Get Red Pepper's email newsletter. Enter your email address to receive our latest articles, updates and news.
Graphic humour isn’t for everyone. In Britain, in particular, the comic strip has always been under-rated. But for those bitten by this particular bug there is a real treat in store. Eli Valley’s new book, Diaspora Boy: Comics on Crisis in America and Israel is a glorious production on a lavish scale, a magnificent 14”×12” (35cm×30cm) compilation of cartoon strips produced over the past decade and more by one of the great masters of graphic satire. Unwieldy to pick up perhaps, in its monster format, it is impossible to put down.
Eli Valley is an American cartoonist/polemicist who often leaves Steve Bell looking timid by comparison. Coming from the heart of the American Jewish community, whose leadership rounds on its critics with remorseless intensity, Valley has responded with a quiet fury of his own.
Peter Beinen captures the world that spawned Valley in a brief, perceptive foreword to this collection, focusing on the moral bankruptcy of the leaders of the major American Jewish organisations. Top-level Israeli security officers have warned about the terrible effects of the occupation on Israeli society, but ‘America’s Jewish leaders don’t merely stay morally silent. They seek to enforce that silence by chastising Americans who condemn Israel’s behaviour and support pressuring Israel to change it. To justify that silence they insist that Palestinians bear sole responsibility for their own lack of basic rights.’
This is the mould from which Eli Valley’s passions spring. Son of a rabbi whose wife left him – and religious observance – when Valley was six, he and his sister grew up with a radical, now secular and very activist mother and a preacher father terrified of Jewish assimilation. Valley’s attempt to make sense of his world was helped enormously by his discovery of MAD magazine and the satirical revolution it heralded, with its vituperative attacks on American ‘values’ like McCarthy, Walt Disney and even Santa Claus by its resident cartoonists Harvey Kurtzman and Will Elder, two Jewish children of immigrants from the tenements of New York.
Eventually Valley was to embrace but adapt this approach, ‘to direct the satirical energy inward’, his work embodying ‘the absurdist frenzy of MAD applied to the Likudnik lunacy of communal ideology’.
Always on the edge, often over the top, frequently disturbing and uncomfortable – they are images and stories you can return to again and again. A sheer joy!
You have to work at it sometimes because some of the references are lost in the midst of time and others always required inside communal knowledge. But this collection has dealt with that problem well. Each comic is accompanied by notes providing a commentary on the times when they were produced, the reactions to them by censorious editors and, above all, Valley’s careful, crafted response to the sledgehammer of communal disapproval. Nothing is innocent in Valley’s strips; each frame has been lovingly crafted, but they grow in insight and authority when placed in the context of the strip as a whole.
Starting from the historical Zionist denigration of the diaspora and the ‘new man’ that Zionism was going to create leads straight to his cartoon strip ‘Israel Man and Diaspora Boy’ with its Batman and Robin characters, Israel Man a ‘Man of Tomorrow’ and his pathetic sidekick, Diaspora Boy a ‘Harbinger of Death’.
‘The Diary of Doctor Lowenstein’ is another critical take on this theme, calling into question Israel Man. In it, a geneticist is charged by Ben-Gurion with a new project, seeking a ‘serum’ to create ‘the perfected Jews in our reclaimed homeland’. But there is setback after setback: the new creature created is bifurcated, seeing itself as both pariah and messiah and the serum escapes until all Israeli Jews are infected with it, with consequences we all know.
Valley is relentless in pillorying those who see anti-semitism under every stone, in every critical response when what Israel says or does is an affront to the liberal Jewish values held so widely in the community. Nowhere is this encapsulated better than in his glorious creation, Stuart the Jewish Turtle (see left), never one to miss a trope, real or insinutated.
After a satire on hasbarah (propaganda) against Stephen Hawkins’ decision to boycott Israel, Valley was asked by the Jewish Forward, which had published his cartoon, to respond to critics in an op-ed. Wrongly accused of advocating a boycott of Israel (cartoons are so easy to misread!), Valley pointed out the irony of asking a Jewish newspaper only to talk about certain things. With a pointed reference to BDS he writes: ‘Enough with attempted boycotts of Jewish views, divestments from Jewish thought and sanctions of Jewish opinion. In the Jewish community and culture that I treasure, there is a word to describe the movement to police and suppress Jewish expression. The word is shonda, and it means disgrace.’
And that probably sums up, in all its nuance, Eli Valley’s opinion of the leadership of the American Jewish community: a shonda.
Here is one of my personal favourite strips: Bucky Shvitz. It needs no further introduction. (Click to enlarge.)
Grace Blakeley investigates the curious case of Carillion: how the company’s slow decline and abrupt liquidation reveals the nature of modern capitalism.
The collapse of Carillion could be a watershed moment. Let's seize it to end economically disastrous outsourcing schemes. By Cat Hobbs.
Campaign groups highlight UK complicity in Saudi Arabia's human rights abuses.
Three founders of Momentum talk to Ashish Ghadiali about the two years that have transformed their lives and the fortunes of the British left.
Andrew Smith from Campaign Against the Arms Trade gives the run-down on one of the UK's most profitable - and most deadly - industries.
The real story behind the fire in Grande Synthe’s Linière refugee camp, Dunkirk. From 'Bordered Lives – How Europe fails refugees and migrants' by Hsiao-Hung Pai
Javier Pérez De La Cruz writes about the working class Berlin neighbourhood wrung dry by gentrifiers.
Across the world, thousands of protesters are taking on the planet’s biggest fossil fuel companies. We should support them – and if we can, we should join them. By Kara Moses
Students are suffering the effects of financial instability, stress, and slashed mental health services. Mark Crawford reports.
They're not defending free speech - they're just seeking to shore up their own power, writes Ilyas Nagdee
Jeremy Hunt is poised to flog the last of the NHS
Peter Roderick sounds the alarm on an 'attack on the fundamental principles of the NHS'.
Viva Siva, 1923-2018
A. Sivanandan, who died this week, was a hugely important figure in the politics of race and class. As part of our tributes, Red Pepper is republishing this 2009 profile of him by Arun Kundnani
Sivanandan: When memory forgets a giant
Daniel Renwick calls for the whole movement to discover and remember the vital work of A. Sivanandan, who died this week
A master-work of graphic satire
American Jewish cartoonist Eli Valley’s comic commentary on America, the US Jewish diaspora and Israel is nothing if not near the knuckle, Richard Kuper writes
Meet the frontline activists facing down the global mining industry
Activists are defending land, life and water from the global mining industry. Tatiana Garavito, Sebastian Ordoñez and Hannibal Rhoades investigate.
Transition or succession? Zimbabwe’s future looks uncertain
The fall of Mugabe doesn't necessarily spell freedom for the people of Zimbabwe, writes Farai Maguwu
Don’t let Corbyn’s opponents sneak onto the Labour NEC
Labour’s powerful governing body is being targeted by forces that still want to strangle Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership, writes Alex Nunns