Sarah Glidden Explains ‘How to Understand Israel in 60 Days or Less’ [Interview]
The way that Sarah Glidden tells it, her graphic novel How to Understand Israel in 60 Days or Less started as an argument with her mother. They were debating the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict, a topic that hits close to home for American Jews.
“Maybe before you make up your mind, you should actually go there and see it. Why don’t you go on that Birthright trip. You’re running out of time, you know.”
It was this suggestion that led Glidden to register for Taglit-Birthright Israel, a sponsored 10-day trip to Israel for Jews between the ages of 18 and 26. Funded by a number of Jewish organizations and philanthropists in partnership with the Israeli government, Birthright seeks to strengthen the connection between Israel and the Diaspora while fostering an increased sense of Jewish identity among its participants.
Of the thousands of young Jews to have participated in a Birthright trip to date, Glidden is the only one to have turned her experiences into a graphic novel. Originally self-published as mini-comics, How to Understand Israel in 60 Days or Less, is being released this week from Vertigo. It’s a powerful retelling of Glidden’s time on Birthright, during which she explores the landscape of one of the most complex places in the world, while being forced to rethink her own closely held political beliefs.
It’s part memoir and part travelogue, interwoven with the historical background of the many places that Glidden visits throughout her trip, with her warm art bringing Israel to life on the page. This is also the record of an intensely personal process, unique to the author’s experience, but with a message much broader than the issues that Glidden faces. This is a book for anyone who has sought to understand the world around them and realized how much more there is to learn.
ComicsAlliance recently sat down with Glidden as she talked us through her travels, acting as our tour guide to her story, offering us some very unique and personal insights about her first trip to the Holy Land.
Glidden’s journey started long before she ever boarded a plane to Israel. As a child in Newton, Massachusetts, a Boston suburb with a large Jewish population, she had grown accustomed to hearing nothing but positive messages about how American Jews should relate to their distant homeland. They were simple messages, to be sure, and easy to embrace. These are the things that young Jews tend to hear from from rabbis, teachers and leaders in the community. It’s harder to tell a child about the more painful aspects of Israeli life, the uglier facets of it’s history, and the actions that it takes against Palestinians in defense of itself. Learning about the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict as a young adult planted the seeds of Glidden’s own internal struggle, one that continues to this day.
“You grow up being told ‘Israel is your country, you can go there, you can live there, it’s for you. We have to support Israel, we have to plant a tree in Israel.’ No one ever told us about the conflict when we were kids. So then you get older and you find out about the conflict and it feels like its something that your family’s doing that you don’t like, like ‘This is my country? But I don’t want them to do this! I don’t them to hurt people. I don’t want anyone that I’m affiliated with to hurt anybody.’ When you try to put it in the context of self-defense, or the reasons why Israel would do these things, it just got so complicated and so upsetting that I just almost had to ignore it and just kind of read the paper, but not think about it.”
There was only so long that Glidden could attempt to ignore the realities of Israel, and when her mother pointed out that she would eventually be too old to be eligible for a Birthright trip, the opportunity became clear. But she wanted to treat this like more than a vacation, as so many of her peers tended to do; this was her chance to pursue an understanding of Israel that had continuously eluded her.
“I said to myself, “maybe she’s right. Maybe I will go, and before I go, I would really really try to do my homework and learn everything that I can and then I’ll go on the trip and I’ll see it with my own eyes and I’ll give Israel a chance.” It was almost like I wanted to completely divorce myself from Israel or see if I could open my mind to their side of things. So the 60 days [in the title] refers to the month and half before I went. All I did was read. I did not make my boyfriend and my friends happy. I would get home from work and I would just read all these big books. And then I thought that being there for two weeks would seal the deal and I would know everything. Clearly you’re not going to ever understand such a complicated place in such a short amount of time, but I really wanted to try. So this book is about that attempt at trying to figure it out because when i got there, I realized it was a lot more complicated than I thought.”
“It’s more complicated than that,” is a phrase that readers will see throughout the book. Glidden explained that it became a running joke on her trip. In Israel, there are no easy answers, and Glidden’s assumptions about her trip were challenged as soon as she arrived when she discovered that her tour guide, Gil, was far more interested in exploring both sides of any issue rather than promoting an agenda.
