Den of Religiosity

A visiting cartoonist views Jerusalem with curious eyes

“So we’re in Israel, right?” asks Canadian cartoonist Guy Delisle in Jerusalem: Chronicles from the Holy City, in reference to the East Jerusalem neighbourhood in which he and his wife—an administrator with Médecins Sans Frontières—stayed for twelve months beginning in 2008.

“Well, it depends,” replies an MSF staffer. Israel annexed East Jerusalem in 1967, but the international community recognizes it as part of the West Bank. Oh well, Delisle muses, he has “a whole year to figure it out.” While he is only passing through, however, it is an open question in his latest graphic memoir whether Israel will figure itself out.

A former animator, the Quebec City–born Delisle is most famous for his accounts of his former career travels, namely to China and North Korea, in the comics travelogues Shenzhen and Pyongyang. His experience as a stay-at-home ex-pat dad and self-motivated cartoonist in 2008’s Burma Chronicles, in which it was he who tagged along for his wife’s work, earned him the designation of “master of the graphic novel” by The Telegraph UK in 2009; the book was also cited as one of ten “masterpieces of graphic nonfiction” in The Atlantic in 2011.

Delisle reprises the same role in Jerusalem, named the year’s best comic in its original French edition at the 2012 Angoulême International Comics Festival in France, one of the world’s most prestigious. In contrast to dogged journalist Joe Sacco’s Palestine and Footnotes in Gaza, Delisle’s perspective is still that of an ex-pat making bemused observations in travelogue form; his face is often presented without expression, save for two black dots to serve as curious eyes. His cartoonish, highly minimal style is also in marked contrast to Sacco’s laborious pen, which moves more in the direction of realism (while still maintaining a flair for stylization).

Delisle’s approach is fitting, however, rendering specific, precisely seen moments in comparison to Sacco’s wider historic, cultural and political tapestry. Yet the limitations of his perspective are made apparent when, for example, Israel’s Operation Cast Lead offensive against Gaza unfolds in late 2008, and Delisle is left well outside the action—even if by choice. By contrast, in Footnotes Sacco personally braves Israeli tracer bullet fire in Gaza in 2003.

With Jerusalem, there is nonetheless a gravitas previously missing from Delisle’s work, although both Pyongyang and Burma Chronicles had their illuminating, even cutting moments. The artist’s hand has also become more sophisticated and fine, the overall presentation snazzier. Thus both in content and in the newfound subtleties of Delisle’s deceptively simple style, Jerusalem displays his powers at a whole new level of maturity.

The artist’s introduction to Israel begins on his flight, when he notices the tattoo on a camp survivor’s forearm. It is an implicit reminder of how Israel, recognized in 1948 in the Holocaust’s immediate wake, is seen by many Jews—that is, as a safe haven. Then he lands and meets his Arab cab driver. Depending on where one goes in the country, it is in fact quite possible to get the impression that there are as many Arabs as Jews in the self-proclaimed Jewish state.

That dichotomy and its implications are a recurring theme throughout the book. In between, Delisle catalogues the more immediately apparent cultural differences, such as Jerusalem’s dead streets on Shabbat (“It reminds me of Sundays in Pyongyang”), yeast products covered by plastic sheets in the supermarkets during Passover and Muslim women covered head to toe in black in the stifling heat. The idiosyncrasies of religious Jews are a particularly rich source of humour: Delisle has special affection for the varying dress of different groups, especially the white stockings. Also amusing is how the lights displayed for Ramadan seem borrowed from other holidays, such as Christmas.

In the larger picture, we see the so-called Holy City as really a world unto itself, with neighbourhoods like the ultra-Orthodox Mea Shearim as worlds within worlds. Within this den of religiosity, Delisle skewers the absurdities of religion with often-dry understatement and whimsicality, as when he visits the vast Jewish cemetery on the Mount of Olives. If the Messiah appears over there, he explains, then this row over here will be the first to be judged. “I hope it works out for you, Schlomo,” Delisle says drolly, reading the closest tombstone.

Not that Jerusalem itself equals greater Israel. A colleague of Delisle’s in Tel Aviv, for instance, declares: “I can’t stand all those religious nuts!” For that matter, Tel Aviv itself occupies its own parallel realm. “No kippas, no veiled women, no fundamentalists,” Delisle sighs on the beach. Even secular Jewish Jerusalemites are not always patient with their (ultra-)religious fellow citizens.

And yet the entire country is itself still a kind of alternate universe, thanks to its government. Take Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who in a 2010 address to the American Israel Public Affairs Committee declared, in reference to East Jerusalem, that Jews “were building Jerusalem 3,000 years ago and … are building Jerusalem today.” East Jerusalem is, under international law, occupied territory and settlements there are indeed illegal under the Fourth Geneva Convention—affirmed by the International Court of Justice at the Hague in 2004. But never mind: Netanyahu says East Jerusalem is Israel, so it is Israel.

It is such unilateral declarations that underlie the festering ethnic and political tensions Delisle observes, exemplified by Israeli buses that go everywhere except the Arab quarters. The author also visits a Bedouin community that has been harassed by both settlers and the Israeli army.

And then there is the ongoing, 45-year occupation of Gaza and the West Bank, otherwise known as the Palestinian territories. The malevolence of the notorious—and illegal, also according to the ICJ—West Bank separation wall’s monolithic design is well conveyed by Delisle’s spare style (so too, in rather perverse contrast, is the beauty and solidity of the Western Wall in Jerusalem). For that matter, his travelogue approach emphasizes the everydayness of the separation wall. It is just … there, part of the landscape.

Delisle’s overarching subject, is in fact the larger, ominous problems facing Israel. “Greater Israel is finished,” Israeli prime minister Ehud Olmert declares at one point. “We must share with those we live with.” Strong words, but the author shows how incongruent they are with continuing reality—as when he visits Hebron in the West Bank, with its settlers and various “no Arabs” streets guarded by Israeli soldiers. A West Bank tour given by former Israeli soldiers from a non-governmental organization called Breaking the Silence explains that the settlements are all illegal; a parallel tour given by settlers provides a near-comic contrast.

Yes, Delisle concedes, the national newspapers are openly critical. “Israel is a democracy for Jews, but not for the Arabs who live within its borders,” he quotes from one. Nonetheless, the country is now rapidly approaching a one-state solution—authored by Israeli policy itself.

What, then, will happen to Israel as a state that wants to be both democratic and Jewish? Throughout the book, there are any number of ominous portents, especially the ubiquitous military presence: there is always a plane overhead (one appears headed for an airstrike in Gaza, as Delisle lollygags on a Tel Aviv beach), another checkpoint and guns, guns, guns. And that last visual detail does not merely pertain to Israeli soldiers, settlers or Palestinian militants: at one point Delisle sees Arab kids with toy guns received as end-of-Ramadan gifts.

It is fitting that Delisle’s Jerusalem ends with sombre bewilderment.