Not the Israel My Parents Promised Me is half a memoir of Harvey Pekar and half a history of the Jewish people and how they’ve been persecuted, starting with Adam and Eve and going all the way to the modern day. Pekar’s memoir mostly talks about his childhood growing up with parents who believed Israel would be a somewhat utopian state for Jews, both religious and non. It also talks about his experiences in Israel as an adult, where the reality is somewhat less utopian than his parents believed it would be.
The art is black and white and uses heavy lines, making the whole book seem serious and grim and occasionally putting people in the “Uncanny Valley.” However, the artist is clearly capable of changing that style, as when Pekar’s narrative talks about various historical periods and Waldman changes his illustration style to match that of the period described. While this isn’t the most visually compelling, innovative or interesting work, what’s been done has been done well.
This book is somewhat tonally dissonant. While on one hand it accurately reports on the millennia-long systemic oppression of the Jewish people that eventually led to the formation of the State of Israel, a land where Jews are meant to be safe. But, as almost everyone knows, there is an Arab-Israeli conflict and it’s one of the most nuanced and complex diplomatic issues in history, with both sides having legitimate grievances and neither side being perfect. Sadly, Pekar doesn’t see it that way. Despite his claiming not to be a self-hating Jew and being able to see both sides of the conflict, the narrative speaks for itself. Pekar paints a picture of a Jewish state that oppresses helpless, innocent Arabs as badly or worse than the Jews have always been oppressed. And while one could easily argue that Judaism is as much a culture as a religion, Pekar seems very down on both aspects both in himself and in others. It’s kind of disappointing, given that, if this work were as nuanced as Pekar claims, it would be a fascinating perspective on the history of the Jewish people and the complex political situation in the Middle East. As it is, it comes off feeling vaguely anti-semetic or possibly vengeful, as if the Jews, having been oppressed for so long, are now finally taking out their aggressions on the Arabs.
Still, it’s somewhat worth reading. The history is both accurate and interesting. Also Pekar has had an interesting life and knows how to make his prose engaging. I’d simply caution readers to take the commentary on the situation in the present day with a grain of salt.
This book is clearly not aimed at children. It contains examples of real life historical violence and oppression and does not shy away from some of the problems with the current day political situation in the Middle East.
Not the Israel My Parents Promised Me
by Harvey Pekar
Art by JT Waldman
Hill and Wang, 2012