Eli Valley and The Plight of the Secular Jew

Eli Valley Author Photo by Loubna Mrie

While every day seems to bring some fresh, distracting hell of sycophantic snake-oil salesmen and fascistic dullards — absurdities such as David E. Clarke’s Israeli traffic cop pin, Rick Perry’s claim that fossil fuels help prevent sexual assault, and Trump’s crude, childish titling of the Republican tax bill — how are we to address the very real problem of rising ethno-nationalism?

When I asked this pressing question to Jewish political cartoonist Eli Valley, he responded each time with the same half-joking answer: comics, excommunication, and antifa. He often jokes that the greatest Jewish creation since the Talmud is MAD Comics. His own work feels like a combination of the two; look through his recently-released anthology Diaspora Boy: Comics On Crisis in America and Israel and you will find panels filled to the brim with commentary and references to every part of Jewish life, cleverly posed and hauntingly rendered.

Our discussion covered the chaotic farce that is the relationship between the American Jewish community and Israel, a relationship filled with such over-the-top characters as Benjamin Netanyahu, Jared Kushner, and Abe Foxman, as well as the inherent male toxicity of Zionism, and the endemic hypocrisy in justifications for Israel’s actions. Valley provides a guide to those perplexed by the chaos we’re facing, and offers some direction as to what our response should be if we want to get out of this thing alive.

SAM JAFFE GOLDSTEIN: How did you become a political cartoonist?

ELI VALLEY: I’ve been drawing since I was little. I used to draw political cartoons in college. I gave it up after college for other stuff, and I only returned to it about ten years ago. I started writing op-eds during George W. Bush’s second term, and I realized that drawing would set my work apart. I’d always been entranced by MAD comics, and by the horror and sci-fi titles of the 1950s. It just seemed like a great kinetic kind of combination. The initial reason that I came back to comics was that there was an Israeli who ran this tongue-in-cheek cartoon contest competing with an Iranian holocaust cartoon contest. This Israeli said, “screw you! We’ll show you that Jews do this better — no one does anti-Semitism better than the Jews.” I think Art Spiegelman was one of the judges. So I did this grotesque monster — the Jew monster. He had two penises, and he was assaulting a Christian and a Muslim woman simultaneously with them, while also causing the twin towers to fall. It didn’t win the contest but it gave me the itch for further satirical art.

In one of your comics, Jews and Superheroes, Superman says: "Jesus Christ, is there anything uniquely Jewish anymore, or are we all just metaphors for nothing?" Has Jewish culture exhausted itself? Are we just running on nostalgic fumes?

I think my Metamorphosis comic plays with a similar theme. Three Jews a hundred years ago just talking about how they’re Jewish. When I did both those comics the American-Jewish community was existing off its own fumes, in some ways. Things have changed dramatically with the rise of neo-Nazism, Trump, and certain Jews and Jewish organizations supporting Trump. I think that’s galvanized the community and I think it‘s moved us beyond self-fellatio. Hopefully new forms of our culture will emerge from this.

Could rage against the conservative Jewish establishment be a good place to find renewed energy?

Oh yeah, absolutely. The danger is that we create a culture that is purely reflexive, responsive, and reactive, but it’s all part of a larger cultural sphere that will hopefully continue to grow. This political rage can hopefully help us stop demurring to this minority of Jews that claim to speak for the rest of us. That can help move us forward.

What would it mean to have a leftist Jewish community that doesn’t always have to be so reactive — one that’s not always on the defense against conservative Jewish gatekeepers?

It would be as diverse as the Jewish community is today, with all the different strands, fluid identities, and multicultural expressions. Some of it would be nostalgic, reinventing nostalgia, some would explore inter-generational tensions, some would be based on new Jewish experiences and encounters. I assume you’re removing Israel from the equation. It‘s always part of this equation. Israel as it is now doesn’t enter the picture when we talk about some type of possible pure Jewish culture that can emerge beyond the current political context. Is that accurate?

