Photo: Nadja Spiegelman
Art Spiegelman — celebrated comics book artist, illustrator and author of the Pulitzer Prize-winning “Maus” — has broken his silence on the subject of Israel. At least that’s how he put it to his Facebook followers last week when he shared a collage he designed for a recent issue of the magazine The Nation.
Prefacing the social media post by saying that he has spent a “lifetime trying to NOT think about Israel,” Spiegelman went on to say that “Israel is like some badly battered child with PTSD who has grown up to batter others.”
Captioned “Perspective in Gaza (The David and Goliath Illusion),” the Biblical-style art image consists of two panels. On the left is a traditional rendering of David facing Goliath. The right-hand panel presents a shrunken Goliath brought closer to the foreground. Using the tricks of size and perspective to make what is surely not an original political point, it’s a clever play on Spiegelman’s life’s work as an illustrator.
At least two important questions arise from this. First, what does it say when The Jewish Museum in New York mounted a Spiegelman retrospective which overlapped with the controversy over Israel critic Judith Butler’s slated talk there on a subject unrelated to Israel? (Butler later pulled out amidst the pressure.) Had Spiegelman spoken up against Israel earlier, might the museum’s donors and critics have applied similar tactics?
Spiegelman hasn’t come out in support of an Israel boycott (something tells me that with his deep sense of irony, self-abasement and general intellectual nuance, boycotts aren’t quite his thing). But his criticism in this latest art piece is blunt. And more and more frequently, we are seeing a chill factor when it comes to language critical of Israeli policies. The continued verbal thrashings J Street have received are but one prominent example. And as I’ve written before, no one loves even a liberal Zionist.
Second, when an author-artist who has been one of the most important voices in bringing Holocaust reflection and commemoration to the minds of the contemporary public criticizes Israel, should we listen even harder?
On this point, we would do well to recall the recent conflict statements made by Holocaust survivors themselves as the war in Gaza raged on. One group of Holocaust survivors and their families used their personal experience of the terrors of anti-Semitism to criticize Israel, calling Israeli conduct in Gaza “genocide.” Though perhaps the most prominent survivor of all, Elie Wiesel, issued a much different perspective, taking out an ad in major newspapers accusing Hamas of “child sacrifice.”
We have all been on the receiving end of statements beginning with “As a Jew, I am disturbed by” (fill in the blank). Preambles like these attempt to inoculate the speaker from charges of insensitivity. But this rhetorical device often serves to obscure the actual issues at stake.
Similarly, we now see polemicists attempt to recast the “battle” from one between Israelis and Palestinians to one between “civilization and barbarism” as Wiesel did in his ad, and as I’ve seen others do in casual use. But we need to remember that the notions of “civilized” and “barbaric” have always been synonyms for “us” and “them.”
In other words, will the real Goliath please stand up?
Perhaps what is most profound in Spiegelman’s collage is not the binary view of flipping the David and Goliath metaphor on its head, but rather his use of the word “perspective.” Maybe where you stand is indeed derived from where you sit. But that’s not quite right either, since one Diaspora Jew would depict Israel as a monstrous Goliath while another would cling to the view that Israel remains small and moral David, and one Holocaust survivor sees genocide being committed by their own people while another sees the killing as self-defense against a Philistine-like enemy.
Ultimately, just as an artist must render line and shading according to observation, memory and imagination, so must political observers be ready to enter into the respective worlds of each actor in the unfolding story. It’s not an easy task for either.