“He would talk about the things that he thought maybe Israel could do differently, and he talked about how the separation barrier is good because it cuts down on terrorist attacks, but it’s bad because it does this to the Palestinians. I so respected and appreciated that. I think without that kind of, you know, showing the other side of things, I might have come away from the trip not having my whole world broken down like it was.”
Gil’s open-minded approach proves to be an asset during one of the trip’s first stops in the Golan Heights. A region in the Northeast corner of Israel, the Golan was taken from Syria during the Six Day War in 1967. Syria has wanted regain the territory ever since, and Israelis don’t want to give it up in any future peace deal, especially those who live there. Expecting to be presented with propaganda throughout the trip, it’s one of the first things she sees when the group is shown two films about the Golan Heights.
“We had just gotten off the plane. We were all really tired, and what I didn’t get to include in the book, is that there was a second movie that was like IMAX. It was all images and sound, there was no narration and it was ‘The beauty of the God’ and it was just flowers waving in the breeze and then they sprayed perfume in the room and when they showed it raining, some mist came down in the theater. I mean, it was incredible, but that was the strongest example of actual propaganda and, you know, like Gil says, it is actually propaganda, because it was used during the ’90s when Israel was considering giving back the Golan Heights. It was a movie made to make people reconsider that and turn against that idea. It was almost like a historical document of Israel in the ’90s.”
Visiting a cemetery near the Sea of Galilee, also known as the Kinneret, Glidden was confronted with the challenge of distinguishing Myth from History when a charismatic educator named Joel tells the group about the idealistic young Zionists who settled pre-state Palestine in the early 20th century. Despite her preparatory research, she’s unfamiliar with this narrative and is forced to question her own critical approach to what is being taught.
“That guy Joel was a really good storyteller, and when i was listening to him talk about the settlers, it was really clear to me that there was a lot missing from the story…no human beings are just 100% heroic adventurers, just pure, good, coming into a new country and making a life for themselves and only being violent in self-defense… To me it seemed to be stretching reality, but then everybody else thought it was great, so then I started feeling badly, like maybe I’m being too skeptical… A lot of these things, I already had all the information that I could have needed, but then the pioneers story? I hadn’t really read much about that, so here’s someone telling me something that I think is kind of unbelievable, but I don’t have any way to refute that, I don’t have proof that what he’s saying isn’t true, so its all very confusing. That’s where it would feel dangerous to me, when I don’t know what to trust or not. and you don’t want to be a jerk that doesn’t trust anybody, and won’t listen to anything, because that’s not an open-minded way of looking at things, but you also don’t want to be gullible and you don’t want to fall for a story. So that was the kind of line I was walking a lot of the trip, trying to know whether I should trust or not.”
The question of trust was brought to the forefront as Glidden’s tour group arrived in Tel Aviv, one of Israel’s most vibrant cities. Glidden visited a cousin in Tel Aviv who pointed out that she may be experiencing the “Birthright Glow,” something that often occurs to participants visiting Israel the first time. It’s the feeling that happens when someone starts to have a positive and intense emotional connection to the place. For someone like Glidden, the possibility of falling under the spell of the “Birthright Glow” is cause for concern.
“Almost every place i go, I kind of think ‘Could i live here?’ and Israel, apart from all its politics… I love ancient history and history in general. Even a couple days in, I was like ‘I could come here and study ancient history’ because I loved being in such an old place, you know where, the seat of civilization is in the general area. so yeah, I had a little bit of ‘Birthright Glow,’ maybe a different kind, maybe it’s different for everybody. And then when my cousin pointed it out, it was almost like I caught myself, and I was like, ‘Have i let my guard down?'”
Soon after, Glidden’s group went to Independence Hall, a historical landmark in Tel Aviv where Israel first declared itself to be a state on May 14, 1948. While listening to a presentation about those tumultuous days in Israel’s early history, she couldn’t escape her emotions, and she began to realize how hard it is to question everything she thought she knew. This is partially represented in the panel seen below. So much of what Glidden has come to believe about the modern state of Israel was tested by her new experience; the ugly past rests on her shoulders with an uncertain future before her.
