After each Passover Seder my family would always enthusiastically exclaim "Next year in Jerusalem!" before finally- FINALLY!- getting down to the enjoyable task of eating dinner. We would say this phrase happily not because we actually wished to go to Jerusalem but because we were relieved that the hours-long seder was over. "Next year in Jerusalem!" was the ending bell. It was the phrase marking the end of an evening full of dull prayer and queasy justifications for God killing a bunch of Egyptian babies. We never really thought about what the phrase literally meant. Nobody at our seders in reality wanted to go to Jerusalem. And if any of us felt a little guilty about our lack of yearning for Israel, a quick read from Guy DeLisle's excellent comic memoir"Jerusalem: Chronicles from the Holy City" would have quickly squelched it. In "Jerusalem" DeLisle demurely and amusingly portrays his year in Israel with his wife and two small children. DeLisle's Jerusalem is a city of hellish heat, awful traffic jams, frustrating bureaucracy, intimidating military presence, and seething anger occasionally boiling over into all-out war. Next year in Jerusalem? No thank you. I'm good.
Guy DeLisle is a French-Canadian cartoonist and self-described atheist with Catholic roots. His wife Nadine DeLisle is of similar background and she works as an administrator for the famous international medical aid group "Medicins Sans Frontieres" ("Doctors Without Borders" for us 'Mericans). When Nadine is transferred to Jerusalem for a year to assist MSF in the poverty-stricken Palestinian areas. Guy DeLisle and their two young children accompany her. The book opens with Guy DeLisle trying to calm his fussy two-year-old daughter on the 20 hour flight from Montreal to Tel Aviv. A stout elderly Russian passenger sitting next to DeLisle offers to calm the toddler despite speaking no English or French (the only two languages DeLisle speaks). The old man and the toddler play happily for hours. DeLisle notices, while watching the two play, that the old Russian has numbers tattooed on the inside of his right forearm. "Good God! This guy is a camp survivor." The rest of "Jerusalem: Chronicles from the Holy City" is not at all a flattering picture of Israel so it is interesting that DeLisle chose to open his book with this reminder that Jews are very much the oppressed as well as the oppressors.
One in Jerusalem, the DeLisles settle in. Compared to some of Guy DeLisle's past abodes (Pyongyang springs to mind) Jerusalem is not too bad. It is nevertheless a grim place, full of cement apartment buildings, construction, armed military police, traffic, heat, daycares that close at only 1pm (boy did that part trigger me!) and grim little grocery stores that sell no beer, pork, or wine and are closed Friday through Saturday. DeLisle is tempted to shop at a nearby modern supermarket that sells all the forbidden foreign foods and is open all week. His wife's work colleagues forbid it. The supermarket is located in an area full of far-right Jewish settlers known for attacking and displacing impoverished Palestinian villagers. Supporting settler-owned businesses is a no-no. DeLisle refrains, regretfully. He can't help but notice ruefully, however, that plenty of Palestinian women shop at the same shiny supermarket. DeLisle enviously watches the women in their hijabs walking back to the bus stop with their bags full of Creamed Wheat and Campbells Chicken Noodle soup.
The constant clashes between Israel and the Palestinians are considered the Platonic ideal of "it's complicated." When it comes to the issue of Israeli settlements v. Palestinians Guy DeLisle is obviously biased since he receives most of his information from his wife and her MSF doctor colleagues who see the suffering of the Palestinians up close. DeLisle, however, wisely keeps his own views of the conflict confined to his physical observations. DeLisle draws the thuggish Israeli soldiers and settlers who tote massive automatic rifles on their shoulders everywhere they go, whether to the zoo or to a cafe. DeLisle draws his Palestinian art students at a women's college in Abu Dis. The women are all veiled, all thin, and shockingly under-educated about art even when they are majoring in artistic studies and drawing. DeLisle draws the ultra-orthodox Jewish neighborhood of Mea Shearim where "Families average seven kids, and considering how exhausted I am with two, I can only imagine how the women must feel." (This observation of DeLisle's is accompanied by a quick sketch of an ultra-orthodox Jewish woman, pale and exhausted beneath her wig, surrounded by five children and noticeably pregnant with her sixth.) DeLisle draws the baseball-sized rocks that Palestinians hurl at Israeli soldiers, only to be met with tear gas in response. DeLisle draws the nets that stretch between opposing buildings in the city of Hebron. "(The nets were) put up to protect passersby from objects thrown at them by settlers living in adjacent houses. Now, they toss down all kinds of trash that hangs there disgracefully."
