2-3). An Orientalist slant of Palestinian masses versus Israeli individuals is present in Joe Sacco’s graphic novels Footnotes in Gaza and Palestine, Etgar Keret’s Pizzeria Kamikaze, and Rutu Modan’s Exit Wounds, conveying the various takes on the importance of the individual narrative during times of disaster (in this case, political). This paper examines when and how personal tragedy is represented when it is part of a larger narrative of disaster, who has the power to “own” personal tragedy, and whose tragedies are systematically silenced as a way of maintaining the status-quo.

Reports emanating from Israel and Palestine tend to stress the violent aspects of the Palestinian struggle for independence, suicide bombings being perhaps the most visible in US media. Sacco’s, Keret’s and Modan’s works all address the phenomenon of suicide bombings with different approaches. Modan’s Exit Wounds revolves around the personal tragedy of Koby, who is contacted by an Israeli soldier who believes Koby’s estranged father (her lover) has been killed in a suicide bombing. Though the bombing is the central point around which this novel pivots, Modan does not include any panels of the bombing itself aside from a number of images in the newspapers the main characters read and a small panel which is only displayed on the cover of the novel. This seems like a deliberate decision on Modan’s part, one which confirms that though this is a story about a suicide bombing, the bombing is not the main focal point and the characters have other issues to sort out that do not necessarily pertain to the Israeli-Palestinian political conflict.  Later, Exit Wounds becomes a love story between Koby and Numi and the suicide bombing is forgotten when it is revealed that Koby’s father has survived.

Another crucial element missing in Exit Wounds is the presence of Palestinians. Though we are meant to assume that the suicide bombing was executed by a Palestinian, and that Numi’s service in the Israeli Defense Force (IDF) is necessitated by threat of Palestinian attack, Palestinians remain anonymous in this novel and are never even referenced. Denying Palestinian existence in this novel creates the illusion that they simply do not exist outside of the instances in which violence is committed against Israelis, that they’re lives are entirely peripheral (which is geographically accurate according to Rouhana and Sultany). Numi is even able to push the suffering of other Israelis to the periphery as revealed when she and Koby are looking through newspaper coverage of a suicide attack (see image 1). Koby says “look at those poor bastards”, to which she replies “Oh they’re from the Haifa bombing. Nothing to do with us. I was watching TV when they interrupted the program and showed a live broadcast from the scene of the attack. Usually I change the channel, I can’t stand to see that anymore” (pg. 35).

Numi and Koby’s abilities to “change the channel” on the conflict is due to their privileged positions as Israeli citizens. While they are concerned over the fate of Gabriel, Koby’s father, they admit that they are usually not concerned about suicide bombings when they occur outside their immediate sphere of reference. Koby and Numi do not have to face daily reminders of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and are free to explore the disappearance of Koby’s father as they please. Both travel to Hadera from Tel- Aviv (an approximate one hour drive) and rent a hotel room for the night as they plan on questioning people about Gabriel’s disappearance early in the morning.

In contrast, Footnotes in Gaza describes the debilitating restrictions imposed by the IDF on Palestinian mobility through the use of roadblocks (Baltzer, 2007). When Joe and his crew attempt to travel to Southern Gaza, they are stopped at the Abu Houli checkpoint, sealed off by the IDF after fear of retaliation for a home demolition which killed eleven Palestinians the night before. The IDF claims that the demolition was in response to a suicide bombing by one of the residence’s tenants a year earlier. Joe’s driver shouts “they kill 11 of us, and they’ve blocked the road, too! It will take us four hours to get to Rafah! In four hours we could reach America!” ( pg. 246), stressing the methods of collective punishment which the IDF uses against the entire Palestinian population in response to the acts of individuals. As Dor (2004) puts it “the exercise of Israeli force in the territories [is] not limited to active fighting, but also includes a long series of collective punitive actions: general closure, the closure of individual Palestinian towns, blockades around villages, preventing people from getting to work or obtaining medical treatment, and so on” ( pg. 71). Where Koby and Numi are free to travel and explore the circumstances behind Gabriel’s disappearance, Joe and his Palestinians acquaintances are prevented from getting to a nearby town, within Palestinian territory. In Palestine Sacco describes an instance in which he meets with Palestinian farmers who label their produce with Israeli stickers so that they can export their goods to Europe. One farmer says “what the Israelis do is leave them at the port for days, or ship them only after their produce is shipped…often, by the time these tomatoes get to Europe, they’re spoiled” (pg 172). Control of all Palestinian mobility, regardless of personal fault or involvement in violent activities, lumps them into a heterogeneous mass and prevents Palestinians from leading the lives Koby and Numi are allowed to lead. These practices are echoed in media representations of Palestinian and contribute to the way in which Israelis and foreigners think about Palestinians, as a dangerous group that needs constant policing.