“The woman at Independence Hall knew what she was doing and I went into that speech of hers with armor up. We come from a generation where we’ve grown up knowing what advertising is trying to do to us. And so I went into this trip with that kind of ‘Don’t you try to manipulate me, I know what you’re doing,” but at some point it doesn’t matter, the story that she’s telling is compelling. I wasn’t even upset at Independence Hall because it was a sad story about refugees coming to Tel Aviv and then Jews creating the state. That’s not a tragic thing that someone would get upset about. I was upset because I was finally starting to see the Israeli point of view on things that I had rejected for so long and that was really terrifying because I felt like I was being… I didn’t know whether I was really feeling that, whether I really wanted to feel that, or whether I had been successfully manipulated and it’s scary to think that maybe you’re being controlled by someone else, or maybe you’re not. Maybe you’re just changing your mind, but changing your mind is a terrifying thing too. We’re so used to having our convictions and our beliefs and I think people are really afraid of… it’s like losing a part of your identity, almost. This thing that you thought was part of you, this idea, this political belief system. If that goes away then it’s like part of you is being cut off.”
Having entered the trip with some intention of criticizing Birthright for a manipulative agenda, Glidden began to realize that her perception had shifted on her. There’s a sequence early in the book in which Glidden puts Birthright on trial in her imagination, conducting an internal dialogue about whether or not she’s being brainwashed by the trip. Not long after the tour of Independence Hall, she attempted to bring the court to order again, except this time the courtroom was empty. It wasn’t about Birthright anymore; it was about her.
“I was scared because I realized that there was no one who was going to tell me what the right thing to think was. We like to think that we’re individuals and we think for ourselves and we’re strong, educated people. But really, we just pick who to trust. I would read articles, and I trust NPR, or I’ll trust most of what the New York Times says, and I’ll trust The Nation or something. As long as I listen to those people, they know what they’re talking about, so they’ll tell me what the right thing to think is. I kind of came to this point where I was like, ‘I’m totally alone, and my boyfriend’s not going to be able to tell me what’s right, my friends aren’t going to be able to tell me what’s right, these people on the trip aren’t going to be able to tell me. I have to figure it out on my own,’ and that’s what the second half of the book is. Trying to go back and forth and figure it out, because there’s no one [who can tell you].”
Arriving in the Judean Desert, Glidden’s group spends a night visiting what are known as the “Bedouin Tents.” Presented as an authentic slice of traditional Bedouin culture, the tents are also a popular tourist destination, constantly hosting groups for profit. She questioned the way Bedouin life in Israel was presented to her, as her critical mind took hold once more. As much as she was grateful that her trip was willing to explore the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, there was a regret that the internal conflicts of Israeli civil society were largely ignored.
“I really wish that we could have seen the real Bedouin culture. If you’re going to show us Bedouin culture, show us Bedouin culture, don’t show us Disneyland. i want to see what life is like for Bedouins because from the road, it looks pretty sh*tty, you know, these shacks… And I know that they get destroyed pretty often. Later I read about these cities that Israel wants the Bedouin to move into, cities that Israel claims are very nice. I want to see those really nice cities if they’re really not that bad and, you know, it should be a nice place for Bedouins to move into and [help them] give up the nomadic lifestyle. But we weren’t really shown that… This trip is very focused on the conflict, but they didn’t talk about Bedouins, and they didn’t talk about the other conflicts that Israel has, even like internal conflicts between different kinds of Jews, they didn’t talk a lot about that stuff.”
The next stop in the desert was Masada, which is practically a required stop for a Jewish tour in Israel. Masada is a noted historical site, a mountaintop stronghold where a group of Jewish zealots committed mass suicide in the year 73 C.E. rather than be captured by the Roman Empire. Recorded by the Roman-Jewish historian Josephus, the Masada narrative grew to prominence in 20th century Israel as a sort of rallying cry to Jewish pride. It’s one of those moments that’s meant to strike an emotional chord by design, but it’s also something that Glidden was prepared to face thanks to her research.