One aspect of Israel that comes as a surprise to DeLisle is how divided Israeli Jews are when it comes to politics in their country. The rest of the world sees Israeli Jews as a monolithic block fighting against the Palestinians. The truth is the exact opposite. The far-right Israeli settlers torment Palestinian villagers populations by expanding illegal settlements into Palestinian cities. The moderate Jewish population of Israel are appalled at the actions of settlers and criticize the right-wing Israeli government for turning a blind eye towards the abuses perpetrated by Israeli settlers towards Palestinians. A group of ex-Israeli soldiers founded a group called "Breaking the Silence" where they recount how the Israeli government forced them to block off Palestinian streets, board up Palestinian businesses and evict Palestinians from their own homes for no reason except to allow Israeli settlers to move in and take over. Horrified that they were being forced to do this, the Israeli soldiers give tours of settlements to foreign tourists, describing the oppression visited upon Palestinians by the Israeli settlers. According to the founders of "Breaking the Silence," far-right Israeli settlements are backed quietly (and illegally) by the right-wing Israeli government. The moderate Israeli media is likewise sympathetic towards the suffering of Palestinians at the hands of far-right Israeli settlers. Plus there are divisions between the ultra-orthodox and reform Jewish community in Israel. The Talmud forbids the ultra-orthodox men from working so ultra-orthodox communities live off the taxpayer money generated by working reform Jewish populations. It is understandable that reform Jews are resentful towards the ultra-orthodox populations. In one scene in "Jerusalem" DeLisle travels with a tour group of mostly women in the ultra-orthodox neighborhood of Mea Shearim. DeLisle notices one ultra-orthodox man yelling in Hebrew while tying his shoe. DeLisle doesn't understand Hebrew and assumes the man is just talking on a bluetooth. "He talks out loud, his eyes fixed on his shoes. In fact, he's talking to our group, asking us to leave the quarter. But since he can't be seen speaking with women, he's using this indirect approach.
It's not surprising that the Jewish population of Israel is so divided among itself. We Jews are a very argumentative sort. It's rather like the joke my grandmother recounted in a book she wrote. It goes, and I paraphrase, "There was a Jew who was stranded on a desert island. Fortunately he had a lot of resources so he built himself a farm and a house and a garden and a synagogue and a second synagogue. When rescuers came to the desert island, they admired all that he had built but they were curious. 'Why did you build two synagogues? You're the only person on this island.' The Jew replied, 'Oh, that's the synagogue that I DON'T go to.'"
DeLisle's own self-portrait seems to indicate his wish to at least appear unbiased. DeLisle draws himself rather adorably as a benignant, clueless, almost "Hello Kitty" type of observer. The cartoon face of DeLisle consists of two rather surprised, clueless and good-natured black dots for eyes and a stylized, pie-slice nose. One panel DeLisle drew struck me as particularly cute and perhaps the epitome of what it means to be an expatriate used to surviving long periods in the harshest corners of he world. When DeLisle wakes up one morning to find his driver's side car window smashed and the radio stolen, he has no choice but to drive the window-less car to a repair shop and get the window replaced. The portrait of DeLisle driving with his coat buttoned past his nose to protect his face from the highway-speed gusts of wind and sand blowing in through his broken window struck me as oddly hilarious. Just another clueless yet good-natured white expatriate adapting to whatever challenges a foreign land throws at him.
After a year Nadine's shift with MSF in Jerusalem ends and the DeLisles get out of Israel just in time. The Israeli government, perhaps annoyed that MSF helps Palestinian populations, targets the houses of MSF administrators with "demolition notices." The DeLisle's house is given a demolition notice. "They say it was illegally built." Some MSF administrators doubt this, believing that the demolition notices are an intimidation tactic by the Israeli government to keep MSF out of Palestinian territories. As the DeLisles head to the airport at Tel Aviv on their way back to Canada, Guy DeLisle stops by a house where a Palestinian family has just been evicted and a Jewish settler family is moving in. DeLisle sees a large bearded man in a yarmulke standing on the roof of the house. As the bearded man watches the DeLisle family leave to board the cab to the airport, he smiles. "It's my house now!" the bearded man yells. It's a depressing full circle. The oppressed have become the oppressors. It is why, in my opinion, the truly Jewish among us say "Next year in Jerusalem." Always next year. Always the next time. Not now. Let it remain a dream. If we go now, we will see it for the cruel reality it is.