Israel is what we are against at the moment.

Well, no longer, because there’s an urgent crisis right now in America. What’s happening in Israel and what we’ve been ignoring and normalizing for the past ten years has now suddenly hit our own shores.

Is Israel a particularly prescient example for the rise of right-wing politics across the world?

Yes, especially because of the ethno-nationalist aspect. It’s one of the reasons Israel has made these horrifying alliances with right-wing and sometimes even overtly anti-Semitic movements throughout the world. Including in America, but also in Europe. It was such a shanda when Netanyahu acquiesced to the Hungarian government’s extremist, right-wing, anti-Soros, anti-Semitic campaign — but really it just showed his true colors. Can we start calling Netanyahu an anti-Semite? Are we allowed to do that yet? Or is that going too far?

How did this happen? Is it just ethno-nationalism?

Partly it’s shared Islamophobia. Shared fear of refugees. Ultimately I do think that Netanyahu would say “fuck you” to the majority of American Jews. He certainly prefers Evangelicals to Jews. So does the rest of his ilk. People like Michael Oren, or even people like Joseph Lieberman, who compares John Hagee — this monstrous anti-Semite — to Moses. At this point we should seriously consider excommunication.

Have you thought about calling together a conference to excommunicate these people from our community?

They’ve been defining authenticity for so long, but they’re outside the sphere of mainstream political opinion. My fantasy is to flip the script. Why don’t we start admitting the obvious? That we are the authentic Jews. We embody the Jewish values of the past several hundred years of post-enlightenment Jewish history. These neo-cons are the aberration. They should stop speaking for us, but maybe it’s time to stop including them in the community. There’s so much focus in the Jewish world on Klal Yisrael, which basically means peoplehood. Under the guise of Klal Yisrael, we‘ve been conversing endlessly with each other in the spirit of inclusion, all while apartheid was being codified in the West Bank. Over how many years, decades, or centuries are we supposed to be in dialogue with people who not only refuse to acknowledge our authenticity but who are all-in in a project of ethnic-cleansing?

Before reading Diaspora Boy I was vaguely aware of people like Alan Dershowitz or the Podhoretz clan, but I had no idea how powerful these conservative Jews were. Do you hope to help people become aware of this entire world?

I envy your past ignorance. I’m sorry for bringing you into this horror-show. I remember  someone who wasn’t Jewish saying, well everyone in the Jewish world is liberal, that goes without saying. She was right in terms of the Jewish population, and actual Jewish values. But she wasn’t aware of the way these unelected spokespeople tend often towards the right. If you’re not aware of those inter-communal circumstances, then you’re blissfully free. You see the Jewish community and Jewish values as what they are. You‘re not forced to contend with these imposters.

When did you realize someone like Abe Foxman or Sheldon Adelson would be a great subject for a satirical comic?

They’re such self-caricatures already. It’s like that line in my comic Abe Foxworthy, “the best way to battle a stereotype is to embody it.” Like Abe Foxman colluding with Marc Rich, this international fugitive. If you’re trying to dispel the myth of Protocols of the Elders of Zion, maybe don’t take a hundred-thousand dollars from an international criminal who’s on the run, or write a pardon for him to President Bill Clinton. He should have been fired immediately on the spot, just thrown out and given no role in Jewish discourse beyond that.

Inversion is also a tool that you use in a lot of your comics — that the conservative Jewish establishment is anti-Semitic. When did you start turning these phrases on these people

I think it was natural and intuitive. I speak in a Jewish vernacular, which is maybe why it touches a nerve with them. Then I wrote the comic It Happened on Halloween, where I portrayed Abe Foxman as an anti-Semite for hating Jews who are critical of Israel. That was when I realized that I‘d been inverting all of the epithets that they throw at us. It’s outrageous that they claim the mantle of Judaism, while in my view they trespass some of the most basic post-enlightenment Jewish values. I come at it from a fierce Jewish-pugilistic perspective.

