Forming Beliefs with Harvey Pekar in Not the Israel My Parents Promised Me

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While Generoso is the Pekar aficionado in the Fierro house, for this week’s graphic novel glimpse, I will be reviewing Harvey Pekar’s Not the Israel My Parents Promised Me. I’ve read a few sections from various volumes of American Splendor, and there are many layers to Harvey Pekar to be extracted from those works, and all of those layers are at play in his last work prior to his passing, Not the Israel My Parents Promised Me.

When I think of Harvey Pekar, I think of him as the essential perspective on modern American life. Harvey is fairly neurotic, but he is also sharply insightful. Harvey is a regular man who had a fairly regular 9-5 job but also had a profound love for jazz and comic books. Harvey Pekar has an amazing ability to extract a fable around proper social behavior from some of the seemingly most meaningless details about our existence, and for that, he is a voice that is missing in this post-modern era.

Harvey Pekar via Gerry Shamray and The Comics Journal

Consequently, in light of the current and likely transient ceasefire between Israel and Palestine, I feel that now is a good time to review Pekar’s statement on his political belief on a subject that hits close to home for him. Not the Israel My Parents Promised Me was not Harvey’s first foray into politically focused graphic novels. In 2007, he wrote Macedonia with Heather Roberson, which was his novel dedicated to exploring the political and social climate of Macedonia, one of the few former Yugoslavian states that avoided civil war.

While Not the Israel My Parents Promised Me is a highly political graphic novel that most definitely conveys Harvey’s opinion on the state of Israel, it is more about the formation of one’s political and spiritual perspectives in the progression of life. The novel takes you through the formation of Harvey’s spiritual and political identity without any heavy handedness or any dogmatism. What becomes the most brilliant feature of the novel is its ability to weave  Jewish scripture and theological history with political history across centuries leading up to the current conflict while also unraveling how this gained knowledge of the history of the conflict molded Harvey’s perspective.

In the novel, we see the progression of beliefs that many of us go through, and the various stopping points that stunt people from forming clear, individual beliefs. As a child, Harvey established his beliefs about Israel based on the teachings of highly pro-Zionist parents. Naturally, he accepted what his parents taught him without questioning their’ motives and often clear hypocrisy with a naïve and fervent acquiescence and acceptance that is all too similar to our own belief foundation periods as children when we simply did not have any other frame of reference.

As the narrative progresses, Harvey meets people who began to change his pro-Zionist views, which he held until his twenties. In addition, he weaves in the events in the the late 60s which fully reversed his opinion on Israel. Gradually, we begin to understand why pro-Zionism was erased from the identity of adult Harvey Pekar.

Above all, what is one of the most clever devices of the narrative is its structure and relationship to younger Jewish Americans who Harvey interacts with as he tells the history and the events that led to his change in belief. Harvey interacts with his illustrator, a younger Jewish American who spent time in a kibbutz in Israel, and the sons of a bookstore that he frequents. In establishing the history of the Jewish faith and the diasporas over thousands of years, it becomes clear that the younger men he interacted with either did not have knowledge of this essential history or did not take the time to tie the centuries-old history to the current conflict. And consequently, their beliefs around faith and the intertwined thoughts on the state of Israel are quite uninformed, naïve beliefs. With the interactions with these younger men, Harvey is able to convey how lack of knowledge and lack of commitment to tie all of the parts necessary to form one’s political and spiritual beliefs can lead to passiveness that is detrimental to our own identities, and consequently, our macro identities as a cultural group and as a society.

From the political perspective, Not the Israel My Parents Taught Me is Harvey’s literary piece to convince people to question their pro-Zionist views, but this is all done in the signature Harvey Pekar way. All of the persuasion is as objective as he can make it and is delivered in small moments of his own memories ranging from his memory of his mother never attending synagogue to taking a class with an anti-Zionist peer in college to much larger moments in history ranging from the foundation of the Israeli State to the brash expansion of the state into surrounding occupied territories under Prime Minister Menachem Begin in the 70s. In the formation of Harvey’s beliefs on Israel, we are taken on a fragmented ride that we experience with the formation of any belief, any stance we take in life. And while Harvey is persuading the reader to reject pro-Zionist views and the political motivations of the state of Israel today, he is also persuading us to read, to learn, to question, and to think about any major political and spiritual belief we have in life. He encourages us to understand, dissect, and try to disregard our biases that may come from our parents, our families, and our communities in order to establish beliefs that are informed, intelligent, and ultimately, ones that we can wholly believe in.

Not the Israel My Parents Promised Me is written by Harvey Pekar and illustrated by JT Waldman. It is available via Hill and Wang publishing.

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