Jewish identity is not straightforward, at times feeling like a series of external projections rather than a source of solidarity. Artist Toby Millman, who has done a great deal of work exploring the relationship between Israel and Palestine, coined the term “off-white” to describe Jewish racial status in the United States. As a member of the Jewish diaspora who has often “passed” enough for white to be exposed to acts of anti-Semitism, ranging from casual to outrageous, I can identify with this shading. Comics artist and polemicist Eli Valley explodes this off-white status into a stunning range of shades (eggshell! linen! Nazi tears!), adding scathing and critical complexity, in a new anthology of (mostly) previously published work from the past 10 years, Diaspora Boy: Comics on Crisis in America and Israel, released by OR Books. In the book, Valley analyzes the deep conflict, contradictions, and crisis lodged within the heart of Zionist ideology, and how they’re an indictment of members of the Jewish diaspora (of which he is one).
In a lengthy and well-researched introduction, Valley sketches the tenets of Zionist philosophy. First expounded in 1896 by Theodor Herzl, Zionism is based on the idea of Jews reclaiming their ancestral “Land of Israel”; it blossomed with the post-WWII relocation of European Jews and the formation of Israel as an independent state. The introduction also raises some of the issues that make Valley’s work controversial in the Jewish community, including the broad disinclination of American Jews to criticize or even acknowledge the Israeli occupation of Palestine and the hypocrisy and lack of empathy inherent in this infliction of human rights abuses, from a people who recently suffered the same.
The compendium is printed in an oversized format, which not only gives gravitas to Valley’s grotesque and goofy imagery, but allows enough room to read his text-heavy sequences. These are not action comics, despite Valley’s many visual references to early superhero culture; his characters are more aesthetically aligned with R. Crumb’s psychedelia and MTV’s Oddities, using the sequential-frame soapbox to deliver scathing monologues, like politically energized sock puppets. Diaspora Boy is not a book to curl up with, nor is it an easy read (whether you identify as Jewish or otherwise), but it represents a crucial and unflinching unpacking of contemporary Jewish identity.
One of Valley’s most pointed bodies of his work features a personification of the Zionist ideal of the Israeli Jew alongside the bastardized and deficient diaspora Jew — respectively, a superhero named Israel Man and his sniveling, abhorrent sidekick, Diaspora Boy. Subjected though I have been to anti-Semitic sentiments, none has come close to matching the vitriol of Max Nordau, an influential founder of the Zionist movement who’s quoted by Valley as saying, of the non-Israeli Jew: “He has become a cripple from within, and a counterfeit person without, so that like everything unreal, he is ridiculous and hateful to all men of high standards.” As Diaspora Boy wonders to himself, during one of Israel Man’s insulting and demoralizing pep talks, “With friends like these, who needs the anti-Semites?”
As Valley acknowledges, both in his introductory essay and in notes editorializing some of his earliest work, the specter of the Holocaust and the toll it’s taken on Jews are not to be treated lightly; in fact, they may fuel a kind of collective anxiety that drives Jews to perpetuate a cycle of human rights abuse (in spite of the self-image held by many American Jews of being staunchly liberal). Unlike Valley, I was not raised within the Jewish faith. I did not participate in any but the most dissociated and watered-down versions of Jewish rituals; I did not go to Jewish summer camp; I have never been to Israel. And yet, in place of solidarity or community, it was firmly impressed upon me by the members of my family who narrowly avoided the Holocaust that, in spite of my lack of connection to a religion that no one in my family has practiced in two generations, I might nonetheless be rounded up and exterminated. If American or Israeli Jews demonstrate a dearth of empathy, it may rightly be seen as the expression of a deep trauma that has only had a scant handful of decades to resolve itself. And this in the face of continued persecution — as recently as 2015, Jews were the target of the highest percentage of faith-based hate crimes in the United States.
But neither is the Jewish-Israeli perpetuation of the same violence against Palestinians to be treated lightly. Abuse is known to be cyclical, and it is a typical, if maladaptive, coping mechanism for the abused to reenact this violence upon another, weaker target — or to internalize it, in the way of the Zionist’s loathing for the diaspora Jew. Valley is engaged in the bold, necessary, and extremely complicated work of examining this fraught situation. The compendium format of the publication shows the evolution of his thinking, as he continually sharpens his blade for more precisely cutting analyses of the contradictions and hypocrisy attending to contemporary Judaism. He manages this largely with satire — which, according to Valley, is so close to reality as to be questioned as satire by some of his Israeli readership, just as Portlandia might be seen, by those familiar with Portland, as only faintly more hyperbolic than the reality. He’s also given to gently self-lampooning flights of fancy — such as a panel where a beautiful woman, referencing the association between Jewish creativity and subversive forms of entertainment culture, exhorts the artist to “Ravish me with your jungle music and comic books, Jew”; allusions to comic books and the Jewish contributions to that canon; and finally, playfulness (albeit largely twisted and dark). The work is difficult, funny, powerful, mightily subversive, and a testament to the depth of his focus. Valley leaves his readers — particularly his Jewish ones — with the unenviable and uncomfortable moral mandate of attempting to heal generations of trauma and cognitive dissonance, which add, year by year, to the repetition of history.
Eli Valley’s Diaspora Boy: Comics on Crisis in America and Israel is published by OR Books.