When I used to think about growing as a person, I visualized my life as a sort of graph: a steadily climbing, sometimes dipping line that would crawl forward over time until a certain age when the graph would plateau into a stable flatness. The way I looked at it, one’s teens and early 20s are all about discovering who you are and what you think about the world. At some point, all my opinions, beliefs, and values would become fixed into a solid identity that I would carry with me into the future like an amber shield.
This fantasy carried over into the way I approached other topics, such as history and politics. I had been interested in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict for some time but felt fatigued by it; I was itching to just figure it out and then move on. I was familiar with the “two sides” of the conflict in American discourse. Conservatives blamed the Palestinians, calling them “terrorists” and “monsters,” while liberals maintained that the Israelis were occupiers and thus the real monsters. While I had always identified more with the latter camp, there was something unsettling to me about defining a conflict as a struggle of “good vs. evil.” I wanted to truly understand the mess in the Middle East. I had read plenty on the subject, had gone to lectures, and had watched many documentaries. The only step left was to visit the country to see it with my own eyes. The finish line was in Jerusalem somewhere, and all I had to do was to get there.
Luckily, there was a free way for me to do this. Birthright Israel is a foundation that offers free ten-day tours of the country to anyone Jewish between the ages of 18 and 26. I was just about to turn 27 and my main connection to my Judaism was my love for my grandmother’s matzo ball soup, but I still qualified—barely. I decided to take the opportunity to see Israel, and then afterward I would stay on in the country and even travel into the West Bank. I was mindful that Birthright could be propagandistic and one-sided, but I had done my homework and was ready for whatever the group would try to tell me about the conflict. And anyway, I was planning to create a comic book about my trip. The more propaganda Birthright threw at me, the more material I would have for a book. Bring it on!
The idea that I could finally “understand” the conflict by going on a Birthright trip is, of course, absurd. Instead, I sunk deeper into the morass. As I traveled the country, I was able to see parts of Israel that don’t usually make it into the newspapers and to meet ordinary people who call this land of turmoil their home. At the same time, I was constantly worried I was being manipulated by my tour guides.
In the end, I didn’t flip to the “other side”; neither did I come back from Israel saying, “Yup, it’s true: they’re all monsters.” What I discovered through wrestling with the trip was that there are no easy or absolute answers when it comes to complex issues. There are very few situations in which one group is always “right” and the other is always “wrong.” The reality is that there is no finish line for understanding.
In creating this book, I tried to remain honest about my own flaws as I embarked on an almost quixotic quest for knowledge. Combining simply drawn characters with painterly backgrounds, I bring my readers into the story so that they can feel as if they are right there experiencing all the interior battles and struggles, and getting inside my character’s imagination, daydreams, and doubts. I don’t let myself off lightly; my character succumbs to hurried judgment, reactive emotions, and irrational fears. But these are traits that we all share at times, and rather than something to be ashamed of, they should be recognized as the parts of us that help us to grow.
SARAH GLIDDEN won the prestigious Ignatz Award for “Most Promising New Talent” as well as the Masie Kukoc Award for Comics Inspiration. Her work has appeared in numerous anthologies. HOW TO UNDERSTAND ISRAEL IN 60 DAYS OR LESS is her first graphic novel. Born in 1980 in Boston, she now lives in Brooklyn, NY.