“I went into Masada kind of understanding that it was almost a footnote in the Jewish uprising, and then it became this symbol. It is an interesting story, but there’s no way of knowing what really happened – Even Josephus, that’s not really a primary source. That’s questionable for me. You can’t take your source for granted. You have to think about who’s telling you what and why. Josephus was a turncoat. He had reasons for writing the things he wrote. He was a historian, but he was also a defector. But then you have Birthright’s way of telling the Masada story. And what is the reason for telling this story? And the guy who kind of first redesigned the story of Masada, he had an explicit reason for telling the story the way it’s told. He saw that it would be a powerful tool for getting people ready to defend their country.”
Glidden’s reflection about her mindset while at Masada reveals by this point in the trip, her internal dialogue was at a different stage. Just a few short days earlier, her questions about the truth of the stories that were told provoked intense emotion. At Masada she was able to step back from the narrative and appreciate the moment for what it was.
“It’s a crazy story, but at that point on the trip I wasn’t really angry about the way Masada was being employed. I love ancient history so much, and it was really cool being there, no matter how the story may be told, I loved being there. It’s beautiful and it’s really fascinating, and you get to see all these ruins of Herod’s fortress. I had a great time at Masada. I was glad that I knew [its] story going into it.”
The group’s final stop was in Jerusalem, the state capital and a spiritual center for Jews, Muslims and Christians alike. Also found in Jerusalem is Yad Vashem, Israel’s memorial to the victims of the Holocaust. While touring the museum, Glidden experienced an ironic sort of dissonance; after enduring a series of guides and teachers who sought to instill an emotional impact, the guide at Yad Vashem appeared so distant from the matter at hand that it frustrated her. As much as the Holocaust and Israel are linked, the experience of their respective histories isn’t necessarily the same.
“Part of what really got to me at Independence Hall was thinking about the Holocaust and thinking about [Israelis] being refugees from that, and Yad Vashem is an amazing museum and it is emotional. But this guide… I was so busy being annoyed at him. He was so emotionally disconnected, like he was giving me this distance from the sad and tragic and horrible things that we were seeing, and I felt offended that he wasn’t letting me be upset. We saw this other Birthright group, and they were just crying and hugging each other and they were just having this experience that I wanted to be having there. But instead this guy was putting a filter over everything. Just very flat. This is not to say anything against Yad Vashem. I think they’re an amazing organization and I’m sure all of their other tour guides are really great, maybe this guy was just having a bad day, but it was only after the tour was over and I got to go off by myself and look at things on my own that I was really able to feel this place.”
“Yad Vashem is a place where it’s kind of not complicated, you know? I say all the time that every conflict has two sides and there’s reasons why people do things and nobody’s evil, but Hitler was a psychopath and the Holocaust was just bad, and that’s the one place where I could unequivocally be sad and be emotional and just be horrified. There was no need [to consider] any other side of the Holocaust. I don’t need to hear the other side at that place. I was ready to just have an emotional time of things.”
It may sound cliche, but a visit to Israel truly is an emotional roller coaster, especially for a young American Jew like Glidden who was trying to figure out how she felt about the nation and its history. Those emotions were bought to the surface once more at one of the last stops of the trip, the Western Wall. The wall is the last remnant of the Second Temple, which was destroyed by the Romans in the year 70 C.E., shortly before the mass suicide at Masada. Considered by many to be one of the holiest sites in Judaism, it is traditional to write prayers on small pieces of paper and slip them through the crack in the wall. Glidden tries to do this too, despite her lack of religiosity.
“I’m not really a magical thinker, but sometimes I think that happens to everybody. [I thought] ‘I’m not religious but I’m going to put my prayer in the wall like everybody else because, who knows? So I wrote my little ‘Let there be peace’ earnest prayer, and when I went to take it out of the book, I ripped it in half. Sometimes things happen and they just feel like they’re a sign…That was just one of many emotionally difficult things that happened.”
“To me, though, the Wall means nothing in terms of religion. I’m not religious, It’s not holy to me, but there’s something holy about a place that other people care about so much and that so many people have prayed in. I lived in Barcelona for a while and my boyfriend at the time took me to mass at this really really old Catholic church at the center of the old city. I have nothing to do with Christianity but it was holy being there because you can feel everybody else, how much they care about it, just the power of people and their beliefs and how strong that is. I think that’s the same no matter if you’re an agnostic person like me. Going to anybody else’s holy place is going to be powerful even if you don’t believe in it. That’s what the Wall is like to me. and it’s upsetting too, because I wish that it were easier for people to compromise over it. But I have to respect the fact it’s not just a place to them, it’s something more than that.”