On the question of authenticity there is also a leftist Jewish trend to try and go back to a time before assimilation. For example learning Yiddish and reconnecting to a culture that existed before the holocaust. Is this trend trying to uphold a romantic idealized version of Judaism that cannot exist anymore?

I don’t think learning Yiddish and whatever else they’re doing is pre-assimilation. Jews were speaking Yiddish when they were assimilated. The problem today is that the main Yiddish speakers are Hasidic, but we forget that in New York and Warsaw before the war there were tons of Yiddish speakers who were assimilated. It was more the language of cultural autonomy. The larger debate is something I grapple with too, and it goes back to your question about living off the fumes of a dead culture. But for most cultures, in order to create something new you need to be well steeped in the roots and branches of what came before. So I don’t think it’s simply nostalgia.  I think they‘re learning Yiddish as a galvanizing point in order to bound forward with something new, whatever that might be.

Calling hypocrisy out does not work politically. People call Republicans hypocrites for saying they would never increase the deficit. Then they increase the deficit because it helps them maintain power. Your comics call out hypocrisy in a way that works. How did you figure that out?

It’s hard for me to overanalyze it, but my broad view is that they’re motivated by moral imperatives. They’re motivated by the positive aspects of my Jewish experience and my Jewish education. Comics that just say things like “trickle-down theory is a lie” are sterile and anemic. They don’t have the same soul as when you’re talking about issues that have been debated for over a thousand years – issues at the heart of our identity as individuals and as a people. This is some serious roots shit. That’s so far beyond the general landscape of political satire about government policy. Government is a sterile body and an abstract thing; whereas Jewish issues and Jewish debate gets to the kishkes.

Do you find it funny that you are someone that communicates with them a lot since you offend them constantly?

Someone recently said, I piss them off because I use specific Jewish traditions. I am proudly Jewish and it flies in the face of their whole theory of assimilation and that lefty Jews just don’t know what Judaism is. Maybe its that the vernacular is familiar to them, but it repulses them because of what I‘m saying about them.

Tell me about using a Jewish vernacular. Most of your comics in Diaspora Boy were written for a very specific community. Did that language limit you? What was your hope in bringing the vernacular of Diaspora Boy to a larger audience?

There’s a purpose of the book in the Jewish community and a purpose for the wider world. For the Jewish community it’s to reclaim authenticity. To be told that we are less pure is one of the things that allowed Netanyahu to be normalized. It’s a reason why under Trump the community has been silent at best, or complicit at worst. Maybe this book can give us the tools to help fight that. It doesn’t limit me in terms of creativity because I find it too exhilarating to maneuver through Jewish history and culture.

The ideology behind the comic Israel Man and Diaspora Boy is something that we don’t know enough about. It’s not well known outside of Israel or academia. It sheds a lot of light on both Israel, the American-Jewish relationship to Israel, and by extension the American relationship to Israel. And so the book offers a sort of guide to how we ended up in the horror that led to Trump. I wrote the entire introduction during the election campaign. Watching Sheldon Adelson pour millions of dollars into the campaign of the hero of American Nazism. At the time I thought Trump was just a buffoon who showed signs of extremely dangerous trends in America, but would fizzle out by election day. The fact that I was wrong only helps the relevance of the book. It’s come out in the beginning of the reign of America’s Netanyahu.

I don’t create my comics to convince the other side. I think the other side is lost basically, they‘re not open to being convinced. If my comics can add strength and nourishment to our side, then that’s a good thing, with the horrors of what we’re witnessing.  The things that I‘m pillorying are so off the deep end, I think people who continue to support these personalities and these policies are beyond convincing. I’m interested in expressing the visceral gut punch that I feel when I read the news.

Diaspora Boy reminded me of the perception that Israel is the culmination of Jewish history. Does this belief need to change?