Keret’s depiction of an afterlife for those who have committed suicide in Pizzeria Kamikaze is still very much rooted in its characters’ national identities and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict they have left behind. As the protagonist Mordy and his friend Uzi pass through an Arab village, Uzi becomes nervous; “don’t you get it?”, he says, “They’re all Arabs…Arabs-suicides- doesn’t that psych you out? What if they figure out we’re Israeli?” to which Mordy replies “I guess they’ll kill us again. Can’t you get it into your skull they don’t give a flyin’ fuck? They’re dead, we’re dead, finito la comedia” (pg 35-36). Despite already being dead, Uzi cannot disavow his fear of and racist feelings towards “Arabs” and upon stopping at a bar in the village proceeds to provoke the disfigured Palestinian bartender:

Uzi: “Say, how’d you close up shop?”

Bartender: “Kaboom! Can’t you tell?”

Uzi: “No shit, kaboom! How many did you take with you?… Is it true that when you people go out on a job they promise you seventy virgins in kingdom come?”

Bartender: “Sure, they promised, and look where it got me.”

Uzi: “So you’re just a sucker in the end.”

Bartender: “Sure thing. And you, what did they promise you?”

This exchange makes evident some of the misconceptions surrounding the idea of suicide bombings. By providing the single story of the fanatic suicide bomber who is motivated by religious reasoning and is determined to obtain “seventy virgins in kingdom come”, Uzi neglects to see the individual motives behind each bomber’s decision. As female suicide bombers have become more common in recent years (according to Brunner), the “seventy virgins in heaven” incentive loses its legitimacy and suggests that the reasoning behind each bomber’s decision is personal. Using the “seventy virgins” platform allows characters like Uzi to group all suicide bombers, and by extension all Palestinians (which he terms “Arabs” creating an even further generalization) into a mass of people who hold the same values and who act out of the exact same rationale.

While Keret and Modan’s works tend to emphasize Israeli individuals and Palestinian masses, Sacco’s works attempt to rework the popular narrative and separate individual Palestinian stories from amongst the multitudes, giving a face and a voice to those who have been overlooked in works like those of Modan’s and Keret’s as well as in the media and history books. This task is not always easy. In Palestine, Sacco finds himself bombarded by similar stories of imprisonment, home demolitions, and the deaths of family members. He self- consciously expresses his growing cynicism with such “sob stories”;”these rooms…not even the talk changes…over and over, the same stories, maybe with some bruises shuffled…who are these people anyway? I’ve been introduced but I can’t remember their names. And where am I?” (pg. 152). In this instance, Sacco, though sympathetic towards the people with whom he visits, is influenced by similar Orientalist narratives which group Arabs together until the point where he grows tired of listening to their “identical” personal stories.

Perhaps it is the similarity between Sacco’s interviewees’ experiences that makes him lose patience; had Palestinians not shared the collective experience of the 1948 Nakba (the expulsion from Israel upon its creation) and were not consistently subjected to laws which perceive them as a mass, as opposed to individuals (road blocks for instance, routine imprisonment of “suspicious Palestinian men” etc.), their stories might be more varied. But this does not alter the fact that these stories, despite their similarities, are still deeply personal and very real.

In Footnotes in Gaza, Sacco is prepared to correct this line of thinking which influences much of Palestine. Attempting to uncover the untold story of the 1956 massacre in Khan Younis, Sacco finds himself sifting through the (often muddled) recollections of village elders as they recall the events of November 1956. Trying to reconstruct the past in an objective manner, Sacco begins searching for similarities in the stories and does not view them in the cynical way he did in Palestine. This time, similarities in narratives are what confirm the past, and become more valuable to the journalist in Sacco; “a newspaper man wants the facts, the definitive version…and I swear I’ll wrench nothing but the facts from our next batch of eyewitnesses, frail and imperfect as they might be” (image 7, pg. 119).

As a way of making this work more “journalistic”, Sacco takes meticulous care to provide names, dates, and exact descriptions of locations. More emphasis is spent on individual stories as a way of weaving together an estimate of what occurred in 1956. For instance, the pictures of two wanted men, one a fedayee (guerilla) from the 1956 era, the other a present day wanted man for his involvement with Fatah. Both panels are drawn in an identical manner and the portraits are directly aligned, reflecting the same subject position filled by both individuals, despite the disparities in years; though the individuals are different, the struggle for independence goes on and thus Palestinian “wanted men” will always exist.

In other cases, individual stories are visually represented against a backdrop of masses of people. Sacco adopts this style most frequently when constructing the events which occurred at the Rafah school yard on November 12th 1956, in which the town’s men were ordered by the IDF to report to the school yard where they were beaten and forced to sit in a stress position for hours. One full-page panel depicts three interviewees recalling the position they were forced to sit in while IDF soldiers shot over their heads. As the interviewees demonstrate the pose (crouched down with hands on their heads), a sea of men in the same pose is drawn behind them, creating a pattern in the backdrop. This occurs again when a school guardian whom Joe interviews is first drawn in one panel against the contemporary backdrop of schoolchildren, while in the next he is drawn wearing his modern clothes against the schoolyard gathering of 1956 (pg. 262). This interplay between the past and the present serves as a way of confirming the past, by providing multiple testimonies of the same story, while acknowledging the personal impact this event had on those individuals who lived through it.

