Not the Israel My Parents Promised Me
by Harvey Pekar, JT Waldman (Hill & Wang, 2012)

I refuse to believe in the all-too-prevalent meme that Americans don't know anything about the conflict between Israel and Palestine because of some imaginary, base stupidity. "Americans are dumb" is a handy, formulaic and rather pat dismissal that ignores the reality that most Americans are either misinformed by their extremely biased media or have lost track of a situation that has so many working parts, so much finger pointing and so much mind-blowing horror and death attached to it, that any type of exposure to the issue causes almost instantaneous numbness. I fall directly into the category of an American who cares but who doesn't know what to believe or where to start learning, and who does not want to be exposed to propaganda and lies.

Why trust Harvey Pekar, of all people, to enlighten me? His reputation as an observer/deconstructionist of American life, as an honest and insightful writer, plus his background as the son of an ardent Zionist, creates the trust factor. It has the tone of a confessional, which is appropriate since he is so willing to bare his thoughts, feelings and influences. Pekar was never afraid to get personal if it meant getting at the truth.

Not the Israel My Parents Promised Me isn't really a story so much as it is a memoir of the evolution of Pekar's understanding of the Middle East peace process through first being the son of a Zionist activist -- at one point he actually attempted to emigrate to Israel -- to becoming a more independent thinker. Pekar wasn't shy about revealing the progress of his own viewpoint toward a grudging acceptance of reality, as opposed to the romantic ideology his mother instilled in him. He uses broad historical swaths instead of the small personal stories for which he's so famous, and many nuances about both sides are glossed over, but in general this is a good book for someone who needs a Cliff's Notes style-rundown, from the beginnings of recorded history up to somewhere around last week.

JT Waldman does a great job of using the art to convey whole chunks of history in one visual sweep. Setting the current negotiations in a maze is a clear way of demonstrating how little progress is being made in the peace talks. Late 19th-century events are done in Art Nouveau. The stories from the Bible are told on clay tablets, and parts of Arabic history are presented in tapestry-style arrangements that frame the history very neatly and very beautifully.

The novel ends with Pekar's death and with his admission that he cannot understand the "stuckness" that passes for politics in the Middle East. It's a raw confession but it's a truthful one. It takes guts to delineate a moral dilemma without favoring either side, it takes honesty to admit that you're too human to have any solutions, and it takes artistry to describe that tension in such personal terms. It takes a master to articulate all of it without surrendering the humanity of either side, and Pekar is nothing if not a master of that ability. Not the Israel is essential Pekar, a powerful hybrid of memory and history; of personal, anecdotal, in-the-field observation and a whirlwind tour of the distant and immediate past. It's an excellent read that may upset some -- but Pekar, who made the pursuit of his art into the whole point of his existence, with admirable and enviable dedication, was never one to play it safe.

review by
Mary Harvey

31 August 2013

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