After the trip, Glidden stayed in Israel for a bit, and she intended to cross over the Green Line into the occupied Palestinian territory in the West Bank to see what life was like in Ramallah. But the plans fell through and she stayed in Jerusalem, unexpectedly finding herself inspired by the words of a very unconventional rabbi. Would it had been a different book if she had made her way to Ramallah?
“I feel pretty ashamed that I didn’t go, that I chickened out, basically. I was all set to go, and then I was nervous, you know, people were telling me not to go, and that it was too dangerous to go. Now I wish I hadn’t listened to that. But I do wonder what it would have been like. I think in a way, it wouldn’t have been that different, you know. Ramallah’s a real city, it sounds like a nice place, but I think we have this image of it, especially when [group leader] Nadan is saying that it’s too dangerous to go, this image of empty streets and decrepit buildings and you’re gonna get shot and like there’s kidnappers around and I think that if I had gone I would have seen a nice city and it kind of almost would have defused some of the tension a little bit for me. I’d still like to go back and see that, but I didn’t go.”
Looking back, there’s a recognition of how much had to come together in order to make Glidden’s trip into the experience that it was. The right travel provider, the right tour guide, the weeks of research before the trip. There was no way to be completely prepared for any of it, but the trip that she didn’t expect may have been she one she needed to have.
“If I had gone on a trip that was not talking about any of the conflict except for the Israeli side of things — not talking about any of Israel’s mistakes, not talking about any of that stuff that we talked about — I would have just been angry and I would have probably not changed my mind. I might have come home feeling the same way as i went in. It was because our trip respected our intelligence enough to tell us a little bit of the real story. That’s why it was effective for me. So maybe not for everybody, you know? Maybe somebody who hadn’t done this kind of research or who wasn’t coming from another side of the political spectrum. Maybe they were even disturbed by our trip? I don’t know. All i know is how it affected me, and I had so much respect for the fact that we were talking about these things and that they were open about it.”
In Jewish tradition, the Hebrew word for Israel literally means “One who wrestles with God.” It originates in a Biblical narrative in which the forefather Jacob wrestles with an angel and ultimately has his name changed to Israel. Many Jews expand upon this definition of the term, believing that it is essential in Judaism to struggle with questions of faith. For Glidden, the wrestling is with Israel, but she hopes that her readers will realize that everyone goes through something like this at some point in their lives, no matter what background they come from. And at a time when the political discourse in American life has gotten uglier than ever, Glidden hopes that her story will help readers to realize that sometimes it’s okay not to pick a side, but to find comfort in the spaces in between.
“Part of Judaism that’s often forgotten, is that you’re supposed to ask questions and you’re supposed to wrestle with [your faith]. I think that the discussion in the United States is so much less nuanced than it is in Israel. I think there’s a lot more variety of opinions in Israel and people can talk about it more fluidly. Here you get shut down if you try to talk about the complexity of the situation and you try to wrestle with it. i think its just so wrong. We should be able to ask questions. I’m not a religious person, but I do like a lot of parts of Judaism, and one of the things that I like the most about Judaism is this idea that you’re supposed to ask questions and struggle and wrestle with what you think.”
“I just hope [How to to Understand Israel in 60 Days or Less] will show [readers] that they’re not the only ones who are not sure, and that just because the loudest voices around you seem to be so certain and you might not be so certain, that it just means that they’re the loudest; it doesn’t mean that they’re right. Before I came to terms with this idea that it’s okay to be questioning, I thought that I had to pick a side to be certain, and now i realize that if I ever think that I’m certain again, then its probably a bad sign. So i hope that people read it and be okay with being in the gray area, and not just about Israel but about anything.
I also hope that they can see it as a way of how a person can struggle with anything like that, and I think that that idea of going from certainty to uncertainty and then becoming okay with that idea can be universal, can be a struggle that anyone can go through, whether they’re Jewish or Israeli or not.”