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How to Understand Israel in 60 Days or Less: Or, yes, Mom, I have been thinking about Birthright

Updated on July 16, 2011

Like many Jews of a left-leaning persuasion, I have a complicated relationship with the state of Israel. As Jews, it feels like a betrayal to oppose Israel, but simultaneously it is impossible to ignore the evils the Israeli state has committed against the Palestinian state in the name of defense.

This is perhaps why "How to Understand Israel in 60 Days or Less" affected me so much. A comic book memoir of its author Sarah Glidden's Birthright trip, it catalogs Glidden's conflicting emotions as she finds she can neither reject israel entirely but cannot fully accept it either.

Glidden, like me, is a Jew with a decidedly left-wing attitude,which means she wholly disapproves of Israel's actions. In fact, she largely goes on Birthright so her assumptions about attempts to indoctrinate her into a love of Israel can be proven right so she can reject Israel outright. However, once she and her friend Melissa depart on their Israel Experts Birthright trip, she finds her guides more open to argument or criticism than she was expecting, and that Israel is not what she was expecting at all.

At the heart of things is Sarah's attempt to figure out which version of Israel is more true: the Palestinian-hating reactionary state she was expecting, or the spiritual home for Jews that Birthright promotes. As always, the truth is found somewhere in the middle, but even that is an oversimplification: it is essentially both at once, as well as being a modern state of people who just want to get on with their lives.

One thing I liked that is mentioned in passing a few times (most notably when Sarah meets up with her cousin, who is studying medicine in Tel Aviv) is how the extreme focus on the Israeli/Palestinian conflict, especially outside of Israel, takes attention away from Israel's other problems, such as the divide between secular and religious Israelis, racism towards African and Middle-Eastern Jews, and how Israel is essentially forcing the Bedouin way of life in the Negev into extinction. It is a very interesting point, which unfortunately (although fittingly, I suppose) doesn't really get explored all that much.

I also liked how it addresses Birthright as a tool of propaganda. Sarah is surprised at how fair her guides are, in their acknowledgment of problems with Israel, while simultaneously calling out justifications and blatant propaganda (usually coming from sources other than Birthright). The comic also makes a point to show how Birthright, even when not trying to brainwash people who go on it, is still affecting how they see and react to Israel (it's a free all-expenses trip where everything is planned, meaning pretty much all of the stresses of travel are taken care of, leaving people with a rosy view of Israel).

There are some things that are lacking (mostly because Sarah was unable to do them). Some soldiers join the group to tour with them, but Sarah is too conflicted to really engage with them to get their perspective. It is also notable that, with the possible exception of a vendor in the Muslim Quarter of Jerusalem, Sarah never meets a Palestinian, a rather egregious omission all things considered. But Sarah of course could not write about what she didn't experience, so it's not really a problem.

Sarah Glidden's art also deserves to be singled out. I really like her simple pencilling style and the watercolors she colors with make the drawings come to life. I feel like I can imagine how things really looked just from how Glidden drew them here.

All in all, a great book especially if you're a Jew considering Birthright like I am. Check it out to get a varied and interesting view of the state of Israel, one which shows both the good and the bad of one of the most contreversial countries in the world.


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      Ann Shriver 6 years ago

      Good, son. Keep thinking about it. You need to go there, to really make up your mind.