So why use comics as the medium through which to tell this story? Perhaps it is due to comics’ ability to visually reconstruct the past. Where certain people were denied visual documentation (Palestinians for instance probably did not have access to as many cameras in 1956 as did wealthier Israelis), comics can act as a connective tissue between the past and the present in visually representing both in the same breath. Within the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the past and present are constantly at war with one another and act as points of cleavage even among those who support similar solutions, for example those who support the Palestinian right of return as a way of mending past injustices and those who support the two-state solution, which would mean giving up land which otherwise would become Palestinian under the right of return. Some Gazans are excited by Joe’s inquiry and are eager to share their stories about 1956, while others look at the present situation and can’t imagine why such an old story would need to be told when there are so many horrific contemporary stories. One Gazan Sacco meets is offended by his inquiry and asks “why are you writing about ’56? It’s much worse now…Every day here is ’56! ’56 is dead. ’56 is for my grandfather and grandmother. But this one”, he says placing his hand on his son’s shoulder, “he is alive! And I am alive!” ( pg. 252-253). When people are shot at daily, when roads are constantly blockaded on the whims of the IDF, regardless of Palestinian needs for mobility, what could be so important about a massacre that occurred half a century ago? If the US is not moved to assist Palestinians despite the recent increase in reports from the Gaza and the West Bank, why would a story from 1956 change their minds?

Because it is a singling out of a story; the same way in which the death of Rachel Corrie (an American activist who was killed by the IDF during the demolition of a Palestinian home) received media coverage in a way which Palestinian casualties rarely do ( Footnotes, pg 364), individual confirmed stories have the capacity to resonate in ways which stick in readers minds and cause a greater sense of identification. We must question why Palestinian graphic novels of personal narratives have yet to appear on the international radar, the answer lying in the nationalities of the Keret, Modan and Sacco; Israelis and Americans. As members of these nationalities, these authors do not face the same adversities as Palestinians, are able to explore a broad range of topics and have better chances of having their books published because they are viewed as more reliable sources. Sacco’s status as an American journalist grants him the privilege of deciding what gets recorded and what doesn’t; “who decides what is credible and what is not?…we decide. We edit. We determine. ..it’s up to us to fill history’s glass with as much truthful cogent testimony as we can” ( pg. 277). Sacco’s attempts at documenting the Palestinian experience under occupation are admirable, but in trying to cover as much ground as possible and working within the journalistic framework of fixatedly verifying sources, he loses the intimacy and effect of the personal narrative. Sacco seems conscious of his constant doubting of Palestinian stories and reflects towards the end of Footnotes in Gaza “suddenly I felt ashamed of myself for losing something along the way as I collected my evidence, disentangled it, dissected it, indexed it, logged it onto my chart…how often I sighed and mentally rolled my eyes because I knew more about that day that they did” (pg. 384-385). It is as if in an attempt to verify that the events relayed in Footnotes in Gaza, an element of compassion for the individual’s trauma is left out.

The next step for comics concerning the Israeli-Palestinian conflict needs to be a graphic narrative of a Palestinian individual by a Palestinian author in order for Orientalist descriptions of Palestinians to dissipate. Exit Wounds and Pizzeria Kamikaze fail to provide us with any depictions of Palestinians other than as suicide bombers, and Palestine and Footnotes in Gaza are only able to succeed on a global scale because they are written by an American journalist. Reclamation of the Palestinian individual struggle under occupation needs to occur in order for audiences to begin singling out the Palestinian individual from the Palestinian mass and identifying with their stories while not neglecting the importance of the shared Palestinian history.

Works Cited

Baltzer, Anna. Witness in Palestine: A Jewish American Woman in the Occupied Territories.  Herndon, VA: Paradigm Publishers, 2007.

Brunner, Claudia. “Occidentalism Meets the Female Suicide Bomber: A Critical Reflection on            Recent Terrorism Debates.” Signs 32. 4 2007: 957-971. Web.  9 April. 2010.                                <http://www.jstor.org/stable/4500439&gt;

Dor, Daniel. Intifada Hits the Headlines: How the Israeli Press Misreported the Outbreak of the

Second Palestinian Uprising. Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 2004.

Gramsci, Antonio. Prison Notebooks. New York: Columbia University Press, 1975.

Keret, Etgar. Pizzeria Kamikaze. Gainesville, FL: Alternative Comics, 2006.

Modan, Rutu. Exit Wounds. Montreal: Drawn & Quarterly, 2007.

Rouhana, Nadim N., Sultany, Nimer. “Redrawing the Boundaries of Citizenship: Israel’s New

Hegemony.” Journal of Palestine Studies.

Sacco, Joe. Palestine. Seattle: Fantagraphics Books, 2001.

Sacco, Joe. Footnotes in Gaza. New York: Metropolitan Books, 2009.

Said, Edward W. Orientalism. New York: Vintage, 1977.

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Written by Keren Carmeli

October 11, 2010 at 5:14 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

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