There are few conversation topics as universally polarizing and personally uncomfortable as those involving the conflicts currently going on in the Middle East. Either people don’t know much about that part of the world because what they do know involves footage of bloody kids and crying women that’s too painful and complicated, or they think they know exactly what’s going on and have a strong opinion of the “These guys good! Those guys bad!” variety. There are also the people who know enough about enough to want to talk about anything else but that endless, frustrating clusterfuck. I consider myself part of the latter camp.
Reading articles or watching films about Israel (or Iraq or Syria, for that matter) is hard to do, given both the often-depressing nature of the news and the fact that it’s hard to read when your palm is repeatedly smacking your forehead. The graphic novel format, however, provides a unique, informative, less-facepalmy way to learn about what’s going on in countries that are usually too painful to pay attention to on the news. Through drawing, authors are allowed to give a detailed, relentless, personal illustration of violence and oppression while also inserting a filter — the comic format — between the reader and the described events, which softens the blow enough to make the content palatable.
The most famous of graphic novels about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is Joe Sacco’s Palestine, which was written in the early ‘90s, before the end of the first Intifada (or uprising) and failure of the Clinton-lead peace process. (Sacco’s since written an update called Footnotes in Gaza.) The book dared to show that Palestinians aren’t just cartoonish, evil terrorists — ironically through Sacco’s somewhat cartoonish, R. Crumb-style of drawing. Joe Sacco's narrative is oddly tongue-in-cheek; he often talks about looking for gorey details when he interviews Palestinians about their stories and even notes how riding in a donkey cart is “good for the comic, maybe a splash page” on a splash page illustration.
He admits he's looking only to tell the Palestinian story, explaining to a couple of Israeli women towards the end of the book that he’s “heard nothing but the Israeli side most all [his] life.” During his extensive research, he collects so many stories of abuse at the hands of Israelis in different refugee camps and occupied territories, even he becomes a little jaded, rejoicing that one of his final interviews is “an entire tragedy in under 20 minutes.” But through his own frustration, you can how impossible the situation is.
Perhaps that’s just my interpretation as an American Jew who sees neither side of the conflict as completely right or wrong and everything as fucked; I can see how someone with solidly anti-Israeli sentiments could see the book as both literally and figuratively black and white, for the Palestinians and against Israelis. Looking back on the events in the book, however, it's hard to see the issue as anything but grey.
Jerusalem by Guy Delisle depicts a more recent way of life for Palestinians. The author was in Israel within the last few years, which means post both Intifadas and both failed U.S.-lead attempts at peace, but also post Hamas’s rise to power. Delisle, who, like Sacco, is a lapsed Catholic, is in Jerusalem with his family for a year from France since his wife works for Doctor's Without Borders. His wife’s job working with Palestinians piques his interest in life under occupation, but in the post-Intifada years, there's less of the overt violence of Palestine and more poverty and oppression. While it’s always been hard for anyone from the occupied territories to work in Israel, it’s now much harder to travel anywhere, period, and the bureaucracy seems to be as punishing as the Shin-Beit (secret police) once were.
Delisle's style is much simpler than Sacco's; he uses fewer lines and less detail, and his faces are more basic, with less of a caricature-like look to them, since Sacco prefers thicker lips and noses. On the other hand, Delisle also doesn't have Sacco's touch of snark, at least not when he's talking about the conflict going on around him (but certainly when he describes himself as a housewife). There are humorous moments, like when he and a friend realize the place their kids are playing and having so much fun in in their Arab neighborhood of East Jerusalem is essentially a garbage dump. There’s also the inadvertent humor that comes when his wife’s co-worker tries to explain to him that East Jerusalem is both in and not in Israel, and that Jerusalem is both the capital and not the capital of Israel, depending on who you ask. You get the feeling from both books that, if possible, Palestinian and Israeli authorities would have a heated disagreement on the color of the sky.
Both authors have trouble understanding how people can live like this — with the stress of violence, paranoia and sometimes extreme poverty and oppression — but what Jerusalem makes clear is that Israel has basically been at war, both with the Palestinians and the entire region, since its inception and that when a group of people without an army defends itself, it does so through seemingly random acts of mass violence.
When Palestine was written, it was hard for some to imagine a government as supposedly Western as Israel's treating anyone the way it treated Palestinians, with torture, imprisonment without trial, forced expulsion from homes; Sacco often follows up inventories of Israel’s human rights violations with ironic declarations of Israel as “the Middle East’s only democracy,” but after 9/11 and this country's own war on terror, Israel’s actions don't seem so inconceivable anymore.
Sacco’s motivation for Palestine was to expose tragedy and misery, but unlike so many journalists who tried without much success to get the story out there, Sacco’s effort succeeded through his art. Delisle lived among Arabs, but Jerusalem, like the city itself, covers the greater conflict, just from his geographical perspective. If the American “war on terror” has given us a greater understanding of Israel’s position, then books like these, which make the Palestinian point-of-view both accessible and empathetic, are crucial to having a full understanding of the conflict. They don’t provide answers, but in a situation where most people are too horrified to ask or too dogmatic to doubt, encouraging a conversation is an achievement.