This belief needs to change in every way. Physically, in terms of male toxicity, which is inherent in this shit. Emotionally and spiritually, maybe we should stop saying “aliyah,” which means “going up” and “ascending,” for moving to Israel. No, I don’t think so. Israel should be considered one of the Diaspora communities in the world. That’s what I consider Israel to be. We’re in a constant state of Diaspora. Israel did not end anything, and it is certainly not higher than any other Diaspora community. Tongue-in-cheek, but not entirely in cheek, I suggest Birthright Diaspora trips to inoculate young Israelis with the values of democracy and human rights that were spawned abroad and that are in desperate need of over there.

Talk to me more about the male toxicity?

In the comic Israel Man and Diaspora Boy, one of the central tenets that I’m satirizing is the male figure and the male mentality. Diaspora Jewish men were often described as effeminate and emasculated in Diaspora. This Zionist caricature of Diaspora Jewry persists to this day. It’s still here despite Zionist defenders insisting that it disappeared decades ago. This was the ideology before the state of Israel was established, before we entered the military picture. I think the hatred and dismissal of their supposed compatriots across the ocean, or elsewhere in the world, can lead inexorably to alliances with some of the most vicious Jew haters in history. I forget who might have said it already, but something tragic happens when a society replaces the traditional hierarchy of being a doctor with being a jet fighter pilot.

How do we uncrack that then? What’s the work that need to be done to change that? Israel isn’t going anywhere and neither are we.

Obviously comics. Comics, excommunication, and antifa are the trinity of our tools. There are a number of methods. Massive protests of any kind of alliance with these demagogues. We also have to insist that our education systems change. I’m not a pharaoh, so I can’t just suddenly say, Birthright Israel is going to be called Birthright Diaspora. We’ll now take Israelis to Poland not to just visit the death camps, but to visit the places where centuries of flourishing Jewish life preceded the Holocaust. But a pedagogical revolution needs to happen, one that starts at birth and continues through death. This is a huge project that cannot be done overnight, but we have to stop accepting this kind of elevation of Israel as the highest point.

What do we do about attempts trying to outlaw and criminalize the entire BDS movement?

We’re in the middle of a cataclysm, and there are things that are digging us deeper into the cataclysm. However, those things are the same kind of mentality that helps keep Netanyahu in power, so it should not be a surprise. It’s a reminder of the horrific synergy that‘s going on.  Whenever nightmarish things are being done in a community’s name, the response should be both personal and global. In my ideal world we would have massive sit-ins, Jews would be at the offices of every congress-person who sanctions this kind of shit. We would bus Jewish day schools into these protests, instead of busing them into the Israel-day parade every year.

Why do liberal Jews betray some of their values when it comes to Israel? Birthright being the best example. It’s a Sheldon Adelson sponsored indoctrination-vacation. When I went I saw Mike Huckabee introduce Sheldon Adelson introduce Netanyahu.

The fact that Mike Huckabee is anywhere near a Jewish educational arena, even an informal educational arena, is repugnant. It leaves me speechless. I didn’t know they‘d gone that far. That Birthright Israel would allow Mike Huckabee onto a stage like that, wow. I guess David Duke was busy.

Why do progressive Jews continue to fall for this trick?

Well hopefully progressive Jews aren’t falling for Mike Huckabee, but in general brainwashing begets brainwashing. In terms of liberal Jews who check their progressive values at the door when it comes to Israel, it’s fear and guilt: If we object to Israel’s policies, then we must hate ourselves, and we don’t want to be considered self-hating. For those with an emotional connection to Israel, they might do a cost-benefit analysis. They say, if it‘s my people or the Palestinian people, then someone’s gonna have to lose out, and it’s gonna be them. That’s even further then a lot of people ever get with this. For a lot of people it’s just an emotional level based on educational experiences they’ve had since they were children. When some people start admitting that this is not the ideal they’ve been taught, they rationalize it by saying, the Palestinians are to blame.

Your comic Our Hope is Not Yet Lost is about an American Jew who continues to legitimize Israel after settlers had burned a Palestinian to death. Everyone sees the problem, but refuses to do anything about it. How do we change that?

That comic is a peek into a heart that is contorting itself to rationalize what‘s happening. How do we change that? Again comics, excommunication, and antifa. I’m mostly partly kidding. There are organizations springing up like IfNotNow; they’re active in separating the American Jewish community leadership from the Occupation. They‘re standing up, filling the streets, and protesting when a place like the Zionist Organization of America goes full-on Nazi.

I recently went on Tablet and saw that article--

Excuse me, never go on Tablet. Which article?

I saw the Jewish theology of Tom Hanks’ David S. Pumpkins.

I didn’t even read it. I just mocked it.

Why is it so difficult to find resources that discuss the problems that face our community?

I know, I know, but you should stop looking at Tablet. I think that there will be more that will spring up. Jewish Currents is trying to infuse itself with new voices and maybe that will lead somewhere. We’re in the middle of a cataclysm right now, and it’s hard in the cataclysm to expect immediate new forms of culture and education. We should have had something decades ago, or at least in the past ten years. We haven’t, and maybe that’s why we‘ve been caught flat-footed. I really think that new forms of expression and education will emerge.

Your political cartoons dealing with Trump hit because you also go after people like Jared Kushner, someone who is a slightly marginal figure. Is this a strategy to try and make prescient jokes about the current political moment?

In the case of Jared Kushner, it’s an extension of my Israel-Palestine comics. He’s an Orthodox Jew who pretends to embody authenticity while engaging in some of the most despicable behavior, all while using his familial history to deflect charges of collusion with Nazis. Also, when you talk about marginal figures, you have to remember that Trump has no shame. There’s nothing that we can say to him, or nothing that he can say, that will make him blush. However, he’s only in power because of all these seemingly normal people supporting him. If we can make all of them radioactive, beyond radioactive, then we can take some steps towards hopefully neutralizing this larger threat.

Jared Kushner is also emblematic of something I hear a lot. Jared Kushner excuses Trump for some of his hatefulness. This contortion comes up more and more frequently, you are not anti-Semitic if you are part Jewish. You are not anti-Semitic if you support Israel. How do we call people out on this?

Look at Breitbart: They have a Jerusalem bureau, partly due to their shared ethno-nationalist impulse. This helps them deflect charges of anti-Semitism very strategically. But we must disabuse ourselves of the notion that an alliance with Israel absolves you of anti-Semitism. As we know from Christians United for Israel, a hard-right Evangelical group. They support Israel not because they want Jewish sovereignty and welfare. What they want is the return of Jesus and the elimination of non-Christian religions, which is textbook anti-Semitism. We need to stop allowing them to use Israel as a shield, especially today’s Israel. The term Kapo was used inaccurately for decades against liberal Jews. Now we have conservative Jews in bed with Nazis, so if we ever had a time where the term Kapo can be used legitimately, it is now. Maybe we need to use that term a bit more.

A year after the Gaza war of 2008-09 I saw Norman Finkelstein give a talk in which he asked, what are they going to say about Richard Goldstone? The author of the Goldstone report. That he is a self-hating Jew? That he is biased against Israel? However, Goldstone caved to Israeli pressure. How have you not caved? What’s your secret?

I don’t know the specific circumstances of Goldstone recanting portions of the report. I haven’t caved because Israel keeps producing the most malignant and toxic forces that we’ve seen. The bar keeps getting raised in terms of caving. If I came under the impression that they’re trying to reverse what they’ve wrought, then there might be a reason to moderate the rage. But they give you no reason. The current prime-minister spoke at and attended rallies in which Yitzhak Rabin was compared to a Nazi, and crowds were calling for his death. He represents a malignant force in Israeli society and the whole body politic of the Jewish people. This man is allowed to speak at The Jewish Federations of North America. He’s allowed to speak anywhere he wants in the Jewish community throughout the world. I think he should be shunned completely. There is no shortage of rage. There’s not much of an inclination to compromise, or moderate one’s feelings, when this person claims to be the representative of the Jewish people.